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John On Wine – Wine Tasting in March

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

Toad Hollow World Headquarters on Westside Road, Healdsburg, CA

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

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

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

The main office, with porch for serious thinking

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

A view from the office down toward the Russian River

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

Mustard in bloom in the vineyards

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

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

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

The path to the World HQ office door

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

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

The sign helps visitors find the tasting room on Healdsburg Avenue

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

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

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

Todd Williams

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Nice acidity making you want another taste.

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

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

2007 Zinfandel, Paso Robles, Cacophony – $13.99

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

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

Lushly drinkable.

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

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


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

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

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

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

A really soft wine with a nice lingering tapering finish.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Four clone, single vineyard, 100% Pinot Noir.

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

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

2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, California, Concinnity – $15.99


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Perfect pairing.

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

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

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

Debra Rickards pouring Toad Hollow wines for tasting room visitors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A really soft wine with a nice lingering tapering finish.

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

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

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

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

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One of my wine industry jobs was with the Wine Appreciation Guild, one of the industry’s largest publishers of wine books and a one stop distributor of both wine books and accessories. My job was to sell wine books and wine accessories to wineries for their tasting rooms, to wine shops, and to other specialty merchants in 42 California counties.

http://www.wineappreciation.com

There are many people here on the interwebs that know about wine, and I’ll carve my own niche by writing from the heart about wine as a means to an end, a beverage to be enjoyed with family and friends, as opposed to the end itself. I am not the guy to read if you are looking for a review of the nearly unattainable, released in three bottle maximum allotment to people on THE LIST only, cult Napa Cab or Russian River Valley Pinot. I love wine, know wine, can share my knowledge; but I am a regular guy.

In addition to telling you about a wine in context, who I shared it with, the food we ate with it, I can also tell you about a good wine book or wine gadget. Go with what you know, I wrote recently, and I will. Out of the thousands of wine writers inhabiting the web, I have unique knowledge. Hopefully, my writing will find an audience thirsty for what I am pouring.

Vacu-Vin. There is no wine preservation system more ubiquitous. Gwyneth Paltrow told Oprah that it is a “must-have” in her kitchen. Every frau and pretentious wine poser in the country has one. Sales of the devices number in the tens of millions.

For the one or two of you who are unfamiliar with Vacu-Vin, here’s what the manufacturers say

http://www.vacuvin.com/Vacuum_Wine_Saver_286_270_267.html

“The Wine Saver is a vacuum pump, which extracts the air from the opened bottle and re-seals it with a re-usable rubber stopper. Place the re-usable stopper in the bottle and extract the air from the bottle using the Wine Saver pump. A “click” sound tells you when you have reached the optimum vacuum level. The vacuum slows down the oxidation process which makes it possible to enjoy your wine again at a later date. The question “how often do I have to pump?” is a thing of the past. The unique and patented vacuum indicator will emit a “click” sound when the correct vacuum is reached.”


The Wine Appreciation Guild carried them, and everyone I worked with wanted them to sell in their stores.


I had a problem. The Vacu-Vin doesn’t work:

http://www.winelife.com/pdf/lab-report-26292-vacu-vin-test.pdf

“The “Vacu-Vin” device as submitted was evaluated to determine efficacy in reduction of oxidative spoilage in opened wines. Using the protocol described above, the “Vacu-Vin” device was found to have no measurable effect in reduction of oxidative spoilage.”

-Gordon Burns, ETS Laboratories, 1204 Church Street, St. Helena, CA 94574


http://www.winespectator.com/magazine/show/id/6257

Vacu-vin doesn’t work, It never has.

Sensorily, to me anyway, the Vacu-vin was a shuck. You could track the deterioration in each sample. Indeed, just recorking the wine worked equally as well – or as badly.

The [Wall Street] Journal asked Professor David Roe of the Portland State University chemistry department to test the gizmo…At best he achieved a vacuum of somewhat less than 70 percent…In just 90 minutes, he reported, the vacuum pressure diminished by 15 percent.

I asked Professor Roe to repeat his test with a newly purchased (newer, ‘improved’, model) Vacu-Vin. The results? “The pump is more efficient, but no more effective,” he reports. “The vacuum is the same, around 70 to 75 percent. And the leak rate is the same: After two hours you lose 25 percent of the vacuum. Overnight – 12 hours – the vacuum is totally gone.”

-Matt Kramer, “A Giant Sucking Sound…And That’s All”


http://www.consumerreports.org December 2006

What to do with leftover wine? Just put a cork in it

UNNECESSARY EQUIPMENT There’s no clear need for Vacu-Vin Vacuum Wine Saver and other wine-preservation systems, our tests suggest.

A lot of people turn to wine-preservation systems that seek to retard or stop oxidation, the chemical process that degrades wine. If you’re among those who swear by such systems, we have surprising news, based on our tests of four widely known brands: No system beat simply recorking the bottle and sticking it in the fridge.

Getting the air out…The Vacu-Vin Vacuum Wine Saver, $10, uses rubber stoppers (two are provided) with a pump that sucks out air.

We tested three varietals with the systems on three different occasions for three different periods of time. For comparison, we also stoppered one bottle with its own cork. After all the bottles spent time in our wine cellar, expert wine consultants compared their contents in blind taste tests with freshly opened bottles.

If our trained experts, with nearly 60 years in the business, couldn’t discern among wine storage systems, most consumers probably can’t, either. So just go ahead and cork it (you can turn the cork over if it’s easier to get in). But try not to wait more than a week or so to drink the wine, and sooner is better.


I would tell the buyers for the winery tasting rooms, the wine shops, and the kitchen stores that the Vacu-Vin doesn’t work – but it didn’t stop most of them, because you, the home customer, wanted to buy and use these things.

You don’t see good restaurants using Vacu-Vins to preserve their wines poured by the glass. You don’t see good wineries using Vacu-Vins in between the wine tastes they poor in their tasting rooms. NY Times wine guru Eric Asimov doesn’t pump air out of wine bottles, he doesn’t believe it does much of anything.

http://thepour.blogs.nytimes.com/2006/05/25/when-age-is-measured-in-days/

When I see a wine bar using a Vacu-Vin, I won’t drink any but the first glass from a bottle.

Here’s the deal: when you open a wine and let it breathe, you are letting tannins dissipate, alcohol flush burn off, and fruit come forward. You’ll find that the hot, harsh, and closed Cabernet at opening becomes a smooth delicious beverage with blackberry and currant notes with a little time. Oxygen is wine’s friend initially.

While I am prepping food for dinner, I usually open a bottle, or more than one bottle if cooking for friends, pour a little of each in a separate wine glass, so I can repeatedly swirl and sniff each. I am looking for the wine to open and become perfect. At that point, I recork the bottle so I can just open, pour, and seal all the way through the meal. I know the last glass will be as good as the first. Every glass perfect.

If I opened the wine, let it breathe, and then ignored it, the fruit would follow the tannins, and perfect would become sad. Oxygen, so important to a wine at opening, becomes wine’s enemy afterward. Leaving a wine open ruins wine over time.

Pumping the air out of a bottle of wine with a Vacu-Vin strips the wine of aroma and bouquet. Each time it is used it ruins the wine. To me, a couple of seconds is like hours of damage.

The Vacu-Vin doesn’t even create a complete vacuum. As tested, fully 25-30% of the air, and oxygen, remains inside the bottle – before the Vacu-Vin fails and all of the air, and oxygen, returns. To me, the worst think about the Vacu-Vin is that consumers are fooled into a false sense of preservation security and don’t seek another, effective, method to save the aroma, bouquet, and flavors of a bottle of wine in between glasses.

Matt Kramer and the Wall Street Journal engaged a University science department professor who measured the Vacu-Vin’s fail using drills and tubes and meters, all very high tech. Similar high tech methods were used by Gordon Burns of ETS Laboratories and the testers at Consumer Reports.

Look, I know that if you are into wine, you have one of these gadgets at home. Want to see it fail before your own eyes? Fill an empty wine bottle half way with mini marshmallows, use the Vacu-Vin as directed, sucking some of the air out of the bottle, creating a partial vacuum at best. As you pump, the marshmallows will swell until they fill the available space inside the bottle. You will see that, as the Vacu-Vin seal leaks and fresh air goes back into the bottle, the marshmallows shrink. You can watch the level of the marshmallows fall from bottle fill to half bottle as the Vacu-Vin fail is total.

While at the Wine Appreciation Guild, the owner Elliot Mackey, knowing my feelings about the Vacu-Vin, put me in a surprise direct face-to-face meeting with one of the company’s representatives. I felt a bit awkward, but presented him with much of the evidence I have laid out here for you. The representative assured me that he had heard these charges before and had a “wealth of anecdotal evidence” to counter it.

Just because a non critical taster, perhaps an actress appearing on Oprah, thinks that her Vacu-Vin is doing something beneficial, and allows that incorrect assumption to color expectations at tasting her old wine, self deluding herself that the wine is well preserved – just because there are tens of millions of people who got suckered, don’t know it, and think this junk works – well, so what? A wealth of anecdotal evidence does not counter evidence of Vacu-Vin’s complete lack of efficacy, nor does it counter Vacu-Vin’s fail in blind tastings performed by sommeliers and other wine professionals.

I am a believer in never presenting a problem without a possible solution. I’ve created a problem by telling the truth as I see it. There are tens of millions of people ruining their wine, thinking they are saving their wine’s quality. I know I won’t reach quite that number of readers, but for the few who do find their way to my blog, I’ll tell you how I keep wines delicious in between glasses.


I recork the bottles. Believing it matters, I use a decoratively topped, denser than normal, non-porous Corker instead of the old porous cork. If I am going to keep the wine for more than a couple of days, I pair a blast of Private Preserve (nitrogen/argon/inert gasses in a can) and the Corker and have experienced solid longer term storage.


http://thecorker.com

http://www.privatepreserve.com

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Oil and Vinegar preservation:

For the foodies out there who have made it this far through a wine entry, I use the Private Preserve/Corker combo on my specialty oils and vinegars for the kitchen and have eliminated the oil goes rancid and vinegar goes musty equivalent of wine goes yucky.


Oh, and if you have pour spouts in your oil and vinegar, or wine, you are just letting it breathe and go bad. So unless you are Gordon Ramsey and go through multiple bottles of oil/vinegar/wine in the kitchen each night, throw away the spouts, they are as ridiculously bad as a Vacu-Vin.

Just saying’.

DISCLOSURE: I have sold Corkers in art and craft shows, I do not now. I am very experienced with their efficacy. I worked for the Wine Appreciation Guild over seven years ago, I do not now. I have not worked with Gordon Ramsey, but am willing to accept a free meal from him.

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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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