At Moshin Vineyards gravity is good for the wine

At Moshin Vineyards gravity is good for the wine

We usually don’t think of wine and gravity going together.  When I knock over a glass of wine, gravity causes the precious juice to fall to the floor.  Or worse yet, when the 2014 Napa earthquake struck, gravity maliciously conspired with shaking of the Earth to cause many bottles of wine to plummet to their sad demise.

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This stylish hutch held 110 bottles of wine at 3:19 a.m. on August 24, 2014
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Thanks, gravity. Thanks a lot.

Perhaps you can see why we generally think of wine and gravity as mortal enemies.  But there is a method – more common in Europe –where gravity plays a key (and useful) role in the winemaking process.  In most winery operations grapes and juice are moved around mechanically via conveyors, pumps and other machinery.  This movement can change the way in which the juice is extracted, oxidized, tannins are released, etc.  In gravity-flow winemaking, after the crush process the wine moves to fermentation, cellar and bottling all via gravity with no pumps or other mechanical assistance.

In 1989, Rick Moshin had a dream to step away from his day job – teaching mathematics at San Jose State University – and run his own winery.  He knew that he wanted to make wine using the gravity-flow method and that he would have to find a property that could accommodate that approach.   Optimally, gravity-flow operations are found on properties that are sloped.  Rick Moshin found the perfect property along Westside Road in Sonoma’s Russian River.  He purchased 10 acres and started the arduous process of building out the winery.  Gravity-flow winemaking is not for everyone: it can be more time-consuming and expensive to produce wine.  But this method is particularly appropriate for the delicate and thin-skinned Pinot Noir grape.  Below is Moshin’s diagram of their gravity-flow process (courtesy of their website).  Visitors can take a tour with a prior appointment, something we recommend simply because it is so different from tours at other wineries.

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Welcome to Moshin Vineyards
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Hummingbird sculpture in front of the tasting room
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And a hummingbird on every bottle

We stopped by Moshin Vineyards during a recent 3-day vacation in Sonoma (yes, we live in Napa and “traveled” the 40 miles to the Russian River to overnight for 3 days).  We absolutely loved our visit to Moshin; it punched every item on our list: beautiful location, high-quality wines, and fantastic people.  The tasting experience was quite enjoyable and, we must add, quite the bargain compared to some of our Napa Valley tastings.

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We don’t see too many $15 tastings in Napa Valley anymore

During our tasting we had the opportunity to taste quite a few wines – as usual, more than are typically offered .  When the tasting room staff knows you enjoy the wine and are interested in learning more and possibly buying, they will almost always pour more.  We tasted several white wines including the Moshin Sauvignon Blanc and two different Russian River Chardonnay offerings, each from a different vineyard location.

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Dueling chardonnay

As you would expect from a Russian River winery, Moshin produces Pinot Noir, in fact quite a few different versions from multiple locations across Sonoma as well as different vineyards within Russian River.  We really enjoyed their Russian River Pinot Noir which we found to be a classic representation of the varietal from that  region:  full-bodied, earthy, with notes of mushroom and, dare we say, forest floor.

 

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Who doesn’t love this color?

At Moshin, though, the red wines are not just limited to Pinot Noir. We also tasted a Syrah and a Merlot, both of which were special wines.  We actually purchased a bottle of Merlot – a wine more often found in Napa Valley.  Moshin’s Merlot – produced from grapes grown in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley – had strong dark fruit aroma and flavor with hints of chocolate.

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A fantastic Merlot

How do you top off a great wine tasting? If you’re lucky, with a sweet dessert wine.  At Moshin we had the treat of experiencing their luscious Moshin Potion, a late harvest blend of Gewürztraminer and Viognier.

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Dessert in a bottle

We couldn’t resist taking a bottle of this home with us along with the Merlot and several of the Pinot Noir offerings.  We’ve added Moshin to our list of Sonoma “must return” wineries and we’ll be back soon.

John & Irene Ingersoll

August 15, 2017

 

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This shack sells fantastic grape juice

This shack sells fantastic grape juice


Westside Road winds and meanders its way through Sonoma County’s wine region, on some stretches moving East-West and along others North-South.  In all of its directions and gyrations, Westside Road takes its travelers past some of the best wineries in Sonoma’s impressive wine region. The Westside Wine Trail, as it’s also known, starts in the town of Healdsburg and ends in a forest-like setting near Guerneville.  One of our favorite wineries on this route is Porter Creek Vineyards, an easy place to miss if you happen to turn your head at the wrong moment …or blink.  Unlike many wineries in the area, Porter Creek does not have a huge tasting room building, visitor center, deli, or cafe.  They have a small shack.  It is a damn fine shack, we have to say, but still a shack.

The drive from Westside Road to the shack is along an unpaved dirt road.  After parking, this is the first thing we saw on our way to the shack.

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A winery committed to doing things the right way
This is the second thing that we saw.

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The chickens would be a greater threat to our dogs
No big fancy tasting room or winery property.  No paved road.  Organic farm with free-range chickens.  Hopefully you’re starting to get an important point about Porter Creek: they have a strong commitment to sustainable farming.  This commitment is not a marketing ploy but rather a long-standing one held by this family-owned winery since it purchased the land in 1977.  George Davis, the patriarch of Porter Creek Vineyards, combined his commitment to sustainabilty with a strong desire to remain true to the grape varietals planted in the vineyards.  His son Alex Davis, the current winemaker, continues his father’s commitments and in one important area – sustainable certification – is raising the bar even higher.  Porter Creek’s Aurora-certified vineyards are being transitioned to Demeter biodynamic certification.  For farming and/or sustainability geeks, here’s what that means:  Organic vs. Biodynamic

If you don’t care how your wine is made, that’s okay too.  We don’t drink Porter Creek – and it’s not on the menu at 3-Michelin star The French Laundry – just because it is organic or biodynamic.  Porter Creek makes fantastic wines that happen to be certified organic and, soon, certified biodynamic.

When we finally entered the shack there were only two others tasting wine, a rare treat as we are usually elbow-to-elbow with fellow tasters when we go to Porter Creek. But it was early in the day and during the week so we beat the weekend crowds.  Our cousins from Spain joined us for the tasting and we were excited to hear their reactions to our California wines.  We were met by Steve who took us through one of the most entertaining and comprehensive tastings we have experienced in a very long time.

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These were just some of the wines we enjoyed
Porter Creek has a fantastic selection of both white and red wines, including a splendid Rosè made from Zinfandel grapes.  We tasted everything on the tasting menu and another three or four wines thatare not part of a typical tasting; we must have looked interested – or at least thirsty!

All of the Porter Creek wines share a similar approach to winemaking: let the wine reflect the varietal as well as the place and conditions in which the grape was grown.  Oak is used to enhance the flavor of the wine but not to manipulate the final product.

Our Spanish cousins were pleasantly surprised by the high quality of the wine as well as the tasting experience.  In their home country they tend to drink “local” wines and have never been exposed to Somoma County or Russian River fine wine.  The balance, sophistication and refinement of the Porter Creek wines were obvious to them and they were able to overcome their Spanish wine snobbiness.  They readily admitted that these wines were on par with the best wines they have tasted.

We have been to Porter Creek before and we will go again, hopefully soon.  In the meantime we bought quite a few bottles to replenish our cellar at home, and a few bottles made the long trip back to Madrid with the cousins.

John & Irene Ingersoll

August 10, 2017

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Gluttony Punished

Gluttony Punished

A while back our friends Inna and Igor – fellow wine afficionados – proposed a novel idea for a wine tasting:  a side-by-side tasting of the same varietal – in this case, Pinot Noir. What made this proposal particularly novel is that all four wines would be from the same producer, Etude Wines.  We have visited Etude on two occasions and posted about our very first visit there last summer (Wine With A ‘Tude.).  On our visit to Etude we sampled Pinot Noir from vineyards in Napa Valley’s Carneros region.  Our friends’ proposed tasting would consist of four Etude Pinot Noir wines that were new to us:  one from Sonoma Coast, two from the Santa Barbara area, and one from Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

We didn’t spend too much time thinking about the proposal, quickly agreeing to the idea and setting a date for the tasting.  When we arrived at our friends’ house we saw right away how seriously they were taking the tasting endeavor.

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This is serious wine tasting

Not only were the wines poured but there was a tasting sheet to write notes and comments and tally scores.  Like all athletic endeavors, wine tasting needs the right level of hydration and nourishment.

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Mom always said “Don’t drink on an empty stomach”

When we took our seats at the table each of us sized up the wines and took a few minutes reading the labels and tried to find some nugget of information that would give us an edge in the wine tasting challenge.  For the record, the four wines were:

2014 Etude Ellengach Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast

2014 Etude Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills (Santa Barbara County)

2014 Etude North Canyon Vineyard Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley (Santa Barbara County)

2014 Etude Yamhill Vista Vineyard Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley (Oregon)

While there were no financial stakes in this great wine taste-off, pride was certaintly at stake and each of the four participants was hoping to show off his or her wine acumen and ability to distinguish aromas and flavors.  For the first several minutes only murmurs could be heard as we lifted the glasses and tried to make sense of the different color shades in each glass.  Hmmm, the first one looks slightly darker than the second, perhaps that signifies that it was grown in a hotter climate and the grapes ripened more?  Then came the sniffing excercise – trying to identify aromas that would distinguish the four Pinot Noir wines from each other.

Looking back, we have to laugh a little bit because we set ourselves up for quite a challenge:  identifying which wines came from which region even though 3 of the 4 wines are from California and two of them were from wine regions separate by just a few miles.  Finally we got to the tasting, which resulted in more murmurs and mutterings under our breath and furious note-taking.  After each wine we confidently assigned it to a region only to furiously cross it out immediately after tasting the next wine and confidently jotting a region down next to it. By the fourth wine almost every confident prediction had been changed to something else, changed back, and then changed again.

When we finally made our collective way through the four Etude Pinot Noir wines and made our “matches” to wine region, the time came to uncover the bottles and reveal their geographic identity.  Despite all of our cumulative years of wine tasting, the best effort in the wine tasting match was 2 out of 4, with at least two of us guessing only 1 out of 4.  Stubborn people that we are, we decided to do a second round of tasting, mixing the wines up again and trying to apply the lessons learned from the first round.  Memory is somewhat hazy after the amount of wine consumed but I recall that no one did better in the second round than the first.  Naturally, we concluded that another round of tasting would be a good idea, for some reason expecting that the cumulative effect of the two previous rounds of tasting would promote greater accuracy.  Round 3 was no more impressive than than the earlier efforts; clearly none of us is ready to take on the Master Sommelier exam just yet.

Rather than proceed to a round 4 we decided instead to polish off the remaining Pinot Noir and enjoy them just for their own sake, with no competition involved.  To top off the afternoon we enjoyed a fantastic lunch paired with one of the Croatian wines that we will soon be introducing to the United States market.

John & Irene Ingersoll

July 18, 2017

 

A great place to break a fast

A great place to break a fast

A new restaurant recently opened in Napa Valley’s Saint Helena that we hope is around as long as its previous occupant.  The Charter Oak opened a few weeks ago in the space that was occupied for nearly 30 years by Napa Valley restaurant icon Tra Vigne.  In late 2015 Tra Vigne closed up and left behind decades of memories and a beautiful empty building.  Fortunately, a rock star team saw the empty space and realized it was the perfect place to open The Charter Oak.  The owners of this new restaurant are Christopher Kostow, the head chef at The Restaurant at Meadowood, a Michelin three-star-rated restaurant just a few miles away; and Nathaniel Dorn, who is in charge of the front-of-house operations at The Restaurant at Meadowood.  To round out the team, the owners have brought Meadowood’s chef-de-cuisine, Katianna Hong.

With this top team at the helm we knew that we were in store for a special experience but we didn’t know exactly what to expect. We wondered if The Charter Oak was going to deliver a Meadowood-light experience or something different entirely.  When we sat down with our friends Chris and Monica and perused the menu, we realized that the experience would be more casual with most dishes offered family style to encourage sharing.  Over the course of brunch, though, we also realized that there were many similarities with Meadowood as well:  commitment to fresh, seasonal and local ingredients; attentive but not intrusive service; and artfully creative dishes.

When we arrived at The Charter Oak the weather was still pleasantly cool so we opted to sit out on the patio, a wonderful setting with its ample space and cool decor.  We sat under one of the many trees and strategized what to pick from the menu.  Each of us picked a separate item and we added several side dishes as well to make sure we sampled as much of the menu as possible.  Of all the places breakfast or brunch places in Napa Valley, this was by far the best.  Each of the dishes was creatively designed and executed beautifully with just the right texture and unique flavors.

One of our favorite dishes was the Pork Posole which was served with handmade wheat tortillas.

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Pork Posole at The Charter Oak, Saint Helena

All four of us shared the posole as it was a generous portion and all of us enjoyed it immensely and would order it again.

One person in our party ordered the bread pudding French toast, an item we passed over thinking it wouldn’t be our thing.

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Bread Pudding French Toast with Preserved Pears

Boy were we wrong about this dish!  Although we are not fans of bread pudding, the flavor and consistency of this dish were perfect and there was nothing left but an empty dish after it made its way around the table.

Another breakfast item that was ordered was the Danish rye bread served with a soft-boiled egg and topped with avocado and furikake (a Japanese seasoning).  This, too, was incredibly tasty and was so good two were ordered and finished in their entirety.

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Yum

When we first ordered we did not focus on the fact that the dishes were going to be large, family style portions and we loaded up on side dishes as well.  Who could pass up the piloncillo bacon?  Not us, for sure.

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Now that’s what we call bacon

Nor could we pass up the sausages.

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Homemade maple syrup breakfast sausages

To balance out this protein we ordered The Charter Oak’s unique take on hash browns.

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So good we ordered 4 more

If this looks excessive …it was.  Four main items and four sides for four people was too much food.  When we say “too much,” by the way, we do not intend to suggest any of it remained uneaten.  Rest assured that we ate all of it.  But we could easily have ordered two mains and the sides and been satisfied.

We have not been to dinner (yet) at The Charter Oak but a fellow Napa blogger recently penned this post after her dinner there and the food and experience looks equally exquisite.  The Wine Ho – Charter Oak Dinner Review

If you’re looking for a special place to brunch in Napa Valley, The Charter Oak has to be a top choice.  Click here for reservations:  Charter Oak Reservations

John & Irene

July 14, 2017

Top 10 Ways to Embarass Yourself at Wine Tasting

Last week we posted an article entitled “Top 10 ways to show off at wine tasting”  (Top 10.)  Today, we are focused on 10 ways to stand out from the crowd – but in a bad way.  Hopefully everyone will consider this a list of things not to do rather than a list of suggested activities.

  1. Show up at the winery with no appointment or advance notice and expect to be accommodated.  This is especially aggravating when a huge group shows up unannounced – a family reunion or the noisy bachelorette party – and piles out of a van or bus and descends on the tasting room.  All or most wineries have specific visit restrictions (per day and per week) in their permits and cannot take all comers. Also, with the exception of the mega-wineries, most wineries have limited staff and simply cannot comfortably handle large (unexpected) crowds.  So hey, why don’t you check online before you show up and see if reservations are required, or recommended.  Even if they are not, maybe show some courtesy and call ahead and see how busy they are and if they can accommodate you.
  2. Visit five or six or seven wineries in one day.  Unless you are an accomplished professional expert at wine tasting instead of wine swallowing, this is simply too many places to visit.  After the second or third winery you’ll have blown out your palate and you’re just wasting your time. And thus everyone else’s.  Moreover, that many winery visits doesn’t even allow you sit down and soak in the atmosphere or absorb any information. We call these “running tastings” because the groups that do this seem to literally run through the tasting room, hardly stopping to taste or engage.
  3. Complain about the cost of the tasting.  Yes, we know, you visited Napa way back when you had hair and wine tastings were free; and the wineries back where you come from have free tastings.  Apologies for discussing business but, well, wineries are businesses.  If your tasting is $30, or $40, or $100, it’s because that’s how much wineries have to charge to cover all of the saps who visit and don’t buy any wine.  Also keep in mind that in places like Napa Valley, an acre of undeveloped land costs upwards of $500,000 an acre.  In other words, it’s super expensive and not a fair comparison to your favorite winery in your neck of the woods.
  4. Complain about the cost of the wine.  See the discussion in #3.  If you want cheap wine, go to a cheap winery.  Even in Napa you can visit wineries that sell cheaper wine. If you go to Opus One and complain about the several hundred dollar bottle of Cabernet, that just makes you look bad.
  5. Complain about the size of your pour.  Wine tasting rooms are not restaurants or bars.  You are not purchasing a glass of wine, you are purchasing a series of small tastes. The objective is to put enough wine in the glass – 1-2 ounce pours are common – to enable you to evaluate the color, aroma and flavor.
  6. Gulp your wine.  Wine gulpers – the visitors who don’t even bother to swirl or sniff – can make it through an entire tasting in 5 minutes or less.  Slow down.  Maybe even sit down.
  7. Get sloppy, stupid drunk.  Violations of #6 often lead to this embarrassing outcome.  Tasting room managers all have war stories about the person, or groups, that confused wine tasting with getting hammered.  The results are many, and we have seen broken glasses, people falling down, yelling and screaming, and even crying (melancholy drunks).
  8. Complain that the white wine is “too sour” or “not sweet enough.”  That’s probably what the wine maker was shooting for!
  9. Say that the wine is “not good.”  Unless you are a sommelier or other qualified wine industry expert, stick to simpler evaluations:  “I like” or “I no like.”
  10. Leave without showing your appreciation.  If you had a great time at the winery, consider buying some wine. It might even reduce or eliminate the cost of your tasting. If you don’t want to buy wine, buy something else, like a winery souvenir.  We often buy hats or sweatshirts from wineries where we didn’t love the wine but really enjoyed our time (and our wine tasting guide).  If you don’t feel like buying anything, leave a generous tip for the tasting room staff.

See you around at a winery some time soon and we hope we don’t cringe when we see you.

John & Irene Ingersoll

July 10, 2017

Hiding in Plain Sight

Hiding in Plain Sight

For twenty-seven years we lived in Los Angeles.  I’m not sure what that says about us.  We’re gluttons for punishment? Sturdy folk?  Addicted to 72-and-sunny temperatures 365 days a year?  For all that we enjoyed about Southern California (and it really was mostly the weather), we made an annual pilgrimage each summer to Northern California wine country to get the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles out of our systems, at least for a week or two.  During these many trips, we have had occasion to stay at a number of hotels, inns, and B&B’s in Napa and Sonoma.  Somehow, during these many trips north, we managed to miss a place that we recently discovered and believe to be a true “hidden gem” in Sonoma:  MacArthur Place.  It is hard to explain how we missed it exactly, since the property is located on Broadway Street, which is the road that dead-ends at the Sonoma Plaza.  Without exaggerating, I can say that we have probably passed MacArthur Place (which is just off of Broadway on MacArthur Street) at least 40 or 50 times.

We learned about the hotel as a result of a work meeting that was held in one of their meeting rooms. We had a chance to walk around the property and fell in love with the grounds and the way the suites and cottages were laid out across seven acres.  We also thought the location was ideal – located in a quiet neighborhood away from the crowds on the Plaza, but still only a 10-15 minute walk to all of the fun and excitement.  Since first seeing the property, we have stayed there three separate times, each time getting an opportunity to try out a different room type.  At MacArthur Place there are 64 guest rooms, although the term “rooms” is not entirely accurate and understates the grandeur of many of the spaces.  During our first stay, we did in fact have a “room” – a standard king room that was very spacious and comfortable.  As we were to find over our next several visits, the bathrooms at MacArthur Place are something special.  Like the rooms, they are spacious and have all the touches of a luxury hotel.  But what really sets them apart from other hotels is the shower – a large walk-in European-style shower that might inspire you to shower multiple times a day. Unfortunately, we are recovering from a 5-year drought and cannot indulge in that type of luxury, but we may have showered a little longer than usual if we are being honest.

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King Room at MacArthur Place, Sonoma

On our second visit, we found ourselves in what is called a “premium” suite.  It was indeed premium – a gorgeous King bed with a large seating area with couch and chair that really made the room feel open and grand.  For this room, the special touch was a set of shutters that could be opened that exposed the hydrotherapy tub to the rest of the suite and the fireplace.

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Premium Suite at MacArthur Place, Sonoma

The third and final time that we stayed at MacArthur Place we felt like we hit the jackpot;  we ended up in one of their Cabana Suites, which features all of the amenities of the other rooms but with a really, really special feature: a private patio with an outdoor rain shower to complement the already lovely indoor European shower.  There is something decadent about taking a hot shower outside when the temperature outside is in the 50’s or 60’s.

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Outside patio, Cabana Suite, MacArthur Place, Sonoma

We have nothing against chain hotels.  As a result of dozens of business trips each year, we have been Marriott Gold or Platinum Elite for several years now.  Many chain hotels, including the Marriott’s Ritz Carlton properties, can be fantastic and unique places to stay.  We have to say, though, that places like MacArthur Place can make a vacation (or, for people like us who live locally, a staycation) a truly romantic and unbeatable experience.  The privacy and peacefulness of the property made us feel as if we were miles from civilization, which was welcome at times during our stay.  We also appreciated the ability to walk out of our room and be in the middle of the action within minutes, enjoying first-class restaurants and wine tasting rooms.

In the spirit of confession, we are also suckers for hotels with a cool story, which MacArthur place definitely has. For one thing, the property did not start out as a hotel or a lodging place, but instead was part of a 300-acre working ranch with vineyards, orchards, cattle, and horses.  Some of the original buildings are still standing and make up part of MacArthur Place’s lodging space, conference space and spa.  In the structure that houses the restaurant, there are numerous nods to the equestrian history of the property, most notably in the name of the restaurant itself, Saddles.

We generally do not like to eat in at our hotel if we can walk or make a short drive to local restaurants. On each of our stays we did walk to the Sonoma Plaza for dinner, but we felt compelled to try Saddles as it has a reputation as one of the best steakhouses in the county.  We were not disappointed by Saddles at all, and have had lunch and breakfast there multiple times.

So next time you’re driving up Broadway on your way to the Sonoma Plaza, take a gander to the right when you’re approaching MacArthur Street; the property starts on that corner.  If you are not in a hurry, take  a right on MacArthur and pull into the parking lot and take a walk around.  Even if you are not ready to take the plunge and stay there, try out their bar – either before or after dinner.  They have  a small bar but an expansive wine menu with some gems from Napa and Sonoma.  Every time we stay, we make it a point to finish our evening at the bar.

John and Irene Ingersoll

 

July 9, 2017

 

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Top 10 Ways To Show Off At Wine Tasting

Wine tasting trips can be fun and exciting, especially if the destination is a superior winery located in a renowned wine region such as Napa Valley, Tuscany, Bordeaux, Rioja or any of the New World regions (Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina).  These trips can also be intimidating given the massive amount of science that gets shared at a wine tasting – chemistry, botany, enology, viticulture, meteorology, soil science, and so much more.  Like all disciplines, grape growing and winemaking have their own lexicons and the jargon of the business can be overwhelming to say the least.  Next time you go wine tasting with your friends, we want you to stand out from the rest, but in a good way.  Go forth armed with these 10 suggestions and leave your friends stunned with your knowledge, sophistication and charm …

  1. Follow the Five S’s.  Yes we know that when you and your friends were in college you gulped the $5 chardonnay down like it was water.  You must leave that in the past and from now on you must learn to savor the wine and faithfully follow the Five S’s of wine tasting:  See, Swirl, Sniff, Sip and Savor.  Yes, you’re eager to taste the wine, that’s natural. But wine tasting requires a bit of foreplay and you’re just going to have to wait before you get the wine in your mouth.
  2. Have something interesting to say about the wine.  The whole point of the Five S’s is to make observations about the wine.  So when you’re in the “See” mode, tell your group what you see, and try to be more descriptive than “it’s white” or  “it’s red.”  At most wineries you’ll taste both white and red wines and you should pay attention to the different levels of clarity, viscosity, brightness and color.  If you’re tasting a Sauvignon Blanc, for example, you’ll be sure to impress if you use “pale straw” as a descriptor.  For extra points, you might identify the appearance of green as a secondary color.  When you have moved on to the red wines use words like “garnet” and, if you are tasting a very dark wine, “inky.”  Okay, once you’ve seen and swirled, it’s time to sniff, the step considered by many sommeliers and wine experts to be the most important part of the wine tasting experience.  So stick your nose in that glass and come up with something better than “it smells like alcohol” or “it smells like grape juice.”  Yes, there is fruit juice in your glass, but come on, you can do better than that.  When tasting white wines, there are some basic flavor profiles that you can build your comments around:  citrus, tree fruit, stone fruit, and tropical.  Try these phrases on for size:  “I’m definitely getting citrus on the nose.”  If you want to push it a bit more, get more specific:  maybe you’re picking up hints of lemon.  The truly ambitious show-off might be so bold as to identify grapefruit …or even pink grapefruit!  At a wine tasting for Chardonnay (especially one made in the “French” style) or a Pinot Grigio, identifying citrus is a safe bet.  For other whites, the predominant aroma might be apple, pear or one of the stone fruits (peach, apricot, nectarine).   Some white wines, including those that have been aged in 100% new oak, will present tropical fruit aromas (pineapple, mango, papaya, banana).   In truth, it is not uncommon for a white wine to have aromas of several flavor profiles. You might throw out to the group something like “I’m definitely getting citrus but is anyone getting stone fruit as well?”  You can then debate whether it’s more like peach or nectarine, and whether it’s ripe or unripe.

When you move to the red wine part of the tasting you’ll have two basic profiles to choose between:  dark fruits (blackberry, plum, blueberry, dark cherry, black raisins, fig) and red fruits (red cherry, raspberry, strawberry, currant, cranberry, pomegranate).  When tasting a Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Malbec or Tempranillo, stick with the dark fruits:  “Lots of blackberry and blueberry on the nose.”  Red fruit aromas should be expected with Pinot Noir, Merlot, Sangiovese and Nebbiolo:  “I’m picking up a strong cherry aroma.”  Of course, fruit is just one of the aroma profiles that a dedicated show-off will need to be able to share with his friends.  Red wines have so many secondary aromas that need to be identified; it’s simply not good enough to focus on the fruit.  When tasting a wine from the old world, “earth” is always a good bet, or more specific descriptors such as “mushroom” or “forest floor” or “dirt.”  There are too many secondary aromas to list here but a brilliant professor from U.C. Davis invented a wine aroma wheel that the dedicated tasting show-off will want to buy or at least study online before going out with friends.  Here’s the wheel:

wine flavor wheel

 

One of the keys to showing off is to not appear to be showing off.  This is tricky, we know.  Most people fail at this because they act and sound like they are giving a lecture on wine.  That’s an amateur move. The professional show-off has a more nonchalant style:  all comments and observations will be offered as if talking to himself or herself.  “Hmmm, I think I’m getting vanilla and tobacco on the nose.”

3.  Oak.  When your wine tasting guide tells you that the wine was aged in oak, you must ask “was it new oak or neutral oak?”

4.  Fermentation.  For white wines, ask if the wine was fermented in stainless steel or oak.  When this question has been answered, ask whether the wine went through malolactic fermentation.  If the wine guide beat you to it and already told the group that the wine did in fact go through malolactic fermentation, ask “do you know that percent?”  Many wines go through the entire malolactic fermentation process (100% malo) but wine makers can and often do mix wine that went through malo with wine that did not to yield a 50% malolactic fermented wine (or higher or lower percentages).

5.  Rosè.  When tasting this wine, ask your server how long the grapes were “on the skins.”

6.  Harvest conditions.  Sound very interested in the conditions that existed for the vintage you tasted.  Was it a cold or warm year?  Lots of rain vs. drought.  Did they pick early or late?

7.  Terroir.  If you get to ask about terroir you’re sure to impress – after all, it’s a French word, and who isn’t impressed with a bit of French? Terroir refers to the place the grapes are grown – the weather, soil, microclimate, elevation, sun exposure, etc.  A beginner show-off could start off with a question about soil.  Intermediate and advanced show-offs will delve deeper and ask questions about, for example, which way the vineyard faces or what impact the local topography or geography (e.g., mountains, rivers, valleys) has on the vineyards.

8.  Farming practices.  The discriminating show-off will definitely want to know more about how the grapes are grown and how the vineyards are tended.  Does the winery irrigate or are the vineyards dry-farmed?  Are the vineyards organic or managed biodynamically?  What kind of canopy management system is employed in the vineyard (yes, “canopy management” really is a thing).

9.  Brix.  As you progress to PhD-level of showing off, you will want to start asking some very technical questions about the wine-making process.  You might consider asking your tasting guide:  “At what Brix level were the grapes picked?”  He or she likely won’t know but you’ll look like quite the stud with this question.

10.  Food pairing.  Now you’re ready to mix your knowledge of wine with your knowledge of food.  “This Sauvignon Blanc would go beautifully with Italian Sea Bass.”  “This Cabernet needs a thick, juicy steak to stand up to it.”  The more you taste the more specific you’ll be comfortable getting:  “This Moscato would go great with cheese – blue cheese that is.”

Okay you’re ready now to go out and impress your friends.  To avoid being overly annoying or coming across as a complete and utter snob, do not ask all 10 questions at every winery you go to. Spread them around over a few days of wine tasting. Pick your spots and use as much subtlety as you possess.  Good luck!

 

John & Irene Ingersoll

July 5, 2017

From 0 to 100.

From 0 to 100.

Yesterday we passed another milestone: we reached 100 countries where our blog has been read.  This is a proof-positive of the global nature of our lives today as well as the wide reach of social media and the scale of blog platforms such as WordPress that are used literally all over the world.  For the record, our 100th country was Armenia, the former Soviet republic tucked between Turkey, Georgia, Iran and Azerbaijan.  Without question, this new reader was not our first ethnic Armenian as many countries (including the United States) are home to Armenians.  And we know for a fact that our good friend Vadim has read the blog.  But we are grateful to Armenia for getting us to this surprising milestone and we look forward to seeing how many of the world’s other 96 countries we can penetrate.  Here are some fun facts about the 100 countries in which our blog has been read:

  1. The United States accounts for about 75% of our total views.  This is expected given that we are in the US and we write our blog in English.
  2. The United Kingdom is our second largest readership base – also expected given the language in which the blog is written.  The fact that the blog is read in so many other countries is a reflection of how ubiquitous English has become we suppose.
  3. Croatia accounts for our third-largest viewership among the 100 countries.  We did go to Croatia late last year and some of our most memorable posts have been about that trip.  (A link to our last post from that trip is here: Croatia blog post).
  4. Of the 100 countries, there are only two with which we were not previously familiar:  Mauritius and Cape Verde.  Thanks for the 5 views from Mauritius, we now know that it is a tiny island east of Madagascar.  As for Cape Verde, it is also a tiny island, but this one is off of the northwest coast of Africa.
  5. Our very latest new viewer comes from the Palestinian Territories which comprise Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.  Because we are sticklers we are not counting this as 101 because the Territories are not a country.  But there are over 4 million residents there and we look forward to more readers there.
  6. Six out of the seven continents are covered – North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia.  We have not recorded any readers in Antarctica and we may never do so.  The way IP addresses are recorded is generally by country and Antarctica is the one continent that has no countries.
  7. We have only visited 25 of the 100 countries that read our blog.  Clearly we have to crank up our travel plans for the future!
  8. Virtually all of the countries in which the blog has been read permit the consumption of alcohol.  However, there are two (Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia) that do not permit alcohol to be consumed, and we are grateful to our intrepid readers in those countries.
  9. Seven readers have been identified as being from the European Union, which is also not a country so not counted as one of our 100.  But it did cause us to do some research and we learned that occasionally IP addresses will identify generically as “EU” when people are working in headquarters locations.
  10. Our final, and perhaps most important fun fact, is that wine is something that people all over the world have interest in regardless of the political structure in that country, dominant religion or class structure.

We appreciate all of our followers and will try to keep posting interesting and meaningful stories and experiences.

John & Irene Ingersoll

June 24, 2017

 

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See, Sniff, Swirl, Sip, Spit. Repeat.

See, Sniff, Swirl, Sip, Spit. Repeat.

When you live in Napa Valley it is common for other locals to ask “have you been to [fill in the name of a winery].”  Sometimes we answer in the affirmative but often we have to admit we are unfamiliar with the winery in question.  Over the past month we got “the question” twice about the same winery:  “Have you been to Davis Estates?”  Both times we answered no, but by the second time the question was asked we started to wonder, “why haven’t we?”  Both questions came from people who are very knowledgeable about wines and winery experiences and  they had many positive things to say about Davis Estates.  We made an appointment for our first available day and made the beautiful drive to Davis Estates, located on Silverado Trail between Saint Helena and Calistoga.   It was a trip well worth taking; so good, in fact, that our second visit was the same weekend.  While it is not uncommon for us to visit a winery multiple times over the course of months or years, it is certainly uncommon for our second visit to be two days after the first.  We could not resist, however, drawn back by the quality of the wine, the people, and the setting.  So yes, we did see, sniff, swirl, sip, spit …and REPEAT all in the same weekend.

After parking the car we headed over to the tasting room building, a beautiful barn-like structure that was somehow both rustic and modern.

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View of Davis Estates tasting room and visitor center from front of property

We were greeted at the door by the incomparable Holly who was going to be our wine guide not just that day but also for our second trip to Davis Estates with our good friends Tracy and Marty.  Holly quickly got us settled and let us know that we were going to be in for a paired tasting with Davis Estate wines and dishes not only selected by their chef but cooked to order during the tasting!

Our tasting began with a glass of the 2014 Davis Estates Viognier, a lovely representation of this wine made the way we prefer it:  crisp and dry, with floral and fruit elements balanced nicely by firm acidity.

 

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2014 Davis Estates Viognier

To accompany the Viognier the chef selected a spicy carrot  soup that was the perfect complement to the wine.  We then turned to Davis Estates’ red wines – Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Zephyr (a Cab blend) – which were paired with vegetable tempura, pork belly and steak.  Because we visited twice in the span of a couple of days we had a chance to revisit each of the Davis Estates wines as well as taste them with and without pairing (we opted for a non-food tasting on our second visit).  On both visits we enjoyed the red wines immensely, although our preferences shifted between tastings and our friends had their own favorite among the reds on visit #2.  On our first tasting (paired with food) one of us favored the Merlot, which we understand is the favorite wine of Davis Estates wine maker Cary Gott, while the other of us favored the Cabernet Franc. The 2013 Davis Estates Merlot was structured, its fruit flavors balanced by medium to strong tannins, with a nice long, lush finish.  We were equally impressed by the Cabernet Franc which had lovely fruit aromas (and none of the “green” or peppery aroma sometimes associated with this varietal) and a smooth, oak-influenced flavor on the palate.  This wine also had a nice long finish with a texture that was almost silky.

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2013 Davis Estates Merlot
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Davis Estates Cabernet Franc

The final wine in our tasting was the 2013 Davis Estates Zephyr, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (92%), Cabernet Franc (5%), and Petit Verdot (3%).  This wine spent two full years in barrel but did not emerge over-oaked or unbalanced.  The Zephyr had plenty of structure, strong tannins, and a nice balance between the fruit flavors and acidity.

Although the four wines above rounded out our official tasting, we were having such a good time that Holly offered to let us try another Davis Estates wine as well as a couple of wines from proprietor Mike Davis’ other wine label, Phase V, whose winemaker is Philippe Melka, another wine maker in Napa who is a legend in the making. (Read about our visit to Melka Winery).    From the Davis Estates label we tasted the Petit Verdot, a deep, ink-colored wine with a delicate set of aromas, dark fruits mixed with violets, and on the palate exotic spices with an earthy backbone and strong tannins.

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Davis Estates Petit Verdot

We then moved on to the Phase V wines and tasted the Petite Sirah and the Cabernet Sauvignon.  We are always drawn to Petite Sirah when we can find it in Napa as it is only available from a small number of wineries.  (Read our review of a winery that considers itself a “Petite Sirah house” – Que Sirah Sirah).

The Petit Sirah was our friend Tracy’s favorite wine of all the ones we tasted.  We also were wowed by the Phase V Cabernet which was incredibly complex with aromas and flavors that demand attention but can in no way be lumped in to the category of “big Napa Cabs.”  We intend no disrespect to the ripe and bold Napa Cabs – we eagerly consume many of them – but the Phase V Cabernet is more than just a mouthful of fruit and high alcohol content.  Each sip displayed more subtle aromas and flavors – chocolate, coffee, spices, and leather.  Made only in small quantities and made available to Phase V wine club only, the Cabernet is a wine that will stand up to a couple of decades of aging.

With the exception of the Phase V Cabernet, which fetches upwards of $200 per bottle, we were pleasantly surprised by the cost of many of the Davis Estate wines.  Our expectation was for much higher prices, driven by the quality of the wine but also the beauty of the Davis Estates property.  When Mike and Sandy Davis purchased the 155 acre parcel that their winery sits on today, the main building on the property was an old barn close to Silverado Trail.  Soon after selling the technology company that he founded, the Davis’s came to Napa Valley with a vision to build a world-class winery and deliver a superior tasting experience.  To help them build the desired physical environment to pay off their vision, the Davis’s hired Howard Backen as the architectural partner on their project.  Clearly, Mike Davis has learned from his many years in business that you are only as good as the people you surround yourself with.  This is evident in his choice of star wine makers (Gott and Melka) as well as his choice of Backen to design the main visitor center and complete a stunning overhaul of the dilapidated barn.  Over the past couple of decades, Bracken has put his imprint on Napa Valley and Sonoma wine country by designing some of the best-known Napa wineries including Harlan Estate, Ram’s Gate, Kenzo, Larkmead, and many more.  In addition, Bracken and his wife are the founders and owners of Archetype restaurant in Saint Helena (formerly French Blue).

Visitors to the Davis Estates visitor center/tasting room will likely be stunned by the scale of the building – high ceilings, wide room – all set up to give guests views out of floor-to-ceiling windows to the vineyards below.  On sunny days, guests will want to taste on the terrace overlooking the vineyards and enjoy the views.  We also encourage visitors to take a tour of the barn (with glass in hand of course), which has been restored beautifully to create an intimate and family-friendly tasting space.

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Inside the barn at Davis Estates
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A couple days later with friends

 

There are several separate areas for groups to sit and taste wines including this spot by the fire.

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Modern meets rustic
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This really is a big ass fan
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Okay now it feels like a barn
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These are the “swinging couches” on the terrace in the main tasting room

On our way out (on the first of our two visits) we ran into Mike Davis and Holly was gracious enough to introduce us to him.  He struck us as a genuinely nice guy and from everything we saw at Davis Estates, we embrace his vision for the wine and the winery.

John & Irene Ingersoll

June 21, 2017

 

 

Great people making great wines

Great people making great wines

We enjoyed a wine recently at a local Napa Valley tasting room from a producer with which we were previously unfamiliar:  Lamborn Family Vineyards.  The quality of the wine compelled us to visit the producer’s website and try to set up a tasting appointment.  We could not find an option for scheduling a tasting but were not deterred: we visited the site’s “contact us” page and sent a message expressing our enthusiastic wish to visit and taste their wines.  Very soon thereafter we received a reply thanking us for our interest but letting us know that the winery was not open to the public.

Although there are over 525 wineries in Napa Valley, many of them – and perhaps even the majority – are not open for business for a variety of reasons.  Some wine producers lack the production levels to justify building a winery or tasting room or hiring hospitality staff.  Others do not have sufficient acreage to receive approval to operate a winery (generally new applicants for a winery must own at least 10 contiguous acres).  Yet another category are those producers and wineries that do meet the minimum property size and have sufficient wine production to fund a tasting room and staff but do not have a permit to accept visitors.

Even though I could not visit Lamborn and taste their wines, I asked their founder, Mike Lamborn, if he would be open to my coming up to meet him and learn more about their wines and the story of their family wine business.  Mike graciously agreed and we picked a time for me to come up.  A few days later I made the trek from our house in Napa to the Lamborn’s property in Angwin – about thirty miles north.  Lamborn Family Vineyards is located in the Howell Mountain region, one of Napa Valley’s highest-elevation grape-growing areas and home to unique microclimates and soil types.  We have been to wineries in Howell Mountain before and had a vague sense of how long the trip might take and how complicated the route would be. This vague sense was clarified when Mike Lamborn emailed us an old-school map with written directions and a warning that most navigation systems cannot accurately deliver visitors to the right location.

It turns out that the Lamborn property was at least another 15 to 20 minutes driving time beyond any place we had been in Howell Mountain, but well worth the drive. As I drove down the long driveway past the vineyards I saw a woman tending to some vines next to the road.  I would soon learn that this was Mike’s wife Terry and the image of her in the vineyard reinforced a key takeaway from my conversation with the Lamborn’s – they are hands-on farmers.

After driving down the Lamborn’s long driveway and parking the car near the house I could see unobstructed views into the valley below for dozens of miles.  It felt as if I was standing at the very top of Napa Valley.  Mike came out to greet me and we settled down on their outdoor patio and Mike told me the story of Lamborn Family Vineyards.  It all started in 1969 when Mike’s father bought land up in Howell Mountain – first one acre, and then a 20 acre parcel that is now home to Outpost Wines.  A couple of years later Mike and Terry purchased their own parcel of Howell Mountain land at one of the highest elevations (2200 feet).   Because the land required significant work – clearing, grading, building – they did not plant until 1979; the first Zinfandel grapes were harvested in 1982. Cabernet Sauvignon was planted later with the first harvest in 2003.  Annually, Lamborn produces about 1,000 cases of Zinfandel and 550 of Cabernet Sauvignon.  In addition, they make about 100 cases of Rosè of Zinfandel.

People that really know Napa Valley wines will tell you that Howell Mountain fruit is not just different, but special.  Because of its extreme elevation compared to the Valley floor, Howell Mountain has cooler days but also warmer nights resulting in a long and steady growing season.  In addition, the unique soil in Howell Mountain – volcanic ash and red clay – creates the perfect environment for grapes to grow.  Vineyards on Howell Mountain sit on ground that is very rocky which provides excellent drainage.  However, the soils are nutrient-poor, causing the grape vines to struggle; it is from this struggle that the most intense wine is produced.  The Lamborn vineyards sit on Red Aiken Loam atop a water table that is 500 feet below the property.

As I can attest from seeing Terry in the vines as I drove up, the Lamborn’s do their own vineyard management for their ten planted acres.  Since the end of 2015, they have been fully organic, a choice they made not for marketing purposes but for reasons much more personal.  As Mike Lamborn put it, “We did it for the health of the land and the health of our grandchildren who come here.”  Many wineries stick the word “family” in their name but many of them no longer have anyone from the family involved.  At Lamborn, in addition to Mike and Terry their sons are both involved in the winery business and there is a fourth generation of Lamborn’s coming of age.

If there were any surprises during my conversation with Mike and Terry it was their perspective on the wine making part of the business.  “We’re Farmers,” they said repeatedly, “we don’t get too involved in the making of the wine.”  This is a refreshing approach – stick to what you’re good at.  Of course, this is easier to do when your winemaker is Heidi Barrett, one of the stars of Napa Valley known for her stint at cult winery Screaming Eagle and as the winemaker for over a dozen wineries in the Valley.  As Mike described it, their goal was to make balanced wines that can age, with no particular characteristic standing out above any other.  This approach meshes nicely with Heidi’s style which is to make balanced wines that are expressions of where the grapes were grown.  If you taste Lamborn wine and say “This is a Howell Mountain wine,” then the Lamborn’s and Heidi would be pleased.

Because Lamborn Family Vineyards does not have a permit to taste wines I did not enjoy either the Zin or the Cab while I was there (although I had several glasses of delicious well water!).  When I left, though, Mike and Terry were nice enough to gift me a bottle each of Zin and Cab.  They did not provide any instructions as to how long to age the wine or when to consume it, so both wines have been enjoyed with friends already.   Both wines had strong dark fruit characteristics balanced by spice notes and strong tannins and finished nice and long.  The Zinfandel had strong pepper notes while the Cab had a wonderfully dusty aroma and strong minerality.   The 2013 Cab is sold out but the 2014 vintage will be released in November.  The 2013 Zin is still available and wonderfully priced at $45 per bottle.  Although we have not tasted it yet we just ordered two bottles of the Zinfandel Rosè for a very exciting price of $34 per bottle.  The best and easiest place to find Lamborn Family Wines is their website:  Buy Lamborn Wines.  For those that are in Napa Valley and want to pick up a bottle, Lamborn sells its wine at Maisonry Napa Valley, a wine tasting room in Yountville:  Maisonry.  Finally, for those that are in Napa Valley Father’s Day weekend, many of the Howell Mountain wineries are participating in a fantastic event, Taste of Howell Mountain:  Taste of Howell Mountain.

John Ingersoll

June 3, 2017

This is what I call a drinking problem

This is what I call a drinking problem

There is a winery in Paso Robles – Dracaena Wines – that we have been hearing about for the past year or so.  Friends and fellow bloggers have posted about the winery’s Cabernet Franc and the reviews have been positively glowing.  On more than one occasion we visited the Dracaena website and took a closer look at their story – and it’s a really cool one.  For some reason, though, we never pulled the trigger and ordered any wine from them.  Until last week, that is.  We are not sure what happened on that particular day that compelled us to go to the Dracaena website (http://dracaenawines.com/) and order four bottles of the 2014 Cabernet Franc.  Usually we buy a single bottle just to make sure that we like the wine before making a bigger commitment.  However, at $32 a bottle (way below the Napa Valley average for any style of red wine) the value ratio was simply too high to purchase less than four.

Once the order was placed we sat back and waited for the wine and got very excited when the UPS tracking system alerted us the wine was scheduled for delivery that day.  Of course, both of us were out when the UPS truck came and all we had to show for our patience was a sticker on the front door promising that they would come back the next day.  Early evening the following day we were in the back yard and heard a truck coming up our secluded and dead-end street; at that time of day it could only be a delivery.  Both of us raced from our seating area, flew out the back gate and intercepted the UPS man in our driveway:  “Do you have something that requires a signature?” we asked him.  When he confirmed that one of our packages did in fact require a signature we knew that our wine had arrived.  It did not take us long to unpack the bottles and make the four lovely ladies feel at home.

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Aren’t they beautiful?

We have read about people who, when their wine arrives, put it away and save it for some time in the distant future.  We are not those people.  Five minutes after rescuing the wine from the UPS box, we had popped the cork and poured the first two glasses.  And the next night?  Yes, we had more of the 2014 Dracaena Wines Cabernet Franc.

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We enjoyed it as much the second day

At the rate we are going we will run of the Dracaena Cab Franc before the end of this upcoming weekend!  We will try to be disciplined enough to set aside a bottle or two to enjoy in the coming months – especially now that we have learned that the 2014 Cab Franc is sold out and the 2015 is just being bottled.

Most Americans consume Cabernet Franc not as the exclusive or even primary grape in a bottle of wine, but generally as a smaller percentage blended with Cabernet Sauvignon.  A number of producers in the U.S., however, are making 100% Cab Franc (the 2015 Dracaena will be exclusively Cab Franc) or blends where Cab Franc is the majority grape.  For an excellent primer on the grape that is in fact one of the “parents” of Cabernet Sauvignon read this article:  Jancis Robinson on Cab Franc.

When we took our first sniff of the Dracaena Cabernet Franc, the aroma took us completely by surprise.  Often, Cab Franc has a very strong vegetal aroma, in particular bell pepper; we have tasted several Cab Franc’s with people who were turned off by the bell pepper aroma and flavor. (If you want to know why wines have the aroma and flavor of bell pepper, read this easy-to-understand article:  Why some wines taste like bell pepper).  With its super-value price of $32, we were definitely anticipating that the Dracaena Cab Franc would come across a bit young, harsh, and definitely have the strong vegetal/bell pepper aroma and flavor.

We could not have been more wrong.  The Dracaena Cab Franc was smooth, delicate, balanced, and sophisticated.  For several minutes after pouring the wine into the glass we were stuck on the first step of the three-step wine tasting process (“sniff, swirl and sip”).  We couldn’t seem to get past “sniff” because the Dracaena Cabernet Franc was so richly aromatic.  On the nose, the wine resembled something you might expect from France, and this expectation was reinforced on the palate as well.  The tannins were present but not overpowering and overall the wine balanced fruit and acidity very nicely.

We have some wines that we call “Tuesday night wines,” usually wines lower in cost and where a price-quality compromise has been considered.  On the other end of the spectrum are our “going out wines”:  those that are good enough to take to a fine restaurant and share with good friends.  The 2014 Dracaena Cabernet Franc is a “going out” wine . . . but at a Tuesday night wine price.  An American wine this good for $32.00 a bottle is an absolute find and an impressive addition to the roster of excellent Paso Robles wines.

Now that we know the 2014 Dracaena Cabernet Franc has sold out, we will try our best to hold out and not consume the last bottle until the 2015 release is in sight.  With our shaky self-control, however, we may not make it!

 

John & Irene Ingersoll

May 24, 2017

I can’t make “pun” of this winery’s name

I can’t make “pun” of this winery’s name

For every one of our blog posts we have an important introductory step that takes place before we write a single word:  brainstorm a headline.  For reasons even we do not fully understand, we cannot get started before the headline has been cast in stone.  Usually, the headline is a play on words or a pun; for example, when we visited Duckhorn Vineyards last year our headline was “Wine that fits the bill.”  Get it? Bill?  Ducks have bills.  If you want to check out that review, here it is:  Wine that fits the bill.  Last week we visited one of Duckhorn’s sister wineries and guess what?  They made a pun out of their own name in such a way that we simply couldn’t top it:  Paraduxx Vineyards.  What do you find on every bottle?  Two ducks.  A pair of ducks.  Paraduxx.  Get it? For this post, then, we gave up on finding a clever title and decided to just get to the wine.

For those unfamiliar with the Duck family of wineries, the “grandfather” of them all is the previously mentioned Duckhorn Vineyards.  Today, there are several different brands under the Duckhorn umbrella, each with a different varietal or geographic focus: Goldeneye – primarily Pinot Noir and Chardonnay sourced from Anderson Valley in Mendocino County; Migration – excellent Pinot Noir offerings from Sonoma’s Russian River region; Decoy – producing Napa and Sonoma wines at prices that are surprisingly affordable ($25 for their 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon); and finally, Canvasback – producing wine from vineyards in Washington state.  Each of the brands has some sort of duck reference in the name, although some of them we had to Google to understand (we did not know that Goldeneye and Canvasback are species of ducks).

Okay, enough about ducks.  Let’s talk about Paraduxx wines.  If Duckhorn is well-known for being a “Merlot house,” Paraduxx is a “blend” house:  most of their wines are blends of red varietals.  However, the blends were not the typical Bordeaux or Napa blend (Cab + Merlot) but more creative and inventive blends we have not seen in our other winery visits.  Many wineries in Napa Valley and Sonoma County have multiple labels and often there is a clear quality distinction between the wines sold under each label.  The winery’s main wine is considered the “A” brand and the others are “B,” “C,” etc.  It is important to stress that Paraduxx is not a “B” brand to Duckhorn, rather it is a sister winery with a different wine making approach.

When we arrived at the winery they placed a glass of the 2015 Paraduxx Proprietary Napa Valley White.  While it is not uncommon in Napa to find a proprietary red wine, proprietary white wines are not something we recall coming across.  We were told that the concept of a proprietary white was established in order to create a sense of quality and gravity to the white wine.  Often, white wines are the “throwaway” wine in Napa – something to ease visitors into the wine tasting before the serious (meaning: red) wines are poured.  We enjoyed the Paraduxx proprietary white which is composed of white varietals with Viognier making up about 2/3 of the blend.  Although it was aged in oak it was nicely tart and crisp – the perfect wine for the hot Spring day.

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A white wine that wants to be taken seriously

Once we were seated out in the gorgeous Paraduxx back patio, our host Miguel Hurtado came out and gave us a quick overview of the winery and helped us understand the connection with (and differences from) Duckhorn.  Despite his youth Miguel turned out to be really knowledgeable about the wines and a fantastic ambassador for the wines and the brand.  He was also very generous in offering us tastes of wines that were not part of a regular tasting.  After we finished the Proprietary White, Miguel brought out the entire red wine tasting at once, which is the way Paraduxx prefers to introduce its wines to guests.  Rather than tasting one wine at a time, four reds are poured simultaneously, allowing tasters to jump back and forth between the wines and make comparisons and also revisit wines after they have had a chance to open up.  In addition, each wine is in its own glass, thereby avoiding the inevitable mixing of wines (and aromas and flavors) that occurs when you use a single glass to taste.  We prefer this type of tasting and wonder why more wineries do not follow this practice.

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Wines delivered together so they can be tasted together

From the picture above it may look as if 8 different wines were delivered; please do not get overly excited, these are two sets of the same four wines, one for each of us.  Our first Paraduxx red wine was the 2013 Cork Tree Red Wine, a blend of Malbec (43%), Cabernet Sauvignon (38%), and Merlot (19%).  The four of us tried the Malbec and I believe we all were expecting the wine to be very spicy and bold, similar to the Malbec wines we have tasted from Argentina.  This blend, however, was mellower than South American Malbec, perhaps because of the other varietals in the blend and the 18 months in French oak.  We found this wine to be smooth, lightly tannic, silky and soft compared to some of the wines that followed.

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Lush wine with a mellow finish

Our second red wine was another unique blend – at least unique to us – 50% Cabernet Franc with 47% Zinfandel and 3% Cabernet Sauvignon.  Compared to the Cork Tree blend, the 2013 Rector Creek – Block 5 Red wine had stronger aromas and on the palate boasted much higher tannins and more acidity.  We all agreed that this wine would pair well with a thick juicy steak.

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Perfect wine for pairing with grilled meat

Our third red blend was the 2013 Paraduxx Atlas Peak Red Wine, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (51%), Zinfandel (31%), and Sangiovese (18%).  This was the favorite wine of our grouping, although not everyone picked it as their favorite the first time through the four wines.  One of the benefits of having the wines served at the same time and in their own glass is the ability to come back and taste each again.

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Wine Enthusiast gave this wine 90 points

The final wine in our red blend tasting (but far from the final wine of the afternoon) was the 2014 Paraduxx Pintail Napa Valley Red Wine, a blend of Zinfandel (63%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (37%).  The youngest of the four wines, the Pintail blend had bold fruit, strong tannins and a nice long finish.  We look forward to trying this wine again when it has aged a bit and see how the flavors progress.

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This is one of Paraduxx’s new releases

 

Miguel let us work our way through the four red blends at our own pace and when he saw that most of us had empty glasses he asked if we would like to try any more wines.  We enthusiastically accepted and Miguel proceeded to bring out a taste of 2013 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir from their sister winery Goldeneye, followed by a 2010 Paraduxx Rector Creek Red Wine (to compare to the 2013 we had tried during the tasting).  We were already familiar with the Goldeneye Pinot Noir, having visited the winery last summer; we enjoyed it as much as we had the previous bottles consumed at home.  The 2010 Rector Creek was luscious, smooth, fruity with a nice long and balanced finish.

But wait, there’s more.  We asked if there was any Duckhorn Merlot open and, thankfully, Miguel answered in the affirmative.  Several of the tasters in our party are big fans of the Duckhorn Merlot, truly one of the best in the country.  As we were preparing to go, Miguel twisted our arm and asked if we wanted to try another Duckhorn wine.  Because we are pleasers, we said “yes, if you like” and accepted one finally taste:  2013 Duckhorn “The Discussion.”  Unusual for Duckhorn, The Discussion is a blend – 64% Cab, 31% Merlot, and small percentages of Cab Franc and Petit Verdot.  This was Duckhorn’s version of a Bordeaux blend, a good old-fashioned cuvee.  Aged for two years in 60 gallon Chateau-style barrels made of 100% French oak, The Discussion is a complex, sophisticated and elegant wine.  Definitely the right wine with which to end our day.

Before leaving the table I looked down and thought “I must document the immensity of today’s efforts by taking a picture of the battlefield.”  This is the carnage that we left behind.

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THIS is how you taste wine

We should mention that in addition to the strong wines Paraduxx offers visitors a beautiful and comfortable setting for tastings.

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Lovely company in a lovely setting

With a summer of family and friends visiting we expect we’ll make it back to Paraduxx (and hopefully Duckhorn as well) soon enough.

John & Irene Ingersoll

May 13, 2017

 

 

Happy Blogiversary to Us

Happy Blogiversary to Us

One year ago we decided that we wanted to start a blog about life in Napa Valley wine country and our experiences visiting the restaurants and wineries here.  Almost immediately we felt that Napa Valley was too narrow a focus as our travels took us to other California wine region and wineries in other states.  Before the blog was 6 months old, we found ourselves in Europe writing about our adventures with food and wine across four countries.  A year later, we can say that our blog is still focused on sharing our food and wine experiences, but we no longer feel compelled to limit ourselves to any particular region.

When we started we had no plan for, well, anything – frequency of posts, mix of content (food vs. wine vs. travel), length of blog.  To the question “how do I become a writer” there is an old joke response:   “You write.”  That’s how we started this blog: we wrote.  Our first post was about a visit to a wine pick-up party where they served a whole roasted pig to accompany the wines being poured.  That first blog can be accessed here:  A Bovine and Wine Saturday at HdV.  As soon as we published the article as better title came to mind “A Wine and Swine Saturday,” but we were too lazy to change it.  Faithful readers will know that as often as possible we title our blog posts with some sort of play on words that we hope qualifies as “clever.”  More often that not, though, the titles are more corny than clever.

After the first post we managed to write another 57 over the following year – almost 5 a month.  This might sound disciplined but the truth is our blog posts have had peaks and valleys rather than coming out in a steady stream.  Each of our first three months we managed 3 posts.  In August, we were very active visiting restaurants and wineries and we managed to publish 6 posts. Then came October, our most prolific month, where we published 12 separate posts about our California, Oregon and Europe trips.  The past few months the “day job” and other personal projects have brought our monthly volumes back down a bit.  Our goal as we head into Year 2 of our blogging adventure is to be a little bit more consistent – at least a blog post a week.

Looking back on the past year there are some facts and figures that blew us away:

  • We went from 0 followers to just over 8,000 at current count.  Writing a blog should be a labor of love because there is no guarantee, when you push “publish,” that anyone will see it, read it, or care about it.  The first follower was a delightful surprise as have been the ones that came after.
  • Our blog has been read in 95 countries according to our analytics reporting.  Our first follow, in fact, came from Australia from some fellow wine bloggers that we consider to be among the best in the world.  As a thanks we will provide a link to their blog:  The Wine Wankers.  Of course we could not have expected or even dreamed of such a wide reach. We have friends, family and colleagues in probably 20% of these countries; the others we have been able to reach using social media, in our case primarily Twitter.  We would like to give a shout-out to all of our international followers and a special recognition for the one visitor in each of the following countries that has read our blog:  Tanzania, Mauritius, Fiji, Djibouti and Antigua & Barbuda.  Hey, tell a friend about us, maybe we can get multiple readers in your country.
  • A large majority of our views come from the United States, not surprisingly given where we live, the language in which we we write, and how we distribute our blog.  Our second-largest viewership comes from the United Kingdom, followed by Croatia, Canada, Spain, Australia, France, Italy, Germany and India.  As we look down the list we realize how popular wine has become across the globe; even in countries where it may violate local laws and/or customs to purchase or consume wine we have followers.
  • Wine is being produced almost everywhere.  As we have pushed our blog across our WordPress platform, Facebook, Twitter and other social media channels, we have met wine makers in so many places.  It was a definite learning for us, for example, that all 50 of the United States produce wine.  In addition, our eyes have been opened to the excellent wines being made in parts of the world where grape growing is not a traditional form of agriculture.

As we buckle down to Year 2 we promise to sacrifice ourselves for our readers by visiting as many fine restaurants and wineries as we can and tasting wines from all over the glob.  Keep sending us your comments and questions and hitting that “like” button when you appreciate what we have done.  We hope to avoid a sophomore slump and will do our best to come up with witty/silly/clever/corny headlines and interesting content.

John & Irene Ingersoll

May 6, 2017

Honey Tasting in Napa Valley

Honey Tasting in Napa Valley

Who would come to Napa Valley for honey tastings? No one!  We did not really taste honey, but we did taste wine at a winery whose name means “honey” in German.  What is “honey” in German, you ask?  Honig.  And that’s where we found ourselves a few days ago, at Honig Vineyard & Winery in the town of Rutherford.  It was not our first visit (or even second) to Honig, but friends from out of town had never been and we knew they would enjoy the beautiful outdoor patio, the friendly staff and the wine.

One of the things that we really enjoy about Honig is that there is in fact a real-life Honig at the winery.  Owner Michael, the third-generation Honig at the helm, can often be seen at the winery talking to guests and, as was the case when we visited, trying to herd a couple of his smaller children as they ran around the winery property.  In a valley where more and more wineries are being established or acquired by giant global beverage mega-firms, it is most definitely quaint and encouraging when we encounter family owned wineries.

When we sat down for our tasting, we had a pretty good sense of what we would be tasting from our prior visits. Our friends, though, were making their first visit to Honig and were expecting to start with Chardonnay, the typical starter for many of the Valley’s tasting menus.  At Honig, though, you will not find any Chardonnay; it’s actually a point of pride for them and perhaps even a motto.

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Honig Winery’s cheeky slogan

 

Soon after moving to Napa Valley, we became members at Honig and started receiving shipments of their wine. Perhaps our favorite part of becoming a member was getting the hat in the picture above. It was definitely a conversation starter everywhere we went, ranging from supportive agreement to bitter and vehement opposition.  Personally, we do not have any thing against Chardonnay and drink it often and at home, restaurants, and other wineries.  Buy we also understand the thought behind the slogan:,there is enough Chardonnay in Napa Valley already,  let’s focus on some other white varietals.  In Honig’s case, this would be Sauvignon Blanc.  Owner Michael Honig is a tireless advocate for his wines and travels far and wide to get the word out about them and support sales and distribution.  Their Sauvignon Blanc can be found in many restaurants, wine stores and supermarkets across the United States, a quality wine at a very affordable price.

At Honig we started with the Sauvignon Blanc and proceeded to a couple of reds and ended with one of our all-time favorite dessert wines.

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A well-rounded tasting

After the Sauvignon Blanc we tasted two Honig Cabernet Sauvignon offerings:  their 2014 Napa Valley Cabernet and their 2012 Vyborny Vineyard Cab.  If you look closely at the tasting menu above you can see that the first Cab is half the price of the second.  This should not, however, lead anyone to conclude that the Honig Napa Valley Cab is not worthy of attention or tasting.  On the contrary, the 2014 offering was a nice example of Napa Cabernet with balance and texture.  The 2012 Vyborny Vineyard offering also lived up to expectations and a notch or two above the 2014 Napa Cab due to its silky texture and greater richness on the palate.

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Our friend Kelly seems to approve of the wines

Like all previous Honig tastings, our most recent ended with the 2015 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc.  This wine lives up to the meaning of “Honig” – honey.

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Look closely, you can see honey in this glass

Many dessert wines end up being overly sweet and simply taste like syrup.  Don’t get us wrong, the Honig Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc is certainly sweet – that’s why we think of it as honey.  Complementing the sweet, though, are multiple layers of flavor that you will get with each sip.  This is a wine that either one of us could easily consume in a single sitting …and regret it quickly, given the high sugar content (over 25%).

Over three years had passed since our first visit to Honig and our understanding of wines and our palates have developed considerably.  Nevertheless, we enjoyed Honig as much on this most recent visit as the first time due in large part to the wine but also to the service and culture at the winery:  laid-back, friendly, open and genuinely interested in their guests.  As he has on previous visits, Michael Honig came by the table for a brief chat and then corralled his two youngest kids and wrangled them towards their house.  The Honigs live on the estate right behind the winery, which we imagine contributes to their desire to create a hospitable and harmonious vibe for their guests.

As summer approaches and the flood of friends and family to Napa Valley intensifies, we anticipate more trips to Honig this year.

John & Irene Ingersoll

May 1, 2017

Puncutation Matters in Napa Valley

Puncutation Matters in Napa Valley

Visitors to Paradise (aka Napa Valley) expect to immerse themselves in the beauty of nature, the decadence of fine cuisine, and the poetry of the region’s wines.  Left behind are the pressures and rules of “real life,” right?  Surely something as mundane and constricting as grammar doesn’t matter in this world-famous wine region.  Well, this is what we thought until this past weekend when we were arranging to meet an old friend at a winery in the highly regarded Stags Leap District.  The night before our visit we decided it would be nice to send her a note with the name and location of the winery.  Each of us, though, came up with a different address – they were a couple of miles apart. “You looked up Stags Leap, right,” she asked.  “Yes, he replied.”  We shared our phones with each other and one of us said:  “Your winery is s-apostrophe,” while the other said “Your winery is apostrophe-s.”  Huh?  There are two wineries in the Stags (no apostrophe) Leap District that have “Stags Leap” in their name.  One of them is Stag’s Leap, the other is Stags’ Leap.  Seriously.  This really happened.

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Apostrophes Matter

It turns out that the place we were going was apostrophe-s (Stag’s Leap), and once we cleared up this confusion we sent confirming details to our friend. What difference does it make which side of the “s” the apostrophe sits?  A lot!  Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is one of the wineries that put Napa Valley on the map as a legitimate global region.  We have written before about the 1976 Judgement of Paris, a tasting where Napa red and white wines competed against some of the most famous and expensive French wines.  (For a refresher on the man who made the Chardonnay that bested the French, read this post:  A Pair of Aces for Father’s Day.)  On that particular day in Paris in 1976, Stag’s Leap 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon was judged the best, beating out not only five other California entrants but also scoring higher than the royalty of Bordeaux:  Haut-Brion, Mouton-Rothschild, Montrose, and Leoville Las Cases.  This is not to say that the s-apostrophe winery (Stags’ Leap) is bad, as they do make quality wines; but we wanted to take our friend and her discriminating palate to one of Napa’s historical spots.

Thankfully, Stag’s Leap did not disappoint on any measure – location and ambience, service, or the wine.  We were fortunate to be seated outside on the patio just a few feet away from the vineyards.  The winery is nestled in what is often called a “valley within a valley.”

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Gorgeous location – Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

The Stag’s Leap property is surrounded immediately by vineyards and farther out by mountains and the Napa River.  From our table we overlooked Stag’s Leap’s two estate vineyards – Fay Vineyard and SLD Vineyard.

After settling in we took a look at the tasting menu and opted for the Estate Collection Tasting Flight.  This tasting is comprised 100% of wines made from grapes grown on Stag’s Leap property and offered both white and red options.

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Cab, Cab and more Cab!

As most tastings do, our Stag’s Leap adventure started with a white wine: the 2014 Arcadia Chardonnay.  This wine is sourced from the Arcadia Vineyard, a large property on Napa Valley’s Mount George.  This wine was not a “California chardonnay”:  creamy, almost buttery texture with hints of oak and low acidity; instead, what we tasted was a wine resembling a more traditional French approach:  higher acidity and more balance.  We were surprised to find out that the Stag’s Leap Chardonnay had been aged in French oak and had also undergone malolactic (secondary) fermentation, which often result in the more buttery wine. However, the use of only 20% new oak likely accounts for the balanced outcome.

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A lovely chardonnay

Moving on to the reds, we did not have to make any tough choices – there were three Cabernet Sauvignon offerings to try.  We started with the 2011 Fay Cabernet Sauvignon and proceeded to try the 2011 S.L.D. Cab and then the 2010 Cask 23 Cabernet.  All three wines were excellent representations of Cab from the Stags Leap District but also different as a result of their different soil types and winemaking approaches.  In our group of five there were different opinions as to which of the Cabernet offerings was the best but we all agreed that all three are among the best we have tasted in Napa Valley.  None of the three would be considered a classic Napa Valley “fruit bomb” Cabernet, even though they each had strong presence of dark fruits in the aroma and on the palate.  However, due to the unique soil of the Stags Leap District, each of the red wines had elements of earthiness and minerality that provided structure and depth to the wines.  One of the Cabs – the S.L.D. – was the wine that won in Paris in 1976 and it was easy to see why.  The 2010 Cask 23 Cab – a blend of the best Cab grapes from each of the vineyards – was by far the most sophisticated, intense and powerful of the Cabs, at least to our taste.   We went to another winery later that day and we should have reversed the order and started at the other winery, which also produced a Cabernet Sauvignon.  This other winery’s Cab offering was solid, perfectly drinkable, but, alas, not at the level of the Stag’s Leap Cabs (any of them).

We thoroughly enjoyed our time at Stag’s Leap and cannot review our experience without mentioning the great service.  Our host was attentive, knowledgeable and, in the end, very generous.  When he overheard us talking about where we live in Napa, he realized we were neighbors and comped one of our tastings even though it was  a weekend.  Normally Napa Valley residents can get a complimentary tasting but only during the week; we appreciated the courtesy and have already planned a return visit.

John & Irene Ingersoll

April 27, 2017

The fruits – or grapes – of war.  

The fruits – or grapes – of war.  

Last night we opened a bottle of 2015 De La Guerra Viognier from Napa Valley’s Carneros region.  Translated literally, the words “de la Guerra” in Spanish mean “of the war” or “from the war.”  In this case, however, De La Guerra refers not to any battle or war but instead is the name of one of the oldest winemaking families in California.  De La Guerra is a second wine label of the esteemed HdV Winery in Napa.  In our very first post on this blog, we wrote about HdV, a partnership between the Hyde family in California and the famous de Villaine family in France.  Larry Hyde, grower of some of Carneros’ best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, is a De La Guerra descendant .

De La Guerra 2014 Viognier

Like all of the HdV and De La Guerra wines, the Viognier was sophisticated, balanced and luscious. For those that have not experienced this varietal – Viognier is a French grape from the Rhine region of France.  Typically, it has strong citrus and floral aromatics and flavor with a full-bodied finish.  Many American expressions of Viognier end up very smooth and creamy as a result of ripe fruit, secondary (malolactic) fermentation, and the use of new oak.

Lovely golden color and silky texture.

Fortunately, the De La Guerra Viognier was made in the more traditional French style and did not suffer from the overdone, heavy-handed style that often results in a sweet, almost syrupy wine.  On the nose, the Viognier had strong citrus elements – lemon and tangerine – as well as a strong floral component with hints of rose and honeysuckle.  On the palate, the wine was crisp, pleasantly acidic, with clear minerality mingling with the fruit flavors.  The Viognier went nicely with dinner but could also be enjoyed by itself (by which we mean with a good book and a patio chair outside).

We have many bottles of the HdV brand at home but this was our only bottle of any variety from the De La Guerra label; there is also a Chardonnay listed on the website that we are planning to order.  For more information on HdV or De La Guerra wines, visit the HdV website:  HdV Wines.

For the HdV story and an introduction to the team, click here:  The HdV Story and Team.

John & Irene Ingersoll

April 17, 2017

Wine’a in Lahaina

Wine’a in Lahaina

What could be better than sharing a wine tasting experience with good friends?  Well, how about if that wine tasting experience was on the Hawaiian island of Maui?  Yes, that is better.  Our intrepid friends Inna and Igor inspired us to join them in Hawaii for several days and one evening they took us to one of their favorite Maui spots,  The Wine Palette.   We were staying in Lahaina and took the short trip up to Kapalua to taste wine before dinner.

Our first impression of Palette was favorable:  the interior is open and bright with a mix of high-top tables with stools spread throughout the spacious interior as well as two large couches in the middle of the room on the lower level.  There is also an upper level that would easily accommodate a large group.  Since it was still early, we were just one of a few groups in Palette when we arrived; by the time we left to get to our dinner reservation, the bar was filling up nicely both inside as well as outside on the patio.

After being seated we got our hands on the menu and took a look at the wine and food options.  We were pleasantly surprised by the breadth of the by-the-glass offerings as well as the bottle selections for both white and red wines.  As residents of Napa Valley, we were happy to see many of our hometown wineries on the glass and bottle lists as well as a strong showing from our neighbors in Sonoma County.  In addition to our “local” wines were choices from California’s Central Coast, Oregon and Washington, and ten countries (including a red blend from Lebanon that we wished we had thought to try).  After perusing the bottle list it was clear that the four of us all wanted to try different wines so we passed on buying any bottles.  Instead, we each crafted our own “pairing” by ordering 2-ounce pours of several different wines.

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Perfectly sized tasting glasses!

Along with each tasting-sized glass was a small note card with the name of the wine and tasting notes.  As the wines are placed on the table, the note cards are placed face down next to their respective wine to create the effect of a blind tasting.  So for Igor, who created his own Pinot Noir flight, there was the challenge of distinguishing between the Oregon and the Sonoma County Pinot Noir.  Each of us had similar challenges and I recall we all were able to correctly identify the wines based on aroma and taste.

To accompany their wines, Palette offers a wide selection of food, ranging from starter plates to full meals.  As we were heading to a delectable sushi restaurant later in the evening, we did not need a full meal but did fancy something to pair with the wine.  We agreed on some edamame (perhaps in anticipation of sushi) and the more traditional cheese and charcuterie plate.

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The perfect complement to great wine

If we have the opportunity to visit Palette again (yes, please, since this means we’ll be in Maui again!) we may opt to stay longer and forage through the rest of their food menu.  And drink more wine of course.

When our friends first told us the name of the wine bar, our ears (conditioned by our time in Napa no doubt) heard “palate,” not “palette.”  We could only imagine that the wine bar was named after a word that refers to the appreciation of tastes and flavors – palate.  Even when we saw the name written as “palette” on the door as we entered the bar we did not think twice – until we saw paint brushes, canvases and other painting supplies.  Ohhhhh, “palette.”  As in colors mixed by painters.  In addition to yummy food and excellent wines, The Wine Palette also allows its customers the opportunity paint, either on canvas or on wine glasses.  Our friend Inna is a talented painter and, time-permitting, we surely could have talked her into creating a masterpiece for us.

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Palette wine bar has all the supplies needed for painting

In addition to supplies for painting, The Wine Palette also has dozens of board and card games available for customers to play while they are sipping.  There is also a large screen in the bar area that was playing a movie (coincidentally one of my very favorites, “Bridesmaids”).  Not long after we sat down, a family with small children came in and occupied the couches.  They blended in nicely which is a testament to the clear intent of the owners to make their establishment work for many different types of visitors.   We should also mention that The Wine Palette is not just for wine aficionados as they also have a full bar and an impressive selection of beers.

We always enjoy good food and great wines, but there is something uniquely special about enjoying them after a vigorous day of swimming, snorkeling and sunbathing.  If you end up in Lahaina, Kapalua or Kanapali, make your way to The Wine Palette and take advantage of their ambience and libations.  For reservations or to find out more, visit them here:  The Wine Palette.

John & Irene Ingersoll

April 4, 2017

 

Did Napa Need Another Tasting Room?

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Outland Wines tasting room in downtown Napa

The answer is yes.  Napa does in fact need another tasting room.  This might be a surprising conclusion in a Valley with nearly 500 wineries and a downtown that already has many wine bars and tasting rooms.  However, many of Napa Valley’s wineries are not open to the public, in many cases because the artisanal, low-production nature of the business makes it virtually impossible to sustain a winery tasting room and staff.  Outland Wines, the newest spot to taste wines, is an important addition to the local scene because it provides a place where three separate wine makers and wine labels can showcase themselves to the public.

This past weekend was Outland’s grand opening which we learned about through the best local source we have.  No, not Facebook or Twitter or even the local paper. Our source is the uber-connected Darcy who seems to know everyone and everything in town, including that Outland was opening.  We met Darcy and her beau at the new tasting room to taste wines from the three producers whose wines are presented at Outland Wines:  Poe Wines, Farella Vineyards, and Forlorn Hope.

When we arrived the place was already hopping – wall-to-wall people, every table and chair occupied, and more than a few people chilling in front of the wine bar.

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Enthusiastic turnout for grand opening of Outland Wine tasting room

We love the idea of wine cooperatives, which harken back to the early days of Napa Valley when wineries and wine makers worked together to achieve success for themselves individually with the understanding that it would enable success for all  (See our post on another Napa wine cooperative:  Holman Cellars).  Once we got our bearings we realized we were facing a daunting problem (yes, definitely a First World problem, or more precisely, a Napa Valley problem):  which wines to taste.  Because there are three wineries at Outland, and each makes wine from multiple varietals, trying one of everything would have been fun …until it wasn’t.

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Too many wines to try in one sitting?

We debated between two approaches:  stick with a single winery and taste all or most of their offering; or, pick a few wines from each label to taste.  Because we had no prior experience with any of the wines, we opted to try different wines from each of the wine makers.  One of us tried the 2015 Forlorn Hope Chenin Blanc and the other the 2013 Forlorn Hope Gewürztraminer.

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Side-by-side comparison

The Gewürztraminer (on the left) fermented on its skins for a period of time which accounts for that lovely orange complexion.  While its typical aromas of honey and lychee seemed to promise a sweet finish, the wine was in fact dry with zero residual sugar – a lovely, crisp and balanced finish.  The Chenin Blanc was also balanced and a nice wine but did not have the character and uniqueness of the Gewürztraminer.

As part of our agreed-upon plan to try each of the wineries’ offerings, we moved to Farella where we tasted their Merlot and Malbec, both of which were solid wines, structured and balanced.  The price for these wines is far below the Napa Valley average, making them a bargain based on their quality. We also had the opportunity to taste  Farella’s 2002 proprietary red blend, Alta, poured out of a magnum; this was a fantastic wine with the type of depth, sophistication and character you would hope for from a 15-year-old red blend.

Before leaving we tried two of the Poe Winery Pinot Noir offerings – the 2013 Van Der Kamp Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sonoma) and the 2013 Manchester Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir (Mendocino).  We enjoyed the aroma on both wines; on the palate, we found the finish to be delicate and muted, certainly not the strong, heavy finish generally found with Sonoma Pinot. The two Poe Pinot Noir offerings were more reminiscent of traditional Burgundain-style Pinot and the subtle finish could result from the fact that the wine is unfined and unfiltered.

While the three wineries produce a wide range of different wines, there is an overall philosophy that binds them together:  minimal intervention in the making of the wines and letting the varietals show their true aroma, flavor and character.  Our recent visit to Outland leaves us wanting to try more wines from each of the three producers and, of course, return to the wine bar soon.

To find out more about Outland or to schedule a time to taste, visit their website:  Outland Wine Bar.

John & Irene Ingersoll

March 14, 2017

Why we love the CIA? For the food!

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Maybe you thought we meant this “CIA”?

For most people, the letters “CIA” conjure up a plethora of images and ideas – clandestine meetings, skullduggery, espionage, exotic locations, and a fair amount of intrigue and danger.  What probably does not come to mind is food, and world-class food at that.  The reason for this is that our nation’s spy agency has co-opted those three letters:  C – I – A; for those of us that live in wine country, they are more appropriately associated with the Culinary institute of America.  And yes, we actually refer to the institute as the “CIA.”  Twice in the past month, we visited the CIA’s St. Helena campus to try out their new Gatehouse Restaurant.  Over the past 2-3 years, we have eaten several times at the CIA’s previous restaurant Greystone; like Greystone, at Gatehouse all of the restaurant “work” – cooking, food and wine service, hosting – is performed by students of the Culinary Institute.

There are a multitude of areas in life that we imagine being served by students or apprentices would not be ideal:  medical care and haircuts come to mind.  We can say with great enthusiasm, however, that fine cuisine made by the students at the CIA is top-notch and the equal of most restaurants in the Napa Valley. Indeed, many of the individuals that made or served our food, poured our wine, and removed our dishes after eating will some day soon be working in the Valley’s elite eateries.  We enjoyed both the food and the ambience so much that we went twice, first with our intrepid Napa Valley food and wine connoisseurs Inna and Igor, and the second time just us for Valentine’s Day.  We enjoyed both visits and were particularly impressed with the many new menu items the second time we visited.

Gatehouse serves a fixed-price menu with an option of three or four courses. For dinner, the cost of three courses is $39.00 and four courses is $49.00, while for lunch the courses are $32.00 and $42.00 for three and four courses, respectively.  While these are not fast food prices, they are very reasonable for the quality and quantity of food provided.  On our first visit, we opted for the three course tasting menu at $32.00 per person, an amount we easily could have exceeded most of the restaurants we tend to visit during a day of wine tasting.  For Valentine’s Day we opted for the more decadent four-course dinner for $49.00, a screaming bargain compared to the tasting menus at many of the restaurants we considered going to, which ranged from $100 to $150 per person.  In our humble opinions, Gatehouse delivers a superior overall culinary experience that will make us come back over and over again.

For our lunch visit, the four of us ordered a wide variety of options off of the menu to make sure that we were collectively able to evaluate the Gatehouse’s variety and range.  Even before our first selection was served, our server brought out a complimentary amuse bouche from the chef.

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A nice way to start

Our first courses included beef consommé, a roasted acorn squash with good cheese and eggplant purée, and cured salmon with shaved fennel and potato crêpe.

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Beef consomme with custard royale and vegetable pearls
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Cured salmon with shaved fennel, green apple, potato crepe, tarragon green sauce
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Roasted acorn squash with goat cheese, eggplant puree, lentil salad, maple-cider dressing

As you can see, the dishes at Gatehouse are presented as beautifully as they would be at any high-end establishment. In terms of taste and texture, we each loved our starters as well as the rest of our meal, which included a delicate and flaky skate…

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… braised short rib …

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Beautifully prepared in five spices

… pork tenderloin …

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Don’t you love that pork can be served “medium” these days?

Our final course was, of course, dessert.  We each ordered something different including a Moscato poached pear, Chai panna cotta, and a chocolate granache.

Our preferred version of the CIA makes a mean dessert as well – not surprising given that there is a pastry track that produces some very good pastry chefs as well.

When we returned for Valentine’s Day, the menu had almost all new items compared to just a couple of weeks before.  We opted for the 4-course dinner and again had some very sophisticated and tasty dishes.  One of our starters was Muscovy Duck Breast prosciutto, a definite first for us …

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Who knew you could make prosciutto from duck breast?

Our other starter was Pacific Rock Crab Risotto …

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Risotto al dente

Additional dishes included Pancetta Wrapped Quail …

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A great mix of flavors

…Rolled Pasta with black truffles …

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Pasta is not always boring

Dessert brought more decadence, including Warm Oatmeal Cake …

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Not your ordinary oatmeal

…and “White Chocolate-Peppermint “Cheesecake”

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Not your ordinary cheesecake

 

Of course this being Napa Valley, the restaurant has a very impressive list of premium wines.  We opted to bring our own bottles of wine and were very pleasantly surprised when no corkage fee was added to our bill!

We will be back to Gatehouse Restaurant again to try the items we missed the first two times.  If you are coming to Napa Valley, we strongly recommend you make the trip to St. Helena and check it out.  You can make reservations here: Gatehouse

The current menus are available here:  Gatehouse Menu

John & Irene Ingersoll

February 28, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

Got Melka?

Got Melka?

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Who needs milk when you can have Melka?

According to a famous 1990’s advertising campaign,”milk does a  body good.”  We subscribe to the philosophy that wine –  good wine – also does a body good.  We recently met Sylvie Laly, the wonderful Sales and Wine Director for Napa Valley winery Melka Wines, who was gracious enough to share some of their wines with us.  After tasting one of their white wines and four reds, we can say that “Melka does a body good” as well.

We first heard about Melka wines through a recommendation from a sommelier at one of our favorite Napa Valley restaurants (Torc in downtown Napa) and enjoyed a bottle or two there.  We also were pleased to learn that some of their wines can be purchased at select Total Wine & More stores (with one conveniently located just 100 yards from work).

In total, Sylvie shared five wines with us, starting with the 2014 CJ Cabernet Sauvignon, named after Philippe and Cherie Melka’s children, Chloe and Jeremy.

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When in Napa …you have to make a great Cab

The CJ Cabernet is the most mass-produced of the Melka wines – if 1,800 cases counts as “mass production.”  This wine is 76% Cab with Petit Verdot, Cab Franc and Merlot blended in as well.  This wine is way too good to be anyone’s “Tuesday night wine” – it was luscious and bold, with a fine balance of fruit, acidity, minerality and tannins.  But at a $75.00 price point the wine is quite a value as it priced far less than Napa Cabs of similar quality that cost 50-100% more.

 

After finishing the CJ Cabernet, we moved on to the 2014 Melka Majestique – a 100% Syrah from the Paderewski vineyard in Paso Robles.

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Que Syrah, Syrah

Only the fourth vintage from this vineyard, the Majestique Syrah was one of the better California Syrahs that we have consumed:  complex with many layers, both in terms of aroma and flavor.  The Majestique had strong blackberry and blueberry notes but also was bursting with pepper and spice to deliver a balanced finish with surprisingly restrained tannins.  This is not a wine to sip while sitting by the pool or even reading a book on a rainy day – it will be better paired with food that can stand up to its bold flavor.

Sylvie followed the Syrah with the 2013 Proprietary Red from La Mekerra Vineyard in Knights Valley.

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An unusual Proprietary Blend that is unusually good!

Each year, winemaker Phillipe Melka strives to achieve as close to a 50/50 combination of Cabernet Franc and Merlot as he can.  For the 2013 vintage, the wine was 53% Cab Franc and 47% Merlot.  Like most of the Melka wines, the production quantities are small – only 400 total cases produced.  In our opinion, the Melka Proprietary Blend was their best wine – luscious, velvety, powerful, spicy with a strong tannic finish.  A more common blend in both Bordeaux and Napa would be Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, rather than Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Nevertheless, we think this wine holds its own against some of the most famous Napa Cabernet Sauvignon-anchored red blends at any price.

Our next wine was the 2013 Metisse from Napa Valley’s Jumping Goat Vineyard – a Cabernet Sauvignon with 13% Petit Verdot and 5% Merlot.

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When in Napa …you must make a Big Cab

This is Philippe Melka’s “Big Napa Cab” – 15.8% alcohol, aged 23 months in 80% new French oak barrels.  However, we don’t want to leave our readers with the impression that this wine was a typical Napa Cab “fruit bomb.”  For sure, the aroma and flavor of the wine are driven by dark fruit – blackberry and plum; but the wine is also complex, layered, sophisticated and nuanced and we imagine that over the course of an entire bottle the flavors would continue to unravel.

Too quickly we arrived at our last wine to taste – the 2014 Mekerra Proprietary White, Knights Valley, which is 97% Sauvignon Blanc and 3% Muscadelle.

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A lovely wine made from grapes grown at nearly 2,500 feet elevation

When Sylvie told us that the wine had undergone 100% secondary (malolactic) fermentation and had been in French oak barrels for nearly two years, we were not sure what to expect.  What we found in the glass, however, was a splendidly balanced white wine with none of the over-oaked aroma or flavor that you often find in California white wines.  There was plenty of fruit on the palate – citrus and melon – but the wine was also crisp and had enough acidity to provide a long finish.  We learned that the grapes for the Melka Sauvignon Blanc are sourced from Knights Valley, a vineyard location in Sonoma County with an elevation of over 2,300 feet.

If you pick up some Melka wine, make sure to take a close look at the label, each of which contains a close-up photo of the eyes of co-owner Philippe.  For each series of wine (Mekerra, Majestique, Metisse), his eyes change color.  For instance, on the label for the wines from Mekerra Vineyard, his eyes are blue (because Mekerra is the name of a river).

We look forward to tasting wines with Sylvie again when Melka’s winery opens.  Be sure to check out Melka wines at their website:  Melka Wines.

John & Irene Ingersoll

February 14, 2017

A Wine Rating System That Makes Sense To Us

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A wine rating legend – Robert Parker

We recently visited VGS Chateau Potelle in Napa Valley’s quaint town of Saint Helena and encountered a wine rating scale that we think has some appeal:  VGS.  Even casual wine buyers are familiar with the more common 100-point wine rating scale that Robert Parker first introduced in the 1980’s in The Wine Advocate.  Since Parker introduced this scale, it has been adopted by virtually all wine publications.  This rating scale has some appeal, especially in the United States where most schools and universities grade on a scale of 0 to 100.  A zero equates to total failure and a 100 suggests perfection.

While we find the 100 point scale to be useful, the “VGS” designation that we learned about at Chateau Potelle is one that we think could have broad appeal to the full gamut of wine consumers – snobs and novices alike.  When we sat down last week at VGS Chateau Potelle for our tasting with Shelby, we figured “VGS” stood for the name of a corporate parent or ownership group.  In our defense, it was our first visit to the winery and we knew little about them other than we had tasted a luscious bottle of their 1996 Zinfandel at Alice Water’s famous Chez Panisse in Berkeley the week before.  “So,” we asked, “who or what is ‘VGS’?”  “That stands for ‘very good shit,’ she explained.  At first we thought this was a gag but it turns out that the letters do in fact stand for those descriptive words.  As the story goes, some visitors to the winery many years ago described the Chateau Potelle wines as “very good shit” to the winemaker, Jean-Noel Fourmeaux. Apparently, he was not offended by this designation and latched onto the letters “VGS.”  Over the years, VGS has become a more prominent feature in the winery’s branding to the point where, today, both the tasting room and the bottles are branded “VGS Chateau Potelle.”

Without reservation, we can say that the 1996 Zinfandel that we had at Chez Panisse was VGS. We decided to taste the current Chateau Potelle Vintages to see how they ranked on the scale.

We sat down for a paired tasting – four wines overall with a small bite to complement the wine. We started with the 2014 Chardonnay, which was paired with Vichyssoise with Dungeness crab.  We have to say, the bites were delicious, not surprising when we found out that they are provided by one of Napa’s highest-rated restaurants, Michelin-starred La Toque.  Given that Chateau Potelle’s winemaker is from France, we were expecting more of a French-style Chardonnay – crisp, bone dry, no oak, and very light in appearance.  Instead, the Chardonnay turned out to be very yellow, similar to the Chardonnays made in Napa in the “California style.”  However, the flavor was not buttery like a typical California Chard – it was a mix of both styles both in terms of color, aroma and flavor.  Overall, a nice wine.

Our second wine was the 2014 Zinfandel – nearly 20 years younger than the wine we enjoyed the previous weekend – paired with bacon rillette.  We found the 2014 Zin to be a very nice wine – balanced fruit, spice, smooth tannins and a nice silky texture.  It was difficult not to compare it to the 1996, and in that comparison it could not hold up as the older wine had such intriguing texture and flavor.

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Our third wine was the 2014 Potelle Two – a quasi-Bordeaux blend; we say “quasi” because in addition to the traditional Bordeaux blend varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, the winemaker has blended Syrah and Zinfandel.  This wine was very balanced and drinkable for such a young red wine and paired nicely with a Spanish Idiazabal cheese.

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The fourth and final wine was Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa’s Mount Veeder appellation, paired with Niman Ranch beef.  With just over 75% of its grapes coming from Cabernet Sauvignon, the wine is labelled a Cab but could easily be considered a proprietary blend as it includes Petit Verdot, Merlot, Cab Franc and Malbec. The wine was very balanced but more powerful than the Potelle Two, with a stronger and longer finish and stronger tannins.  Also, there were more layers of flavor in the Cab – something that can be cellared and enjoyed for years to come.

We enjoyed the wines and had the good fortune to be attended by Shelby who not only shared her deep knowledge of the wines with us but also engaged us in a lively conversation about her Armenian family and the current state of U.S. politics.  We also enjoyed the tasting room which is cozy and arranged in away that allows groups to enjoy sit-down tastings with a fair amount of privacy and personal attention.  There is also a lovely outdoor area that felt very much like a French garden that we would have loved to enjoy had it not been raining for what felt like the 100th consecutive day in 2017.  When we get back to Chateau Potelle to try some more VGS, we will choose a sunny day and have our tasting outside.

We’re not sure a new rating scale for wine will catch on, but we would like to propose three levels for wine quality:
“S” – for truly shit wine, the one that you regift as soon as you get it, or use it for cooking.  Not even good enough to be a “Tuesday night wine.”

“GS” – for wines that are good shit; not very good, just good.  Definitely worthy of Tuesday night but also good enough to take to a restaurant for date night.

“VGS” – for the very good shit wines that you drink for special occasions and hide from  friends or family that can’t tell the different between S, GS, or VGS.

What do you think – can this rating scale catch on?

John & Irene Ingersoll

February 10, 2017

Wine Pairs With Football in Napa

The Oakland Raiders are one of America’s most successful franchises:  owners of three National Football league championships and a team that has placed twelve players, one coach and their owner into the NFL Hall of Fame.  Over the course of their history, the Raiders have developed the reputation as one of the fiercest teams in the country.  So what comes to mind when we think of the Raiders?

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For many of us, the Raiders’ logo is the first thing that comes to mind:  the pirate or “raider” with the eye patch wearing a football helmet dressed in the team’s sliver and black colors.  For others, what comes to mind is an image of the players themselves, either as a unit …

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Raider players at practice

…or perhaps a favorite individual player.

As much as the players are celebrities, the Raider fans have also become notorious for their intense love for their team, their elaborate costumes, and the inhospitable nature of the Raiders’ home stadium, the Oakland Coliseum.

These are the images and ideas that we conjure up when we hear the words “Oakland Raiders.”  What we do not conjure up are …Cabernet Sauvignon, fine wine, Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley.  Nevertheless, American football and the Oakland Raiders do in fact have a strong connection to Napa Valley, wine and great Cabernet Sauvignon.  This past week at a local Italian restaurant (thanks, Pasta Prego!) we ordered wine from a label that was new to us: Twenty Four Wines.  Our waitress explained that “Twenty Four” was a reference to the uniform number worn by previous NFL football player Charles Woodson, a member of the Oakland Raiders (retired in 2016).

The wine had a lovely aroma of dark fruits (blackberry, blueberry) as well as some spice and a hint of oak.  Based on the bold aroma, we were expecting a very fruit-forward, high-alcohol wine that jumped out of the glass. Instead, our first couple of sips revealed a very restrained wine; it almost seemed like it was holding itself back.  Initially, the fruit was muted by the acidity and dryness of the wine and there was not much to the finish.  We decided to let it open up more and a few minutes later the fruit flavors become more prominent as did the tannins, leading to a much longer finish and more satisfying balance of fruit and acidity.

You might wonder how Charles Woodson went from this …

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Two future Hall of Famers meeting

…to this:

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Charles Woodson courtesy of charleswoodsonwines.com

Charles Woodson was drafted by the Raiders in 1998 and attended his first training camp that year in the city of Napa, where we live.  Through his annual visits to training camp and exposure to the Napa Valley, Woodson became more and more interested in wine and became friends with some knowledgeable wine people along the way.  After leasing a property in Calistoga in 2001, he planted vines and made his first wine in 2005, a Cabernet Sauvignon. Today, he bottles Cab as well as Sauvignon Blanc, which we also had a chance to taste at Pasta Prego.  We were impressed with the aroma and flavor of the Sav Blanc as well – a nice balance of fruit and acidity.

Like many of our favorite wineries in Napa Valley, Twenty Four Wines is still a small production operation compared to the “big fish” in the Valley.  But with the quality of the wines, the energy of its owner, and the interesting story behind the brand, we anticipate that growth is in their future.  Next time you’re going to a Raider game, forget about that flask of whiskey, case of beer, or bottles of tequila.  Get yourself a bottle (or six) of Twenty Four Wines and tailgate like a Hall of Famer.  And don’t forget your wine glasses, good Cab does not taste good in a plastic cup.

You can find Charles Woodson’s wines here:  http://www.charleswoodsonwines.com/

John & Irene Ingersoll

January 27, 2017

A winery my mother would have loved

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Vineyards at Marimar Estate

My wife and I have been visiting Marimar Estate Vineyards & Winery in the Sonoma County town of Graton for quite a few years now.  Founded by Marimar Torres, a member of the prominent Torres winemaking family in Spain, Marimar Estate produces very high quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as well as Spanish varietals such as Albariño and Tempranillo.  Although she hated all California wines, I’m certain my mother would have loved Marimar Estate wines, Marimar Torres herself, and the great food-based events that they hold throughout the year.

My mother was born and raised in Spain and lived there until she was over thirty years old.  By the time she passed away, she had lived more than half of her life outside of her native country, most of those years in the United States.  Nevertheless, throughout her life she maintained a strong identify as a Spaniard and loved the food and wine that she grew up with.  My brothers and I all have memories of Mom’s food – Spanish tortilla, croquetas, bacalao, the giant blocks of Manchego cheese she would bring when she visited.  Without question, though, Mom had a signature dish – paella.  Every time she visited she would make many of her delicacies but alway would make at least one paella.  Coupled with the paella?  Red wine of course.  What kind of red wine?  Red wine from Rioja, Spain.

Over the course of my adult life I tried to impress my mother by taking her to fancy restaurants that purported to make good Spanish food.  All of these efforts ended in failure and, occasionally, disaster. As soon as the paella was placed on the table my mother would begin her meticulous inspection and quickly find something wrong with it:  it was too watery (“this is soup, not paella”); or had the wrong ingredients (“you don’t put this in paella”); it lacked the saffron necessary to turn the rice yellow; or it was seasoned improperly.  On one occasion in a Spanish restaurant in Hollywood my mother even called for the chef to come out and asked him a single question: “Does this paella have cilantro?”  “Yes!” the chef replied enthusiastically.  “This isn’t paella, then,” she answered, and proceeded to explain to him how paella should be made.  He attempted to defend himself by saying the paella was “his take” on the classic dish and, admittedly, had some more Mexican and South American influences.  “It’s just rice, then,” she concluded, and did not take a second bite.  This scene repeated itself in different forms, but equally embarrassing (for me) moments, many times.

We have visited Marimar Estate many times for regular tastings as well as their “big events” such as their library tastings and their paella dinners.

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Marimar knows how to throw a party

I can say confidently that Mom would have loved both the wines and the food and would have seen a lot of herself in Marimar.  No, my mother did not make wine, but she had an energy and spirit that I see in Marimar Torres each time we visit the winery.  Growing up in Spain during the rule of dictator Francisco Franco, both my mother and Marimar experienced a Spain where women were not equal to men and certainly not encouraged to pursue their own careers.  Certainly when Marimar was a young woman in Spain the notion of a female winemaker or winery CEO would have been almost unimaginable.  Despite the expectations that society and family had for her, Marimar had big plans.  For starters, she obtained a degree at the University of Barcelona – in economics and business!  After graduating she was able to convince her father to permit her to sell their wines abroad, including in the United States.  It was during her time in California that she fell in love with Sonoma and found the parcel that would become the estate property for her vineyards and winery.

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Marimar Torres toasting her guests

The Marimar Estate is located close to the town of Sebastopol on the top of a hill with amazing views of the Sonoma Valley (facing east).  On the estate property there are 60 acres planted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes; this property is called Don Miguel Vineyard, an homage to Marimar’s father.  About four miles west, closer to the Pacific Ocean, is Doña Margarita Vineyard named after Marimar’s mother.

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All of the grapes on the Don Miguel estate are farmed organically and Marimar powers her winery with solar power.  We really appreciate this commitment to the environment and the results are evident in the wines:  whenever we share them with friends they tell us how “clean” the wines taste.  Our favorite Marimar wines include the several Pinot Noir offerings as well as the Tempranillo.  Although my mother mostly refused to drink anything other than Tempranillo from Rioja, I know she would have enjoyed Marimar’s Pinot for its full-bodied flavor, balance and sophistication.  She would also have enjoyed the paella.

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The sign of a real paella? A real paella pan.
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Marimar’s paella being prepared

We assure you that this paella was 100% authentic and did not contain cilantro!  On this visit our 19-year old daughter came and ended up serving as designated driver so that we could enjoy all of the fantastic wines. She did, naturally, enjoy multiple servings of the paella.  If anyone was counting, they would have noticed that after finishing the first plate I went back for seconds.  And thirds.

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Good enough for Mom

We toasted to Mom while we enjoyed the paella and wished that we had found Marimar earlier so we could have taken her to the winery and one of their paella dinners.

John & Irene Ingersoll

January 17, 2017

Top 10 Wine Moments of 2016

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View of Carneros wine region from Artesa Winery

2016 was unquestionably an impactful year no matter what filters you apply to its 365 days: geopolitics, U.S. politics, the global economy, or the premature passing of a disproportionate number of treasured artists.  Certainly, a historical understanding of 2016 will require a thorough review of all of these areas and more.  Our goal, however, is not to define 2016, put any labels on it, or attempt to put it into any particular context.  Instead, we want to celebrate some of the wonderful events and moments that we experienced in 2016 that are as important to remember.  Below are ten  of our top 2016 moments, not ranked by importance (how could we even do that?) but chronologically.

  1.  Wines of the World.  In January of 2016 we took our first class in the Viticulture and Winery Technology department at Napa Valley College.  Most of our wine education came to us in our important role as consumers (i.e., wine drinkers); we knew a fair amount about California and international wines, but were by no means global wine experts.  On our first day of class we were poised with our notebooks and pens to take copious notes about the wines of the world.  “Where are your glasses?” asked our professor.  Apparently this was a wine drinking class!  If we knew that such a class existed we would have taken it years before.  For the next class, we brought six wine glasses each and tasted wines from 7-10pm each Wednesday for 15 weeks.  Each week, we tasted between 12 and 14 wines, starting with France and moving through the rest of the Old World (Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, Portugal, Eastern Europe) and eventually the New World wines (Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, South America).  Along the way we learned about the different wine regions in each country, the grape varietals growth there, unique wine-making styles, and the specific terroir of each location.  Together with the wine tasting, it was quite an education!
  2. Bottlerock 2016.  Music festivals have become a real “thing” the past several years.  In Napa, we have our own 3-day festival, Bottlerock, that has grown since its inception about five years ago into an honest-to-goodness kick-ass event.  Each year, the quality of the headliners as well as the rest of the festival lineup has increased significantly.  For Bottlerock 2016, the headliners were Florence & The Machine, Stevie Wonder and The Red Hot Chili Peppers.  We bought tickets for two days – Florence and Stevie – and came to the festival early to catch some of the unheralded (but often equally impressive) early acts.  Beyond the strong performances, the food options were more plentiful than in prior years as were the wine and beer selections.  We are looking forward to purchasing Bottlerock 2017 tickets when they go on limited pre-sale tomorrow!  Please buy yours some other day.
  3. El Centimo.  Through our wine class (see #1 above) we met two of the dynamic people behind El Centimo Real, a wonderful wine from Spain’s Rioja region.  Jesus Parreño and Alaina Velazquez both live in Napa and have wine industry “day jobs” but are also trying to share their Rioja passion with the U.S. market.  We are often called wine snobs so when we tell you that our New Year’s Eve dinner featured two bottles of this luscious Rioja, hopefully you’ll conclude that the wine is fantastic.  More surprising, perhaps, is that the wine costs at least half of what we typically pay for quality California wines.  You can find out more about El Centimo Real here:  El Centimo.
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    2010 El Centimo Real (Lot 532)

    4.  Meeting a Legend.  On Father’s Day 2016, we had the opportunity (along with two of our kids) to meet Mike Grgich, the founder of Grgich Hills winery in Napa but also one of the people who helped put Napa Valley on the global wine map.  In 1976, Mike Grgich was the winemaker at Chateau Montelena and their 1973 Chardonnay, in a head-to-head contest in Paris, came out on top of a roster of wines that included the best of France’s white wines.  This so-called Judgement of Paris ignited the world’s understanding and acceptance of American wines.  Here’s a link to our Father’s Day blog entry:  A Pair of Aces for Father’s Day.

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    The crew with Miljenko “Mike” Grgich

    5.  A chance invitation to a wine party.  Some time during the summer we received an invitation to join a wine event at a winery with which we were not familiar:  Y. Rousseau.  Via Twitter, we met Olga Mosina from the winery and she told us about the event and a bit about the winemaker, Yannick Rousseau.  Given our interest in and focus on “hidden gems,” Y. Rousseau seemed right up our alley:  a small production operation housed in the up-and-coming (but still mostly hidden) Crusher District.  As interesting was the fact that Y. Rousseau’s two signature wines are Colombard and Tannat, both rare wines to say the least in the land of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.  To read our original post click here:  A Frenchman in Napa Valley.

    6.  Tasting wine with another legend.  Again via Twitter, we connected with Amelia Ceja, the founder and owner of Ceja Vineyards.  Sourcing fruit 100% from their estate properties in Napa and Sonoma, Ceja makes a number of different varietals, including some really fantastic Pinot Noir offerings.  What is particularly compelling about the Ceja story, we thought, was the fact that Amelia and her husband both came to Napa Valley from Mexico as children and went from picking grapes alongside their parents to growing grapes on their own property and making excellent wines.  Our write-up on our visit is here:   An All-American Story.

7.  A cool Oregon winemaker.  After drop-off weekend at the University of Oregon we made a visit to another winemaker that we met on Twitter, Jerry Sass, at his estate vineyard near Salem.  We quickly became fans not only of Sass Winery but of Mr. Sass as well due to his personality as well as his approach to viticulture and winemaking. Jerry has a dry wit very similar to ours and an honest outlook on life that drew us to him right away.  As a grape grower and winemaker, we loved his commitment to dry farming his grapes (no irrigation) and the fact that 100% of his vines on the estate we visited are “own rooted” – no grafting of one grape varietal onto the roots of another type of grape.  Jerry considers making wine a craft and respects the land and the fruit he picks.  End result?  Fantastic white and red wines.  You can read our write-up on Jerry and his wines here:  A Lot of Sass In Willamette Valley.

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9 wines is the right number for tasting

 

8.  Hey let’s meet some Italian winemakers!  One of the nights we were in Venice we arranged to meet with a dynamic duo, Roberto and Natalia from The Vinum Winery in Ortona, Italy.  It was quite an experience sharing dinner with them at the famous Terraza Danieli restaurant overlooking the Grand Canal – and drinking some of their wines with dinner.  They make a fantastic Prosecco as well as a number of other white and red wines; we managed to bring a case of their wine home with us and look forward to the day their wines are available here in the U.S.  Our day in Venice, including dinner with Roberto and Natalia, can be found here:  Why Is It So Hard To Keep A Secret?

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New friends in Venice

9.  What country is this?  After leaving Venice, Italy on a Sunday in October we whisked our way north and east into what the wife thought was going to be more of Italy.  We quietly crossed the border from Italy into Slovenia and ended up at the Kabaj Morel winery in the Goriška Brda region.  We had probably the best overall wine tasting experience of our lives at Kabaj Morel; in fact, it is an insult to the experience to call it “wine tasting.”  Our visit lasted 4 1/2 hours and consisted of a five-course lunch and drinking (not tasting) many of the Kabaj wines.  Our stop at Kabaj was a top highlight on a trip of top highlights.  You can read about our gluttonous feast here:  Sneaking The Wife Across An International Border.

10.  Last but not least.  Our trip to Croatia was a major revelation in terms of our understanding and appreciation of wines from that region.  Prior to the trip we had little exposure to Balkan wines, varietals and wine regions.  We got a major education on Croatian wines during our visit to Basement Wine Bar in the capital, Zagreb.  Based on what we learned at Basement, we structured some of our days in the rest of Croatia around tasting the local wines and even visiting one of Croatia’s most well-known regions, the Peljesac Peninsula.  While there, we were able to visit Mike Grigich’s Croatian winery (Grgic Vina) which was a nice tie-in to our Father’s Day visit discussed above.  Our Croatia adventure can be accessed here:  I’ve a feeling we’re not in Croatia anymore.

Crafting this list was difficult as we have visited several dozen wineries this past year and consumed bottles from many more.  Easily, we could have done a top 50 or maybe even a top 100, but we thought ten was a manageable number.  We hope you enjoyed reminiscing about 2016 with us.

John & Irene Ingersoll

January 4, 2017

 

Old-fashioned new wine co-op in Napa

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When winemakers used to work together

Today we made our third visit to Holman Cellars, a winery in Napa where some really interesting wines are being made.  What keeps drawing us back is the unique setup at Holman Cellars, where there are multiple winemakers and wine labels working out of the same space, sharing the same crush pad, and learning from each other’s successes (and occasional mistakes).  This may not sound so unusual but today’s Napa Valley is dominated by huge estate vineyards and high-volume wineries producing tens of thousands – or in some instances, hundreds of thousands – of cases annually.  Many wineries are owned or being acquired by international mega-corporations, including some of the most well-known family wineries in the Valley.  Without question, the wine industry has turned into a very competitive business.

It bears remembering, however, that before Napa Valley was one of the worlds’s most respected wine regions, wineries were still struggling to find the right balance of viticulture and enology.  The wineries of mid-20th Century Napa Valley – Mondavi, Beringer, Freemark Abbey, Inglenook – realized that they could not succeed individually, but rather would need to succeed together.  In 1944, seven vintners formed the Napa Valley Vintners, which today boasts over 500 members.  There are many stories of the early “pioneer” winemakers helping each other out with tools or equipment, lessons learned and shared successes.

This “pioneer” spirit is alive and well at Holman Cellars, which is also home to Newberry Wines and Cadle Family Wines.  This afternoon we had the pleasure of being hosted by Brian Newberry, the man behind the Newberry label.

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Brian Newberry telling us his story

Brian makes wine using the same small crush pad as Jason Holman and Kevin Cadle and they also share barrels and other equipment.

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Barrel room tasting spot at Holman Cellars

Compared to many other wineries, their space is small but they have a cozy tasting room as well as a large table for tasting inside the barrel room itself.  We tasted the white wines in the tasting room and moved into the barrel room to taste the reds.

One of the great things about wine tasting at a cooperative location like Holman is that you get to try wines from multiple labels.  Each time we’ve been to Holman, we’ve seen each of the winemakers pour not only their own wines but also the wines from the co-op partners.  This afternoon we had the chance to taste not just Brian’s Newberry label but also a couple of Kevin’s Cadle Family wines as well as a wine from Jason Holman’s Uncharted label.

Our first wine was a 2015 Newberry Chenin Blanc, a real treat for us as there are very few wineries in Napa that still make wine made from this grape variety.

In the 1980’s there were still over 2,000 acres planted to Chenin Blanc, compared to less than 100 acres based on a recent survey.  Vineyard owners have systematically torn out Chenin Blanc and replaced the acreage with vines that make more economic sense:  Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.  Brian Newberry was able to find a unique vineyard in Yolo County, tucked up against the Sacramento River, and works closely with the vineyard owner to grow and deliver the best grapes for his Newberry Chenin Blanc.  We really enjoyed the wine which was crisp, bone-dry (no residual sugar), and aged in a combination of stainless steel and neutral French oak.  In other words, “our type of white wine”:  balanced with strong acidity and minerality but with plenty of fruit flavor on the finish.

Our second white wine was from Kevin’s label – 2015 Cadle Family Gewürztraminer.  Like the Newberry white, the Cadle Gewurtz was crisp and dry but also a nice balance of acidity/minerality and fruit flavor.

Too often, Gewürztraminer can be overly sweet and syrupy, drinking more like a dessert wine than something you want to consume on its own or with appetizers or fish.  Cadle’s version, however, was made the way we enjoy it and could definitely be enjoyed with or without food (we’re imagining a good book and a fire).

After tasting these two whites, we moved to the wooden table inside the barrel room to taste three red wines – one each from the Newberry, Cadle and Holman labels.  Our first red wine was a 2015 Cadle Family Sangiovese, a full-bodied wine with flavors of black fruit, spices and medium tannins on the finish.

Kevin sources the Sangiovese grapes from Knights Valley in Sonoma County, a location that has elevations ranging from 500 to over 1,000 feet.  We have had Sangiovese wine from a few wineries in Napa Valley, one in Oregon, and several in Italy and we would stack the Cadle offering up against any of them.

The second red wine offering was Newberry 2014 Cabernet Franc, a varietal that more often is used for blending with other wines, typically Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.

Not so many wineries make a single-varietal Cabernet Franc, although several in Napa Valley now do.  The Newberry Cab Franc was simply delicious with a velvety mouthfeel and plenty of acidity and spice to complement the cranberry and cherry flavors.

Brian sources his Cab Franc fruit from Rutherford, one of the best sources in all of Napa Valley for Bordeaux-type varietals.  The vineyards that he pulls his fruit from are at a high elevation, around 600 feet above sea level.  We were intrigued by the color of the Cab Franc – ruby and garnet but much lighter than we often see with wines made exclusively from this varietal.  Brian’s Cab Franc was translucent and could almost have passed for a dark Pinot Noir.  Newberry refuses to add color as other wineries admit to doing.

Our final red wine was a proprietary red blend from Jason Holman’s Uncharted label.

The 2012 Uncharted red blend was also delicious but different from many of the other red blends that we have tasted in Napa Valley.  Jason sources his fruit from Coombsville, a well-known AVA in Napa Valley, but his wine is more complex than many other wineries’ proprietary red blends.  It is typical of Napa red blends to be super high in alcohol and very fruit-forward – a style that we enjoy drinking from high-quality producers, by the way. However, Jason’s Uncharted Proprietor’s Blend balances the flavors of dark fruit with acidity and minerality and strong tannins on the finish.

Having tasted wines from three winemakers in the Holman cooperative, it is clear that a singular approach to making wines binds them together:  buying high-quality fruit and making wines that are clean, crisp and true to the terroir where the grapes were grown.  Another thing that binds these winemakers together is their interest in exploring varietals that are not necessarily “typical” of Northern California wine regions.  Brian, Kevin, and Jason are making a wide range of different wines and willing to source them from different vineyards both in Napa Valley and elsewhere.  As we were leaving the wine tasting today, Brian showed us a barrel that Jason Holman is using to age a wine blend that, if we heard him correctly, holds 43 separate grape varietals!  What emerges from this barrel may be a fantastic and delicious blend … or it may be a horrible disaster.  Either way, the guys are going to enjoy the process of having experimented with something new – the kind of pioneer spirit that marked the early days of Napa Valley and is starting to show itself again in some great micro-wineries across the Valley.

John & Irene Ingersoll

December 30, 2016

Que Sirah Sirah

Most wine regions are known for something specific.  Burgundy is best-known for Chablis (Chardonnay) and Pinot Noir, Bordeaux for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  The Rioja wine region in Spain is best-known for Tempranillo.  In Italy’s Tuscany region, Sangiovese is king.  If there is a grape that defines Napa Valley, it would be Cabernet Sauvignon, although wine makers here have planted dozens of varietals.  “Napa Cab” is a real “thing” and at most wineries in the Valley the signature wine is Cabernet Sauvignon.

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Cab is King in Napa Valley

In a Valley with more than 450 wineries, though, there is something for everyone, including quite a few small-production wineries that specialize in varietals other than Cab.  We started this blog because we wanted to share these “hidden gems” with our followers.  This past weekend we visited another gem, one that our friends Inna and Igor have been telling us about since we met them:  Vincent Arroyo Winery located  a bit off the beaten track just north of Calistoga .

Since Inna and Igor have really good taste, we expected the Vincent Arroyo wines to be very good, which they were.  During our visit we realized that we had been missing out on a real cult winery with a strong, loyal following. Unlike many of the Napa Valley trend-followers, Vincent Arroyo is not a “Cab house,” as some of the big Cabernet Sauvignon producers like to call themselves. Instead, Vincent Arroyo is a “Petite Sirah house” – if there is even such a thing!   Petite Sirah is their “signature” wine and Vincent Arroyo produces multiple Petite Sirah wines from different estate vineyards.  We were fortunate to taste three:  the Rattlesnake Acres, made from grapes grown in the vineyards directly in front of the winery building; Greenwood Ranch, another vineyard-designated Petite Sirah from grapes grown behind the winery; and the standard Petite Sirah that is a blend of several estate blocks.  Although there are other wineries in Napa Valley that grow Petite Sirah, there are not many that feature the wine as their signature wine, or that have so many separate offerings to choose from.  We really enjoyed the Petite Sirah and were surprised how different the three were from each other.  There is also a Petite Sirah port that we understand sells out very quickly.

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Yes, please

Because overall production is relatively low (about 8,000 cases annually), demand for Vincent Arroyo’s wines often exceeds supply.  Like other precious commodities, the Vincent Arroyo wines are sold as futures – they can be reserved  by members before they are released or even bottled.  The Vincent Arroyo concept of “membership” is very different from that of almost all other Napa Valley wineries. Typically, membership in a wine club requires a commitment to a specific number of bottles per year and can easily exceed $1,000 annually for the more expensive wines.

At Vincent Arroyo, anyone that has purchased wine is entitled to be a Standing Orders member.  Let’s say we purchased two bottles of Tempranillo and we wanted to make sure that we were able to taste the next year’s vintage (or another varietal).  We would reserve the wine that we wanted (as a “future”), essentially making up our own allocation rather than the winery mandating the “member” allocation.  We do not know any other wineries that operate this way but we love the control that it gives to us as wine buyers.

When we pulled up to the winery the first thing we noticed was the winery building, a structure that resembled a farmhouse.  It was a stormy day in Napa Valley when we visited but this did not daunt us and we made the most of our visit.

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Vincent Arroyo Tasting Room

Inside, the tasting room had several tables and stations set up for tasting.  Even though the weather was foul, the tasting room was full when we arrived and throughout our visit new tasters continued to stream in until closing time.  At Vincent Arroyo appointments are required but tastings are free for 4 or fewer people.  Yes, we said free.  We are not sure how many other wineries in Napa Valley still offer free tastings, but if we were counting we would only know of one (this one).

Vincent Arroyo grows 9-10 different varietals and makes 15 or 16 different wines from them.

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Enjoying the wines with our guide

In addition to the Petite Sirah, we also tasted Zinfandel, Merlot and Cabernet.  Typical of the wines that we prefer, all of the Vincent Arroyo wines were nicely balanced and structured – certainly not overly-oaked or manipulated wines.

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Many wines!

We were even more drawn to the Vincent Arroyo story when we heard that Mr. Arroyo, like one of the writers of this blog, is the son of a parent from Spain (in his case his father).  We have been surprised by the number of wineries run by immigrants from Spain as well as the influx of Spanish wineries in Northern California wine country (Marimar in Sonoma, Artesa and Gloria Ferrer in Carneros).  When we heard the rest of his story we were hooked.  Vincent Arroyo was working as a mechanical engineer in the 1970’s when a friend brought to his attention an advertisement for land for sale in Calistoga.  At that time, Napa Valley did not have the phenomenal global presence that it has today.  After driving up from the South Bay to check out the property, Arroyo returned to work, resigned his job, and decided to purchase the 22-acre parcel.  Prune orchards have become vineyards and the rest, as they say, is history.

Since our friends our “members” of Vincent Arroyo, we are hoping that we will be invited to join them soon for another tasting or, even better, a winery party.  We hear that their events are spectacular and frequently have a giant paella as a featured attraction.  We are suckers for paella and great wine!

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You had me at paella

John & Irene Ingersoll

December 13, 2016

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A library of labels
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Wisdom
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Glasses can help you see better

 

 

Our Version of “Game of Thrones” Wine

We read an announcement recently that HBO has partnered with Vintage Wine Estates, a collection of wineries based in Sonoma County, California, to produce several Game of Thrones-themed wines.

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Maybe it would look like this?

Vintage Wine Estates produces wines from Sonoma and Napa Valleys, two of our favorite wine regions.  But we would have thought HBO would source a GOT-themed wine from a wine region more connected to the filming of the show.  An obvious choice would have been Croatia, where significant episodes and scenes have been filmed over the past seasons.  In fact, Kings Landing, the capital of Westeros, home of the Red Keep and seat of the Iron Throne itself, is filmed using landmarks in Croatia’s southern seaside town of Dubrovnik.  We like to think that a hearty Croatian wine would have been an apt choice for GOT fans and wine lovers alike.

As our regular readers will know, we were in Croatia about a month ago enjoying the many natural wonders of the country as well as their spectacular food and fine wines.  Although we live in California wine country, we are by no means wine snobs and always bring an open mind to other wine regions around the world. We found the Croatian wines to be sophisticated, structure, balanced, aromatic and flavorful, with their best wines the equal of the best wines of  Spain, France and Italy.  Certainly, Croatia has a very long history of growing grapes with a history of wine production going back over 2,500 years.  Today, there are hundreds of wineries in Croatia spread across their two main wine regions, Coastal and Continental; within these two broad regions there are 300 smaller geographically defined sub-regions.  Most of the country’s production is white wine (about 2/3 of the total) with the balance red wine.  Most of the white wine is made in the Continental region while the red wines predominantly come from the Coastal region.

Croatian wine makers produce wine from a host of “international” varietals, including Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  However, Croatia boasts over a hundred grape varietals that are indigenous to the country including Prosip, Grasevina, Debit, and Malvasia (white grapes) and Plavac Mali, Teran, and Babic.  In our Croatian adventure, we tasted several of the whites, including Posip from Korcula and a number of reds including Plavac Mali from arguably the best location in the country, Dingac, on the Peljesac Peninsula.

We brought several bottles of Croatian wine home with us to America and have shared them with friends who appreciate sophisticated, high-quality wines. Everyone that has tried our Croatian wines has told us how surprised they are by the structure and balance of the wines, especially the Plavac Mali red wines.  In fairness, we should point out that we only purchased and brought back wines with the highest qualification:  Vrhunsko Vino, which means “premium quality wine.”  Immediately after tasting the wines we brought back, our friends have asked “how can we get some of these wines ourselves?”

There are some Croatian wines in the U.S. today, mostly from the larger Croatian producers.  We strongly believe that the “next big thing” in U.S. wine importing will be wines from Croatia and other Balkan countries.  As the Croatian wine industry continues to mature and blend ancient wine-making techniques with new processes and technologies, the wines will only get better.  For those looking to find high-quality Croatian wines from the country’s many wine sub-regions, we have two suggestions.

First, if you are going to be in Croatia, build your trip around visiting some of the country’s most well-known wine regions:  Istria in the northwest, Slavonia and Danube in the east, and Korcula, Hvar and Peljesac in Dalmatia.  If you are going to be in Croatia but do not have the time to visit many wineries, the next best thing is to visit a wine bar that brings hundreds of Croatian wineries to you.  Our favorite wine bar in Croatia is in Zagreb – Wine Bar Basement, which is located just below the Zagreb funicular which runs from Lower Town to Upper Town.

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Wine Bar Basement’s outdoor terrace just below the funicular

Wine Bar Basement is very conveniently located on a pedestrian street in the center of Zagreb and offers more than 120 different Croatian wines, most of which can be ordered by the bottle or by the glass. You can make a reservation here:  Wine Bar Basement – Zagreb if you are planning to be in the area.  If you go, ask for Dario Drmac and tell him that John & Irina sent you; he will take good care of you.  At Basement you can not only taste many different wines but also enjoy many different cheese and meat platters to accompany the wine.

 

Although sorting through 120 separate wines could be intimidating, the Basement wine list is helpfully broken down by red and white wines within each of the country’s major wine regions.  Their list of wines is available online here:  http://basement-bar.net/wine-card/.

This regionally based list makes it more manageable to pick a wine; plus, if you need help Dario or the staff at Basement can give you specific recommendations.  We spent several hours at Basement and got a really comprehensive overview of Croatia’s varietals, wine regions, and wine styles which was very useful for our later trips to wineries in Dalmatia.

If you can’t make it to Zagreb to visit Basement,  you can still benefit from the hard work and expertise that went into curating Basement’s long list of high-quality Croatian wines.  In addition to being a co-owner of Basement, Dario is also the founder of an impressive e-commerce site that promotes and sells Croatian wine called The Wine & More .  You can search for individual Croatian red and white wines or, if you prefer to have some “virtual” help, the site recommends options for case purchase (Istrian White Wine Case, Best Croatian Red Wine Case, Best of Dingac, Selection of Plavac Mali, etc.).  These case recommendations are very useful for those that may not know the individual labels but would like to taste a range of a region or varietal.  There is also an interactive map of Croatia with each of the represented wineries laid out geographically so shoppers can search for wines by region.  There are many family-owned and small-production wineries that Wine & More works with that are too small to have their own distribution and shipping channels.  It would be very difficult for you to find their wines any other way than through the Wine & More site.

For our European friends, we believe The Wine & More is a great option to try Croatian wines.  Shipping is available to at least 26 countries in Europe so availability is almost universal on the continent.  For friends of ours, Dario is offering a promotion code that will allow you to save 10% on your order.  At checkout, simply enter code “WQYXUBR” in the box labeled “promo code” and the discount will be applied at checkout.  Currently, The Wine & More does not ship to the United States.

We are eagerly anticipating our next trip to Croatia;  in the meantime, we will be jealously guarding what remains of the wine we brought home.  Nothing against the Game of Thrones wine (we may even buy some), but for our money the real “Kings Landing” wine flows in Croatia.

John & Irene Ingersoll

December 9, 2016

Links:

Wine Bar Basement:  http://basement-bar.net

Basement wine list:  http://basement-bar.net/wine-card/

Wine & More:  https://www.thewineandmore.com/

Heart is Good for the Wine

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There is a heart inside the Ehlers logo

Over the past decade or more, numerous reports have suggested that red wine is good for the heart.  At one of our favorite wineries in Napa, the heart has been very good for the wine as well.  As the picture above shows, inside the “E” in the Ehlers logo there is a heart, an homage to the legacy of the founders and the cause that is a big part of the winery’s purpose today.  Many wineries in Napa Valley are owned by large beverage conglomerates or international wine enterprises.  Ehlers Estate is unique in that it is owned by a charitable foundation, the Leducq Foundation, which is dedicated to funding research in cardiovascular and neurovascular disease.  This foundation was formed in 1996 by the founders of Ehlers Estate and today proceeds from tasting fees and wine sales help fund the Leducq Foundation’s activities.  This is one winery where members and visitors can be confident that their money not only delivers high-quality wines but truly has a charitable purpose and impact.

We have been members of Ehlers since just after our move to Napa Valley and we visit as often as we can.  This past weekend, we took relatives visiting from Miami to Ehlers, their first ever visit to a winery.

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Feeling welcome

There are many things that we like about Ehlers, beyond the direct link between their wine business and their charitable operations.  One of our favorite aspects of Ehlers Estate is its location and story.  Although the Leducq family started producing wine in this century, the property was originally planted with vines and olives in the late 1800’s by Bernard Ehlers.  In 1886 Bernard finished construction of a stone barn on the property, a building that (with a bit of modern renovation) is still standing and serves today as Ehlers’ winery building and tasting room.

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Exterior of the Ehlers tasting room

Original beams of wood and stone walls are still visible from the original construction but the interior has been refreshed with colorful furniture and many paintings hanging on the walls.

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Interior of Ehlers Estate tasting room

Despite the ravages of  phylloxera, the long period of prohibition and ownership changes along the way, the property Ehlers sits on has been continuously producing wine for over 120 years. While there are no vines remaining from 1886, the original olive groves are still on the estate.

Another thing that we love about Ehlers is their commitment to sustainable farming.  Since 2008, they have been certified organic;  no chemical herbicides, pesticides, or synthetic fertilizers are used in their vineyards.

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Vines and mustard

The Ehlers wines – Sauvignon Blanc, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon – are produced in a style that is as much Bordeaux as it is Napa. The wine making team at Ehlers Estate firmly believes in making wines that reflect the unique terroir – the diverse soil types and the microclimate.  An important difference between Ehlers and most other Napa Valley wineries is that they do not employ seasonal vineyard labor or outsource to outside companies for their vineyard management.  They have a full-time team that handles all of the work in the vineyard:  planting, weed and pest control, pruning, canopy management, and harvesting.  Maintaining a full-time staff throughout the year ensures a consistency in the way the grapes are grown.

During our visit this past weekend we enjoyed four different Ehlers wines; as always, we started with the Sauvignon Blanc.

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Crisp Ehlers Sauvignon Blanc

Like all of the Ehlers wines, the Sauvignon Blanc – the only white wine they produce – is crisp, rich, and bone dry, with zero residual sugar.  There has been no malolactic fermentation and no new oak was used in the aging of the wine.  A perfect wine with food or to sip with friends or alone with a good book.

The remainder of our tasting consisted of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Ehlers’ luscious “1886” Cabernet Sauvignon.

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Ehlers Estate Merlot
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Ehlers Estate Cab Franc
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Ehlers Estate Cabernet Sauvignon “1886”

We enjoyed all three wines and have always been big fans of the Ehlers portfolio of red wines.  Certainly, the most impressive wine is the 1886 Cab, but the Cab Franc is also very structured with strong tannins and spicy aroma and flavor.  This visit, the Merlot really stood out for us and we all ordered an extra pour (or two) of the Merlot as part of our tasting.

So a winery with a great story, a beautiful location, and great wines.  What more could you ask?  How about great events? One of the reasons we have held onto our Ehlers membership while jettisoning most of our others are the fantastic events that occur throughout the year. When we visited this past weekend, there happened to be an open house with great food and an array of local artists and craft sellers in the tasting room.

There was quite a spread which we sampled along with our wine.  Our family from Miami had a great time and we didn’t have the heart to tell them that every tasting doesn’t have such a bountiful spread.  It’ll be difficult to take them to another tasting if there’s not an event going on – they may feel let down.

John & Irene Ingersoll

December 7, 2016

From Grgic to Grgich

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A beautiful Zinfandel from Grgich Hills

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Romeo & Juliet, Act II, Scene 2

What’s the difference between Grgic and Grgich?  Looked at one way, there is almost no difference – they are just an “h” apart. Looked at differently, they are about 6,271 miles apart.  In the tiny town of Trstenik, Croatia, a literal stone’s throw from the Dalmatian Sea, sits the Grgic Vina winery.

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View from Grgic Vina in Croatia

This winery, founded by Miljenko Grgic, a Croatian-born winemaker, can be found on the famous Peljesac Peninsula where the best Plavac Mali grapes are grown.  This winery produces both a red wine (Plavac Mali) as well as a white wine (Posip). Both grapes are indigenous to Croatia and have unique, structured aroma and flavor profiles.

 

Miljenko Grgic moved to the United States decades ago to pursue the American dream.  Along the way, “Miljenko” became “Mike” and Grigic gained an “h” to help Americans pronounce it more easily.  Today, Grgich Hills Winery in Napa Valley is one of the most respected operations in the world.

In the past month, we had the privilege to visit both Grgic and Grgich, 6,271 miles apart in distance but much closer together in vision, philosophy, style and quality.  We were at Grgic Vina in Croatia on Halloween and at Grgich Hills in Napa the Saturday after Thanksgiving.  At the Croatian winery, the tasting was two wines; our Napa tasting was a little bit more elaborate and came with a winery tour led by a genuinely nice and knowledgeable guide, Marty.

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Marty imparting wisdom to our group

We have visited Grgich Napa before for tasting but had not taken the tour.  We really enjoyed visiting the barrel rooms (always a fun show!) and hearing about the production methods for the white and red wines.

During the tour, one of us fell in love …

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What do you get the man who has everything?

Not to be greedy, but wouldn’t a 1,500 gallon container of wine be the best gift?  There are lots of giving occasions coming up in December; just saying.

After the tour Marty led us to our table in the wine library where we sat down to a great wine and cheese pairing.

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Yum

We started with Chardonnay as expected given that Miljenko is widely regarded as the “King of Chardonnay.”  This informal title has been bestowed as a result of two major milestones in the history of American wine:  Mike making the chardonnay that beat the best makers of French Chardonnay at the Judgement of Paris in 1976; and Mike’s chardonnay beating 221 other wines at an international tasting competition in Chicago in 1980.

We knew we would like the Grgich wines as we have tasted at the winery before and are members of the Wine Club.  What we were more interested in was seeing how similar the wine would taste to those that we sampled at Grgic Vina in Croatia.   Interestingly, the Zinfandel we tasted was very similar to the Plavac Mali that we had in Croatia.  Genetic testing has determined that the Plavac Mali is a relative of Zinfandel and this relationship was clearly evident in both the aroma and flavor of both wines.

We will be back to Grgich Napa soon for some club event or other, no doubt.  It is a strong hope, though, that we can get back to Grgic Vina soon as well – perhaps when the new winery building has its grand opening.  We also hope that, if we make it, that Miljenko will be able to make it as well.

John & Irene Ingersoll

November 30, 2016

Living in Beer Country

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Refreshing beer at Napa’s newest brew house, Fieldwork Brewing Company

Okay, so maybe Napa Valley is not beer country yet.  But over the past couple of years a number of brewing operations and brew houses have sprung up in the Valley and become instant go-to destinations.  We previously wrote about one of our favorite beer spots,
Carneros Brewing Company, which is in Sonoma County close to the Napa/Sonoma border.  (Beer? In Wine Country?).  Last night we finally made it to Napa’s newest spot for craft beer, Fieldwork Brewing Company, which is located downtown Napa in the Oxbow Public Market.  The space that houses Fieldwork was once occupied by Hudson Greens & Goods, a market that specializes in organic fruits and vegetables.  When Hudson moved its location within Oxbow, it opened up a space that sat empty for quite a while.  We locals started to wonder what was going on inside that mysterious walled-off corner of Oxbow and if the space would remain empty indefinitely.

A little over a month ago, Fieldwork Brewing Company had its big grand opening, revealing a beautiful long bar and seating area that fits perfectly in the corner.

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Fieldwork Brewing Company in Napa’s Oxbow Public Market

Although new to Napa, Fieldwork is not a new brewery; they have two other locations, one in Sacramento and the other in their hometown of Berkeley, California.  Somehow we have managed to miss Fieldwork on our many trips to Berkeley for football and basketball games, but we will surely remedy that this upcoming basketball season.

As we mentioned, Fieldwork has been open in Napa for about six weeks.  You might wonder why it took us until last night to sit down and taste their beer.  The answer is simple: it has been so instantly popular that we haven’t been able to get a seat at the bar in weeks.  Yesterday, we decided that if we wanted to taste some beer at Fieldwork we would need a plan.  Strategically, we decided that the best time to go would be between lunch and dinner.  When we first arrived, all of the seats at the main bar were taken, but there were three seats by the window on the right side of the bar.  We gratefully took them and ordered some beer. One of us ordered the Hoppy Pilsner, one of us the Fog Ripper sour ale, and the third of us (guess who!) decided that a six-beer sampler was the most appropriate way to get to get properly introduced to Fieldwork.

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Watching the sampler being assembled

As our beers were arriving we were still eyeing the bar, hoping that we could switch from our window seats, but everyone at the bar looked like they were settling in for the long haul.  We set our beers down on the ledge and admired the range of color between them.

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Hoppy Pilsner
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Fog Ripper Sour
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Six-beer sampler at Fieldwork, Napa

Almost as soon as we set the beers down, a table opened up behind the bar; although not as cool as the bar itself, it gave us more space to spread out a bit.  We delicately moved the sampler and the two individual beers to a table and sat down to start our tasting.  To complement the beer, we each ordered a taco from C-Casa, a favorite restaurant at the other end of the Oxbow Public Market.

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Wide range of colors and tastes

When ordering beer, we tend to go mostly with IPA or, when we’re really trying to branch out, a double IPA.  When sampling, though, we push ourselves to try new things. At Fieldwork, there was quite a bit to choose from.

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16 beer choices

Since we almost always drink ale, we decided to start with a non-ale and opted for the Outdoor Hoppy Pilsner as beer #1 in the sampler, followed by the Fog Ripper Tropical Sour Ale, Field Trial Blonde Ale, Watershed Extra Pale Ale, Corner Shop IPA, and, to finish, Hannah in the Wild Brett Biere De Garde.

We won’t do a beer-by-beer tasting review, but we will share some of our reactions.  The Outdoor Hoppy Pilsner was, indeed, hoppy, and it seemed like an ale-lover’s pilsner. Of the remaining beers, our favorites were the Watershed Extra Pale Ale and the Biere de Garde, a type of ale that we have not had before.  The color was lovely and both the aroma and flavor were sophisticated and smooth.

We hope to get back to Fieldwork soon and, next time, to sit at the main bar. Our new strategy is to get there when they open so we can be first in line.

John & Irene Ingersoll

November 28, 2016

 

What Are You Grapeful For?

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Everyone has a reason to be grateful

Wouldn’t it be nice if drinking wine was considered an act of philanthropy?  Some of us would be donors on the scale of Bill Gates or Warren Buffet.  Well, I’m happy to report that there is a cool new concept that allows caring, big-hearted wine lovers to kill two birds with one stone:  enjoy great wines and give money to a worthy cause at the same time.  Grapeful is a relatively new company that has created a unique way to use the love of wine to help charitable and other philanthropic organizations raise money.  Grapeful essentially brings two groups together: (a) those that are looking to raise money for a specific organization, cause, drive, etc., and (b) great wineries which have agreed to be a featured part of the Grapeful program.  Through its winery partners, Grapeful ensures each cause earns 15% of the retail cost of every bottle sold in support of the effort. So how does it work?  There are two models for people to raise money with Grapeful:  

The first way is to create a Grapeful order site on drinkgrapeful.com; all of the heavy-lifting in creating the site is done by the folks at Grapeful, so there are no web development or other technical skills required.  Individuals looking to raise funds would direct their friends, family, acquaintances and other potential donors to their Grapeful order site to select from a list of wines.  Each time a bottle is ordered, 15% of the retail price is directed to the selected cause; the site can be kept open indefinitely for those that have a cause that is not time-bound.  For longer fund-raising campaigns or efforts, it might be fun to create a rotating list of wineries, essentially creating a “wine of the month” club for contributors.  Most of the wineries that Grapeful partners with have a nice balance of quality and price and would be in the price range of even casual wine consumers.  For those that care about a cause, buying a wine at retail price and knowing that 15% of the cost of the wine is being directly donated to a cause they care about should be a no-brainer.

The second way to work with Grapeful to raise funds for a cause is to have a Grapeful Party at home, a restaurant or local event center.  We think of this as the wine version of the old Tupperware parties our parents had in the 1970’s (with better wine!).  The individual looking to raise money for a cause would purchase wines in advance and them invite people to the Grapeful Party.  It might be tricky to figure out how much wine to order but the Grapeful team says they can help guide the party planner plan the right number of wines to order.  Those that enjoy the wine at the party will then be directed to your Grapeful Order site to purchase wines and start generating donations.

We are intrigued by this approach to fundraising and think it is going to take off.  On the winery partner side, Grapeful has already partnered with a number of well-regarded brands, and they will be adding new partners in the future to give more options for “wine of the month.”  On the cause side, there are several causes raising money at drinkgrapeful.com now which you can donate to.  Or, you can bring your own cause forward and set up your own Grapeful Order site.

If you want to buy wines and support a cause, click here:  Grapeful Order Sites.

If you want to check out their current winery partners, click here:  Grapeful Winery Partners.

Social media mavens can find them on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook at @drinkgrapeful.

So in a week where we take time out of our busy lives to give thanks, think about giving back …while enjoying great tasting, great value wines!

John & Irene

November 23, 2016

 

 

 

Paradise, Napa Valley (Part II)

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I usually don’t like mustard

Late winter and early Spring are our favorite times in Napa Valley.  For one thing, the temperatures are milder and the influx of visitors has not yet reached its maximum volume.  It feels like we have the place to ourselves, at least on occasion.  A favorite part of late winter/early Spring is when the mustard plants start to bloom, filling almost every open space across the Valley.  Driving north on Silverado Trail you’ll see mustard plants growing between the grape vines.

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Mustard and vines

It’s almost as if Mother Nature knew the winter vines needed some color to dress up their spindly, leafless appearance.  Spring is also a great time for hiking and exploring the vastness of our natural beauty – beyond the vines.

We enjoy hiking Westwood Park (above), which is about a half mile from our house. We also enjoy visiting the many lakes, rivers and creeks that are within driving distance.

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Marshlands at site of former Skagg Island Naval Communication Center
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Lake Berryessa
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Lake Berryessa
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We didn’t steal the sign
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Lake Berryessa
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Lake Hennessey
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Two of my girls at Lake Hennessey
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It stopped just long enough!
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Our backyard in Spring

Let us know which is your favorite picture of Napa Valley, we’d love to hear from you. If you have a Napa picture that you like, please share it!

John & Irene Ingersoll

November 19, 2016

Paradise, Napa Valley (Part I)

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Napa Valley Vines

Images of Napa Valley often depict sprawling fields of grape vines and majestic winery structures that resemble castles or Tuscan villas.  Certainly those pictures are appropriate as we have literally miles and miles of vineyards and side-by-side wineries along Highway 29 and Silverado Trail.  However, Napa Valley is more than just grapes and wineries; for about 135,000 people, it’s the place we live.  Although we enjoy the natural beauty of our wine-based agriculture, there are many dimensions to life here – some of them good and some not so good.  Since moving here in 2013 we have captured our exploration of the region as well as just everyday life in photos.  We share some of our favorites here.

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Our first garden

Less than a month after moving into our new home, we decided to plan our first vegetable garden.  In addition to peppers, corn, sage, dill, eggplant, cucumbers and rosemary, we planted tomatoes. Lots of tomatoes.  The locals started to take notice.

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Praying Mantis or Preying Mantis?

Our hot summer generated some beautiful, plump tomatoes and we were looking forward to a very long growing season. We figured we would be harvesting well into November.  Mother Nature had other plans.

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What the Hail?

A freak hailstorm hit Napa Valley, pelting our homes, cars and plants for about 20 minutes.  I am sure we will get very little sympathy from our friends in the Midwest who endure bowling-ball-size hailstones and storms that last hours.  But hey, we’re not used to this!

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Frozen tomatoes

I assured my wife and my mother-in-law (who had just that day planted a bunch of seedlings on the right of the planter box) that everything would survive, recover and thrive.  It was a lie.  The tomatoes were done after this storm and the rest needed to be replanted in the following days.

The hailstorm was the second-worst event that Mother Nature threw at us our first year.  The worst was the 2014 Napa Earthquake which caused hundreds of millions of dollars in loses for homes and businesses.

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It’s okay to whine

We bought a lovely hutch for our small but cozy wine room.  Because we lived in Los Angeles, we were aware of the risk of earthquakes and the need to secure furniture.  Our wine hutch was bolted to its base, and both pieces were bolted to the wall behind. Unfortunately, the wall moved quite a bit in the earthquake and thus so did the wine.  Prior to the quake, the hutch held 110 bottles (two per slot, 5 columns by 11 rows); after the quake, it held six.  Some bottles remained intact on the shelf below.  Many others fell to their death.

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Hardwood stained an authentic wine color
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Wine carnage

We didn’t have the stomach to count the number of bottles that broke, but our rough estimate is that approximately 50-60 shattered after hitting the floor or having other wine bottles fall onto them.  We were proud of some of our “babies,” though, for surviving the traumatic event.

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The survivors

My favorite bottles is the one in the lower left-hand corner of the picture; this bottle hit the wall opposite the hutch, probably bounced a couple of times, and landed upright.  I imagine this as a really cool gymnastics routine.  Tada!

The 50% survival rate for the wine bottles was not, sadly, experienced by our collection of cognac and Armagnac in the living room.

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Cognac River

After taking in the destruction in the wine room, we made our way to the living room to see how bad things were there.  There, the loss rate was closer to 90 or 95% and there was a brown river of liquid making its way along our brand-new tile floor.

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Where’s the mop?

If you look closely you can see the rug that used to be white but is now brown, saturated with cognac and Armagnac.

Everyone was okay after the earthquake and we felt very blessed not to have had much structural damage in the house.  But the earthquake, coupled with the freak hailstorm, made us think twice about our move. As someone in Napa said to us, “If I see a locust, I’m out of here!”  Luckily there were no other biblical pestilences in 2014.

John & Irene Ingersoll

November 17, 2016

Shouldn’t All Wine Be Natural?

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Ingredients: Organic Grapes

Almost ten years ago we visited a prominent winery in Northern California to taste some of their wines.  We were motivated to visit by the fact that one of the world’s top-rated restaurants (Napa Valley’s The French Laundry) had recently added one of their wines to its impressive wine menu.  During the course of our tasting, we asked about their wine-making practices and we learned that they were organic.  As it turned out, they were certified organic, which means that they follow certain practices but also comply with a set of complex federal requirements.  We assumed that their organic status was something that they would promote on their labels and in their advertising.  We were wrong.  Why wouldn’t a winery promote its natural, healthy approach to growing grapes and making wine?  “Consumers equate `organic’ as sub par,” we were told.

As Loretta Lynn sang in the 1970’s, “We’ve come a long way baby.”  Today, consumers are flocking to natural, organic and biodynamic wines made without artificial pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers and other additives.  This upcoming weekend, there is a two-day wine fair in San Francisco celebrating and showcasing dozens of California’s natural wine makers. This event, Califermentation, will be held at TerroirSF, a wine bar in the City that caters to organic and natural wines.  From 12-4 pm both Saturday and Sunday, there will be at least 20 wineries a day pouring wine for ticket holders.  In addition, there will be seminars both days on topics of interest both to wine makers as well as wine consumers.  Saturday’s seminar topic relates to the use of sulfur dioxide (a preservative) in wines.  Sunday’s seminar topic is on the challenge of sourcing organic grapes in California.  One of the speakers for this session, Tracey Brandt, is a co-founder and co-owner at one of our personal favorite natural wineries, Donkey & Goat in Berkeley, California.

Tickets for Saturday only are $45.00 and a weekend pass is $80.00, which seems like a real bargain compared to other wine festivals that we have attended in the Bay Area.  We are looking forward to trying out some new wines and tasting some wines we have already tried.  For those that want to learn more about Califermentation, we have attached the event flyer below. To buy tickets, click on the link below and find the “Buy Tickets” button.  We hope to see you there!

Brochure: califermentation

Website: https://califermentation.com/

 

 

I’ve a feeling we’re not in Croatia anymore

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Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz”

This is the sixth and final  installment in the chronicle of the European vacation where I decided to plan the entire trip and not tell my wife where we are going.  She has discovered each destination as we cross a border or enter a new city.  In most cases she has been in the dark until almost the last minute. If you missed previous installments you can find them in our archives or here:  

 My Wife Doesn’t Know Where We Are Going.  

Why Is It So Hard To Keep A Secret? 

 Sneaking The Wife Across An International Border.  

“A” to Zagreb.

 Travel Log: 16 Lakes, Countless Waterfalls, and Too Many U-Turns

Croatia’s Terroir

There is a scene in the famous movie “The Wizard of Oz” when Dorothy awakens in a strange and unfamiliar land and says to her dog: “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”  We had a similar experience as we wrapped up our two-week adventure in Europe, which started in Italy, took us into Slovenia, and then into Croatia.  Our final country was so different from any of the others that we visited – definitely different from Croatia (and Kansas!).

When planning the trip, my original hope was that we could make it to six countries during our stay.  However, there was too much to see and we did not have as much time as I would have liked to country hop.  But I did have one more country up my sleeve to round out the trip.

We started our trip in Venice, Italy, and our second-to-last city was Dubrovnik, which the missus enjoyed quite a bit.  According to her, it was her second-favorite place after the incredible Plitvice Lakes National Park.  So where to go from Dubrovnik for the last two days of our trip?  I booked our last couple of nights in Sarajevo, which is the capital of Croatia’s neighbor, Bosnia & Herzegovina. Technically, we had already been in Bosnia during our trip.  Why “technically?”  Well, the only way to get from the center of Croatia to Dubrovnik on the coast is to travel through Bosnia.  That’s right – the north-south freeway requires about a 15-20 minute detour through Bosnia before re-entering Croatia.  So the missus had already been in Bosnia and thought that the brief pass-through would be our only stop there.

As we left Dubrovnik, she halfheartedly tried to get me to say where we were headed.  “That way,” I told her, pointing north.  After about an hour, we crossed the now-familiar Croatia/Bosnia border detour and soon were back in Croatia again to reconnect to the main freeway.  We were not done with Bosnia, though, as about 30 minutes later we came to another Croatia/Bosnia border stop.  “Again?” she asked.  “How many times are we going to cross into and back from Bosnia?”  “It’s the last time,” I assured her.

This time, the crossing was a more formal event.  Unlike the “pass-through” crossing where they don’t even stop the car or require documentation, this time we had to show our passports for stamping.  About 100 yards later we saw the first sign that Bosnia was going to be different than Croatia:  the sign for Bosnia & Herzegovina was written in both the Roman (western) and Cyrillic alphabets.

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Bosnia & Herzegovina sign written in two alphabets

For my wife, this was very comfortable as the Russian language also uses the Cyrillic alphabet.  All navigational and street signs we passed in Bosnia were written in both alphabets.

The second hint came as we passed several mosques on our drive north towards Sarajevo.  From my pre-trip research I was aware that there are three main ethnic groups in Bosnia: Serbs (generally of the Orthodox religion), Croats (generally Catholic) and Bosniaks (Muslim).  As we drove further north, the prevalence of the Islamic faith in Bosnia became more obvious.

As we were leaving Dubrovnik in Croatia to head to Sarajevo I decided we would stop somewhere along the way for lunch.  All of the people we met in Croatia told us that Mostar was a “must stop” destination, so we combined a “must stop” with a lunch stop.  As we entered Mostar, the third and perhaps most compelling sign that we were no longer in Croatia became apparent:  war damage.  Certainly, the 1990’s Balkan war affected Croatia, including several of the places that we visited.  In Bosnia, however, the duration, intensity and brutality of the war was on a scale that shocked and saddened us.

A Twitter “friend” of ours had given us the name of a restaurant in Mostar to stop for lunch.  Attempting to follow the garbled pronunciations of our Garmin GPS, we made our way through Mostar towards “Stari Grad” – Old Town.  From the car window the evidence of war was still visible: buildings with bullet holes in them and destroyed buildings waiting to be rebuilt.  Finally, we found a parking space close to where she-Garmin was telling us the restaurant was located.

We stepped out of the car and in a few steps were in the Old Town part of Mostar.  Within 50 meters we found the restaurant that we were looking for and we happily plopped down and ordered some water and traditional Bosnian food.

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Yummy Bosnian food at TimaIrma in Mostar

In Europe, “old town” really means old:  Mostar has been around since the 15th Century and there are structures in the city that remain from that time.  Easily the most famous structure in Mostar is its bridge; in fact, “most” in Serbian means bridge.  The mostari were the bridge keepers, which gave Mostar its name back in the Ottoman Empire.  After lunch we walked through Stari Grad and crossed the old bridge (Stari Most) and checked out the shops in the narrow streets of the old shopping district.

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The Old Bridge in Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina

Built in 1566, the bridge stood for 427 years until it was destroyed in 1993 by Croats during the Croat-Bosniak War, one of the many Balkan conflicts that erupted after Yugoslavia fell apart.  It was not until 2004 that the bridge was re-opened to allow pedestrians to once again cross the Neretva River from one side of town to the other.

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Mostar Old Bridge destroyed during war in 1993

We only stayed in Mostar for a few hours, but the wife was really impressed by the feel of the old town, the bridge, and the connection to the culture of six centuries ago.  It was also our first exposure to the importance of the Islamic faith in Bosnia, as we heard the mid-day “call to prayer” being broadcast over the loudspeaker from a local mosque.

From Mostar, we continued driving north until we arrived in Sarajevo, the last stop on our trip.  We checked into the Hotel Bristol for two nights in the city that hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics. Or, as our guide the following day would say, “only the second communist city to host an Olympic games.”  “And the only one that the United States attended,” I added, since the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.  We were tired and hungry and appreciated the personal welcome when we got into our room.

The following morning, we woke up and had breakfast in the lobby of the Hotel Bristol.  The previous ten days of our trip, we awoke to beautiful sunshine and blue skies . Our first morning in Sarajevo, there was no sun to be seen, only grey and black clouds.  “Rain,” I brilliantly opined.  Nevertheless, we decided that we were going to tour the town even if we got wet.  After all, when would we get back to Sarajevo again?

My prediction of rain turned out to be wrong, and, unfortunately, optimistic.  As I looked out of our hotel room window just before we ventured out, I realized that it was snowing!  Here’s a cool video of the view from our hotel window.

Since we don’t see snow often, I didn’t want to drive my trusty VW Golf into Stari Grad (yes, every town seems to have an “Old Town”).  Instead, we grabbed a cab and the driver dropped us off at the start of our tour.  We spent two delightful hours with a Sarajevo native who took us all around town.  Here are the things that we saw and learned:

  1.  Sarajevo is a majority-Muslim city, with about 80% of the residents identifying as Islamic; minority populations include the Serbs (about 4%) and Croats (5%).  In the 1991 Census, Muslims made up only half of the population, with Serbs accounting for nearly 30% of the city’s population.  The dramatic shift in the population between the 1991 and the 2013 census surveys is almost entirely accounted for by the drastic reduction in the population of Sarajevo’s Serbs, many of whom left during and after the war.
  2. Even though Sarajevo is majority-Muslim, it defied our expectations of what such a city would look and feel like. Certainly, there were many mosques in town, especially in the Old Town.  As we experienced in Mostar, we heard the “call to prayer” multiple times while we were walking around Sarajevo.  What surprised us, though, is how modern and contemporary Sarajevo felt, even in the Old Town.  Most men and women were dressed in typical European fashions and styles and all of the expected brand stores were represented in the shopping zone.  Unlike other Muslim cities, it is less common for women to wear the hijab in Sarajevo.  As the wife describes it, Sarajevo is an “East-meets-West” city; in fact, there is a spot in the Old Town that has been created to show the intersection of both East and West.
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    Sarajevo “Meeting of Cultures” – Facing West
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    Sarajevo “Meeting of Cultures” – facing East

    The pictures above depict a line in the Old Town of Sarajevo that dissects the town’s two personalities – Eastern and Western.  On the Eastern side, you can see the mosque and the traditional Ottoman-style stores.  On the Western side of the line are the European and American brand stores selling lingerie, sneakers, jeans, dresses and products that would be available in any Western city.  While the East-West divide expresses part of the diversity of Sarajevo, there is also an impressive diversity of religion in the city with active houses of worship for four faiths:  Islam, Judaism, Catholicism and Orthodox.

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    Sarajevo Catholic Church
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    Stain-glass windows on Catholic church
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    Main Mosque in Sarajevo
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    Orthodox Church in Sarajevo
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    Synagogue in Sarajevo

    Within a 500 meter radius in Sarajevo you will find the mosque, synagogue, and churches (Catholic and Orthodox).

     

  3. There is excellent food, wine and coffee in Sarajevo (did anyone doubt we would find it?).  We got our first taste of the excellent Bosnian food when we were in Mostar; in Sarajevo we ate at several fine restaurants and sampled many different types of dishes.  After our Sarajevo city tour on Day 1, we opted for a seafood restaurant just outside of the Old Town.
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    Seabass
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    Bosnian Fish Soup
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    Salads
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    Bosnian Wine – Blatina

    On our last day in Bosnia, we opted for something with traditional Bosnian food and found a place called Dveri that was mostly full of locals.

    Since it was our last day, we decided to select some real Bosnian comfort food.

    This fantastic meal was washed down with a carafe of the house Blatina.

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    Bosnian Table Wine

    At the end of most of our meals, we opted for a traditional Bosnian coffee which is served in a small copper container and poured into a small cup to drink.  “Sort of like Turkish coffee,” the missus said the first time we saw it.  “We like to call it Bosnian coffee,” the waiter replied.  In fairness. though, the coffee is clearly one of the remnants of hundreds of years of Ottoman rule, so calling it “Turkish coffee” is not really incorrect.  Just ill-advised.

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    Bosnian coffee
  4. Bosnia has an honest-to-goodness wine country!  There are vineyards across Bosnia (most in the Herzegovina region) and we drove by thousands of acres of them on our drive up to Sarajevo.
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    Vineyards in the Herzegovina region of Bosnia

    In fact, Mostar is well-known for its production of an indigenous white wine varietal, Zilavka, the most common white wine in Bosnia.  We found extensive wine menus at all the restaurants we visited which included not only Bosnian wines but offerings from Croatia, Slovenia, and Serbia.  On our next trip we will need to include more wineries in our itinerary.  We strongly believe that Balkan wines have the depth, complexity, aromatic strength and flavor to compete with wines anywhere.

  5. War and conflict is very much a part of the legacy of Bosnia in general and Sarajevo in particular.  Our city tour started at the spot where a Serb assassinated Archduke Ferdinand in 1914, the catalyst that led to the First World War.
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    The spot where Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated

    After World War II, the Balkan countries were united together into a single country, Yugoslavia, led by Communist leader Marshall Tito.  When Tito died in 1980, the glue that held together the six separate Yugoslav republics (Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia) weakened.  The rise of nationalist sentiment eventually led to the breakup of Yugoslavia and a series of wars across the Balkan region.   The 1990’s conflicts are still very visible in Sarajevo, with buildings that still bear the scars of war and others that are waiting to be rebuilt.  For Sarajevo, the destruction came during what is now known as the Siege of Sarajevo, a 1,425 day siege by Serbian forces that created a virtual blockade of the city.  Controlling the hills around Sarajevo, Serb forces repeatedly shelled the city (an average of 300 per day for the nearly four-year siege) and snipers preyed on residents as they attempted to move around the besieged city.  By the end of the siege, 13,000 people were killed and over 90% of buildings were damaged or destroyed.  It was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare.   These images are played out across Bosnia.

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    Destroyed and abandoned buildings in the Bosnian countryside
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    More abandoned buildings
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    Building in Mostar with  visible bullet marks
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    A building in Mostar waiting to be rebuilt

    For us, the war stories were all sobering, but none more than the Srebrenica Exhibition in Sarajevo, which tells the tragic and devastating story of the fall of the town and the subsequent massacre of nearly all of the Muslim men and boys in the town.  On July 11, 1995, Bosnian Serb forces conquered Srebrenica after an extended period shelling the town from the surrounding mountains.  As the Serb forces came into the town, many boys and men attempted to flee through the forest, only to be killed by mortar attacks.  Those that did not flee were rounded up and murdered and buried in mass graves.  United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan referred to the Srebrenica event as the worst crime on European soil since World War II, and others have referred to the event as a genocide.  In total, tens of thousands of Muslims were killed as a result of “ethnic cleansing” during the Balkan conflicts.

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    Outside the Srebrenica Memorial Gallery

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    A fitting reminder in the elevator going up to the Srebrenica memorial

Our two days in Sarajevo were fast but productive; we saw many things and immersed ourselves as much as possible in the rhythm of the city and absorbed as much history as we could.  Nevertheless, we need to go back as there is more to see, not just in Sarajevo but also in the rest of Bosnia.  Without question, we need to visit the Bosnian wineries that we drove by on our way from Croatia to Sarajevo.  Next visit, we would also like to make it to Montenegro and Serbia to learn more about those former Yugoslav republics.

John Ingersoll

November 6, 2016

Croatia’s Terroir

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View of Old Town Dubrovnik from Mount Srd

This is the fifth  installment in the chronicle of the European vacation where I decided to plan the entire trip and not tell my wife where we are going.  She has discovered each destination as we cross a border or enter a new city.  In most cases she has been in the dark until almost the last minute. If you missed the first installment you can find it here:  My Wife Doesn’t Know Where We Are Going.  The second installment is here:  Why Is It So Hard To Keep A Secret? And the third is here:  Sneaking The Wife Across An International Border.  The fourth is here:  “A” to Zagreb. The most recent is here:  Travel Log: 16 Lakes, Countless Waterfalls, and Too Many U-Turns

The French have a word called terroir to describe the conditions in which a grape grows – conditions that subtly impact the aroma and flavor of the wine that grows in a particular region.  While there are many definitions of terroir, the one that makes the most sense to me is “the place.”   Nis the place the grapes are grown; everything about that place.  The temperature, the rain, the wind, the soil type, the presence of other plants in the area, terrain (sloping hills vs. flat ground, elevation), the presence of trees or mountains that provide shelter from inclement weather.  Beyond the natural elements, tradition and history can also be part of the terroir.

Having spent the last ten days or so in Croatia, we feel like there is a distinct “terroir” that makes up this place – not just for the grapes, but for the people who live here.  Certainly, there is a distinct natural element that defines much of the Croatian experience – the sea, the rivers and lakes, the massive mountains, the rolling countryside.  Adding to the terroir, though, are the history and traditions that contributed to the formation of the people who live in Croatia – their food, their daily routines, their culture.  We have had so many wonderful experiences that it would take weeks to catalog them and chronicle them in our blog.  We want to share them on a more real-time basis so we have divided our experiences into a few categories and we’ll lay them out as follows:  Natural Beauty, Food & Wine, and the People.

1.  Natural Beauty.  In a previous blog (Travel Log: 16 Lakes, Countless Waterfalls, and Too Many U-Turns) we shared our trip to Plitvice Lakes, a definite “bucket list” place to visit and one of the most impressive national parks we have been to on any continent.  It would be a mistake, though, to think that Croatia’s natural beauty is confined to this one park.  We drove literally the length and width of the country and its beauty is astounding.  Between the large cities are large swaths of lush, green countryside intersected by, in some instances, rolling hills, and in others dissected by huge mountain ranges.  There are also many rivers and lakes in Croatia and, accidentally or otherwise, the primary route from major city to major city follows closely along the rivers.

After our 5-hour trek through Plitvice Lakes we only needed a day of rest before our trek to another of Croatia’s famous parks, Krka National Park. Like Plitvice, Krka has some impressive waterfalls formed by the confluence of a number of creeks and the Krka River.  Here is a brief video of the brilliant waterfall that greeted us as we started our hike around the park.

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Beautiful waterfall at Krka National Park
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John and Irene high above the river at Krka National Park

As we drove south towards Split, we also passed the lovely Cestina River, which was our companion as we traversed the mountainous region on the way to Split.

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Cestina River in Central Croatia

During the summer months the river would be full of paddlers and swimmers enjoying the refreshing relief from the hot summer sun.  The region was much more tranquil for our visit, with most places closed for the season. We did stop for lunch, though, and had a very nice view of the river from our window table.

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Lunch on the Cestina River
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Cestina River break before hitting the road again

Rivers and lakes – what could be better?  Well, how about hundreds of miles of the Dalmatian coast?  Much of the north-south drive in Croatia runs along the cliffs overlooking the Dalmatian Sea, with breathtaking (and sometimes frightening) views.  To recover from our national park treks, we scheduled stops in both Split and Dubrovnik, two coastal towns with picture-postcard views of the sea as well as the islands off of the coast.  In Split, we found a hotel right on the water that had a very nice patio overlooking the marina, the Adriatic sea and, off to the right, the old town of Split.

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View of Split from our room
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The marina and view of the back of our hotel
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Marina view from our patio
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View of Adriatic sea and island of Brac in the distance

During the “season” – which we understand runs most of the summer months – this view would have been priced way above our comfort level. For the period we were in Croatia, the room cost about as much as a Holiday Inn in the United States.  When we went to Dubrovnik, we were again blown away by the beauty of the town, particularly its orientation to the Adriatic sea.  As in Split, we stayed in a hotel with panoramic views of the sea, surrounding islands as well as the Old Town.

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View of Old Town Dubrovnik from our patio
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The Adriatic Sea seen from the Peljesac Peninsula
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The Adriatic Sea and Dubrovnik seen from Mount Srd

2.  Food and Wine.  The missus announced this morning that we are going to have to do some sort of detox when we get home.  Optimist that I am …this must mean we have eaten very well.  Certainly, we have eaten a great deal of food at every meal, starting with breakfast. In the United States, breakfast at a hotel or resort is generally the most boring meal of the day.  It is almost guaranteed that breakfast will consist of some eggs, bacon, and fresh fruit.  Our European vacation breakfasts have included so many different types of offerings: cheeses, meats, breads, eggs, seafood, shellfish, etc.  As I have tried (and failed) to keep up with my no-carbs program, this is what a typical breakfast might look like.  If you look closely, you can see the bread roll on the right.

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Breakfast at hotel in Split

Lunches and dinners have all been at traditional Croatian restaurants serving dishes with local and seasonal foods.  We do not like to eat at restaurants similar to those at home, so we often research the best places for hours and walk around until we find the right one.  In Croatia, fish and meat are prevalent in all dishes but the proximity to Italy has also contributed pasta dishes to the mix.

When we say we need a detox, the pictures above should provide some context for why we will need to recover when we get home.  In addition to eating traditional food, we also prefer to drink the local wines when we are traveling.  In Croatia, there are some fantastic wines made from grapes that only grow in this country.  In total, there are dozens of indigenous grape varieties in Croatia.  One of the most famous is Plavac Mali, a small dark berry that produces a high-tannin red wine.  “Plavo” means blue in Croatian, and “mali” means small – so translated literally, “little blue” grape.  It was once thought that Plavac Mali was the same as Zinfandel, but subsequent DNA testing has proven otherwise.  Famous Napa Valley winemaker Miljenko “Mike” Grigich, a native of Croatia, worked with a grape geneticist at U.C. Davis to perform DNA testing on the grape.  What this testing determined is that Plavac Mali is a descendant of Zinfandel and another indigenous Croatian grape (Dobricic).

Everywhere we ate (or drank), we ordered Plavac Mali.  To honor our favorite Napa winemaker, we also visited the Grgic winery on the Peljesac Peninsula, where the best Plavac Mali grapes are grown.

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Enjoying a Posip (white wine) at Grgic Vina
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Enjoying a Grgic Plavac Mali
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View of the Dalmatian Sea from the parking lot at Grgic Vina
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Crazy hillside vineyard across from Grgic Vina

We have become huge fans of Plavac Mali and we now have so much wine to take home that the missus has decreed that we need another suitcase just for the wine.  One bottle that I will make sure we take home (if we don’t drink it before we go) is perhaps my favorite because it is truly a local wine.  After our visit to Grgic Vina, we went to the town of Trpanj to visit a new friend, Drazan, that I “met” through our WordPress blogs.  Drazan invited us to come to his house right by the water in Trpanj and share some cheese and bread. And wine.  Here is what we went home with …

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A gift from Drazan – Plavac Mali from Peljesac Peninsula

When Drazan gave us the wine it was full to the top; you may notice that there is now some space at the top of the bottle.  Yes, we had some. Yes it was very nice.  There is really something special about drinking young wine straight from the barrel made by real local wine makers.

3. The People, History and Culture.  At some point during our stay in Croatia, the missus said to me:  “I think I could live here.”  Thinking she was making a casual comment, I replied “sure, it’s a nice place.”  “No,”she said, “I mean it.  I would like to live here.”  We had a long conversation about what it would take to live in Croatia some day – when we are retired.  My ego was happy to hear this because it meant that I had chosen wisely with my choice of trip, and everything was going well (so far).  More than that, however, I appreciated how much she appreciated the people and the place.  The terroir, as it were.

It is impossible to understand the Croatian people without understanding the history of this part of the world over the past century or so.  World War I started with a famous assassination in the Balkans. During WWII, Croatia was occupied first by the Italians and later by the Germans.  Most recently, the Croatians were swept up in the Balkans War in which thousands were killed and many sacred buildings and monuments were destroyed.  In fact, as we drove from Zagreb south, we passed numerous small villages that were completely empty, abandoned by their former residents and left to decay over the past 20 years since the end of the war.  Even larger cities such as Dubrovnik were not spared as the Old Town, with buildings dating back to medieval times, was shelled from the sea and the land.  We had a nice coffee in old town overlooking the clock tower.

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Dubrovnik clock tower

Here is a view of that same clock tower during the 1991-1995 war.On the European continent, war is largely confined to the distant memories of grandfathers and great-grandfathers.  In Croatia and the other Balkan countries, nearly everyone has a memory of war, destruction, deprivation and hostility.  Despite the recency of the war, though, we were impressed with the character and the resolve of the Croatians we met. At the risk of over-generalizing, we found them to be modest people, stoic yet confident, resilient and with an appreciation for their country, their nature, their land …their terroir.  In every city we visited, war damage was mostly repaired and life has continued normally.

We are leaving Croatia today, but our trip is not at an end yet.  We have one more country to go – the missus is still in the dark about where we are going.  We’ll have our final post in a day or so and then we will be home!

John Ingersoll

November 2, 2016

Travel Log: 16 Lakes, Countless Waterfalls, and Too Many U-Turns

This is the fifth  installment in the chronicle of the European vacation where I decided to plan the entire trip and not tell my wife where we are going.  She has discovered each destination as we cross a border or enter a new city.  In most cases she has been in the dark until almost the last minute. If you missed the first installment you can find it here:  My Wife Doesn’t Know Where We Are Going.  The second installment is here:  Why Is It So Hard To Keep A Secret? And the third is here:  Sneaking The Wife Across An International Border.  The fourth is here:  “A” to Zagreb.

The first five days of our trip we did not need a car as we were in Venice (where no cars are permitted) and then in Zagreb where we were able to walk around.  For the rest of our journey, though, we will be traveling by car.  Before leaving Zagreb, we swung by the local office of European car rental agency Sixt to pick up our trusty vehicle for the next 10 days or so:  a Volkswagen Golf.  Thinking ahead, I requested that the car be equipped with navigation; when the car pulled up, it had a Garmin GPS system plugged into the power source.  Because my wife did not know our next destination, I took the Garmin and typed in “Vila Lika,” which the GPS located immediately and told us was just over 2 hours away.  How wrong it would be!  Or, should I say, how wrong “she” would be.  You see, the voice for our Garmin was a female, and she spoke in what initially we thought was a charming British accent.  As the day wore on, we would find “her” to be more and more annoying.

Pulling away from the car rental agency, though, we were full of anticipation and excitement as this would be our first European road trip together.  Our many previous trips have been of the planes and trains variety, but generally did not include long stretches of driving.  For my part, I was looking forward to being behind the wheel of a stick-shift car again – something that has all but disappeared in the United States.  In my younger days, all of my cars were manual transmission and shifting gears was second nature.  It has been a long time, however, since I drove a car with a stick.  My father used to say that driving an automatic car is just “steering,” not driving.  I have to agree with this, so I specifically requested a manual transmission car for the trip.  Since the missus is an old-school kind of woman, she also can handle stick-shift cars so no worries there.

After finally figuring out how to find reverse, I backed out of the space and asked the wife to use the Garmin to navigate.  That’s when the fun started.  Pretty quickly we realized that our lovely British-accented Garmin lady guide did not know how to pronounce any of the Croatian street names. In fairness, the Croatian language seems to have a grudge against vowels.  You will find entire words that are 100% consonants. On top of that, although the alphabet is mostly the Roman alphabet (A to Z) that we use in English, there are enough new letters (and pronunciations) thrown in to really mix things up.  The way I see it there are three “C’s” and a bunch of “D’s” and “S’s”.  Try singing the old “ABC” song to this:

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Clearly, our she-Garmin did not study Croatian in school as she blithely ignored the little “hats” that sat above the C’s, S’s, and Z’s.  One symbol turns a “c” into a “ch”; another into an “sh”.  But like all confident speakers who don’t know any better, the Garmin just crammed all of the letters into a cruel soup of sounds that could not be comprehended to save one’s life.  The first three turns we were supposed to make just getting to the main road in Zagreb we missed because the Garmin pronunciation sounded nothing like the name on the street sign.  After a while, we wondered whether some sadistic programmer at Garmin conspired to record just a single pronunciation for the tens of thousands of Croatian street names.  To us, everything sounded like “yelkamostya oolika.”  Already, the two-hour trip estimate was under stress as it took us 25 minutes to leave town.

Once on the road, my bad-ass self took to shifting gears as often as I could, even when shifting was not entirely necessary.  But hey, when you’ve got the stick in your hand you have to use it, right?  We settled in for what we assumed would now be a smooth ride.  About half an hour in, the Garmin instructed us to proceed on some undecipherable road, which we gathered was straight ahead. Unfortunately, the road was closed for construction and a very major detour was put in place, forcing us to head due east for many miles instead of south as intended.  This part of Croatia is not particularly wide and I was afraid we would end up in Bosnia.  For nearly 50 miles, our Garmin guide, in “her” perfect British accent, instructed us “as soon as possible” to make “a legal U-turn.”  This, presumably, so we could go back to the road that was blocked off.  The missus and I kept thinking that “she” would readjust her bearings and give us a corrected route, but we were mistaken.  She continued to bleat out the same request for us to turn around until, finally, we were able to reconnect to the main road.

When I originally planned this destination, I saw on the map that there were some impressive waterfalls along the way.  Given the detours we had taken, I was no longer positive that we would pass that way.  However, at the last moment, as we were about to drive by, I noticed a sign for the town where the waterfalls were located.  I whipped the car over (downshifting twice, I’ll have you know) and parked by the side of the road.  “Is everything okay,” asked the wife, “why are we stopping?”  “I thought this might be a good place to take a picture,” I told her.  Boy was I right.

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This is where we stopped to see waterfalls

I didn’t bother asking she-Garmin how to pronounce the town – Grad Slunj.  But it was a gorgeous location with some amazing powerful waterfalls created by the confluence of two rivers.  These are the views from just next to the main road.

We have visited Oregon several times and without question that state has some amazing waterfalls, including the impressive Multnomah Falls. Croatia, though, may have the most impressive series of waterfalls we have ever seen.

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Me, she and falling water

The missus would have stayed longer but I dragged her back to the car.  Unbeknownst to her, we would be seeing even more impressive waterfalls the following day.  Eventually, she-Garmin started to get optimistic, telling us that we were 50, 30, 10, and then finally 1 kilometer from our destination.  We pulled into the driveway of a lovely lodging property that backed up to the mountain.

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Vila Lika in Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

We got our key and headed to the room to crash.  We brought food with us because I knew the location was somewhat remote and there would be few local restaurant options.  The room turned out to be very nice – not overly spacious but recently built with some very modern and elegant touches.

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Our room at Vila Lika

The view out of our patio was stunning as our villa building overlooked the entrance to the national park.

 

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View from our room

So where were we, you might ask?  We were about .4 kilometers from the entrance to Plitvice Lakes National Park, the largest national park in Croatia.  It is on the bucket list of most sensible people who are aware of it, and the rightful source of national pride for Croatians.  Think of it as their Grand Canyon, Yosemite or Yellowstone Park. It has been chosen as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its immense natural beauty.  We were there to check it off of our bucket list.

We went to bed early and got up early as we wanted to see the entire park before heading off to our next destination.  We enjoyed an impressive buffet breakfast at Vila Lika (including one of the best omelets we have had in many a year) and headed off to the park.  In all, it took us about 5 hours to get around the park, which included nearly 20,000 steps and 60 floors of walking, a tram ride, and a boat ride.  Plitvice Lakes is an immense place and we saw every inch of it.  The missus was blown away as generally I would not think to include something in our itinerary that involves a great deal of walking.  For her, and for this place, I made an exception and I have no regrets.  It was one of the most stunning places either of us has ever been.

Plitvice Lakes has sixteen lakes in total, and so many waterfalls that we have not seen a reliable count.  Some of the waterfalls are huge, cascading over 275 feet from top to bottom, while others fall just a few feet.  But there are waterfalls every way you turn and everywhere you go.

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On the boat to the Upper Lakes
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Stunning waterfalls
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Gorgeous backdrop
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One of the beautiful lakes
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What can I say?
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Hiking along the lower lakes
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Lovely fall colors
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Did we mention lakes?

During the first half of the day I told the missus, “I don’t think I could ever get tired of seeing waterfalls.”  As we rounded hour 5 and made the steep climb to get to the top of the walking path for the Upper Lakes, I reconsidered.  “I’m over the waterfalls,” I told her, perhaps in jest.  Perhaps not.

Anyway, we were proud of ourselves for making it through the whole park.  We made it back to the car, did a quick change of shoes, and again I set the destination in the Garmin.  Due to high winds crossing the mountains we were diverted from the main highway onto a series of switch back mountain roads that seemed more dangerous than the original one.  Garmin told us it would be two hours to our next destination. We were starting to think that a variation of the “Los Angeles” phenomenon was in play: when we lived in LA, if someone asked how long it took to get from Point A to Point B, we would say “20 minutes.”  Maybe “two hours” is the answer in Croatia?  In total, the trip took about 3 1/2 hours with a series of missed turns – some of them our fault, and some of them “hers” due to the wretched butchering of street names.  Next post I’ll tell you where we ended up ….

John Ingersoll

October 29, 2016

“A” to Zagreb

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Hotel Jagerhorn in Zagreb, Croatia

This is the fourth installment in the chronicle of the European vacation where I decided to plan the entire trip and not tell my wife where we are going.  She has discovered each destination as we cross a border or enter a new city.  In most cases she has been in the dark until almost the last minute. If you missed the first installment you can find it here:  My Wife Doesn’t Know Where We Are Going.  The second installment is here:  Why Is It So Hard To Keep A Secret? And the third is here:  Sneaking The Wife Across An International Border.  

CHAPTER FOUR …

The wine-infused drive through Slovenia and into Zagreb all but assured that the post-Venice leg of our trip would be a positive one.  What really had me worried was three nights in Zagreb, a city that neither my wife nor I had every visited.  Of the many risks of planning a vacation without any input or knowledge of one’s “other half,” probably the biggest is picking the wrong hotel.  After 11 hours on the road from Venice, our driver dropped us off on a side street in Zagreb, about a block from our hotel. She explained that our hotel was in the “pedestrian zone” and therefore she could not get us any closer to the hotel via car.  Thus, we dragged our large suitcase, two backpacks, and an entire case of wine that we picked up in Venice from our new friends, the Abruzzo winemakers.

As we approached the hotel from the other side of the street, I couldn’t help but think it looked very unimpressive. Rather than having a grand entrance like many hotels, the Jägerhorn had a small archway stuck between two retail stores.  Oh boy, I thought, this doesn’t look anything like the pictures on the website.  Because it is “off-season” in Croatia, many of the places I planned for us during our trip are much lower than summer rates – in some cases a third of the cost.  My first thought about the hotel was, maybe I played it too cute – did I get us too much of a bargain?  Three days in a bargain hotel would be a great way to mess up the entire “surprise” nature of this entire trip.

I shouldn’t have worried.  Once we passed the archway and entered the courtyard, I could see that the hotel was as nice as it looked online.  Because we had not eaten for several hours, we had some coffee and tea and dessert in the hotel cafe before heading up to the room.  “Oh my god!” said my wife as she pushed the door open. As any husband knows, “Oh my god!” can have several positive connotations and many negative ones as well.  When uttered, it is often difficult to tell what the motivation behind the words are in that moment. I held my breath as the missus looked around the room.  “Is this  a suite?” she asked.  “Why yes,  of course it is,” I answered, as if I could have reserved nothing less.

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Front room of Hotel Jagerhorn

She breezed into the bedroom and  I heard another “Oh my god!”  “Yes?” I asked nervously.  “I love it!” she exclaimed.  “What a beautiful room!”  An examination of the bathroom ensued, which also turned out to be more than acceptable and generated a final “oh my God!”

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Large bedroom at Hotel Jagerhorn
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Spacious and modern bathroom at Hotel Jagerhorn

Everything about the hotel turned out to be ideal. The buffet breakfast each morning was cozy and well-stocked.  The cafe/bar was a perfect spot to stop in every night before heading up to our room for the night. And the location could not have been better: we were right in the middle of the coolest part of town, about a quarter of a mile from the main square and no more than 10-15 minutes walking distance from all of the places we wanted to go.  Our hotel was located in the “lower town” of Zagreb, but literally through the center of our hotel courtyard were stairs going to “Upper Town.”

One of the things I read while planning this trip is that Zagreb is a town for people who love coffee.  According to many blogs and travel sites, there is a coffee shop almost every 50 meters in Zagreb.  If this is an exaggeration, it is only a small one.  We did in fact find coffee shops all over town.  Most importantly, these coffee shops were authentic, local places serving really nice brews.  I am happy to report that there is not a single Starbucks in Zagreb; in fact, there are zero Starbucks locations in the entire country of Croatia.  There will also be no Starbucks locations in any of the countries remaining on our trip.  Just real coffee made by genuine roasters of coffee beans and brewers of coffee.  Okay, I will get off of my soap box now.

Needless to say, we consumed a lot of coffee in Zagreb, although it took us a while to learn how to order what we wanted.  I started out ordering “coffee,” but that confused the people at the coffee shop, and they would reply “American?”  Well, no, I don’t want “American” coffee – do I have to get back on my soapbox about Starbucks?  What I realized is that “American” means coffee with milk, although I tend to think as “American” as black coffee.  Eventually I figured it out and we made the most of the both “American” coffee, black coffee, and various Croatian takes on espresso, cappuccino, latte, and other coffee drinks.

What else did we do besides drink coffee?  We walked around Zagreb quite a bit to soak up the ambiance of the city.  Neither of us likes to go to a city and take the mandatory 25 pictures of monuments so that we can say we “saw” the city.  We prefer to follow the rhythms and routine of the locals and go the places they go and do the things that they do. If we see some monuments along the way, that’s a bonus.

The first morning we left the hotel to get to know Zagreb better.  A wonderful part of traveling so late in the year (“off-season” for sure in Croatia) is that there were almost no tourists in town. We were walking among Croatians, among the people who live and work every day in Zagreb.  It was an amazingly lively city, very reminiscent of a place like Milan:  everyone was dressed very stylishly and there were fancy stores and quaint squares on almost every block.  Certainly, it was not what I was expecting, having visited Eastern Europe and Slavic countries in the past.  Zagreb was much more cosmopolitan than I imagined and more reminiscent of a Western European capital.

The missus, who is originally from Russia, was delighted that she could understand quite a bit of the Croatian language being spoken.  Apparently there are many words that are identical or very similar between Croatian and Russian.  She did most of the talking when we were not speaking English.  Right across the street from our hotel she ordered her favorite thing: chestnuts.

 

We then decided to walk to the main Zagreb Farmers Market.  It is important to distinguish between the U.S. version of a farmers market and the Croatian version.  In the United States, the farmers market is usually a weekly event where people pay too much money for small amounts of fruits, nuts, vegetables or other food items.  No one (at least no one in their right mind) would do their weekly shopping at an American farmers market.  In Zagreb, by contrast, the Dolac Farmers Market is the market  – the place where locals of all income levels do their fruit, vegetable, fish, meat, eggs and other food shopping.  The giant market has both an outdoor and an indoor section and covers several acres.

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Dolac Farmers Market in Zagreb
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Irene’s food drug: mushrooms!

It would have been fun to buy some mushrooms, meat, pork or chicken and cook it up but this was not possible as we were staying in a hotel.  We did, though, pick up some very tasty local fruits and hazelnuts for our walk around town.  From the market we made our way to Zagreb’s Upper Town, perched on the hills overlooking the city.  We were in search of another coffee shop, of course – Palainovka, which we had read about in a blog about Croatia.  To get from Lower Town to Upper Town there are two ways: walk, or ride a funicular.  We were feeling energetic so we walked up the stairs next to the funicular, which we were later told is the shortest one in the entire world.

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Stairs to Upper Town
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Cute restaurant at the top of the funicular with views of Zagreb

We did pass some cool monuments along the way to the coffee shop and we dutifully took pictures of them.

But we mostly enjoyed blending into the city as much as two Americans can and living the live of Zagreb citizens.  We went to a restaurant one evening that was recommended by locals – Lari I Penati.  We ate some great Croatian dishes and had our first taste of Croatian wine.

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Soup at Lari I Penati
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Home-made Pate
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Pasta with local mushrooms
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Chicken wings Croatian-style
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Our first Croatian wine

After nearly three years in Napa Valley we have gotten used to the big, bold flavor of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon.  The Croatian red wines have a much different aroma and flavor profile than anything we are used to drinking at home.  The flavors are subtle and the wines are silky and fruity, although not overly so.  We are planning on drinking more local wines during our trip including visiting some actual wineries when we get farther along on our trip.

Because we are not experts on Croatian wines (yet), we thought it would be fun to get a deeper understanding of them.  While planning the surprise trip, I “met” Dario Drmac (through our blogging and Twitter), a real-live Croatian who lives in Zagreb.  Not only does he live in Zagreb, but he runs an online wine export company focused exclusively on Croatian wines, and he owns a bar that serves only Croatian wine.  As it turns out, this bar, Wine Bar Basement, was about 200 meters from our hotel.  Before leaving the United States, I arranged to meet Dario at Basement for some charcuterie, cheese and, of course, Croatian wine.  Dario and his partner spent nearly three hours with us taking us on a tasting tour of Croatian white and red wines, as well as our first ever “black” sparkling wine.  Most sparkling wines are either white or pink; we had a Croatian sparkling wine that was very dark.   Anyone visiting Zagreb must make time in their schedule to visit Wine Bar Basement and check out their assortment of well over 100 Croatian wines.  One thing we liked the most about Basement’s wine selection is that Dario focuses on small-production family wineries that are generally not available in stores or restaurants. He is committed to supporting local Croatian producers.  Ask for Dario and let him know that you are friends of ours.

Wednesday morning came and it was time to leave Zagreb.  Our bags were even heavier than when we arrived a few days earlier as we purchased several bottles of Croatian wines from Basement the night before.  But no worry, we were renting a car from Zagreb and heading ….well, you’ll have to wait until the next installment.

John Ingersoll

October 28, 2016

Sneaking The Wife Across An International Border

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Italy-Slovenia Border

We left Venice at 10:00 a.m. after a short stay in that magical city. Because it is impossible to rent a car in Italy and drop it off in our final country, I found a great service (Ondaytrip.com) to drive us to what i told my wife was “city 2 and City 3.”  As we set out in the car, she  thought we were going somewhere else in Italy.  As we continued on the freeway, the signs pointed the way to the Italian cities of Udine and Trieste.  Along the road there were miles and miles of grape vines, leading her to conclude we were visiting some northern Italian wineries.  Cagey man that I am, I did not correct any of these impressions and merely grunted every time she made a guess.

She wasn’t wrong in terms of the direction we were traveling – north and east of Venice – and the famous wine regions that can be found in that direction.  But before we arrived in Italian wine country, we veered due east and took some small roads through the beautiful countryside at the foot of the Dolomite mountains.  One minute we were in Italy, the next minute we were in Slovenia.  Twenty-five years ago, this crossing would have been much more momentous and could not have happened in such a sneaky manner.  Back then, the trip would have been from Italy to Yugoslavia, which was one of the Soviet-bloc countries and had much stricter border control.  Today, Slovenia is a member of the E.U. and the borders are open, unmanned and require no surrendering of passports or other documentation.

After we crossed the border, we meandered through the Slovenian countryside for a few miles before turning off on a small road and making our way a narrow mountain road.  Halfway to the top we pulled into a parking lot for an establishment called Kabaj Morel.  “What’s this?” asked the missus.  “It’s where we’re having lunch,” I told her.

Two weeks before we left on our trip,  Jean-Michel Morel, the winemaker at Kabaj Morel, was in San Francisco promoting his Slovenian wines to the California market.  A friend met him and got one of his cards for me.  I decided that it would be fun to visit since it was only about two hours from Venice and on the way to our next destination.  “Where are we?” she asked.  “Goriška Brda,” I offered, as if this was helpful information.  “That doesn’t sound Italian,” she replied.  “What a relief, since we are in Slovenia.”

Any possibility that she might be upset or shocked by being whisked to an obscure winery in Slovenia was erased by the views visible from the parking lot as soon as we got out of the car.

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Kabaj estate vineyards directly behind the winery

It was as if Napa Valley and Tuscany got together and produced the perfect offspring.  Rolling hills covered in grape vines with beautiful houses and a church at the top of almost every hill.   We went inside and were  greeted by Jean-Michel Morel’s wife Katja Kabaj, whose family has been tending vines in the local area for many generations. Together, they have been bottling their own wine since 1993.  Katja told us that lunch would ready in about a half hour and that we should take some wine with us to enjoy on the patio outside overlooking the vineyards.  We found the perfect spot with the perfect view and enjoyed a glass of Zeleni Sauvignon, which translates to “Green Sauvignon” but we would call it Sauvignon Blanc in the United States.

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Irene enjoying some Kabaj Zeleni Sauvignon

When we were called in for lunch, Katja told us we could choose between a five-course lunch, with each course pairing a different Slovenian offering from their Kabaj label, or we could order any of the items from the course menu and have it a la carte.  We chose the five-course menu, naturally, which turned out to be the absolute right decision.  Each course was an authentic Slovenian dish made from locally-sourced, seasonal ingredients, but accentuated with a modern touch.

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Leek omelette with thin slices of Slovenian bacon
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Sauerkraut soup
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Barley and bacon in a pumpkin seed oil
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Steak Slovenian style
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Traditional Slovenian dessert

For each course, Katja brought a different wine and explained how it was produced, how long it was aged, in what type of barrel, etc.  We were blown away by the uniqueness and quality of these wines.  In terms of color, aroma and flavor, they were not at all similar to anything we are used to consuming in Napa Valley or other U.S. wine regions.  Many of the white wines were, well, not so white – they had more orange and in some cases brown hues, a result of the process of “maceration” where the juice is left in contact with the skins for extended periods of time.  Almost all of the Kabaj wines have long maceration periods to extract impressive colors and deep flavor.