July 2010

Swanson Vineyards. Serious whimsy. I visited three months ago when Sip Shoppe was just a promise, I just returned to experience the reality.

Swanson Vineyards Sip Shoppe

Swanson Vineyards hosts tastings in Rutherford, while they grow their grapes in Oakville. Swanson has always been different. Instead of following other Napa wineries by courting busloads of tourists to belly up to a tasting bar to drink glass after glass of wine, hoping to be the lucky winery to sell the drunken taster cases of the latest release; Swanson Vineyards keeps it cool and classy, intimate and special, serious but whimsical.

Swanson Vineyards hosts up to eight people at a time in Salon tastings lasting about an hour three times daily Wednesday through Monday. $60 per person buys a seat at a wonderful tasting of six wines, paired with caviar on a potato chip, artisanal cheeses, and other treats. The wines and food treats are served with just enough info for comfort. While structured seated tastings, by appointment, may sound formal, even stuffy, the folks at Swanson are able to deliver a fun and pleasurable experience, and the $60 tasting fee ends up seeming a great value.

As a supplement to the more formal seated Salon tastings, Swanson Vineyards built a less formal tasting room called Sip Shoppe, open from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, by appointment – which can be made at the front gate on a phone provided or by cell phone by calling 707 937-3500.

The carnival inspired big top theme decor on display

Tastings run from $15 – $25, and can be enjoyed in the carnival decorated Sip Shoppe or at any of a number of lovely seating areas created in the gardens crafted and maintained by owner Elizabeth Swanson.

Rustic art details abound

Months ago, I thought that Sip Shoppe would provide a quick in and out tasting alternative to the seated Salon tasting. The reality was different during my visit. I brought Anne, a friend, and together we tasted our way through a number of wines, sharing different tasting selections, enjoying them with food treats. The day was beautiful, warm, colorful, fragrant, perfect. We were not in a hurry, and our hosts at Swanson Vineyards did not rush us. We spent over two hours on our Sip Shoppe tasting in the garden, and we were not alone savoring everything Swanson Vineyards offered.

The tasting menu

Peter Godoff and Mindi Burnett were our hosts and are great representatives of Swanson Vineyards. Both are possessed of souls of the romantic; they are perfect extensions of the high quality, easily accessed, that make up everything about Swanson Vineyards.

Mindi Burnett with more treats for Anne and me

Most of the wines I tasted have been previously and more fully described; but for the record, I tasted and loved:

2008 Swanson Vineyards Pinot Grigio Napa Valley $21 – Love at first sip. Smooth, grassy, wet stone mineral. Pear and nectarine.

2008 Swanson Vineyards Chardonnay Oakville $42 – Just 10 cases. Light Chablis style. Expressive. Lemon, apple. Crisp acidity.

2006 Swanson Vineyards Merlot Oakville $36 – Oak, cocoa dust, plum, berry, cassis. Smooth. Bought a bottle to go. I dearly love Swanson Vineyards’ Merlot.

2006 Swanson Vineyards Alexis Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville $75 – Larger tannin load than the Merlot. Blackberry and Leather.

2006 Swanson Vineyards Arsene (a fortified Port-like Petite Sirah) $75 – really delicious. Great balance. extreme sweetness without going over the raison-y edge.

2006 Swanson Vineyards Crepuscule Late Harvest Semillon $90/375 ml – Crepuscule is French for twilight. Unbelievable sweetness. Richly, lushly, ripe. OMG when paired with Danish Blue Castello cheese.

2007 Swanson Vineyards Sangiovese Oakville $75 – Oak and cherry. Bright lively acidity, balanced by fruit.

Clarke’s Bark (named for owner Clarke swanson – a chocolate bar with toffee, salt, and love), a fat and salty gorgeous triple cream Castello blue cheese, and warm pistachios are among the featured edible pairing treats offered with Sip Shoppe tastings.

Anne and I both wanted our own set of glass ‘plastic cup’-esque wine glasses

In addition to the expected wine offerings, Clarke’s Bark candy bars, Alexis Bonbons, and Swanson wild American caviar can be purchased. Swanson Vineyards is also releasing event specific bottles of wine: Just Married, Merci, Mazeltov, and Really Expensive Christmas Wine are among the special ‘occasion’ label wines that will be available from $20 – $25 (The ‘Really Expensive Christmas Wine’ will have a $150 tag as part of the label but sell for just 1/6th the price – serious wine with a whimsical package).

One of the Sip Shop mercantile displays

Visit Swanson Vineyards’ new updated website (I am firmly convinced that the Jean-Phillipe Delhomme artwork on the front page has perfectly captured me – the bearded, cap wearing man engaging an attractive, taller, blonde woman) and take a look at Alexis’ blog while you are there.


I took more beautiful pictures at Swanson Vineyards than I needed for my story, and am including them as a bonus:

I loved these chairs against the doors; a little photo editing, straightening, cropping, and I would have a beautiful art print.

The day was beautiful, made more so by the lushness of the gardens

The groovy Mr. Peter Godoff

This wall lamp was my favorite shot of the day; again, a little cropping and another print.


DISCLOSURE: I was the guest of Swanson Vineyards, and arranged to taste at the Sip Shoppe through Julie Ann Kodmur, winery public relations specialist.

I received the following invite by email last week, and just got around to making my reservation today:

You are cordially invited to join us

Saturday, July 31, from 1 to 4

in celebration of our 10th anniversary!

Enjoy current releases, a peek at the new white Rhone,

samplings of our limited release wines,

live music, and brisket barbecue sliders with all the fixings.

We will also feature a very special vertical tasting

of the Rocky Reserve Zin.

This exclusive vertical will showcase eight vintages,

beginning with the 2000 release.

The cost to attend is $10 by reservation,

$15 at the door.

Wine Club members $5 by reservation,

$10 at the door.

Carol Shelton Wines

3354-B Coffey Lane

Santa Rosa, CA

For reservations call (707) 575-3441

I sold Carol’s wines for 8 years, and traveled to San Francisco and Chicago with Carol to help her pour her wines. Carol is a superstar winemaker, and now that I have my reservation paid for, without worry about being impacted by a sold out event, I heartily recommend this event to anyone who happens across my blog. $10 for a library vertical tasting of Zinfandels from the varietal’s best winemaker (I developed a Carol Zin palate and am admittedly biased), with food, and a commemorative glass, music, and tastings of other liquid treats – what are you doing still reading this? Break out your credit card and call for a reservation right now.

Just recommendin’.

Fargo, North Dakota. Bill Macy, wood chippers, snow, and most oddly a failed Vice Presidential candidate and Gubernatorial Quitter of Alaska, Sarah Palin.

I’m from California, the bounty of where I live makes me a little spoiled, and if I’m being honest, while I try not to be a snob, I didn’t expect much in the culinary department on my recent visit to Fargo.  I also expected people to sound like the characters of the Coen brothers’ film Fargo.

First, the citizens of Fargo sound pretty much like you and me; and while they may have a little accent, they sound a lot more like us than they do Sarah Palin or Marge Gunderson. The second thing I have to share is how good the food is in Fargo.

I had my first meal at a Buffalo Wild Wings near the airport, and ate 32 wings in the Asian Zing sauce, washed down with a Newcastle Brown Ale. I could have had this meal in many cities, but there isn’t a BW3 (the chain was originally known as Buffalo Wild Wings & Weck) location near where I live so I eat it when I can.

Next, I ate at Monte’s Downtown, where I started with a delicious wild mushroom soup with a large blue cheese crouton disk, moved on to a wonderful spinach salad with garlic shrimp, goat cheese, pine nuts, topped with a warm sherry vinaigrette. Although I didn’t tweet, it was Oregon Pinot TweetUp day, so I enjoyed a Sokol Blosser Meditrina, of Dundee Hills in the Oregon’s Willamette Valley; Meditrina is a simple approachable food friendly blend of Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, and Syrah, and paired nicely with my meal. I had been dreaming of Cedar Plank Copper River Salmon for quite some time, and when it was mentioned as a special, I leaped – too soon. The salmon was finished with an insipid, flavor ruining brown sugar glaze.  The palate destroying sweetness for this entrée extended to the side, a pineapple raisin rice. Only the grilled asparagus from that plate was good.  The kitchen produced exactly what they promised, and it is my fault they ruined the main ingredients. I should have asked for a miso glaze, a pinot glaze, a butter, lemon and dill treatment, or a tzaziki…anything but the horrid brown sugar glaze. Again, this one was on me for not listening critically with my imagination turned on.

HoDo, or the Hotel Donaldson, restaurant, offered the most farm to table fare, plus a few special treats from a bit farther away. I started with a smooth, rich, lobster bisque, then moved on to a very tasty organic garden salad of fresh mixed greens, local tomatoes, cucumbers, shaved red onions, carrots and an aged balsamic vinaigrette. The meal’s wine was from Sonoma County, a Sangiovese from Jacuzzi Family Vineyards that was lush and delicious. After an appetizer of Calamari, lightly dusted in a cornmeal crust, flash deep fried, served with an orange sunburst ginger cocktail sauce, I moved onto the main course, a Wagyu NY strip steak, with horseradish whipped potatoes, wild mushrooms, and a truffle demi. I expected the Wagyu, America’s Kobe beef, to be more tender, and although my steak was not tender at all, it was flavorful.

Italian food was up next at Stella’s Ristorante. I enjoyed sausage and peppers, minestrone, eggplant parmesan, and veal saltimbocca – thin slices of veal sautéed in a Marsala wine butter cream sauce with porcini mushrooms, garlic, onion, and topped with prosciutto and provolone – all with a Montepulciano recommended by the owner. Everything was delicious, and most importantly, credibly Italian.

Before heading home, I ate at Wasabi, a new sushi restaurant in the back of the adjoining restaurant, Drunken Noodle. I had three pair of Nigiri sushi, Hotategai (scallop), Hamachi (yellowtail), and Tai (red snapper), and two rolls, a salmon roll, and a Broken Heart Roll (spicy tuna, cream cheese, and jalapeno – then tempura fried).  Having asked after the collar, but coming up with no grillable Hamaci Kama, our chef offered us a surprise dish, sashimi of the Kama’s cheek portion – what a revelation, so absolutely delicious. I had iced tea with my meal.

Every waiter was first rate, every restaurant had great dishes on their menu, wine lists were deep enough. I met a number of owners, and a couple of chefs, all proud of what they were doing.

I was told many times about the vineyards, grapes, and wines of North Dakota; everyone was very warm in commending the local wine experience to me. I missed trying a North Dakota wine, but will keep it in mind for any possible returns to the state.

Fargo, North Dakota. Great food, great people, great time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4401 Slusser Road in Windsor (Kind of, sorta)

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

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

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

Shady picnic spot

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

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

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

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

The door openings have the signature Sonoma-Cutrer label shape

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

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

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

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

Burgundian row spacing at 4 feet

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

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

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

American 8 foot row spacing alternating with 4 foot rows

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle McClendon checking for shatter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the numerous barrel rooms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three from the vault

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

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

Lunch was provided by Park Avenue Catering in Cotati.

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

The salad was a great choice for Chardonnay pairing

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

Pork with Pinot sauce goes pretty good with Pinot Noir

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was away from home five days in the last week, traveling to Indianapolis with my son for a Pokemon trading card game (TCG) tournament. I wrote the recap below for a Pokemon forum, but have decided to repost it here. This is not a wine post; it is a one off, complete departure from what I do here. I post it to give you a tiny glimpse into who I am, and what I do, outside of wine. Thank you in advance for indulging me.


I started playing Pokemon in 2003 with my then very young son, Charlie. We traveled to California’s Silicon Valley where Susan Bartlett, Premier Tournament Organizer filled with love, coerced me to play in a tournament on my first visit to league so the kids could get prizes – I was the necessary Xth to run a tourney.

We started traveling to Susan’s events, pre-releases, tourneys, and the occasional league visit. Charlie and I were welcomed by all of NorCal’s players, the members of Team Invasion. Charlie won a $500 scholarship in one of only 13  Regional Championships.

In 2005, we traveled to San Diego to attend the Pokemon World Championship, where players from over 30 countries competed. My son made it through the grinder, a last chance qualifying tournament, and I did not. Watching my son play from the sidelines made me far more nervous than he could ever be, and I didn’t want to pass my energy to him. 2005 is the last time I watched Charlie play in a tournament.

My son Charlie and I with fellow Pokemon enthusiast William Hung

At Worlds in Anaheim in 2006, I offered myself to Ronae and Patricia (Ronae gets bodies and Patricia puts them to work), asking please use me, just use me anywhere the Juniors aren’t. I started on Masters crowd control for the grinder, and was sent home by Patricia when my son was successful grinding. On Saturday and Sunday, I was moved to character duties, putting on the Pikachu costume. I danced, jumped, ran, and tried to bring Pikachu to life. Looking back, I shake my head in amazement that a short, old, fat man with a smoking habit (I quit last year) was allowed to get into a heavy, hot, largely unvented sweat box to run around with children. I still wonder how the four year olds would have reacted if Pikachu keeled over with a heart attack.

Charlie and Pikachu. When I was in this costume, Pikachu was taller.

By now, my play was limited to play testing with my son, and Chris Silver and Chad Harris were helping me help Charlie with his deck choices. In 2007, I got to judge Juniors at our Regional, volunteered to help teach a new Trading Figure Game at the Nationals, and snorkled in the lagoon at the Waikoloa Village near Kona in Hawaii instead of volunteering at Worlds that year. In 2008, I was moved to judging Masters at our Regionals. At 2008 Worlds, I got to facilitate for the Australian Master National champion who is sight and hearing impaired (I was so moved that tears ran down my face later when I told my son’s mom how I spent my day); I didn’t see it as work as much as an opportunity to watch seven great rounds of Pokemon. I was given my red staff shirt shortly after and helped Bob in the product room. It was great watching so much product leave the room, each item representing a smile.

The crew on stage, after the event, getting our picture taken

Last year, I judged Masters at Regionals, I received my first invitation from TCPi, The Pokemon Company International, to help judge the Juniors at the US National Championship (I also got to Head Judge a side event bigger than many State and some Regional events – certainly my biggest HJ event), and at Worlds I ran my short little legs into nubs as a volunteer runner for three days.

Judge meeting, between rounds, at the 2010 Nor Cal Regional Championship in Santa Clara

This year, I received my invitation from TPCi to rejoin the US Nats Junior division judges at about the same time I was asked to help judge the NorCal Regional Masters. I am not particularly religious, but I say a little prayer before judging any event, from a Battle Road to the US National Championship: Please let no game enter into irreversible error, please let my rulings be correct, please let the players have fun. At our Regional, my prayers were answered, we had the top 4 Masters in California play and come in, surprise, 1-4. My circle of friends within Pokemon has grown over the years. Team Invasion, Susan’s league, will always be my home league, no matter how far I have to travel to get there. As we traveled northern California, we also played in tourneys run by Dale and Lianne, and we made more friends. We have played in Oregon and Mississippi tourneys. We have made many friends, we have many people to cheer for.

I still remember walking in to the convention center at San Diego’s Town & Country resort in 2005, the dedication to organized trading card game play so evident. Banners, inflatables, table cloths, wall coverings. I have a marketing background, I have awards from Exhibitor Magazine over three consecutive years for trade show excellence. I am not easy to impress. It is fun to see each and every parent attending a major Pokemon event, National or World, experience the same exact thing I did. Awe and marvel at the excellence on display.

Charlie playing in his first Pokemon World Championship, in 2005

Pokemon has allowed me to play a game with my son as near equals. Originally, I held back a little, then I was playing as hard as I could, and for a number of years my son is the best player in our family; but we can play together and have fun with an equal opportunity and passion. When he was little, I couldn’t drill a football pass to him; and now that I am little, he can run me into the ground on a basketball court as he puts the ball into the hoop. Still, we have Pokemon. Games, friends, travel, memories that we share. Pokemon has given me a lifetime gift.

I share all of this because I want to be clear that I will always feel an incredible gratitude to Pokemon. In my business life, I sometimes work to combat cynicism, weeding through hyperbole; in Pokemon, I am constantly moved by the innocence and pure joy of a young child when receiving a pack of cards. I am thrilled at the opportunity to give back to the game that has given so much to me and my son.

We flew from San Francisco to Indianapolis, by way of Chicago, on Thursday, arriving late in the afternoon. After catching the direct (green) line bus downtown, we checked into our room at the downtown Marriott. After putting my bags in my room, we made our way across the street where I checked in. I was put into a Staff shirt, and I did deck and sleeve checks for anyone that wanted to take advantage of the service. Meanwhile my son went through pre-registration, then met up with Chad Harris who brought some cards from Chris Silver to complete Charlie’s deck.

I know of at least two tournament changing penalties that might have been averted by a deck check. I always take advantage of the service when it is offered, and I can not recommend taking advantage of it strongly enough.

I hooked up with Susan Bartlett and we caught the end of a judge workshop before placing our lunch orders for the next three days.

Charlie and I walked downtown to place a to go order at Buffalo Wild Wings. We had 36 boneless wings, 12 Medium, 12 Honey BBQ, and 12 Asian Zing. My son is developing a better palate and found the Medium as lame, vinegary and unsatisfying as I did. We love BW3, and I bring their sauces home from my travels.

On Thursday morning, I met with the Junior judge team: Steve Arena, Chris Boutcher, Chris Clanton, Heidi Craig, Mitchell Davis, Doreen Kamada-Fujii, and Catherine Sargent. I was grateful to be included on the judging team so loaded with experience and talent. I learned so much as a member of the team, I am grateful for your sharing, support, and feedback. Together, you helped make me better.

Prior to the actual games, I found myself answering questions at the information area in the center of the hall. I had a blast answering questions, or finding the answers, for folks.

This picture captures less than half of this year’s US National Championship event. Over 1,300 TCG players!

Our six Swiss rounds went incredibly smoothly, we actually had to slow down to let the other age groups catch up. Together, we managed to execute a fluid zone judging offense, with fixed point support, and a central free safety. The coverage was stellar, with support from amazingly hardworking green shirt runners as additional team members.

After the days main event matches, I reported to John Latham to help out in side events and ran a 4 round modified tournament using the new 30 minute plus 3 turn time format. All games in all rounds finished in time and I did not see the “plus three” in effect.

I had a Poke Walker that I borrowed from my son, and it recorded 23,000 steps or so on day 1. Very leg tired, and mentally exhausted, Charlie and I walked to Steak and Shake and placed a to go order. When we got back to our hotel, I found one item missing and another with an errant substitution. I called Steak and Shake and a note was put in an “oops” file.

Saturday came early, I had been told to be back in the convention center by 7:00 am, and although we didn’t need to meet until 8:00 am, that news never reached me.

Our final two rounds of Swiss play went seamlessly, although the zone coverage collapsed at times due to increased judge demand in the top tables. In the final round, on one of the last tables, two players who had not had many wins played while smiling, carrying on a conversation as they played. It was nice to see the experience was special for everyone, no matter their win-loss record.

As the players left for a long lunch break, the judges did random deck checks for a decent percentage of the top 32 decks and sleeve checks for all in the Junior division. I consider myself a good deck/sleeve checker, but I learned a lot during the process, and the discussions that the checks led to. Let me simply say it again, if you are offered deck and sleeve checking services, take advantage of the opportunity.

After a quick lunch and some rehydration, I watched the Juniors go from 32 to 16. The top cut matches in Juniors is the toughest part of judging for me. I love working with the Juniors, they give back energy and are the best part of the game for me. At Nationals, with big scholarship money, trophies, prizes, and paid trips to Hawaii to play in Worlds on the line, I think the Juniors take a lot on their shoulders, not just their own hopes and dreams, but often the hopes and dreams of their parents. Inevitably, a match loss is accompanied by tears, an emotional breakdown, profoundly intense feelings of loss. I think 13 of the 16 Juniors who suffered a match loss had an immediate melt down. I understand the reason, I empathize with the little ones, I feel their pain.

Before heading to work side events, the Junior judges had one more deck check to accomplish, this time for all top 16 decks. I don’t know if I mentioned it before, but taking advantage of voluntary deck checks when offered is a great idea.

Here’s a quick Vid from Nats

I was genuinely knackered, a bit brain dead, I left it all on the floor, my Poke Walker was around 13,000 steps, and when John Latham offered me an early release from side events, I willingly took him up on the offer. Charlie and I returned to Steak and Shake, referenced the “oops” file entry, and enjoyed a perfect meal that was comped completely.

Sunday, we were back in the hall by 8:00 am for the final day’s events. We borrowed Vince Krekeler from Masters for the first two rounds of the day, so the Juniors matches could start with one judge per table, watching two matches, then one match, with our Head Judge Steve free to offer aid as needed. Again, match losses were largely met with tears, and hugs and support was called for in liberal doses.

Active Judging a Top Cut Match

With so many judges with Head Judging experience at Nats or Worlds, I was not needed in Juniors and moved by request to Side Events where I could continue to contribute, and took over judging a modified tournament in the Senior division.

After the tournament ended, my usefulness did too. I checked in with the players and staff of NorCal, Ali, Chad, Charlie, Daniel, Frank, James, Jason, Joe, Kyle, Lianne, Murat, Reed, Shaggy, and Stefan. Murat earned an invitation to Worlds with a top 8 finish, so congrats and good luck in Kona Murat.

I stuck around and watched the final matches, having actively judged games between the final two Juniors.

I want to thank the parents who came up to me to thank me for being good with their kids. In hallways, on the floor, in restaurants, at the hotel, on the bus back to the airport, unexpectedly, someone I didn’t know would approach me and thank me for my attitude or contribution. These random and surprising thank you’s were a rich bonus reward, unexpected but soul warming. Thank you for taking the time to go out of your way to thank me, you didn’t have to. If anyone reads this far into my recap, and is going to Kona, Hawaii for the Worlds Championship, thank a green shirted volunteer, white coated judge or translator, or red shirted staff person. Your thank you will resonate with the person you give it to.

I caught an early dinner at Steak and Shake with members of Team Invasion, it was nice to sit and relax. I put another 9,000 steps or so on my Poke Walker on Sunday. My body was tired and my brain was mush. Correct word choices became an effort.

After dinner, Susan and I picked up some staff support gifts from Pokemon, and chose some of the banners that had hung in the hall to take home. I was so happy to secure a Chimchar banner because my son is nicknamed ChimCharlie; I truly was out of it, because I actually grabbed a Monferno, Chimchar’s first evolve. I also got a Totodile banner and a half dozen children’s shirts with the Nats artwork.

Looking at a first flight out Monday morning, packing everything for an early check out, and up against heavy Thunderstorm rain and wind, I did not attend the staff dinner. I missed seeing you all one more time in Indianapolis, out of uniform. I hope you all had a terrific time.

The three day tournament format was a huge improvement over the previous two day tournament formats. Columbus and Saint Louis might be great places to live, but Indianapolis was an incredible host city. All of the externals were near ideal to ideal. The logistics were in place to allow success, and with a perfect combination of planning, practice, and execution the experience Pokemon offered the players was just about as good as could possibly be asked for.

Thanks to the folks who invited me to help again, you have only to ask and I’ll come running. Thanks to the folks from NorCal who help me in the game. Thanks to the Nats Junior judge teams from last year and this, you all have taught me so much. Thanks to the parents for raising such great kids. Thanks to the Pokemon players for showing such great spirit of the game, you are all winners.

That’s about it; I am just filled with thanks to everyone. Dave, I made a mistake (a wine guy making a wine mistake), the Port I loved was tawny. Oh, and I expect to see a link to the picture of Michael Ivy on my knee that was taken Sunday posted by Momma Ivy into this thread at some point. Cheers.


Thanks to my regular wine blog readers for indulging me, reading through a completely off topic post on this wine blog. I appreciate that you waded through phrases and names that may have meant little or nothing to you, but are meaningful to the participants of Pokemon tournaments; I added some phrases that were unnecessary when this post was originally put up on a Pokemon forum board, Pokegym.com, my hope is that the meaning of obscure references was made clear by context.