We usually don’t think of wine and gravity going together. When I knock over a glass of wine, gravity causes the precious juice to fall to the floor. Or worse yet, when the 2014 Napa earthquake struck, gravity maliciously conspired with shaking of the Earth to cause many bottles of wine to plummet to their sad demise.
Perhaps you can see why we generally think of wine and gravity as mortal enemies. But there is a method – more common in Europe –where gravity plays a key (and useful) role in the winemaking process. In most winery operations grapes and juice are moved around mechanically via conveyors, pumps and other machinery. This movement can change the way in which the juice is extracted, oxidized, tannins are released, etc. In gravity-flow winemaking, after the crush process the wine moves to fermentation, cellar and bottling all via gravity with no pumps or other mechanical assistance.
In 1989, Rick Moshin had a dream to step away from his day job – teaching mathematics at San Jose State University – and run his own winery. He knew that he wanted to make wine using the gravity-flow method and that he would have to find a property that could accommodate that approach. Optimally, gravity-flow operations are found on properties that are sloped. Rick Moshin found the perfect property along Westside Road in Sonoma’s Russian River. He purchased 10 acres and started the arduous process of building out the winery. Gravity-flow winemaking is not for everyone: it can be more time-consuming and expensive to produce wine. But this method is particularly appropriate for the delicate and thin-skinned Pinot Noir grape. Below is Moshin’s diagram of their gravity-flow process (courtesy of their website). Visitors can take a tour with a prior appointment, something we recommend simply because it is so different from tours at other wineries.
We stopped by Moshin Vineyards during a recent 3-day vacation in Sonoma (yes, we live in Napa and “traveled” the 40 miles to the Russian River to overnight for 3 days). We absolutely loved our visit to Moshin; it punched every item on our list: beautiful location, high-quality wines, and fantastic people. The tasting experience was quite enjoyable and, we must add, quite the bargain compared to some of our Napa Valley tastings.
During our tasting we had the opportunity to taste quite a few wines – as usual, more than are typically offered . When the tasting room staff knows you enjoy the wine and are interested in learning more and possibly buying, they will almost always pour more. We tasted several white wines including the Moshin Sauvignon Blanc and two different Russian River Chardonnay offerings, each from a different vineyard location.
As you would expect from a Russian River winery, Moshin produces Pinot Noir, in fact quite a few different versions from multiple locations across Sonoma as well as different vineyards within Russian River. We really enjoyed their Russian River Pinot Noir which we found to be a classic representation of the varietal from that region: full-bodied, earthy, with notes of mushroom and, dare we say, forest floor.
At Moshin, though, the red wines are not just limited to Pinot Noir. We also tasted a Syrah and a Merlot, both of which were special wines. We actually purchased a bottle of Merlot – a wine more often found in Napa Valley. Moshin’s Merlot – produced from grapes grown in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley – had strong dark fruit aroma and flavor with hints of chocolate.
How do you top off a great wine tasting? If you’re lucky, with a sweet dessert wine. At Moshin we had the treat of experiencing their luscious Moshin Potion, a late harvest blend of Gewürztraminer and Viognier.
We couldn’t resist taking a bottle of this home with us along with the Merlot and several of the Pinot Noir offerings. We’ve added Moshin to our list of Sonoma “must return” wineries and we’ll be back soon.
Westside Road winds and meanders its way through Sonoma County’s wine region, on some stretches moving East-West and along others North-South. In all of its directions and gyrations, Westside Road takes its travelers past some of the best wineries in Sonoma’s impressive wine region. The Westside Wine Trail, as it’s also known, starts in the town of Healdsburg and ends in a forest-like setting near Guerneville. One of our favorite wineries on this route is Porter Creek Vineyards, an easy place to miss if you happen to turn your head at the wrong moment …or blink. Unlike many wineries in the area, Porter Creek does not have a huge tasting room building, visitor center, deli, or cafe. They have a small shack. It is a damn fine shack, we have to say, but still a shack.
The drive from Westside Road to the shack is along an unpaved dirt road. After parking, this is the first thing we saw on our way to the shack.
This is the second thing that we saw.
No big fancy tasting room or winery property. No paved road. Organic farm with free-range chickens. Hopefully you’re starting to get an important point about Porter Creek: they have a strong commitment to sustainable farming. This commitment is not a marketing ploy but rather a long-standing one held by this family-owned winery since it purchased the land in 1977. George Davis, the patriarch of Porter Creek Vineyards, combined his commitment to sustainabilty with a strong desire to remain true to the grape varietals planted in the vineyards. His son Alex Davis, the current winemaker, continues his father’s commitments and in one important area – sustainable certification – is raising the bar even higher. Porter Creek’s Aurora-certified vineyards are being transitioned to Demeter biodynamic certification. For farming and/or sustainability geeks, here’s what that means: Organic vs. Biodynamic
If you don’t care how your wine is made, that’s okay too. We don’t drink Porter Creek – and it’s not on the menu at 3-Michelin star The French Laundry – just because it is organic or biodynamic. Porter Creek makes fantastic wines that happen to be certified organic and, soon, certified biodynamic.
When we finally entered the shack there were only two others tasting wine, a rare treat as we are usually elbow-to-elbow with fellow tasters when we go to Porter Creek. But it was early in the day and during the week so we beat the weekend crowds. Our cousins from Spain joined us for the tasting and we were excited to hear their reactions to our California wines. We were met by Steve who took us through one of the most entertaining and comprehensive tastings we have experienced in a very long time.
Porter Creek has a fantastic selection of both white and red wines, including a splendid Rosè made from Zinfandel grapes. We tasted everything on the tasting menu and another three or four wines thatare not part of a typical tasting; we must have looked interested – or at least thirsty!
All of the Porter Creek wines share a similar approach to winemaking: let the wine reflect the varietal as well as the place and conditions in which the grape was grown. Oak is used to enhance the flavor of the wine but not to manipulate the final product.
Our Spanish cousins were pleasantly surprised by the high quality of the wine as well as the tasting experience. In their home country they tend to drink “local” wines and have never been exposed to Somoma County or Russian River fine wine. The balance, sophistication and refinement of the Porter Creek wines were obvious to them and they were able to overcome their Spanish wine snobbiness. They readily admitted that these wines were on par with the best wines they have tasted.
We have been to Porter Creek before and we will go again, hopefully soon. In the meantime we bought quite a few bottles to replenish our cellar at home, and a few bottles made the long trip back to Madrid with the cousins.
A while back our friends Inna and Igor – fellow wine afficionados – proposed a novel idea for a wine tasting: a side-by-side tasting of the same varietal – in this case, Pinot Noir. What made this proposal particularly novel is that all four wines would be from the same producer, Etude Wines. We have visited Etude on two occasions and posted about our very first visit there last summer (Wine With A ‘Tude.). On our visit to Etude we sampled Pinot Noir from vineyards in Napa Valley’s Carneros region. Our friends’ proposed tasting would consist of four Etude Pinot Noir wines that were new to us: one from Sonoma Coast, two from the Santa Barbara area, and one from Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
We didn’t spend too much time thinking about the proposal, quickly agreeing to the idea and setting a date for the tasting. When we arrived at our friends’ house we saw right away how seriously they were taking the tasting endeavor.
Not only were the wines poured but there was a tasting sheet to write notes and comments and tally scores. Like all athletic endeavors, wine tasting needs the right level of hydration and nourishment.
When we took our seats at the table each of us sized up the wines and took a few minutes reading the labels and tried to find some nugget of information that would give us an edge in the wine tasting challenge. For the record, the four wines were:
2014 Etude Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills (Santa Barbara County)
2014 Etude North Canyon Vineyard Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley (Santa Barbara County)
2014 Etude Yamhill Vista Vineyard Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley (Oregon)
While there were no financial stakes in this great wine taste-off, pride was certaintly at stake and each of the four participants was hoping to show off his or her wine acumen and ability to distinguish aromas and flavors. For the first several minutes only murmurs could be heard as we lifted the glasses and tried to make sense of the different color shades in each glass. Hmmm, the first one looks slightly darker than the second, perhaps that signifies that it was grown in a hotter climate and the grapes ripened more? Then came the sniffing excercise – trying to identify aromas that would distinguish the four Pinot Noir wines from each other.
Looking back, we have to laugh a little bit because we set ourselves up for quite a challenge: identifying which wines came from which region even though 3 of the 4 wines are from California and two of them were from wine regions separate by just a few miles. Finally we got to the tasting, which resulted in more murmurs and mutterings under our breath and furious note-taking. After each wine we confidently assigned it to a region only to furiously cross it out immediately after tasting the next wine and confidently jotting a region down next to it. By the fourth wine almost every confident prediction had been changed to something else, changed back, and then changed again.
When we finally made our collective way through the four Etude Pinot Noir wines and made our “matches” to wine region, the time came to uncover the bottles and reveal their geographic identity. Despite all of our cumulative years of wine tasting, the best effort in the wine tasting match was 2 out of 4, with at least two of us guessing only 1 out of 4. Stubborn people that we are, we decided to do a second round of tasting, mixing the wines up again and trying to apply the lessons learned from the first round. Memory is somewhat hazy after the amount of wine consumed but I recall that no one did better in the second round than the first. Naturally, we concluded that another round of tasting would be a good idea, for some reason expecting that the cumulative effect of the two previous rounds of tasting would promote greater accuracy. Round 3 was no more impressive than than the earlier efforts; clearly none of us is ready to take on the Master Sommelier exam just yet.
Rather than proceed to a round 4 we decided instead to polish off the remaining Pinot Noir and enjoy them just for their own sake, with no competition involved. To top off the afternoon we enjoyed a fantastic lunch paired with one of the Croatian wines that we will soon be introducing to the United States market.
For every one of our blog posts we have an important introductory step that takes place before we write a single word: brainstorm a headline. For reasons even we do not fully understand, we cannot get started before the headline has been cast in stone. Usually, the headline is a play on words or a pun; for example, when we visited Duckhorn Vineyards last year our headline was “Wine that fits the bill.” Get it? Bill? Ducks have bills. If you want to check out that review, here it is: Wine that fits the bill. Last week we visited one of Duckhorn’s sister wineries and guess what? They made a pun out of their own name in such a way that we simply couldn’t top it: Paraduxx Vineyards. What do you find on every bottle? Two ducks. A pair of ducks. Paraduxx. Get it? For this post, then, we gave up on finding a clever title and decided to just get to the wine.
For those unfamiliar with the Duck family of wineries, the “grandfather” of them all is the previously mentioned Duckhorn Vineyards. Today, there are several different brands under the Duckhorn umbrella, each with a different varietal or geographic focus: Goldeneye – primarily Pinot Noir and Chardonnay sourced from Anderson Valley in Mendocino County; Migration – excellent Pinot Noir offerings from Sonoma’s Russian River region; Decoy – producing Napa and Sonoma wines at prices that are surprisingly affordable ($25 for their 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon); and finally, Canvasback – producing wine from vineyards in Washington state. Each of the brands has some sort of duck reference in the name, although some of them we had to Google to understand (we did not know that Goldeneye and Canvasback are species of ducks).
Okay, enough about ducks. Let’s talk about Paraduxx wines. If Duckhorn is well-known for being a “Merlot house,” Paraduxx is a “blend” house: most of their wines are blends of red varietals. However, the blends were not the typical Bordeaux or Napa blend (Cab + Merlot) but more creative and inventive blends we have not seen in our other winery visits. Many wineries in Napa Valley and Sonoma County have multiple labels and often there is a clear quality distinction between the wines sold under each label. The winery’s main wine is considered the “A” brand and the others are “B,” “C,” etc. It is important to stress that Paraduxx is not a “B” brand to Duckhorn, rather it is a sister winery with a different wine making approach.
When we arrived at the winery they placed a glass of the 2015 Paraduxx Proprietary Napa Valley White. While it is not uncommon in Napa to find a proprietary red wine, proprietary white wines are not something we recall coming across. We were told that the concept of a proprietary white was established in order to create a sense of quality and gravity to the white wine. Often, white wines are the “throwaway” wine in Napa – something to ease visitors into the wine tasting before the serious (meaning: red) wines are poured. We enjoyed the Paraduxx proprietary white which is composed of white varietals with Viognier making up about 2/3 of the blend. Although it was aged in oak it was nicely tart and crisp – the perfect wine for the hot Spring day.
Once we were seated out in the gorgeous Paraduxx back patio, our host Miguel Hurtado came out and gave us a quick overview of the winery and helped us understand the connection with (and differences from) Duckhorn. Despite his youth Miguel turned out to be really knowledgeable about the wines and a fantastic ambassador for the wines and the brand. He was also very generous in offering us tastes of wines that were not part of a regular tasting. After we finished the Proprietary White, Miguel brought out the entire red wine tasting at once, which is the way Paraduxx prefers to introduce its wines to guests. Rather than tasting one wine at a time, four reds are poured simultaneously, allowing tasters to jump back and forth between the wines and make comparisons and also revisit wines after they have had a chance to open up. In addition, each wine is in its own glass, thereby avoiding the inevitable mixing of wines (and aromas and flavors) that occurs when you use a single glass to taste. We prefer this type of tasting and wonder why more wineries do not follow this practice.
From the picture above it may look as if 8 different wines were delivered; please do not get overly excited, these are two sets of the same four wines, one for each of us. Our first Paraduxx red wine was the 2013 Cork Tree Red Wine, a blend of Malbec (43%), Cabernet Sauvignon (38%), and Merlot (19%). The four of us tried the Malbec and I believe we all were expecting the wine to be very spicy and bold, similar to the Malbec wines we have tasted from Argentina. This blend, however, was mellower than South American Malbec, perhaps because of the other varietals in the blend and the 18 months in French oak. We found this wine to be smooth, lightly tannic, silky and soft compared to some of the wines that followed.
Our second red wine was another unique blend – at least unique to us – 50% Cabernet Franc with 47% Zinfandel and 3% Cabernet Sauvignon. Compared to the Cork Tree blend, the 2013 Rector Creek – Block 5 Red wine had stronger aromas and on the palate boasted much higher tannins and more acidity. We all agreed that this wine would pair well with a thick juicy steak.
Our third red blend was the 2013 Paraduxx Atlas Peak Red Wine, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (51%), Zinfandel (31%), and Sangiovese (18%). This was the favorite wine of our grouping, although not everyone picked it as their favorite the first time through the four wines. One of the benefits of having the wines served at the same time and in their own glass is the ability to come back and taste each again.
The final wine in our red blend tasting (but far from the final wine of the afternoon) was the 2014 Paraduxx Pintail Napa Valley Red Wine, a blend of Zinfandel (63%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (37%). The youngest of the four wines, the Pintail blend had bold fruit, strong tannins and a nice long finish. We look forward to trying this wine again when it has aged a bit and see how the flavors progress.
Miguel let us work our way through the four red blends at our own pace and when he saw that most of us had empty glasses he asked if we would like to try any more wines. We enthusiastically accepted and Miguel proceeded to bring out a taste of 2013 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir from their sister winery Goldeneye, followed by a 2010 Paraduxx Rector Creek Red Wine (to compare to the 2013 we had tried during the tasting). We were already familiar with the Goldeneye Pinot Noir, having visited the winery last summer; we enjoyed it as much as we had the previous bottles consumed at home. The 2010 Rector Creek was luscious, smooth, fruity with a nice long and balanced finish.
But wait, there’s more. We asked if there was any Duckhorn Merlot open and, thankfully, Miguel answered in the affirmative. Several of the tasters in our party are big fans of the Duckhorn Merlot, truly one of the best in the country. As we were preparing to go, Miguel twisted our arm and asked if we wanted to try another Duckhorn wine. Because we are pleasers, we said “yes, if you like” and accepted one finally taste: 2013 Duckhorn “The Discussion.” Unusual for Duckhorn, The Discussion is a blend – 64% Cab, 31% Merlot, and small percentages of Cab Franc and Petit Verdot. This was Duckhorn’s version of a Bordeaux blend, a good old-fashioned cuvee. Aged for two years in 60 gallon Chateau-style barrels made of 100% French oak, The Discussion is a complex, sophisticated and elegant wine. Definitely the right wine with which to end our day.
Before leaving the table I looked down and thought “I must document the immensity of today’s efforts by taking a picture of the battlefield.” This is the carnage that we left behind.
We should mention that in addition to the strong wines Paraduxx offers visitors a beautiful and comfortable setting for tastings.
With a summer of family and friends visiting we expect we’ll make it back to Paraduxx (and hopefully Duckhorn as well) soon enough.
The answer is yes. Napa does in fact need another tasting room. This might be a surprising conclusion in a Valley with nearly 500 wineries and a downtown that already has many wine bars and tasting rooms. However, many of Napa Valley’s wineries are not open to the public, in many cases because the artisanal, low-production nature of the business makes it virtually impossible to sustain a winery tasting room and staff. Outland Wines, the newest spot to taste wines, is an important addition to the local scene because it provides a place where three separate wine makers and wine labels can showcase themselves to the public.
This past weekend was Outland’s grand opening which we learned about through the best local source we have. No, not Facebook or Twitter or even the local paper. Our source is the uber-connected Darcy who seems to know everyone and everything in town, including that Outland was opening. We met Darcy and her beau at the new tasting room to taste wines from the three producers whose wines are presented at Outland Wines: Poe Wines, Farella Vineyards, and Forlorn Hope.
When we arrived the place was already hopping – wall-to-wall people, every table and chair occupied, and more than a few people chilling in front of the wine bar.
We love the idea of wine cooperatives, which harken back to the early days of Napa Valley when wineries and wine makers worked together to achieve success for themselves individually with the understanding that it would enable success for all (See our post on another Napa wine cooperative: Holman Cellars). Once we got our bearings we realized we were facing a daunting problem (yes, definitely a First World problem, or more precisely, a Napa Valley problem): which wines to taste. Because there are three wineries at Outland, and each makes wine from multiple varietals, trying one of everything would have been fun …until it wasn’t.
We debated between two approaches: stick with a single winery and taste all or most of their offering; or, pick a few wines from each label to taste. Because we had no prior experience with any of the wines, we opted to try different wines from each of the wine makers. One of us tried the 2015 Forlorn Hope Chenin Blanc and the other the 2013 Forlorn Hope Gewürztraminer.
The Gewürztraminer (on the left) fermented on its skins for a period of time which accounts for that lovely orange complexion. While its typical aromas of honey and lychee seemed to promise a sweet finish, the wine was in fact dry with zero residual sugar – a lovely, crisp and balanced finish. The Chenin Blanc was also balanced and a nice wine but did not have the character and uniqueness of the Gewürztraminer.
As part of our agreed-upon plan to try each of the wineries’ offerings, we moved to Farella where we tasted their Merlot and Malbec, both of which were solid wines, structured and balanced. The price for these wines is far below the Napa Valley average, making them a bargain based on their quality. We also had the opportunity to taste Farella’s 2002 proprietary red blend, Alta, poured out of a magnum; this was a fantastic wine with the type of depth, sophistication and character you would hope for from a 15-year-old red blend.
Before leaving we tried two of the Poe Winery Pinot Noir offerings – the 2013 Van Der Kamp Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sonoma) and the 2013 Manchester Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir (Mendocino). We enjoyed the aroma on both wines; on the palate, we found the finish to be delicate and muted, certainly not the strong, heavy finish generally found with Sonoma Pinot. The two Poe Pinot Noir offerings were more reminiscent of traditional Burgundain-style Pinot and the subtle finish could result from the fact that the wine is unfined and unfiltered.
While the three wineries produce a wide range of different wines, there is an overall philosophy that binds them together: minimal intervention in the making of the wines and letting the varietals show their true aroma, flavor and character. Our recent visit to Outland leaves us wanting to try more wines from each of the three producers and, of course, return to the wine bar soon.
To find out more about Outland or to schedule a time to taste, visit their website: Outland Wine Bar.
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.
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 couple of months ago we “met” an Oregon winemaker named Jerry Sass on Twitter. At this point we can’t remember if he followed us first or the other way around. But either way, after checking out his website we liked what we saw in terms of the winery’s story and the approach to winemaking. We sent Jerry a note telling him that we would be in Oregon in late September and would love to stop by and meet him in person and check out his wines. We agreed on the Friday after move-in day at the University of Oregon, which was our reason for being in Oregon. We set the GPS for the address that Jerry gave and set off from our bed & breakfast; when the GPS said we had about 1 1/2 miles to go, we turned onto a dirt road and proceeded slowly up a rough gravel road. At least, it was rough for our Prius. On either side of the road for nearly the entire drive were Christmas trees – thousands and thousands of them, some just planted and others towering over the new plantings. “Are we in the right place?” we wondered. It was difficult to imagine that a vineyard and a winery were going to magically appear among the giant Christmas tree farm.
Finally, we came upon a mailbox by the road whose address matched the one that we had entered into the GPS. We pulled into the driveway and drove towards some buildings, hoping to find some sign of Jerry. We felt a bit more confident that we were in the right place as there were many acres of grapevines surrounding us. We arrived at the first building and peered in at two people working inside. They both looked a bit surprised to see someone driving into their operation; we waited for a wave, but they just stared at us. We turned the car around, puzzled, wondering if we screwed up somehow. Luckily, the two guys in the building came out and asked us, politely, if we needed help. “Is one of you Jerry?” we asked. The younger of the two men answered: “I’m one of the Jerry’s.” “How many Jerry’s are there?” we inquired. “Three,” he told us.
One of the Jerry’s then said, “hey, are you the wine bloggers from California?” “Yes, yes, that’s us!” we replied excitedly, happy to know that we were expected. Apparently there was some confusion as to which Friday we were coming. We parked the car and introduced ourselves formally to Jerry Sass III, the son of the Jerry that I had been communicating with, and Kevin, a local neighbor that has been helping out at the winery. We found out that the “other Jerry” would be back soon; in the meantime, “young” Jerry invited us into the winery building and asked if we wanted to taste some wines. And when we say “some” wines, we really mean every single wine that they had on hand in storage.
It is important to mention that we arrived at Sass smack in the middle of harvest and crush. Several days before, they had harvested multiple blocks of grapes, which were now sitting in tanks going through the initial stages of fermentation. The following morning, they were due to harvest additional blocks of grapes.
During the day we were there, Jerry and Kevin were also “punching down” some of the fermenting wine, which is hard, time-consuming work. Despite the chaos, Jerry Jr. and Jerry III took us through their entire array of white and red wines and spent nearly three hours telling us about their winery, their grape growing methods, and how they approach the art of making wine.
Frequent readers of this blog know that we prefer wines that are farmed organically and dry-farmed when possible (ie, they do not use any irrigation other than rainfall). Moreover, we have a strong preference for wine makers that follow a minimalist approach in the cellar – less new oak in the aging process and judicious use of secondary (malolactic) fermentation for the white wines. Without question, Jerry’s approach to vines and wine fits in with ours. For one thing, Sass Winery is a member of the Dry Roots Coalition, a group of grape growers committed to dry farming; in light of climate change and lower rainfall in the West, this is an increasingly important commitment. A further commitment to the environment is Sass Winery’s certification as a Live Certified Sustainable wine operation. This certification applies to both vineyards and wine operations and signifies that qualifying wineries meet strict standards of sustainability. Today, being organic and sustainable makes good business and marketing sense, but that is not why Jerry does it. He is a purist, someone who believes in the “right” way of doing things, the “natural” way.
This purism, which is combined with a decidedly stubborn streak, is evident in Jerry’s selection of vines on the winery property. The vast majority of vineyards in Oregon, the rest of the United States, and across the world, are planted on “root-stock.” This means that a vine was grafted above ground onto an existing vine that is rooted in the ground. Why do almost all grape growers use rootstock? Because there is a pest called phylloxera that has, on several occasions, wiped out hundreds of thousands of acres of vines across the world. To combat the pest, which lives underground, grape growers use a phylloxera-resistent rooted vine and graft onto that vine the wine they want to make (Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, etc.). There are those, Jerry among them, that believe using rootstock and grafting vines onto the rooted plant changes the nature of the plant itself and, therefore, the grape that is produced. As a result, on the 6 or so acres surrounding Sass Winery, 100% of the grapes are “own rooted,” which means the vine was planted in its own roots. Despite the potential risk of phylloxera, Jerry continues to farm his own-rooted vines because he believes it impacts the integrity of the grapes grown and the wine made from those grapes.
Okay, enough about the grape growing and philosophy; how was the wine, you might ask? We truly loved all of the wines, both the whites and the reds. With several of the wines, Jerry allowed us to taste multiple vintages so that we could taste the differences caused by unique growing conditions facing them in different years. Over the course of our visit, we tasted the following white wines from Sass: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. In our home wine region of Napa Valley, we get our fair share of Sav Blanc and Chardonnay, but we enjoyed tasting Jerry’s take on both of these varietals. Our favorites among the whites, though, were the Pinot Blanc and the Pinot Gris, two varietals that are not so common in Napa and Sonoma. Both of these wines are fermented in stainless steel and neutral oak, giving them a crisp finish with little to no residual sugar, but nicely balanced acidity and fruit. We are not sure if Rosé is a white or a red wine, but we’ll cluster it with the whites for purposes of this narration. Like the other whites, the rosé is fermented in stainless steel; it does not undergo any malolactic fermentation in order to keep its flavor crisp.
Listing the Sass red wines is easier: Pinot Noir, lots of Pinot Noir. Lest you think there was only one red wine to try, though, Sass makes several different Pinot Noir wines from the winery estate property as well as the Walnut Ridge estate. We tasted the Sass Willamette Valley Pinot, the Walnut Ridge Pinot, the Emma Block Pinot, and the Vieux Amis Pinot Noir. They were all very strong examples of Oregon-style Pinot Noir: strong cherry aroma and flavor with earthy/mineral tones and some floral notes as well. Our favorites among the four, though, were the Emma Block and the Vieux Amis; they stood out as having the most depth, balance and finish.
You might think that after tasting 9 different types of wine (and multiple vintages of several) that we would be too toasted to drive. Thankfully, we learned how to spit at our Napa Valley College class last year, so we were both feeling fine after the tasting. We left Sass Winery with a case of wine (and a 13th bottle just for good luck), our purchase a clear sign of our appreciation for the quality of Sass wines. Actually, we left with 13.75 bottles – Jerry told us he did not want all of the wine we opened to go to waste, so he popped a cork into the open Sauvignon Blanc and told us to enjoy it at our next stop, lunch in Salem. We are believers that good people can win in life, and the Jerry’s are evidence of that. Hospitable and friendly, stewards of the land, and makers of first-class wine. We feel like we met someone in Jerry Sass that we will want to stay connected to for a long time. Certainly, we’ll be back soon to visit.
Just two days later, we had the chance to stop by the Walnut Ridge vineyards, which are owned by Jerry’s partner in Sass Winery, Jim McGavin.
There is a tasting room at Walnut Ridge that offers only Sass Wines. So for the second time in a span of a couple of days, we had a Sass tasting.
During the tasting, we heard about the adventure Jim and his wife Wendy have been on, coming to Oregon from Southern California to grow grapes. After our tasting, Jim bundled us into his trusty pickup truck and drove us around the 8 acres of vineyards. We stopped a couple of times on the trip, once to taste some grapes and once just to take in the amazing views from the hill on top of the property.
We spent nearly a week in Oregon at the end of September, a trip motivated by the need to drop our son off at the U of O. We decided to add a couple of days to the trip and visit some wineries and wine regions we have not been to before. One of the benefits of writing a wine blog and having an active presence on Twitter (@topochinesvino) is the connection to new friends across the United States and around the world. Over the past six months or so, we have developed friendships in the Twittersphere with a number of winemakers and winery managers up and down the state of Oregon. We built our non-campus activities around in-person visits to their wineries to learn more about their wines and what led them to this often challenging way of life. We think we’ve made some lasting friendships from our visits in addition to tasting some of Oregon’s top-notch wines.
Over the course of our 6 days in Oregon, we had a wide range of adventures and experiences:
We saw an Oregon football game (our first together) in the very impressive Autzen stadium in Eugene.
We stayed at two very different but lovely B&B’s, both of which have vineyards and are producing their own wines.
Despite having visited Oregon multiple times, we discovered a part of the Willamette Valley (the southern region) that was new to us.
In between winery visits and campus activities, we were able to enjoy some superb restaurants.
On the drive home, we encountered two wine regions that until recently we did not know existed: Umpqua Valley and Rogue Valley.
We will be posting about all of these experiences over the next several days, with of course lots of photos to accompany our stories. For now, we leave you with a few pictures to whet the appetite for what is to come.
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.