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John On Wine – Celebration of Mendocino County Sparkling Wines

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

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

Graziano Family of Wines

Handley Cellars

McFadden Vineyard

Nelson Family Vineyards

Paul Dolan Vineyards

Rack & Riddle

Ray’s Station

Roederer Estate

Scharffenberger Cellars

Signal Ridge

Terra Savia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4401 Slusser Road in Windsor (Kind of, sorta)

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

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

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

Shady picnic spot

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

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

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

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

The door openings have the signature Sonoma-Cutrer label shape

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

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

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

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

Burgundian row spacing at 4 feet

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

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

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

American 8 foot row spacing alternating with 4 foot rows

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle McClendon checking for shatter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the numerous barrel rooms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three from the vault

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

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

Lunch was provided by Park Avenue Catering in Cotati.

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

The salad was a great choice for Chardonnay pairing

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

Pork with Pinot sauce goes pretty good with Pinot Noir

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

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

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

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

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

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

I attended Affairs of the Vine’s 8th Passion for Pinot Noir Summit on Saturday, February 27, 2010, arriving at a bit before 12:00 noon and staying through nearly all of the festivities until 8:00 pm. Barbara Drady, Affairs of the Vine CEO offered a full day ticket in a contest which I won.

Barbara Drady, Chief Wine Evangelist & Affairs of the Vine CEO

Held at the first floor of the beautiful multi floor Osher Marin Jewish Community Center, I was welcomed with an event badge bearing my name and the names of the workshops I had signed up for.  Waiting for the summit to officially begin, I mingled with other attendees, chatting with other wine writers I have met at previous wine tasting events and finding a number of people that I have worked with at wineries to play the “whatever happened to” game of catch up with.

Dave Rogers, left, and Thea Dwelle, Wine writer Luscious Lushes, center

We were ushered into a ballroom with tables set up in to create a “U” shape. On the tables were 40 different Pinot Noir. Each of the bottles was completely covered in tape secured aluminum foil, labeled with different color names running from Aqua Marine to Yellow.

Pinot Noir prepared for 3 1/2 hours of blind tasting

Prior to the actual summit, 40 judges tasted many more Pinot Noir that had been submitted to be considered for inclusion at the summit. Tasting flights of eight wines at a time, and no more than 32 wines at a sitting, scores from the judges were totaled and the top 40 Pinot Noir were now available to be tasted by the summit attendees.

Wine bloggers and twitterers were well represented, and the following is a transcript of relevant tweets from my tweeps using the hash tag #PinotSummit:

LarryTheWineGuy Arrived at the #PinotSummit. Now for 8 hours of drinking Pinot. Where to begin?

elizabethdehoff After a quick stop at Whole Foods to pick up gluten-free crackers, I’m at the #PinotSummit! Still can’t believe I did this. :D

elizabethdehoff Just ran into @LarryTheWineGuy. #pinotsummit

LarryTheWineGuy Interesting aromas from the cafe near the #pinotsummit. Pinot and matzo ball soup?

LarryTheWineGuy thirsty crowd at the #pinotsummit. let us in already. mmmm pinot.

JohnOnWine At #PinotSummit recognizing folks from previous tastings, taken pictures, ready to blind taste and make notes.

elizabethdehoff Small world: One of today’s winemakers is Eric Luse, an AP photog I sat next to randomly on a HNL-SFO flight 3 years ago. #pinotsummit

elizabethdehoff One down, 40 to go… #pinotsummit

StevePaulo At #PinotSummit! (@ Osher Marin JCC) http://4sq.com/4AU8c2

SFDoug At the #PinotSummit (@ Osher Marin JCC w/ @brandyea) http://4sq.com/4AU8c2

elizabethdehoff No reviews yet — this tasting is blind. Plenty to come after the big reveal! #pinotsummit

elizabethdehoff Oh man. I don’t know what cheese they’re serving with the blind tasting but it’s really good! #pinotsummit

LarryTheWineGuy Half way thru tasting 40 Pinots at #pinotsummit. Very high level of quality. Wouldn’t kick these out of bed.

elizabethdehoff @LarryTheWineGuy Wow, you are way ahead of me! #pinotsummit

brandyea RT @elizabethdehoff: Oh man. I don’t know what cheese they’re serving with the blind tasting but it’s really good! #pinotsummit << Agreed!

elizabethdehoff GOD, I love Pinot Noir! #pinotsummit

brandyea Some at #pinotsummit blind tasting pondering whether wines assigned colors like gold and burgundy have leg up on pumpkin and lime green.

LarryTheWineGuy Slowly progress is made at the #pinotsummit 24 down, 16 to go. All good. some great. Arguing over which is which.

StevePaulo @elizabethdehoff @brandyea And wedgewood? Wedgewood is a color? #pinotsummit

elizabethdehoff @stevepaulo @brandyea I think it’s the color of the Wedgwood china or something? #pinotsummit

JohnOnWine 27 tasted, 13 left to taste at #PinotSummit.

elizabethdehoff @JohnOnWine I think I’ve tasted 13 and have 27 to go! Ack. #pinotsummit

JohnOnWine @elizabethdehoff clearly you have to drink faster, grab a 2nd glass and stop spitting! #PinotSummit

StevePaulo 28 Pinot Noirs. Stick a fork in this guy. #pinotsummit (and for this who think I’m insane… yes, of course I spit)

brandyea @stevepaulo @elizabethdehoff Yeah, Wedgewood’s a little lost on me, too! #pinotsummit

JohnOnWine #PinotSummit OMG, the INDIGO Pinot is the best, followed by VIOLET, then AUBERGINE. (Note: We had been tasting for over 2 hours, not everyone was spitting, and these three colors were not actual wines to be tasted)

brandyea Heard a guy compare one of the wines to Bob Ross, the guy w/ the crazy hair on PBS’ Joy of Painting. Not sure what that means. #pinotsummit

LarryTheWineGuy Approaching the final stretch at the #pinotsummit Only one clunker so far. This is Pinot heaven.

brandyea Nice try! >> RT @JohnOnWine #PinotSummit OMG, the INDIGO Pinot is the best, followed by VIOLET, then AUBERGINE.

elizabethdehoff OK, the Pinot labeled as “deep purple” is my favorite so far. #pinotsummit

LarryTheWineGuy @johnonwine #pinotsummit You had me going there for a minute. Shuffling thru my notes!

demilove @randyhall – At the #Pinotsummit in san rafael; want a report on it for @Winebizradio?

elizabethdehoff 10 Pinots to go. I’ve given up taking detailed notes, am just writing “Yum!” or “Eh” to simplify, will revisit “Yum!” wines. #pinotsummit

ShaRayRay Still gonna make it to the #pinotsummit!

vintuba At #pinotsummit tasting and taking notes. Some good, some bad, and some ugly

elizabethdehoff I got through 39 Pinots (can’t find the 40th). Lots of spitting! #pinotsummit

LarryTheWineGuy Q: Can one have too many Pinots? A: No. Just finished tasting 40 Pinots. Now ready for more. #pinotsummit

brandyea Made it through all 40. Only poured wine from bottle into spit cup instead of wineglass twice! #pinotsummit

educatedpalates Discovering new stars at #Pinotsummit

JohnOnWine RT @educatedpalates: Discovering new stars at #Pinotsummit <- All the new stars are at my table!

ShaRayRay Finally made it to #PinotSummit (@ Osher Marin JCC w/ @sfdoug) http://4sq.com/4AU8c2

ShaRayRay http://twitpic.com/15q6k7 – Discovering New Stars in Pinot Noir #pinotsummit

StevePaulo Umm who farted in here! #pinotsummit /via @winebratsf Stay classy, Brat ;D

ShaRayRay Hi @jamiebakas. You look like you need a glass of wine!! #pinotsummit

educatedpalates Wine and food pairing at #pinotsummit

elizabethdehoff Attending seminar on global perspectives on Pinot. Burgundy, CA, NZ. #pinotsummit

philular Getting set up @osherjcc for #pinotsummit grand tasting! #hahnwines

elizabethdehoff Burgundy, je t’aime! #pinotsummit

elizabethdehoff @winebratsf really good so far. Which one did you end up in? #pinotsummit

demilove Enjoying the lectures at #Pinotsummit!

JohnOnWine Most important thing learned at #PinotSummit was that my palate is the best. LOL.

ShaRayRay @philular I already left! :( Sorry to have missed the finale of the #pinotsummit

JohnOnWine Thrilled that one of my top 3 #PinotSummit wines is from a vineyard that had not impressed me before. #BlindTastingRocks

brandyea Dark gray = Hahn SLH Estate and turquoise = Lucienne Doctor’s Vineyard. Both 2007. #hahnwines #pinotsummit

brandyea Some faves from the #pinotsummit: Pacific Coast Vineyards 2007 Babcock Estate (gray), Claiborne & Churchill 2007 Edna Valley (tan).

JohnOnWine OMG! #PinotSummit just gave me a best taster trophy! Nah, not really.

JohnOnWine @winebratsf Real #PinotSummit faves: Purple, 08 Left Edge Sonoma Coast, Gray 07 Pac Coast Babcock Vnyd, Dp Purp 07 Deaver Sierra Foothills

brandyea Two last picks from #pinotsummit: Vine Hill 2007 Santa Cruz Mountains and Exhuberance 2007 Sonoma Valley. Nice discoveries.

AnoushBotanical Enjoyed participating in Blind Tastings plus Wine Making & Organic / Sustainable Workshops at #PinotSummit thanks to @myvinespace

LarryTheWineGuy My favorites from the #PinotSummit Elk Cove, Perception, Sonoma Coast, Left Edge, Nicholson Ranch, Artesa. The others were really good too.

LarryTheWineGuy Champagne Pommery had a delicious new cuvee at the #PinotSummit 80% Pinot Noir, 20% Pinot Meunier. I like Champagne. A lot.

elizabethdehoff My favorite in the blind tasting at #PinotSummit: Deaver Vineyards Sierra Foothills Pinot Noir (2007, I think). http://bit.ly/cTOTJL

elizabethdehoff @winebratsf Yes! I was stunned that it came from the Sierra Foothills. Heard lots of others liked it too. #PinotSummit

The initial event was the blind tasting of 40 Pinot Noir in a comfortable 3 1/2 hours. I secured a table with Dave Rogers, a friend I worked with years before at Windsor Vineyards, and we would venture forth, find an untasted wine, bring it backk to the table, taste, write notes with a score, spit and dump the remainder into a large plastic cup, and venture forth affair. Conveniently, our table was under great lighting allowing a judgement of each wine’s color and clarity.

Dave Rogers, right, with a high school friend

Each attendee was asked to note their top three wines on a ballot, and the results of the totaled scores, broken down by gender, will be posted no later than March 15, 2010  right here.

Barbara Drady, foreground, Elizabeth DeHoff and Thea Dwelle, background

After the blind tasting, attendees split into groups to attend the workshops they signed up for.

Amy Cleary, twitter @educatedpalates

I attended Discovering New Stars – “An Introduction and tasting of wines from young wineries producing fabulous Pinot Noir,” moderated by C. Jason Mancebo of http://www.20dollarwineblog.com/ fame. The new stars were Mark Ray of Perception Wines, Bradley Brown of Big Basin Vineyards and Ken Post of Mariposa Wine Company. Tables were set with placemats prepared with three wines to be tasted.

Jason Mancebo, $20 Dollar Wine Blog

Mark Ray poured a 2007 Perception Wines Pinot Noir Orsi Vineyard. I try to find and write about delicious inexpensive easily obtainable wines, that is my wine writing goal. Having said that, this is a wine few will taste, and I have to confess a thrill hearing that production is only 48 cases (website says 43), the cost is $53 (website says $52), and the alcohol is 13.8 (website says 13.9). Remembering exact numbers aren’t important, taste is; and this beautiful Pinot Noir tasted delicious, the grapes coming from the Russian River Valley, from vineyards just across the river from William Selyem and Rochioli. It was interesting to hear Ray say he used a clone (114) that is neither his nor the consumer’s favorite when it comes to Pinot Noir, but that the varietal is so site specific that the grapes planted in Bernard Orsi’s loamy and very rocky vineyard just shine. It was a treat to taste a 2007 Russian River Valley from a single vineyard, single clone, only two barrels, and about 45 cases only.

Mark Ray, Perception Wines

Bradley Brown poured a 2008 Big Basin Pinot Noir, Woodruff Family Vineyard Santa Cruz Mountain. The grapes come from clones older than 20 years, planted where regular fog allows harvest a full month later than most other areas, and yields of only 1 ton per acre. The not yet released wine will sell in the low $40′s and runs 14.6% alcohol.

Bradley Brown, Big Basin Vineyards

Finally, Ken Post of Mariposa Wine Company talked about his 2008 CRU Pinot Noir, Santa Maria $35, about grapes from the Derbyshire  Vineyard near San Simeon yielding only 600 pounds per acre, and about grapes coming in at 29° Brix in 2008. I imagined miniscule clusters of sugar bomb raisins. At least one wine was watered back (thank you for having the balls to openly admit to what many do) to a manageable 14.7% alcohol.

Ken Post, Mariposa Wine Company

I found the seminar more interesting for the different paths to great Pinot Noir these three winemakers took, having started with significantly different starting places. Great wine is made in the vineyard, and it was interesting to hear how each of these three worked with grapes they had.

While the rooms from the first workshop were reset for the afternoon’s second workshop, attendees enjoyed a Cheese Intermezzo with bubbly in the ballroom.

The second workshop I attended was the Food and Wine Pairing – “An exploration of Pinot Noir pairings, what works with what Pinot Noir? Taste for yourself,” moderated by Rick Bakas, Director of social media at St. Supery Winery.

Rick Bakas, St. Supery Winery

The wines were a 2007 Lionheart Wines Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast, a 2006 Kendric Vineyards Pinot Noir Marin County, and a 2008 Mariposa wine Company CRU Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands Sarmento Vineyards. The foods were salmon with pickled ginger, pheasant pate with sweet chutney, and Manchego cheese. Our room wasn’t really set, and the event was a bit of a clusterfuck. Fifteen minutes into the workshop, Dave Rogers asserted some measure of control, moving up to the front table, grabbing the three wines, and announcing what we were going to be tasting. Eventually, everyone had the three wines and a too small morsel of each food to be tasted with the three wines, and tasting and note taking ensued.

Bakas then asked each table about their food and wine experiences. I found it interesting that some people could be so completely wrong. What I really found is that some people can’t break free of limitations and rules they have read or heard, while others can imagine new, possibly superior, pairings inspired by these pairings. Some could not taste the Pinot Noir for the sweetness of the chutney, while others allowed the chutney’s sweetness to compliment the Pinot Noir and create a more complete whole flavor profile. Some complained that the ginger spoiled the salmon and the Pinot Noir, while others, perhaps more used to pairing Pinot Noir with Asian cuisine, managed the whole quite well.

Second workshops finished, the summit attendees reentered the ballroom that had been reset for the Pinot Noir reception. The wine identities of the wines blind tasted at the summit’s start were revealed, medals were given out to participating wineries, tasty hors d’oeuvre were generously sampled, wineries poured their Pinot Noir and other offerings, notes were compared.

Pinot Noir Reception and Award Ceremony festivities

My top 10 Pinot Noir from the blind tasting were:

9.5/10 points – PURPLE – 2008 Left Edge Winery Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast,

9.0/10 points – GRAY – 2007 Pacific Coast Vineyards Pinot Noir Babcock Vineyards Santa Rita Hills,

9.0/10 points – DEEP PURPLE – 2007 Deaver Vineyards Pinot Noir Sierra Foothills,

9.0/10 points – BLUE – 2007 Mariposa Wine Company CRU Pinot Noir Vineyard Montage Central Coast,

8.5/10 points – AQUA MARINE – 2007 Kendric Vineyards Pinot Noir Marin County,

8.5/10 points – DUSTY ROSE – 2008 Elk Cove Vineyards Pinot Noir Williamette Valley (OR) Mount Richmond,

8.5/10 points – LIGHT BLUE – 2006 Sonoma Coast Vineyards Pinot Noir Peterson Vineyards,

8.5/10 points – TAN – 2007 Claiborne & Churchill Vintners Pinot Noir Edna Valley,

8.5/10 points – WEDGEWOOD – 2007 Vine Hill Winery Pinot Noir Santa Cruz Mountains, and

8.5/10 points – YELLOW – 2007 David Bruce Winery Pinot Noir Santa Cruz Mountains.

No wine pours itself, or sells itself. The best winery representative at the summit was Megan Schachern of Row Eleven Wine Company.

I tasted and enjoyed the 2006 Row Eleven Pinot Noir Santa Maria, the 2007 Row Eleven Pinot Noir Russian River Valley, and the 2007 Row Eleven Pinot Noir 100 Barrel Reserve Santa Maria (J. Torres Vineyard,  Bien Nacido Vineyard, and Sierra Madre Vineyard). All three wines were delicious, but I would like to visit Row Eleven in San Rafael and taste again at the beginning of the day instead of the end. Megan shared a wonderful note on the winemaker; Richard de los Reyes puts his phone number on every cork that goes into a bottle of Row Eleven wine.

In addition to Dave Rogers, I ran into former Windsor Vineyards team mates Gordon Harsaghy and Linda Verdone. It was a genuine pleasure reminiscing with old friends.

Linda Verdone receives a kiss from Gordon Harsaghy

My thanks go out to Barbara and John Drady, and all of the volunteers from wineries and Affairs of the Vine, the judges, panelists, and everyone else who contributed to help make this a stellar wine event.

DISCLOSURE: I attended this wine event after winning a full day ticket in an online contest.

Once upon a time, before it was found that the best Pinot Noir in the United States comes from grapes planted in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley, all of the wine publications, connoisseurs, and cognoscenti held that the absolute best, perhaps only, place to grow Pinot Noir grapes was Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

The notion that the only Pinot Noir that was good, worthy of buying, was Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, was so pervasive that growers of the grape in California were struck with angst and near despair, and led to the first documented cases of Pinot envy.

Pinot Noir is planted in many different areas, and in each it expresses itself differently. In the Russian River Valley, the Pinot Noir tends to bright candied cherry and floral rose notes; the same grape grown in the Carneros yields an increased mineral note; and Pinot Noir from Monterey’s Gavilan Mountain range produces a big meaty wine.

This Saturday, February 27, 2010 I am thrilled to be attending the 8th Pinot Noir Summit. I LOVE Pinot Noir.

http://affairsofthevine.com/pn_summit_8.php

The Pinot Noir Summit will be held at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael, CA from noon until 8:30 pm. There will be a full day of events that help lead to an increased knowledge and appreciation for Pinot Noir.

Barbara Drady and Affairs of the Vine have developed the “must attend” Pinot Noir event of the year.

The Pinot Noir Summit begins with a 3 1/2 hour blind tasting of 40 top rated Pinot Noir. Rating each wine tasted blind can lead to a better understanding of preferences. Do most of your favorite wines come from the same vintage or wine growing area? How do your personal ratings (the only ones that matter) compare with the ratings of the expert tasting panel?

Following the blind tasting, Summit attendees can attend two different 45 minute Pinot Noir workshops; workshop titles include “When Pinot Sparkles,” “Winemaking 101,” “Discovering New Stars,” ” Food and Pinot Pairing,” “A Global Perspective on Pinot Noir,” and “Sustainable? Organic? Does it Matter?” In between the two workshops is a 45 minute intermission – with cheese!

After the workshops attendees will enjoy a Pinot Noir Reception where top winemakers and winery owners pair their Pinot Noir – and a few other jewels they produce – with hors d’oeuvre and at the event culminates with Awards Ceremony when at 8 pm the final tasting results of the Pinot Noir Summit are announced, and the wines you tasted blind to begin the day’s events are revealed.

I grew up drinking Zinfandel and Cabernet, and Zinfandel was my favorite wine growing up. When I was young, Zinfandel was in every kitchen of every Italian friend of my family, it was everywhere. Frankly, when I was young, local Pinot Noir was not going to be tasty, more like paint stripper than a delicious food beverage.

Things have changed. Winemakers have found where Pinot Noir grows well, and are making lush, beautiful wines of unbelievable complexity and integration, with gorgeous fruit notes. I love Pinot Noir above all wines, be it from the Russian River Valley or Burgundy. When it is good, there is no wine more divine, more ethereal. Sadly, when it is bad, it is awful. There isn’t much in-between Pinot Noir; I find it great, or not. I think most other varietals are safer, they are more consistent vintage to vintage, or can be saved by a winemaker in a bad vintage more easily. Pinot Noir offers a greater glimpse into vintage than any other varietal, celebrating a great vintage with a wine so delicious as to defy imagination, or demonstrating a weak vintage with a wine unpalatable and displeasing.

Wine Spectator called the current vintage, 2007, the best in California history for Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. I have found this “wow” quality spreads to Napa and Monterey, to Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo. Right now, there are so many great, mind bogglingly delicious Pinot Noir out there just ready to be tasted.

Pinot Noir is also my favorite food wine, it is a chameleon pairing well with more foods than any other varietal. It is deservedly most chef’s favorite wine.

Tickets are limited, and can be purchased for the full day’s activities (only 14 remain) at $125, or for just the reception and ceremony (only 27 remain) at $75; just click on the link I provided above I will say that with so many great Pinot Noir available right now, this special tasting event with workshops is going to be especially great. I urge you to consider attending, but don’t consider too long – you don’t want to miss this event this year.

DISCLOSURE: I am the lucky recipient of an event ticket won in an online contest.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, last night I watched Showtime’s Dexter say he was thankful for yams when sharing Thanksgiving dinner with the Trinity killer’s family; then I watched Lauren say she was thankful for canned yams when sharing Thanksgiving dinner with the Bennet family on NBC’s Heroes.

I am a foodie, but I don’t like yams. I am thankful that I do the cooking most every year at Thanksgiving so that I don’t have to eat around the yam dish on my plate.

As a foodie, I am thankful I am not Andrew Zimmern who has eaten bull’s rectum and testicles soup in the Philippines; bull testicles in Spain;  chicken uterus, black-bone chicken testicles in Taiwan; goose intestine in New York City; civet feces coffee, bull penis in Vietnam; snake penis, fried deer penis, yak penis in China; boar’s testicles in Minnesota; bull penis soup in Bolivia; and braided intestines, cow’s butt sandwich, fresh bull testicle and scrotum stew in Chile.

At least Anthony Bourdain can wash down the occasional freakish menu offering with a drink or twelve, but Zimmern is a recovering addict/alcoholic and is making the choice to swallow so much shaft, balls and ass sober.

I am not really one of those, “let’s all say what we are thankful for,” kind of Thanksgiving dinner Dads. I love to cook. I love that there is a holiday all about cooking and family. I love that people eat my food. I love trying new recipes. I am not a traditionalist. I love the insanity of 5-7 dishes all coming up at the same time for 12-16 people, the high-wire risk of having no repeat dishes year to year.

This year I am cooking for just my son and myself. We will have more than enough food for his mom, my ex-wife. Most importantly, we will have plenty of left over turkey for sandwiches on Friday. Note to self: buy sandwich fixings tomorrow for the long holiday weekend.

I am using an Alton Brown brine on our turkey, then cooking it in my Popeil Showtime rotisserie (set-it-and-forget-it) grill. I am doing a Rachael Ray gratin potato dish and Paula Deen cornbread stuffing. Instead of my own delicious pies, I am doing a Nancy Iannios pumpkin creme brulee.

I worked for Tom Klein years ago when he owned both Rodney Strong and Windsor Vineyards. I will be enjoying a 2007 Russian River Valley Rodney Strong Pinot Noir with Thanksgiving dinner. Wine Spectator gave the Russian River Valley appellation, 2007 Pinot Noir vintage a 98/100 rating. I am thankful that Tom and Rick Sayre make consistently delicious and affordable wines, and that having worked with them, I have the confidence to choose their wines in any, not just this classic best ever, vintage.

All around me is change. I have a good friend up north who has left her job rather than complain about it, and is in search of a better job. I have an old girlfriend out east who has left her job and will be starting a new one. I am looking at changing my job. I am good at what I do, I make money for my business, for myself, but I would like to travel less often and spend more time with my son. I will be trying to find a job where I can use my wealth of real world experience, the education behind my marketing degree, and my newfound web 2.0 skills to help a winery in the north coast (Sonoma, Napa, Lake or Mendocino county) of California. I would love a hybrid position involving social media marketing, traditional marketing, tasting room and/or wine club work, trade show marketing, and more.

I write without thinking about someone reading what I write, and I usually disable comment leaving for my blog, so I am always surprised when I read a comment left on facebook, twitter, a forum or e-mail about my writing. I know people read what I write, usually 100 people, but sometimes as many as 300 and more. Knowing you are out there, having you write back to me, does influence my writing a touch. I am thankful anyone finds my writing at all; more thankful some of you like my writing.

__________

My son is 12 years old. He is 5′ 9 1/2″ tall and 170 pounds on a lanky muscular frame. I knew dating sasquatch would produce a tall child. Charlie has been at basketball tryouts the last two days, trying to make his school’s 7th grade team. As the tallest boy at the tryouts, and with a year of league play, we are reasonably confident he will make the team. I am thankful that my son has such an affinity for a game I never played, or was interested in playing; it is good for him to be good at something that is his own.

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I had an Apple iMac screen damaged by careless family while I was away at work about a year ago. I found a used flat screen monitor and have used it to mirror what would have been viewable on my iMac screen. This last weekend, I bought a used iMac with more guts, a perfect screen, and the newest Apple OS. I was able to move all of the info in my old computer to my new one effortlessly using migration assistant, and now I have both screens viewable to spread my work over. An extra 750 GB hard drive, for a 1 TB total, speakers, and high speed internet access completes the coolest computer system I’ve ever had. Better than I could have imagined, I am thankful for my totally cool and powerful home work and play space.

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I will be writing more, perhaps much more with a business slant, but certainly more on a personal basis as I travel less. I will probably move my personal writing to a dedicated website, and I’ll certainly let you know if I do make that change. I plan to write more about wine and food from the perspective of an industry professional with real world experience and as a born and raised resident of California’s premier wine growing area. I also want to give reviews of wine accessories and wine books. I want to make more use of video entries as well. Look for a more wow experience sometime early in 2010. I’ll be thankful if you follow me with my writing. Thanks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pinot Noir, 2006 Williamette Valley, Oregon; and

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Friday, I drove an hour south to Santa Rosa in Sonoma County, picked up my friend Shannon, and together we drove the half hour or so west to the coast.

I love the ocean, and living so close to the Pacific, it is odd that I spend more time on Atlantic ocean beaches each year for work than I do on our own coast for enjoyment.

Note to self: get to the beach more often.

The salty smell of the air, and something more deep yet subtle, the powerful smell of the ocean itself with the water, fish and plant life mixed into a living and dying smell, it always gets to me. I connect with the unseen, but very felt, energy of the ocean…and I get hungry.

Both Shannon and I were hungry, and we turned north at the coast and shortly pulled into Lucas Wharf. Lucas Wharf features a restaurant, an island themed deli, and fresh fish cut up and sold right off boats.

I wanted a crab sandwich, and the restaurant’s menu didn’t offer one so we went to the island deli where years before I bought delicious dungeness crab sandwiches, sliced sourdough bread brimming barely containing a thousand island dressing like cocktail sauced bounty of sweetly delicious fresh dungeness (the best) crab.

The island deli was new to me, replacing the deli that had made the delicious crab sandwich previously, but it too offered a crab sandwich, so I was in.

Shannon ordered shrimp and chips, I ordered the crab sandwich, and we picked up two bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale to wash it all down with.

While waiting for our food, I stepped outside out of habit. Although I haven’t had a cigarette this year, I still have the habit of going outside while waiting for something. Instead of smoking, I breathed in the rich moist air. The smell of fresh fish for sale made me take a small walk to look at the fish. I thought about how nice it would be to cook some of the great looking fish being offered.

Back inside, our food came. The fare was rather pedestrian. The food tasted good, but wasn’t anything remarkably special; Shannon’s shrimp and chips was just that, shrimp and chips. My crab sandwich was nothing like I had in mind when I ordered it, instead of delicious sweet fresh crab between slices of tasty bread, I got what looked like a “crabby patty” cooked by Spongebob Squarepants, a fried crab cake served on a bun, burger like. Honestly, it was disappointing.

Our deli server brought a sauce that was made in house, and recommended that I try it on my burger. A passion-fruit and chili blend, sweet and hot, textured and layered, it was okay on the crab burger, but brought to mind many possible better pairings.

Shannon had recently said that she would like me to cook a meal for her. Earlier in the week, another friend, Bill, had taken Shannon, Linda and me to dinner in Windsor. I asked Shannon if she would like me to cook dinner at Linda’s house, where Shannon is staying, and if she thought Bill and Linda could join us. With a couple of phone calls, Shannon had everything set up.

After lunch, Shannon and I went outside to look at the fish. I was torn between some beautiful Copper River salmon from Alaska  (I last tasted Copper River Salmon at the Original Fish Market when working the Three River Arts Festival in Pittsburgh, and it was flavorfully delicious) and some ling cod fresh off local boats.

I really wanted the salmon, it was what I had in mind, but local and fresh off the boat won out, and we picked up some beautiful ling cod fillets.

Before leaving Lucas Wharf, I also left with the most important purchase of the day, an 8 ounce jar of the passion-fruit chili sauce.

Shannon and I went up the road, found an uncrowded beach, and took a nice walk. The walk might have been longer, but I was anxious to pick up some groceries and get back to Santa Rosa to start prepping dinner.

We stopped at the Fir Crest market in Sebastopol for additional provisions. In short order, we had assembled carrots, two Mexican papayas, green onions, purple cabbage, grape tomatoes, a bottle of quality Teriyaki, and a bottle of 2007 Rick Sayre Rodney Strong Russian River Valley Pinot Noir.

Not much later, I was in Linda’s kitchen and the prep began. I intended to make a Thai style Som Tom shredded green papaya salad. The inspiration was the sauce of passion-fruit and chili from the island deli on the coast. I wanted to plate the salad and rest a piece of Teriyaki marinated salmon on top. Lots of flavors on one plate, all playing beautifully with the dusty rose petal and warm cherry notes of the Pinot.

That was the meal I put together in my head at Lucas Wharf tasting the sauce and smelling the fish. I made some changes, but here’s what I did – so you can do it too.

First, pour one bottle of quality Teriyaki over 4 fresh ling cod fillets as a marinade, put in fridge.

Open the Pinot, pour a glass to swirl and smell, noticing changes as it opens up. Pouring a glass also increases the surface area for the wine to touch air, allowing breathing to hasten. Bring on the nose and mouth treats.

I peeled the papaya, scooped the seeds out, and grated the papaya into a large bowl. The Mexican papayas were not green, were very ripe, and did not grate so much as smoosh wetly through the grater. After smoosh grating the papaya into the bowl, I pressed the moisture out of the papaya by hand and poured the liquid out. To the drier papaya, I added two grated carrots, 3 thinly sliced green onions, and 1/2 of a cored and super thin sliced purple cabbage. I added about 3 ounces of the magic passion-fruit chili sauce, some salt and pepper, and tossed it all to mix and dress the slaw type salad. I moistened a towel, covered the salad, and put it into the fridge to sit and allow the flavors to marry.

Prep done, Linda arrived home and quickly the Pinot I intended for dinner was in three glasses. Bill arrived and the Pinot was in four glasses. The Frasier in me regretted that the wine was going to be gone before dinner, the regular guy in me was thrilled that I was with 3 friends and that the wine was being enjoyed. Some say red with meat, white with fish; I say any wine goes best with friends. Let go, and things work out fine. Letting go means that the Rodney Strong Chardonnay Bill brought was going to be served with dinner and was going to be great.

Linda and Bill were hungry after working all day, so we fired up the oven, and put aluminum foil over a broiling pan (to make clean up easier). With the oven at 350 degrees, we placed the fish skin side down on the foil and baked it for 25 minutes.

Just before the fish was finished, I gave the salad a final toss, then plated the salad evenly on four dishes. I sliced some grape tomatoes in half and used them as edible decoration around the outside of the salad. Then I rested the baked Teriyaki ling cod atop the bed of thai style salad.

Dinner was great. Great food, great wine, great friends. We decided to head over to John Barleycorn’s for dessert, and to see another high school friend who was working as a bartender. We saw our friend John, but there was no chocolate mousse at Barleycorn’s.

Note to self: The Villa will make chocolate mousse even if out. Never ending chocolate mousse.

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Saturday morning, I awoke at 3:00 AM to head out and set up my booth so I could sell my handcrafted art topped wine bottle stoppers at the Sunnyvale Art and Wine Festival.

I worked all day without a break and was quite hungry when I was allowed to close up at 6:00 PM.

I had an invitation to a graduation party for the daughter of another friend Rachelle. I had known Rachelle since the 4th grade when we attended Mark West Elementary school in northern Santa Rosa. In addition to Rachelle, I was going to get to see another High School friend, Nancy. Nancy is now the tasting room manager for Schmidt Family Vineyards in Oregon.

Before going to the party and seeing my friends, I needed to get some food, check into my surprisingly wonderful hotel, get a shower and change into a suit. Food was the biggest priority.

Near the Domain hotel, I found a Korean restaurant, pulled in and ordered pork bulgogi to-go. I spent a year in Korea, love Korean food, and knew that my hunger would be sated. I would check in to my room and eat dinner.

Jang Tu restaurant, un-fancy on the outside, tucked into a strip mall, has food was beyond adequate. The pork bulgogi, marinated in soy and sesame, and barbecued with garlic, onions and green peppers, was the best I’ve ever had, the absolutely most delicious. The rice that came with it tasted good. I’ve not smoked in over 5 months, but I was surprised to find the rice delicious. I also enjoyed the accompanying kim chi greatly. Chop-sticking a bit of pork, and rice, and cabbage into my mouth, the flavors all delicious, somehow the sum greater than it’s parts, I achieved a near nirvana experience.

The food was so absolutely delicious that i almost went back and ordered another meal, but I wanted to see my fiends more. Barely. That was some fine Korean grub.

The graduation party was an amazing event. My friends both look beautiful, as did their daughters. Rachelle’s daughter Courtney, the graduate, was lovely, amazingly possed, yet unspoiled. Nancy’s daughter will not graduate from high school for about 15 years, Lia is just 3 years old. Lia is amazingly cute. I am envious of Nancy having a child small enough to hold; my own 12 year old son Charlie is taller than I am, we don’t cuddle much anymore.

I have a 2007 Applegate Valley Merlot from Nancy’s Vineyard that I look forward to sharing with some of Nancy’s other friends. I’ll have to build a dinner around it.

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On Sunday, back working the Art and wine Festival on Murphy Street in Sunnyvale, I was visited by Chris Cesano and Jim Cesano. Chris is roughly my age, Jim is roughly the age my father would be. We must be related somewhere generations back, we must have common ancestors from Italy; although we don’t know how we are related, it is comforting to meet others with my last name. I am the oldest Cesano in my branch of our family. To keep this entry rolling along food-wise, Chris has promised me his grandmother’s recipes foe gnocchi and ravioli.

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It is Monday, I am finally back at home and looking forward to seeing my son when he gets home from school.

All is right in my world.

Plans for my week:

Create an application video for my dream job,

Attend my son’s promotion from elementary to middle school on Wednesday,

Go to the island deli at Lucas Wharf on Friday.

That sauce has haunted me all weekend. I want to make another Som Tom salad. I want to toss chicken wings in it (it would be similar but superior to Buffalo Wild Wing’s Asian Zing sauce). I want it on eggs. I must buy more and reverse engineer the recipe.

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