John On Wine – Wine blends, both European and local

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on Thursday, October 2, 2014

Recently, I received an email from David and Merry Jo Velasquez of Cannon Falls, MN; after visiting the tasting room where I work and finding this wine column, they visited France and suggested a column, “outlining the GSM grape varieties that make Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine so popular, and which winemakers are doing similar blends in Northern CA,” as well as exploring the “French law/custom [that] allows 13 grape varieties to be used in CdP wines…[and] other stringent requirements which were fascinating to learn about.” They also mentioned the “terroir” (the land, climate, the environment grape vines grow in) and sent some terrific photos.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyard

Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyard

Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a town in the Rhone wine region of southeastern France. Red varieties allowed are Cinsaut, Counoise, Grenache Noir, Mourvèdre, Muscardin, Piquepoul Noir, Syrah, Terret Noir, and Vaccarèse (Brun Argenté). White and pink varieties are Bourboulenc, Clairette Blanche, Clairette Rose, Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris, Picardan, Piquepoul Blanc, Piquepoul Gris, and Roussanne. The 13 varieties historically mentioned by David and Merry Jo have expanded to 18, as today the Noir (black/red), Gris (grey), and Blanc (white) versions of individual grape varieties are considered separate.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape red grapes reaching maturity - note the rounded stones in the vineyard that the vines fight through

Châteauneuf-du-Pape red grapes reaching maturity – note the rounded stones in the vineyard that the vines fight through

Famed for GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre) Rhone blends, some of my favorite wines tasted have come from Châteauneuf-du-Pape. By far, most of Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines are red, and most use Grenache as the base, or largest element, of their blends. Lighter in body, two things allow for wines of greater intensity:

First, yields are reduced with local laws prohibiting greater than 368 gallons to be produced per acre of fruit. By dropping fruit during the growing season, the remaining fruit receives greater vitality from the vine, and the result is greater flavor. Second, instead of holding the wines in oak barrels, and having the oak overpower the flavors of the grape, much of the wine is held in concrete containers, a neutral container that better protects against oxidation than oak during winemaking. Here, in northern California, there are a number of wineries using Rhone varietals who have purchased concrete ‘eggs’ to make their wine in.

Richly ripe white grapes from Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Richly ripe white grapes from Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Blends done right are wines greater than the sum of their parts. Often Cabernet Sauvignon, a big firm wine, will have some Merlot blended in as the Merlot will soften the wine; and the reverse is true, an overly soft Merlot can benefit from the backbone a little Cabernet Sauvignon can offer to the blended wine’s structure.

Just as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are often blended together, so too are Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, and Zinfandel and Carignane. There are many ‘classic’ blends, and they are classics because they work, the wines blended are often better than the wines held separate.

In California, as long as there is 75% or more of any single wine grape variety in the wine then that grape variety can be used on the label; in other words, the Zinfandel you buy at the store has at least 75% and up to a full 100% of Zinfandel in the bottle, but might contain some other wine grape varieties – up to 25% in total. There are many local wineries that make stellar blend wines, and do not bother with hitting 75% of any varietal, instead giving their blend wine a fanciful proprietary name like Black Quarto, Atrea Old Soul Red, or Campo de Stella.

In Europe, wines are named for the areas they come from, and a Châteauneuf-du-Pape red wine can be made from any of nine grape varieties and is most often a blend, while a red wine from Bordeaux will be made from a shorter list of grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carménère. Just as Châteauneuf-du-Pape has a protocol, part law and part tradition, for making wine, so too does Bordeaux, and nearly every other geographically identifiable wine area in Europe.

Meritage (rhymes with heritage, it is an American wine, not French, so please do not force a French mispronunciation) is a wine made outside of Bordeaux using the grapes used in Bordeaux, where an individual grape variety does not meet the minimum percentage threshold allowing the wine to receive a grape variety name. Starting as a California only association of blended wines, Meritage wines expanded first to the United States, and then internationally.

In all of the United States, there is only one geographically identifiable area that makes wines from an agreed upon list of grapes, and following an agreed upon production protocol, following the European model, but is by agreement among the participating wineries and not under force of law, and that unique in America area is Mendocino County, and the wines are Coro Mendocino.

A Quintet of Coro Mendocino Wines

A Quintet of Coro Mendocino Wines

Coro is Italian for Chorus and, just as a chorus should be a harmonious blending of voices, Coro wines should be a harmonious blending of grape varieties. Every Coro Mendocino starts with Zinfandel, Mendocino County’s most planted grape, and must contain no less than 40% and no more than 70% Zinfandel. Of note is that there is not enough Zinfandel, 75% minimum, to label the wine as a Zinfandel. The supporting ‘blend’ grapes include Syrah, Petite Sirah, Carignane, Sangiovese, Grenache, Dolcetto, Charbono, Barbera, Primitivo, plus up to 10% “free play” where an individual participating Coro Mendocino winery can allow their signature style to shine through, with an Anderson Valley winery blending in some Pinot Noir or inland Mendocino winery blending in some Cabernet Sauvignon as an example. None of the supporting blend grapes is to exceed the percentage of Zinfandel in the finished wine.

Coro Mendocino wines also adhere to winemaking protocols, with wine chemistry limits and oak and bottle aging spelled out for participants. Perhaps the most unique aspect of the Coro Mendocino program is that each winery puts their wines through a rigorous quality assurance regimen; first the wines are blind tasted several times as barrel samples by all the participating wineries with constructive criticism offered up for each wine in an effort to produce the very best wines possible, and then the wines go through a pass/fail, Coro/No-Coro, blind tasting before they may carry the Coro Mendocino label.

Each Coro within a vintage, winery to winery, is different, just as each Coro within a winery, vintage to vintage, is different, and yet there is a thread that ties all Coro Mendocino wines together, in much the same way that all wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Bordeaux are tied together, but with an assurance of quality.

Barra, Brutocao, Clos du Bois, Fetzer, Golden, McFadden, Parducci, and Testa each made a Coro in the most recently released vintage, 2011, and the wines can be tasted and purchased at each individual winery’s tasting room, or all can be purchased at SIP! Mendocino in Hopland. The best of the Coro from each vintage, produced from organically grown grapes, is also available at the Ukiah co-op and on Patrona restaurant’s wine list in Ukiah.

I love the Testa Barn Blend Party, folks always procrastinate and try to get tickets last minute. There will be folks who will be too late this year. Get your ticket now, you won’t hear “I’m sorry, we’re sold out,” and I’ll see you there this Saturday, September 6, 2014.

Here’s a note from Maria, taken from her Testa September newsletter:


UPCOMING EVENTS

4th Annual Blending Party

“A True Blending of Wine and People”

Saturday, September 6, 2014

6-7pm – Wine Blending and Appetisers -We will be working on our Black Sei – our Sixth Bottling of our Black! Our Judges to determine our Blend Winner are John Buechenstein , John Cesano and John Dickerson and Heidi Cusick Dickerson.

7-8pm – Family Style Dinner – Bella Cibo Catering and BBQ by Rusty and Joey!

8 -10pm  Get your boots on & lets dance!  Music by Mckenna Faith!

Reserve your tickets now. Testa Wines Members receive a 25% discount

Pre-Sale tickets only – (not available at door)

***  I hope you have reserved your tickets/tables We have 3 tables/24 tickets available if you have not yet done so… call 707-391-7273  or email maria@testaranch.com  quick!

 

-Maria Testa Martinson

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John On Wine – 4th annual Testa Blending Party and Winesong

Two great wine events on one day

John Cesano of John On Wine

John Cesano of John On Wine

 

I’m giving you a touch over two weeks notice, so I hope to see many of you, because on Saturday, Sept. 6 there are two of my favorite Mendocino County wine events.

One may be the county’s largest wine event for the year, the other is smaller but more dear to me. First, let’s start with my favorite: Testa Vineyards is having their 4th annual Blending Party from 6 to 10 p.m., and it is at Testa Ranch in Calpella, right here near Ukiah. Before making a Coro red blend, Maria Testa Martinson and husband Rusty Martinson had their Black wine, a blend of wines made from the different red grape varieties grown on Testa Vineyards.

The wine changes each year as different wines and percentages find their way into the mix and become the finished wine. I attended the first Testa barn blend party and sat with local industry luminary Kelly Lentz, and although we each had different ideas about what blend would yield the best wine, we came to find that it was nearly impossible to blend a bad wine from Testa’s juice. Last year, Maria announced that Testa’s fifth Black blend would rely heavily on the blend put together by the wine blend judged best at the 3rd annual Testa Blending Party.

I was honored to be one of three judges and, together with my fellow judges, we reconfirmed that there are many paths to a delicious Testa blend as we tasted through 25 different wines created by folks sitting at 25 different tables. This year, from 6 to 7 p.m., guests will enjoy appetizers and try to unleash their inner winemaker, blending Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignane, Charbono, and Petite Sirah into a possible winning blend.

From 7 to 8 p.m., it is scrumptious dinner time, with catering champs Bella Ciba returning. During dinner, the judges will pick this year’s Blending Party wine winner.

I know I like wines that are well integrated, where nose leads to mouth and on to finish seamlessly, with a food-friendly touch of acid to balance an abundance of cleanly discernible fruit notes. Of course, this year’s other judges may prefer high-alcohol fruit-jam-bombs that obliterate food flavors, so finding a way to make a blend to please all palates might be a better road to victory than trying to please mine alone.

After dinner, from 8 to 10 p.m., there will be dancing as McKenna Faith and her band perform. McKenna is a Nashville recording artist, a genuine star, from right here in Ukiah, and incredibly talented. I’m an old Deadhead, not really a Country Western kind of guy, but enjoyed every moment McKenna played last year; quality transcends genre. Of course, this being Mendocino County, and a wine event, times may be flexible a bit, so show up on time, and roll with the flow.

The food is great, the blending is fun, the wine is terrific, the music is fantastic, and the Testa Family – Maria and Rusty, their kids, their aunts and uncles – they are all just the nicest people. Tickets are $70, Testa wine club members get a 25 percent discount, and with limited seating you’ll want to get your tickets early; this event sells out and no tickets are available at the door.

Visit TestaRanch.com/order, or call Maria at (707) 391-7273 to get your tickets now.

The second Sept. 6 wine event is Winesong, a charity auction and wine tasting, enjoying its 30th year, and is held at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens located in Fort Bragg. More than 100 wineries will pour tastes, over 50 food purveyors will offer bites, and nine different musical groups will perform and entertain from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. during the Winesong wine and food tasting.

A charity auction runs from 2 to 5 p.m., with a special gourmet lunch additionally available. “The centerpiece of Winesong weekend is our Charity Auction, featuring both a silent and live auction. Excitement builds in the Auction Tents with lively bidding for over 200 lots, featuring spectacular wines from the world’s most prestigious wine producers, rare vintages, large format bottles plus special vertical and horizontal collections.

Other auction highlights include original art from acclaimed California artists, vacations packages and highly coveted international wine getaway packages to Tuscany, South Africa, France, Spain, South America the Caribbean, and other enchanting parts of the world. Rounding off the travel offerings are one and two night getaway trips to the West’s most romantic inns, resorts, and spas. Coupled with the Wine & Food Tasting, the day can’t be beat ” is how the event website describes the most exciting part of the day’s events.

Winesong is presented by the Mendocino Coast Hospital Foundation with proceeds benefitting the Mendocino Coast District Hospital.

Tickets are $150 for the entire day, wine and food tasting, silent auction, and live auction, or $250 for reserve seating and a three course meal prepared by a celebrity chef to enjoy during the auction. To purchase tickets, or for more information, visit Winesong.org.

That’s it, two great events, just over two weeks away. Pick one, or the other, or – like me – both and I’ll see you on Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014.

NOTE: This poster did not run in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper version of my wine column today, but I added it here for my online archived copy:

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John On Wine – 2014 Mendocino County Fair Wine Competition results

NOTE: This piece will run on Thursday, August 14, 2014 in the Ukiah Daily Journal. Ordinarily I post here, archiving a column, after it runs in the newspaper. Because folks come to my site for news on Mendocino County wine, I have posted here online, before it runs in the paper, today.

The 2014 Mendocino County Fair Wine Competition, thanks to the hard work of the competition committee and judges, saw Mendocino County’s best wines win deserved recognition.

To see the complete results, head over to JohnOnWine.com where the awards are broken down three ways.

Since consumers already know what they like, Chardonnay or Zinfandel, Pinot Noir or Sparkling Wine, the first set of online results are broken down by category. Look for the variety of wine that you like most, and the County’s best will be listed with the top awarded wines at the top of each wine variety list.

Wineries want to know what awards they won, so the second set of results are ordered alphabetically by winery.

The third list is for the sports fans, folks who love competition, and lists wines by medal won; first Best of Show, then Double Gold medal, then Gold, and finally Silver.

At this competition, I always look to see whether Graziano Family of Wines or Navarro Vineyards, each with seemingly thousands of entries, takes the most Gold in a year. This year was a bit of a push. Navarro took nine Gold Medals or better and Graziano only took seven Gold or better, and while four of Navarro’s wines took Double Gold and only two of Graziano’s wines took Double Gold, one of Graziano’s Gold medal winning wines was also judged Best of Show White Wine – one of the competition’s two top honors. To me it is a tie, certainly both wineries have to be incredibly happy with the results.

Graziano’s Best of Show White Wine was the NV Saint Gregory Sparking Brut, Methode Traditionnelle. The John Parducci Best of Show Red Wine award winner went to The Hess Collection’s 2012 Artezin Zinfandel, Mendocino, a wine available in Napa and made from Mendocino County grapes.

Double Gold wines are wines that received unanimous Gold votes from the panel of judges seated for that flight, and were awarded to Navarro Vineyards (4), Husch Vineyards (2), Handley Cellars (2), Graziano Family of Wines (2), Artezin, McFadden Vineyard, Milano Family Winery, and Zina Hyde Cunningham.

Gold medals were awarded to Handley Cellars (5), Navarro Vineyards (5), Graziano Family of Wines (4), Brutocao/Bliss (3), Greenwood Ridge Vineyards (2), Tahto (2), Saracina Vineyards (2), Husch Vineyards, Jeriko Estate, Lula Cellars, Maple Creek Winery/Artevino, McFadden Vineyard, Meyers Family Cellars, Mud Pie, Philo Ridge Vineyards, Seebass Family Wines, and Testa Vineyards.

The day following the competition, I was pouring for and chatting with one of the judges, Mike Dunne of the Sacramento Bee. Mike shared that one of the biggest surprises of the competition was the strength of the Cabernet Sauvignon. I have previously written that Mendocino County can put out some great Cabernet Sauvignon, but we are not thought of as a Cab growing area. The judges got the message this year, with Husch Vineyards taking Gold, Brutocao taking Gold for the second consecutive year, and Milano Family Winery taking a Double Gold.

The Double Gold medal winning 2007 Milano Family Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, Hidden Hawk Vineyard was moved on for the John Parducci Best of Show Red Wine award consideration, and all of the judges tasted it then. Mike said that the wine was spectacular and many judges were talking about it – while still tasting it blind.

Dessert White was an incredibly strong category, with three Double Gold and two Gold for six entries, and the Double Gold medals spread around to wines made from grapes grown in three different areas of the county.

Some days, a wine just doesn’t drink as well as it should, and without taking away anything from the wines that took higher medals from the judges, I think Navarro’s Rose of Pinot Noir is a Gold medal worthy wine, even though it only earned a Silver. Same with the NV McFadden Sparkling Brut which, after taking a Best of Show at the California State Fair, only took Silver.

What do medals mean? How does a judge decide between voting Silver and Gold? Great question, I’m glad I asked it for you. One of the judges told me that as he tastes a wine, if he would like a case, if it is worthy of spending money to purchase in case quantity, then that wine gets a vote for Gold. If the same wine is tasty enough to inspire a purchase, but only a bottle or two, then that wine gets a Silver vote. Wines that make you want to finish the glass get a Bronze and wines that make you not want to finish the glass get a No Medal vote.

For you, I urge you to head over to JohnOnWine.com and find the complete list of winners, print it, and then go wine tasting, using the list as your guide. Then you can cast your own votes, buying a bottle or case, essentially casting your own vote on Mendocino County’s wines.

••••••••••

Zinfandel Advocates and Producers, ZAP, is holding a Simply Summer Celebration on Saturday, August 16, 2014 from noon to 3:30 pm at Lytton West Vineyard, 1040 Lytton Springs Road, Healdsburg, California 95448. Tickets are $45 for ZAP members and $60 for non-members, and available on ZAP’s webpage, Zinfandel.org, with over 50 wineries participating, including Artezin who took the John Parducci Best of Show Red Wine award at the 2014 Mendocino County Wine Competition, Edmeades from Mendocino County, and Carol Shelton Wines with their Mendocentric Wild Thing Zin. Tickets include ½ pizza and salad from Pizza Politana and there will be music to enjoy. I’ll be there, I hope you will too.

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The 2014 Mendocino County Fair Wine Competition was held Friday, August 1, 2014 and I have the results to share.

There may be some updating as some of the announcements and award results published elsewhere do not match the results I was supplied from the competition, but what you find here will always be the most up to date and accurate information directly from the competition organizers.

With a little slicing and dicing, more like sorting fields, I have three different ways to look at the same information.

Consumers know what they want, Chardonnay or Zinfandel, and just want to know what the best of each variety is, according to the judges at the competition. Here are the results by wine variety, ordered by medal:

2014 MCFWC AWARD BY VARIETY

Wineries only want to know how their wines fared. Here, with just a little cleaning up, are the results straight from the competition committee, sorted by winery:

2014 MCFWC AWARD BY COMPANY

Finally, some folks love competition. Here are the results, sorted by medal won, highest to lowest:

2014 MCFWC AWARD BY MEDAL

From dinner at Seebass with the judges and competition committee on the night before the competition, through to the award presentation dinner at Mendocino College after the judges’ hard work, this has been a fun week for Mendocino County wineries, playing host to influential wine writers and having the opportunity to pour the area’s very best wines.

My recommendation now is to find the list above that you like best and print it, then use it to guide you in visits to Mendocino County winery tasting rooms. See if you agree with the judges, and if you do then pick up some of the best wines in wine country before they sell out.

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John On Wine ­ – The column from Yuma

Originally published June 13, 2014 in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper

The 2014 Orange County Fair Commercial Wine Competition, put on each year by the Orange County Wine Society is one of the largest and most respected wine competitions held each year. Entry to wineries is free, where most competitions charge $60 to $80 per wine entered, and this year’s 30th annual event saw 2,323 wine entries. Gold medals were awarded to 345 wines and only 38 wines ­ just over 1-1/2 percent of all wines entered – received the rare special recognition 4 Star Gold Medal, a unanimous vote for Gold from all judges and the equivalent of a Double Gold medal from other wine competitions.

These are the wines using Mendocino County grapes that earned one of these highest awards:

McFadden 2011 White Riesling Mendocino County, Potter Valley, Late Harvest;

Navarro Vineyards 2012 Syrah Mendocino;

Paul Dolan Vineyards 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Mendocino County, Certified Organic;

Stephen & Walker Trust Winery Ltd. 2012 Chardonnay Mendocino Ridge, Limited Release, Botrytised;

Yorkville Cellars 2011 Sparkling Wine “Cuvee Brut”, Mendocino County Rennie Vineyard & Randall Hill Vineyard Certified Organic The Yorkville Cellars. Sparkling Brut was also selected as the Best of Class wine in the Premium Sparkling wines category. I should have a list of all the gold medals out of Orange County, plus results of the 2014 California State Fair are due soon and I’ll post more top awards from both of these competitions as I receive them.

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Last night, as I write this, I was backstage at The Joint at the Hard Rock in Las Vegas for the last show of Guns n’ Roses’ residency. Andrew Dice Clay did a surprise guest set before Nic Cage announced the band and Axl Rose and the gang took the stage at midnight playing nonstop until just past three in the morning. I saw many things that would make wine tastings considerably more interesting if incorporated in our tasting rooms. With elevating platforms, laser lights, pole dancers, pyrotechnics, and confetti cannons, I am confident that inland Mendocino winery tasting rooms could quickly outdraw Napa tasting rooms. I’m pretty sure the show would be the talk of Hopland Passport for years to come.

Now, and as you read this, I’m in Yuma, Ariz. with my brother visiting our stepfather. I was at a super-sized supermarket today and visited the wine aisles. Underneath a sign for Syrah and Petite Sirah were Riesling and Moscato, and the entire Zinfandel section was stocked with pink wines. I’m not in wine country anymore. There were no wines in two long aisles with a Mendocino County appellation. With temperatures well over 100 degrees all week, I do understand the pink and white wines in place of red wines on the shelves here; folks are going to drink a whole lot more chilled wines — maybe even wine with ice cubes — than big dry red wines. It is already plenty dry enough here in the desert. I have to be honest, there is very little wine forecast for me this week, but plenty of Bloody Marys and Budweiser.

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Recently, I wrote about the June 28 dinner at the Little River Inn to celebrate the release of eight 2011 vintage Coro Mendocino wines. Since then the menu was sent out, and it looks so good that I had to share it with you: Dinner menu prepared by Chef Marc Dym, hosted by the Coro Mendocino Winemakers.

Passed Appetizer Course – Taste a showcase of each winery’s sparkling, white and rosé wines with a trio of chilled shooters: tomato consommé w/ grilled steak and chives; sweet pea pureé w/ Dungeness crab & truffle oil; and cucumber vichyssoise w/ gulf shrimp and lemon oil during the cocktail hour.

Soup Course paired with the 2011 Coro wines from McFadden Farm, Clos du Bois Winery and Testa Vineyards – Seafood cioppino terrine: Dungeness crab, green lip mussels, and fish with traditional San Francisco cioppino garnishes.

Middle Course paired with the 2011 Coro wines from Brutocao Cellars, Golden Vineyards & Parducci Wine Cellars – Smoked duck breast salad: local greens, Mission figs, burrata cheese, almonds, Dijon & balsamic reduction

Entrée Course paired with 2011 Coro wines from Fetzer Vineyards & Barra of Mendocino – Confit pork osso buco: slow cooked pork shanks with saffron risotto, grilled broccolini & fennel tomato demi-glace.

Dessert – Sable Breton biscuit with warm blackberry compote and Penny Royal Laychee fresh goat milk cheese.

Seating is limited; Reservations are required. The cost is $500 per couple, so call the Little River Inn to secure your place at the dinner, (707) 937-5942. Every time I write $500 for dinner, I cringe. Every time I mention it in my tasting room to new folks, they cringe. Then I explain that the $500 is for two dinners, a couple, and includes one complete set of the Coro wines. Eight bottles of 2011 Coro Mendocino at $40 makes for a $90 dinner per person, for five amazing course, complete with spectacular wine. Maybe if you tell em John sent you, they’ll pour the three time Double/4 Star Gold Medal winning bubbly during the cocktail hour. Coro dinner – it’s a bargain.

 

 

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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!

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