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John On Wine ­ – A tale of two Passports

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

John Cesano of John On Wine

It was the best of Passports…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…It was also the best of Passports.

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

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

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

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

 

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John On Wine – Drought

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on March 27, 2014
By John Cesano

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Brave the storm to come, for it surely looks like rain.” ­ – 1972, Look Like Rain, Grateful Dead

Rain, water, drought, shortage, rationing, voluntary reductions, mandatory reductions; Thoughts of our current situation swirl like water about a drain. I’m a winery tasting room guy. I know finished wine, whether it is good, what notes it has and how to describe it. I know a little bit about growing and winemaking, but really just the basics.

When it comes to the crisis facing everyone in Mendocino County, not just the vineyards and wineries, I had to reach out and talk with some folks more knowledgeable than I am on the subject. I spoke with Zac Robinson, President of the Mendocino WineGrowers, Inc., the voluntary coalition of growers and producers working to promote Mendocino County grape grower and wine interests to the general public. Robinson grows grapes both inland, on the Russian River between Ukiah and Hopland, and in the Anderson Valley, and then turns them into wine for his winery, Husch Vineyard.

Robinson described the problems facing the entire community as stemming from a two year drought, stating “the Navarro River is at the lowest level ever for this date, and “things are pretty dire.” Robinson outlined measures that vineyards and wineries are taking in the face of water shortages including adding nearly 50 new wind machines, installing double drip irrigation lines, and installing soil moisture monitoring probes. This is on top of water use reductions of approximately 67 percent since the previous drought of record, 1976-77.

The fans minimize the use of sprinkler water for frost protection and later to mitigate the highest heat of summer, but at a cost as the fans are pretty noisy for residential neighbors to endure. Soil moisture monitoring probes allow more intelligent application of moisture as needed, and double drip lines involve a second irrigation drip line with emitters tasked only to the weakest vines in a vineyard. Double drip lines allow about a 30 percent reduction in water as regular summer drip irrigation can be delayed for weeks as only the vines most in need are taken care of earlier. Later pruning also reduces water demands, as it leads to later bud break and decreases the period when frost protection water use might occur.

In spite of all of the efforts by growers, Robinson shared that “holding ponds aren’t full, the watershed is bone dry, and there will be August decisions (as) we’re not going to have enough water to get the crop through the year (and) we’ll have to choose which vineyards get less water.”

All this, while most of Mendocino County’s vineyards face 50 percent mandatory reductions in water use from various governing boards and agencies.

Not to demonize the “demon weed,” but marijuana accounts for nearly the same water use amount of all of the family farmed multi-generational vineyards in the county, with marijuana acreage just a small fraction of the legal and regulated agricultural vineyards. A walk in a vineyard is a joy; a walk in much of the county a danger due to illegal growth, armed guards, booby-trapped paths, and poisoned lands.

I’m not anti-marijuana, but I support legalizing and taxing it, as well as subjecting growers to the same water restrictions grape growers face. I do oppose illegal grows on public land, diverting water, and ruining existing ecosystems. While vineyards may be the most visible sector of the agricultural community, non-vineyard agriculture (irrigated pastures and orchards) are the largest user of water in the county, using water at much greater rates per acre.

This piece isn’t meant to be an “us vs. them” piece, but a look at where we all are at, together, now and where we all should be looking to go to decrease the severity of drought consequences as a community in the future. Janet Pauli, Chair of the Mendocino County Inland Water & Power Commission, was able to provide a pretty good map for the future.

Pauli first made clear the severity of our current drought, based on insufficient rain October to present, “this is the new drought of record’ and may be a level of severity that hasn’t occurred in over 400 years based on tree ring data.” This surpasses the often recounted 1976-77 drought of record. Pauli said the path forward required progress on two tracks. The first is reoperation and the second is increased storage at Lake Mendocino.

Reoperation involves support of Congressman Jared Huffman’s Fixing Operations of Reservoirs to Encompass Climatic and Atmospheric Science Trends Act (FORECAST) so we can conserve water in our biggest pond, Lake Mendocino. Currently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers follow required water control instructions from a manual dating back to the 50s, which saw them release water in the spring of 2013 without any evidence of a storm coming in after. Assuming weather prediction is better now than in the 50s, sensible on-the-ground decisions could be made saving unnecessary future water releases from occurring.

Lake Mendocino exists as part of a larger U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood control project, authorized by Congress in the 50s, and intended to proceed in three stages. Stage one was the building of the Coyote Valley Dam, completed in 1959, creating the current Lake Mendocino. Stage two involved the building of the Warm Springs Dam, completed in 1982, creating Lake Sonoma. Stage three involves coming back to raise the Coyote Valley Dam 36 vertical feet, doubling the water storage capacity of Lake Mendocino. Stage three has not happened. Pauli said that feasibility studies are costly, but needed to move forward and while $1.2 million has been brought to bear, $4 million more is needed to see the study through to completion. Funding comes from the Federal government, matched by a local coalition including Potter Valley, Redwood Valley, Mendocino County, City of Ukiah, and Russian River Flood Control groups. Next congressional action is required, and Pauli said that in the past U.S. Senator (CA) Diane Feinstein “has helped us with funding for the Feasibility Study. We believe that the project is feasible and should be championed by our elected representatives as nearly “shovel ready”. We are hoping that raising Coyote Dam might become the “water supply poster child” for increasing storage in the State of California.”

If feasible, the current estimate of enlarging Lake Mendocino is $300 million, with perhaps 25 percent local funding needed, and would require a year for authorization plus whatever time the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would need to enlarge the existing dam. Similarly, Congressman Huffman’s FORECAST Act requires successful passage into law, a couple of years of studies, and another couple of years before implementation. The greatest problem about droughts is that with their end, so too ends the quest for solutions to drought conditions.

Everyone in Mendocino, Sonoma Counties face drought conditions now and should come together to act now and continue to act together in the future as a community to address ways to minimize the impacts of future droughts. According to Mendocino WineGrowers, Inc., farmers in the wine industry and wineries relying on grapes anticipate losses of up to $100 million this year due to the drought and a combination of mandatory and self-imposed responsible water reduction measures. Grapes just won’t be as plump, there will be fewer and this will lead to less wine made. Do whatever you can to conserve water now. I remember the conservation measures that existed in 1976-77 that are not in effect in homes now.

Support your local, legal, agriculture; help them through this drought by taking on extra water conservation measures at your home and business, and contact Congressman Jared Huffman and voice your support for his FORECAST Act, and contact Senator Diane Feinstein and let her know you would really love to see the Coyote Valley Dam raised 36 vertical feet as soon as practical. Consider your local city councilmember’s and county supervisor’s support for these needed protections of our beautiful county as well. As Mendocino County residents, we’re really in this together.

 

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John On Wine – Location, location, location

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal on November 14, 2013 by John Cesano

Tasting wine. It is important to do. Last weekend, I ventured south to taste wines in Sonoma County with a friend from the Sonoma Valley. I tasted more Cabernet Sauvignon wines than I do in a month of tasting in Mendocino County, which, if only for the novelty was a treat. I also reconfirmed that, by and large, the wines grown, made, poured in Mendocino County are just as good as I find anywhere else. It is also entirely possible that by tasting the wines of Mendocino County so frequently, so overwhelmingly, that I am developing a county-wide house palate.

A house palate is what you get when you work for, taste, and drink the wines of one winery. I completely admit to having developed a house palate for the wines made by Carol Shelton when I worked at Windsor Vineyards in the 90s and now I have the same thing going on for the completely different wines grown by Guinness McFadden.

I came to love Carol’s wines for their sexy, feminine, soft, lush, rich fruit forwardness. Now, I look for the food-friendly balance that Guinness’ cool, climate grown, high acid fruit yields in the wines I pour every day. That said, I am just as pleased by wines that are different.

Even though I tend to lean toward the wines I pour daily, I am beyond open, I’m excited to taste new wines. I love finding delicious wines made by wineries I might have dismissed after less than stellar tasting experiences years earlier. The only way to find out what great wines are out is to taste wines.

I’ve been tasting wines for 30 years and can describe the differences that the place a grape is grown can have on flavors, how varietally correct wines from one area differ greatly from varietally correct wines of another area, and how with these differences they can both be varietally correct. I remember when I first fell in love with Pinot Noir, exploring the mineral complexities of a genuine French Burgundy, the candied cherry and rose petal of a Russian River William Selyem, the meatiness of a Monterey Chalone, the Carneros gravel, the way different areas flavored the same grape.

Wine isn’t Kool-Aid or soda, wine is different depending on where it is grown. Of course, vintage and winemaker also play a huge role in how wines taste, but today we’ll stick to place.

Compare Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and the same wine made from grapes grown in the Dry Creek Valley, Napa Valley, Paso Robles, and inland Mendocino County. Heck, compare the wines made by Rosati Family Vineyards using Ridge estate budstock and the same wine made by Ridge using grapes from the same budstock. Paul Draper and Zelma Long are both great winemakers, the wines of both are great, and for all their similarities the Cabernet Sauvignon of Rosati grown in Mendocino County will taste different than the Ridge grown Cabernet Sauvignon grown on the mountain ridges above Santa Clara.

Look, I know that not everyone is wine geeky enough to appreciate subtle differences between wines made from grapes grown in two different northern California wine regions, but try this: imagine tasting Chardonnay made from grapes grown in the dry desolation of baking hot Texas or the wet fetid swampiness of Louisiana. You don’t have to be a Master Sommelier or your crowd’s own Frasier Crane to know that grapes grown in many places outside of California’s wine regions could be horrible.

If you can accept that there are places that grapes shouldn’t be grown, then accepting that we live in a pretty magical area for grape growing should not be too hard a leap of faith. Just look around, there are grapes grown everywhere. Right out in the open, legal, not in hiding, no nasty cartels. Grapes are the real heart of a healthy Mendocino County agricultural scene. We are home to the greatest concentration of green growers. Our grape growers are family farmers, organic, bio diverse, biodynamic, fish friendly, carbon neutral. Seventy-five percent of the county’s grapes end up in the more famous and more expensive wines made in Sonoma and Napa Counties.

We are a farm county and our grapes are highly sought after, offering buyers incredible quality and ridiculously low prices. The wines we make in our county, from the grapes we keep are the bomb. I go on about inland Mendocino County almost every week, heaping deserved praise on wines made by wineries along the Highway 101 upper Russian River corridor, but the Pinot Noir from Toulouse and the Rose of Pinot Noir from Navarro in the Anderson Valley, or Yorkville Cellars’ Late Harvest Semillon grown in the Yorkville Highlands, are wines as good as you are likely to taste anywhere. How do I know? Because I try to taste wines from everywhere.

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A Taste of Redwood Valley, the group who would love you to come taste wines in Redwood Valley, just north of Ukiah, with greater frequency, will be holding their Holiday Wine Sale and Juried Art Faire on Saturday, Nov. 23 and Sunday, Nov. 24 from 11 a.m. ­ 5 p.m., which will provide you a great opportunity to pick up wines for Thanksgiving at savings of up to 40 percent off. Different wineries will have different hours and offers, and some will be open just one of the two days. For more information, visit ATasteOfRedwoodValley.com, and to find me visit Germain-Robin where I will be stocking up on Crispin Cain’s Rose Liqueur and his Absinthe.

Valentine’s Day.

Red heart shaped cards, and pink boxes of chocolates, and jewelry boxes filled with diamonds.

Romance. Roses. Strawberries dipped in chocolate. A Nora Ephron movie. Special dinners, amazing food, amazing drink.

Looks of love, and lust. Kisses, touches, hugs, holds, embraces, caresses, fondles, petting.

Whispers, pleas, laughs, sighs, yeses, purrs, moans, screams.

Hotel rooms, bubble baths, massages, candles, heavy sheets, rich comforters, big pillows.

Soft music playing, saxophone, piano, sultry soulful voice; smoky jazz or dirty blues.

An ice bucket, two glasses, a bottle of pink bubbly.

Hopefully, I didn’t lose you there. I know that the words “pink bubbly” are enough to cause more shrinkage in men than a swim in an ice cold pool.

Guys drink beer. Guys don’t drink frilly, frothy, or pink drinks.

But let’s be honest, most guys don’t buy cards, or candy, or flowers, or jewelry, or watch chick flicks on a regular basis either. Most guys are not particularly romantic, or given to extravagant displays of affection.

Valentine’s Day is the one day each year when guys go all out to show their gal just how much they love them, and hopefully have a night of lovemaking that transcends what happens most other nights of the year.

As long as guys are willing to do unusual things, either for romance itself, or to improve the likelihood of getting lucky – or the quality of the event – I would heartily recommend picking up a bottle of pink bubbly for Valentine’s Day night.

Champagnes and Sparkling Wines are often made from Chardonnay grapes, but in the pink or Rosé bubblies the red wine grape Pinot Noir is most often used. The Pinot Noir is crushed, and the skins are left with the juice long enough to impart a beautiful color, and more flavor and complexity.

Wine collectors, and drinkers of the best Champagne, pay more, often much more, for the Rosé Champagnes, or Brut Rosé, than for a non blush Brut Champagne.

Most folks upon tasting a Brut and Brut Rosé side by side blindfolded will choose the Brut Rosé. The cool thing is that any guys picking up a bottle of pink bubbly to share with their Valentine are going to look knowledgeable, confident in their masculinity, and much more attractive – all boding well for later that night.

The bonus is that you will likely find something delicious to share that you can come back to throughout the year, injecting a little Valentine’s Day magic into any night.

I tasted three pink bubblies so you can get lucky. That is how generous I am. Follow my lead, pick one of these three, or another delicious sparkler for Valentine’s Day night, or any date night, and make it special.

NV Korbel California Champagne Brut Rosé, 12% alc, 1.5% dosage, $10-$12


A blend of Pinot Noir, Chenin Blanc and Gamay, this bubbly wine makes me smile just thinking of it. I grew up with Korbel Champagne. Almost a neighbor, Korbel brandy was in the liquor cabinet and Korbel Champagne was poured at events.

My brother and I tasted a lot of wine and bubbly growing up, and not wealthy we looked for the best Champagne or sparkling wine for the lowest price. There are certainly less expensive bubblies than Korbel, but most of the ones you know about taste terrible. There are certainly fancier more exquisite bubblies than Korbel, but most of them are incredibly expensive. It is in Korbel that I found a wine made in the traditional method, with more than a little care, that tastes good. In the case of the Brut Rosé, really good.

Located at 13250 River Road, Guerneville, CA 95446, in the Russian River Valley, you will find Korbel, with tours, tastings, and gardens for picnicking. I have sent countless people on Korbel’s tour. To make their Champagne, they have to do everything to make still wine, plus the extra steps to make it bubbly. The tour explains it all, and is among the best tours in California’s wine country.

The tour always winds up in the tasting room, where you can taste more styles of Champagne than you imagined exited, from very sweet to very dry. You will learn why the sweetest is labelled “extra dry” and, if you are like me, you may begin a lifelong love affair with Brut Rosé bubblies.

I need to stop here and explain that typically bubblies produced in Champagne France using traditional methods are referred to as Champagne. Bubblies made outside Champagne France using the same traditional methods are typically referred to as Sparkling Wines. Korbel unapologetically calls their bubblies California Champagne, and has for over one hundred years. I am fine referring to Korbel as such.

NV is short for Non-Vintage, which means wines made from grapes of more than one vintage were blended or that the vintage was not declared by choice or custom.

The first two things you note when pouring a glass of Brut Rosé are visual, the color and the bubbles. The Korbel Brut Rosé is light orange rose color, and the bubbles are tight and lively.

I need to talk about the three wine grapes that make up this Brut Rose. Pinot Noir is the heart of Burgundy’s red wines and Champagne’s Rosé Champagnes. Grown in the Russian River Valley, it produces beautiful flavors. Chenin Blanc and Gamay are largely used as blending grapes by the wine industry, but delicious varietal wines can be made from these grape varieties.

Cherry and strawberry flavors follow identical aromas. Fruit flavors abound, clean and straightforward. A nicely balanced wine, with the fruity sweetness balanced by acidity. The bubbles, color, and flavor delight.

I like the Korbel CA Champagne Brut Rosé, and I like that I can easily find it in many stores, even when I travel.

2005 Jeriko Estate Brut Rosé Sparkling Wine, Mendocino County, 12% alc, $49


100% handpicked for whole cluster organically grown Pommard clone Pinot Noir grapes from Jeriko Estate were used in this Sparkling Wine. America’s first Blanc de Noir created from 100% organically grown and certified organic Pinot Noir grapes.

Jeriko Estate wrote:

This Pommard clone Pinot Noir was sent directly to the press after harvesting, crushed & underwent a cool fermentation in stainless steel with minimum skin contact – this gives the wine its unique pale pink pearl color. The juice was then matured in stainless steel for 12 months. The wine was bottled & given a dosage of sugar & yeasts, & left for a second fermentation in the bottle for 12 months. The bottles were riddled & disgorged, before being given a final top-up of the same still Pinot Noir.

I tasted the Brut Rosé at Jeriko Estate’s tasting room this week with Tasting Room and Wine Club manager J.J. Cannon.

It should be noted that while Korbel is huge and their bubblies are available almost everywhere, there were only 180 cases of the 2005 Jeriko Estate Brut Rosé made and it is rarer in every way. More attention is given at almost every step, from grape choice and method of growing the grapes, to harvest and fermentation. This is a one grape, one vineyard, organic bubbly. It is special.

Apricot Rose in color, this Brut Rosé had lovely small beaded bubbles. A delightful aroma of peachy light raspberry and a delicate toasty mousse gave way to raspberry flavor and nice acid, balance, mineral and complexity.

J.J. told me that the tasting room would be pairing their Brut Rosé with Chocolates Saturday, February 12, 2011 from 11:00 am – 4:00 pm and offering all wines at 15 off for a Valentine’s Day event. Danny Fetzer, the winery owner, came into the tasting room and said there might even be chocolate dipped strawberries and Brut Rose paired Saturday at Jeriko Estate.

With only 180 cases produced, and limited distribution, you may have to visit or order it from the tasting room, the winery and tasting room is located at 12141 Hewlitt & Sturtevant Road, Hwy 101, Hopland CA 95449.

While at Jeriko Estate, I tasted another wine, and took more pictures, and will post them in a near future piece.

NV Champagne Bollinger Rosé, Grands and Premiers Crus from La Montagne de Reims and La Côte des Blancs, Aÿ France, 12.5% alc, 7-10 g/l dosage, $100


62% Pinot Noir, 24% Chardonnay, 14 % Meunier including 5% of still red wine.

I have friends who are wealthy through feats of visionary imagination or industry, and who could drink Bollinger nightly. I am not that fortunate, so being able to taste this was a treat indeed for me, although having tasted it puts it on my list of things to taste again, and again.

Pale pink and sunset salmon color, beautiful string of pearls bubbles rising uninterrupted.

Aromas of cherry and raspberry with baking spice and citrus, complex toasty vanilla nut and dried herb. Many layered flavor notes, rich, unbelievable profusion of notes, strawberry, candied cherry, raspberry, cassis, and toasty lees. Massive yet restrained by solid acid, incredible balance.

Champagne Bollinger is THE British Champagne, having been awarded the Royal Warrant by seven British Monarchs, been served at the nuptials of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, and perhaps most importantly it is James Bond’s Champagne of choice, having been ordered by Bond both in Ian Fleming’s novels and in no fewer than 11 movies from Live and Let Die to Quantum of Solace.

Almost defying description, Champagne Bollinger Rosé is at once both robust and delicate. I get why Bond orders food with his Bollinger, this beautiful Champagne can handle being paired with many food and hold its own.

1,400 cases produced with almost worldwide distribution makes this a semi rare wine, you will have to seek it out at a finer wine shop or order it online.

So, there you go, notes on three pink bubblies. All were delicious, and of course the price asked allows for greater complexity in the bottle, so it really comes down to what you are looking for and what you are willing to spend. I hope you have a great Valentine’s Day filled with love and romance. I hope you get lucky. I hope you try a pink bubbly, which might help you with the love, romance, and getting lucky. Having tried it, I hope you love it as much as I do, try others, and see about enjoying Rosé Champagne and Sparkling Wines more than just once a year in February.

Other local Mendocino County Pink bubblies of note, not tasted this time around, but well worth a taste:

Rack & Riddle Sparkling Rosé $24

2006 Handley Cellars Brut Rosé, Anderson Valley Estate Vineyard $40

Roederer Estate Brut Rosé NV $25

Roederer Estate L’Ermitage Rosé 2003 $70

Thanks, and cheers!

DISCLOSURE: Brown-Forman sent me the Korbel CA Champangne Brut Rose, Terlato Wines sent me the Champagne Bollinger Rosé, and Jeriko Estate waived the tasting charge for their Jeriko Estate Brut Rose. Thank you all.

Dear Readers,

I am changing internet service,  going from fast to faster. To do so, there wasn’t a simple transition plan, but a service stop and new service – and a gap of a week.

Posting an entire entry, without pictures, from my phone, just is not practical.

I’ll be back next week, and post a feature piece on Dunnewood/Mendocino Vineyards from here in Ukiah. I visited last week, tasted wines, took some pictures and you’ll be able to read more about that visit next week.

I’ll also be writing a Valentine’s Day piece about the yummiest of the bubblies, Brut Rose, and will taste and feature bubblies from Korbel (Sonoma County), Bollinger (Champagne France), and locally a Brut Rose from Danny Fetzer’s Jeriko Estate in Hopland.

Look for a piece upcoming on Mendocino County winery powerhouse Fetzer Vineyards and their wines, some wines from Bordeaux France, and wines from places in between.

Until then, remember that rules like “red with meat” and “white with fish” are broken all the time, but wine with friends and family is the best pairing rule of all.

See you next week. Cheers!

John

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.

This month, Napa County vintners began spraying their vineyards with pesticides in an attempt to fight infestation of European grapevine moths.

The half inch insect lays eggs in April, and the larvae starts feeding at bud break on grape flowers, then later generations on young grapes, and a third generation on mature grapes.

Since September 2009, after destroying a nine acre Napa Valley vineyard’s crop, when the culprit moth was identified, nearly 30,000 moths have been trapped in the county, and plans are being made to quarantine over 300 square miles of Napa County.

Although the moth is not a long distance flier, it does seem able to ride on equipment from vineyard to vineyard, vineyard to winery, and winery to winery. Neighboring Sonoma County is gearing up to institute quarantine protocols to help control moth movement.

Mendocino County, known for environmentally friendly farming practices, sustainable and fish friendly agriculture, organic and biodynamic grape growers and wineries, is facing a quarantine of nearly 6,000 vineyard acres after first one moth was found just south of Ukiah on a back yard grape vine, then more recently another 30 have been found north of Ukiah.

Tony Linegar, Mendocino County Agricultural Commissioner, suspected the moths were transported from Napa when fruit was moved from Napa County to a winery near Dunnewood’s now infested Chardonnay vineyard. Roughly 650 traps are being set in Mendocino County. Linegar believes this may be the second year the moths have been in Mendocino County, and the worst may be yet to come.

Mendocino County wineries use pomace, the residue of pressed grapes, for natural fertilizer. Alarmingly, the European grapevine moth larvae, left inside the grapes, can sometimes survive pressing and end up in pomace. Several Mendocino County wineries regularly import Napa and Sonoma County winery pomace. The problem could very well have been laid right at the feet of the vines already.

Linegar is asking all vineyards within a kilometer of Dunnewood’s infested vineyard to spray with a larvicide.

Purportedly organic insecticides do exist, and are hoped to be effective.

Only 3 of 18 Insecticides for Lobesia botrana (European Grape Vine Moth) on grape are approved for use in organic vineyards. I found no information on approved insecticide use in biodynamic vineyards.

Bruce Phillips, a Napa Valley grape grower, worries about “the long term sustainability of organic and biodynamic practices,” in the face of forced spraying to combat the spread of, or damage from, the moth.

Mendocino County bills itself as “America’s Greenest Wine Region,” and the threat posed by the European grapevine moth is not just to the grape crops but to an entire way of growing grapes.

The County of Napa Agricultual Commissioner’s website states, “Studies of the European grapevine moth internationally show that larvae feed primarily on the flowers and fruit of the grape, and that they can also feed on number of other hosts, including olives, blackberries, cherries, nectarines, persimmons and pomegranates. “

There is further concern that after grape harvest, moths may spend the winter cacooned in olive trees on vineyard properties.

Jim Allen, the Solano County Agricultural Commissioner, describes the threat posed by the moth as having “a potential for complete crop loss.”

A Final Report of  an International Technical Working Group brought together to fight the European Grape Vine Moth in California’s north coast, dated February 10, 2010, recommends that suppression measures include ovicides, larvicides, mating disruption, and mechanical control measures. Three generations of the pest impact vineyards; the first from bud break to fruit set, the second from pea sized grapes to ripening, and the third from ripening to harvest. Whether there are any beneficial organisms that might prey on, or control, the moth is unknown at this point.

The second and third generations cause the most damage not just by direct feeding on mature grapes but by predisposing the crop to grey mold, fungus, and rot through webbing and leaving of excrement inside the grapes.

Since their discovery in Napa County; in addition to Sonoma and Mendocino Counties, the moth has been found in Merced, Fresno, and Solano Counties.

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

(707) 468-7936

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

(800) 564-2582

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

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

Chardonnay TweetUp
Parducci Wine Cellars

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

(800) 362-9463

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

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

Open House
Toad Hollow Vineyards Ranch

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

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

(707) 495-4959

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

Toad Hollow World Headquarters on Westside Road, Healdsburg, CA

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

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

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

The main office, with porch for serious thinking

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

A view from the office down toward the Russian River

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

Mustard in bloom in the vineyards

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

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

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

The path to the World HQ office door

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

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

The sign helps visitors find the tasting room on Healdsburg Avenue

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

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

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

Todd Williams

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Nice acidity making you want another taste.

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

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

2007 Zinfandel, Paso Robles, Cacophony – $13.99

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

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

Lushly drinkable.

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

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


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

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

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

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

A really soft wine with a nice lingering tapering finish.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Four clone, single vineyard, 100% Pinot Noir.

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

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

2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, California, Concinnity – $15.99


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Perfect pairing.

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

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

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

Debra Rickards pouring Toad Hollow wines for tasting room visitors

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

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

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

I grew up with Zinfandel. When I was a kid, my dad Charlie and his friends would hunt almost every weekend; duck hunting, pig hunting, deer hunting. Our freezer was always full of meat. I grew up thinking that everyone was Italian, and that everyone hunted. My folks never took me to see Bambi.

My dad was part of a group of about 20 guys who went in together to lease large pieces of property to hunt. Their hunting clubs were scattered all over Mendocino and Sonoma Counties. For a long time, we hunted the 12,500 acre Rockpile Ranch straddling both Mendocino and Sonoma Counties, being the largest piece of property in either county. I remember my dad taking me for weekends to the club. I would ride in a jeep or truck during the day as the men looked for a large pig, or buck. Lunches would invariably be Salumi and Cheddar on hard French bread rolls. Any game taken would be field dressed, then cleaned and hung back in camp at the end of the day. After cleaning up after the day’s hunt, the men would cook a big dinner. Polenta, meats, Italian sauces, pasta, vegetables, salad, Zinfandel.

Growing up, all the Italian men I knew drank Zinfandel. It came in jugs, it wasn’t complex, it was good and it was cheap. It went into the food, and into coffee cups and high ball glasses, styrofoam cups and complimentary collector jelly glasses from the gas station – free with an 8 gallon purchase.

I crushed Zinfandel grapes when I was my son Charlie’s age, just 12 years old, and the juice was made into wine that I was allowed to taste with food.

Zinfandel has been my first wine love, my longest loved wine, my favorite wine for most of my life.

Big, bold, very red, often high in alcohol, with flavors of brambly raspberry and black pepper spice; Zinfandel is as big as Cabernet Sauvignon in body, structure, and flavor profile but more affordable. Although DNA tests have shown Zinfandel is really the grape varietal Crljenak Kaštelanski from Croatia, and also Identical to Italy’s Primitivo grape, it has been thought of as California’s grape by generations of California’s wine drinkers.

Years ago, I attended the ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and producers) tasting, a tasting of Zinfandels put on at Fort Mason in San Francisco in January. Hundreds of Zinfandels to taste. Thousands of people tasting. A perfect day spent tasting some iconic Zinfandels, like Carol Shelton’s Rockpile Zin, and discovering new stars.

ZAP is marking the 19th Zinfandel festival this year with the theme Zin in Paradise, and it isn’t just the incredible Saturday Grand Zinfandel Tasting, but three days of events. Tickets are still available for most of the events.

http://www.zinfandel.org/

The festival kicks off Thursday evening with the Good Eats & Zinfandel Pairing at Fort Mason’s Herbst Pavillion. Celebrity chef Beverly Gannon will be serving up Hawaiian Regional Cuisine with Zinfandels, along with 49 other chefs and wineries. As I read the list of wineries, restaurants, and dishes being served, my mouth goes into watering overdrive mode, and I am actually excited about attending this event. The list is too long to print here, but go to the event page and look at the amazing bounty of food, and the participating wineries, and get yourself to this event! If you are looking for me, I’ll be the very happy, short, round, bearded man in line in front of you for more yummy food and wine.

On Friday, I am going to sit down with a group of about 150 people at the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco for Flights, a showcase of Zinfandel.

The panelists will discuss blending, Zinfandel’s uniqueness, preferred blending varietals, and each panelist will bring a proprietary blended Zinfandel to pour and discuss.

The wineries, panelists and Zinfandels include:

  • Ridge Vineyards, winemaker Eric Baugher, 2007 Zinfandel Paso Robles and the 2007 Geyserville
  • Three Wine Company, winemaker and proprietor Matt Cline, 2007 Old Vine Zinfandel, California and 2007 Old Vines, California (Field Blend)
  • JC Cellars, founder and winemaker Jeff Cohn, 2007 Imposter Blend and 2007 Sweetwater Zinfandel
  • Robert Biale Vineyards, winemaker Steve Hall, 2007 Aldo’s Vineyard Zinfandel and 2007 Stagecoach Zinfandel
  • Bedrock Wine Company, winemaker and proprietor Morgan Twain Peterson, 2007 Heirloom Wine, Sonoma Valley and 2007 Ravenswood, Bedrock Vineyard Zinfandel, Sonoma Valley

Friday Evening, also at the Mark Hopkins, is an Evening with the Winemakers, Benefit Live Auction and Dinner, where Chef Beverly Gannon will prepare:

  • Asian Duck Tostada
  • Blackened Ahi with Sweet Thai Chili Sauce, Wasabi Micro Greens, Tobiko, Mashed Potato in Filo Cup
  • Smoked Salmon Pinwhhels with Chipotle-Chili Fresh Fruit Salsa
  • Kalua Pork and Goat Cheese Won Tons with Mango Chili Sauce
  • Terrine of Foie Gras, BBQ Eel, Potato Pineapple Compote, Vanilla Syrup and Spicy Micro Greens
  • Lamb Shank Canneloni with a Poached Fig Demi-Glaze Double Cut Lamb Chop, Lavendar Honey Glazed Baby Carrots
  • Chocolate Macadamia Nut Tart

I had the opportunity to take part in a high end food and wine dinner like this when I helped winemaker Carol Shelton, who had the Best in Class Zinfandel at the California State Fair – a Zinfandel with four gold medals – pour her Zinfandel and other favorite wines at the best Meet the Winemaker dinner I have ever attended. The dinner was at Susan and Drew Goss’ Zinfandel restaurant in Chicago’s River North area, near the Fonterra Grill and Spago. Without exception, the sold out (it sold out in under 3 hours, a record for the restaurant) 110 seat restaurant’s diners enjoyed one of the best dining experiences of their lives. Many hundreds of bottles were opened and consumed (I helped Carol taste them all earlier that day and found all 5 TCA tainted corked bottles – unlucky me) and Susan Goss prepared a multi course menu around Carol’s wines that amazed, delighted and thrilled everyone who attended the dinner.

This is going to be one of those kind of once in a lifetime dining experiences and Beverly’s menu looks even more fantastic than Susan’s menu. In addition to the incredible sit down mind blowing meal with Zinfandels poured to pair with each course, there will be 25 or so one of a kind Zinfandel themed live auction lots to bid on during the evening.

ZAP’s Zinfandel Festival culminates Saturday with the epically huge Grand Zinfandel Tasting in both the Herbst and Festival pavilions at Fort Mason in San Francisco from 2 p.m. – 5 p.m., ZAP members get an hour start on the general public and can taste from 1 p.m. – 5 p.m.

Over the years, ZAP’s Zinfandel festival has grown, more than doubling in size. The number of Zinfandels poured couldn’t be tasted by any one person, be they veteran wine reviewer or liver compromised bum.

Plastic lined garbage cans are provided throughout the festival and serve as giant wine spittoons. I hate spitting out perfectly good wine, but it is the only way to go as an attempt is made to taste as many Zinfandels as possible before my palate is completely blown out by the plethora of high alcohol hugely bodied monster Zinfandels.

I am thrilled to be attending this years Grand Zinfandel Tasting, and getting an early 10 a.m. start as part of the media tasting. I will have my red wine notebook and pen with me.

It almost goes without saying, but eat before, during and after the event, be safe, and consider public transportation.

DISCLOSURE: ZAP is covering my attendance to events with a press pass. I love this event and would have gushed about the event if I was paying out of pocket to attend. I will be writing a couple of articles after the event. One will focus on the events generally, the other will include tasting notes for Zinfandels tasted over the weekend. Full disclosure requires that I think Julie Ann Kodmur is an angel.

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