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.
For twenty-seven years we lived in Los Angeles. I’m not sure what that says about us. We’re gluttons for punishment? Sturdy folk? Addicted to 72-and-sunny temperatures 365 days a year? For all that we enjoyed about Southern California (and it really was mostly the weather), we made an annual pilgrimage each summer to Northern California wine country to get the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles out of our systems, at least for a week or two. During these many trips, we have had occasion to stay at a number of hotels, inns, and B&B’s in Napa and Sonoma. Somehow, during these many trips north, we managed to miss a place that we recently discovered and believe to be a true “hidden gem” in Sonoma: MacArthur Place. It is hard to explain how we missed it exactly, since the property is located on Broadway Street, which is the road that dead-ends at the Sonoma Plaza. Without exaggerating, I can say that we have probably passed MacArthur Place (which is just off of Broadway on MacArthur Street) at least 40 or 50 times.
We learned about the hotel as a result of a work meeting that was held in one of their meeting rooms. We had a chance to walk around the property and fell in love with the grounds and the way the suites and cottages were laid out across seven acres. We also thought the location was ideal – located in a quiet neighborhood away from the crowds on the Plaza, but still only a 10-15 minute walk to all of the fun and excitement. Since first seeing the property, we have stayed there three separate times, each time getting an opportunity to try out a different room type. At MacArthur Place there are 64 guest rooms, although the term “rooms” is not entirely accurate and understates the grandeur of many of the spaces. During our first stay, we did in fact have a “room” – a standard king room that was very spacious and comfortable. As we were to find over our next several visits, the bathrooms at MacArthur Place are something special. Like the rooms, they are spacious and have all the touches of a luxury hotel. But what really sets them apart from other hotels is the shower – a large walk-in European-style shower that might inspire you to shower multiple times a day. Unfortunately, we are recovering from a 5-year drought and cannot indulge in that type of luxury, but we may have showered a little longer than usual if we are being honest.
On our second visit, we found ourselves in what is called a “premium” suite. It was indeed premium – a gorgeous King bed with a large seating area with couch and chair that really made the room feel open and grand. For this room, the special touch was a set of shutters that could be opened that exposed the hydrotherapy tub to the rest of the suite and the fireplace.
The third and final time that we stayed at MacArthur Place we felt like we hit the jackpot; we ended up in one of their Cabana Suites, which features all of the amenities of the other rooms but with a really, really special feature: a private patio with an outdoor rain shower to complement the already lovely indoor European shower. There is something decadent about taking a hot shower outside when the temperature outside is in the 50’s or 60’s.
We have nothing against chain hotels. As a result of dozens of business trips each year, we have been Marriott Gold or Platinum Elite for several years now. Many chain hotels, including the Marriott’s Ritz Carlton properties, can be fantastic and unique places to stay. We have to say, though, that places like MacArthur Place can make a vacation (or, for people like us who live locally, a staycation) a truly romantic and unbeatable experience. The privacy and peacefulness of the property made us feel as if we were miles from civilization, which was welcome at times during our stay. We also appreciated the ability to walk out of our room and be in the middle of the action within minutes, enjoying first-class restaurants and wine tasting rooms.
In the spirit of confession, we are also suckers for hotels with a cool story, which MacArthur place definitely has. For one thing, the property did not start out as a hotel or a lodging place, but instead was part of a 300-acre working ranch with vineyards, orchards, cattle, and horses. Some of the original buildings are still standing and make up part of MacArthur Place’s lodging space, conference space and spa. In the structure that houses the restaurant, there are numerous nods to the equestrian history of the property, most notably in the name of the restaurant itself, Saddles.
We generally do not like to eat in at our hotel if we can walk or make a short drive to local restaurants. On each of our stays we did walk to the Sonoma Plaza for dinner, but we felt compelled to try Saddles as it has a reputation as one of the best steakhouses in the county. We were not disappointed by Saddles at all, and have had lunch and breakfast there multiple times.
So next time you’re driving up Broadway on your way to the Sonoma Plaza, take a gander to the right when you’re approaching MacArthur Street; the property starts on that corner. If you are not in a hurry, take a right on MacArthur and pull into the parking lot and take a walk around. Even if you are not ready to take the plunge and stay there, try out their bar – either before or after dinner. They have a small bar but an expansive wine menu with some gems from Napa and Sonoma. Every time we stay, we make it a point to finish our evening at the bar.
John and Irene Ingersoll
July 9, 2017
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What could be better than sharing a wine tasting experience with good friends? Well, how about if that wine tasting experience was on the Hawaiian island of Maui? Yes, that is better. Our intrepid friends Inna and Igor inspired us to join them in Hawaii for several days and one evening they took us to one of their favorite Maui spots, The Wine Palette. We were staying in Lahaina and took the short trip up to Kapalua to taste wine before dinner.
Our first impression of Palette was favorable: the interior is open and bright with a mix of high-top tables with stools spread throughout the spacious interior as well as two large couches in the middle of the room on the lower level. There is also an upper level that would easily accommodate a large group. Since it was still early, we were just one of a few groups in Palette when we arrived; by the time we left to get to our dinner reservation, the bar was filling up nicely both inside as well as outside on the patio.
After being seated we got our hands on the menu and took a look at the wine and food options. We were pleasantly surprised by the breadth of the by-the-glass offerings as well as the bottle selections for both white and red wines. As residents of Napa Valley, we were happy to see many of our hometown wineries on the glass and bottle lists as well as a strong showing from our neighbors in Sonoma County. In addition to our “local” wines were choices from California’s Central Coast, Oregon and Washington, and ten countries (including a red blend from Lebanon that we wished we had thought to try). After perusing the bottle list it was clear that the four of us all wanted to try different wines so we passed on buying any bottles. Instead, we each crafted our own “pairing” by ordering 2-ounce pours of several different wines.
Along with each tasting-sized glass was a small note card with the name of the wine and tasting notes. As the wines are placed on the table, the note cards are placed face down next to their respective wine to create the effect of a blind tasting. So for Igor, who created his own Pinot Noir flight, there was the challenge of distinguishing between the Oregon and the Sonoma County Pinot Noir. Each of us had similar challenges and I recall we all were able to correctly identify the wines based on aroma and taste.
To accompany their wines, Palette offers a wide selection of food, ranging from starter plates to full meals. As we were heading to a delectable sushi restaurant later in the evening, we did not need a full meal but did fancy something to pair with the wine. We agreed on some edamame (perhaps in anticipation of sushi) and the more traditional cheese and charcuterie plate.
If we have the opportunity to visit Palette again (yes, please, since this means we’ll be in Maui again!) we may opt to stay longer and forage through the rest of their food menu. And drink more wine of course.
When our friends first told us the name of the wine bar, our ears (conditioned by our time in Napa no doubt) heard “palate,” not “palette.” We could only imagine that the wine bar was named after a word that refers to the appreciation of tastes and flavors – palate. Even when we saw the name written as “palette” on the door as we entered the bar we did not think twice – until we saw paint brushes, canvases and other painting supplies. Ohhhhh, “palette.” As in colors mixed by painters. In addition to yummy food and excellent wines, The Wine Palette also allows its customers the opportunity paint, either on canvas or on wine glasses. Our friend Inna is a talented painter and, time-permitting, we surely could have talked her into creating a masterpiece for us.
In addition to supplies for painting, The Wine Palette also has dozens of board and card games available for customers to play while they are sipping. There is also a large screen in the bar area that was playing a movie (coincidentally one of my very favorites, “Bridesmaids”). Not long after we sat down, a family with small children came in and occupied the couches. They blended in nicely which is a testament to the clear intent of the owners to make their establishment work for many different types of visitors. We should also mention that The Wine Palette is not just for wine aficionados as they also have a full bar and an impressive selection of beers.
We always enjoy good food and great wines, but there is something uniquely special about enjoying them after a vigorous day of swimming, snorkeling and sunbathing. If you end up in Lahaina, Kapalua or Kanapali, make your way to The Wine Palette and take advantage of their ambience and libations. For reservations or to find out more, visit them here: The Wine Palette.
According to a famous 1990’s advertising campaign,”milk does a body good.” We subscribe to the philosophy that wine – good wine – also does a body good. We recently met Sylvie Laly, the wonderful Sales and Wine Director for Napa Valley winery Melka Wines, who was gracious enough to share some of their wines with us. After tasting one of their white wines and four reds, we can say that “Melka does a body good” as well.
We first heard about Melka wines through a recommendation from a sommelier at one of our favorite Napa Valley restaurants (Torc in downtown Napa) and enjoyed a bottle or two there. We also were pleased to learn that some of their wines can be purchased at select Total Wine & More stores (with one conveniently located just 100 yards from work).
In total, Sylvie shared five wines with us, starting with the 2014 CJ Cabernet Sauvignon, named after Philippe and Cherie Melka’s children, Chloe and Jeremy.
The CJ Cabernet is the most mass-produced of the Melka wines – if 1,800 cases counts as “mass production.” This wine is 76% Cab with Petit Verdot, Cab Franc and Merlot blended in as well. This wine is way too good to be anyone’s “Tuesday night wine” – it was luscious and bold, with a fine balance of fruit, acidity, minerality and tannins. But at a $75.00 price point the wine is quite a value as it priced far less than Napa Cabs of similar quality that cost 50-100% more.
After finishing the CJ Cabernet, we moved on to the 2014 Melka Majestique – a 100% Syrah from the Paderewski vineyard in Paso Robles.
Only the fourth vintage from this vineyard, the Majestique Syrah was one of the better California Syrahs that we have consumed: complex with many layers, both in terms of aroma and flavor. The Majestique had strong blackberry and blueberry notes but also was bursting with pepper and spice to deliver a balanced finish with surprisingly restrained tannins. This is not a wine to sip while sitting by the pool or even reading a book on a rainy day – it will be better paired with food that can stand up to its bold flavor.
Sylvie followed the Syrah with the 2013 Proprietary Red from La Mekerra Vineyard in Knights Valley.
Each year, winemaker Phillipe Melka strives to achieve as close to a 50/50 combination of Cabernet Franc and Merlot as he can. For the 2013 vintage, the wine was 53% Cab Franc and 47% Merlot. Like most of the Melka wines, the production quantities are small – only 400 total cases produced. In our opinion, the Melka Proprietary Blend was their best wine – luscious, velvety, powerful, spicy with a strong tannic finish. A more common blend in both Bordeaux and Napa would be Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, rather than Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Nevertheless, we think this wine holds its own against some of the most famous Napa Cabernet Sauvignon-anchored red blends at any price.
Our next wine was the 2013 Metisse from Napa Valley’s Jumping Goat Vineyard – a Cabernet Sauvignon with 13% Petit Verdot and 5% Merlot.
This is Philippe Melka’s “Big Napa Cab” – 15.8% alcohol, aged 23 months in 80% new French oak barrels. However, we don’t want to leave our readers with the impression that this wine was a typical Napa Cab “fruit bomb.” For sure, the aroma and flavor of the wine are driven by dark fruit – blackberry and plum; but the wine is also complex, layered, sophisticated and nuanced and we imagine that over the course of an entire bottle the flavors would continue to unravel.
Too quickly we arrived at our last wine to taste – the 2014 Mekerra Proprietary White, Knights Valley, which is 97% Sauvignon Blanc and 3% Muscadelle.
When Sylvie told us that the wine had undergone 100% secondary (malolactic) fermentation and had been in French oak barrels for nearly two years, we were not sure what to expect. What we found in the glass, however, was a splendidly balanced white wine with none of the over-oaked aroma or flavor that you often find in California white wines. There was plenty of fruit on the palate – citrus and melon – but the wine was also crisp and had enough acidity to provide a long finish. We learned that the grapes for the Melka Sauvignon Blanc are sourced from Knights Valley, a vineyard location in Sonoma County with an elevation of over 2,300 feet.
If you pick up some Melka wine, make sure to take a close look at the label, each of which contains a close-up photo of the eyes of co-owner Philippe. For each series of wine (Mekerra, Majestique, Metisse), his eyes change color. For instance, on the label for the wines from Mekerra Vineyard, his eyes are blue (because Mekerra is the name of a river).
We look forward to tasting wines with Sylvie again when Melka’s winery opens. Be sure to check out Melka wines at their website: Melka Wines.
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.
Almost ten years ago we visited a prominent winery in Northern California to taste some of their wines. We were motivated to visit by the fact that one of the world’s top-rated restaurants (Napa Valley’s The French Laundry) had recently added one of their wines to its impressive wine menu. During the course of our tasting, we asked about their wine-making practices and we learned that they were organic. As it turned out, they were certified organic, which means that they follow certain practices but also comply with a set of complex federal requirements. We assumed that their organic status was something that they would promote on their labels and in their advertising. We were wrong. Why wouldn’t a winery promote its natural, healthy approach to growing grapes and making wine? “Consumers equate `organic’ as sub par,” we were told.
As Loretta Lynn sang in the 1970’s, “We’ve come a long way baby.” Today, consumers are flocking to natural, organic and biodynamic wines made without artificial pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers and other additives. This upcoming weekend, there is a two-day wine fair in San Francisco celebrating and showcasing dozens of California’s natural wine makers. This event, Califermentation, will be held at TerroirSF, a wine bar in the City that caters to organic and natural wines. From 12-4 pm both Saturday and Sunday, there will be at least 20 wineries a day pouring wine for ticket holders. In addition, there will be seminars both days on topics of interest both to wine makers as well as wine consumers. Saturday’s seminar topic relates to the use of sulfur dioxide (a preservative) in wines. Sunday’s seminar topic is on the challenge of sourcing organic grapes in California. One of the speakers for this session, Tracey Brandt, is a co-founder and co-owner at one of our personal favorite natural wineries, Donkey & Goat in Berkeley, California.
Tickets for Saturday only are $45.00 and a weekend pass is $80.00, which seems like a real bargain compared to other wine festivals that we have attended in the Bay Area. We are looking forward to trying out some new wines and tasting some wines we have already tried. For those that want to learn more about Califermentation, we have attached the event flyer below. To buy tickets, click on the link below and find the “Buy Tickets” button. We hope to see you there!
We have been blogging for about five months now; in total, we have twenty-two posts about our experiences living in and traveling around Northern California wine country. Aside from a post about a Napa Valley Golf course and one about a rare sighting in Napa (a brewery!), all of our posts are focused on wineries and restaurants. Readers of our reviews will quickly conclude that we enjoyed every winery, restaurant, brewery and other activity written about in this blog. In fact, we did enjoy them. All of them. Yes, 100% of our blogs reflect positive experiences with the establishments that we visited.
The lack of any negative blog posts has led several readers to post questions in our comment section more or less on the same theme: “How is it possible that you like every place you visit? Are you working for the companies that you profile? Do you have some incentive to always be positive? Wasn’t there something, anything that you didn’t like about the winery or restaurant?” We love getting comments from readers, including these comments, as we believe feedback is a gift. These reader questions helped us think more deeply about why we blog and what we are hoping to accomplish.
What is the purpose of a blog like ours? Is it to be a chronicle of everywhere we have been? Is it to present our opinions, both good and bad, on the wines and food that we taste? Is it to provide a “fair and balanced” analysis of the places we go and the experiences that we have?
We would be curious to hear from other bloggers on this topic, as there are certainly reasonable opinions and different approaches. When we started our blog, though, we had a very specific purpose in mind: having a great time visiting new, out-of-the-way places and sharing them with people who may not have experienced them yet. Living in Napa Valley, we have plenty of places to choose from, not only in Napa but also Sonoma County and the newer wine regions that are starting to gain notoriety for their wines (Mendocino, Lake County, Lodi, Sacramento-area wineries, Solano County, etc.). Our goal was not to use our blog as a glorified Tripadvisor or Yelp review (although many people do, and we enjoy many of those blogs). Do we sometimes leave a winery disappointed, either with the service, the quality of the wine, or the ambience? Yes, just as frequently as everyone else does. Do we like every restaurant? Of course not! Like everyone else, we sometimes have to ask for a new fork multiple times and it annoys the hell out of us. Or our server takes forever to take our order; or, our order takes forever to come out of the kitchen. Every once in a while, the food just isn’t that good – or not good enough to justify the steep prices. So why wouldn’t we blog about negative experiences and let people who read our blog know that we had a bad time?
For one thing, negative experiences have such a subjective quality to them; writing about them as fact, as many people do, does not feel right to us. Was the food bad, or were we in a bad mood? Was the waiter a jerk, or did we come into the restaurant with some baggage that caused us to obsess about the seconds ticking by as we waited for someone or something to come to the table? If we have a bad experience, is that useful for someone considering going to that same restaurant or winery? Does it make it any less likely that you will enjoy your time there? No! The best establishments in the world have Yelp reviews that make you wonder how their authors could have been at the same places as the authors that gave 5-stars.
When we have a negative experience somewhere, the first thing we do is discuss whether or not we want to address our concerns with the establishment when we are there. Most people do not, and then write scathing reviews when they are in the comfort of their home and in the safety and anonymity of their computer keyboard. Repeatedly, we have been told that the best way to help an establishment improve on bad food or service is to say something during the visit. On some occasions, we do say something, but not if the problem seems isolated to our visit, or driven by specific circumstances on that day (packed restaurant that was caught understaffed, for instance). Once we leave the winery or restaurant, we lose our interest in chronicling, in writing, the terrible time we had.
When we write a blog, it is not to tell you what places to avoid. As we have already established, we like to write about places at which we had a special time. But we don’t tell you what to order, or what to drink; we just share what we had, our interactions with the business and its staff, try and tell a little about their unique story and their approach to food, or wine, or whatever they are selling. The fact that we liked the short rib is no guarantee that you will. We may tell you that we liked it, in passing, but our interest is more in describing the food, the wine, the service, the decor, and the atmosphere. One of the reasons we share so many pictures is that it enables the reader to see for themselves how the spaces are laid out, how the food was presented, etc. Rather than talk about “like” or “don’t like,” we focus more on the establishment’s approach. If we are blogging about a restaurant, what is it trying to achieve? What genre of food is it trying to carve out (pun intended)? Where do they get their ingredients?
If we are blogging about a winery, we want to emphasize their winemaking style – are they making big “California” or “Napa” wines or following a more European approach? Is the wine sweet or acidic, or somewhere in between? Those are the things we think people care about more than our ratings or personal opinions. If you like a high-alcohol, super-fermented buttery Napa Chardonnay (think Rombauer), then you should know the place we are blogging about makes a crisp Chard with zero residual sugar. If you like red wines that jump out of the glass and punch you in the face, it will be helpful for you to know that the wines we tasted were only 12-13% alcohol and had a more subtle flavor profile.
We are not sure that our approach is correct, but for us, it just feels right. If we blog about a place, that means we think it’s worth visiting. If we go somewhere we hate, it’s not worth blogging about. We do have opinions, of course, and if you ask us “hey what about XX Winery,” we’ll tell you what we think if we’ve been there. Even if we hated it.
Let us know how you think about blogging and if your approach is different.
“Diner.” That’s all it says on the road sign. “Diner.” What else do you need to know, right? Situated along Highway 121 in the Carneros wine region that straddles Napa and Sonoma, the diner’s aromas waft across its parking lot and onto the Highway as cars drive by, either coming into or out of Napa Valley. It would be easy – and a mistake – to judge this book by its cover. The modest signage might lead you to conclude that the advertised joint is not worth any additional words, or a proper name. This “diner,” however, is simply too good to need to waste its time on fancy signs or worrying about getting its name out there.
For the record, the diner does have a name: the Fremont Diner. Open since 2009, it has become a virtual cult favorite for local Napa and Sonoma residents as well as visitors from the Bay Area and beyond. When we stopped by last week, there was a 40-minute wait to be seated. What’s the attraction? The Fremont diner meets all of the expectations of a place called “diner” – deep-fried foods on the menu, a dedication to a variety of pork dishes, and traditional Southern staples owner Chad Harris refers to as “Grandma” food. In other words, comfort food made the old-fashioned way, with little concern for low-calorie, low-carb, low-fat or, frankly, any other diet plan you might conjure up. Unlike many traditional diners, however, the Fremont diner also has a commitment to locally-sourced and seasonal ingredients. The result is delicious food that will make Southerners reminisce about their favorite hometown diner.
For the past 18 months or so, we have been on a mostly carb-free diet. For our visit to the Fremont Diner, we agreed to throw that out of the window and have one of our infrequent “cheat” meals. This menu is simply too tantalizing to attempt to work around carbs. It might be possible to just eat meat and veggies, but why? One of the first menu items that caught our eye was the Nashville Style Chicken, a fried chicken platter “so hot it’ll set a cheatin’ man straight.” We haven’t been able to validate this claim, but it was in fact very spicy and delicious. We opted to have the chicken served on a waffle for a classic chicken and waffle breakfast plate.
In addition, we ordered the chilaquiles plate, which comes with smoked pork, with a side of the house-made Fremont bacon. We opted to sit outside as it was a sunny day and were able to check out what people at the other picnic tables were ordering. The variety of food at Fremont Diner is impressive, ranging from traditional breakfast items such as pancakes and French toast to Southern staples like biscuits and gravy and shrimp and grits. Other menu items include a po-boy-style oyster sandwich, hush puppies, cracklin (fried pig skin) and the Hangtown Fry (scrambled eggs, fried oysters, arugula, potatoes with remoulade, and bacon). Now that the season has turned to Autumn, we’re looking forward to more brunches and lunches at the Fremont Diner’s outside patio.
For those that don’t have the time or desire to wait 40 minutes or more for a table, the Fremont Diner has a takeout option. At the far end of the patio, there is an airstream-style trailer where a range of drinks (beer ,wine, coffee, tea, juices, and horchata) can be ordered, along with food items from the regular menu. This was a popular option the day we visited due to the lengthy wait times.
Since our first trip to the Fremont diner, we have frequented it once more for takeout from the trailer, and ordered food to go twice more to feed an army of guests staying at our house. As a result, we’ve made our way through much of the menu. The verdict: a gourmet greasy spoon – and we mean that as a compliment.
A few days ago we had the pleasure of spending some time (about three hours, actually) with a winery owner that with a one-of-a-kind experience in the wine business. We visited Ceja Vineyards in Napa and tasted wines and toured the estate property with founder Amelia Ceja. During this visit, we learned about the inspiring Ceja family story and was a poignant reminder for us that every great wine has a great story. Of course, it begins with amazing fruit, but amazing fruit does not just happen by accident: amazing people have to nurture the environment and show love and respect for the terroir where the grapes grow. We could see this love and respect in every bottle of Ceja wines.
In 1967, Amelia Ceja (then Amelia Moran Fuentes) moved with her parents and the rest of her family to Napa Valley. Prior to relocating the entire family to Napa Valley, Amelia’s father had been coming to California for several years picking fruits and vegetables up and down California farm country. Ultimately, he finally decided to bring his whole family north to take advantage of the opportunities in California; they settled in Napa Valley. Around the same time, Pedro Ceja moved with his family (including six children at the time, which would eventually become ten) to St. Helena, in the northern part of Napa Valley.
Both Amelia and Pedro worked side-by-side with their parents harvesting grapes; Amelia still remembers being a 12-year-old girl picking grapes at the famed Mondavi To Kalon Vineyards and struggling to hoist the bucket of picked fruit into the collection bin. Picking grapes and speaking no English, Amelia first met Pedro. An immediate friendship was born, according to Amelia, but many years passed before their relationship took on a new dimension. About six years, to be exact: when Amelia was home for the summer from U.C. San Diego and reconnected with Pedro. We did not get all of the details, but we got the sense that “the rest was history.” Amelia and Pedro married in 1980 and just three years later Pedro and Amelia partnered with Pedro’s brother and parents to buy 15 acres of land in the an area that, three years later, would become the second A.V.A. (after Napa Valley) in California.
For several years, the Ceja family grew grapes and sold them to other premium wineries in Napa and Sonoma, capitalizing on the prime location of their land for producing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. In 1999, Amelia and Pedro, along with Pedro’s brother Armando and his wife Martha, decided to found their own winery operation. Ceja Vineyards was born. Since then, Ceja Vineyards have been producing a wide range of premium wines sourced 100% from their estate vineyards, which have expanded beyond Carneros to include over 100 acres of producing vineyards. In addition to its Carneros estate vineyards, Ceja also has estate property farther west in Sonoma County in the extensive Sonoma Coast AVA. Very shortly, this plot will be part of a smaller, more defined AVA called “Petaluma Gap.” We expect that the wines that today are identified as “Sonoma Coast” on Ceja labels will eventually show the new AVA.
We met Amelia Ceja at their estate vineyard on Las Amigas Road in the Carneros region, in the middle of their luscious vines. We spent over 3 hours with Amelia tasting wine, hearing the inspiring Ceja story, and taking a tour of the impressive property. When we first arrived, Amelia greeted us with a glass of the 2014 Ceja Sauvignon Blanc, sourced from grapes from their Sonoma Coast estate vineyards. Tasting our fist offering, we got a clear sense of the Ceja wine making philosophy: a balanced approach to the wines with a minimalist approach. Like all of the Ceja white wines, the Sauvignon Blanc has been aged in stainless steel and neutral oak barrels with no malolactic fermentation. As we would expect from this type of approach, the Sauvignon Blanc was crisp and dry with strong minerality.
Following the Sauvignon Blanc, which is a typical opening white wine in a Napa or Sonoma tasting, Amelia shared with us their unique rosé. Most wines of this type in Napa and Sonoma are made from Pinot Noir grapes; by contrast, the Ceja rosé was made from Syrah.
Like the Sauvignon Blanc, the rosé was balanced, with a lovely fruit aroma but dry on the finish. Like the other Ceja whites, the rosé did not undergo the secondary malolactic fermentation; it was fermented in neutral oak and “sur lie,” or on its lees (in other words, the wine was left on the lees, or the dead yeast, which yields a more yeasty aroma and flavor). Many of the rosè wines we have tasted in Napa Valley, or Sonoma, have been overly sweet and are often described, even by their winemakers, of having the flavor of candy (we have even heard a winemaker describe his rosè as “Jolly Rancher”). Ceja’s rosè is no Jolly Rancher: it has a gorgeous aroma but is also dry, crisp, refreshing and retains a strong hint of minerality.
After the Sauvignon Blanca and Rose, Amelia took us through their strong offering of red wines. We tasted wines on their tasting menu as well as several special wines that Amelia was gracious enough to share with us.
After the lighter wines, we dove into the Ceja red wines, starting with a couple of selections of their Pinot Noir. Side-by-side, we tasted the 2011 Carneros Pinot Noir and the 2010 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. Both wines were elegant, balanced, subtle and superb; one of us preferred the Carneros Pinot, the other the Sonoma Coast. Next, we tried the 2011 Ceja Vino de Casa (literally, “house wine”), a very unique combination of Pinot Noir and Syrah. It is so unique, in fact, that we cannot recall ever having a red wine composed of these two varietals. Ceja bills this wine as an “everyday wine,” and we agree with this characterization. At $30.00 a bottle, the wine is a fruit-forward wine with a nice finish and enough complexity and tannin to hold up to a variety of foods.
We finished our tour of the red wines with a taste of Ceja’s 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, a classic Napa Valley-style Cab: strong aroma and flavors of dark fruit, anise, and chocolate, with firm tannins and a strong finish. Like all of the Ceja wines, the Cab was structured and balanced, with strong fruit aroma and flavor but also depth, minerality and structure. Even the Cabernet Sauvignon has less than 14% alcohol, a reflection of the Ceja approach to not over-ripen the fruit or use new oak to over-manipulate the wine in the cellar. We found an incredible consistency in the Ceja wines, evidence of a strong underlying approach and guiding philosophy.
On top of the six wines that we tasted, Amelia also shared their regular Chardonnay with us, which was crisp, balanced, dry and refreshing. For our final offering, Amelia opened a bottle of their 2009 late harvest Chardonnay, a classic dessert wine.
Often, sweet wines can be, well, just sweet – unsophisticated and unbalanced. The 2009 Late Harvest Chardonnay is anything but unsophisticated or unbalanced. While it is certainly sweet, it has finesse and subtlety, with a variety of flavor rolling across the palate. With a glass of the Late Harvest Chard in hand, we left the tasting room to tour the property with Amelia.
The current property at the Ceja vineyards can accommodate a great visitor experience for members, with plenty of outdoor space, bocce courts, and cooking areas. To enhance this experience, the Ceja team is in the process of expanding the estate property to add a new winery and tasting structure, which is currently under construction. As an homage to their roots, the Ceja’s have started their initial build-out with a chapel that pays tribute not only to Catholicism but also the other religions of the world.
When we completed our tour of the property, we made our way back to the tasting room to purchase several bottles of Ceja wine. After we got in the car and headed home, we both reflected on the amazing experience spending time with Amelia. She is truly a powerhouse and an inspiration. For starters, they were able to scrape their money together and, with the help of significant debt, purchase an initial stake of land in Carneros. Over 100 acres of land later, Amelia and her family have become not only a grape growing powerhouse, but also a premium wine making operation. Moreover, Amelia, using the force of her impressive personality, has become a true icon within the wine industry. She is a frequent speaker at wine events across Napa and Sonoma; she is a driver of positive change in the industry; and she has become one of the most powerful social media forces in the wine business. Several of her YouTube videos have gone viral and her exposure on Facebook and Twitter (where we first met her) are the envy of many other vintners.
There is an old joke about the wine business which goes like this: “Q: How do you make a small fortune in the wine business? A: You start with a large fortune.” Amelia, her husband, his brother, and their sister-in-law started with no fortune, no advantage, no head start. They were immigrants from Mexico, working in the fields picking grapes as their first job. They went to college, saved their money, leveraged all of their savings to buy land, and became well-known grape growers and then well-known wine makers. For us, the time with Amelia was a touching reminder of the power of the American dream.
There has been much talk in the media this year about the impact of immigration and about “making America great again.” It is just our opinion, but the time we spent with Amelia Ceja has convinced us that America has been great all along. It has also reinforced for both of us how important immigrants are, and have been, to making and keeping America great.