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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is the second thing that we saw.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Nor could we pass up the sausages.
To balance out this protein we ordered The Charter Oak’s unique take on hash browns.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Complain that the white wine is “too sour” or “not sweet enough.” That’s probably what the wine maker was shooting for!
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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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 …
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.
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:
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!
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:
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There are several separate areas for groups to sit and taste wines including this spot by the fire.
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.
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.