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.
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!
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
We recently visited VGS Chateau Potelle in Napa Valley’s quaint town of Saint Helena and encountered a wine rating scale that we think has some appeal: VGS. Even casual wine buyers are familiar with the more common 100-point wine rating scale that Robert Parker first introduced in the 1980’s in The Wine Advocate. Since Parker introduced this scale, it has been adopted by virtually all wine publications. This rating scale has some appeal, especially in the United States where most schools and universities grade on a scale of 0 to 100. A zero equates to total failure and a 100 suggests perfection.
While we find the 100 point scale to be useful, the “VGS” designation that we learned about at Chateau Potelle is one that we think could have broad appeal to the full gamut of wine consumers – snobs and novices alike. When we sat down last week at VGS Chateau Potelle for our tasting with Shelby, we figured “VGS” stood for the name of a corporate parent or ownership group. In our defense, it was our first visit to the winery and we knew little about them other than we had tasted a luscious bottle of their 1996 Zinfandel at Alice Water’s famous Chez Panisse in Berkeley the week before. “So,” we asked, “who or what is ‘VGS’?” “That stands for ‘very good shit,’ she explained. At first we thought this was a gag but it turns out that the letters do in fact stand for those descriptive words. As the story goes, some visitors to the winery many years ago described the Chateau Potelle wines as “very good shit” to the winemaker, Jean-Noel Fourmeaux. Apparently, he was not offended by this designation and latched onto the letters “VGS.” Over the years, VGS has become a more prominent feature in the winery’s branding to the point where, today, both the tasting room and the bottles are branded “VGS Chateau Potelle.”
Without reservation, we can say that the 1996 Zinfandel that we had at Chez Panisse was VGS. We decided to taste the current Chateau Potelle Vintages to see how they ranked on the scale.
We sat down for a paired tasting – four wines overall with a small bite to complement the wine. We started with the 2014 Chardonnay, which was paired with Vichyssoise with Dungeness crab. We have to say, the bites were delicious, not surprising when we found out that they are provided by one of Napa’s highest-rated restaurants, Michelin-starred La Toque. Given that Chateau Potelle’s winemaker is from France, we were expecting more of a French-style Chardonnay – crisp, bone dry, no oak, and very light in appearance. Instead, the Chardonnay turned out to be very yellow, similar to the Chardonnays made in Napa in the “California style.” However, the flavor was not buttery like a typical California Chard – it was a mix of both styles both in terms of color, aroma and flavor. Overall, a nice wine.
Our second wine was the 2014 Zinfandel – nearly 20 years younger than the wine we enjoyed the previous weekend – paired with bacon rillette. We found the 2014 Zin to be a very nice wine – balanced fruit, spice, smooth tannins and a nice silky texture. It was difficult not to compare it to the 1996, and in that comparison it could not hold up as the older wine had such intriguing texture and flavor.
Our third wine was the 2014 Potelle Two – a quasi-Bordeaux blend; we say “quasi” because in addition to the traditional Bordeaux blend varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, the winemaker has blended Syrah and Zinfandel. This wine was very balanced and drinkable for such a young red wine and paired nicely with a Spanish Idiazabal cheese.
The fourth and final wine was Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa’s Mount Veeder appellation, paired with Niman Ranch beef. With just over 75% of its grapes coming from Cabernet Sauvignon, the wine is labelled a Cab but could easily be considered a proprietary blend as it includes Petit Verdot, Merlot, Cab Franc and Malbec. The wine was very balanced but more powerful than the Potelle Two, with a stronger and longer finish and stronger tannins. Also, there were more layers of flavor in the Cab – something that can be cellared and enjoyed for years to come.
We enjoyed the wines and had the good fortune to be attended by Shelby who not only shared her deep knowledge of the wines with us but also engaged us in a lively conversation about her Armenian family and the current state of U.S. politics. We also enjoyed the tasting room which is cozy and arranged in away that allows groups to enjoy sit-down tastings with a fair amount of privacy and personal attention. There is also a lovely outdoor area that felt very much like a French garden that we would have loved to enjoy had it not been raining for what felt like the 100th consecutive day in 2017. When we get back to Chateau Potelle to try some more VGS, we will choose a sunny day and have our tasting outside.
We’re not sure a new rating scale for wine will catch on, but we would like to propose three levels for wine quality:
“S” – for truly shit wine, the one that you regift as soon as you get it, or use it for cooking. Not even good enough to be a “Tuesday night wine.”
“GS” – for wines that are good shit; not very good, just good. Definitely worthy of Tuesday night but also good enough to take to a restaurant for date night.
“VGS” – for the very good shit wines that you drink for special occasions and hide from friends or family that can’t tell the different between S, GS, or VGS.
What do you think – can this rating scale catch on?
My wife and I have been visiting Marimar Estate Vineyards & Winery in the Sonoma County town of Graton for quite a few years now. Founded by Marimar Torres, a member of the prominent Torres winemaking family in Spain, Marimar Estate produces very high quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as well as Spanish varietals such as Albariño and Tempranillo. Although she hated all California wines, I’m certain my mother would have loved Marimar Estate wines, Marimar Torres herself, and the great food-based events that they hold throughout the year.
My mother was born and raised in Spain and lived there until she was over thirty years old. By the time she passed away, she had lived more than half of her life outside of her native country, most of those years in the United States. Nevertheless, throughout her life she maintained a strong identify as a Spaniard and loved the food and wine that she grew up with. My brothers and I all have memories of Mom’s food – Spanish tortilla, croquetas, bacalao, the giant blocks of Manchego cheese she would bring when she visited. Without question, though, Mom had a signature dish – paella. Every time she visited she would make many of her delicacies but alway would make at least one paella. Coupled with the paella? Red wine of course. What kind of red wine? Red wine from Rioja, Spain.
Over the course of my adult life I tried to impress my mother by taking her to fancy restaurants that purported to make good Spanish food. All of these efforts ended in failure and, occasionally, disaster. As soon as the paella was placed on the table my mother would begin her meticulous inspection and quickly find something wrong with it: it was too watery (“this is soup, not paella”); or had the wrong ingredients (“you don’t put this in paella”); it lacked the saffron necessary to turn the rice yellow; or it was seasoned improperly. On one occasion in a Spanish restaurant in Hollywood my mother even called for the chef to come out and asked him a single question: “Does this paella have cilantro?” “Yes!” the chef replied enthusiastically. “This isn’t paella, then,” she answered, and proceeded to explain to him how paella should be made. He attempted to defend himself by saying the paella was “his take” on the classic dish and, admittedly, had some more Mexican and South American influences. “It’s just rice, then,” she concluded, and did not take a second bite. This scene repeated itself in different forms, but equally embarrassing (for me) moments, many times.
We have visited Marimar Estate many times for regular tastings as well as their “big events” such as their library tastings and their paella dinners.
I can say confidently that Mom would have loved both the wines and the food and would have seen a lot of herself in Marimar. No, my mother did not make wine, but she had an energy and spirit that I see in Marimar Torres each time we visit the winery. Growing up in Spain during the rule of dictator Francisco Franco, both my mother and Marimar experienced a Spain where women were not equal to men and certainly not encouraged to pursue their own careers. Certainly when Marimar was a young woman in Spain the notion of a female winemaker or winery CEO would have been almost unimaginable. Despite the expectations that society and family had for her, Marimar had big plans. For starters, she obtained a degree at the University of Barcelona – in economics and business! After graduating she was able to convince her father to permit her to sell their wines abroad, including in the United States. It was during her time in California that she fell in love with Sonoma and found the parcel that would become the estate property for her vineyards and winery.
The Marimar Estate is located close to the town of Sebastopol on the top of a hill with amazing views of the Sonoma Valley (facing east). On the estate property there are 60 acres planted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes; this property is called Don Miguel Vineyard, an homage to Marimar’s father. About four miles west, closer to the Pacific Ocean, is Doña Margarita Vineyard named after Marimar’s mother.
All of the grapes on the Don Miguel estate are farmed organically and Marimar powers her winery with solar power. We really appreciate this commitment to the environment and the results are evident in the wines: whenever we share them with friends they tell us how “clean” the wines taste. Our favorite Marimar wines include the several Pinot Noir offerings as well as the Tempranillo. Although my mother mostly refused to drink anything other than Tempranillo from Rioja, I know she would have enjoyed Marimar’s Pinot for its full-bodied flavor, balance and sophistication. She would also have enjoyed the paella.
We assure you that this paella was 100% authentic and did not contain cilantro! On this visit our 19-year old daughter came and ended up serving as designated driver so that we could enjoy all of the fantastic wines. She did, naturally, enjoy multiple servings of the paella. If anyone was counting, they would have noticed that after finishing the first plate I went back for seconds. And thirds.
We toasted to Mom while we enjoyed the paella and wished that we had found Marimar earlier so we could have taken her to the winery and one of their paella dinners.
“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Romeo & Juliet, Act II, Scene 2
What’s the difference between Grgic and Grgich? Looked at one way, there is almost no difference – they are just an “h” apart. Looked at differently, they are about 6,271 miles apart. In the tiny town of Trstenik, Croatia, a literal stone’s throw from the Dalmatian Sea, sits the Grgic Vina winery.
This winery, founded by Miljenko Grgic, a Croatian-born winemaker, can be found on the famous Peljesac Peninsula where the best Plavac Mali grapes are grown. This winery produces both a red wine (Plavac Mali) as well as a white wine (Posip). Both grapes are indigenous to Croatia and have unique, structured aroma and flavor profiles.
Miljenko Grgic moved to the United States decades ago to pursue the American dream. Along the way, “Miljenko” became “Mike” and Grigic gained an “h” to help Americans pronounce it more easily. Today, Grgich Hills Winery in Napa Valley is one of the most respected operations in the world.
In the past month, we had the privilege to visit both Grgic and Grgich, 6,271 miles apart in distance but much closer together in vision, philosophy, style and quality. We were at Grgic Vina in Croatia on Halloween and at Grgich Hills in Napa the Saturday after Thanksgiving. At the Croatian winery, the tasting was two wines; our Napa tasting was a little bit more elaborate and came with a winery tour led by a genuinely nice and knowledgeable guide, Marty.
We have visited Grgich Napa before for tasting but had not taken the tour. We really enjoyed visiting the barrel rooms (always a fun show!) and hearing about the production methods for the white and red wines.
During the tour, one of us fell in love …
Not to be greedy, but wouldn’t a 1,500 gallon container of wine be the best gift? There are lots of giving occasions coming up in December; just saying.
After the tour Marty led us to our table in the wine library where we sat down to a great wine and cheese pairing.
We started with Chardonnay as expected given that Miljenko is widely regarded as the “King of Chardonnay.” This informal title has been bestowed as a result of two major milestones in the history of American wine: Mike making the chardonnay that beat the best makers of French Chardonnay at the Judgement of Paris in 1976; and Mike’s chardonnay beating 221 other wines at an international tasting competition in Chicago in 1980.
We knew we would like the Grgich wines as we have tasted at the winery before and are members of the Wine Club. What we were more interested in was seeing how similar the wine would taste to those that we sampled at Grgic Vina in Croatia. Interestingly, the Zinfandel we tasted was very similar to the Plavac Mali that we had in Croatia. Genetic testing has determined that the Plavac Mali is a relative of Zinfandel and this relationship was clearly evident in both the aroma and flavor of both wines.
We will be back to Grgich Napa soon for some club event or other, no doubt. It is a strong hope, though, that we can get back to Grgic Vina soon as well – perhaps when the new winery building has its grand opening. We also hope that, if we make it, that Miljenko will be able to make it as well.
We traveled to Oregon in late September to drop off a kid at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Wrapped around that momentous event, we planned a series of adult activities for ourselves: wine tasting, visiting some nice restaurants, attending an Oregon football game, and staying at some wine country bed and breakfasts. This post is the fifth and final in the September 2016 Oregon series.
When we started to look for a hotel room in Eugene for a couple of days in late September, we realized that we had waited too long. All rooms, ranging from “nice” to “halfway decent” to “ugh, at least it’s only for two nights” were booked. The rooms that fell into the even lower categories of accommodations were demonstrating the interaction of the competing economic forces of supply and demand by charging Ritz-Carlton prices for accommodations so substandard that nearly all Yelp reviewers advised sleeping in the car as a preferred alternative. We decided not to stay in Eugene at all and started looking for something a bit outside of town. By a stroke of good fortune, our internet search led us to a cozy bed & breakfast: the Bluebird Hill Farm Bed & Breakfast. Located in Monroe, Oregon, about 45 minutes north of Eugene and 30 minutes south of Corvallis, Bluebird Hill Farm is a perfect spot for visitors to either University of Oregon or Oregon State.
We stayed at the B&B two nights, the first of which was after the Oregon football game; because we had dinner after the game, we didn’t arrive to Bluebird Hill Farm until well after dark. Our innkeeper, Sue Shay, must have heard us coming up the driveway and was outside to greet us when we got out of the car.
She led us upstairs and showed us to our room, one of only two in the B&B. We noticed right away that there was a large window overlooking vineyards outside, a pleasant reminder that we were in the heart of Willamette Valley. We wondered whose vineyards they were, a mystery that was cleared up the following morning at breakfast.
We slept in late and slowly made our way downstairs for breakfast. Sue had arranged a nice spread for us in their dining room and we loaded up with coffee and breakfast goodies for the day ahead. During breakfast, Sue sat with us and gave us the history of not only the B&B, but also of the vineyards and winery operation. As it turns out, the vines we could see outside of our window belong to Sue and her husband Neil. Like many other Oregon winemakers that we met, the Shay’s story of becoming winemakers in the Willamette Valley has a charming, modest and almost accidental feel to it. In 2010 the Shay’s moved to Oregon after Neil took a position at Oregon State as Professor of Food Science and Technology. Neil and Sue wanted to live out in the country and they spent about a year looking for the perfect spot. Their patience paid off when they found a six-acre property with a lovely home surrounded by overgrown Christmas trees.
As we noted in one of our earlier Willamette Valley post (A Lot of Sass In Willamette Valley), we saw hundreds of acres of Christmas trees being farmed in several spots in the Valley. As we enjoyed breakfast, Sue told us that when they moved in to their new home, the six acres were dominated by these trees. They blocked views from the house to the Valley below and also took up land that could be put to better use. During the week Neil worked his professorial day job; on the weekends, he and Sue took on the herculean chore of cutting down about 2,000 trees. If we had to cut down 2,000 trees – or 2000, or 20, or probably even 2 ,we would hire someone. Not the Shay’s. With a trusty chainsaw in hand, they cut and cleared the trees themselves, giving themselves not only a gorgeous view but a lot of open land suitable for planting.
And what do you suppose they planted? Grape vines, of course! True to their Willamette Valley location, they planted Pinot Noir; the first vines were planted in 2013. The Shay’s also planted Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, two white varietals that are also very common in the Valley. They now have about three acres planted on the property.
Today, the Shay’s are selling the fruit of their labor (or is it the labor of their fruit?) through their own winery ,which they have named Bluebird Hill Cellars. Their wines are made from grapes grown on the estate as well as fruit sourced from other high-quality producers in the Willamette Valley. Like others we have met, the Shay’s did not come to Oregon with the expectation that they would grow grapes and make wine. Instead, they followed Neil’s job opportunity and picked a serene and beautiful property on which to live. When they describe the decision to plant some grapes, it sounded very casual, not at all compelled by a commercial purpose, but for perhaps the same reason that we plant tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables in our garden every year. At some point, again seemingly without commercial motivation, the Shay’s decided to make wine from their fruit. We do not know what their long-term aspirations are in terms of size and volume, but we do know that they are committed to being very involved in their grape growing and winery operations and selling small-lots that meet their high standards.
For the two days that we stayed at Bluebird Hill Farm B&B, we got an up-close view of what a small lot, husband-and-wife wine operation looks like. Each morning, while we were enjoying breakfast, Neil was working with the grapes that had been harvested in the days leading up to our visit: doing “punch downs” when necessary and measuring “Brix” (sugar levels) in the fermenting wine. In the middle of one of our breakfasts, Neil came into the kitchen with a couple of glasses of what looked like grape juice – except that they were in wine glasses. After having Sue taste the samples, he put some glasses in front of us and let us taste them. One of the samples was from approximately a week prior, so it was pretty far along in its initial fermentation and had a higher alcohol content. The second sample was from a few days ago and it still had a fair amount of sugar and the alcohol was not as pronounced. Finally, the third sample was from grapes crushed the previous day and tasted as yummy as any grape juice we’ve had. Perhaps we should have felt some level of shame for wine tasting with our breakfast, but for some reason it felt natural and normal.
After breakfast we left for a day of wine tasting and exploring, including a stop for dinner along the way. Sue promised that if we made it back early enough she would let us taste their wines – not the fermenting juice, the stuff that actually made it to a bottle. When we got back, Neil and Sue were having dinner with Bobby Moy, their smart, young winemaker who, like us, lives in Napa Valley. We told Sue that we didn’t want to get in the way of their dinner and would skip the tasting. She was having none of it and invited us to join them on their outside deck. The Shay’s opened all of their wines and we had our tasting overlooking the vineyards on a beautiful Willamette evening. It was a special feeling, more like sitting with friends than visiting a winery. Adding to this special feeling was having Bobby there giving us inside information on each wine, vintage, and sharing their wine making approach. It was exciting for us to see two people approaching the wine business with a mixture of adventure, seriousness, curiosity and humility.
We enjoyed the Bluebird Hill Cellars Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, as well as their Rosé of Pinot Noir. We purchased bottles of all of these wines to take home with us. Many of their wines are sold out until the next vintage is bottled, but their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and Rosé are available for sale on their site: http://www.bluebirdhillcellars.wine/shop. Unlike small-lot producers in Napa, which often charge exorbitant prices for their wines, Bluebird Cellars’ wines are very reasonably priced: $20 for the Rosé, $22 for the Pinot Gris, $28.00 for the Chardonnay, and $32.00 for the Pinot Noir. In our opinion, the Bluebird Hill Cellars wines can hold their own against much more expensive Willamette Valley offerings.
As we pulled out of the B&B driveway on our long drive home on Monday morning, we felt like we had made new friends that we hope to see again soon. Certainly, the next time we have to be in Eugene, we will skip the chain hotels, even if reservations are available, and stay with Neil and Sue at Bluebird Hill Farm B&B. The tranquility of the setting and the warmth and hospitality are well worth the extra few miles of driving.
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.
Along Highway 12 between the towns of Sonoma and Santa Rosa, there are multiple wineries nestled in the west-facing slopes of the Maycamas Mountains. Because we are usually on our way to or from another destination, we had not, until last weekend, stopped at any of them. One winery in particular – Kunde Family – had repeatedly caught our eye with its sign promoting a “mountain top tasting.” We decided this past weekend that we would make the trip to Kunde and enjoy their unique tasting experience on top of the mountain overlooking the magnificent Sonoma Valley. Along with two of our close friends, we made a reservation for the mountain top tasting, which, based on the $50 per person price tag, we expected would be a special experience.
The tasting started at sea level – at the main winery tasting room adjacent to the parking lot. Our host, Wade, served us a glass of the 2015 Sauvignon Blanc so that we would have something to enjoy as we started the tour. Glass in hand, we made our way out of the main winery building and into the heart of the production facility behind the winery. Wade gave us a helpful overview of the various Kunde wine offerings, of which there are many. According to our guide, Kunde grows over 20 different grape varietals, some of which are sold to high-quality wine producers in the area, and others retained for Kunde to make wines for its own label.
For over 100 years, the Kunde family has farmed on this property in Eastern Sonoma County, gradually supplementing Louis Kunde’s original purchase with adjacent properties to create a very sizable agricultural estate. Today, the Kunde property is spread out over 1,850 acres, about 700 of which is comprised of vineyards. A wine estate this large is very unusual in Sonoma and Napa – the Kunde property takes up nearly 2 contiguous miles of the historic Sonoma Highway (a.k.a. Highway 12). Most wineries in Sonoma have a single vineyard location – many are on the Valley floor, others are planted on hillsides, others on mountain top plots. Because of its sprawling layout, Kunde has vines planted in all three locations. Passing by on the Sonoma Highway, Kunde’s valley floor vines are visible. On the tour, we were able to work our way from sea level to well over 1,000 feet in elevation to see the hillside as well as the mountain top vineyards. As we learned on the tour, there are 7 distinct micro-climates on the 1,850 acre Kunde estate, which means 7 locations that can cater to the needs of different varietals.
For those that like to visit a winery, taste wine quickly, and then move on to the next one, the Kunde mountain top tour is definitely not designed for you. From start to finish, the tour lasts nearly two hours. After explaining the production tanks to us and how different wines are made, Wade took us into the impressing wine caves, built literally into the hillside, which Kunde uses to age its wines. Several wineries in Napa and Sonoma have caves, but we have not visited any whose caves are as large as those we saw at Kunde. In total, the caves occupy over 32,000 square feet of space and there are nearly half a mile of tunnels.
From the caves, we boarded a mini-bus and Wade started our driving journey from the Valley floor to the top of the mountain. Along the way, he stopped and let us walk among the vines, pouring the appropriate wine for the vineyard we were in at the time. It is always inspiring to be out in the vineyards, but we were especially captivated with the stop in the Zinfandel vineyard, where there are vines over 100 years old. Even non-experts in viticulture like our group could tell the difference between newer vines and the century old vines. While new vines might have as many as 20 or more clusters on them, these old vines had much fewer, some of them looking downright scraggly with just a handful of clusters on them.
Finally we made it to the top of the mountain for our special tasting where a beautiful, shaded seating area had been arranged at the edge of the hill overlooking the entire Sonoma Valley. At over 1,400 feet and vistas spread over 180-degrees, the view was simply spectacular.
To complement the view, there was more wine to be tasted.
Lounging comfortably at the top of the mountain, taking in the breathtaking views up and down the Sonoma Valley, we leisurely enjoyed the Kunde offerings. All of the wines shared a clear winemaking philosophy of restraint and respect for the land, or terroir, that they were grown in. Although there are many soil types on the Kunde estate, the majority of the vines are planted on a band of volcanic “Red Hill” soil that is, indeed, rust red in color. Apparently, the color derives from lava flows millions of years ago. In any case, we enjoyed both of the white wines (Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay) and had a strong affinity for the Zinfandel and the Drummond Cabernet Sauvignon. None of the Kunde wines feel “overdone” – they have modest alcohol levels and they use oak judiciously in both their white and red wines. Just as important, for wines that are clearly “premium” wines, the price points are very attractive compared to other Napa and Sonoma wines. The Sauvignon Blanc (Estate Series) is only $17.00, the Chardonnay only a dollar more, and the Merlot and Zin both just $22.00. Even their Reserve Series, which boasts the best fruit from the best blocks and vines, includes a $45.00 Chardonnay, a $50.00 Zin and a $60.00 Cab. Several bottles of Kunde left the winery with us and are waiting to be enjoyed.