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 .
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.
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.
“Diner.” That’s all it says on the road sign. “Diner.” What else do you need to know, right? Situated along Highway 121 in the Carneros wine region that straddles Napa and Sonoma, the diner’s aromas waft across its parking lot and onto the Highway as cars drive by, either coming into or out of Napa Valley. It would be easy – and a mistake – to judge this book by its cover. The modest signage might lead you to conclude that the advertised joint is not worth any additional words, or a proper name. This “diner,” however, is simply too good to need to waste its time on fancy signs or worrying about getting its name out there.
For the record, the diner does have a name: the Fremont Diner. Open since 2009, it has become a virtual cult favorite for local Napa and Sonoma residents as well as visitors from the Bay Area and beyond. When we stopped by last week, there was a 40-minute wait to be seated. What’s the attraction? The Fremont diner meets all of the expectations of a place called “diner” – deep-fried foods on the menu, a dedication to a variety of pork dishes, and traditional Southern staples owner Chad Harris refers to as “Grandma” food. In other words, comfort food made the old-fashioned way, with little concern for low-calorie, low-carb, low-fat or, frankly, any other diet plan you might conjure up. Unlike many traditional diners, however, the Fremont diner also has a commitment to locally-sourced and seasonal ingredients. The result is delicious food that will make Southerners reminisce about their favorite hometown diner.
For the past 18 months or so, we have been on a mostly carb-free diet. For our visit to the Fremont Diner, we agreed to throw that out of the window and have one of our infrequent “cheat” meals. This menu is simply too tantalizing to attempt to work around carbs. It might be possible to just eat meat and veggies, but why? One of the first menu items that caught our eye was the Nashville Style Chicken, a fried chicken platter “so hot it’ll set a cheatin’ man straight.” We haven’t been able to validate this claim, but it was in fact very spicy and delicious. We opted to have the chicken served on a waffle for a classic chicken and waffle breakfast plate.
In addition, we ordered the chilaquiles plate, which comes with smoked pork, with a side of the house-made Fremont bacon. We opted to sit outside as it was a sunny day and were able to check out what people at the other picnic tables were ordering. The variety of food at Fremont Diner is impressive, ranging from traditional breakfast items such as pancakes and French toast to Southern staples like biscuits and gravy and shrimp and grits. Other menu items include a po-boy-style oyster sandwich, hush puppies, cracklin (fried pig skin) and the Hangtown Fry (scrambled eggs, fried oysters, arugula, potatoes with remoulade, and bacon). Now that the season has turned to Autumn, we’re looking forward to more brunches and lunches at the Fremont Diner’s outside patio.
For those that don’t have the time or desire to wait 40 minutes or more for a table, the Fremont Diner has a takeout option. At the far end of the patio, there is an airstream-style trailer where a range of drinks (beer ,wine, coffee, tea, juices, and horchata) can be ordered, along with food items from the regular menu. This was a popular option the day we visited due to the lengthy wait times.
Since our first trip to the Fremont diner, we have frequented it once more for takeout from the trailer, and ordered food to go twice more to feed an army of guests staying at our house. As a result, we’ve made our way through much of the menu. The verdict: a gourmet greasy spoon – and we mean that as a compliment.
A few days ago we had the pleasure of spending some time (about three hours, actually) with a winery owner that with a one-of-a-kind experience in the wine business. We visited Ceja Vineyards in Napa and tasted wines and toured the estate property with founder Amelia Ceja. During this visit, we learned about the inspiring Ceja family story and was a poignant reminder for us that every great wine has a great story. Of course, it begins with amazing fruit, but amazing fruit does not just happen by accident: amazing people have to nurture the environment and show love and respect for the terroir where the grapes grow. We could see this love and respect in every bottle of Ceja wines.
In 1967, Amelia Ceja (then Amelia Moran Fuentes) moved with her parents and the rest of her family to Napa Valley. Prior to relocating the entire family to Napa Valley, Amelia’s father had been coming to California for several years picking fruits and vegetables up and down California farm country. Ultimately, he finally decided to bring his whole family north to take advantage of the opportunities in California; they settled in Napa Valley. Around the same time, Pedro Ceja moved with his family (including six children at the time, which would eventually become ten) to St. Helena, in the northern part of Napa Valley.
Both Amelia and Pedro worked side-by-side with their parents harvesting grapes; Amelia still remembers being a 12-year-old girl picking grapes at the famed Mondavi To Kalon Vineyards and struggling to hoist the bucket of picked fruit into the collection bin. Picking grapes and speaking no English, Amelia first met Pedro. An immediate friendship was born, according to Amelia, but many years passed before their relationship took on a new dimension. About six years, to be exact: when Amelia was home for the summer from U.C. San Diego and reconnected with Pedro. We did not get all of the details, but we got the sense that “the rest was history.” Amelia and Pedro married in 1980 and just three years later Pedro and Amelia partnered with Pedro’s brother and parents to buy 15 acres of land in the an area that, three years later, would become the second A.V.A. (after Napa Valley) in California.
For several years, the Ceja family grew grapes and sold them to other premium wineries in Napa and Sonoma, capitalizing on the prime location of their land for producing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. In 1999, Amelia and Pedro, along with Pedro’s brother Armando and his wife Martha, decided to found their own winery operation. Ceja Vineyards was born. Since then, Ceja Vineyards have been producing a wide range of premium wines sourced 100% from their estate vineyards, which have expanded beyond Carneros to include over 100 acres of producing vineyards. In addition to its Carneros estate vineyards, Ceja also has estate property farther west in Sonoma County in the extensive Sonoma Coast AVA. Very shortly, this plot will be part of a smaller, more defined AVA called “Petaluma Gap.” We expect that the wines that today are identified as “Sonoma Coast” on Ceja labels will eventually show the new AVA.
We met Amelia Ceja at their estate vineyard on Las Amigas Road in the Carneros region, in the middle of their luscious vines. We spent over 3 hours with Amelia tasting wine, hearing the inspiring Ceja story, and taking a tour of the impressive property. When we first arrived, Amelia greeted us with a glass of the 2014 Ceja Sauvignon Blanc, sourced from grapes from their Sonoma Coast estate vineyards. Tasting our fist offering, we got a clear sense of the Ceja wine making philosophy: a balanced approach to the wines with a minimalist approach. Like all of the Ceja white wines, the Sauvignon Blanc has been aged in stainless steel and neutral oak barrels with no malolactic fermentation. As we would expect from this type of approach, the Sauvignon Blanc was crisp and dry with strong minerality.
Following the Sauvignon Blanc, which is a typical opening white wine in a Napa or Sonoma tasting, Amelia shared with us their unique rosé. Most wines of this type in Napa and Sonoma are made from Pinot Noir grapes; by contrast, the Ceja rosé was made from Syrah.
Like the Sauvignon Blanc, the rosé was balanced, with a lovely fruit aroma but dry on the finish. Like the other Ceja whites, the rosé did not undergo the secondary malolactic fermentation; it was fermented in neutral oak and “sur lie,” or on its lees (in other words, the wine was left on the lees, or the dead yeast, which yields a more yeasty aroma and flavor). Many of the rosè wines we have tasted in Napa Valley, or Sonoma, have been overly sweet and are often described, even by their winemakers, of having the flavor of candy (we have even heard a winemaker describe his rosè as “Jolly Rancher”). Ceja’s rosè is no Jolly Rancher: it has a gorgeous aroma but is also dry, crisp, refreshing and retains a strong hint of minerality.
After the Sauvignon Blanca and Rose, Amelia took us through their strong offering of red wines. We tasted wines on their tasting menu as well as several special wines that Amelia was gracious enough to share with us.
After the lighter wines, we dove into the Ceja red wines, starting with a couple of selections of their Pinot Noir. Side-by-side, we tasted the 2011 Carneros Pinot Noir and the 2010 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. Both wines were elegant, balanced, subtle and superb; one of us preferred the Carneros Pinot, the other the Sonoma Coast. Next, we tried the 2011 Ceja Vino de Casa (literally, “house wine”), a very unique combination of Pinot Noir and Syrah. It is so unique, in fact, that we cannot recall ever having a red wine composed of these two varietals. Ceja bills this wine as an “everyday wine,” and we agree with this characterization. At $30.00 a bottle, the wine is a fruit-forward wine with a nice finish and enough complexity and tannin to hold up to a variety of foods.
We finished our tour of the red wines with a taste of Ceja’s 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, a classic Napa Valley-style Cab: strong aroma and flavors of dark fruit, anise, and chocolate, with firm tannins and a strong finish. Like all of the Ceja wines, the Cab was structured and balanced, with strong fruit aroma and flavor but also depth, minerality and structure. Even the Cabernet Sauvignon has less than 14% alcohol, a reflection of the Ceja approach to not over-ripen the fruit or use new oak to over-manipulate the wine in the cellar. We found an incredible consistency in the Ceja wines, evidence of a strong underlying approach and guiding philosophy.
On top of the six wines that we tasted, Amelia also shared their regular Chardonnay with us, which was crisp, balanced, dry and refreshing. For our final offering, Amelia opened a bottle of their 2009 late harvest Chardonnay, a classic dessert wine.
Often, sweet wines can be, well, just sweet – unsophisticated and unbalanced. The 2009 Late Harvest Chardonnay is anything but unsophisticated or unbalanced. While it is certainly sweet, it has finesse and subtlety, with a variety of flavor rolling across the palate. With a glass of the Late Harvest Chard in hand, we left the tasting room to tour the property with Amelia.
The current property at the Ceja vineyards can accommodate a great visitor experience for members, with plenty of outdoor space, bocce courts, and cooking areas. To enhance this experience, the Ceja team is in the process of expanding the estate property to add a new winery and tasting structure, which is currently under construction. As an homage to their roots, the Ceja’s have started their initial build-out with a chapel that pays tribute not only to Catholicism but also the other religions of the world.
When we completed our tour of the property, we made our way back to the tasting room to purchase several bottles of Ceja wine. After we got in the car and headed home, we both reflected on the amazing experience spending time with Amelia. She is truly a powerhouse and an inspiration. For starters, they were able to scrape their money together and, with the help of significant debt, purchase an initial stake of land in Carneros. Over 100 acres of land later, Amelia and her family have become not only a grape growing powerhouse, but also a premium wine making operation. Moreover, Amelia, using the force of her impressive personality, has become a true icon within the wine industry. She is a frequent speaker at wine events across Napa and Sonoma; she is a driver of positive change in the industry; and she has become one of the most powerful social media forces in the wine business. Several of her YouTube videos have gone viral and her exposure on Facebook and Twitter (where we first met her) are the envy of many other vintners.
There is an old joke about the wine business which goes like this: “Q: How do you make a small fortune in the wine business? A: You start with a large fortune.” Amelia, her husband, his brother, and their sister-in-law started with no fortune, no advantage, no head start. They were immigrants from Mexico, working in the fields picking grapes as their first job. They went to college, saved their money, leveraged all of their savings to buy land, and became well-known grape growers and then well-known wine makers. For us, the time with Amelia was a touching reminder of the power of the American dream.
There has been much talk in the media this year about the impact of immigration and about “making America great again.” It is just our opinion, but the time we spent with Amelia Ceja has convinced us that America has been great all along. It has also reinforced for both of us how important immigrants are, and have been, to making and keeping America great.
If you like underdogs, you would root for one of the few Latino-owned breweries in the United States. But if you really, really like underdogs, you would root for a brewery owned by Mexican immigrants and opened in the heart of Northern California wine country. For those extreme fans of the underdog, we present Carneros Brewing Company, located in Sonoma Valley just west of the Napa county line. This particular operation is challenging the conventions of not one, but two world-famous wine regions.
Carneros Brewing Company is located off of Highway 12 in Sonoma County; Napa Valley visitors coming from San Francisco pass Carneros Brewing, often without even noticing. Living in Napa, we pass by the brewery every single time we drive to San Francisco or Marin County. A couple of days ago, we decided to stop in and check our their selection of beers rather than visit another one of our local wineries. We were pleasantly surprised with the quality of the beers and the cool atmosphere of the tasting room.
We went to Carneros Brewing on a Sunday and the mood in the tasting room was quite lively. There was a combination of first-time visitors like us, as well as a number of tables of “regulars” that were definitely not on their first visit. Several of the tables were occupied by frequent visitors who knew the various brewery offerings and were happy to talk about their favorites. Because it was our first time at the brewery, we opted to order a 5-beer tasting sampler. Choosing just five beers, though, proved to be more difficult than we expected as there were nearly a dozen beers that caught our eye.
In the past couple of years, we have tended to order almost exclusively ales, and in most cases IPA. As a result, we decided not to include a traditional IPA (the Carneros IPA) in our 5-sampler, instead opting for the Pilsner, the Jefeweizen, the Morena ale, the Negra IPA, and the Carneros 2K Imperial Porter.
We are more familiar with the order of wine tastings, which usually start with the lighter (white) wines and transition to the red wines: first the “lighter” reds such as Pinot Noir, finishing with the stronger reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon. At Carneros Brewing Company, the tasting order resembled the wine tasting order, with the first beer being a pilsner, which, compared to the beers later in the selection, is much lighter and can be analogized to white wine. Even though we favor ales, we really enjoyed the Cerveza Pilsner, which had a crisp taste and an unexpected fruity ester profile that is generally found in ale but not lager. Although only 5% alcohol, the Cerveza Pilsner had a strong, balanced flavor that we do not expect from the more commercial brand of lagers on the market. Much to our surprise, the Cerveza Pilsner turned out to be one of our favorite beers we tried at Carneros Brewing.
After quaffing the generous 5-oz pilsner sample, we moved on to beer #2, Carneros Brewing’s take on the traditional southern German beer where a significant portion of the malted barley is replaced with malted wheat. When done properly, Hefeweizen will display notes of banana and cloves both in terms of aroma as well as taste. The Jefeweizen that we tried was most definitely done properly – the beer had a nice balance of fruity banana as well as spice and cloves on the finish. After two beers, we were impressed with the Carneros Brewing Company beers and congratulating ourselves for branching out and not just ordering the IPA as we tend to do.
Our third beer was the Morena ale, an amber ale with strong notes of caramel and an almost creamy finish. We liked this beer and would order it again, but it was not as distinctive for us as the other four. Nevertheless, it was good enough for us to consumer the entire 5-oz tasting before proceeding to beer #4, the Negra IPA.
As mentioned above, we are not strangers when it comes to IPA; moreover, we have consumed many dark beers in our day as well. However, as to the combination of IPA and dark malt, we have to admit we are complete virgins and the Carneros Brewing offering was our very first. We were not sure what to expect from the combination of the IPA’s bitterness and the toastiness of the dark malt – we were imagining the love child of a Guinness and an India Pale Ale. In fact, that is more or less what we experienced: the Negra IPA maintained a strong bitter undertone (70 IBU’s) of a typical IPA but the chocolate and coffee notes found in dark malt ales. Although it was our first dark malt IPA, it will not be our last, and we will be seeking out similar beers from other craft makers to compare flavors.
Our final beer – the heavyweight in terms of structure and depth – was the Carneros 2K Imperial Porter. At more than 8% alcohol, this was the strongest beer that we tried in our flight.
We have an Irish brother-in-law. His father worked at the Guinness plant in Ireland for over 40 years. Enough said? We drink a fair amount of stout when we get together and have acquired a real taste for well-made stout. The Carneros Imperial Stout was a strong offering, with medium carbonation, notes of coffee and toffee, and a smooth, creamy finish. Next time we will have to do a side-by-side tasting with a Guinness Stout (or extra-stout) to see how they compare. But to finish up our 5-taster, the Carneros 2K Imperial Stout held its ground just fine. We were glad we finally stopped at the brewery after driving by at 50-60 mph multiple times on our way to San Francisco.
Next door to the brewery tasting room is the winery tasting room for Carneros Brewing Company’s sister company, Ceja Vineyards, another success story for an extended family of Mexican immigrants who literally worked their way from the bottom to the top. In our next blog we will share our experiences with the matriarch of Ceja Vineyards, Amelia Ceja.
American playwright Edward Albee (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”) once wrote: “Sometimes it’s necessary to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance.” That is, more or less, how we found our way to Etude Wines, a winery located in the Carneros region of the Napa Valley. On a recent trip to Oregon’s Willamette Valley wine region we visited Soter Vineyards. When we told the Soter team that we were from Napa, they told us their founder (Tony Soter) was the founding winemaker at Etude in Napa Valley. That’s how we learned about Etude – which is about 3 miles from our house – as a result of a 500 mile trip to Oregon.
As soon as we drove down the long driveway onto the Etude property, we knew we had waited too long to visit. The grounds are simply gorgeous, surrounded by vineyards of course but also landscaped beautifully with trees, flowers and other plants. We entered the tasting room and right away were poured a glass of Etude’s Pinot Gris, their “welcome” wine. It was chilled, crisp, refreshing, and a definite guilty pleasure at 11:00 in the morning. We took a look around the tasting room and immediately fell in love with the decor.
Momentarily, we considered having our tasting inside at the bar. In the end, though, we opted to sit outside as the weather was in the high 70’s with a nice breeze coming off of San Pablo Bay. In addition to the lure of the weather, the view was pretty hard to beat as well.
We had the good fortune to be served by Jim, a veteran of the wine industry who gave us the scoop on the winery, its philosophy, location of the various vineyards, etc. To maximize our exposure to Etude, we each did a separate tasing – one of us the Premium and the other the Reserve ($20 and $30, respectively). As a result, we were able to try quite a few Pinot Noir offerings (Etude makes 9-10 different Pinots) and an extra Cabernet Sauvignon.
Both tasting menus started with Chardonnay, but they were not the same. One of the Chards was aged in neutral oak and not subject to secondary, or malolactic, fermentation. Meanwhile,the second Chard was partially aged in new French oak and underwent the malolactic fermentation. Both were strong wines – nice fruit flavor balanced with minerality. Even the oak-aged wine that underwent malolactic fermentation was balanced and, a far cry from the “buttery” Chards that common in Napa and the rest of California.
After the Chardonnay and a delightful Rose (of Pinot Noir, naturally), we moved on to the red wines. Between the two tastings menus, we were able to try four unique Etude Pinot Noir offerings. In addition to the four on the menu, Jim was nice enough to give us a splash of a couple more Etude Pinot Noir wines, including their Ellenbach Vineyard Pinot from northern Sonoma Coast. It was so good we had to buy some and take it home with us (we bought bottles of several different Pinot Noir’s). Our tasting finished with several Cabernet Sauvignon offerings, including at least one not on the menu. Thanks Jim!
Jon Priest, the winemaker at Etude, has said “winemaking begins in the vineyard long before the harvest … superior grape growing diminishes the need for intervention by the winemaker, resulting in authentic varietal expression.” At many wineries, this supposed philosophy dies some time after grape harvesting and before bottling as wine makers engage in excessive wine making. At Etude, however, you can taste a unifying….attitude. It may seem strange to say that you can taste restraint, but we think you can. While all of Etude’s wines have lovely aromas and flavor, with plenty of fruit on both the nose and palate, there is also a strong connection to the earth in all of their wines. Both the Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon offerings that we tasted had earthy, mineral notes that were not overwhelmed in the wine making process. For that reason, we have been telling people that we love the ‘tude of Etude. Clearly, the approach that Tony Soter started when he founded the winery continues today.
Some wineries you visit for the quality of the wine. Others (you know which ones we’re talking about!) you visit despite the wine, because of the view, or the beautiful grounds, or the caves, or even the cable car. With a handful of wineries, you visit for both the wine and the experience. Artesa Winery in Napa Valley is one of those wineries where the quality of the wine is only enhanced and accentuated by the spectacular views, the dazzling architecture of the winery building, and the sleek interior space of the tasting room.
Artesa is one of several wineries in Napa and Sonoma owned by Spanish wine conglomerates – in Artesa’s case, by Cordoniu, the second-largest global producer of cava (a Spanish sparkling wine made by the traditional champagne method). Like many other European wine companies, Cordoniu had its eye on the Napa Valley as far back as the 1980’s and started acquiring property in the Carneros region, which is known for its cooler climate and unique soil. Twenty-five years ago, in 1991, Cordoniu opened what was then referred to as Cordoniu Napa. Six years later, the winery was renamed “Artesa,” which in the Spanish dialect of Catalan means “handcrafted.”
And the wines are indeed “handcrafted,” grown in small, single-vineyard blocks and producing wines from the grapes that typically thrive in Carneros – Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In addition to these classic Carneros varietals, Artesa produces several Cabernet Sauvignon and Red blends from grapes sourced from other locations in Sonoma County and Napa Valley.
One of our good friends and fellow Napans is a member of Club Artesa, the winery’s wine club. As a result of her membership, she received frequent invites to events at the winery, and we were lucky enough to be invited guests to an event this past Friday – Artesa’s Summer Wines and Bites party to celebrate their release of new wines.
Our visit this past Friday was not our first time at Artesa so we knew what to expect. But each time we visit, the breathtaking scenery and views take us by surprise. The first thing visitors notice about the winery is that it is literally built into the mountain, sitting majestically atop the hillside. As visitors climb the stairs to the entrance, they will encounter beautiful fountains and sculptures along the way.
Perhaps you’ve noticed the name “Heuther” several times in the captions of the pictures above. Like a few other wineries in the Napa Valley, Artesa has its own artist-in-residence, Gordon Huether, who is a local Napa artist but one whose art is on display across the United States and around the world. Huether’s unique sculptures and other works of art add to the ambiance of the winery.
When you finally arrive at the “top” of the steps, the 360-degree views are among the best of any in the Napa Valley. In one direction, visitors can look towards San Pablo Bay; indeed, on a clear day you can see all the way to San Francisco. To capitalize on this view, Artesa has patio seating on the south side of the winery building.
If we just stopped here, most people would conclude that Artesa is worth a visit, at least for the scenery and the views. But we said the wine was worth it too, and in our Friday visit it proved to be so again. We tasted the new release of Artesa’s Rose as well their Cabernet. Both were fantastic and lived up to expectations from previous visits to the winery. We mentioned the event was called “Wines and Bites.” And boy did they have bites! Artesa always throws a good party and Friday was no exception. They had an amazing spread to pair with the Rose and Cab.
If you want to visit Artesa, click here to see their hours, tour information, and book a tour online: http://www.artesawinery.com/visit-us/