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.
Over the past decade or more, numerous reports have suggested that red wine is good for the heart. At one of our favorite wineries in Napa, the heart has been very good for the wine as well. As the picture above shows, inside the “E” in the Ehlers logo there is a heart, an homage to the legacy of the founders and the cause that is a big part of the winery’s purpose today. Many wineries in Napa Valley are owned by large beverage conglomerates or international wine enterprises. Ehlers Estate is unique in that it is owned by a charitable foundation, the Leducq Foundation, which is dedicated to funding research in cardiovascular and neurovascular disease. This foundation was formed in 1996 by the founders of Ehlers Estate and today proceeds from tasting fees and wine sales help fund the Leducq Foundation’s activities. This is one winery where members and visitors can be confident that their money not only delivers high-quality wines but truly has a charitable purpose and impact.
We have been members of Ehlers since just after our move to Napa Valley and we visit as often as we can. This past weekend, we took relatives visiting from Miami to Ehlers, their first ever visit to a winery.
There are many things that we like about Ehlers, beyond the direct link between their wine business and their charitable operations. One of our favorite aspects of Ehlers Estate is its location and story. Although the Leducq family started producing wine in this century, the property was originally planted with vines and olives in the late 1800’s by Bernard Ehlers. In 1886 Bernard finished construction of a stone barn on the property, a building that (with a bit of modern renovation) is still standing and serves today as Ehlers’ winery building and tasting room.
Original beams of wood and stone walls are still visible from the original construction but the interior has been refreshed with colorful furniture and many paintings hanging on the walls.
Despite the ravages of phylloxera, the long period of prohibition and ownership changes along the way, the property Ehlers sits on has been continuously producing wine for over 120 years. While there are no vines remaining from 1886, the original olive groves are still on the estate.
Another thing that we love about Ehlers is their commitment to sustainable farming. Since 2008, they have been certified organic; no chemical herbicides, pesticides, or synthetic fertilizers are used in their vineyards.
The Ehlers wines – Sauvignon Blanc, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon – are produced in a style that is as much Bordeaux as it is Napa. The wine making team at Ehlers Estate firmly believes in making wines that reflect the unique terroir – the diverse soil types and the microclimate. An important difference between Ehlers and most other Napa Valley wineries is that they do not employ seasonal vineyard labor or outsource to outside companies for their vineyard management. They have a full-time team that handles all of the work in the vineyard: planting, weed and pest control, pruning, canopy management, and harvesting. Maintaining a full-time staff throughout the year ensures a consistency in the way the grapes are grown.
During our visit this past weekend we enjoyed four different Ehlers wines; as always, we started with the Sauvignon Blanc.
Like all of the Ehlers wines, the Sauvignon Blanc – the only white wine they produce – is crisp, rich, and bone dry, with zero residual sugar. There has been no malolactic fermentation and no new oak was used in the aging of the wine. A perfect wine with food or to sip with friends or alone with a good book.
The remainder of our tasting consisted of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Ehlers’ luscious “1886” Cabernet Sauvignon.
We enjoyed all three wines and have always been big fans of the Ehlers portfolio of red wines. Certainly, the most impressive wine is the 1886 Cab, but the Cab Franc is also very structured with strong tannins and spicy aroma and flavor. This visit, the Merlot really stood out for us and we all ordered an extra pour (or two) of the Merlot as part of our tasting.
So a winery with a great story, a beautiful location, and great wines. What more could you ask? How about great events? One of the reasons we have held onto our Ehlers membership while jettisoning most of our others are the fantastic events that occur throughout the year. When we visited this past weekend, there happened to be an open house with great food and an array of local artists and craft sellers in the tasting room.
There was quite a spread which we sampled along with our wine. Our family from Miami had a great time and we didn’t have the heart to tell them that every tasting doesn’t have such a bountiful spread. It’ll be difficult to take them to another tasting if there’s not an event going on – they may feel let down.
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.
Some wineries you visit for the quality of the wine. Others (you know which ones we’re talking about!) you visit despite the wine, because of the view, or the beautiful grounds, or the caves, or even the cable car. With a handful of wineries, you visit for both the wine and the experience. Artesa Winery in Napa Valley is one of those wineries where the quality of the wine is only enhanced and accentuated by the spectacular views, the dazzling architecture of the winery building, and the sleek interior space of the tasting room.
Artesa is one of several wineries in Napa and Sonoma owned by Spanish wine conglomerates – in Artesa’s case, by Cordoniu, the second-largest global producer of cava (a Spanish sparkling wine made by the traditional champagne method). Like many other European wine companies, Cordoniu had its eye on the Napa Valley as far back as the 1980’s and started acquiring property in the Carneros region, which is known for its cooler climate and unique soil. Twenty-five years ago, in 1991, Cordoniu opened what was then referred to as Cordoniu Napa. Six years later, the winery was renamed “Artesa,” which in the Spanish dialect of Catalan means “handcrafted.”
And the wines are indeed “handcrafted,” grown in small, single-vineyard blocks and producing wines from the grapes that typically thrive in Carneros – Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In addition to these classic Carneros varietals, Artesa produces several Cabernet Sauvignon and Red blends from grapes sourced from other locations in Sonoma County and Napa Valley.
One of our good friends and fellow Napans is a member of Club Artesa, the winery’s wine club. As a result of her membership, she received frequent invites to events at the winery, and we were lucky enough to be invited guests to an event this past Friday – Artesa’s Summer Wines and Bites party to celebrate their release of new wines.
Our visit this past Friday was not our first time at Artesa so we knew what to expect. But each time we visit, the breathtaking scenery and views take us by surprise. The first thing visitors notice about the winery is that it is literally built into the mountain, sitting majestically atop the hillside. As visitors climb the stairs to the entrance, they will encounter beautiful fountains and sculptures along the way.
Perhaps you’ve noticed the name “Heuther” several times in the captions of the pictures above. Like a few other wineries in the Napa Valley, Artesa has its own artist-in-residence, Gordon Huether, who is a local Napa artist but one whose art is on display across the United States and around the world. Huether’s unique sculptures and other works of art add to the ambiance of the winery.
When you finally arrive at the “top” of the steps, the 360-degree views are among the best of any in the Napa Valley. In one direction, visitors can look towards San Pablo Bay; indeed, on a clear day you can see all the way to San Francisco. To capitalize on this view, Artesa has patio seating on the south side of the winery building.
If we just stopped here, most people would conclude that Artesa is worth a visit, at least for the scenery and the views. But we said the wine was worth it too, and in our Friday visit it proved to be so again. We tasted the new release of Artesa’s Rose as well their Cabernet. Both were fantastic and lived up to expectations from previous visits to the winery. We mentioned the event was called “Wines and Bites.” And boy did they have bites! Artesa always throws a good party and Friday was no exception. They had an amazing spread to pair with the Rose and Cab.
If you want to visit Artesa, click here to see their hours, tour information, and book a tour online: http://www.artesawinery.com/visit-us/