Old Friends: Sonoma-Cutrer and Winemaker Mick Schroeter

By Glen Frederiksen

For thirty years, I have followed my wine muse. She has taken me to wine education classes, to wineries all over the world, to numerous wine clubs and tasting groups, to dozens of wine dinners, and many wine tasting events.

I began my own wine education group and held monthly tasting seminars. I organized wine dinners, led tours to the wine country, published a monthly wine newsletter, became a wine judge, and was director of an international wine competition.

Those thirty years have left me with many memories, nearly all of them good. Unlike most industries, the wine community is one rife with sharing and camaraderie. I have belonged to many special interest groups over the years, and the world of wine is uniquely friendly and positive. Maybe it is because all wineries share the same struggle with Mother Nature to bring in the harvest each year. Perhaps it is the free flow of information that occurs because winery personnel move around so often.

Or maybe drinking wine on a regular basis just makes everyone happy and mellow.

An email from my favorite Las Vegas wine shop/restaurant, Marche Bacchus, indicated that they would have a free tasting event on Tuesday, November 11. The featured winery was Sonoma-Cutrer and would be attended by winemaker Mick Schroeter.

Sonoma-Cutrer and Mick Schroeter. Two old friends.

The Sonoma-Cutrer Winery should be familiar to any casual wine drinker, diner, or bon vivant. For the past 25 years, the Sonoma-Cutrer Russian River Chardonnay has been declared the most ordered Chardonnay in fine restaurants across the USA. I first tasted their wines in the late 1980s, and loved their clean, fruity, spicy take on the Chardonnay grape.

Sonoma-Cutrer Winery was established in 1973 in the heart of the Russian River Valley, bringing its initial vintage of Chardonnay to the marketplace in 1981. True to the terroir of the Russian River Valley where the estate resides, Sonoma-Cutrer specializes in only two varietals – Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Helping to maintain its trademark expression of these two Burgundian varietals, the winery has employed only three winemakers over the more than three decades of vintages. The first was William Bonetti. Second was Terry Adams. And, beginning in 2010, Michael ‘Mick’ Schroeter took over the reins.

I’ve known Mick for some 15 years now. We first met when he was working at Geyser Peak Winery with Daryl Groom. These two Aussie transplants had originally worked together in the Barossa Valley at Penfolds Winery. When Groom came to California to take over the winemaking operation at Geyser Peak, Schroeter followed shortly thereafter. They took a winery better known for everyday table wine and crafted a brand that produced dozens of different bottlings, from everyday “fighting varietals” to reserve level reds and whites that could hold their own with the best in the state. Their everyday Sauvignon Blanc, all stainless steel fermented and on the shelf just months after harvest, became an industry standard for the varietal, garnering gold medals and Best of Class awards in nearly every vintage.

Interestingly, neither Penfolds in Australia nor Geyser Peak in the Alexander Valley of California produced a Pinot Noir, and their Chardonnays were solid but not exceptional. I asked Schroeter why he took on the role of winemaker at Sonoma-Cutrer Winery, a Burgundian varietal specialist. The best sense I could make of his response was the desire for a new challenge at an established, world-renowned facility. It was this wanderlust, the desire to “do it all” in the wine world, that had brought Schroeter to California in the first place, after making wine in Australia and Chile.

From the wines I tasted at Marche Bacchus that evening, Schroeter is doing a magnificent job overseeing the winemaking at Sonoma-Cutrer. The current releases are among the best I have tasted from the winery. And the 2012 Founder’s Chardonnay, only the second such designated bottling from the winery, is the best Chardonnay I have had this year.

After years of not being open to the public, Sonoma-Cutrer now welcomes visitors to the estate property for tastings and tours. For more information, check out their website, drop them an email, or give them a call.

Sonoma-Cutrer Winery
4401 Slusser Road
Windsor, CA 95492
(707) 237-3489

Below, please find my on-the fly assessment notes of the Sonoma-Cutrer wines tasted at Marche Bacchus, with winery pricing:

2013 Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay, Russian River Valley
This is their flagship wine, found only in fine restaurants and at the winery. This vintage is bursting with honeyed, spiced, apple fruit that screams Russian River Valley. An opulent style of Chardonnay, but with impeccable balance. This is one of the best RRV bottlings ever produced by the winery.
MSRP: $28 (November 2014)
Wine Lines rating: 91

2011 Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay, Les Pierres Vineyard
True to its name, wet stone minerality interplays with perfumed white flowers, notes of honey, toasted nuts, baking spices, apple fruit, and citrus notes. Complex and well-knit. This should gain complexity and drink well over the next decade. The 2011 harvest in the North Coast was a difficult one, but you wouldn’t know it from this bottling. Superb!
MSRP: $42 (November 2014)
Wine Lines rating: 92

2012 Sonoma-Cutrer Founder’s Chardonnay
Only the second rendition of this bottling, a selection blended from the best five barrels of the vintage. Enticing aromas of exotic flowers, hazelnut, lemon chiffon, light apple, stone fruit, and crème brulee. This is decidedly feminine and seductive – not your typical California oak-and-fruit monster. Exquisite.
MSRP: $65 (November 2014)
Wine Lines rating: 94+

2012 Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Wood notes of cinnamon spice frame a potpourri of red and black fruits (strawberry, raspberry, and black cherry). Notes of orange rind. In the mouth, it is sleek and supple, with flavors mirroring the nose. There is a moderate, youthful, tannic grip at the back. This is a great wine to enjoy now, but it will continue to provide pleasure over the next six to eight years.
MSRP: $34 (November 2014)
Wine Lines rating: 91

More fun! Following the tasting at Marche Bacchus, Mick and the winery reps put on a special tasting for the Sommeliers of Las Vegas at Ferraro’s restaurant just off the Strip. I was allowed to tag along. It was a vertical tasting of the iconic Les Pierres Vineyard Chardonnay, noted for its Burgundian style and longevity. The vineyard, which derives its name from its rocky soil reminiscent of Burgundy, is located just outside the town of Sonoma. Here are my impressions:

2012 Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay, Les Pierres Vineyard
Crisp minerality. Lightly perfumed, showing white flowers and apple fruit with a whiff of smoky oak. Notes of roasted nuts. Hint of herbs. Unevolved, but showing great promise for the future. Mouth filling, with a long finish.
Wine Lines rating: 92

2009 Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay, Les Pierres Vineyard
Ample fruit punctuated by nuts, wet stones, and clarified butter. It is medium-full in the mouth, with a long, lip-smacking finish.
Wine Lines rating: 91

2004 Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay, Les Pierres Vineyard
At first whiff, a note of petroleum, which gave way to butter-kissed lemon curd fruit and distinct minerality. The nose is piquant, but it is silky smooth in the mouth.
Wine Lines rating: 89

1999 Sonoma Cutrer Chardonnay, Les Pierres Vineyard
Wow! Perfumed, with pretty clove woodspice and apple fruit. Still seems young and vibrant, with a perfectly smooth feel in the mouth. Beautiful and compelling, with a long life ahead.
Wine Lines rating: 93

Holiday Wines, Part 1: Sparkling Wines

By Glen Frederiksen

The 2014 harvest is now complete in California, and all indications are that it will be a successful one, landing somewhere between the brash fruitiness of the 2012 vintage and last year’s more structured wines.

The months of November and December are a traditionally celebratory period in Northern hemisphere cultures, a time to give thanks for the bountiful harvest just brought in, reminisce about the old year coming to an end, and to cheer in the new year.

The colder temperatures bring about a change in the wines that find their way to the dinner table. The rosés and lighter, sweeter white wines give way to dry whites and full-bodied reds.

One style of wine that remains constant the year ‘round is sparkling wine. Whether it hails from the Champagne region of northern France or from the cooler micro-climates of the United States, Italy, Spain, or Australia, a good sparkling wine goes with any season of the year, all kinds of weather, and most anything that is on the menu.

Sadly, because traditional Méthode Champenoise bubbly was expensive to produce, many saw it (and still see it) as a celebratory wine only, something to bring out during the Holidays and special life events.

The truth is, good sparkling wine is available for the same price as a typical, everyday bottle of table red or white. Try a Prosecco from Italy, a Cava from Spain, or any number of West Coast producers in the $8 to $15 range, and you will be amazed.

While decent Champagne from France starts at around $40 a bottle (and can go up to $300 a bottle and more), quality sparklers from other parts of the wine producing world start at around $25 and rarely see a price tag north of $100.

As it turns out, our youngest generation, the Millennials, has discovered the quality and reasonable prices of sparkling wine. A recent poll showed that 61% of Millennials considered themselves to be frequent drinkers of bubbly, compared to 36% of Gen Xers and only 22% of Baby Boomers.

As an aging Baby Boomer myself, I can attest to the tendency to save sparkling wine for the Holidays and special events. But as the quality has improved (and prices have stayed reasonable), I find myself buying it more, whether dining out or just enjoying a glass (or three) at home with my wife, The Happy Cooker.

Over the past few years, Wine Lines Online has reviewed dozens of sparkling wines perfect for your next special occasion, Holiday celebration, or everyday pleasure. They can be accessed here:

MacPhail Tales: Chasing the Muse of of Terroir and Noir

By Glen Frederiksen

In the world of wine, Pinot Noir has a reputation as a fickle grape, capable of sublime complexity and, conversely, sour, vegetal displeasure. The road to Pinot Noir perfection is fraught with missteps and pitfalls, enough to drive a winemaker over the edge. Just a generation ago, the red Burgundies of France and the Pinot Noirs of the New World were hit and miss, more often than not a glass of V-8 or stewed fruit. Yet, even with this spotty record, the best Pinot Noir bottlings, like those from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy, are the most sought-after wines in the world and command the highest prices.

Among the many reasons for this is the sublime drinkability of well-made Pinot Noir. By itself, it can be a seductive pleasure. At the dinner table, it matches with a wide array of foods. Perhaps the only other wine that shows such affinity to food is Champagne – which is often produced from Pinot Noir, or a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. And, like the world’s greatest wines, top-shelf Pinot Noir can age gracefully for decades. I have enjoyed superb 20 year old Pinots from Oregon and California, even older ones from Burgundy, and Champagnes with over two decades aging.

What would drive a winemaker to make it his life’s pursuit to produce Pinot Noir?

James MacPhail, owner, winemaker, and Pinot Noir lover

James MacPhail, owner, winemaker, and Pinot Noir lover

We took this question, and others, to James MacPhail. A winemaker with two decades experience, MacPhail produced more than a dozen different bottlings of Pinot Noir in the 2012 vintage. Most were single vineyard designates from the most acclaimed Pinot Noir growers in California and Oregon.

Wine Lines Online: At this point in time, your MacPhail Family Wines is undoubtedly the most prolific crafter of single vineyard designated Pinot Noir in the United States. Why so much passion for the Pinot Noir grape?
James MacPhail: I would say the intrigue and pure fascination with all aspects of her. It is the variety that resonates the most with me, in both pure enjoyment to drink, yet also with all the challenges she poses in the vineyard and the cellar. I am a winemaker with the belief that you can not ‘perfect’ winemaking in your lifetime, that it is a product that takes generations to figure out vineyards versus style versus matching coopers, etc. So I chose to focus on one variety and do it as well as I could in my lifetime. There are enough challenges among all aspects to keep this cutting edge and interesting for a lifetime. Why try to do too much – or too many varietals? My focus is on the highest quality, not quantity. You just can’t get bored with Pinot.

Wine Lines Online: What is your understanding of terroir? Can you describe some of the unique characteristics of some of the vineyards from which you source grapes?
James MacPhail: I am a true believer in terroir. Especially with Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir is a very transparent variety. She will show her flavor differences between (pick any) two premier appellations. You can’t really say that with Syrah, or Zinfandel, or another red grape. It shows the most with Pinot Noir. Just like Burgundy, where a Grand Cru status can be determined by just one row within the vineyard, the same goes for our Pinot Noir territories. One vineyard growing the same clones as the one across the street or next door, will be completely different. Soil and climate play such a big role, which is why there are only a handful of cool-climate, maritime influenced appellations in CA and OR where Pinot Noir can excel. For example, Pennyroyale from Toulouse (Anderson Valley), the distinct dried rose petal from Pratt (Sonoma Coast), or the volcanic soil influence in our Sangiacomo (Sonoma Coast).

Checking the barrels

Checking the barrels

Wine Lines Online: In 2012, you produced a dozen or more different bottles of Pinot Noir, from vineyard sites all over California and even up in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Do you have any plans to source from other areas?
James MacPhail: Not at this time. With the amount of vineyard acquisitions happening, we think it is best to hunker down and focus on the great vineyard sources locally that we have been historically working with over the years – and slowly grow from within those. I would love to go back up to Oregon, but right now, with 18 premier vineyard sources, there’s enough on my plate.

Wine Lines Online: OK, we all have our epiphany wine… What was yours?
Jame MacPhail: Actually, I do not have an epiphany wine. Wine in general, yes, that was my epiphany. I grew up with wine on the table, my mother and father enjoyed it as the Europeans do, as another “food” with dinner. From early childhood, I remember my father allowing me and my sister to have a sip of his wine on special occasions. I was always fascinated – from the history of wine, to how you can craft such an enjoyable product “from the earth.” So when I started drinking, it was always wine, when my peers were drinking beer or cocktails. It just resonated with me like nothing else did.

Wine Lines Online: Thank you, James, for your time and thoughtful answers.

For more information, check out the MacPhail Family Wines website:

MacPhail Family Wines now has a tasting room in Sebastopol where the public is invited to try the latest releases:
MacPhail Tasting Lounge
6761 McKinley Street
Sebastopol, CA 95472
(707) 824-8400

Here are our reviews of the current releases from MacPhail Family Wines. All bottlings are unfined and unfiltered. Keep in mind – these are young Pinot Noirs. If you serve them now, give them an hour or two of aeration. Also, these wines will go quickly – most are produced with less than 100 cases total:

2012 MacPhail Family Wines Chardonnay, Gap’s Crown, Sonoma Coast
In the glass, it shimmers a brilliant golden hue. Enticing aromas of smoky oak, buttered toast, lemon curd, granny smith apple, and pear lead to similar flavors in the mouth. The wine has viscosity, coating the palate. Even after the last sip and swallow, the warm buttered fruit lingers a full 30 seconds or more. Winemaker MacPhail describes the wine as having an Old School touch. We at Wine Lines Online would take that a bit further, and say it is reminiscent of older classic white Burgundies.
MSRP: $45 (October 2014)
Wine Lines rating: 91

2012 MacPhail Family Wines Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast
Essentially, this is the same wine as the Gap’s Crown Chardonnay, but with little oak treatment. 91% was stainless steel fermented, while 9% was fermented in neutral oak barrels to add a touch of roundness. It is a brilliant medium straw color. The nose delivers intense impressions of ripe pear, sun-drenched apples, citrus, and fleshy tropical fruit, followed by smoked butter and gunflint minerality. The fruit plumps out on the palate, showing a mouth-coating viscosity rarely seen in unoaked Chardonnay. So often, “naked” Chardonnays are acid bombs but here, all is in harmony. A sublime food pairing would be breast of chicken, whether in a cream sauce, grilled with a lemon glaze, or slathered with a spiced apple compote.
MSRP: $40 (October 2014)
Wine Lines rating: 91

2012 MacPhail Family Wines Pinot Noir, Wildcat, Sonoma Coast
In the glass, the translucent dark coral color picks up brick shades at the rim. Notes of cinnamon spice and cedar frame the floral red fruits – strawberry, red raspberry,and cherry. It is soft and velvety smooth in the mouth; youthful and seductive. The afterflavor evokes palate memories of cherries jubilee. This red is a delight to sip on its own, but would be a welcome addition to the Holiday dinner table.
MSRP: $49 (October 2014)
Wine Lines rating: 92

2012 MacPhail Family Wines Pinot Noir, Gap’s Crown, Sonoma Coast
Translucent medium ruby color. Initial whiffs of menthol, mint, and cinnamon lead to tightly wound sharp and sweet red berry fruit. With time, a note of rose petal makes an appearance. This young Pinot Noir is a demure debutante – only with hours in the glass (or additional years in the cellar) will she unfold to show all of her charms. It cries out to be paired with darker game fowl meats (even the turkey leg at Thanksgiving will do).
MSRP: $49 (October 2014)
Wine Lines rating: 90+

2012 MacPhail Family Wines Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley
In the glass, a nearly opaque deep red/violet hue. Sourced from the Eola-Amity Hills in central Willamette Valley in Oregon, this wine displays the differences between Oregon and California Pinot Noir. It is lighter in alcohol, more floral. The first whiff from the glass shows perfumed lavender, dark flowers, and dried black tea leaves. A tightly wound wine, scents of delicate red fruits pop through now and again. In the mouth, the tannic grip is prominent, especially since the fruit is shy to display itself. Will a few years in the cellar help this wine to blossom? That is the question.
MSRP: $49 (October 2014)
Wine Lines rating: 88

2012 MacPhail Family Wines Pinot Noir, Rita’s Crown, Santa Rita Hills
The Santa Rita Hills, some 30 miles north of Santa Barbara, are known for bold, fruit-forward Pinot Noirs. This one is no exception. It sports a deep purple color that is nearly opaque. Forward aromas of cigar box, menthol, and jammy strawberry and black raspberry fruit burst from the glass, seducing the nose with its voluptuousness. This promise is kept with the first sip, as pretty, cinnamon-laced, sweet, fleshy fruit expand and coat the palate. Some prominent grip towards the back speaks to this red’s youth. The big structure lends itself to heartier fare. Winemaker MacPhail recommends pairing it with a grilled flank steak… Sounds good to us!
MSRP: $49 (October 2014)
Wine Lines rating: 90

2012 MacPhail Family Wines Pinot Noir, Sundawg Ridge, Green Valley
Green Valley is a sub-appellation in the southern part of the Russian River Valley. In the glass, the wine is a translucent, dark ruby color. Pungent aromas of earth, clove, menthol, and sweet/tart dark cherry and red berry fruit promise a complex wine with a hint of mystery. There is a real sense of place – terroir, if you will – upon taking the first smooth sip. Rich loam impressions mingle with the plump sweet-tart fruits in the mouth, evoking thoughts of a serene, bucolic setting. Pack up a basket full of barbecued chicken and sides and go enjoy a bottle while picnicking on a hillock just above some vines. Perfect!
MSRP: $49 (October 2014)
Wine Lines rating: 91

2012 MacPhail Family Wines Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Translucent ruby color. The inviting nose offers up ample red berry and cherry fruit, nicely framed by wood notes of cedar, cinnamon/clove, and licorice. In the mouth, there is an initial burst of spiced red fruit, followed by a youthful, tannic grip. Nine clones of Pinot Noir and nine vineyards in the Sonoma Coast were sources to produce this blend. It ably shows off the profile of the area, despite the many micro-climates in the Sonoma Coast appellation. Enjoy this bottling in its fruit-forward youth.
MSRP: $40 (October 2014)
Wine Lines rating: 91

2012 MacPhail Family Wines Pinot Noir, Dutton Ranch, Green Valley
Green Valley is a sub-appellation within the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County. The Pinot Noir bottlings from this region are known for their lush, layered complexity. This is a fine example. In the glass, it has a deep, nearly opaque ruby/purple hue. Rising to the nose, aromas of wood spice nicely frame the basketful of fresh black fruits, including blackberry, black cherry, and black plum. On the palate, it is at once, fleshy and voluptuous, delivering oodles of ripe fruit. With additional aeration, the wine picks up floral notes and a hint of Christmas spices. For those who enjoy the fruit-laden style of Pinot Noir from California, this is a pure pleasure.
MSRP: $49 (October 2014)
Wine Lines rating: 92

2012 MacPhail Family Wines Pinot Noir, Pratt Vineyard, Sonoma Coast
Translucent garnet color. The first impression in the nose is of sharp red cherry, followed by rose petal, subtle clove and cinnamon spice, and crushed herbs. Then it surprises at first sip – there is fat, sweet fruit but also a delicate, feminine sleekness. With two hours of aeration, it fleshes out to a beguiling aroma and flavor of cherry pie filling, framed by scents of French oak. When pairing this with food, keep it pure and simple, such as Chinese barbecued pork or braised duck breast.
MSRP: $49 (October 2014)
Wine Lines rating: 93

2012 MacPhail Family Wines 2012 Pinot Noir, Wightman House, Anderson Valley
In the glass, the dark translucent garnet color hints at the depth of this wine. Prominent aromas of cedar and menthol give way to jammy red berry and cherry fruit. This follows through in the mouth, before leading to medium-grained, earthy tannins at the end. This red is big enough to pair with orange glazed salmon or even duck in a hoisin sauce. Cellar for a few years to bring the elements all together.
MSRP: $55 (October 2014)
Wine Lines rating: 90

2012 MacPhail Family Wines Pinot Noir, Vagon Rouge, Russian River Valley
In the glass, a brilliant translucent ruby color. The nose is instantly seductive, full of rose petal perfume, notes of pencil shavings and, finally, red cherry and strawberry pie filling. Intense and sweet, the spice-tinged fruit cloaks the palate with a velvety hedonism only seen in a handful of the finest Pinot Noirs produced in California. Rightfully proud, winemaker MacPhail calls this “one for the ages.” We could not agree more. Right now, this young red whispers about greater things yet to come over the next decade and beyond.
MSRP: $65 (October 2014)
Wine Lines rating: 95

2012 MacPhail Family Wines Pinot Noir, Sangiacomo, Sonoma Coast
Translucent ruby hue, lightening at the rim. From one of the oldest Pinot Noir vineyards in the Sonoma Coast, this beauty offers up classic varietal aromas and flavors. Lightly spicy French oak frames a mélange of sensory delights, including earthy dark berry, sweet red cherry, orange peel, white pepper, a hint of lavender, and clove/menthol. In the mouth, there is a distinctive earthiness from the Pommard clone in the blend, which parries back and forth with the sweet, spicy, red fruit. For those who like and remember the first great Pinot Noirs that came out of the Sonoma Coast, this is a pleasant sip down palate memory lane.
MSRP: $49 (October 2014)
Wine Lines rating: 91

2012 MacPhail Family Wines Pinot Noir, Toulouse Vineyard, Anderson Valley
Nearly transparent light garnet color. The perfumed, spice-driven nose shows delicate red fruits, clove, and notes of smoked herbs. It is distinctly silky and feminine upon first entry in the mouth, picking up a note of caramel before ending with a youthful tannic grip. The profile id more Burgundian than California, reminiscent of early 1980s bottlings from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Beware – this wine will seduce you with every sniff and sip.
MSRP: $49 (October 2014)
Wine Lines rating: 91

2012 MacPhail Family Wines Pinot Noir, Anderson Creek, Anderson Valley
Translucent ruby hue, lightening at the rim. In the nose, there is a pungent tartness to the forward cherry and red berry fruit, followed by vanilla and clove/cinnamon woodspice and, finally, fresh earth. There is a varietal silkiness in the mouth, followed by fine-grained tannins in the back. Cellaring this wine may turn this gangly youngster into a beauty. Want to enjoy it now? Give it a few hours aeration to soften the sharp edges.
MSRP: $49 (October 2014)
Wine Lines rating: 90

2012 MacPhail Family Wines Pinot Noir, “The Flyer,” Green Valley in the Russian River Valley
Translucent ruby hue. Initial wood scents of uplifted clove and white pepper lead to jammy red berries, fleshy cherry, and plum. A wisp of charred oak wafts in and out. This is a real mouthful of red – silky, voluptuous, and seductive. Of all the bottlings produced by MacPhail in the 2012 vintage, this one is the most harmonious and ready to enjoy from the first pop of the cork. It will be hard to keep this one in your cellar to see what additional layers of aroma and flavor evolve over the next six to eight years.
MSRP: $59 (October 2014)
Wine Lines rating: 94

The First Vintage of MacPhail Family Vineyards Mardikian Estate Pinot Noir

The First Vintage of MacPhail Family Vineyards Mardikian Estate Pinot Noir

2012 MacPhail Family Wines Pinot Noir, Mardikian Estate, Sonoma Coast
This is the premier release from winemaker MacPhail’s own estate vineyard. With friend and vineyard consultant Jim Pratt, a total of eight clones were selected to provide the texture, depth and complexity that MacPhail prefers. As one might expect from a vineyard that is only in its fourth leaf, the color is lighter, a transparent garnet hue. Ashy smoke and clove are prominent in the nose, followed by green tea, delicate red cherry, light strawberry, and earth. Airy, almost ethereal in texture on the palate, it hints at what the vines will deliver in vintages to come. As the vines reach maturity, the sleekness and refinement of this Estate bottling should be among the best in the New World.
MSRP: $85 (October 2014)
Wine Lines rating: 90

A Window Into Tuscany: Castello di Gabbiano

By Thomas Madrecki


A note in advance — I approach any and all media trips with a bit of skepticism, in no small part because I make a living in the world of public relations. It takes a great deal for me to be impressed, and there’s a sort of natural apprehension about “giving in” too easily. You don’t want to be that wine writer.

So, when approached by the team from Castello di Gabbiano about an opportunity to visit their estate in Tuscany, I accepted, but with a whole host of immediate questions. For one, as most readers of this blog will readily realize, I usually write about small, up-and-coming winemakers in lesser known regions. Secondly, it almost sounded too good to be true — a 12th century castle, formerly home to some of Florence’s most famous noble families, overlooking more than 300 acres of vines in the storied Chianti Classico.

The big question, then — would it be overdone? Over-commercialized? Lacking in authentic character? Could a “big name” castle retreat still satisfy a geeky hipster wine nerd like me?

The answer couldn’t have been more resounding. I adored my time at the Castello, to the point that I might want to question my journalistic integrity. As a writer, you sometimes get that weird feeling of actually enjoying and liking the subjects you’re talking about, and that’s a dangerous thing.

Still, I’ll try to be objective — and even while tempering my personal enthusiasm for the Castello’s gorgeous landscape views and hospitable staff, I can tell you that if you’re ever in the Chianti region, you would do well to make a stop in San Casciano Val di Pesa. To be sure, I have my quibbles and questions, but at the end of the day … few places on earth could be as relaxing, enjoyable and smile-inducing.


Over the next few weeks, I’ll pen a series of articles diving into issues as far-ranging as authentic Tuscan cooking (and the lack of salt in the region’s bread) to the questions surrounding viticulture and wine-making in a region best-known for hay-wrapped bottles doubling as candlestick holders. But for now, let us meditate on the Castello, and why it’s worth writing about.

In all sincerity, one must confess that there is a certain elitism present in the wine industry, and especially in the industry of wine writing. We all want to experience the unattainable — the rarer the better, the more exclusive the better, the more unusual the better. And so, we also see a particular strain among us who might disapprove of “corporate” wine estates, owned and operated by large international holding companies. Castello di Gabbiano, which is held by the Australian-based Treasury Wine Estates (which also owns Beringer in California), is one such label.

Long story short, Castello di Gabbiano produces a lot of wine — definitely more than many of the producers about which I’ve been known to wax poetically. And because of that, there most definitely would be a segment of the wine cognoscenti who might write off the estate, simply because it’s bigger than they would like. Winemaker Federico Cerelli, a native of Tuscany, is a far cry from the kind of eccentric vignerons celebrated in too-cool-for-school Paris natural wine bars. The wines themselves don’t smell like manure or oxidation. They don’t have that racing electric acidity, or that shocking drinkability, or that uncanny uniqueness that might characterize some small-label wines. What they do have is universal appeal and a global distribution. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the fact remains that some wine snobs (the only word to accurately describe such an attitude) might instead choose to solely define “good wine” as “wine other people can’t have.”

The truth, though, is that this kind of snobbery resembles an unfair demonization of things we all like and should appreciate more. It’s an inversion of values, in the interest of pushing back against something that seems too comfortable if you’re rough around the edges. The Castello is gorgeous. It’s historic. It’s peaceful. And though the wines aren’t going to radically change your perspective on what wine can or should be, they’re carefully calibrated and dialed in. The entry-level Chiantis are sure to please, and given their ready availability, you’d be a fool to pass them up. The higher end bottles have a seriousness that rewards careful contemplation.

And the Castello’s food, from chef Francesco Berardinelli? OK, you’ve got me. Now you know the real reason I fell so hard for the Castello.

Berardinelli’s name won’t appear in any “top chef” listings, but he’s the real deal — exuberant, enthusiastic, and hell-bent on not achieving the kind of fame his cooking deserves. His sourcing is impeccable — take the suckling pig, from a farm and butcher dating back centuries — and his training superb (he was once a consultant for Alain Ducasse). But now, at the Castello, he nearly hides, content at producing rustic Tuscan food out of a two-person kitchen adjacent to a vineyard, fruit trees, and herb boxes. In short, he’s living the dream.


Berardinelli’s restraint — that he isn’t just OK with, but happy to serve country-side dishes like braised wild boar in an era of over-reaching young chefs — ultimately might be the best way to explain the Castello’s charm. It’s isn’t going to blow you out of the water. It’s not the Selosse hotel, or Frank Cornelissen’s vines on the side of Mt. Etna in Sicily. But it is what it is — and that is a retreat, a happy place, an escape. It’s luxuriously comforting, like a bowl of Berardinelli’s homemade pasta with tomatoes found only outside Florence.

And if that doesn’t make you smile, doesn’t make you yearn to visit, then nothing will. This isn’t a place to sip cult wines or make a discovery that will impress your wine geek friends. But it is a place to walk amid olive groves in the moonlight, full of wine and wild boar, and to delight in the simple things that make life — and Tuscany — so special.

The Essence of Galerie

By Glen Frederiksen

For me, one of the saddest stories to tell about Napa Valley is the elimination of many varietals initially planted there in favor of the red Bordeaux varietals Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Of course, winemaking is a business, and there is more money to be made by planting these varietals. But the diversity of the initial plantings has been nearly lost in the pursuit of the almighty dollar.

Incredible wines were made from varietals like Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Petite Sirah, Charbono, and Grignolino, among others. A few hardy souls, swimming against the current, continue to make these varietals. But, unlike its neighbor valley, Sonoma, Napa Valley is increasingly planting and replanting to the red varietals of Bordeaux.

Galerie Sauvignon Blanc

Galerie Sauvignon Blanc

So it is a nice breath of fresh air to see a winery trying to make its reputation on Sauvignon Blanc. True, Galerie Winery does make Cabernet Sauvignon, but winemaker Laura Diaz-Muñoz is especially proud of the two Sauvignon Blanc bottlings that she has fashioned. Spanish born and raised, Diaz-Muñoz has a Master’s Degree in Viticulture and Enology from the Polytechnic University of Madrid. She has traveled the world of wine, working in Spain, New Zealand, and Chile prior to her arrival in Napa. She worked under her mentor, Chris Carpenter, on the highly sought-after wines of Cardinale, Lokoya, La Jota, and Mt. Brave prior to striking out on her own with Galerie.

Galerie Winemaker Laura Diaz-Muñoz in the vineyards.

Galerie Winemaker Laura Diaz-Muñoz in the vineyards.

In her bio, it states that “Galerie is a style very much her own.” I couldn’t agree more. These renditions of Sauvignon Blanc have a characteristic femininity and refinement about them rarely seen from other Napa Valley bottlings.

These white are all about pairing with foods at the dinner table. Think light seafood dishes, tapas, pastas in cream sauces.

I look forward to see what future vintages of Galerie have in store for the wine drinking public.

Below are my tasting notes for the Galerie wines:

2013 Galerie ‘Equitem’ Sauvignon Blanc, Knight’s Valley, Sonoma County
Very pale, nearly ghostly color in the glass. Delicate, pretty scents of white flowers, pear, passion fruit, and a touch of vanilla cream waft from the glass. There is some upfront plumpness in the mouth, with a powdery, saline feel at mid-palate. This is a refined, delicate style of Sauvignon Blanc, with no hint of the 14.5% alcohol listed on the bottle. Winemaker Laura Diaz-Muñoz has crafted a white wine reflecting the food-friendly style she grew up with in her native Spain. Pair it with lighter Mediterranean fare.
MSRP: $30 (September 2014)
Wine Lines rating: 88

2013 Galerie ‘Naissance’ Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley
A pale straw color. Aromas of vanilla cream, shade the ample ripe grapefruit, sweet lime, and pineapple fruit. In the mouth, this white delivers juicy acidity, shows a round plumpness, and has a crushed limestone thread of minerality. It drinks well as an aperitif and would pair nicely with white fish or shellfish in a cream sauce.
MSRP: $30 (September 2014)
Wine Lines rating: 90

To learn more about the Galerie wines, see recommended food pairings, or arrange to order them, you can visit their website at:

The Ante Is Upped with Kenwood’s 2010 ‘Artist Series’ Cabernet

We have been fans of Kenwood Vineyards’ “Artist Series” Cabernet Sauvignon for more than a quarter-century. As with all wines that have been around for a while, some years have been better than others, and there were a few vintages when the wine did not live up to the label — but only a few.

In recent years, this special bottling has been on a winning streak. In fact, ever since the outstanding 2007 vintage, it has been getting better and better, gradually moving up on Wine Lines’ 100-point rating scale.

KenwoodAS2010We just had the opportunity to assess the 2010 vintage, and we were impressed — from artist Keith Wicks’ gorgeous “Sonoma Serenity” painting, which adorns the label, to the picture-perfect balance of the wine, which is reminiscent of Hacienda Wine Cellars’ “Clair de Lune” Cabernets and B.R. Cohn Winery’s Cabs of the 1980s.

Before we get to our review of the 2010 “Artist Series” Cabernet, let’s take a look at the three previous vintages…

2007 — Kenwood Vineyards has been producing the “Artist Series” since the 1975 vintage, and the 2007 features the artwork of Dave Kinsey and a piece titled, “Kenwood Rose.” Behind the label… inside the bottle… the wine is just as compelling, as the initial aroma of green and black olives gives way to black licorice, fleshy black fruits, mint, bell pepper, plum, ripe black cherry and polished leather. The wine has layers of flavors, including vanilla and crème de cassis, with earthy tannins deserving of a London broil. Well structured for aging, with a drinking window extending at least another 10 years, it’s showing nicely right now.

MSRP upon release: $70

Wine Lines rating (November 2011): 90

2008 — Orange zest is the first impression one gets when breathing in this wine, followed by fennel, vanilla, black cherry liqueur and cranberry. Supple in the mouth, with little tannic bite, this 34th edition of the “Artist Series” — featuring artwork by Robin F. Williams — is a very approachable Cabernet that exhibits the best characteristics of the Sonoma Valley.

MSRP upon release: $60

Wine Lines rating (November 2012): 91

2009 — This built-to-age beauty — with small, equal portions of Malbec and Petit Verdot in the blend — is a layered and complex wine, with a smooth entry, furry tannins at mid-palate, and a long finish. The aroma and flavor spectrum includes extracted blackberry, black licorice, clove, cedar, a touch of mocha, vanilla and a note of cassis. With all of that going on, one would not expect to describe the wine as “smooth and refined,” yet this bottling is just that. It’s showing beautifully now, but figures to improve with another three to 10 years of aging.

MSRP upon release: $60

Wine Lines rating (November 2013): 91+

As you can see, the wine has been improving steadily — and that’s saying something, considering how good the 2007 vintage was.

But with the 2010 vintage, the ante has been upped, as the “Artist Series” Cab garnered a Wine Lines rating of 93 — rarified air, indeed. The “packaging” is beautiful, as usual, and the wine is sublime, with refined tannins that should accommodate mid-term aging. You can read our full review here.

Pahrump Valley Winery: Getting Better and Better… and the Best Is Yet to Come

By Bob Johnson

It had been a while — way too long, in fact — since Glen and Mary Frederiksen and I had visited Pahrump Valley Winery, which is located about an hour from the Las Vegas Strip in the southern Nevada city of Pahrump.

Can grapevines find happiness in the middle of the southern Nevada desert?

Can grapevines find happiness in the middle of the southern Nevada desert?

We’ve visited several times since the winery’s founding in 1990, witnessing the gradual evolution of its product line and the improvement in overall quality. With Bill and Gretchen Loken at the helm, the winery has won dozens of awards and established a unique niche — drawing visitors not only from Vegas, but also from Southern California and beyond.

True, some make the trek because of the winery’s unusual location — in the middle of a desert, not exactly the kind of climate one equates with world-class winegrape growing. Others visit for the opportunity to sample under-the-radar varietals, such as Viognier, Barbera, Petite Sirah and Symphony.

And still others — including many Pahrump locals — visit primarily to enjoy a meal at Symphony’s Restaurant, a fine-dining jewel and home to the best beef barley soup I’ve ever had.

On our recent visit, we enjoyed a meal at Symphony’s — including a bowl of that marvelous, hearty soup — before settling in at a table adjacent to the tasting room bar and sampling eight current releases.

Today, the winery is producing three distinct product lines, or labels:

Gretchen and Bill Loken have worked hard to up the quality ante at Pahrump Pvalley Winery.

Gretchen and Bill Loken have worked hard to up the quality ante at Pahrump Valley Winery.

Pahrump Valley Winery — White, red, blush and dessert wines, all made from California grapes, described by the Lokens as “fun, fruity and friendly.”

Charleston Peak — More California wines, generally costing a few dollars more, described as “hand-crafted classics.”

Nevada Ridge — Made exclusively from estate-grown grapes or fruit from other Nevada vineyards.

How is Nevada doing in terms of growing high-quality winegrapes? Well, of the eight wines we sampled, a Nevada Ridge wine — the 2011 Tempranillo — was our favorite, earning a score of 88 on Wine Lines’ 100-point rating scale.

And the best is yet to come, according to Bill Loken.

“We can make red wine here,” Loken says emphatically. “As we become more and more familiar with the [Nevada] vineyards, I like to tell people that the best wines are in the barrels.”

At present, about 75 percent of Pahrump Valley Winery’s bottlings carry “California” or more specific Golden State geographic designations. But with each vintage, the Nevada-grown wines are cutting into that percentage, further cementing the winery’s unique “sense of place.”

Inside the winery building, one finds a fairly typical tasting room, plus as nice surprise: a great restaurant called Symphony's.

Inside the winery building, one finds a fairly typical tasting room, plus a nice surprise: a great restaurant called Symphony’s.

It has been fun watching (and smelling and tasting) Pahrump Valley Winery’s offerings evolve, and we look forward to tasting many of the wines currently in barrels over the next few years.

Here are tasting notes from our recent visit…

2012 Charleston Peak ‘Barrel Reserve’ Viognier, Tumbas Vineyards, Sierra Foothills

This elegantly perfumed wine presents initial impressions of honeysuckle and peach, leading to flavors of Mandarin orange, peach and orange Creamsicle. Moderately unctuous but not at all cloying, this nicely balanced elixir finishes with citrus and cream notes.

MSRP: $19.95 (August 2014)

Wine Lines rating: 88/89

2012 Pahrump Valley Winery Symphony, Lodi

Symphony helped put Pahrump on Nevada’s wine map, and it’s nice to see the winery continuing to make this versatile, under-appreciated variety from Lodi-grown grapes. While Symphony can be made in an array of styles — just like Riesling and Gewurztraminer — Pahrump Valley Winery opts for sweetness, with a residual sugar percentage of 6. The honeysuckle and rose geranium nose gives way to peach and apricot flavors, making this wine a nice pairing partner for fruit-based desserts.

MSRP: $13.95 (August 2014)

Wine Lines rating: 83

2011 Charleston Peak ‘Old Vine’ Zinfandel, Amador County

Delicately perfumed with candied black cherry and raspberry liqueur notes. In the mouth, earthy and chocolate qualities emerge, leading to a tart cherry finish.

MSRP: $19.95 (August 2014)

Wine Lines rating: 84

2011 Nevada Ridge ‘Estate Vineyard’ Zinfandel, Nevada

There’s a petroleum-like quality on first sniff, which provides no clue to the flavors that reveal themselves in the mouth: sweet fruit,

Gretchen Loken draws wine from a barrel — wine that her husband Bill says will be some of the best that the winery has produced.

Gretchen Loken draws wine from a barrel — wine that her husband Bill says will be some of the best that the winery has produced.

dark chocolate, coffee and some sort of fleshy fruit (perhaps apricot?). The flavor is better than the aroma, but the disconnect between the two is unusual.

MSRP: $25.95 (August 2014)

Wine Lines rating: 80

2010 Charleston Peak Barbera, Amador County

This wine has a floral, fresh dark berry aroma and a piquant quality, with a hint of leather. Balanced and fully dry, the finish echoes the dark berry fruit.

MSRP: $19.95 (August 2014)

Wine Lines rating: 87

2011 Nevada Ridge ‘School Lane Vineyard’ Tempranillo, Nevada

Sweet aromas of black plum, brown sugar and spice make this the most inviting wine in Pahrump Valley Winery’s current portfolio. Mellow in the mouth and easy drinking, it finishes smooth; perfect for sipping while soaking in a desert sunset.

MSRP: $21.95 (August 2014)

Wine Lines rating: 88

2011 Nevada Ridge ‘Silver State Red,’ Nevada

Think of this wine as a Chianti Classico, only crafted in Nevada instead of Italy. Medium in body, it possesses a saline minerality and a light perfume, evoking an impression of a chocolate-covered cherry. Perfect for accompanying spaghetti and meatballs, burgers, or barbecue fare.

MSRP: $25.95 (August 2014)

Wine Lines rating: 87

NV Charleston Peak Port, California

Menthol, earth, chocolate and molasses aromas jump from the glass, leading to flavors of burnt sugar (think: the top of crème brulee) and golden raisin. Similar to a Ruby Port, this is a nice dessert wine or a tasty companion to salted nuts.

MSRP: $23.95 (August 2014)

Wine Lines rating: 86

- – – – -

Pahrump Valley Winery  is located at 3810 Winery Road in Pahrump, Nevada. Tours are offered most days at 11:30 a.m., 1:30 and 3:30 p.m., and Symphony’s Restaurant is open daily for lunch and dinner. For further information, call 775-751-7800.

Goldeneye Winery: It’s Never Too Early for a Good Christmas Story

By Bob Johnson

This is a Christmas story.


In 1996, some eight years before the movie “Sideways” sparked the widespread planting of Pinot Noir vineyards from Santa Barbara County to Mendocino County, the Goldeneye Winery was founded by Dan and Margaret Duckhorn of Napa Valley’s Duckhorn Winery.

Duckhorn was well known for its Bordeaux varietal wines, especially a coveted Merlot made from grapes grown in a vineyard named Three Palms. But like many people, over the years, the Duckhorns had grown to love Pinot Noir, and decided to found a winery that would be dedicated to the variety. They chose Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley, which connects the hot inland part of the county with the much cooler coast, for the estate they would name Goldeneye.

A fountain provides a link between the Goldeneye tasting room and the estate vineyard.

A fountain provides a link between the Goldeneye tasting room and the estate vineyard.

The first Goldeneye wine was released in March of 2000 — 375 cases of an estate-grown Pinot Noir.


Two months earlier, well down the California coast, Michael Fay was hired by Cambria Winery. Fay was attending Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, studying enology and viticulture. He had developed an interest in wine — Pinot Noir, in particular — while working as a server and bartender at Ivers Acres of Clams, a restaurant adjacent to the ferry terminal in Seattle.

The chef there, Barbara Figueroa, was a Wolfgang Puck protégé who often would bring in wine suppliers and staff members to sample food and wine together.

“I remember having a Panther Creek Pinot Noir that was on the wine list,” Fay says. “It was an amazing wine — one of several that helped me learn that Pinot Noir is a variety that can be paired with so many different types of food.”

The job at Ivers not only ignited Fay’s passion for wine, it helped pay for his tuition at the University of Washington. But he would not end up getting his degree there.


Fay’s father was stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base outside Santa Maria, Calif., and Fay would travel down the coast to visit during summer and holiday breaks.

“On one trip, I was visiting the Fess Parker Winery, and mentioned that I was planning to transfer down there. As I was leaving, Parker tapped me on the shoulder and said that Cal Poly was going to have a program for growing grapes and making wine. I could go to Cal Poly and live with my parents.”

That’s what he did, and that’s what led to the vine-pruning job at Cambria.


Fay had a keen interest in “how plants worked,” and recalls being “the only white guy on the crew — a great group of guys.” He took his work seriously, and performed the vine pruning with precision.

There was only one problem: He was slow. Much slower than the other members of the crew, most of whom had been at it much longer.

“After about five weeks I was called in and told I was doing a really good job, but they were going to have to let me go.”

Fortunately, he was able to land a job at the Firestone winery. Once again, his good work was noticed — only this time, he was offered a promotion.

“Adam [Firestone] wanted to promote me to assistant manager of the tasting room,” Fay recalls. “I told I’m I’d do it, but only if I could work two days a week in the cellar. He reluctantly agreed.”

Practical, hands-on experience was trumping book work, and within nine months Fay was promoted to cellarmaster. After less than a year in that post, he was recommended for an open enologist post at Cambria Winery. Fay embraced the irony. During the job interview he asked, “Will it hurt my cause if I’ve already been laid off by this company?”

It would not.


Fay and Cambria proved to be a good match. He liked the work and he did it well, but that meant giving it full-time attention. There was no time for Cal Poly.

In 2006, Fay was in line for a promotion, but there was a problem: Jess Jackson, the owner of Cambria and the vast Kendall-Jackson empire, wanted all of his management personnel to have degrees — to be the best trained team in the wine business.

“Jess told me that I would have that promotion as soon as I graduated from Cal Poly,” Fay says. “And he said that the company would pay for it. I’d work 30 hours per week at the winery and spend the rest of my time in school. Five quarters later, I had the degree and the promotion.”

Fay would spend a total of 11 years at Cambria.


Fay is confident he could have spent his entire career at Cambria or elsewhere under the vast K-J umbrella. But with so many talented (and degreed) people there, advancement figured to be slow.

“I wanted a place where I could have control over the grapes, people, facilities and a brand known for Pinot Noir,” Fay says.

An old apple dryer building on the property served as Michael Fay's home until he was able to find a permanent residence in Anderson Valley.

An old apple dryer building on the property served as Michael Fay’s home until he was able to find a permanent residence in Anderson Valley.

In 2012, that opportunity presented itself. A mutual friend of his and Duckhorn COO Zach Rasmuson had put in a good word for him. That July, he became the new winemaker for Goldeneye.

While looking for a place to live, Fay lived in an old apple dryer building on the property, and used the winery’s barbecue to cook his meals. He gained intimate knowledge of the property, and immersed himself in every aspect of the operation.

“This is where I belong,” he says.

And that would make for a good ending to this tale… except, as you may recall, this is a Christmas story.


Sometimes in life, particularly when we’re young and still finding our way, we take jobs simply to make ends meet.

If we’re lucky, we may find a job that truly interests us. And if we’re really fortunate, some aspect of a job may open the door to a career.

Michael Fay was really fortunate. That job as a server and bartender at Ivers Acres of Clams piqued his interest in wine and opened the door to the dream job he now has.

But it was Fay’s even earlier interest in forestry that makes this a Christmas story.

While studying forestry management at the University of Washington — studies that planted an interest in how plants grow and, later, how grapevines should be pruned — Fay had a seasonal job that his mother absolutely loved.

“Mom would tell me that I smelled better when I came home from work than when I left the house,” Fay says.

You see, before he landed his dream job at Goldeneye, before he became a tasting room assistant manager, or an enologist, or a cellar rat, or a grapevine pruner, or a restaurant server and bartender, Michael Fay wanted to own a Christmas tree farm.

Michael Fay toasts his good fortune in landing his dream job at Goldeneye.

Michael Fay toasts his good fortune in landing his dream job at Goldeneye.


It would have been a noble profession, but probably not a realistic one. Forestry management degrees typically lead to jobs at lumber or paper mills.

And once the wine bug bit, there was no turning back.

“Why am I learning how to grow paper?” Fay asked himself. “I’m going to learn how to grow grapes.”

Identifying one’s true place in life is the best Christmas present of all.

- – – – -

Goldeneye specializes in single-vineyard Pinot Noir bottlings, and also makes another variety for which the Anderson Valley is well known: Gewurtztraminer.

I tasted three wines during my visit with Fay — a Gewurztraminer, a rosé made from Pinot Noir, and one of the single-vineyard Pinots…

2012 Goldeneye Gewurztraminer, Confluence Vineyard, Anderson Valley

Fay utilized a slow fermentation to preserve this wine’s lovely aromatics, then aged half of the cuvee in stainless steel tanks and half in neutral oak barrels. Honeysuckle, lychee and various stone fruit notes jump from the glass, and the bright, refreshing mouthfeel invites another sip. Fay calls this “the best sushi wine I’ve ever had.” (100 cases; $35)

2013 Goldeneye Vin Gris of Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley

All four of Goldeneye’s Pinot Noir vineyards contributed fruit to this wine, which accounts for its complexity. A purple flower aroma leads to flavors of tropical fruit, banana, citrus, orange peel, red berries, watermelon and cherry, with an engaging creamy component. (350 cases; $28)

2011 Goldeneye Pinot Noir, Gowan Creek Vineyard, Anderson Valley

This wine possesses a tannin structure that bodes well for aging up to a decade, but it’s drinking so nicely now that waiting seems illogical. Eight different Pinot Noir clones can be found in the Gowan Creek Vineyard, and five blocks were used in crafting this rich wine, brimming with blackberry, plum and licorice flavors. (1,500 cases; $80)

- – – – -

Goldeneye is located at 9200 Highway 128 in Philo, Calif. Call 707-895-3202 for hours of operation.

A Pleasant Surprise in the O.C.’s South County

By Bob Johnson

I have to be honest: When I dropped by Rancho Capistrano Winery, located just steps from the historic mission founded by Father Junipero Serra in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., in 1776, I wasn’t expecting much.

A winery in the O.C.?

Well, it turns out there are at least 10 wineries in Orange County, and they’ve pooled their marketing resources to found “The Orange County Wine Trail.” Two of the 10 are in San Juan Capistrano, but only Rancho Capistrano was open on the day of our visit.

Rancho Capistrano is one of two wineries in San Juan Capistrano, and the only one open seven days a week.

Rancho Capistrano is one of two wineries in San Juan Capistrano, and the only one open seven days a week.

Yes, there was a time when quite a few vineyards could be found in Orange County. These days, however, wine grapes are as rare as the fruit for which the county was named. So I wasn’t surprised to learn that owner Kyle Franson and winemaker Collin Mitzenmacher were sourcing grapes from other areas.

Modern technology makes possible the transport of grape skins and juice (must), which can then be fermented and transformed into wine at a far-off site. That’s exactly what Franson, who had spent nearly three decades in finance and management before founding the winery, and the 25-year-old Mitzenmacher are doing.

Twenty-five? Isn’t that a little young for a winemaker?

“I’ve had people tell me exactly that,” says Mitzenmacher before beaming a Tom Cruise-like smile. “Really? Do I have to be a certain age in order to listen to our customers and learn what they like?”

Franson echoes that sentiment, and has said that the goal is to provide customers “with as many wines as possible.” By constantly rolling out new products, he believes, area residents will stay engaged and come back often.

Collin Mitzenmacher makes a wide array of bottlings, from bone dry to ultra sweet.

Collin Mitzenmacher makes a wide array of bottlings, from bone dry to ultra sweet.

“Fanciful” names are used for the various bottlings, and because of the winemaking process involved, vintages are not included on the labels. Mitzenmacher crafts a wide range of wines, from totally dry to ultra sweet. Although he has no control over the grape-growing process, he still can put his personal stamp on the wines through the sugar level selected, the make-up of the blends, and the types of oak staves used (if any). He also infuses some wines, such as the “Little Green Apples” Riesling, with flavor concentrates.

Some would label such bottlings as “gimmick wines,” just a step above Bartles & Jaymes. Mitzenmacher doesn’t care. He says his job is to sell wine, and that means making wine that can be sold.

So, for every perfectly balanced, off-dry Riesling from Washington’s Columbia Valley, there’s a “Sweet Caroline,” a White Shiraz infused with raspberry and dragon fruit flavors.

And that’s why the Merlot from Napa Valley’s Stags Leap District is named “Prancer,” and a sublime G-S-M (Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre) blend from Australia is dubbed “Waltzing Matilda.”

Australia? Yes, Rancho Capistrano procures “raw materials” from that country, as well as from France, Italy, Portugal, South Africa, Chile and New Zealand, in addition to up and down America’s Pacific Coast.

“So many winemakers are focused on just a single region and just a few varietals,” Mitzenmacher notes. “We can make wine, literally, from anywhere in the world. It’s so much fun.”

This is the sign that greets travelers arriving in San Juan Capistrano by train. Walk across the street, and you'll find the entrance to Rancho Capistrano Winery.

This is the sign that greets travelers arriving in San Juan Capistrano by train. Walk across the street, and you’ll find the entrance to Rancho Capistrano Winery.

Just getting to Rancho Capistrano Winery also can be fun. Situated in a nearly 100-year-old building, it’s just a few strides from San Juan Capistrano’s train station, which is served by Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner and California Coastal lines, as well as Metrolink’s Orange County and Inland Empire-Orange County lines.

Just across the street, adjacent to the train station, is a garage that offers three hours of free parking — plenty of time to sample Rancho Capistrano’s wines (most available by the glass) and sample the winery’s café menu. There are appetizers (a cheese plate, triple hummus, guacamole, calamari), salads (summer mixed, chopped Italian, Caprese), and entrees (muffaletta sandwich, Hawaiian sliders, pasta Bolognese, and three types of pizza).

If you ask nicely, Mitzenmacher might even concoct a glass of his special sangria for you. It consists mainly of “Little Green Apples” Riesling, along with dashes of “Sweet Caroline,” the peach and apricot-flavored Chardonnay known as “Savannah,” Sprite and sparkling wine.

And if you seek something unique, try Rancho Capistrano’s “Mexican Coffee” wine, made from Sangiovese grapes, decaffeinated Mexican coffee beans and cinnamon stick. If you’re a wine drinker who starts each day at Starbucks, prepare to be pleasantly surprised.

Just as you’re likely to be after tasting most of Rancho Capistrano Winery’s bottlings.

- – – – -

Rancho Capistrano Winery is located at 26755 Verdugo Street in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. It opens daily at 11 a.m., closing at 9 p.m. on Sundays, 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, and 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. There’s plenty of indoor and outdoor seating. For more information, call 949-307-7736, or visit

Bunn Thai Bistro in Grover Beach, California

Bunn Thai Bistro

Bunn Thai Bistro

By Mary Frederiksen, AKA The Happy Cooker

The past two summers, we have visited Nipomo, California for an extended stay vacation. During the summer months, this town offers cool weather with daytime highs in the 70s. This is a vast improvement over our hometown of Las Vegas, Nevada, where daytime highs are in the low 100s to 110+.

While much of our time is spent pursuing wine related activities, we have found time to discover new restaurants. We dined at BUNN THAI BISTRO last summer toward the end of our vacation and loved it! We were delighted to see that, this year, it is still going strong with an even larger following among locals and visitors alike. It is a healthy Thai and Asian fusion eatery. They use fresh local ingredients whenever possible and they never use MSG. The menu offers vegan, vegetarian, and gluten free options. They use only free range, hormone-free, white meat chicken and organic tofu, assuring there are no synthetic or genetically modified products. If you have any other special dietary needs, let them know, and they will do their best to accommodate you.

Sayam, Arna, and Tommy Buraparat

Sayam, Arna, and Tommy Buraparat

Their menu is extensive and, in my opinion, very reasonably priced. The dishes are beautifully presented with all the vegetables artfully cut and perfectly cooked.

Sawade Angel painted by owner's niece.

Sawade Angel painted by owner’s niece.

When you dine-in, you are greeted by a beautiful painting done by the owner’s niece. The painting is of the Sawade Angel. As I understand, she greets all guests with a respectful friendship that invites you to share in the family’s warm hospitality.

Every dish we have ordered there has been delicious. The flavors are fresh, clean and very aromatic. We have enjoyed all the traditional Thai flavors without the “non-edible” bits of lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, etc. My favorites include Mar Hor and all of the fresh rolls (strawberry, mango or avocado) on their appetizer menu. The soups are wonderful with full flavors. They offer a wide variety of fish dishes that include salmon, tilapia and basa in a choice of 8 different sauces. There are 17 different stir-fry entrees on this extensive menu, including all the Thai Classics. Six fried rice dishes are offered and the ones we have tried are creative and filling enough to be a main entree.

The dining room at Bunn Thai Bistro

The dining room at Bunn Thai Bistro

They are open everyday except Wednesday. Lunch is served from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m.
Dinner is served from 4 p.m. until 9 p.m.

Bunn Thai Bistro
968 W. Grand Ave.
Grover Beach, Calif. 93433
(805) 473-2824