Wine experiences #openforbusiness

Welcome to Sonoma County! Sonoma towns and our wine country neighbors in Napa, Mendocino, and Lake County welcome visitors and locals alike. We hope you will come visit soon, discover, and be a part of our regional recovery. Roads are open and beautiful fall colors are showing in the vineyards. Bouncing back quickly from devastating wildlands fires and tragic losses in the region, wine country wants you to know we are open for business.

Sonoma wine and hospitality then and now

I moved to Sonoma in 2009. I just missed the 2nd annual Wine Bloggers Conference (WBC) that year. But my interest in grapes, wine, food, and the region led me to meet many of the wine bloggers who attended. Influenced by the WBC community to learn more, I entered the Wine studies program at Santa Rosa Junior College and poured at many wine events. I was fortunate to work at historic Trione Vineyards and Winery in the beautiful Alexander Valley, and honed my blogging skills by posting regularly for 2 years.

Many lasting friendships from the WBC community have developed, endured, and continue to inspire me. At this juncture 10 years out from the first WBC, I think it’s interesting to look at what’s trending in Sonoma wine and hospitality, and – how has it changed since 2009?

Let’s set the context: 2009 was before “big” phones, precision phone cameras, and the surge in selfies that came with the front-facing iPhone4 in 2010. AirBNB was in its infancy (founded Aug 2008). 2009 was the cusp of mass workforce disruption stemming from the economic downtown of 2008. Twitter was emerging and defining social media. And wine was, well – Wine! Wine was enhanced with food on special occasions. Forward-thinking wine businesses published a recipe now and then. But the marketing goals were wine label awareness and associating that wine with delight and popularity. Simply put, “this wine is a good choice.”

Today, wine is part and parcel of a broader view. It’s a lifestyle. It’s an experience. Wine experiences are included now in many offers. These wine experiences open new options and enhance the discovery of wines you like. That’s the ultimate goal after all: discovering wines you like. So what are some of the ways to discover new wines through unique wine country experiences in Sonoma County? I would like to share a few options.


Get your boots dirty

There is nothing quite as much fun as bumping along a vineyard property road sharing earthy aromas, vineyard secrets and beautiful views. Many variations of estate tours are available. Here’s one offered with panache and a bit of grit by Trattore Farms in Dry Creek:

Trattore Mule

The ride winds through vineyards and olive orchards in a Kawasaki “mule” 4×4. The tour begins atop Trattore’s hillside estate vineyard, where guests enjoy a splash of wine while taking in spectacular views of Dry Creek Valley. During the tour, you can learn about the history of Trattore’s local olive trees and sustainability programs. There’s a stop at their new olive mill center for an informative session on the art and science of making extra virgin olive oils. The tour finishes with a full tasting of family wines and extra virgin olive oils.

Trattore Farms, Geyserville | +1 707.431.7200


Benziger tram

Benziger Estate, Glen Ellen CA

Don’t get your boots dirty

Benzinger Family offers behind-the-scenes tours of their Biodynamically farmed Sonoma Mountain estate, winery, and wine cave. There are two versions of the tour, one for small groups with more hands on, culminating in a seated tasting. Another version suits all ages, with a tram ride along vineyard pathways. Benziger is open and welcoming visitors after the Glen Ellen fires touched nearby. The website as of this writing says:

“We are OPEN!

“But, we have been having trouble with our phone lines, so shoot us an email at guestservices@ if we can help you plan your visit.”

Benziger Family Estate, Glen Ellen | +1.707.935.3000

wine country bikes


Backroads cycling tours | Valley-to-valley or to the coast

How about seeing wine country on a bicycle? Wine Country Bikes in Healdsburg reports that favorite biking routes are open and untouched by fire. They offer TREK bikes, my favorite since I’m a Trekkie. If you like what you taste, they even have a service to pick up any wine you purchase along the way as you ride unencumbered. Napa and Sonoma Valley Bike Tours offer the chance to cruise car-free along backroads, including guided bike tours stopping at wineries to taste and picnic.

While these outfitters specialize in guided tours including lunch and road support, they also offer self-guided bike tours and bike rentals if you want to freewheel it. They can create custom programs for private groups, such as corporate team-building. Half-day to multi-day rides are available. To give you a sense of how central the Sonoma Valley location is, according to their website – they are one mile south of Sonoma Plaza, 20 minutes from downtown Napa, and 60 minutes from San Francisco.



Thomson Vineyards, Carneros CA

Farm-to-table vineyard lunch with winemaker, grape grower, and wine country chef

Passaggio Wines is a family-owned artisan winery based in Sonoma Ca. Their “Lunch in the Vineyard” experience this July was hosted with wine country Chef David Walker. The group gathered at Thomson Vineyards Carneros – a cool climate grape region defining southeastern Napa and Sonoma. Owner and grower, Jennifer Thomson shared her beautiful property, a setting conducive to relaxing and socializing.

Tables were nestled among the vines with Passaggio winemaker Cindy Cosco, grape grower Jennifer, and Chef David. Guests heard from these three accomplished experts and had the chance to ask the questions they’d always wanted to ask about cooking and pairing wines, winemaking, and grape growing. Each of 5 courses was carefully paired with a recent Passaggio Wines release. With over 30 years experience in the food, beverage and event management industry, Walker creates unique flavors and dishes based on locally grown and produced ingredients.

To find out about future “Lunch in the Vineyard” dates, contact Passaggio Wines. And, if you’re in town, stop into the Passaggio Tasting Room on the Sonoma Plaza.

Passaggio Wines, Sonoma CA 95476 | +1-707-934-8941


Sonoma Valley, Pat Meier-Johnson Fine Art

Experience Resilience

We hope you find these wine experience options compelling. They represent some of the ways to discover new wines you might like, explore wine country, and break from routine. I’m looking forward to the WBC 2017 agenda that will raise the bar once again on the partnership between wine industry, wine education, and wine bloggers.

If you want to contribute financially to wildfire relief and rebuilding in the region, a new Sonoma County Resilience Fund has been set up as part of the Sonoma Valley Fund. Nearly $3m has been raised and emergency grants are being distributed to support local non-profits in urgent need. Donations to the Resilience fund will be put to use where they are most urgently needed. Online gifts can be made here




Navigating Champagne … A Festive Tasting in Paris!

(Originally published January 11, 2013 on Simple Hedonisms)

By Katherine Parker

The weekend before New Years’ I found myself tasting Champagnes in a Paris apartment with a friendly group of wine aficionados. The tasting was put together by Camilla Macfarlane, a California expat living in Paris, with a background in the wine industry. Camilla put together a wonderful lineup of Champagnes in the holiday spirit, with generous hors d’oeuvres by Kent Keatinge to highlight the wines.

Six Champagnes – all Brut style from esteemed houses – were on the menu. Brut is a medium-dry Champagne and the most popular style sold today. You may find an Extra Dry (slightly more sugar) or an Extra Brut (slightly less) but most of what you see on the market is Brut.  Four of the six were from the region of Reims in France.

Champagne Tasting in Paris

The first two were contrasting varietals: A Laurent Perrier Cuvée Rosé Brut NV made from 100% Pinot Noir grapes, and a Philipponnat Brut Grand Blanc made from 100% Chardonnay grapes. I found the Laurent Perrier the most aromatic of all wines poured, with a distinct nose of fresh wild strawberry-raspberry and an appetizing peach color.  Little cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches went well with these small bubbles. The wine comes in a plump dark bottle – the green glass indicating the “black” pinot grapes. The curvy shape and pink collar clearly brand this as a feminine wine.

Laurent Perrier Cuvée Rosé Blanc

Also, the Laurent Perrier is a Cuvée – a blend of grapes from 10 different villages, all in the Reims region known for Champagne. The wine is aged for at least 4 years and is 12% alcohol – another thing I enjoy about Champagne.

The Philipponnat comes in a white bottle to indicate the all-white Chardonnay grapes. A small pastry appetizer topped with tiny shrimps was perfect with this creamy, smooth Blanc de Blanc-style wine.

Magnums of Champagne

Next Camilla brought out 2 magnums, each a Brut NV blend of all 3 grapes used in classic Champagne: Veuve Clicquot with at least 50% Pinot Noir, 28% Chardonnay, and 15% Pinot Meunier grapes, and Taittinger with 40% Chardonnay and 60% Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The Taittinger captivated me with crispness and structure based on balanced acidity.  That this wine is a blend of grapes from 35 different “crus” or villages, attests to the winemaking skill of the family-owned Taittinger house.

Drinking from a magnum offers a higher quality wine, because there is less oxygen in the bottle relative to the surface area of the wine. This is also said to favor the creation of small bubbles, which enhance the tactile experience of drinking Champagne.

About this time, we moved on to an appetizer of fish breaded into lollipops, with an apricot-mustard sauce. Whether it was the magnums or the fabulous food and conversation that made the evening so agreeable is hard to say. I think by this time we were all having a great time.

Comparison tasting

The near-final Champagne was a Ruinart Brut from the same blend of grapes as the Taittinger but made to be even more crisp, acidic and refreshing. The Ruinart undergoes full malolactic fermentation, which is not noted for the Taittinger. Our group thought this might account for the difference between the two wines.

The Grand Finalé was a vintage Dom Perignon 2003 Champagne. I enjoyed the minerality and structure of this taste. The bubbles were the most perfect of the evening – a fountain of tiny bubbles pulsing up from the center of the flute. Paired with beef chili on mini wheat tortilla squares – Mexican with Champagne goes great!

This event was a great opportunity to compare and contrast. I favored the tastes and textures of Ruinart and Taittinger.  At the end of the day between the two, it would probably be decided on price.  If price were no object, I would go with the Ruinart.

If you are living in Paris, or even if you are visiting like I was, check Camilla’s Paris Wine Meetup Group for tasting dates.

Rosé has Legs! Report from Pink Out! SF

by Katherine Parker

(Originally published May 5, 2012 on Simple Hedonisms)

I attended PINK OUT! SF this week, an event eagerly anticipated and long awaited by me.  PINK OUT! is an annual wine tasting and food-pairing celebration focused entirely on Rosé wines. It’s hosted by Chef Robert Lam at the San Francisco waterfront location of his Butterfly Restaurant. PINK OUT! SF, in its 8th year, is organized by the Rosé Avengers and Producers (RAP).

Rosé came onto my radar when I moved to Sonoma in 2009 and started classes in the wine studies program at Santa Rosa JC. Instructors like Bob Frazer, Ray Johnson and others opened my palate to a broad spectrum of wine varietals and winemaking styles I had never considered drinking. Rosé was one of those.

Living on the border of Carneros, Sonoma Valley and Sonoma Coast, I was soon smitten. My piece “Romance with Rosé,” became one of Simple Hedonisms’ most popular.  When I found out there would be a tasting of 30+ Rosé wines in one place, I was excited.  The wines, the Butterfly waterfront venue and food, and the sassy spirit of PINK OUT! SF lived up to my expectations and more.

The Wines

Rosé is so versatile. Think of the many ways you can use and enjoy it: As a low(er) alcohol wine for a business or vacation lunch (Envolve or Korbin Kameron); as a mouth-cleansing refresher with spicy Asian or BBQ food (Lasseter Family); as an appetite-stimulant with a plate of fabulous cheeses (Dunstan or Kokomo); as a celebration wine, when you want a Pink Champagne with (Gloria Ferrer) or without the bubbles (Chateau D’Esclans) as an aperitif for a festive occasion. Also, a very good Rosé can be had for a great price. Of 40 or so wines, most are priced under $25 with several good value Rosés at $14-18. These were just a few faces of Rosé at PINK OUT! SF.

I found Rosés of all origins, varietals and colors at PINK OUT! SF: France, Spain and Australia; Sonoma and Napa; Yolo and Lake county grapes are represented. There are Rosés made from Grenache, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Syrah, Sangiovese, Vermentino, Zinfandel … to name a few. And at least one (MidSummer Cellars) co-fermented with Viognier (Like!).

The Colors

Straw. Pale Gold. Silver. Platinum. Peach. Salmon. Pink-Pink.Foamy Pink. Licorice Red Candy. Clear Ruby. Hot-Pink! Deep-Pink. Take your pick of pink.

As a whole I found the wines well made. I had a few favorites, which are influenced by my personal preferences (running to dry, low-alcohol Rosé, particularly of Pinot Noir, a varietal I favor).

Top Picks

Kokomo Grenache Rosé 2011. Grapes from Pauline’s Vineyard in Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma CA. This wine is elegant in every dimension: Crystal clear pale platinum in color, dry berry bramble nose, round and mouth-filling on the palette. Drinks well by itself and would pair excellently with an aged Spanish Manchego cheese, shellfish or naturally seasoned grilled pork. It was the perfect accompaniment to Chef Lam’s spicy paella. 13% Alcohol, $22.

Dunstan Rosé, 2011. Signature salmon color, light fragrant nose, dry and cleansing on the palette. Balanced and satisfying. From Sonoma’s famed Durrell Vineyard Pinot Noir grapes.

VML 2011, Rosé of Pinot Noir. Winemaker Virginia (Ginny) Lambrix (Truett-Hurst and VML labels) made this lovely Rosé of Pinot, which retails for $19.

Many other wines here were also worthy of mention:

Chateau D’Esclans, Whispering Angel Rosé 2011, and Rosé 2011 from Cotes de Provence, France.  Whispering Angel seems to create a category all it’s own. Made from a blend of 7 varietals  – predominantly Grenache and Rolle – it is silvery pink in color, soft and round, and so light it seems to evaporate pleasantly in the mouth.  Almost like champagne without the bubbles.  14% alcohol, $19. I liked the Rosé 2011 for its direct and structured approach – Grenache and Rolle with 20% oak. 14% alcohol, $35.

Gloria Ferrer was memorable for sparklers. They I tasted a couple of interesting and well-priced Spanish pink wines, Segura Viudas NV Brut Rosé ($8) and Freixenet NV Rosado Brut ($13).  These were great paired with the oyster appetizers.

DEFINE Wines 2011 Syrah/Grenache Rosé. A new entrant with a finely-tuned, bold and fruity 13.5% alcohol Rosé. $38.

Carneros Wine Co., 2011 Fleur de California Rosé of Pinot Noir. Made from grapes from Carneros and Suisun Valley, this is a straightforward refreshing Rosé. Perfect for lunch at 12.5% alcohol and $14 retail.

Butterfly Restaurant

Chef Lam put together a menu of spicy paella, grilled-cheese burgers and salad that paired so well with the Rosé tasting it was a hard act to follow. Then it was followed by platters of cheeses with cornbread triangles that made me realize how much the cheese and the Rosé wanted to be together.  The waterfront location is ideal with its floor to ceiling windows and open kitchen. I will be back soon to discover the menu and waterfront vistas.

The Bling

At the same time my interest in Rosé developed, Rosé winemaking styles have been rapidly evolving from a “what shall we do with the leftovers?” into an art and craft of Rosé. This event expresses the accessibility, diversity and enthusiasm of today’s Rosé. It’s on my calendar for next year on the second Tuesday of May. That should give me enough time to shop for something pink and sassy to wear in 2013.


Even though this was a holiday event, you can explore the wines and winemakers all year long! Originally published December 10, 2011 on Simple Hedonisms:

Dane Cellars' Santa in "Floods"

Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Association “Wine Market – Holiday Edition” proved to be a great opportunity to taste from 27 wineries in one place, including small producers not open to the public. Here you could taste, then purchase unique wines at fantastic savings. Excellent food tastings, and food-wine pairing advice was available from local Sommeliers  – in Santa hats no less.  Last not least, you could speak with the winemakers … and see what characters they can be!

Santa in Floods? Bart Hansen, winemaker at Dane Cellars, says he spends most of the year in Bermuda shorts. When Sonoma temps hit 75’ F on December 2, he rolled out to the event in his special Santa Floods.  The Dane Cellars Clarksburg 2009 Chenin Blanc he poured is richer bodied than a Sauvignon Blanc, making it a was a good wine for a sunny winter day and a perfect match for the Truffle Mac ‘n Cheese served up by the girl and the fig.

Santa Sommeliers. What is a sommelier (so-mel-yay)? A “Somm,” or wine steward, is a trained and knowledgeable wine professional specializing in all aspects of wine service as well as wine and food matching.  Three certified Somms in Santa hats roamed the floor at the “Wine Market – Holiday Edition” event, helping guests with wine advice, pairing, and directing them to wine specials.

Eric Ross “Struttin’ Red”

Cocky Wine: Eric Ross 2010 Struttin’ Red Eric Luce, winemaker at label Eric Ross, invites you to taste his red blend of the year. 2010 is a unique blend of Tempranillo, Old Vine Zin and Petite Sirah. It screams out for a really good Cheeseburger. Failing to find any cheeseburgers, this wine was great with the Truffle Gateau chocolates featured at the Market. Consumers have many benefits to gain from a single-location event like this. To name a few:

  1. Access unique fine wines and local cuisine
  2. Lower prices on quality wines
  3. Remove the driving around from a wine-tasting outing – all the wines and food, all in one place
  4. Access to *Santa Sommeliers* to advise on matching foods with the wines you like
  5. Buy where you taste and take your wine home with you!

I had a conversation with Christopher Sawyer, Somm at Carneros Bistro in Sonoma. I asked Chris how one should go about pairing up wines with a meal. “First of all, the method should be reversed. Decide your menu, then match the wine to it.”  OK, I said, then to break the rules a bit, let’s say I’ve got a Zinfandel from Haywood Winery, which is pouring here today. Chris suggests, “This is a supple, medium body Zinfandel that gives you a lot of flexibility with the food pairing. Game. Duck. Spicy pork with compote on the side. Strip steak. And of course Ribs will go well with Zin.”

Chris Sawyer "Santa Sommelier"

Wines of note: Eric Ross 2010 Marsanne-Roussane. Your guests will appreciate when you serve this unique white. Winemaker Eric Luce blends two grapes from the famed SaraLee’s Vineyard in Russian River Valley to make a wine in the Rhone style that everyone’s talking about.  Full-bodied, food-ready, and a great under-$30 wine to diversify your palate.  It paired with the Truffle Mac ‘n Cheese and I would recommend it with any cheese. Dane Cellars 2007 Jackknife Cabernet Sauvignon. When you are looking for full-flavored, medium-bodied Cab, the Jackknife is a great choice. From a vineyard high above Sonoma Valley, with volcanic soils and generous late afternoon sun, this wine explodes with fruit and complex flavors. Sommelier Sawyer says:  “With a medium-bodied cab like Dane Cellars’ Jackknife you have more flexibility in your menu – you can pair with red meat or you can go with a bigger fish such as sturgeon or tuna prepared with a soy sauce.” Pip 2010 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay.  Undecided between oaked and unoaked? You can’t go wrong with this under $20 wine from Dunstan, from famed Durrell Vineyards blended with nearby grapes, then aged in 1/3 neutral oak and 2/3 stainless steel.  The resulting Chardonnay will please both the oaked and unoaked taste, as the neutral oak imparts lovely vanilla aromas and softness while the stainless steel defines the varietal character and imparts a crisp finish.  Another great match for the Truffle Mac ‘n Cheese.

Best new wine find:  Annadel Estate 2008 Anni’s Blend is an instantly memorable red wine that’s also easy to pair with food.  I got rich fruit medleys and a velvety mouth feel from this blend of 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 10% Cab Franc and 5% Petit Verdot. For a Cab-Merlot blend like this, you could even serve it with a Mac & Cheese dish with toasted walnuts and mushrooms, according to Sommelier Sawyer.  The adjacent “Coppa & Apple Mostarda on Foccacia” from Estate went well.  Annadel Estate Winery is the effort of a family who are restoring an 1880’s vineyard estate in the region. Expect to hear more about their wines soon. There were many more varietals and examples of great winemaking available for taste. I can’t cover them all here. See what you missed and check back soon for upcoming events at the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance website.

P.S. On my Christmas wishlist:

Great surprises from Lake County Wineries found at “Wines with Altitude” event

This article was first published Sept 8, 2011 in Simple Hedonisms Wine Blog.

I recently attended Wines with Altitude, where the vintners of Lake County California brought their wines to town — literally, to a stunning San Francisco venue on Treasure Island.  Casually dressed wine-makers and staff members poured and chatted with the attendees between baguettes and hummus.  A folksy event put together by the Lake County Winery Association, the four-hour pow-wow came with a classy glass sporting the Wines with Altitude slogan, a fresh personal-size baguette, and booklet with info and space for wine-tasting notes.  I attended as press.

The event was held at The Winery SF on Treasure Island. WARNING: This is a place of jaw-dropping city views. It was easy access and there were a couple of food trucks outside with picnic tables.

Inside there was a large main floor of wine pouring. An upstairs room featured winning wines from the 2011 Lake County Wine awards. In all, over 100 different wines were pouring from 20 or so wineries. There were olives and olive oil, pizzettas and gazpacho and some nice lounging areas in the old building.

I’ve been known to favor Lake County Sauvignon Blancs. The Altitude theme suggested Reds.  I arrived with my notebook and spit-cup, eager to commence tasting, and not really knowing what to expect.  It turned out to be a day of surprises, some professional – like tasting a Lake County Aglianico, and some personal – like running into Napa Valley winemaker Nils Venge, the first person who exposed me to garagiste winemaking. The story: About twenty years or so ago, a group of friends and I loyally appeared every season to help Nils bottle his fledgling Saddleback Cellars wines in a small concrete block building on Money Road in Rutherford, CA. The little block building is still the nucleus of Saddleback and Nils now also owns Cougar’s Leap in Lake County.

I made an effort to taste every Sauvignon Blanc (SB), and there were quite a few. The Lake County SB’s were each so different, I couldn’t identify a Lake County “style” or varietal “character.” The only label I recognized was Guenoc, a widely distributed and solid SB. This was a good sign I was discovering a number of labels for the first time. I learned that Guenoc is a Valley – and it’s own AVA — and that the premium SB is their Langtry Sauvignon Blanc (250 cases produced vs thousands of Guenoc). I liked the Langtry.  My other favorite Sauvignon Blanc’s were 2 from Six Sigma Michael’s Vineyard – the 2010 stainless with bright fresh melon on the nose and classic grapefruit on the palette – and a single vineyard, very lightly oaked version that maintains a crisp, cleansing acidity while adding dimension from the oak.  This wine recently won best-in-class in the 2011 Lake County Wine Awards Competition, directed by Ray Johnson.

Cougar’s Leap offered a unique Sauvignon Blanc rendition – the 2010 Black Rock White which is 70% Semillion, 30% SB and, according to vintner Nils Venge, includes a boost from a one-time barrel of Albarino. Cougar’s Leap was pouring 2 other wines and they were memorable: The 2008 Black Rock Zinfandel with lots of fruit coming through structure and tannins, and which Venge claims with a crooked grin is “17% alcohol.” Reviewers have dubbed it “Ballistic!” Definitely a wine with “Altitude.” I finished with a 2007 Petite Sirah at Cougar’s Leap.

Nils introduced me to Gregory Graham, and I spent quite a bit of time at Greg’s table. Former wine-maker at Rombauer, Graham has been at it for 30 years.  At one point he was making 4 different Zinfandels for them.  For his own label, he makes only small lots using bins for fermentation. He says this has freed him from the constraints of tank-based wine-making, giving him a lot of flexibility.  He was pouring several wines. I tasted the 2009 Gregory Graham Red Hills Bartolucci Vineyard Viognier, one of the nicest Viognier’s I’ve had … and it’s a $16, 13.5% alcohol wine.  Graham’s 2007 Grenache was my personal favorite of the day, delivering a mouth-filling intensity and lingering romance of fruit and texture on the palette.  The 2008 Cinder Cone was my red blend favorite of the day – 48% Syrah, 24% Cabernet, and 14% each Malbec and Grenache. Big, balanced, and Red. Graham’s wines are well-priced, running from $15-16 for Dry Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, to a high of $38 for a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir he wasn’t pouring, and a number of wines in the $18-24 range. Gregory Graham wines represent star-quality wine-making at excellent value pricing.

Rosa d’Oro Aglianico.  This is a red varietal grape of Southern Italian regions – Basilicata and Campania – pronounced alianico.  I’ve had the Corte Normana from Campania (imported bySalvia Bianca), and heard of one or two Aglianico’s being vinted in California. So I was pleased and surprised to find Pietro Buttitta pouring his family’s estate-grown 2008 Aglianico. It’s a lovely wine expressing the full Aglianico character, if in a smoother, less rustic style than it’s Italian brethren. Well-priced at $18.  I tasted the 2008 Barbera, which won a Silver medal in the Chronicle Wine Competition – also a fine wine at the $18 price point.

I decided the only way to cope with the bounty of Rosa d’Oro, is to visit the their Tasting Room in Kelseyville and do some serious sampling of the Primativo, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Dolcetto and maybe a Rosato. And in another year or two, they will be bringing out a NegroAmaro! (You read it here first.) Pietro is also a prolific blogger – check him out here.

It’s clear I have a lot to learn about Lake county as a wine region and I’m planning to make a trip. You can find various Lake County Wine events online; next up is the Lake County Wine Auction on Sept 17. The event that interests me most is the People’s Choice Wine Awards and blind tasting on November 5.

I love blind tastings … as long as I can see the view!

One last surprise: Many of Lake County Wineries have active Facebook pages, but there is definitely room for growth in the Twitter realm. The Winery SF’s most recent tweet was in July, nearly 2 months ago. One would expect better care and feeding, especially when you have a high-profile name, location, and over 2000 Twitter followers.

El Dorado of Wine: Exploring Calaveras Tasting Rooms

This article was first published July 8, 2011 in Simple Hedonisms Wine Blog.

I visited a number of tasting rooms in and around the gold rush town of Murphy’s CA this summer. My brother raised his children in Murphy’s but I hadn’t been back in nearly 10 years. When they were little, there were 3 or 4 wineries in town. Now there are well over 20, with new and expanding grape cultivation evident on the drive up Highway 4. Down in the valley, the road is lined with apple and peach orchards as it always was. As it reaches the higher elevations of the Sierra Foothills, Highway 4 gives way to glimpses of vineyards and new plantings between rolling hills.

Many wineries have opened tasting rooms on or near Main Street in Murphy’s. If the July 4thweekend was a bellweather, this once declining community is now a thriving village of cafes, bistros, boutiques and wine establishments, all grown up around the tasting rooms. Great care has gone into establishing the atmosphere of each room.

Day One:
I loved the intimate and funky Zucca Mountain Vineyards tasting room with it’s cool, dark stone cellar, wall of awards, and an afterhours patio with music and misters on a 100-degree plus day. Their 2008 Barbera was smooth, forceful and balanced with soft wood tones. It stands alone but calls out for a food pairing. Zucca smartly distributes recipe cards keyed to their wines. I picked up the Steak with Horseradish-Chive Sauce to be paired with the 2009 Sangiovese, complete with photo of the mouth-watering steak. Other Italian varietals produced by Zucca include Sangiovese, Dolcetto, and Sorprendere.

Newsome-Harlow tasting room, just a couple doors up the street, was the polar opposite of Zucca, with equal appeal. Enter through an enclosed patio lounge complete with fire pit, which opens onto their food franchise, The Kitchen to the north and the Tasting Room to the east.  Lots of natural light through ample glass, zoned lighting and wood floors complete the euro high-tech look and feel. I wanted to taste with small plates but The Kitchen was only open until 3pm (in a week or two they will open for dinners).

I really liked the wines at Newsome-Harlow. The tasting room personnel were top-notch. They explained that this is the label of local Scott Klann, winemaker at Twisted Oak and Tanner. I didn’t have a chance to taste Tanner but between Twisted Oak and Newsome-Harlow I sensed a vast repertoire of styles emanating from Klanns’ wine-making influence.

Newsome-Harlow 2010 Sauvignon Blanc is classic grapefruit SB of which I am a huge fan. The wine was pure, simple and refreshing, a perfect synonym to the scorching weather outside.  The 2010 Rose of Grenache (10% Zin) was also a winner at 13.2% alcohol. I took home a bottle of each.  NH featured a trio of Zinfandels, one from each of the Sierra Foothill regions – Amador, El Dorado and Calaveras — which makes for interesting tasting room discussion. I particularly liked the 2009 Donner Party Zinfandel from the local Dalton vineyard, described as “not for the faint of heart.” I really wished The Kitchen had been open when I got to tasting these Zins!

A galactic opposite Tasting Room experience was Ironstone, where the entry is through theme-park-like gates. In fact, the winery’s Amphitheatre hosts a complete season of fireworks, concerts and performing arts (Sammy Hagar plays in Sept).  The staff was friendly and knowledgeable, a snack and sandwich bar is housed right in the large tasting room, and the beautiful shaded gardens are an oasis of coolness on a hot day. To top it off, the wines are nicely made and range from value-priced to fine wines.

Day Two:
I visited the new Twisted Oak Winery in-town tasting room. It’s across the street from the former location, in a lovely Victorian cottage where most of the interior walls have been removed to make one big bright light room. I was very well taken care-of despite the holiday crowds. Having followed Twisted Oaks’ Jeff Stai “El Jefe” on Twitter since my earliest wine tweets, I felt an obligation to be thorough. I tasted the entire list, which is amazingly long (12 wines were pouring) and diverse (3 whites, 7 blends, over 14 varietals) for a small-production (5000-8000 case) winery.

Another 100-degree day, and I was finding a dearth of whites. So I really enjoyed the Twisted Oak 2010 Calaveras County Verdelho and appreciated the light touch (13.6% alcohol). Of their many reds, I was partial to the 2008 Calaveras County Parcel 17 – a finely tuned and approachable blend with cranberry notes – of Mourvedre, Carignane, and Graciano all sourced from a single parcel of a Calaveras vineyard.  This wine has won best of California and Double Gold at the California State Fair and a Gold Medal at the Orange County Fair. Even thought it’s not the biggest, slamming-est Twisted blend, it’s good to know I’m not alone in my tastes …

Twisted Oak has branded a kick-ass wine-making style which was evident in the dramatic acids of the 2010 Calaveras County Viognier. And in the 2008 Calaveras County Torcido that ROARS into the mouth like a forest fire in the pines.  Torcido means “Twisted” and it’s made up of “estate-grown Garnacha blended with a little Petitie Sirah.” Wines like these beg for food; I’m thinking to pair the Viognier with hotly spiced Thai.  I’m open to suggestion on the Torcido … perhaps a fire extinguisher?

@Twisted_Oak — @eljefetwisted

Another novel approach to tasting was the Allegorie Tasting and Art Gallery. Here an artistic couple have designed a line of wines that pair with their art.  Their wines are made by Jonathon Phillips of Val du Vino Winery (Murphy’s), in very low case production and available only in the gallery.  The 2009 Allegorie Calaveras County Grenache is one of the best I’ve tasted.  Ever.

In an homage to Spain, Metate Hill Vineyards tasting room boasts soft archways and cool tile counters to highlight their focus on artisan produced Spanish varietals. Two treatments of the same Albarino wine were tasting: The 2008 Albarino Acero – aromatic and clean-finishing, and the 2008 Albarino Barrica — from the same pressing using different fermentation and aging techniques.  Followed by 2008 Carinena Rosado, a boldly dry rose’ with tones of bramble bushes and pepper that produced a lingering refresca against the blistering heat of the afternoon. I took home a bottle, hoping to recreate the sensation.

I was fortunate to taste a couple of not-on-the-list wines: a 2008 Metate Hill Carinena (aka Carigniane) I would describe as a pure expression of the varietal character of the grape.  Then, a very special 2008 Graciano, a joyous wine with a soft mouth feel and full fruit ripeness and yet a serious intensity, moderated nicely.  The grape is from the Rioja region of Spain.  I noticed it in the Twisted Oak Parcel 17 and again at Metate Hill. I think I’ve just discovered another varietal preference!
Metate Hill on Facebook

Two words sum up my visit to Calaveras: Atmosphere and diversity. Atmosphere for the effort taken by the wineries to create unique tasting room experiences. Diversity for the range of varietals and winemaking styles – including Italian, Rhone, and Spanish — represented in the tasting rooms of one small town. I think the food pairing and access to food for tasting here in Calaveras, where there’s such a proliferation of food wines being poured, is a very important strategy not yet addressed by most of the tasting rooms.  These are a just a few of the rooms I had time to visit on a 36 hour trip. Others called out to me and I promise to see them on my next trip. Which may be soon!

If you’re going, the Calaveras Winegrape Alliance (CWA) has an excellent and informative website with events and a great map of area wineries.

A Perfect Day: Passport Dry Creek Perfect Wine, Food and Music Pairings

(This article was first published May 3, 2011 on Simple Hedonisms wine blog)

Take a pristine, gorgeous day with spectacular vistas in the Dry Creek Valley of Sonoma County, California. Combine it with a wide range of wine varietals and styles. Add generous portions of thoughtfully paired foods. Mix it up with music and friends – blues, salsa and even zydeco – and you have the makings of a weekend that brings together all of my favorite things. And, all the wineries have specials, case discounts, and in some cases $1 case shipping – a big saving for travelers. One of the best things about this wine event is the active involvement of the vintners, winemakers, vineyard managers, owners, and family members in serving the foods, pouring the wines, and mingling freely with the guests to share their perspectives on the wines.

This was Passport to Dry Creek 2011. Here are some highlights:

Day One

Dutcher Crossing: Coconut Prawn Cones with Mango Chili Sauce paired with 2009 Dry Creek Sauvignon Blanc. The taste is unique on this SB made with 9% Viognier, 7% Semillion, and 1% Roussane. It was well chilled and paired nicely with the prawns.

I found a hidden surprise in the tasting room: 2006 Dutcher Dry Creek Port, fortified with brandy and made from 40% Cabernet and 60% Syrah, all grown on the estate.  The port was dark and chocolat-ey.  Extra points for pairing it with Frozen Chocolate Whoppie Pies – two pieces of soft Oreo crust wrapped around a dollop of frozen chocolate ice cream. Yummy.

Sbragia vista

Sbragia Family: 2008 Gamble Family Ranch Chardonnay (grapes from Napa), paired with bean and pasta soup with Pancetta.  I prefer unoaked, and this Chardonnay is made with oak. But it’s subtle oak flavors — without the buttery mouth feel and syrupy texture of so many over-done Chardonnays — made it highly drinkable.

Besides the wine, food, and hospitality, location is the highlight of Sbragia. The winery is a stunning building perched on a ridge opening to views all the way to Marin. By the time I got there the temperatures were in the high 70s, and live music from the terrace was filtering out over the property. Sbragias’ good wine and kitchen make this a must-stop for future tasting days.  Now that summer weather is here, check the website for regularly scheduled music dates. An added bonus when you’re there: In the Italian tradition, Sbragia shares recipes from their kitchen. I took home a “Skewered Herb Crusted Pork Loin with Dried Fig Sauce,” recipe card from the tasting room – can’t wait to try this.

Unti Dry Creek Vineyards

Unti Vineyards: Unti sells about 50% of their 60 acres worth of grapes to other wine-makers.  I’ve had wine made with Unti grapes, but this was my first visit and first taste of their wines.  The Grenache wines were the highlight for me. Two: a 2010 Rose of 75% Grenache and 25% Mourvedre that was a lovely peach color, ultra-dry, 13.5% alcohol wine. Chilled, it’s a perfect lunchtime wine.  And the 2007 Grenache itself was my favorite red wine of the day. Paired with a blues vocalist and tortilla nacho plate with melted cheese from Nicasio Valley Cheese Company. Thumbs-up.

Mazzocco. I couldn’t pass up the Cuban music and food theme at this wonderful winery location. Orchestra Borenquen and Zinfandel? Yes! The pairing was Flank Steak with Chimichuri and Saffron Prawns. It was the best food of the day.  In addition to other varietals, Mazzocco makes vineyard-designate Zinfandels from 9 ranches in the region. They were barrel-tasting 4 of their 2010 Zinfandels for Passport. I favored the Stone Ranch Vineyard – their only Alexander Valley Zinfandel. Tasting right from the barrel, the wine was soft, fruity and naturally balanced. The Stone Ranch 2009 was sold out; but there were good discounts available on futures.

The Mazzocco property was beautifully laid-out for the event. The orchestra was shielded by a gigantic sunshade. Flank steak was cooked to order, perfuming the air. A Cigar Loft stood slightly away from the center, completing the Cuba theme.

Andre Thierry Zydeco

Seghesio Family. Seghesio went to town with a “Big Easy” theme. I loved the Cajun Barbequed ribs as served up by Pete Seghesio. They were meaty and succulent and went well with some of the featured Italian varietals such as a tobacco-ey 2008 Alexander Valley Sangiovese and a Zinfandel – Petite Sirah blend called “San Lorenzo.”

The Big Easy backdrop was the sounds of Andre Thierry and Zydeco Magic.  A local bay area group, Andre Thierry’s accordion brings his music heritage from southwest Louisiana together with an R&B sensibility to create upbeat and highly danceable music.  If there had been a dance floor at Seghesio you would have seen some zydeco dancing too. As it was, the shaded venue on a warm afternoon was perfect … Mardi Gras beads handed out at the door and a glitter tattoo station completed the theme. That and the fresh beignets at the end of the tasting line.

Day Two

SLHouseman Blogger

A. Rafanelli. It’s always special to taste the limited production, handcrafted wines of the Rafanelli family. Even more special to visit this historic homestead winery, which is open by appointment only. And on Passport weekend the Rafanelli’s went “all-out.” I spoke to a number of people who return here each year for Passport. The 2008 Rafanelli Zinfandel and 2008 Rafanelli Cabernet – both of Dry Creek Estate-grown grapes – were pouring.

With this there were 5 food stations with 3 dishes each. Five stations! Fried artichoke hearts with Parmesan sauce, steak marinated and cooked in heaps of fresh rosemary, roasted red potatoes to name a few of the small bites offered each guest. The final station is two tables of chocolates.  Two tables! The interplay of chocolate, Zin and Cab was sublime.  Back outside the sounds of a traditional Italian trio with accordion and vocals set a festive mood.

Mounts Family. The short drive up to Mounts was worthwhile. The new 2010 Estate “Pink” Syrah (a light rose’) and delicate yet well-structured 2008 Estate Malbec were standouts, as was the shaded belly-dancing pavilion in the middle of a benchland vineyard just above the Dry Creek Valley floor.  Middle-Eastern foods and a mini-cupcake of ginger capped with incredible syrah frosting completed the experience.

Quivira. A biodynamic winery and farm, Quivira served the only Sauvignon Blancs of the day. Both from the same vineyard and vintage but made in two different styles. One produced in pure stainless and the other in neutral oak with new acacia barrels and a hint of Viognier. I surprised myself by liking the acacia-fermented taste. Both wines were crisp and refreshing on the warm afternoon, and paired with small savory bites to enhance. My friend Sheri found her favorite wine of the day – a GSM+ red blend at Quivera.  Called Elusive, the wine is 34% Syrah, 32% Grenache, 28% Mourvedre, 6% Petite Sirah. Quivera was also pouring a Mourvedre made from locally grown grapes; unusual because it is made without blending – it’s 100% Mourvedre.  Mushrooms and blueberries delighted us in this wine.

Passalacqua. This is a charming winery hidden in plain sight across the road from Dry Creek Vineyards.  I loved the gardens and vistas from their back deck, and their 2007 Sangiovese. This is a well-balanced Dry Creek Sangio with a highly satisfying tannic finish on it. Paired with flatbread pizza and Chocolate mousse gelato.

Mike Farrow, Amista Vintner

Amista Vineyards. I wasn’t hungry but I couldn’t pass up the Truffle Mac-n-Cheese with Arugula at Amista. It set off the Amista Syrah wines so nicely that I joined the wine club and brought some home. As a wine-club member I had access to the 2007 Syrah and a Sparkling Syrah that is not sold to the public. And soon a new Rockpile Cabernet will be available to members only. I’d been eyeing the Amista wines, their club and cooking events for some time.  With the club benefits and entry-level membership, the time was right. We ended our tasting on a jolly note with proprietor and vintner Mike. A must-visit anytime you roll down Dry Creek Road.