April 2013

John on Wine – Barra of Mendocino and Girasole

By John Cesano
The cypress tree surrounded Barra event center on North State Street, just north of Calpella in Redwood Valley is home to a wine tasting bar that plays host to special private events. On recent visits I have seen the large interior space set up beautifully for a wedding reception and a baby shower.

Photograpy by Diane Davis, Diane Davis Photography

Invited to taste through the wines of both Barra and Girasole, I found Barra of Mendocino wines are bigger and feature a mix of specific oak barrels, often Louis Latour barrels to bring specific notes to the wines, while Girosole are largely stainless steel tank driven wines with just a small percentage of French and American oak for flavor.

My tasting hosts were winemaker Jason Welch and marketing specialist Gracia Brown.

A little history: Charlie Barra is a Mendocino County wine industry icon. In 1945, while still a teen in high school, Charlie farmed his first leased ranch and in 1955 bought his 175 acre Redwood Valley vineyard.

In 1997, after years of farming organic wine grapes to sell to other wineries, Charlie dedicated a portion of his grapes to his own wines and Petite Sirah was his first commercial bottling under his own name.

Martha, Charlie’s wife, runs things with a focus and a no-nonsense directness I respect.

Winemaker Jason Welch is filled with infectious enthusiasm for his craft and a palpable fondness for each of the wines he is creating for Charlie and Martha. With turns at Heller and Julien Estates in Carmel Valley, Sonoma County’s Wattle Creek Winery, and Regusci Winery in Napa, Jason picked up knowledge and skills that are in clear evidence in the wines he is making today.

Martha Barra brilliantly brought Gracia on-board, harnessing her work ethic for Barra and Girasole after the demise of the Mendocino Winegrape & Wine Commission (MWWC) last year.

The first wine we tasted was the 2011 Girasole Pinot Blanc. Nicely perfumed with light vanilla, apple and citrus. Stainless bright fruit and acidity matched by a touch of light creaminess from 10 percent neutral oak, this wine balances a slightly flinty character with nice aromatics. $13. The Pinot Blanc took a Gold medal at the 2013 San Francisco Chronicle wine Competition.

“Aromatics” is a word Jason loves and his winemaking style focuses on bringing a complex mix of aroma notes characteristic to each varietal he works with, while allowing both a sense of place and the vintage to speak with each release.

As a treat, we tasted the pretty much sold out 2011 Barra Pinot Noir Rosé. This wine is saignée or bleed style where the lightly colored wine is removed from the skin at an early stage of making a red wine, and made with super cold fermentation and Rhone styled yeasts. It was delicate, with rose petal, strawberry, cherry notes, and it was delicious. The 2012 release will be slightly lower alcohol and higher acid, which should offer even more opportunity for the fruit to be showcased. $18.

The 2010 Barra Chardonnay is rich and would be a treat to taste again 8-9 years from now. Barrel select; 10 barrels were kicked loose from this wine program, with 30 percent French oak, the wine is unsurprisingly oaky, with vanilla, cream, and butter notes as it also went through 100 percent malolactic fermentation. The grapes themselves give up apple and pear fruit notes. $18.

The 2010 Girasole Pinot Noir ($16) was soft, with nice acid providing good balance for strawberry, cherry, herb, spice, and mineral notes, while the 2010 Barra Pinot Noir ($20) was darker, richer, riper with bigger mouthfeel and notes of earthy cherry and cola with a little more tannin.

2010 Barra Sangiovese is plummy fruit and chocolate and licorice on the nose, and cherry, anise, and raspberry in the mouth. A pretty color, this wine reminded me of a Grateful Dead show: plenty of acid. $18

The front end of the 2009 Barra Cabernet Sauvignon is great with nice big blackberry, cassis, herb, and lovely tannin. $20.

We went outside and tasted tank and barrel samples of future releases. My sense is that the future is even more exciting than the already delicious present for Barra and Girasole.

I’ll be visiting the event center over the course of the year as Barra plays host to many can’t miss events throughout the year, from crab feeds to farm to table celebrations of the county’s bounty.

For more information about Barra and Girasole, visit http://www.barraofmendocino.com or call (707) 485-0322.


John Cesano has a son, Charlie, who turned 16 last month. If you have a dependable older car you would like to gift to a mostly good boy, contact John at JohnCesano@aol.com

Hi, John here. The online version of my column allows me the space to add some thoughts that didn’t fit my edited piece for the newspaper.

I wanted to add some personal notes. With roughly 750 words allowed in the paper, I need to put my focus on the wines when writing about a winery, but it is the people, just as much as the wines, that define a winery for me. Here is a little more about the folks at Barra/Girasole:

I adore Gracia Brown. I met Gracia when she shouldered an enormous workload as part of the now defunct Mendocino Winegrape & Wine Commission. I had many opportunities to work with Gracia and couldn’t be more impressed with her work ethic and cheerful attitude. Although Gracia has never been employed by McFadden, I think she has poured our wines no fewer than three times for us. When my son turns of legal age, if he still wants a tattoo, I will point him toward Gracia’s husband, a gifted artist.

Winemaker, Jason Welch is both likeable and passionate. I am looking forward to tasting the wines he produces for Barra and Girasole in the coming years.

Charlie Barra is an icon. When I talk about my boss, Guinness McFadden, being a leader in the organic farming movement, I am always mindful that Charlie has ten years of organic growing on Guinness.

Charlie’s wife Martha just knocks me out. We have had the opportunity to work together going back to my time working with the Wine Appreciation Guild a dozen years ago. Martha knows her mind, isn’t shy sharing her thoughts, has plenty of drive and a positive assumptive attitude; she gets things done. I like Martha, and respect the heck out of her.

Katrina Kessen is my counterpart at Barra, managing their tasting room. We never seem to see each other as we work many of the same days and hours, but she likes the music of Grateful Dead so she obviously is a woman of refinement and exquisite taste.

Note: In between being published in the paper and posted here online, I got to meet Katrina. We had a very nice time pouring next to each other at an event focused on wineries with organically grown grapes over this past Earth Day weekend. I look forward to seeing the Barra/Girasole team often in the future.


JOHN ON WINE – Spotlight Winery: RIVINO

By John Cesano

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal on April 11, 2013

“Welcome to RIVINO,” owner Suzanne Jahnke-McConnell greeted me on my recent visit. Together with her winemaker husband Jason McConnell, Suzanne runs the winery at the vineyard Suzanne’s dad has been growing grapes at for the last 20 years.

RIVINO is a made up word, a portmanteau, a combination or joining of two words, River and Vino. Vino is, of course, Italian for wine, and the grapes for these wines are grown in vineyards alongside the Russian River.

RIVINO winery on Cox Schrader Road in Ukiah, east adjacent to Highway 101, is an Estate winery, meaning that the wines are made from grapes grown, crushed, and fermented on site. Estate wines often exhibit vineyard specific characteristics. All of RIVINO’s wines come from their own Schrader Ranch vineyard.

With redwood trees lining the entrance drive, oak trees growing in the vineyard, and the Russian River bordering the vineyard, Schrader Ranch is as picturesque a winery location as visitors could wish for.

All of the vines are both trellised and drip line irrigated. In addition to providing water to the grape vines, the drip line irrigation allows for application of fertilizers and nutrients.

The nominal $5 wine tasting fee is refunded with any wine purchase. Wines are available both by the bottle and by the glass, wine by the glass being a nice option at RIVINO because many people choose to sit at an outdoor table in the summer or beside the fire during the winter and enjoy the surrounding beauty of the estate vineyard.

RIVINO has an incredibly popular summer Friday Happy Hour from 4-7 p.m. featuring a different local musician each week. Last summer’s entertainment included Sheridan Malone & John Morris, Will Siegel & Friends, Monty & Jay, T.J. Elton of the Felt-tips, Scott Shaver and Ray Harrison, and McKenna Faith, among other performers.

RIVINO’s wine club members enjoy complimentary wine tastings and wine discounts from 15-25 percent.

The wines of RIVINO are enjoyable because they are largely unmanipulated. Tasting them is tasting the grape, the specific vineyard, and the vintage.

RIVINO’s 2010 Chardonnay is unoaked, held in stainless steel for clear fruit expression, and does not go through malolactic fermentation.

Malolactic fermentation (ML) is a secondary fermentation that converts the green apple flavors and malic acid of Chardonnay fruit to the butter flavors of lactic acid. Some look upon ML as unnecessary laboratory manipulation, while others see it as one more choice a winemaker has when crafting a Chardonnay.

White peach, pear and apple notes highlight this food friendly 2010 Chardonnay.

The 2010 Viognier is sweet mouthed and was awarded a north coast best of class designation at the California State Fair. Tropical, floral, citrus meets orange blossom with notes of apricot and pineapple.

My favorite wine of the day’s visit was a 2010 Sangiovese, a light garnet colored wine with a gorgeous spice nose that follows right through the mouth, with great blackberry fruit balanced by acid and wrapped in oak.

Sedulous can be defined as “a product of diligent and assiduous workmanship” and RIVINO has a Bordeaux blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc with a tiny bit of Rhone Viognier that they’ve named Sedulous.

The 2008 Sedulous is a wine with vintage correctness, and might be paired with barbecued meats where the smoke aroma and flavor from the wine can find a match in food.

2008 was a year when fires from summer lightning strikes left much of the county under smoke and ash for weeks.

I was actually a little charmed that this smoky wine was poured unapologetically. I will not be upset when my days of tasting 2008 Mendocino County wines has passed and, while the vintage has fans precisely for the barbecue smoke note I do not love, I am nonetheless pleased to find Jason’s light touch with the grapes in his winemaking evidenced. Jason let the 2008 vintage smoke be tasted in his dark noted 2008 Sedulous.

The 2007 Sedulous with brighter nose and flavors of rhubarb and strawberry with a nice lingering finish is more to my taste.

Another 2008 vintage wine, with a lighter touch of smoke and bright acid is the 2008 Cabernet Franc, with pepper, herb, and red fruit notes.

I like RIVINO. Suzanne and Jason are forward thinking, energetic, and friendly. They have created the perfect environment to enjoy their deliciously enjoyable wines, and provide ample event opportunities to do so.

John Cesano doesn’t know when it will happen, but will be happy when he tastes his last 2008 vintage Mendocino County wine.

John on Wine- Friends don’t let friends Vacu-Vin

By John Cesano

Updated:   04/04/2013 10:58:27 AM PDT

(NOTE: This piece was edited down for the paper from a longer piece that ran here in the blog years ago. -John)

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

There was one item I refused to sell.

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

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

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

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

I had a problem. To my mind, the Vacu-Vin doesn’t work:

“The “Vacu-Vin” device as submitted was evaluated to determine efficacy in reduction of oxidative spoilage in opened wines. Using the protocol described above, the “Vacu-Vin” device was found to have no measurable effect in reduction of oxidative spoilage.” -Gordon Burns, ETS Laboratories, 1204 Church Street, St. Helena, CA 94574


“Vacu-vin” doesn’t work, It never has. Sensorily – to me anyway – the Vacu-vin was a shuck. You could track the deterioration in each sample. Indeed, just recorking the wine worked equally as well ­ or as badly.

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

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


“Unnecessary equipment: There’s no clear need for Vacu-Vin Vacuum Wine Saver and other wine-preservation systems, our tests suggest.

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


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

We tested three varietals with the systems on three different occasions for three different periods of time. For comparison, we also stoppered one bottle with its own cork. After all the bottles spent time in our wine cellar, expert wine consultants compared their contents in blind taste tests with freshly opened bottles. If our trained experts, with nearly 60 years in the business, couldn’t discern among wine storage systems, most consumers probably can’t, either. So just go ahead and cork it (you can turn the cork over if it’s easier to get in). But try not to wait more than a week or so to drink the wine, and sooner is better.” – Consumer Reports, December 2006




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

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

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

While I am prepping food for dinner, I usually open a bottle, or more than one bottle if cooking for friends, pour a little of each in a separate wine glass, so I can repeatedly swirl and sniff each. I am looking for the wine to open and become perfect. At that point, I recork the bottle so I can just open, pour, and seal all the way through the meal. I know the last glass will be as good as the first. If not perfect, every glass is pretty darn good.

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

Pumping the air out of a bottle of wine with a Vacu-Vin strips the wine of some aroma and bouquet. Each time it is used it can harm the wine. To me, a couple of seconds is like hours of damage. Kramer described the loss of delicate notes in his piece for spectator.

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

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

At work, in the tasting room, I use 100 percent pure Argon, an inert gas that is heavier than oxygen, from a large tank. Shooting a little into a bottle, then recorking it, allows the Argon to settle and provide a protective blanket between wine and oxygen. Smaller home versions are available, with Private Preserve, a nitrogen/argon mix, the most easily found. More expensive, but also more efficacious, WineSave is 100 percent pure food grade Argon in a can available at WineSave.com


John Cesano does not get a kickback from private preserve or winesave, but wishes he did.

John On Wine blog bonus –

I polished a popular piece posted previously here, and it was published in the printed paper, perhaps a partial week ago.  (Note: sorry for the alliteration, once started, that last sentence wrote itself).

I also visited Matheson Tri-Gas, a commercial supplier and asked about the cost of an Argon tank for the serious hedonist, the folks who care about preserving quality of wine glass to glass, and those foodies who want to prevent cooking oil from becoming rancid and vinegars from becoming musty.

A small tank (it isn’t really small, but it is smaller than a commercial tank) runs about $100. The regulator runs another $100. The hose, nozzle, and other fittings runs a third $100. Initial cost: $300. from that point on, tank can be filled or refilled with Argon for about $30 and a small (big really) tank would last practically forever used at home.

John on Wine – Spotlight winery: Testa Vineyards

By John Cesano
Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal on March 28, 2013

Comfy. Comfy is how I feel when I visit Testa Vineyards, just north of Calpella at 6400 N. State Street.

From the rustic metal farm antiques used as installed art decorations to the red checked cloths covering wood-round topped wine barrels, and from country music playing on the radio to old wooden picnic tables – all surrounded by head pruned old vine vineyards, a lake, mustard growing between the vines when I visited, and a three bedroom vineyard rental guest house with a winemaker’s dream: a cellar for barrels and cases. Testa Vineyards has a warm, unpretentious, welcoming vibe; Testa is defined by its comfortableness.

The Testa family has farmed grapes in Calpella for more than 100 years. Maria Testa Martinson is the fourth generation of Testas to farm, but the first generation to make wine from those grapes.

Photo credit: Di Davis, Diane Davis Photography

The wines Maria Testa Martinson, her husband Rusty, and their family make from the grapes that they grow on their ranch are simply delicious.

Maria is so completely likeable, so nice, so positive, so sweet, and her personality is paired with a tireless drive that has seen Testa quickly grow a loyal local following of fans.

Testa wines started with three labels; White, Black (red), and Rosé. Simple as that.

With success at wine competitions ­ almost everything Testa makes took a Gold medal at last year’s Mendocino County Wine Competition, and constant promotion ­ I’ve seen Maria pouring her Testa wines from Raley’s Supermarket to Saucy restaurant

in Ukiah, Testa has grown to add some varietally labeled wines, and Maria is hoping to release a 2011 Coro Mendocino wine in the summer of 2014 as well.

On a recent visit, Maria opened everything and we tasted through the entire current lineup. Here’s my notes:

NV Testa Vineyards White, $20 ­ The wine I tasted happened to be all 2010 vintage grapes, although labeled NV (non vintage), and the blend was Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Muscat Canelli, and Chenin Blanc. Testa’s White had nice floral notes being met by citrus aromas, following nicely to a mouthful of crisp stone fruit notes.

2011 Testa Vineyards Rosé, $18 ­ This tasted so nice, I forgot I was tasting critically and just thought, “yum.” Strawberry over ice.

2010 Testa Vineyards Charbono, $40 ­ Really nice, rich, full nose, soft tannin, nice acid, solid finish, velvety black and delicious dark fruit.

2010 Testa Vineyards Carignane, $25 ­ Beautiful bright cherry, dusty plum,+ herb and spice.

2010 Testa Vineyards 100 ANNI (100th anniversary) Old Vine Zinfandel, $40 ­ My favorite of the day, but I am partial to Zinfandel. Lighter styled, yet fully flavorful fruit, herb, and pepper spice notes.

2009 Testa Vineyards Black Due, $20 ­ Due means “two” in Italian, because this is the second Black release. Almost equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignane, and Petite Sirah. Rich, round, dry berry and cherry fruit with herb and cassis.

The Black Tre (Three) from 2010 is set to be bottled late May.

Wines getting close to being sold-out include the Black, Charbono, and Old Vine Zinfandel. While that is bad, sad news, the good news is that new yummy releases will follow shortly.

The Testa Vineyards tasting room is open Friday ­ Sunday, from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. each day.

I was fortunate to have Maria’s 92-year-old (I suspect she could run circles around me) aunt Lee visit the tasting room while I was there tasting wines. Lee planted Testa’s Charbono grapes 50 years ago and was a joy to chat with as she shared her thoughts on subjects ranging from Risotto (Arborio rice is not to be used) to Zinfandel (lower alcohol is better), and from harvesting Zinfandel (just after the first couple of grapes go to raisin) to flavoring pasta water with Zinfandel (it can be tasty but isn’t pretty). Adorable, I found Maria’s aunt Lee to be a font of wisdom and experience.

I attended the first Testa Wine Club dinner and blend party and had a great time. A highlight was the barbecued oysters that Rusty and his buddies cooked up – my mouth still waters just thinking about them. I missed last year’s event, but I have marked my calendar and will travel from pouring wines at Winesong on the coast in Ft. Bragg on Sept. 7 to join Maria, Rusty, their family, friends, and fans later that day at this year’s Testa event. I may even have the enviable task of helping judge the blends put together by the event’s attendees.

John Cesano has written about wine at Johnonwine.com over the last four years. John cringes looking back at his unedited pieces, but has no intention of fixing them.


Okay, so there’s the piece that ran in last Thursday’s Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper, and was posted on their website too.

A little bonus info, more blathery than I am allowed in print where I am limited by word counts and space considerations:

I absolutely adore Maria. Of course, I adore lots of people in the wine industry, but Maria is just an extra special spirit. This may sound weird, but the inside of my head is a weird place; Maria is the perfect embodiment of an Italian grandma, but hot.

Maria reminds me of my neighbor growing up, Mrs. Bordessa, and of the Italian moms who cooked up the cioppino, or the spaghetti, or the gnocchi for their sons – who were my dad’s friends  so it seemed we were on a permanent Italian meal invite.

There is a comfortableness being around an Italian family, with simple, filling, delicious food and lots of vino. The mom, or grandma, proudly serving up home dishes better than any restaurant.

Maria reminds me of all of the iconic women who worked so hard, not just without complaint but cheerfully, to make a better home, a better table, for their family and friends.

While those women in my memory are all old, Maria is not. She is young, vital, attractive, and just a joy to be around.

Every time I have met one of Maria and Rusty’s children, the young Martinsons are also cheerful and helpful.

Similarly, I have met Testa women from the generations before Maria’s, and the whole darn family are just like so many families I knew growing up – Faraudo, Ratto, Lisignoli, Andretti, a whole bunch of families with names ending in a vowel (like mine). Hard working, devoted to family, welcomingly hospitable.

I think that Maria strikes a resonate chord in me, by being a living embodiment of an archetype I grew up with, and one I associate with great meals, and that resonance is a major reason for my feeling of comfort at Maria and Rusty’s winery.

Okay, one more random note that wouldn’t fit in a column: Di Davis, professional photographer extraordinaire, provided the photographic art for this piece. I send Di advance copies of my columns so she can send a photo to run with each weekly column. Di captured the spirit of Testa beautifully, with two of their most iconic wines and the family dog. Comfortable families have dogs. This just works.

I never would have taken this picture. I also couldn’t have imagined the picture Di captured of me that I now use practically everywhere across the social media universe.

I am incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to collaborate with Di each week. I enjoy not knowing what artwork she will send me, but knowing it will always be perfect…and a lovely surprise.


Thanks for reading. Pick up the Ukiah Daily Journal tomorrow, and every Thursday, to read my latest blather.