Tag: blog

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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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

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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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

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

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