The Guild of Sommeliers have another great video. This time it's all about iconic producers and vineyards in the world's best Syrah growing region:
Get your fez out and fire up the tagine because a night of eating and drinking the goodness of Morocco awaits. Dinner parties and communal gatherings are an especially good time to bring the best of northern Africa to the table because the meal will be delicious and everyone gets what they want.
Start the evening with a delicious cocktail like The Marrakech Express garnished with a few strands of saffron. The recipe, shaken together and served over a few cubes of ice is as follows:
1 oz white rum
1 oz dry vermouth
1 oz white creme de cacao
2 oz grapefruit
1 oz mandarin juice
1/2 oz lime juice
1 tsp caster sugar
Key Elements to a Successful Meal
It's all about the bread and juices.
The tagine is a single cone shaped cooking vessel where all the protein, spices and vegetables cook together. Le Creuset makes a widely available tagine available for around $50. One tagine produces a meal for one or two people. The fun part for your evening is allowing each person to customize their tagine with any combination of flavors they like. It resembles a bowl with a chimney on top but its unique shape helps capture moisture while it cooks at the highest part and allows it to drip back into the cooking food making it moist.
At the end of the meal there is delicious drippings in the bottom of the tagine that's meant to be sopped up with moroccan bread, which resembles naan from India. Friday nights are an especially good night for friends and family in Marrakech and Casablanca to come together over a good meal and good conversation.
Cook the tagine over low heat on the stove or in the oven as if you were braising in a dutch oven. The fun part is adding in the herbs, vegetables and proteins to customize each tagine.
The Wines of Morocco
If one were to start at the Rock of Gibraltar and head north into Spain they'd pass through the wine regions of Andalusia, including Jerez-Xérés where the world's finest Sherry comes from and other regions like Montilla-Moriles, Malaga & Sierra de Malaga and Condado de Huelva. My wife and I toured the region in 2011 and loved visiting Alhambra in Granada then driving north through hundreds of miles of olive trees.
Driving south from the Rock of Gibraltar past Tanger one will quickly find themselves in Morocco's wine growing region. At the south end of the growing region is the city of Marrakech, which is on the same latitude as Santa Barbara—one of America's up and coming wine regions.
Modeled after the French AOC/AOP system of regulating quality and production, Morocco garners 14 AOG's, short for Appellation of Origin Guaranteed (there is also 1 AOC in Morocco called AOC Les Coteaux de L'Atlas).
Vines have been growing in northern Africa for centuries. At the end of the 19th century phylloxera ravaged vineyards across Europe, so French growers immigrated to Morrocco where they discovered a climate not much unlike southern France, particularly in the Languedoc region.
The best of what Morocco has to offers comes from AOG Zenata, from vineyards situated in the coastal region between Casablanca and Rabat, facing the Atlantic Ocean. A traditional winemaking style, also echoed from French influence pays respect to the soil and climate. Standout varietals such as Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault combined with a Mediterranean climate can be most closely compared to Southern Rhone and Languedoc.
Mother nature has a way of providing complimentary growing conditions that allows regional cuisine to pair naturally with the wines that grow there. For a great night of eating and drinking with friends, I'd suggest having a few different types of Moroccan wines on hand and just let guests go at it creating their own combinations in the tagine.
Here's a few recipe ideas to get started...
Paprika and Coriander Halibut with Spring Vegetables + Ouled Thaleb White Blend
I found fish to be an especially good thing to cook in the tagine. It came out moist and absorbed the seasoning pretty well. Half the fun went into assembling all the ingredients, starting with the bed of spring vegetables and seasoning the halibut on top.
Before cooking, add in a half cup of vegetable stock (give or take) to add depth to the flavor of the juices.
Ouled Thaleb White Blend is a blend of 40% Clairette and 60% Faranah which is a native varietal from AOG Zenata grown in sandy shale and gravel soil with a mediterranean climate.
There's fresh citrus fruits going off in the glass like aromatic fireworks. Look for ripe luscious grapefruit, passion fruit tenured with non fruits of elderflower and spearmint. That spearmint part is was the thread that wove together this pairing.
Spicy Moroccan Chicken + Ouled Thaleb Moroccan Rosé
Keep it simple with a few key spices like paprika or even some curry if you like. Slow cooking the whole bird will help the juices drip out and leave that delicious juice to sop up at the end with the bread. That's the point of cooking everything in one vessel. The shape of the tagine will help condensation drip down on top of the chicken while it cooks.
Ouled Thaleb Rosé is one of my favorite wines from the region. Made from 60% Syrah, 30% Grenache and 10% Cinsault—three varietals that do well in Morocco at the northwestern edge of Africa where Spain is almost within eyesight. Spend a night in Casablanca or at least spend a night with a wine grown just south of Humphrey Bogart's favorite place.
1 Whole Chicken, small enough to fit inside the tagine
Red Wine Vinegar
1/2 cup - 1 cup chicken stock
2 TBSP Paprika
1 whole white onion, coarsely chopped
1 Red Bell Pepper, cut into bite sized pieces
1 Orange or Yellow Bell Pepper, cut into bite sized pieces
Salt + Pepper
In a small bowl combine red wine vinegar and paprika. Add in other spices if you prefer but it kind of doesn't need it. In a separate plate or prep area coat the cleaned chicken with the red wine vinegar paprika mix.
In the bottom of the tagine, lay a bed of chopped vegetables then place the chicken on top. Sprinkle salt and pepper over everything and transfer to the stove. Cook over low heat until chicken is done, approximately an hour depending on the size of the bird (It's cooked when the juices run clear when you poke the chicken with a fork).
Serve with a side of cous cous and definitely with Moroccan bread (or substitute naan if you can't find it).
Ask your local sommelier for a wine recommendation and you’re likely to get a suggestion for some obscure, enamel stripping high acid low alcohol wine from France or a place you haven’t heard of, right? At least, that’s what wine critics at big name wine publications would have you believe.
It’s not like there isn’t truth to that stereotype. A good sommelier won’t do those things. However, an average or below average sommelier will perpetuate the stereotype and get you to drink something they like to drink along those lines—not that you’d like it. The good somms, especially Master Sommeliers have evolved and will steer you to a wine you will like without making you feel silly. If you want Silver Oak with your halibut and that makes you happy, so be it.
There’s friction between the sommelier community and major wine publications (and their reviewers). On one side, the sommelier is perceived as a snooty know-it-all who turns their nose up at any wine over 14% alcohol made with new oak. On the other side, the wine critic representing a pay-to-play business who’s lifeblood is advertising dollars from major wine conglomerates who just happen to end up gracing a majority of the Top 100 list each year. Coincidence?
Knowing who to trust for wine recommendations isn’t hard. Not one other person can possibly know what you as an individual likes to drink. The best wine for you is the wine you like.
Let’s look at the motivation behind wine publication recommendations. First, it’s important to note wine publications are a business motivated by the almighty dollar. Wine critics cover a region regurgitating the same content (worded differently) over and over in an effort to fill pages of a magazine that’s 50% advertising. “Chewy dense tannins and refined oak”… Sound familiar? The wine critic is not trained to follow any industry standard nor do they have any accreditation—it’s just their opinion. Anyone can give an expensive wine a high rating, especially if the producer is an advertiser. Expensive wines aren’t hard to figure out—someone at your table is bound to like it.
The sommelier is motivated by….well, now let’s look at that. It’s not money. Sommeliers are motivated by something entirely different. The sommelier fights for artists. Small, independent producers with no advertising dollars who happen to make great wines need a champion, and that champion works the floor at finer restaurants.
The sommelier is more of a filter of typicity. Each grape is supposed to taste like something specific. Merlot has a benchmark. Chardonnay has a benchmark. Riesling has a benchmark. When a winemaker hits the bullseye of what the grape is supposed to be, from the place its grown it gets closer to the center of that grape’s typicity. Often times those producers are relatively unknown from places you wouldn’t think to look. And yes, sometimes the best examples of typicity are lower alcohol wines with less oak. Not always, but often.
Anyone can oak the crap out of a wine and get points. Too much oak usually means higher prices and higher scores. But not necessarily recommendations from sommeliers as the wine loses its typicity. Take the 2009 Chateau Monbousquet from the right bank in Bordeaux for example. Robert Parker gave the wine 95 points. But smell the wine and it neither smells like Merlot, nor does it smell like the place its grown . It smells like a lot of crazy wine making techniques. Some wine lovers and collectors like that, which is fine. But the typicity of the grape is way off.
At the end of the day, sommeliers are value shoppers. They’re constantly trying to find the best examples of typicity for each grape at the best possible price, no matter the region. You might get some unexpected recommendations from regions you didn’t expect, such as Domaine Skouras Megas Oenos from Greece ($25 retail) or Graci Etna Rosso ($26 retail). If you like Cabernet based wines from Bordeaux, you might like the Skouras. If you like Pinot Noir, you might like the Etna Rosso.
Aside from typicity, the sommelier is also looking for structure. If you were to make a movie, you’d have a “good guy” and a “bad guy”. The tension between good and bad creates drama. All the supporting cast adds to the story and makes the drama more intriguing. A wine has tension between sugar and acid. They are the main building blocks to the story. Drama between the two makes the wine interesting. All all the additional flavors serve as a supporting cast.
Wines with impeccable balance between sugar and acid are wines you’d probably hear as a suggestion from your sommelier. It’s like a friend recommending a good movie. A sommelier is likely to recommend “Forrest Gump” to you while a wine publication is motivated to recommend “Transformers” to you.
If you cross paths with a sommelier who isn’t listening to you and just wants to recommend a wine they like, they’re doing it wrong. Call them out on it. If they listen to you and your likes, then steer you to something they think you’ll like based on what you described, you probably have a good sherpa of value.
The Importance of Family
As a doe-eyed newbie I felt like the new kid on the first day of kindergarten when I got into the wine business. In October, 2003 the country was entering into a recession, there was a heat wave killing people in Europe, Chicken n’ Beer by Ludacris was the #1 album in the country, and I had just left my job at NIKE after eight years of branding and marketing.
When you reboot your life and career, there’s usually a catalyst for the change. In this case, it was my family. My Mom's body was breaking down and her Multiple Sclerosis was starting to take its toll. It was a proverbial fork in the road decision—stay at my dream job working for the company I always wanted to work for, or go take care of family. After about two seconds, the road leading to family was an obvious choice. But what to do about a job? At that moment in time with nothing to lose I decided to follow the advice of ‘do what you love’. I collected wine so why not try a career in the wine business? After moving to Denver, I took the first step hand selling wine in a local wine shop. The very first bottle I sold was a bottle of 2002 Wente Riva Ranch Chardonnay.
Let’s look at that word, ‘family’. We’re all were born with one. Even if we haven’t met everyone in our family or don’t particularly want to be around our family, we are genetically linked to other human beings. In the world of wine, ‘family’ is used far less domestically than in other parts of the world where multi-generational families have made wine for centuries. In the U.S. we have winemaking families like the Wagners (Caymus, Mer Soleil, Belle Glos), the Trefethens, the Hirsch’s, Sokol Blossers, Figgins (Leonetti) among others.
But no winemaking family has the historical depth and breadth quite like the Wente family of Livermore, California. They mention being the longest continuously running family winery in the U.S. (135 years) almost matter-of-factly when talking about the history of their little corner of the world. At one point in the 1800’s, Livermore was one of America’s premiere wine producing regions.
Ask any vineyard manager growing Bordeaux grapes (especially Sauvignon Blanc) in California if they have a “Wente clone” in the vineyard and chances are they do or did. In 1882 Charles Wetmore famously brought Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon vine cuttings from Chateau Yquem as well as cuttings from Chateau Margaux in Bordeaux to Livermore. Wetmore travelled back to France in 1889 with his wine and won Grand Prize at the Paris Expo giving America its first win internationally. His Cresta Blanca wines along with Chateau Wente were some of the first wines made with the clones.
Wetmore’s early success and Livermore’s location thirty miles south of the bay area could’ve led to the region becoming “the Napa Valley” of California, yet over a century later and Livermore valley is yet to realize its potential. Carolyn Wente and the family’s tireless work in the valley suggests the best days are still ahead. To this day, Wente honors Charles Wetmore with their Wetmore Cabernet Sauvignon.
Home is where the History Is
Upon arrival at one of Wente’s two Livermore locations, there’s a sense of visiting the family in their living room. On two separate visits, a Wente family member stopped by to greet my wife and I. Chief winemaker, Karl Wente recently joined us on the tasting room patio mere days before harvest to discuss vintage 2014 and the responsibility of upholding the Wente name.
“Do you feel a lot of pressure keeping the family name in good standing?” I ask sniffing and sipping a surprisingly accurate Cabernet Franc. “I grew up around these vines and got to know the fruit as a kid,” he tells us. “We have consistent vineyards that produce consistently quality grapes year in and year out. I just try to get out of the way of that”.
Charles Wetmore may have been onto something. Livermore’s unique combination of sandy gravel soils peppered with random Limestone deposits along with its warm days and cool foggy nights near the ocean put the region more on par with Bordeaux’s Maritime right bank climate. Conversely, Napa and Sonoma feature a Mediterranean climate with more volcanic mother soils and alluvial deposits.
Out of the entire lineup of wines, the Sandstone Merlot was a hair-blow-back ringer. Wente may be known for its Chardonnays, however, this $20 bottle is on the money for what Merlot can or should be. No wonder, as it’s grown in shallow well-drained gravelly soils not much different than its right bank brethren.
As sommelier’s, we look for typicte, or the accuracy of what the grape should taste like from the place it’s grown. Wente Sandstone Merlot is the benchmark of not only what Merlot should be from Livermore, but from the entire state of California.
Other standouts from the Wente lineup include the Cabernet Franc and winery-only GSM blend. Although higher in alcohol and oak than I’d like, it did represent what we love about Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. Roasted meats, smoke, iodine, black and dark red fruits all working in concert with one another.
For visitors and wine lovers alike, it’s not hard to find a Wente made wine to put on the dinner table. But just in case, Wente’s new Winemaker Studio offers visitors the opportunity to make their own wine. Part rustic cafe, part laboratory, Wente’s Winemaker studio lets you play mad scientist with your favorite blends.
On this day we did the sniffer seminar. 20 glasses of clear liquid were all lined up in a row with each one smelling like one specific wine smell ranging from “cat pee” to “cassis” and “tobacco”. Half the fun is trying to guess what each smell is, the other half is the social element challenging fellow sniffers sitting around the table.
I smell wine for a living, so I thought I’d crush everyone, yet I did the worst only getting 3 smells right.
Visitors have a myriad of ways to enjoy their time when visiting Wente in Livermore. Once the itch to taste wines at the tasting room gets scratched, and class is dismissed in the Winemaker Studio, one might play a round of golf at the golf course, or better yet, roll into town for a little BBQ then take in a concert at the winery (which is what we did). Tony Bennett was playing on my birthday, so we spent the summer night under the August sky taking in the sounds of a living legend while sipping on Wente Pinot Noir.
In a strange twist of fate, Colorado's legendary wine guy, John Verdeal (the guy who first hired me into the wine industry in 2003) was sitting at the next table over. It was a reminder of the importance of family, friends and why we enjoy wine in the first place. As for Wente, the family winery is in good hands for the near future and years to come.
Right smack dab in the middle of the state of California sits the Santa Lucia Highlands in the massive Salinas valley—California's prime agricultural region located 20 miles southeast of Monterey between the Gabilan and Santa Lucia mountain ranges. They grow everything there from lettuce to raspberries, and chances are your local grocery store may have produce in their store grown in Salinas.
Right around 1971 a few guys got together and said, "you know, we could grow grapes here". Richard Smith was a young family man working for a company that was looking for new places in California to grow vines. After analyzing the region's sand and clay soils, sun exposure and other variables, he realized this was a place that could grow some decent wine grapes. The company he was working for balked, but he saw potential. Early plantings of Bordeaux varietals seemed like a good idea as Bordeaux the wine region is also composed of sand and clay soils. But the first bottlings came out tasting too green. The Merlot was underripe and the Cab Franc undrinkable.
After a spending a few vintages farming the land with his family, Smith realized it was too cold here for those thick-skinned grapes. But maybe Pinot Noir and Chardonnay could flourish. Smith was one of the first growers to switch vine spacing from 12x6 spacing to 6x6 spacing, allowing 3 tons an acre. Smith turned his growing into a family operation with sons and grandsons joining the family business. The family produces wines under the Paraiso label, and coming soon under the Alexander-Smith label.
Off the coast of California near Monterey is where you'll find the 'big blue hole' in the Pacific Ocean. That's where a deep trench in the ocean floor can be found that's deep enough to hold cold arctic water. The wind comes off the ocean where that deep hole sits and with it comes cold temperatures during the growing season that winds its way down the Salina valley.
Temperatures can reach 80 degrees by 11am, but around lunch time the wind starts picking up and cooling the vineyards. Temperatures can drop off dramatically in the afternoon. So the grapes get the two best things they love—sunshine and cool temperatures. Particularly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The result is a long, gentle growing season. Soils are clay loam or sandy loam and not very deep. There’s no water unless growers add it as these are on alluvial benches.
Still Just a Baby
If your child was born when the Santa Lucia Highlands were established as an official wine growing region, your child would just be graduating from high school now. In just under 20 years, winemakers have gone from standing start to world class region. Conversely, another Pinot Noir and Chardonnay producing region in France called Burgundy got a 400-year head start, yet wines from both regions show up on America's top wine lists and collectors cellars.
On a recent sunny Saturday Master Sommelier, Fred Dame led a panel of SLH winemakers at Mer Soleil winery in a library tasting. Master Dame seems like the best sherpa to lead any wine tasting, but this one was special to him as he was born and raised up the road in Monterey. He cut his teeth in the early days on the floor at the Sardine Factory, then went on to pass the Master Sommelier exam and founded the American chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers in the mid 1980's. He and Bill McIntyre shared stories of the 'early days' when McIntyre was a delivery driver delivering wine to Dame before he started his own winery (the #2 wine in this panel tasting).
SLH has come a long way in a short amount of time. The learning curve around clone selection, row spacing, trellising and vinification has been dramatic. Wheras Burgundy or Oregon’s Pinot Noir’s have beautiful earthiness from the soil coming out in the wine as damp soil, coffee grounds, dried leaves and turned earth, SLH Pinots are grown in sand and clay which can lead to earthy aromas but I didn’t see that as much on this day.
The panel looked at three pinots—2007, 2008 and 2010 respectively. A few things stood out as we went through the lineup: the quality potential in the region is obvious, but without many vintages in the cellar nobody really knows how well the wines will age. As Master Dame pointed out, it doesn't matter as 90% of wine is consumed within a few days of purchase. Pinot Noir, however, if it is to be taken seriously is one grape we want to see age for a while in the cellar. And the acid profile of SLH seems to give that backbone the wines need to get better over time, not much unlike Burgundy.
The three wines we looked at on this day:
2007 Paraiso “Faîte” Pinot Noir - Moderate ruby color fading out to a rust/ruby rim with watery meniscus. Ripe red and black fruits, pomegranate, cranberry, crisp apple skin and still youthful, mountain ridge of acid right down the middle with lightly integrated new and neutral oak. The resonating acid will keep this party going for years, in fact, it’s probably just now ready to drink but it’ll be even better given 10 years in the bottle. “Faite” is a French word that means pinnacle. Pinot Noir lovers who dig the “hippy” style of Pinot (ie.. lighter and more feminine) will like this effort from Paraiso. Long, pretty finish showing what’s possible in SLH.
2008 McIntyre “Estate” Pinot Noir - 60 acres purchased in 1987. In the early days grapes were sold to J. Lohr until they could work out the wrinkles, then started making their own. “In Burgundy their precision is like a sniper with a laser scope, but here we’re still like a shotgun that scatters. We’re still learning about our vineyards and want to make changes to refine the farming techniques." Moderately ruby colored ‘cowboy wine' with bright, almost-underripe red fruits on the nose with maraschino cherry and cranberry coming forward the most. Reductive new oak laid as a foundation with a summer mix of red berried fruits on top almost like a picnic table. In recent vintages the vineyard manager lays white reflective cloth on some of the vines to minimize afternoon sunlight until rows can be replanted.
2010 Testarossa “Fogstone Vineyard” Pinot Noir - Young and sexy, and ironically more evolved fruit than the two older wines. Darker fruits like black cherry and non-fuits of RC cola, apple skin, spice box and red carnations, ready to drink now with the help of toasty oak. Aromatic and fun to drink now with a little bit richer foods as this is also a ‘cowboy’ wine. The winemaker referred to himself as a 'grape whisperer' while his marketing gal referred to him as a 'savant'. I'm not sure either of those are correct (or if anyone should refer to themselves as such), but Director of Winemaking, Bill Brosseau took the reins at age 23 and hasn't looked back. He grew up playing in the vines and knows what he wants from each of his growers.
Santa Lucia Highlands reminds me of another youngish wine growing region that makes exceptional age worthy wines. Walla Walla is around the same age as SLH and both regions are short on library wines that show off how well the wines can age, but over time we'll add both the conversation of where America's best wines are created.
When I told some friends I was going to visit Opus One on my birthday they scoffed. “Ooooh, GOD! They are sooo pretentious there!” they said. “Don’t forget to kiss the ring on the way in”.
I brought my Mom and Mrs. B along for the ride because, hey, it was my birthday. Not sure what experience others had at Opus One but what we found on our visit was one of the warmest, most down to earth winery visits I’ve ever experienced…anywhere. And that’s saying something as I’ve probably been to over 500 wineries around the world.
Robert Mondavi is easily the person I admire the most in the wine industry, so to see Opus One three decades after he cofounded it was personally rewarding. His vision, his passion, his standard of excellence and his soul are still part of the DNA that is at the heart Opus One. What I saw on this day wasn't the Opus One brand but rather Mondavi's fingerprints that were still all over this place.
Chief Winemaker Michael Silacci and PR Director, Roger Asleson met us in the front lobby for a short introduction and conversation about Opus One’s history. In my head I’m thinking, “okay, when’s it going to feel stuffy?” Silacci’s easy going demeanor and laid back style was warm and engaging. His black horn rimmed 1960’s hipster glasses with salt and pepper speckled hair began to remind me of a cross between Gene Hackman in Enemy of the State and Mr. Natale, the coolest teacher at my high school.
Silacci’s seasoned veteran worldliness gave a glimpse into a yoda-like genius intellect matched only by an unabashed humility and a patience to teach. It was obvious this dude was cool as hell and knew his stuff. But he never made any of us feel stupid about asking anything. Moreover, he took time out of doing something probably more important to spend time with our little group. Our day was just beginning.
Over the course of our time together, we’d come to learn Silacci’s role as Chief Winemaker wasn’t only about upholding the Opus One standard of quality set by the founders (discussed in part 1) but he nurtured people at the winery much like the vines—with patience to help everyone grow and flourish over time.
Precision in the Vineyard
Any winemaker will tell you work in the vineyard is where good wine is made. If you don’t have good fruit coming into the winery, you aren’t going to make good wine.
Michael Silacci and his team use cutting edge technology to manage every single grape cluster in every row. When interns from the Baron Philippe de Rothschild side of the partnership came over from Bordeaux they weren’t simply put into the winery to clean tanks. Instead, Silacci challenged them to truly get to know each vine by mapping out and digitally track every single vine in the vineyard. A daunting task in any vineyard, but at Opus One it was a major undertaking.
The result allows Silacci’s winemaking team to manage every vine as an individual living thing with its own personality. The visual grape analyzer pictured above gives the winemakers an accurate portrait of the sugar content leading up to harvest. They constantly monitor grapes from around the vineyard throughout each day.
Winemaking is a bit like being a painter. A good painter has a palette of colors to dip their brush into when creating a work of art. The better the control over the colors, the better the artist is. Instead of colors in a palette, a winemaker has individual lots or tanks. By keeping grapes, rows or blocks separate during production allows the winemaker freedom to pull from different parts of the “terroir” to paint a masterpiece. At Opus One, the winemaking and viticulture team painstakingly manage every vine so it produces the best possible fruit that goes into the final work of art. When it comes to blending the final wine, Silacci and his team taste through every single individual lot as if picking colors from their palette.
It’s important to remember Opus One was created to be a American “first growth” modeled after the great houses of Bordeaux where red wines are blends made primarily from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. When those grapes come together with the right amount of each, it can be magic in a bottle (see reviews below). Great care is taken throughout every step of the winemaking process, including hand soaking corks in a solution that removes any corked bottle causing bacteria.
Tradition and Innovation in the Winery
To this day Opus One still embraces the soul of the two founders. Balance and tension between French and American, Old and New, Tradition and Innovation is what gives the wines their identity. The word that kept popping up was, 'DNA'.
As harvest gets under way each year, shallow bins of pristine fruit come into the winery with the utmost care to insure the weight of grape bunches don’t squeeze juice out of the grapes prematurely. From there they go through an initial hand sorting picking out only the best fruit. It's at this point where many luxury wineries would be satisfied with the quality of grapes going into their wine.
In the relentless drive to create the wine Robert Mondavi and Philippe Baron de Rothschild envisioned they take it a step further. If you've never seen a laser fruit sorter it is one of the coolest inventions in the wine industry. Seriously, it's cool as hell.
Pre sorted grapes come cruising down the conveyor belt into the sorter. A laser "eye" rapidly looks at every grape and quickly identifying the "good" grapes and the "bad" grapes. As the grapes fall into the press little air blowers kick out the bad grapes. Watch as Michael throws in a random leaf to demonstrate how the eye sees it, then kicks it out. Only the absolute best grapes make it into the tank:
Two hours have passed and we don't want it to end. Our hosts have filled our heads with enough winemaking geekery to fill a semester at UC Davis. It wouldn't have been as interesting if Michael and Roger's experience wasn't matched by their wit like when I wasn't looking and Roger busted my Mom for illegal parking in the winery:
So then we moved down into the barrel room where future vintages of Opus One were nestled into their slumber in prime French oak casks in a temperature controlled room under ground.
Oak is an ingredient that doesn't get talked about enough in winemaking and tasting. What was the percentage of new oak? What's the toast level? How much of it was new and how much was neutral? These different facets all add up to the oak influence on a wine. Add too much oak and it becomes an oak bomb covering up fruit and terroir. Add too little and the wine can be wimpy.
Here they seem to find the right balance of oak satisfaction providing enough but not so much it overpowers the main attraction—the fruit. These wines are meant to age and they are modeled after the great Bordeaux houses. To that end, oak isn't just a flavor, it's an ideal meant to compliment texturally and well as sensuously.
When a red wine is sitting in the tanks after pressing it’s like a child waiting to discover the world outside. The core personality is there and the fruit is primary, but the wine isn’t mature enough to be on its own. In the barrel wine becomes more of an adolescent looking forward to leaving the close protection of the winemaking team. The fruit is still primary but now there’s other things rounding out its personality, like oak nuances. Continuing in its evolution, red wine grows up and becomes an adult in the bottle leaving the nest (or winery) out into the world. Whether it’s a twenty five year-old adult just starting out on its own or a senior citizen, an adult doesn’t want to lose the child within (the fruit at the core).
All the painstaking work in the vineyard, and all the technology in the winery would be nothing if the wine didn’t become the thing Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild envisioned in 1979. We found on our visit that Opus One’s legacy is cemented in place.
Our small group moved into the tasting room adjacent to the barrel room where a little birthday surprise was waiting. The folks at Opus One heard it was my birthday (probably from Facebook) and started the tasting off with a little Champagne...which was nice.
Krug Champagne - What can you say? It’s Krug Champagne! The best thing about enjoying that bottle of Krug wasn’t how good the wine was, it was the fact the people at Opus One understood the concept of ‘surprise and delight’. They didn’t need to acknowledge it but they did. And what better way to freshen up your palate before tasting through the library wines of Opus One.
1982 Opus One - Still so youthful with evolved baked red, black and blue fruits wrapped around a sturdy structured core. This wine was old school Napa and only the third vintage in Opus One's history. I imagine the winemaking team was starting to really fire on all cylinders by the time they were bringing in fruit from the 1982 vintage.
Before the valley took off and winemakers started equating oak usage to quality and price in the mid-1990s, wines were made for longevity rather than immediate drinking. This one was no different. If tasted side by side with first or second growths from 1982, Opus One would definitely stand up and have a loud voice in "who's the best wine on the table?" conversation. Still has life ahead of it.
2004 Opus One - Michael Silacci’s second vintage and it’s apparent he’s got a handle on the fruit in the vineyards. Just over ripe red rhubarb, choke cherries, black cherries show off less tart fruit notes and developing black and blue fruits in equal harmony as if to suggest the perfect blend of grapes showed what the future would hold. Damp earth is starting to emerge with silky cocoa slippers hidden underneath the luxuriously textured moderate tannins. Still plenty of time ahead, but developing nicely.
2005 Opus One - The vintage was a pretty stellar vintage in many parts of the world, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. Bordeaux, Tuscany, Piedmont and most red wine producing regions of the U.S. enjoyed warm temperatures with enough cool nights to give wines ageability. Not as open as the 2004 on this day, but precocious enough to draw you in for a later date with greatness.
2009 Opus One - Using the child, adolescent, adult analogy above the 2009 would be the college student about ready to graduate and set out on its own. Under ripe primary dark red fruits with slight herbal rose stems, ripe black plums and already seamless oak integration. Colors in the glass went the darker side of Ruby town with a thin watery meniscus around the rim. A big vintage to be sure as temperatures were hot, most likely leading to primary fruit that may not age as gracefully as the 1982 or 2004 but will still be great to drink in 7-12 years.
After tasting through the wines one word kept popping into my mind—consistency. Thirty-plus years of an icon isn't very long in wine terms but it was apparent Opus One the brand was in good hands and kept its direction close to the trajectory set out when hair styles were big and disco was king.
We had spent the better part of an afternoon with Michael and Roger but didn't want it to end. It was almost 3pm and we hadn't eaten lunch. Luckily, Rutherford Grill was close by and the wait was short. We enjoyed our hosts so much we invited them to lunch. And to our great surpass, they joined us!
We continued a great conversation, the kind Ernest Hemingway must've had sitting at a table side bistro in Paris on a buzzing Friday night. We ordered more Champagne and opened more Opus One while savoring grilled artichokes and French Dips.
It's safe to say this winery's legacy is in good hands and the evolution of an icon is on schedule.
Twenty years ago if you were in a restaurant and ordered a bottle of Opus One you were important. You were a fine wine connoisseur and you liked the best. Opus One raised the bar for Napa Valley and for domestic wine. If you were drinking Opus One you were drinking a regal wine that presidents and diplomats held in high regard.
If you were drinking Opus One you had arrived.
Perhaps that luxurious brand positioning started to work against the winery in the 1990’s as production increased and Opus One was everywhere. It was no longer scarce and no longer carried the prestige it once had, especially as new cult producers with small productions and high ratings like Harlan Estate, Bryant Family, Araujo, Maya and Shafer Hillside emerged from Napa. Robert Parker wasn’t giving Opus One 100-point scores. Sommeliers and serious collectors shied away from increasing prices and increasing production in favor of new producers.
After Opus One and Robert Mondavi Winery were acquired by Constellation Brands in 2004, this once family owned winery was now in the hands of a large cooperation. While the business and revenue generating conversation may have changed people's like or dislike of Opus One, the purpose of this post is to honor the founders and acknowledge that much of the original soul of Opus One is still there. It never went away.
America’s original ‘First Growth’
America’s wine making history is a blip on the radar compared to the wine making histories in countries like Greece, Italy, France or Germany where there’s well over one thousand years of production. History has a way of upholding the best producers over time. In Bordeaux for example, the 1855 Classification determined first, second, third, fourth and fifth growths aka left bank producers deemed the “best” by ranking. At that time in 1855 the right bank was considered inferior for wine production whereas today in 2013 right bank producers like Le Pin or Petrus might be held with higher esteem than the left bank first growths (or on the same level).
The point being is that was over one hundred and fifty years ago — “recent” in old world wine terms. Conversely, Napa Valley only gained popularity on the world stage as a quality wine region about thirty years ago (in our life time) — a mere drop in the bucket on the wine timeline. Compared to those old world wine regions, we’re infants over here in the new world just learning to walk.
If we were to do a classification rating and put a stake in the sand proclaiming our “first growth” wineries, Opus One would likely be on that list (founded in part by an actual first growth winery owner, Baron Philippe Rothchild of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild fame). Before there were domestic “first growths” there was Opus One. One of, if not THE original Cult wine. Grace Family and Caymus Special Selection are certainly on that short list as well.
Old world wine families might flick their cigarette butts in disgust and let out a “pffffft” when I ask you to go back in history with me to the birth of this icon. It was waaaay back in the late 1970’s. Robert Mondavi’s namesake winery was hitting on all cylinders and his first-in-the-valley tasting room was attracting more people to Napa.
The remarkable vision of the two cofounders might seem obvious today, but back in the mid 1970’s nothing was guaranteed. It took the fortitude and belief from two men who saw what was possible, even though there was little proof their idea could work.
To list all the innovative contributions Robert Mondavi made to the wine industry could fill a book, but his coup de gras may have getting Baron Philippe de Rothschild to go in on an ambitious project in Napa Valley.
Mondavi and Baron Philippe's collaboration would bring a balance and tension between old and new, French and American, Tradition and Innovation.
Mondavi and de Rothschild were at the top of their game. It was the mid-1970’s and Napa had just shocked the world by winning the Judgement of Paris. Robert Mondavi was quickly becoming an international icon. Napa didn’t have the booming tourism industry it has now. There was no social media or internet to discover a largely unknown wine region.
Baron Philippe had acquired other Bordeaux houses during his lifetime including Chateau d’ Armailhac and Chateau Clerc Milon as well as expanded into Chile through a partnership with Concha y Toro. He and Mondavi found a mutual connection of passion and excellence in their winemaking approach. Mondavi was leading a renaissance in California and the time was right for a joint venture.
In 1979, set out to establish an American “first growth” that would set the bar high enough to put Napa on the world stage. Mondavi not only understood the American palate, but he was responsible for broadening wine drinkers’ tastes by marrying wine to other luxury lifestyle enjoyments like music, the arts and of course good food.
The name, Opus One was chosen to be timeless yet exude a sense of time and place. They also wanted a latin name that would be recognizable in both French as English. Baron Philippe came up with the name which is inspired by the word, “Opus” which is a musical expression denoting the first masterpiece of a composer.
Part 2 of the story will feature behind the scenes winemaking technology and reviews of some Opus One library wines from 1982, 1991, 2004, 2005 and 2009.
The first cigarette I ever had I smoked behind Grandpa's barn. It made me dizzy, and I coughed a lot. "Don't worry, that always happens with the first one," said Grandpa. "Try another one." And you know, he was right. -Jack Handey
It’s funny the things you remember from childhood. I don’t remember the first tooth I lost, or the first time I was able to ride a bike without falling over. But some some odd reason I remember the first bottle of wine I ever laid eyes on. It was one of those bowling pin shaped bottles of Chianti wrapped in a wicker basket. Maybe it was the texture of the exterior or the round squatty shape. Over the years I would see that bottle over and over, often times with a candle crammed into the top of it with layers of candle wax dripping down the side.
A bottle of Chianti isn’t particularly the best bottle to remember, but it was somewhat iconic. Many of us grow up associating the word, “Chianti” with that bottle.
Here’s a pop quiz—what bottle comes to mind when I saw the words, “Chianti Classico”? Therein lies the fork in the proverbial road of cross slicing (aka that immediate image that pops into your mind as an association to a word). My hope with this article is after you finish reading it (or get distracted by Facebook) is to get you to picture something other than a wicker-laden glass candle holder when you hear the words, “Chianti Classico”.
Being a sommelier is a daily reward of a lifestyle that most people plan as vacations. When the folks at the Chianti Classico Consorzio asked if I’d like to come visit with a small group I first did what most Italian men do. I shook my head and said, “no” with my bottom lip sticking out and arms crossed. “No” again just for good measure. “No” with a little extra ‘hhhh’ on the end.
They weren’t phased, but before they could hang up and said, “okay” because I think that’s how you’re supposed to negotiate in Italy. I’m studying to take the Advanced Sommelier exam, which means I need to taste lots of wine and understand why it is what it is in the glass. Color, aromas, structure all point to the unique conditions where the grapes grow. Any time I can be immersed in a region like Chianti Classico it only helps in my studies.
On a map, Chianti and Chianti Classico can best be described as a donut and donut hole where Chianti Classico is the donut hole in the middle. It represents a place that’s supposed to be better than regular ol’ Chianti with slightly different laws that allow for a bit higher alcohol and a bit more oak aging.
There’s an important thing that happened recently for Chianti Classico wines. The Chianti Classico 2000 study was a major initiative that the entire region took part in in an effort to match the best Sangiovese vines to the best growing conditions. You see, the region is old. I mean really old. Grand Duke Cosimo III de’ Medici carved out the subzone in 1716, but the region didn’t get its DOCG status until 1984. Over time, the hillsides were planted with hundreds of different Sangiovese clones—not necessarily matching the right clone to the right site. Many of those clones were inferior and things were just a mess. So the Consorzio got together in 2000 narrowed down the number of clones to a dozen or so, and they found the most ideal places to plant each clone to bring out the best of Sangiovese.
Thirteen years later we’re starting to see a dramatic increase in quality in Chianti Classico wines as a result of that major Chanti 2000 effort. In fact, there’s a brand new category of Chianti Classico wine being introduced in 2013 called Gran Selezione with new oak aging laws (at least 30 months in oak) and a new level of quality.
To understand the different levels of Sangiovese quality, we can break it down into categories. First, all of these wines come from the Tuscany region. Second, it's good to know Chianti and Chianti Classico are regulated by the DOCG laws (ie..aging, grapes allowed, minimum alcohol etc..). Third, it's useful to know wineries who don't want to adhere to the DOCG laws can put themselves into the IGT category which gives much more freedom to use whatever grapes they want, which is why "Super Tuscans" are bigger and bolder. They tend to use higher amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah in their wines that DOCG laws forbid. The DOCG laws are there to basically guarantee a certain level of quality in the wines based on alcohol level, oakiness and purity of the region. Each additional tick of alcohol or aging makes the wine "bigger" and arguably "better".
Chianti DOCG requirements
Must be 70-100% Sangiovese Minimum alcohol level must be 11.5% Wines may not be released until March 1 of the year following harvest (not very much barrel time)
Chianti Riserva DOCG requirements
Must be 70-100% Sangiovese Minimum alcohol level must be 12% Wines must age 2 years starting January 1 of the year following harvest (to add more oak and body)
Chianti Classico DOCG requirements
Must be 80-100% Sangiovese (other grapes are often Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot) Minimum alcohol level must be 12% Wines may not be released until October 1 of the year following harvest
Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG requirements
Must be 80-100% Sangiovese (other grapes are often Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot) Minimum alcohol level must be 12.5% Wines must age 24 months starting January 1 of the year following harvest w/ 3 of those months in bottle
Chianti Classico Gran Selezione DOCG requirements (based on Chianti Classico 2000 study)
Must be 80-100% Sangiovese (other grapes are often Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot) Minimum alcohol level must be 12.5% Wines must age 30 months starting January 1 of the year following harvest w/ 3 months in bottle Wines must also be estate grown fruit.
Brunello di Montalcino DOCG Requirements
Just to confuse consumers more there's another region in Tuscany that makes Sangiovese. Brunello di Montalcino (and Rosso Montalcino) may have the perception of being "better" but that's only because the word, "Chianti" isn't in its name. On the quality scale above it's on par with Chianti Classico. Is Brunello really better? If it is, only by a slim margin. It might be a little bit bigger or a little bit more, but it's definitely more expensive and usually not ready to drink when young unlike Chianti Classico. Must be 100% Sangiovese Minimum alcohol level must be 12.5% Wines must age 2 years in oak plus 4 months in bottle
During my 5 days in the region, there was a blind tasting featuring 5 Brunello di Montalcino wines vs. 5 Chianti Classico wines from the same vintages. Winemakers from both regions and attendees weren't able to differentiate which was which. My point—Chianti Classic is a good option because it's accessible sooner and it's usually more affordable.
Part 2 of the 5 Days in Tuscany story features the wine and food of the region...
Dario “The Butcher” Cecchini likes meat...A LOT. No, I mean he really likes cuts of beef. So much so that he raises his own beef in Spain and puts on a “meat theater” every night at his Panzano in Chianti based restaurant, Antica Macelleria Cechini.
When we visited, Cecchini had just returned from an event at the Four Seasons in NYC where he undoubtedly filled the tummys of carnivores in what was probably a masterful display of beef.
Aside from having an unhealthy obsession with the color red (painted on the walls, color of his pants, color of the logo and napkins), Dario Cecchini is also famous for mentoring Mario Batali as well as Mario’s father. His restaurant sits one floor up from his butcher shop where locals come in the back door to get fresh cuts from “The Butcher”. AC/DC can be heard cranking in the butcher shop where Dario poses for photos with people who know of his legend. To get out of the butcher shop, you have to press a hidden button that opens a secret sliding door a la Scooby Doo. Should I be concerned for my own safety? At the very least I want to stay on Dario's good side because all joking aside he is an artist.
The show begins with a long table in the center of the restaurant. On one side of the room there’s two charcoal fire pits with grates hanging from thick black chains. Anyone sitting with their backs to the pits will be treated to second degree burns on the back of their neck by the end of the meal.
On the right side of the room the walls are painted with bright red paint. Again, there’s another hidden door that leads to the bathroom. In the center of the room is a majestic display of beef that can best be described as Brontosaurus burgers from the Flinstones. The grills are hot, the meat is ready and so we begin. Food is served family style where everyone at every table in the room gets served the same thing.
First on the grill is Costata alla Fiorentina, a massive bone-in ribeye. The Joker had henchmen to help him fight Batman. Dr. Evil had henchmen to help him take over the world and defeat Austin Powers. The Butcher has henchmen who grill the meat, present the meat and serve the meat along with a minor offering of other food items....like a baked potato. There are very few vegetables to be found anywhere.
Once the Costata alla Fiorentina comes off the grill, Dario hoists two steaks and yells something in Italian at the top of his lungs about meat—his face turns red and his veins bulge his neck. Is he crazy? Does his love of being a butcher and the color red concern anyone at the table or is it just me? I can’t help but think to myself this guy was put on this planet to do this and he LOVES it.
After the Checchini henchmen come around and drop 8-12 ounces of perfectly cooked meat on my plate they put the next cuts on the grill, Bistecca Panzanese. I’m already starting to get concerned for my health as this is only the first out of three rounds of meat. Accompanying our meatfest is a selection of local Chianti Classico wines to help wash down the meal. Oh yeah, and there were some Tuscan white beans that were delicious.
Round two comes. They plop another 8-12 ounces of Bistecca Panzanese (more like a New York Strip)....keep in mind there’s no seasoning on the beef. The only thing available is a far of some refined salt mixture that I sprinkle sparingly on my cuts.
They gave us bowls to use for olive oil, but I secretly start putting some of the meat and covering it with bread crusts because I’m trying to save room for the third round of meat which will surely be the denouement of this meal. "Bring me your vomitorium" I announce with a partial sense of urgency and partial sense of utility.
After round two they bring around a foil wrapped baked potato. Seemed harmless enough until they brought around the accouterments for the potato. Before I tell you what it was, keep in mind there's an underlying concern for one's health with this meal. But just in case you had no concern whatsoever for your arteries, the provide raw lard to put on top of the baked potato just so you can completely give your body the finger.
The quality of the beef was at the very top end of the scale as you might expect. Anyone who builds an empire and a theater around grilled beef with absolutely no seasoning of any kind is using the best beef available.
Round three comes off the grill. It’s the big daddy—Bistecca Fiorentina, a T-Bone or Porterhouse steak with filet mignon on one side and ribeye on the other side. They carve it up and bring it around. People are tapping out at this point. I see the guy across from me and he looks like his heart has slowed a crawl. We must push on and tackle this last 8-12 ounces Man vs. Food style. Good Lord, can this be legal?
The meal ends before dessert can arrive. The meat theater is over but it's safe to say there won't be another experience quite like this one. Dario will surely have a reality TV show in the near future as his blend of meat obsession and Cirque-du-Lipitor are both entertaining and delicious. This man is an artist with a true passion for what he does.
When driving north on California’s Hwy 101 over the Golden Gate bridge with the city of San Francisco in the background, the scenery quickly changes from asphalt, trolleys and steep city streets to the sparsely developed green hills of Marin. Few 5-lane highways can feel like a winding road like Hwy 101 as it meanders around bends over hills with the Sonoma Mountains off in the distance.
Visit the Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley for lodging and a full interactive map of wineries: http://www.wdcv.com
Like a bookend at the finish line of a road rally, the city of Healdsburg sits at the "end" of 101 an hour north and serves as the last sign of civilization before the road disappears into the Northern California landscape.
Healdsburg is the perfect starting (or ending) place for wine country day trips in any direction. The city also anchors the far east end of Dry Creek valley like the a splash down pool at the end of a water slide. The valley (and creek) feed right into the town square.
On a recent sunny fall day Mrs. B and I went for a drive in Dry Creek valley with no particular destination or plan in mind. We just wanted to be spontaneous and see what we could discover. We started in Healdsburg at the Flying Goat Coffee on the square, then set out east on Dry Creek Road.
Harvest was just wrapping up. The last of the grapes were coming in from the vineyards, winemakers were tired from the harvest but happy to take some time to share stories about the stellar 2012 fruit that had been coming in. Our first stop was at Talty on Dry Creek Road where Mike Talty has been making small batches of premium estate grown Zinfandel since the family purchased the land in 1997.
Mike Talty is serious about his Zinfandel. He makes no apologies for doing what he thinks is best for his vines on his land, no matter what his neighbors tell him he should do. The results speak for themselves. Much like Australia's Next Chapter of Syrah, Zinfandel too can suffer from a perception of being too high in alcohol and too oaky. But also like Australia's young generation of winemakers, Talty makes a decidedly more accurate representation of what Zinfandel can be. Instead of scorching aromas of burning alcohol and port, Talty's Zins show off fresh ripe red fruits, namely cranberry, pomegranate and black cherry with oak in a supporting role in the background.
Talty was especially happy with the 2012 fruit sitting in open top fermentation vats. He walked us through his winemaking techniques highlighting the work he does in the vineyard before grapes are even picked. The word that popped into my mind when he was describing his wines was, "work ethic". Mike Talty does almost everything at his winery—it's literally a one-man operation. But his obsession is our reward. Sadly there's just not enough of the wine to go around for everybody.
Our next stop was at another premium producer, A. Rafanelli where four generations of the Rafanelli family have farmed the land perfecting their style of Zin.
Winemaker, Shelly Rafanelli was equally as excited about the 2012 fruit coming into the winery. Her Great-Grandfather, Alberto Rafanelli first founded A. Rafanelli in the early 1900's where he started growing his own grapes and making his own wine. It wasn't until the 1950's that the family moved to Dry Creek Valley where his son, Americo started getting into the family business. Americo's son David along with David's wife, Patty now operate the business where their daughter, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo graduate Rashell (Shelly) now leads the winemaking team.
Stepping into the winery felt somewhat like stepping into a museum. Old redwood siding, 1970's style light fixtures and old wine vats felt like we were in someone's home that just happened to be a winery.
There were no fancy tasting room with tasting flights, however, Shelly did take us into the wine cave where we had a chance to sit at the table and see A. Rafanelli wine firsthand over some good conversation. It's not very often when a Zinfandel can take you back in time, but I imagine early Zin producers in the valley used to make this style of wine back when wine didn't rely on wine critics scores or press. The 2010 Zinfandel showed well focused fruit from old vines with dark candy apple colors in the glass fading out to a lighter maraschino cherry red around the rim. Shimmering highlights of star bright ruby stone color suggested a clean, precise winemaking style.
Alberto would surely be pleased to see how well the Rafanelli's have upheld the highest standard of Zinfandel. Fresh, ripe bramble berry, cranberry and summer raspberries were complimented in the glass with rhubarb pie, faint savory and fresh ground spices. You can tell a good wine by its finish, and in this case the lingering finish seemed to go on and on much longer than one would expect from Zinfandel.
Dry Creek Valley isn't just about Zinfandel. Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon do very well here, especially when grown on hillsides around the valley rather than on the valley floor where Zinfandel lives. We had a chance to taste a few Cabernets at Kachina Winery where Greg Chambers and his wife Nancy established a green "off-the-grid" winery in the early 1990's after leaving their high tech jobs in silicon valley. Harvest lunch was underway featuring local coffee-rubbed Berkshire pork tenderloin and Farro with wild mushrooms and dried cherries.
One of the standout wines was the 2007 Kachina Dry Creek Valley Cabernet Sauvignon featuring Darth Vader dark colors and dark red fruits in the glass. At a sneaky low 13.9% alcohol the wine seemed bigger and more complex, which is an accomplishment in and of itself. And at $42 the price/quality ratio was above average—it seemed like the wine should cost more. Kudos for keeping the price down and quality up.
A trip to Dry Creek wouldn’t be complete without a visit to another longtime family operation, Pedroncelli (pronounced: pedren-chelly) who produce a wide swath of wallet-friendly estate wines. The Mother Clone Zinfandel is especially tasty at $16 a bottle.
Like the Rafanelli's, the Pedroncelli family has many vintages in Dry Creek Valley under their belt since John Pedroncelli Sr. purchased the winery land in 1927. Wine lovers have gotta love it when a winery works as hard as the Pedroncelli's do to keep their prices down to make the wines available for enjoying every night of the week. Upon walking into the tasting room, Mrs. B and I were pleasantly surprised to find most of the estate-grown wines were around $12-$16 a bottle.
The Pedroncelli's source fruit from three locations in Dry Creek valley added up to about 180 acres total. Solid, well-made wines fit into the family tradition of bringing everyone together at the table over a meal, a bottle of wine and good conversation. We found the Petite Sirah and unoaked Chardonnay to be easy drinking and a good value (which is why we loaded up on some). If you ever visit the winery, ask for Gina in the tasting room.
Ridge Lytton Springs was the final stop. If I had to pick five of my top five favorite domestic brands, Ridge would certainly be on the list. Few California wineries have had the same winemaker since the 1960’s, but Ridge hit the jackpot in 1969 when they brought on Stanford Philosophy major, Paul Draper who had just returned from setting up a winery in Chile. Inspired by Napa Valley’s Claret’s of the 1930’s, Draper set out from the beginning to produce timeless ageworthy wines that represent the place they were grown with a hands-off approach.
Ridge's unique history goes back even further to the 1880's when a prominent Italian San Francisco doctor planted the first vines in rare limestone soils high above San Jose in the Santa Cruz mountains. That vineyard would gradually attract more plantings from different owners over the years and become the Monte Bello vineyard from which one of the finest domestic Cabernet Sauvignon's comes from.
It seems the founding partners of Ridge had a knack for establishing both their locations at Monte Bello and off Lytton Springs road way before anyone else saw the potential. Over the past four decades the stars have aligned for Ridge and they continue to produce exceptional wines year after year.
An afternoon of Zinfandel has a way of making you crave pizza and home made sausages. Luckily Chef Dino Bugica is there to scratch that itch with Diavola, located a few exits up 101 in Geyserville. Bugica is well known for his Braised Beef Tripe alla Fiorentina, wood fired pizzas, home made sausages and pork butchering workshops.
It has almost become a tradition at this point—when we get done visiting wineries, we always seem to find ourselves at Diavola. On this day we ready to put down the landing gear and call it a day with a classic Negroni (my drink of choice) and a wood fired pizza or two.
Mrs. B picked the Inferno featuring roasted red peppers, tomato, basil, mozzarella and spicy italian peppers. We took it a step further and added homemade sausage.
The Inferno Pizza with Added Homemade Sausage
I opted for the aptly named Diavola pizza with roasted red peppers, provolone cheese, house made meatballs, pine nuts, raisins and arugula on top. That little bit of fresh green bitterness from the arugula brings all the flavors together nicely.
For Mrs. B and I, days like this are why we live in Northern California. The history of food and drink in this part of the world has attracted visitors and transplants for over a century. We took our car loaded with spoils of the day along with our full tummies and headed home. No matter what time of year, each day presents the opportunity to have a perfect day in wine country.
When thinking about the wines of Washington state many wine drinkers may lump Walla Walla together with wines from the Columbia Valley. The former is a wine region at the southeast corner of the state with a total of 1800 acres planted (which is small). The latter is basically the entire middle 1/3 of the state. Columbia Valley is where large producers like Chateau St. Michelle produce hundreds of thousands of cases of value-driven wines. Conversely, Walla Walla is a region full of small producers crafting smaller amounts of higher quality well-priced wines.
The two regions are cut from a similar cloth, but they’re personalities are as different as two siblings can be.
On #CabernetDay 2011 there was a massive tasting in Napa valley with close to 200 winemakers, sommeliers and other professional wine palates. Close to 100 world class Cabernet-based wines were tasted over four hours from regions like Bordeaux, Napa, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Loire Valley and Washington state.
Wines on display that day were wines like Penfold’s Bin 707, Chateau Montelena, second growth Bordeaux’s, Vilafonté from South Africa, Cullen from Margaret River, Frog’s Leap, Couly-Dutheil Clos de L’Echo Chinon from Loire valley and Jordan to name a few.
At the end of the event attendees were asked to pick their favorite favorite wine, and wouldn’t you know it the most popular wine was 2001 L’Ecole No. 41 Walla Walla Cabernet Sauvignon, which sold for about $30 retail upon release.
The following year on #CabernetDay 2012 again there was a large tasting, and again there were high caliber wines from different regions. And again L’Ecole No. 41 was a favorite—this time it finished in the top 3 with the 2005 vintage (1995 Ridge Monte Bello came out on top).
It was a glimpse into the untapped potential of Walla Walla’s true ranking on the world stage of wine regions. Perhaps none of us realize how good Walla Walla wines can be because it’s such a young region. The oldest wineries have only been around since the mid 1980’s and the region wasn’t officially established as an AVA until 1984.
“I love cellared wines! One of the great things about making wine in Walla Walla is occasionally going back in time with an older vintage. This ’97 surprised me with its color, aroma, texture and fruit. Both vineyards were actually rather young in 1997, yet still they offered a glimpse into what they could or would produce several decades later, absolutely amazing! This is agriculture in its purest form, plain and simple and I love it.” - Rick Small, Woodward Canyon
There are no vast libraries of older vintages for us to look at. Only a few coveted library wines from Chris Figgins at Leonetti, Marty Clubb at L’Ecole No. 41 or Rick Small at Woodward Canyon offer any glimpse into Walla Walla’s ageability. Unfortunately, there’s just not enough of the older vintages in existence.
To put it in context, there were less than 5 wineries in Walla Walla in 1984, 11 wineries in 1995 but now there are well over 100 and that number is growing. You’d be hard pressed to find red wines from before the mid-1990’s. In wine years that was like, yesterday.
Walla Walla’ Rich History
After WWII a U.S. census showed Walla Walla had more millionaires per capita than anywhere in the country. Back then, rolling hills of wheat were a consistent crop for large breweries, Budweiser being the biggest customer. Anyone with land and wheat could sell their product hand over fist, especially land in the rain shadow of the nearby Blue Mountains where wheat was harvested three times more than other places.
The early influx of wealth helped establish the region and city of Walla Walla. But the history of winemaking goes back even further than that. According to Norm McKibben, one of Walla Walla’s forefathers, French traders came to the region in the early 1800’s by river to trade wares at the Fort Vancouver and Hudson Bay outpost. Apparently the French brought grape vines with them wherever they went. They would plant and cultivate vines in their explorations. To this day, there are still french streets names and family names rooted in Walla Walla’s long history.
Italian immigrants also played a large role in the region by bringing vines with a tradition of growing, making and drinking wine. They planted vines with the intent of making homemade wines. The Pesciallo family is credited with starting the first bonded winery, Blue Mountain Vineyards in the 1950’s.
Walla Walla World Class Wines are Underpriced
In youth, most Walla Walla wines exhibit dark, purple-hued fruity wines with a vein of black cherries, ripe plums and an iron component that can best be described as lemon butter cookies. Grapes are picked with brix in the mid-20’s when skin to juice contact will be concentrated. The resulting wines offer a seamless evenly textured wine with equal balance between fruit and acid.
A shorter growing season with longer days of sunlight where the sun sits lower on the horizon due to Walla Walla’s distance from the equator, combined with schist covered Basalt gives the wines power and finesse without angular edges. By nature, the wines will be opulent with an inherent silky texture upon release. Maybe that’s why we don’t see older Walla Walla wines—they’re so good upon release who wants to wait?
Over time, the ripe fruits start to show more dried fruit characteristics, and that initial seamless texture only gets softer and silkier. While that might sound good, the best part is the price. Walla Walla’s wines are very well priced at around $35-$50 a bottle on average compared with $50-$200 in Napa or Bordeaux. They may be some of the highest quality, lowest priced wines from anywhere in the world.
For me personally, I like Walla Walla red wines around 8-12 years old. That’s when the power and finesse really converge to a sweet spot unlocking an “X -factor” in the wine. Where many regions hang their hat on one grape, Walla Walla seems to have a hard time picking one because so many do so well. And that’s a good thing.
Strong contenders for Walla Walla’s flagship grape could be Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or maybe even Cabernet Franc.
Hillside plantings with wind blown silt known as loess provides ample drainage for red grape varietals. In a small strip of land on the Oregon side of the state line there’s a dried out river bed where large round rocks resembling golf balls make up “the rocks”. That’s where Christophe Baron of famed Cayuse Vineyards planted Syrah vines in ankle bending rocky soils resembling Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Newcomer Dusted Valley planted right next door several years ago, and their wines are just about to hit the market.
the "rocks" where Dusted Valley is growing and producing Syrah
I’ve had a chance to taste a few older Walla Walla wines in 2012 and can say I might end up on the show, Hoarders. Here’s a few library tastings that show the beauty of Walla Walla’s graceful ageability:
1997 Woodward Canyon Cabernet Sauvignon ($40 release price) - Rick Small was in the right place at the right time when he started Woodward Canyon. He’s the Berry Gordy of Motown, the Dave Brubeck of jazz, the Henry Ford of cars...Rick was one of the first to do it right and set the standard.
He planted vineyards on family land in the 1980’s and really helped attract future winemakers to the area through mentorship and leading by example. This is one of the few wineries that has older library wines to show off, and the good thing is they’re located right next door to one of the other early pioneers at L’Ecole No. 41. Nowhere else in the valley are you going to find the older vintages that these two possess.
Woodward Canyon's Rick Small did it right from the start
I’ve visited Rick a few times over the years, and each time we go out to the vineyard, not only to look at vines, but to pick fresh herbs from his sustainably farmed garden. Rick’s latest love is wood fired pizzas in his own pizza oven out in back of the winery.
The 1997 is from a bottling that would later become his Old Vines line of Cabs. Made from 60% Woodward Canyon vineyard and 40% Pepper Bridge vineyard this 100% Cabernet Sauvignon is only 13.3% alcohol and might fool a blinder taster into thinking this was a first or second growth Bordeaux.
95% opaque garnet colors in the glass gave way to signs of age around the rim where the color lightens to a 50% opaque garnet/ruby color with a weeee bit of tear staining.
A clean, elegant moderate nose of baked choke cherries, baked black cherries, stewed plums and baked rhubarb pie at the core were wrapped together with a ribbon of lemon butter cookie, raisins and a slight sign of oxidation—the kind you like to smell in fine Bordeaux.
Many of those enticing aromas were confirmed on the palate—again with the baked cherries, cooked plums, baked rhubarb along with some damp tobacco leaf, jellied Thanksgiving cranberry and a slight showing of black olives. There was a little mocha thing happening on the finish that I thought might be from Merlot, but since none was added it's most likely from oak.
I like Rick's wines and have been drinking them over the years since living in Oregon. You don't just put the empty bottle in recycling and forget about it—he gives you something to talk about and makes you think about the wines even hours after you've enjoyed them.
2002 Pepper Bridge & 2006 Amavi ($50 & $25 respectively) - There's a few important things to know here. The first is both wineries are sister wineries to one another. The second is they were both created with the help of Walla Walla founding father, Norm McKibben. Norm had the vision to do a lot of things in Walla Walla, one of which was the buy a stellar plot of land known as Les Collines Vineyard. If you see that on the label—buy it, whatever it is!
Les Collines fruit is like the hot girl at the party—it's pretty and everybody wants to get their hands on it. Master Sommelier, Greg Harrington sources Les Collines fruit for his highly acclaimed Gramercy Cellars wines.
In addition to bringing Les Collines online, Norm and the Pepper Bridge team also helped develop another important vineyard called Seven Hills. Located on the Oregon side of the border not far from the "rocks", Seven Hills is where much of the growth is happening in Walla Walla. They have their own commercial on-site composting operation that, for anyone who grows plants, would blow you away.
If you look at the Woodward Canyon wine above, 40% of the fruit came from Pepper Bridge vineyard. So what I'm saying is these two wineries are making wines from some of the best fruit sources in Walla Walla, sources that they helped develop.
Winemaker, Jean-François Pellet opened the 2002 Pepper Bridge Cabernet Sauvignon when I visited in September. Much like in Napa and Sonoma, Mother Nature also smiled upon Walla Walla with a near ideal growing season. Jean-François notes, "this rich, polished and multifaceted Cabernet Sauvignon entices you with layers of sweet black cherry, ripe plum, licorice, cedar, and spice flavors with a subtle touch of mineral. This highly concentrated wine offers an incredible blend of power and finesse with a long and persistent finish."
#CabernetDay crowd favorite two years running
2001 L'Ecole No. 41 Cabernet Sauvignon ($35 release price) - This is it. This was the wine that stands head and shoulders above all the other world class wines presented during #CabernetDay. Marty Clubb of L'Ecole and Rick Small are next door neighbors. They've both been around and have seen the valley grow from a tiny industry with less than five wineries to a burgeoning region making world class juice.
The 2001 was right in the drinking window when we had it last year. Instead of giving all the wonderful tasting notes, I can just say this was a reminder of why we drink wine. Every now and then a bottle comes along and provides that "OMIGOD" experience. From novice wine lover to experienced taster, there's something about this wine that pretty much anybody would love.
It was cashmere in a glass with plenty of X-Factor and personality. We had a few bottles but already drank them all like a bunch of piglets...we couldn't wait!
They know how to do things right at Jordan Winery. Every year the winery throws an epic holiday party at the winery in Sonoma for wine club members and friends of the winery. The theme this year was the '50s—everyone was dressed up in retro gear, there was music from the era playing over the sound system and there was even an Elvis impersonator (the thin Elvis, not the porkchop Elvis). Mrs. B and I brought her parents for an afternoon of fun and food. Once we found the photo booth it was game on. There may or may not have been some wine drinking that happened before we got in there. In fact, it was kind of fun to watch people loosen up over the course of the party as the wine flowed and the photos got funnier.
What Jordan Winery does well is...well, a lot of things. When it comes to rolling out the red carpet for visitors they do it better than anyone in wine country. As a wine geek I look forward to coming to the Jordan winery to see what older vintages they have open (often times they're large format which is a bonus). Few wines can demonstrate the terroir of Alexander Valley over time like Jordan's Cabernet's.
The afternoon starts with a personal greeting at the front gate. Then you roll up the hill to Jordan's well manicured lawns, gold and rust colored ivy walls and the chateau inspired winery set atop a hill overlooking 1,200 estate owned acres.
It might seem like you're moving on up like George and Weezy when you arrive at the winery. And although it might look like a high falutin' pretentious place (at least according the Yelpers) the people at Jordan are down to earth, warm and hospitable. They make you feel like you're 'home'.
This year Jordan and sister winery, J were doing a toy drive.
The winery always looks great this time of year. Most of the ivy going up the sides of the walls was still in tact and full of bright fall colors.
When you turn around you can see out over the property. Right over that short green hedge is a hill that slopes down into the property that features a mix of natural habitat and vines:
Not even ten steps into the winery and they're already handing you a glass with the newest vintage of Chardonnay. In recent years, Jordan has refined their Chardonnay style by reducing malolactic fermentation so it's not too "buttery" or over the top but more elegant.
Deviled eggs with bacon in them? Yes, please!
Obviously this was supposed to be the skinny Elvis, not the bigger, beefier Elvis of the 1970's.
Finger foods featuring skewer shrimp, ahi tuna, prosciutto wrapped pears and caviar. Pinkies up!
Jordan often opens a range of vintages, including the current release. The winemaking style at Jordan is very consistent from vintage to vintage.
2005 was drinking really well out of 750ml bottles, and just now entering into its drinking window. If you have this vintage, I'd guess it'll really be singing like a bird in 3-5 more years.
2004 wasn't as hot of a year as 2005 and seemed to be drinking a bit better. Drink this vintage while waiting for the 2005's to come around. That one extra year makes a difference.
2002 was really good vintage in California and this proved it. The 2002 was the crowd favorite and really demonstrated the benefit of aging wine. For me, I like my California Cabernet Sauvignon's at least eight years old because the grape needs that kind of time to mellow out. That's the personality of the grape—it's not really a wine that shows its best stuff at a young age. Because Jordan's wines are so well made, you really get to see what Alexander Valley is all about when drinking an older vintage. This would be the kind of wine you'd pour if you were teaching a class about Alexander Valley terroir.
Chicken pot pie in a little tiny hand held bite. Whoever thought of this is a frickin' genius! But the best bite of the whole thing had to be these beef sliders:
As if we didn't stuff our pie holes with enough good food and drink, they put the desserts out by the door. I may or may not have wolfed down a dessert or two on the way out.
A big thank you to the winery for inviting us to be part of the festivities!
2010 was a classic vintage in Oregon and Washington. As the wines from the vintage start to enter the market, wine lovers might feel like a kid in a candy store with all the choices of what to buy. Here's a few brands you may or may not have heard of, but are worth discovering.
"2010 was the best vintage I've ever seen at Leonetti." ~ Chris Figgins, Winemaker
Just in case you aren't able to get your mitts on 2010 wines, stay tuned because 2011 is right behind it and is shaping up to be similar in terms of vintage characteristics and quality. Back to back growing seasons with cooler temperature and extended days of ripening into October set the stage for ideal levels of sugar and acidity in the grapes at harvest.
Troon—Applegate Valley, Oregon
In recent years Southern Oregon has been enjoying a growth spurt as more wine lovers discover the grape varietals that benefit from warmer temperatures as well as micro climates in the Umpqua, Rogue, Illinois and Applegate Valleys near Roseburg. While the Willamette Valley terroir is well-suited to thin skin varietals like Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay, Southern Oregon features 'signature grapes' Syrah, Zinfandel and Tempranillo. Other grapes being planted include Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Vermentino, Albariño and Viognier depending on elevation of the vineyards.
Mother nature created this little corner of the world situated between the Willamette Valley 5 hours drive to the north, and Napa/Sonoma 8 hours to the south. Marine climate and varying elevations offer a range of soil types from volcanic to sandy loam and hard clay.
Dick Troon realized the potential forty years ago (just a few years after David Lett planted the first vines at Eyrie) when he planted his Zinfandel vineyard.
- 2008 Troon Zinfandel Reserve - Applegate Valley Really a bit of surprise to see how good this wine was. The Troon Reserve Zin has the best of both worlds—spice laden ripe red fruits with moderate alcohol at about 14.1%. Who knew Zinfandel could grow well in Southern Oregon?
- 2008 Syrah Reserve - Applegate Valley If tasted blind, this might be mistaken for a Washington state Syrah. Opaque purple-black color with sweet ripe Oregon blackberry, plum and prune with medium French oak influence (thankfully). Drink now after decanting or wait 3-5 years.
- 2009 Old Vine Meritage - Applegate Valley Decent blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc from 35-year old vines. Wasn't blown away by it, structure was lacking acidity for me but a riper style with moderate oak influence will appeal to wine drinkers.
Seven of Hearts—Willamette Valley, Oregon
Oregon has plenty of good producers crafting great wines—do they need another? In this case, yes. A pleasant surprise in 2012 has been the discovery of this winery founded by ex-Silicon Valley resident Byron Dooley and his wife Dana. It's unfortunate their production is small because the wines are delicious and really well made.
The Dooley's left Silicon Valley after the 2000 bubble burst and made as stop in Napa where Byron earned a viticulture and winemaking degree from Napa college. In 2004 they moved north to the Willamette Valley where they established a 12-acre vineyard in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA. Seven of Hearts was born in the interest of creating limited production wines that represent the place they're grown.
2010 Chatte D'Avignon Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre - Columbia Valley Wow. In a word, WOW. If tasted blind this wine might be mistaken for Saint-Joseph or Crozes Hermitage in northern Rhone. Although those are Syrah only wines, the distinct black pepper and smoked meat notes are similar. Very good wine for $25.
2010 Chateau Figareaux Cabernet Franc - Columbia Valley Sourced from grapes on the Oregon side of the Columbia Valley, this is part of the Bordeaux varietal program featuring wines that are precise, structured and impeccably balanced. I've often wondered about Cab Franc's potential in Columbia Valley. Like many of the wines from this producer, the Cab Franc is an ideal representation of the grape and the place it was grown. Distinct characteristics of black fruits, spice, more black fruits woven together with moderate French oak and structured acidity.
2009 Pinot Noir - Willamette Valley At $20 a bottle this is a steal. It's not very often you can find a wine with complexity, balance and finish at this price point. I had to do a double take at the price. My guess was $35 a bottle. Like the Luminous Hills Pinot Noir, it's a "hippy" style that's lighter in color and style.
2010 Luminous Hills Pinot Noir - Yamhill-Carlton Out of a field of stellar 2010 Pinot Noir's from the Willamette Valley comes an instant classic. More of a hippy style Pinot with light feminine characteristics from the light brick red color to the floral aromas coming out of the glass. If you were teaching a class about what a text book Pinot Noir might look like, you'd use this wine. Precise, balanced, low alcohol with firm acidity and moderate oak all play supporting roles for the lead character, which is beautiful red fruits that deliver a 5-star performance.
Gramercy Cellars—Walla Walla, Washington
Master Sommelier, Greg Harrington has been responsible for some of the most prestigious wine lists in the U.S. (and he was the youngest person to pass the Master Sommelier exam at age 26). So in the spring of 2004 at a backyard picnic in Brooklyn, Greg and his wife, Pam tasted wines from Washington state that displayed something special. The Harrington's went to Walla Walla where they went on a marathon tasting trip that convinced Greg this was the place he could realize his dream to make wine. Gramercy Cellars was born.
You'd expect someone with a trained palate to craft great balanced food-friendly wines with limited oak influence in a way that represents the grape and the place the grape is grown. In its short history, Gramercy Cellars has partnered with some of the best vineyards and accomplished just that.
2010 Gramercy Cellars Walla Walla Valley Syrah - Walla Walla This was my birthday wine this year. Actually, that should read, "wines". Multiple bottles were ordered and they all went bye-bye during a party with fellow wine professionals. A wine like this one are a strong argument for Syrah being Washington's best grape. Although it's opaque in color, minimal winemaking, restrained extraction and moderate oak offer an impeccably balanced wine weighing in a 13.9% alcohol.
2010 Gramercy Cellars The Third Man GSM - Columbia Valley The website description says it best: "The wine is fresh, red berry dominant with smoke and mineral. We managed to capture the liquor-esque fruit that grace the best Southern Rhone wines, without having the wine turn out over extracted or heavy. Think the greatest Luden's red cherry cough drop you have ever had. And its herbal as Grenache should be."
2009 Gramercy Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon - Walla Walla Limited production 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from two estate vineyards. I had a chance to taste this wine at TEXSOM along with all the Gramercy wines. In a blind tasting this wine will have enough personality or terroir to stand out. As I was thinking about how to describe the wine to you, again Master Harrington does it better on the site: "The 2009 is massive with red and black fruits, herbs and earth. This is definitely not the first wine to open in the box. Give it some time or at least throw it in a decanter overnight. Patience is definitely rewarded."
There's no shortage of exceptional dining in the bay area. So for a restaurant to really stand it needs to have a unique personality. As you drive north on Hwy 101 across the Golden Gate into Marin county you may get hungry. Whether heading to wine country or visiting Northern California for shopping or scenery, take a moment and discover new "must see" dining spots:
Batika Indian - Novato
This discovery is in Novato of all places—not really the first place you think of when you think of fine dining. Batika Indian Cuisine is one of the finest Indian restaurants Mrs. B and I have been to anywhere in the world. And we've been to many including spots in Melbourne, London, Vancouver, Sydney and NYC.
Here in Novato's old town district (down the street from Whole Foods) is a diamond in the rough. Batika has a simple menu but everything on the menu is affordable, yet delicious. Take the Methi Murg for example. There's a reason "meth" is in the name, because it's like crack. The cream based spicy sauce and tender chicken melt in your mouth.
Speaking of melt in your mouth, can chicken be so succulent that it melts like butter when you eat it? The Tandoori Chicken sure seems like it. So moist and flavorful, yet so simple. Each bite is loaded with flavor from the exotic spices and tandoori oven smokiness. Although the wine list is limited, I found the Trefethen Riesling to be a great choice to pair with.
Add in some saffron rice and garlic naan and you're set. Batika usually has a Yelp deal going so you can get a discount. We can have an entire meal for about $40 without wine.
The Hummingbird - Fairfax
It's like owner, Michelle Elmore created a creole cafe in New Orleans then picked the whole thing up and carried it to California. That scenario isn't too far from the truth. The fine arts photographer left New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina flooded her neighborhood and moved out west with $69 in her pocket.
Elmore learned how to make cajun and creole street food through the years eating at people's homes and photographing New Orleans' colorful characters. Some of her photos adorn the walls, like the close up shot of a man smiling with gold capped teeth. The Hummingbird is tucked away in Marin county in the hippy-friendly town of Fairfax with plenty of nearby parking.
We go for the breakfast items like Chicory Coffee or Chicken and Waffles. The added touch of soul and funk music streaming from a New Orean's radio station adds extra flavor to the experience.
Mrs. B and I have eaten at The Hummingbird a half dozen times and plan on going back repeatedly.
Rosso Pizzeria + Mozzarella Bar - Petaluma
Located in the new up and coming Theater District area of downtown Petaluma. Rosso has only been open since May, but it's the right concept at the right time in the right location. Residents of Santa Rosa may be familiar with Rosso's other location on Montgomery street.
From artesian mozzarella to tripe to wood fired pizzas and daily specials, Rosso hits the mark with well priced delicious food. But the secret weapon may be the wine list. Rosso offers a unique selection of wines by the glass or by the bottle from affordable Italians to Harlan Estate (priced as "Don't Ask" on the menu).
A restaurant can be measured by how well they execute on the basic items. In this case, a basic item like Pizza Margherita demonstrates Rosso's commitment to quality ingredients and technique.
You'd think a Napa winery that has been around for almost thirty years would have a big tasting room for tourists to pile into by the bus load. For many visitors to Napa, stepping into large tasting rooms give the immediate impression of a cash cow. Have you seen our club? We have a wine club. Join our club. Subscribe to our newsletter. We have wine and knick knacks for you. Your resistance in futile....we will convert you into a customer.
Sometimes you want to visit a winery in Napa valley without feeling the obligation..any obligation to anything other than enjoy some wine. After thirty years, Saintsbury is just getting around to opening their doors to visitors, and it's like time forgot this place. Here, you get to just chill out without having to fight for attention at the tasting bar. The experience happens outside in Saintsbury's garden where you'll be greeted by Ralph, the 18-year old tabby. He's a lover.
Words that describe the experience at Saintsbury—easy, casual, laid back, unpretentious, comfortable. You get the idea. When we went on a sunny Sunday, they told us being open on Sunday is a new thing at the winery. Guess they hadn't gotten around to opening the doors to visitors. Instead, Saintsbury has quietly gone about the business of making great wine year in and year out since the early days when founders Richard Ward and David Graves were featured in Wine Spectator. In those days Pinot Noir didn't enjoy the popularity it has now (in fact, it was often called 'Garnet' on the label), but you gotta hand it to the guys for sticking to their guns and handing their hat on it.
They have two things going for them at Saintsbury—a winemaker trained in Burgundy, and estate-grown Carneros fruit. Do the math on that and you'll find it's a match made in heaven. Not surprising, Saintsbury's main two grapes are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The Saintsbury style focuses on fruit that may exhibit youthful charm, but really develops complexity over time, maybe more than most California wines. I tried a 1986 Carneros Pinot Noir earlier this year and found a new appreciation for the agability of California Pinot's.
On this particular lazy Sunday, we tasted through a handful of wines including the Vin Gris Rosé of Pinot Noir. Some of the standouts:
2011 Vin Gris - Rosé of Carneros Pinot Noir made with whole cluster pressing resulting in a delicate balance of dry and sweet. Notes of fresh picked Oregon strawberries with hints of flint, guava and white peach. Drink now for freshness
2010 Carneros Chardonnay - Reminds me of Cuvaison's approach to Carneros Chardonnay. By blending Chardonnay grapes from a wide range of clones such as Dijon (95, 96, 548 & 809), Wente Cabral and various other selections in Carneros you get complexity. Aromas of Bosc pears, red Fuji apple, orange blossom and white carnations. Drink now-2016
2008 Brown Ranch Chardonnay - From macro to micro, Saintsbury is really wanting to express terroir with Dijon 95 & 96 clones in the Brown Ranch Vineyard, located on Old Sonoma Road in Carneros. Taransaud and François Freres barrels, 30% new oak and malolactic fermentation sounds like it would result in a butterball, but Saintsbury does things with finesse and agability. There's restraint resulting in a more mineral-driven, flinty style of Chardonnay. Drink now-2020
2009 Carneros Pinot Noir - Like the Carneros Chardonnay, the Carneros Pinot benefits gets complexity from a variety of fruit sources. After 30 years of winemaking in this region, these guys know where to get fruit, when to pick it, what oak to use and how to blend it. For the price, this is a steal. Getting a Pinot Noir made in a more restrained delicate style like the Carneros "cuvee" is a win.
2009 Cerise Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir - This is the only wine from Saintsbury that isn't made with Carneros fruit. Anderson valley has established itself as a premium Pinot Noir producing region, but the thing I like is Saintsbury gets their fruit from elevations of 700-1000 feet. Shallow gravelly loam soils on steep hillsides provide smaller concentrated yields around 1.5 tons per acre. This vineyard provides more of a darker, spicy perfumey style Pinot Noir that will benefit from time in the cellar. Drink 2015-2022
2009 Toyon Farm Carneros Pinot Noir - Toyon Farm was planted in 2000 and 2001 in the "banana belt" of Carneros so named because it's shape on the map in the northeast corner of the apellation. The farm was originally a horse ranch located between Hyde vineyard and Brown Ranch. Notes of red raspberry, cardamom, chai and restrained oak over a plush mouth filling texture. Drink now-2022
At least once a week I get asked about where to go and what to do in Napa from people online who are planning a visit. So I put together this ever-changing (mobile phone friendly) guide to visiting Napa Valley. Pretty soon I'll have a Foursquare and/or Forkly guide, along with ongoing updates. Check back frequently to see added content.
Anywhere you see a Forkly photo, click the name of the venue at the bottom of the photo to see where it's located on the map.
General Suggestions and Observations
Try to cluster places you want to visit together. In other words, don’t try to drive all over the valley and visit a winery in Calistoga, then drive to St. Helena then back down to Stag’s Leap. Save your self drive time by doing the south part of the valley one day, and the north part another day.
Plan on 3-4 winery visits at the most. The visits will always take longer than you think. Trying to cram 5 or more winery visits into the day is not likely once you add in drive time and stops for food, photos or other breaks.
Allow time for discovery in your itinerary. There’s so much to see and do that I can’t possibly fit it all in here. Leave your schedule loose so you can find your own hidden gems.
Traffic gets bad on Hwy 29 in the afternoon, especially around St. Helena. You’ve been warned. Silverado Trail runs parallel, and it’s a prettier drive.
Tasting rooms are not there for you to get drunk. They’re there for you to learn a bit about the winery and their wines. The people behind the bar are incredibly patient people who have to deal with some real challenging high maintenance visitors. Don’t be one of them. In fact, tipping the person behind the bar is a common courtesy if they showed you a good time.
There’s not bad time of year to visit.
Napa is approximately 30 miles long top to bottom (Calistoga to Carneros), and about 5 miles wide at its widest point. It’s about an hour and a half from the Golden Gate bridge give or take.
Some wineries take reservations. Some don’t. You can call, or better yet, tweet ahead of time to find out.
Tasting fees. We all hate ‘em but they’re a necessity because in the old days bus loads of people would show up wanting to get drunk for free. Wineries had to come up with a way to circumvent this behavior. It doesn’t take much to get your fee waived, sometimes if you buy something or tweet them ahead they might waive yours.
Large groups over 4-6 people need to call ahead. Most wineries can accommodate, but don’t just show up and then get upset when the winery can’t give the best experience.
The Napa Valley Wine Train is a fun way to see the valley. I've ridden it 5 times since moving here and love it each time. You can enjoy good food and good wine while chugging along through vineyards.
SOUTH NAPA VALLEY
Lodging — South Napa Valley
Napa Marriott - Downtown Napa has been growing, but Napa Marriott is actually located in a better spot right off Hwy 29. Their newly remodeled lobby and restaurant, along with enough powerful free wifi to power a small city make this a prime spot to stay, especially if you like racking up Marriott points. They've got this chorizo breakfast item and a chorizo burger that's pretty good. But the chickpea fries are off the hook.
Food — South Napa Valley
Celedon - This sister restaurant to Cole’s Chophouse is a Napa favorite. The outdoor seating lets cool breezes in, but keeps bugs out. The food is awesome and relatively priced similar to the rest of the valley. Every time I come in, Chef Cole comes over and says hi. Lots of good pork products on the menu, which is nice.
Angele - Next to Celedon in downtown Napa, located on the river. Angele is a French inspired spot with plenty of good wine and food options. Haven’t had a bad experience here.
Oenotri - Sometimes it’s good to go against the grain. Oenotri is an Italian Countryside themed restaurant with an awesome chef and awesome sommelier. The menu offers reasonably priced dishes along with a 25 wines for $25 list. One of our favorite restaurants in Napa.
Norman Rose Tavern - Downtown Napa next door to Oenotri. Great place for a cold beer and some sliders.
Bistro Sabor - When you want a break from the usual California faire, Bistro Sabor serves up unpretentious dishes inspired by Ariel Ceja’s mexican heritage. He’s a member of the Ceja winery family, with deep roots in Napa Valley.
1313 Main - This is a newer spot to find its way into the fabric of downtown Napa. 1313 Main is more of a wine tasting bar with a wide range of wines from California as well as from overseas. Their space is divided into some unique "rooms" from the speakeasy in the front of the house to the private tasting loung in the back.
Oxbow Market - This place is like Disneyland for foodies. Lots and lots of purveyors of fine food items along with some really good restaurants like Pica Pica (Brazilian food), Hog Island Oysters, C Casa Taqueria and Oxbow Cheese Merchant among others.
Model Bakery - Like Gott’s, their other location is in St. Helena. Great for breakfast.
Boon Fly Cafe - Way down in the south part of Napa on Hwy 121. Boon Fly is located in this weird little location that feels like somebody squooshed it together. But the breakfast items are worth checking out on your way into the valley. My favorite is the warm chocolate chip cookie.
Bounty Hunter - BBQ done right. Great wine selection too. Bounty Hunter is located in downtown Napa, which makes it convenient, but finding a seat can be a challenge at times, especially for large groups.
Gott’s Roadside - Located next to the Oxbow Market. This is the other Napa location for Gott’s. The other is in St. Helena.
Redd - Surrounded by world-class dining establishments owned by celebrity chefs in Yountville, Redd holds its own. Chef Richard Reddington has some of the best pork and seafood dishes in the valley, along with a stellar wine list. I took my wife here for her birthday and we loved it. Sit in the bar area if you can or maybe outside on the patio. Redd is an awesome restaurant with awesome food.
Redd Wood - This new hot spot is right by French Laundry in Yountville. The Redd Wood room is Redd's second restaurant featuring a more casual italian menu.
Ad Hoc - This is the sister restaurant to French Laundry with a fixed price comfort food theme. You basically all get the day's menu. If you can make it there on a Monday night for fried chicken you'll be in heaven. People line up out the door for that one.
Wineries Worth Discovering — South Napa Valley
Domaine Carneros - On the way into Napa as you drive on Hwy 121 you’ll see a winery on the side of the road that looks like a Chateau. That’s Domaine Carneros, owned by the Tattinger house in Champagne, France. They make some of the best bubbles in the states as well as some still wine bargains like their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Photo opps and the views are spectacular. Great as a first stop or last stop of the day.
Pine Ridge - This is a total touristy place but that's okay. It's a unique experience as the winery is built into caves going into the hillside that's covered with vines. They have a wide range of wines at various price points from the Chenin Blanc-Viogner (a steal at $11) to the upper range of Cabernet's. Mrs. B likes their selection of Chardonnay's, including the Dijon Clone.
Silverado - I proposed to my wife here.
Cuvaison - Like buttery Chardonnay? Across the street from Domaine Carneros is Cuvaison. They make my wife’s favorite Chardonnay in the valley, the S-Block. They also have stunning views and are surrounded by 360-degrees of vines.
MID NAPA VALLEY
Food — Mid Napa Valley
La Luna Taqueria - This is the place locals go for lunch. La Luna is a market located down the street from BV and Rutherford Grill on Rutherford Road. For a few bucks, you can have some delicious tacos, huge burritos or tasty tortas. It’s one of the more affordable lunches you can have in Napa without the show.
Alex Italian - A little higher end dining, but enjoyable.
Dean and Deluca - Their breakfast and lunch sandwich’s are delicious. And they have some of the best coffee in the valley. The turkey pesto sandwich is the #1 selling sku in the whole place. Not a bad option if you want a quality lunch but don’t want to sit down. Prices are moderate (lunch will set you back about $10-$15 a person for sandwich and drink). Seating inside is non-existent so take it to go or eat outside next to the fountain. Oh yeah, they have naughty baked goods that you can't resist.
Rutherford Grill - These guys are blessed with a prime location. Keep that in mind when it’s lunch time because they fill up fast. The French Dip might very well be one of the top 3 dishes in the whole valley. Portions are huge, so sharing isn’t hard to do. Also, the grilled artichoke appetizer will be a favorite even for meat eaters.
Gott’s Roadside - The roadside ‘50s style hamburger stand is alive and well. Gott’s is a favorite destination and a moderately priced option for lunch. I say moderately because you’ll get all the classic burger stand options, but with a twist. All the food is sourced fresh locally. The burger meat comes from a high quality ranch. The herbs come from the garden out back. Shakes are $6 which is ridiculous but the sweet potato fries will make up for it. It was called Taylor’s Refresher for decades so don’t be confused by the Taylor’s sign that’s still out front.
Wineries Worth Discovering — Mid Napa Valley
Flora Springs - One of the more modern tasting rooms is Flora Springs located next to Dean and Deluca. It’s more like a hipster NYC bar than it is a winery, but that’s okay. You’ll be treated to a wide range of wines
*Corison - This isn’t a tourist trap and doesn’t get mentioned on many people’s lists when thinking of where to go in Napa. It’s very laid back at Corison, and if you’re lucky you’ll get to meet Hardy Wallace or Cathy Corison. Corison gets an asterisks because they have (in my opinion) one of the best Cabernet Sauvignon’s in Napa. If you’re going to buy Napa wine, consider adding Corison to your cellar. Thank me later.
Caymus - Caymus is a legendary producer in Napa offering a wide range of wines from a wide range of labels. You’ll need to call ahead to make an appointment here but, when you do you’ll probably get to taste some Mer Soleil Chardonnay, Belle Glos Pinot Noir as well as the famous Caymus Cab.
Round Pond - Probably the coolest patio upstairs with amazing views of the valley in all directions. We had a fun time there, and it may not be as busy as other places.
NORTH NAPA VALLEY
Lodging — North Napa Valley
Solage - It’s pricey. I’m not gonna lie, but it’s a destination you go to when you want pampering.
Food — North Napa Valley
Busters BBQ - Busters is a local favorite. Again, if you don’t want to spend a lot, but get a tasty meal, Buster’s is the place. It started out as a 100 sq. ft. building but they’ve since added on. The spicy BBQ is really spicy. No really. The menu is pretty basic BBQ stuff—Tri-Tip, Half Chickens, Ribs and Pork Tenderloin with the usual sides.
Model Bakery - Awesome for breakfast. You’ll find Model Bakery baked goods on the menus of other local restaurants for good reason. For example, Gott’s Roadside uses Model Bakery buns on their burgers and sandwich’s. I love their breakfast sandwich on their english muffins. Yum!
SolBar at Solage - This place is one of my favorites in all of California. They just won a Michelin star for the third year in a row for good reason. The outdoor seating area is awesome. The wine list is awesome. The sliders with 10-hour braised onions and thick cut bacon are awesome. SolBar is a LEEDS certified building that feels both open and spacious as well as modern and rustic.
Jolé - Lesser known but worth discovering if you’re in Calistoga. This is a good place to consider for dinner.
Wineries Worth Discovering — North Napa Valley
Cuvaison - This is their other tasting room aside from the one down south in Carneros. Check out Cuvaison’s range of Chardonnay’s and Pinot Noirs in a hipster, modern tasting room.
Castello di Amorosa - What an impressive project this sister property to V. Sattui is! Although it’s a bit of a tourist trap, it’s a very cool unique experience. This is the closest thing to a real castle with an actual moat, torture chamber and dungeon. The attention to detail is impeccable. There’s a wide range of wines available to try and purchase. You’ll feel like they’re trying to milk every last cent out of you there, and they could be a bit less aggressive about it in my opinion but the castle is something worth doing at least once when visiting Napa.
Schramsburg - Probably the best sparkling wine producer in California with a rich history. If you do the tour you’ll have a chance to tour the caves and see how sparkling wine is made in the traditional method, including technique by their master riddler. That’s the guy who goes through and rotates each bottle little by little until all the secondary ferment has moved into the neck of the bottle. He does this over and over on thousands of bottles every day.
Vincent Arroyo - This is a lesser known producer off the beaten trail. Vincent Arroyo makes a stellar Petit Sirah and has a warm feel.
About an hour southwest of Barcelona is Spain's Priorat wine region. With centuries of history and its proximity to a major city you might expect an experience much like driving to Napa from San Francisco. But upon arriving in Priorat, you'll discover a unique place that history seems to have forgotten. Immediate impressions of the region are reminiscent of southern Utah or the mountainous areas of Arizona. The landscape is dry and rugged with a smattering of arid-climate plant life. Not surprising considering annual rainfall is a mere 16 inches.
Visitors to the region are likely to begin their vist in the town of Falset. There they'll find the newish Priorat visitors center with maps and wines from the region. During my visit, the folks at the visitor center suggested we drive to Gratallops, the next town over. You can see what Gratallops (and many of Priorat's towns) look like in the photo above. Many of the towns are spaced apart by 20 minutes of winding roads and appear as small clusters of old buildings set atop a mountain surrounded by steep terraced vineyards. The towns are so quiet that they almost feel like ghost towns. If it weren't for the 200 residents of Gratallops the buildings may fall into ruins.
The name, "Priorat" comes from the word, "Prior" which refers to the 12th century when the Prior of Scala Dei ruled over the area. During that time in history monks from the Carthusian Monastery of Scala Dei introduced the first vines to the area. Priorat went mostly unnoticed for centuries until the 1980's when René Barbier recognized the potential for the region. René and a small group of friends created a new style of wine that has become Priorat's thumbprint over the past 30 years. By 2012, Priorat has gained critical acclaim for small production concentrated wines but the region is still largely unknown as a tourist destination. Visitors are more likely to see a shepherd and a donkey cart on the side of the road than a modern winery or bodega.
Looking at the region on a map Priorat looks like a circle within another circle. The middle circle, called Priorat DOC (Denominacion de Origen) is full of steep hillside vineyards and well drained slate soils. The outer circle, Montsant DO consists of flatter terrain and shallow soils. The distinction between the two DO's is apparent when you taste the wines side by side. For example, a Grenache from the middle circle is likely to be more concentrated because the steep vineyards drain water faster causing roots to dig deeper. A Grenache from the flatter vineyards on the other hand will have more finesse and won't be as "big" because the flat vineyards' vines don't dig as far. Neither style is better than the other, they're just unique which is why each is a DO.
These two designated growing are are not to be confused with Priorat, the overall "umbrella" name of the region.
Priorat's primary grape is Garnacha (Grenache) but other grapes grow in the region such as Cariñena (Carignan) and new plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. What makes the red wines of Priorat so desirable is the combination of scarcity and growing conditions. Mother nature blessed this place with shimmering brown and black slate soils that drain well and give the wines a mineral character, great concentration without high levels of alcohol.
I asked wine lovers online what they liked about Priorat wines. Here's some of the replies I got:
"When scarcity meets complexity and they take a ride down flavor intensity lane to perch atop a pile of rocks and shout to the world, 'We may be few but we are strong. Like the Spartans of Spanish wine!'" ~J.C. Milam on Facebook
"Complex, earthy,full flavored yet easy to pair with foods. A true companion, not a wine that demands center stage" ~Dyann Espinosa on Facebook
The Priorat visitors center was still somewhat new, but there seems to be an effort to bring the region up a tourist destination. Proximity to Barcelona is a no-brainer as visitors can get to Priorat in less time than it takes someone to get to Sonoma from San Francisco. Once hotels start to pop up, and a few chefs decide to open up restaurants in the area Priorat may get some legs as a tourist destination.
In the meantime, this quiet little un-wine region will continue to produce exceptional world class wines that are short on supply but long on reward.