The View… and the Wine… Is Great From Up Here

By Bob Johnson

I’ve been hearing and reading about the summer concert series at The Mountain Winery in Saratoga, Calif., for years.

On August 15, 2015, I finally had a chance to check out the venue for myself. And in a word, it is magnificent.

After traversing a winding mountain road, guests pay a $20 parking fee (ouch!), and then are directed to a designated parking space. The system is well organized and painless — no fighting for a spot.

The concert bowl is surrounded by grapevines, providing "mountain fruit" for some of The Mountain Winery's bottlings.

The concert bowl is surrounded by grapevines, providing “mountain fruit” for some of The Mountain Winery’s bottlings.

Next comes a walk — it can be long and it’s definitely uphill — to the entrance area… also well organized and staffed by friendly people.

Once inside, guests have a number of dining options, including a three-course prix fixe meal on the Chateau Deck ($68), a two-course prix fixe meal at the Backstage Brasserie ($39), or quick bites at the Plaza Grill ($8-18), Vineyard Terrace Wine Bar ($12-14), The Mountain Cantina ($10-17), or The Marketplace Bistro ($6-19).

We decided to check out the Vineyard Terrace Wine Bar — which offers the best views — where we were told that we could bring in food from the other “Quick Bite” venues. They even had menus for the other venues for us to check out.

We spotted a yummy sounding barbecued chicken meal from the Plaza Grill ($18). So while Michelle saved our table with two glasses of Zinfandel, I fetched the chicken. It turned out to be as good as it sounded — a half-chicken topped with sweet barbecue sauce, placed atop a bed of French fries and accompanied by corn on the cob and cole slaw. There was plenty of food to feed two hungry people, and the barbecued chicken paired perfectly with the Mountain Winery Zinfandel.

And then there was the concert venue: a gorgeous bowl built into the mountain. There isn’t a bad seat in the house, and our seats provided good views of both the stage and the big screen set up at the rear of the stage. We were there to see Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club, a touring troupe featuring a few surviving members of the iconic Cuban jazz band, on their “Adios Tour.”

It was a sublime evening. Good food. Good wine. Good music.

So if there’s a favorite band or performer remaining on The Mountain Winery’s 2015 concert schedule, we highly recommend this venue. You won’t be disappointed.

To view the remaining schedule, go to:


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The ‘Middle Sisters’ Line: It’s All About Fun

Selecting a wine from a supermarket shelf can be a daunting task — especially if the wine department is fairly large. One way to make things easier is to find a brand you like and then stick with it.

The first thing you need to know about wines sold in supermarkets is that they are, by definition, mass produced. Rare is the market that stocks limited production, ultra-premium wines, mainly because there aren’t enough bottles for all of the markets around the country. Those releases typically are reserved for high-end grocers and wine shops.

The Charles Shaw brand — a.k.a. “Two-Buck Chuck” — is perhaps the best known example of a mass-produced wine today. But there are many others, and the companies producing them need to find ways to make them stand out — to differentiate them from the crowd. This is where branding and marketing come in.

We recently had the opportunity to taste through the full line of Middle Sister wines, each of which is accompanied by a “nickname” and a “story.” These aren’t about vintages or appellations; they’re about fun. Each carries a suggested retail price of $12, and here’s what we thought of them…

• “Surfer Chick” Sauvignon Blanc — This is a juicy wine with aromas of sweet peas and white flowers, leading to a sweet fruit flavor and finish. Wine Lines rating: 83.

• “Rebel Red” Winemakers Blend — Bordeaux varietals make up the majority of the cuvee, yet the 10 percent Zinfandel component seems to dominate the aroma and flavor spectrum, which includes chocolate, sweet red fruits, volcanic ash and pepper. Medium bodied and easy drinking. Wine Lines rating: 84.

• “Drama Queen” Pinot Grigio — There’s a 15 percent Moscato component in this wine, and it defines the nose, which will remind you of honeysuckle and sweet lychee. In the mouth, a ruby red grapefruit flavor emerges. A real crowd pleaser during the warmer months, so drink it while it’s hot! Wine Lines rating: 85.

• “Mischief Maker” Cabernet Sauvignon — Translucent light crimson in hue, this wine has a spicy nose with ample red fruits that carry through on the palate, and dusty tannins in the finish. Wine Lines rating: 85.

• “Sweet and Sassy” Moscato — The nose shows honeysuckle, lychee, rose geranium and fruit cocktail, and the juice is sweet and pleasant in the mouth. Serve it with ambrosia salad or a slice of pound cake. Wine Lines rating: 85.

• “Wild One” Malbec — Sweet, almost candied, red fruit flavors are joined by a touch of dark chocolate and sweet red cherries, all leading to a smooth finish. Wine Lines rating: 86.

• “Sweetie Pie” Red Wine — The most enjoyable of the Middle Sister wines we sampled, this blend reminded us of a Rhone red melded with California Zinfandel. Perfect for accompanying summertime fare — from burgers to barbecue — it offers notes of cinnamon, clove, candied plum and red berries. The sugar is nicely balanced with the fruit, and the ample acid helps make it all work. We suggest serving this wine slightly chilled. Wine Lines rating: 87.

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Fervent For Furmint

By Glen Frederiksen

Quick now, like a bunny — tell us everything you know about wines from Hungary.

If you are from my dad’s generation, you may recall a sweet table wine called Green Hungarian that was produced by Weibel Vineyards in California. This white wine grape is thought to have originated on the border of Romania and Hungary, where it was called Butschera, and produced large crops that were made into a low-quality, lightly sweet table wine.

By the mid-1970s, plantings of Green Hungarian in California were on the decline, as higher-quality white wine grapes replaced it.

The most famous red wine produced in Hungary is called Bull’s Blood, so called because, during the invasion of Suleiman the Magnificent in the mid-16th century, the attack on Eger castle was successfully defended by the locals against overwhelming odds.

Their fierce fighting was attributed to the red wine they were served during the siege. Rumors circulated that the wine was fortified with the blood of bulls, giving them greater strength and resolve.

Centuries later, in the mid-1900s, the poet Janos Garay is thought to have coined the term Egri Bikavér, or Bull’s Blood of Eger. Today, local wine laws allow the use of three or more of 13 grape varietals in the making of this blended red wine. This modest red has been imported in small quantities into the United States for decades.

By far the highest quality wine originating from Hungary is Tokaji Aszu, a sweet, dessert wine. This topaz-colored elixir is produced primarily from the Furmint grape grown in the Tokaj wine region. The first mention of Tokaji Aszu was in 1571, with the first mention of the Furmint grape in 1611.

Grown on a plateau 1,500 feet above sea level near the Carpathian Mountains, occasional weather conditions accommodate a long ripening season followed by a damp period that allows the growth of a fungus called Botrytis cinerea.

This “noble rot” dehydrates the grapes and concentrates the sugars into a drop of honeyed nectar. When harvested and fermented, the result is a delicious dessert wine that rivals the best from anywhere in the wine world, including France’s famous Sauternes.

Historically, the quality of Tokaji Aszu wine was so renowned that Tokaj became the first wine region in the world to create rules for an appellation control. Guidelines were created dilineating which areas, grapes and growing conditions would be permitted in the use of the name Tokaji on the label. This was by royal decree in 1737, decades before similar rules were developed for Port in Portugal and more than a century prior to the 1855 Bordeaux Grand Cru classification.

But hold on a minute — is there more to this white grape called Furmint that produces the honeyed dessert wine Tokaji Aszu? It turns out it also makes some pretty delicious still table wines. Until 15 years ago, these were rarely seen outside of Eastern Europe. A few would show up at special tastings, but it was not on the radar of most wine consumers.

All that may be changing. There are now some small plantings of Furmint in California and South Africa. And higher-end producers of dry Furmint in Hungary are beginning to ship to the United States wine marketplace.

Classically, the dry bottlings of Furmint are characterized by aromas of smoke, pears and lime, and they have a naturally high acidity, making them quite food friendly. Although lesser known than Chardonnay and Riesling, Furmint has a noble heritage — the ancient grape varietal Gouais Blanc was parent to all three varietals. It should come as no surprise that Furmint has the weightiness of Chardonnay and the acidity and minerality of Riesling.

In the past, you would need to travel to the wine bars in Budapest to try a glass of dry Furmint. No more. Here, we have reviewed several examples that are now being imported into the United States.

2012 Kvaszinger Kanyargas Furmint, Hungary
Brilliant light straw in color, this wine smells like white flowers, leading to impressions of white nectarine, lemon-lime, citrus honey and sun-baked apple. Although fully dry, it has a sweet impression in the mouth with ample juicy acidity. The citrus notes echo in the finish.
MSRP: $20 (May 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 87

2011 Grof Degenfeld Tokaji Furmint, Hungary
This creamy wine is made in an Old World style — dry, austere and well knit. Its woodspice and baked apple notes are nicely intermingled, inviting a plate of lemon scallops to accompany it.
MSRP: $20 (May 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 86

2012 Barta Oreg Kiraly Dulo Mad Furmint, Hungary
The nose evokes gun powder (which dissipates with time in the glass), honey, sun-dappled apple, tangerine and lime. There’s a sense of fruit sweetness in the mouth, but the wine finishes fully dry. Lemon-herb chicken or veal Cordon bleu would make sublime pairing partners.
MSRP: $30 (May 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 88

2011 Majoros Deak Furmint, Hungary
Deep straw in hue and quite pungent, this wine evokes woodspice, white grapefruit, green apple skin, lime, grapefruit and a hint of butter. Quite juicy in the mouth, it would pair nicely with pork schnitzel with lemon and capers.
MSRP: $40 (May 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 88

2012 Gizella Szil Volgy Furmint, Hungary
Floral and alluring, this beautifully knit wine shows off sweet lime, apple, some minerality and a kiss of honey. The fruit flavors follow through on the palate, turning creamy on the finish.
MSRP: $55 (May 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 90

2012 Sauska Medve Furmint, Hungary
Medium straw in color and slightly effervescent in the glass, this wine has a butter toffee/butterscotch and smoky nose that’s almost impossible to resist. The wine expands in the mouth with ample viscosity reflecting the plump, ripe fruit flavors of apple and citrus. A wonderful sipping wine; no food necessary.
MSRP: $65 (May 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 91

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Update: ‘Midnight Wine (White Lies and Cold Chardonnay)’

(Ed. Note: This blog has been updated with a link to the featured song.)

By Bob Johnson

I’m probably the only person in the audience who remembers what Tom Russell said just before he opened his second set at Austin’s cherished Cactus Café on the University of Texas campus a few years ago.

I describe the café as “cherished” because, not long after that concert, university officials began considering ideas for the space occupied by the café for more “lucrative” endeavors. As if that area of the campus needed one more fast-food option for the school’s students.

Once word got out, artists who had played the venue, including Russell, helped the café’s management mount a campaign that ultimately saved the space for live music. You can buy a hamburger anywhere, but a well-crafted lyric is a precious thing.

So what was it that Russell said into the microphone as he returned to the Cactus Café’s small stage after about a 20-minute intermission?

“Hey, Andy, could you please get me a glass of Chardonnay?”

Andy is Andrew Hardin, a guitarist extraordinaire who accompanied Russell on the road for the better part of 20 years. Russell was going to perform the first song of the second set solo, so Hardin stayed in the back of the room, near the concession area, where Chardonnay, Merlot and White Zinfandel were among the beverage offerings.

Obviously, the only reason I remember Russell’s request is that I’m a “wine guy,” and it was fun to learn that one of my favorite musicians — one of the great singer-songwriters ever — was a wine drinker.

Last month, Russell released his most ambitious album in a career that includes several records that could be described similarly. It’s called “The Rose of Roscrae,” a two-CD package that Russell describes as a “frontier musical” and includes 25 original songs.

Among those songs is one called, “Midnight Wine (White Lies and Cold Chardonnay).” In it, Russell demonstrates more than a passing knowledge of the topic, thanking God “for the vineyards near that wild Russian River,” a prime Chardonnay growing area of Sonoma County. He even references what makes that area so special for grape growing, noting how “the breezes off the ocean kissed those grapes.”

Russell, who possesses a rather dark sense of humor and disdain for commercial music (the kind manufactured by Nashville, in particular), has written only a handful of love songs over 30 albums, and “Midnight Wine” is one of them, albeit of the wistful variety.

Lord can you tell me where love goes

When it slips away?

Leaving nothing behind

But white lies and cold Chardonnay?

Here’s a toast to survival

To all those that love’s left behind

In the bars and back alleys… and bedrooms

We’re just partners in crime.

But we stole a moment of bliss

from this ol’ midnight wine.

Here’s a link to “Midnight Wine” on YouTube. And this YouTube video provides a wonderful description of “The Rose of Roscrae” project and album — one I highly recommend buying and listening to with a glass of your favorite Chardonnay.


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Dinner With A Friend

By Glen Frederiksen

One of my favorite parts of the world wine community is the camaraderie that we all share with one another. I know of no other special interest group that reaches out to make new friends as easily as those who profess a passion for wine.

Over the years, this has taken me around the world. I have met up with fellow wine travelers and enjoyed countless get-togethers of food and wine throughout Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Closer to home, I have traveled to cities across the United States and Canada, often staying a few nights with people whom I have met through the many online forums for the wine-obsessed. Likewise, I have hosted quite a few visiting wine lovers in my home. Good times, all.

This week, a wine friend from Toronto, Canada found his way to Las Vegas, so of course we had to get together for a glass bottle or three while he was in town. Actually, we (over)did it three nights in a row. Such is the way of those who follow the Wine Muse.

Our first night was dinner at the appropriately named restaurant Marche Bacchus. I have written about my many besotted nights there in the past (follow this link). Owners Jeff and Rhonda Wyatt are first ballot inductees into the Wine Friendliest Restaurants Hall of Fame. The wine shop, at the front of their sprawling French bistro establishment, is the best in Las Vegas, carrying all kinds of cult wines that are usually only obtainable from the winery direct for those on a mailing list.

I won’t bore you with the bite-by-bite of the dinners we enjoyed – the food was, as always, exceptional. I know why you are reading this – to hear about the wine we had. So let’s get to it. Two of the wines were purchased at the restaurant, the other two were brought by us.

2007 Ammonite Brut Champagne, Grand Cru Le Mesnil-sur-Oger
Selection Greg Linn. Winemaker Pierre Gonet has fashioned a winner. The mousse is fine and persistent. In the nose, toasted bread leads to full, oily lemon scents. This follows through in the mouth, where a rich, creamy impression carries through to a long, mouth-watering afterflavor. With only 300 cases made, this is a rare bottling to make it to our neck of the woods and I, for one, am glad it did.
Marche Bacchus Price: $115 (April 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 92

2012 Peter Michael Chardonnay ‘Ma Belle-Fille,’ Knight’s Valley
Here is another wine you rarely see at a retail wine store. Deep straw in color. This white is already well-knit together, showing aromas and flavors of clove, clarified butter, toast, cashew, ripe stone fruit, citrus oil, and a sense of liquid minerality. On the label, the alcohol is listed as 15.6%, but there is no trace of heat – just a warm, happy feeling after every sip.
Marche Bacchus Price: $115 (April 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 94

1996 Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon, Martha’s Vineyard, Napa Valley
This was my friend’s contribution to the evening’s festivities. After replanting in the early 1990s, the 1996 Heitz Martha’s was the first release in five years. If you expected this to be youngish, light, and less complex due to the replanting, think again. This is classic Heitz Martha’s, in full maturity. A deep opaque ruby color in the glass. A mélange of aromas waft from the glass, including cedar, mushrooms, eucalyptus/mint, and ample lush black currant and berry fruit. I remember tasting this on release and wondering if it would blossom with time. Wonder no more.
Current Market Price: $135 (April 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 93

1998 d’Arenberg Shiraz ‘The Dead Arm,’ McLaren Vale
This was my contribution for the evening. From one of the most venerable estates in Australia, this is their top-of-the-line Shiraz bottling. In the glass, it was an opaque black/ruby color. Tremendous scents of mushrooms, cedar, currant, and dark chocolate seduce the nose. On first sip, it expands on the palate, showing both power and finesse. Want to fool your French snob wino friends? Throw this ringer into the mix and see which First Growth they think it is!
Wine Auction Price: $63 (February 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 95

The side-by-side of the two older reds was educational, as they could have been twins. A reminder that, in fine older reds, the secondary and tertiary aromas and flavors all funnel down to a similar profile.

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Presidential Candidates to Roll Out Wines

Mario Andretti, Mick Fleetwood and Joe Montana are just as few of the celebrities who have attached their names either to wineries or wine labels. Now, two of the presumed frontrunners in the 2016 United States Presidential election, Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton, are following suit with their own labels, featuring specific bottlings aimed at attracting the votes of specific demographic groups.

Later today, Bush will attend a media conference at which Jeb’s Jugs will be introduced. The wines will be offered in 1,500-ml. bottles (often referred to as jugs) and will be priced so as to be affordable to low-income households — always a challenging demographic for Republican candidates.

“If we can get lower-income voters drinking more, perhaps we’ll be able to convince them to vote Republican in 2016,” said a spokesperson for the Bush campaign.

Wines in the Jeb’s Jugs line will be made from grapes grown in vineyards owned by large corporations and harvested mechanically. Keeping the target audience in mind, the wines will have fun names that salute family members, including Wouldn’t Be Prudent Primitivo, Mission Accomplished Alicante, and Don’t Mess With Momma Merlot.

Although no official announcement on the Hillary Clinton wine project has been made, Clinton herself has been dropping hints during recent speaking engagements.

“Isn’t it about time we had a wine made by a woman President?” she proffered on Sunday.

An appearance on Monday included this observation: “I sure do miss the good wine we used to have during my husband’s administration.”

While Clinton’s public proclamations thus far have only hinted at an impending wine project, documents obtained by journalists are far more specific.

One suggests that all of the wines must be made from grapes grown in vineyards that are sustainably farmed and “with complete respect for the environment.” Vineyards that receive government subsidies also would be preferred.

Another document outlines possible wine types and their target audiences, accompanied by rough sketches for possible labels. Among the wines being considered:

  • Fat Cat Cabernet Sauvignon. Target demographic: rich Republicans who make wine-buying decisions based more on price than quality. Theory: Purchasers may have discretionary income to contribute to the campaign, thus ensuring that they have backed the eventual winner, no matter who it turns out to be.
  • Blue Dress Dolcetto. Target demographic: scorned women. An addendum to the wine and label description suggests that full-case purchases could be promoted by offering a free bottle of stain remover.

Official announcements on their new wine ventures are expected from the Bush and Clinton campaigns soon.

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The 2012 Cabs from Murphy-Goode: It’s All Goode — and Ready!

By Bob Johnson

When there’s someone with the last name of Goode involved in a winery, or any business, for that matter, all kinds of marketing opportunities present themselves.

In the case Sonoma County’s Murphy-Goode Winery — established in 1985 by Tim Murphy, Dale Goode and Dave Ready — “The Goode Life” was adopted as a slogan, and the wine club was dubbed Goode & Ready. Murphy and Goode were the farmers, and Ready was the marketing guy who helped developed the winery’s fun-focused personality.

Now, three decades later, Goode is gone (he passed away in 2013 at age 79), Dave Ready Jr. is the winemaker, and Murphy-Goode is under the broad umbrella of the Jackson Family Wines Collection.

Ready learned a lot about wine from his father, and after working a crush at Murphy-Goode, his destiny was sealed. A winemaker’s palate is not something that should be wasted, and Ready had it. In 1997, he became Murphy-Goode’s assistant winemaker, and four years later, the “assistant” part of the title was eliminated.

Ready has said, “You need to let the wine show what it has in its soul.” That philosophy is apparent in Murphy-Goode’s collection of four 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon releases, three from the winery’s home base in Sonoma’s Alexander Valley, and one from Knight’s Valley, an appellation that straddles northern Sonoma and Napa counties.

The “Alexander Valley” wine was made from grapes grown in two blocks of the Terra A Lago Vineyard, which is owned by Ready’s long-time friend, Val Peline. The “Terra A Lago” bottling features wines from Ready’s favorite block of that vineyard. The Knights Valley Cab has been dubbed “Poker Knight,” and is quite distinct from the Alexander Valley Cabs. And the “Single Deck” Cabernet comes from a single block of the Alden-Ellis mountain vineyard.

Alexander Valley has an ideal environment for growing Bordeaux varietals such as Cabernet, and while Murphy-Goode has a large portfolio of wines at various price points, it is the Cabs that truly shine.

For the 2012 vintage, the “Alexander Valley” Cab is soft and approachable and ready to enjoy now. The “Terra A Lago” figures to be in its prime in four to six years. The “Poker Knight” combines the more powerful nature of Napa Valley Cabs with the more immediate accessibility of the Sonoma side. Finally, the “Single Deck” Cab is tightly wound and built to age. You can read our reviews of these wines here.

When it comes to Murphy-Goode’s Cabs from 2012, we would suggest this marketing slogan: “It’s All Goode.”

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Warming the Lovers’ Glass Like Friendly Wine

By Bob Johnson

Being a California native, I love songs about my home state. And, as you know, I also love songs about wine.

Of course, my definitions of “California songs” and “wine songs” are quite broad. The songs don’t have to actually be about California or wine; they just need to mention them in some way.

Near the turn of the millennium, Nora Guthrie, the daughter of legendary folk singer/songwriter Woody Guthrie, was sharing some of her dad’s uncovered and never recorded songs and lyrics with Billy Bragg and Wilco. That resulted in an album called “Mermaid Avenue,” which included a real gem: “California Stars.”

Looking back, at the time, I did not recognize it for what it was: that most rare combination of a California song and a wine song. It’s quite likely I didn’t even listen to the lyrics. I just liked the music and the easy, toe-tapping beat.

Bob Seger performs "California Stars" at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., on Feb. 27, 2015 — as viewed on one of the big screens from the cheap seats.

Bob Seger performs “California Stars” at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., on Feb. 27, 2015 — as viewed on one of the big screens from the cheap seats.

It was only a couple years ago, when I saw Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band in concert, that I started putting 2 and 2 together and actually getting 4. For an acoustic interlude during his otherwise straight-ahead-rock-and-roll concert, Seger sang “California Stars.” He introduced it as “an old Woody Guthrie song,” which didn’t strike a chord with me, but once I heard the first few notes, I knew exactly what song he was starting to play… and I’m pretty sure a big smile must have crossed my face.

Here was one of my favorite singers ever singing one of my favorite songs ever.

For the first time, I actually listened to the lyrics:

I’d like to dream my troubles all away

On a bed of California stars

Jump up from my starbed and make another day

Underneath my California stars

They hang like grapes on vines that shine

And warm the lovers’ glass like friendly wine

So, I’d give this world just to dream a dream with you

On our bed of California stars

And only then did I realize that this was a wine song in addition to a California song.

Hey, I never claimed to be the smartest bulb in the light standard… or the brightest star in the California night sky.

– – – – – – – – – –

Check out the first version of “California Stars” that caught most of our ears — by Billy Bragg and Wilco — here.

Then see what you think of Bob Seger’s rendition, performed live, here.

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1 Address, 3 Tasting Rooms: A Santa Barbara Wine Tour on Foot

The Au Bon Climat tasting room is the downtown Santa Barbara home of Jim Clendenen's cellar handiwork.

The Au Bon Climat tasting room is the downtown Santa Barbara home of Jim Clendenen’s cellar handiwork.

By Bob Johnson

State Street is “that great street” not just in Chicago, as Frank Sinatra sang, but also in Santa Barbara, where countless boutiques, restaurants, coffee houses and inns line both sides of the north-south thoroughfare.

One block to the east, paralleling State Street, there’s a fun destination for wine lovers in the 800 block of Anacapa Street in the Presidio neighborhood, next door to the long-established Wine Cask restaurant.

Margerum is located adjacent to the Wine Cask restaurant.

Margerum is located adjacent to the Wine Cask restaurant.

If you look across Anacapa Street at the Wine Cask, then look to the left, you’ll see individual tasting rooms for three Santa Barbara County wineries: Au Bon Climat, Margerum and Grassini.

With time to visit only one on this particular day, we opted for Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen Wine Library. “ABC” was one of the first Santa Barbara County wineries that really got it right back in the 1980s, but it had been a few vintages since I’d last tasted Clendenen’s handiwork. I’m happy to report that the wines I tasted under the Au Bon Climat and Clendenen Family Vintners labels were flawless and flavorful, each filling a niche both in the winery’s product line and on one’s dinner table.

Under the Clendenen Family Vintners label, the 2012 Sauvignon Blanc ($18) was clean and crisp, an ideal foil for shellfish, while the 2012 Chardonnay known as “The Rip” (named for Clendenen’s dog; $25) was easy drinking and seemingly crying out for some Original Recipe KFC.

The Au Bon Climat wines were bigger, richer and much more complex. The 2011 “Pioneering” Chardonnay ($35), made entirely from Bien Nacido Vineyard fruit, was honeyed and toasty, with butter-kissed apple fruit in the finish. The 2010 “La Bauge” Pinot Noir ($30) is another in a long line of ABC Pinots from Bien Nacido that have helped cement the idea that “California Burgundy” not only is possible, but delicious. And the 2009 Los Alamos Vineyard Pinot Noir ($35) showed off plenty of ripe fruit, earth and spice, with soft tannins that provide for immediate enjoyment — no cellaring necessary. The Chardonnay would match nicely with chicken Alfredo, while the Pinots would pair well with roast beef or grilled salmon.

For "dessert," stroll over to the Grassini tasting room for wine-and-chocolate pairings.

For “dessert,” stroll over to the Grassini tasting room for wine-and-chocolate pairings.

Were I planning a Santa Barbara weekend around these three tasting rooms, this would be my plan:

  1. Book a room at the Canary Hotel, just a few blocks away and an easy stroll to/from the tasting rooms.
  2. Begin your tasting adventure at Au Bon Climat, where you can opt for a mixed flight (which we tried) for $10 or a flight of Reserve-level Pinots Noir for $15.
  3. Walk next door to Margeum Wine Company, which focuses on Rhone varietals — much different from the wines at ABC, and thus a very different tasting experience.
  4. Head over to State Street and have a light lunch at one of the countless restaurants.
  5. Stroll back to Anacapa Street and conclude your sampling at the tasting room of Grassini Family Vineyards, which specializes in varieties that can be traced to yet another appellation of France: Bordeaux. Finish there not just because the wines are “big,” but also because wine-and-chocolate pairings are offered daily. This is your dessert stop.

After that, you’re on your own. I’d probably opt for a nap, or you could walk off that Jessica Foster Confections chocolate with a long stroll on State Street — a great street that’s only a block away from a fun street for wine lovers.

– – – – –

The tastings rooms of Au Bon Climat, Margerum and Grassini have their own “suite numbers” at 813 Anacapa St. in Santa Barbara.

For hours of operation and other information, call Au Bon Climat at 805-963-7999, Margerum at 805-845-8435, and Grassini at 805-897-3366.

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Star-Crossed Paths: Mike Trujillo and Sequoia Grove Winery… Plus Words of Wisdom from Andre Tchelistcheff

Michael Trujillo, President and director of Winemaking at Sequoia Grove winery

Michael Trujillo, President and director of Winemaking at Sequoia Grove winery

By Glen Frederiksen

Our journey through the world of wine, from our first eye-opening sip and epiphany over three decades ago, has taken us to many wine regions and down many a dusty wine trail.

When we began this wine blog more than three years ago, it was partly to tie together much of what we have experienced and written about over that long, winding road. Naturally (and hopefully!), there are many more experiences to be had, and this is the bulk of what we are now chronicling.

But there are many switchbacks while on the wine roads, as we follow our passion. Paths will be crossed more than once, and we have the opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with old friends.

So it was when we recently had the opportunity to meet up with Michael Trujillo, President and Director of Winemaking at Sequoia Grove Winery in Napa, Calif.

Michael Trujillo, explaining a fine point about the Cambium

Michael Trujillo, explaining a fine point about the Cambium

Trujillo has become one of the winemaking giants in the Napa Valley over the past two decades. Arriving in the valley while on spring break from college, he fell in love with the verdant valley and laid-back lifestyle. He left his Colorado birthplace and returned to Napa shortly thereafter, and made it his new home.

His first job was at a large vineyard in the south end of Napa Valley that would become Domaine Carneros. There, he had the opportunity to meet and work with such titans of the wine industry as Tony Soter, Mike Grgich and others.

He then took a job at Sequoia Grove winery, located on Highway 29 in the heart of the Napa Valley. There, owner Jim Allen and his brother Steve Allen exposed Trujillo to all facets of wine production, from the vineyard to the bottling line.

The consulting winemaker at Sequoia Grove at the time was Andre Tchelistcheff, perhaps the most iconic vintner America has known. Under the tutelage of his new winemaking friends, Trujillo began taking extension courses at U.C. Davis in the Enology department.

Using the Sequoia Grove wine facilities, he started his own label, Karl Lawrence wines. He also consulted with other wineries, most notably Herb Lamb Vineyards. By 1998, Trujillo had been appointed Assistant Winemaker at Sequoia Grove and, in 2001, with the retirement of founder Jim Allen and the sale of the winery to the Kopf family, Trujillo assumed the reins of winery president. Today, the Sequoia Grove winery is making wines that rival those of many of the better-known estates in the valley.

We at Wine Lines first crossed paths with Sequoia Grove in the late 1980s. On one of our early visits to Napa Valley, as we were driving north on Highway 29, we stopped in at the rustic tasting room surrounded by three towering sequoia trees (thus the name of the winery).

We were impressed by the quality of the Chardonnay and especially the Cabernet Sauvignon — so much so, that we purchased our first full case of wine there.

The wines we fell in love with were the 1985 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and the Estate Reserve Cabernet. These were our epiphany Napa Valley Cabs. Over the next decade, we continued to stop in on our frequent trips to the Napa Valley, and also sought out the wines at local wine shops.

By the turn of the millennium, our wine muse had led us to open a wine shop, the High Desert Wine Emporium in Victorville, Calif. We looked for wines not found in the local supermarkets — wines that were sought after by wine geeks (which we were). Among the labels we stocked were Karl Lawrence and Herb Lamb Vineyards, both crafted with Michael Trujillo at the winemaking helm.

Yet over all those years, we had never chanced to meet up with Trujillo. So, during Trujillo’s recent visit to Las Vegas, we were enthused to finally shake his hand and put a face to the winemaker behind the wines we had been enjoying for years.

The Sequoia Grove line-up of wines

The Sequoia Grove line-up of wines

Wine tasting notes…

2013 Sequoia Grove Chardonnay, Napa Valley
Ah! Our noses and palates took a trip down memory lane with each sniff and sip of this wine. It is delightfully perfumed and aromatic, mixing together sweet, almost honeyed, impressions of tropical fruit and pear with notes of butter, brioche, and vanilla. Showing a nice balance in the mouth, these flavors carry through to the finish and persist. Think of this as a fine Burgundy, but with the plumpness of California fruit. A perfect foil for snow crab legs dipped in butter.
MSRP: $28 (February 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 92

2011 Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
In the glass, it shows an opaque, deep crimson color. The nose is already integrating the fruit and wood components, with a nice interplay between the polished leather, mocha, clove and cedar from the oak and the boisterous red cassis and raspberry fruit. The fruit carries through on the palate, showing all soft and velvety, before fine-grained tannins poke through near the finish. This wine is a delight to drink now, and should provide pleasure over the next eight to 10 years.
MSRP: $38 (February 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 91

2010 Sequoia Grove ‘Cambium’ Red Table Wine, Napa Valley
Cambium is an interesting word to name this wine. It refers to the actively growing layer of a plant or tree between the inner wood and the outer bark. Essentially, these are stem cells in plants — cells from which all other, more differentiated cells will arise. In other words, the building blocks of a grapevine. This is a proprietary blend of the best building blocks — er, barrels — of Bordeaux red varietals produced in a vintage at Sequoia Grove. The 2010 vintage’s opaque deep crimson hue lightly stains the glass. Its uplifted, floral nose (from a large dollop of Cabernet Franc) shows dark flowers, mocha, graphite, and minerality, all cloaking the tightly wound black and blue fruit. This is a wine that would benefit from mid-term cellar aging, allowing the fruit to bubble to the surface. Patience will be rewarded in a decade or so.
MSRP: $140 (February 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 94

If you want more information about Sequoia Grove winery, tasting room hours, tour information, ordering information, or wish to email them, here is the contact information:

Sequoia Grove Winery
8338 St. Helena Highway
Napa, CA   94558
(707) 944-2945

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By Bob Johnson

Mike Trujillo makes no secret about the influence Andre Tchelistcheff had on his winemaking style — a style that Tchelistcheff taught almost by osmosis.

“He taught me how important it is to really get in touch with the vineyard — the grapevines, the grapes and the land,” Trujillo says. “[The concept of] terroir pretty much gets thrown out the window today; everybody thinks that oak is terroir.

“The interesting thing is that when a problem or a challenge came up, he never told you what to do. He didn’t teach science; he taught art — winemaking from the gut. Many times, he’d just leave me [in the vineyard or cellar] to figure things out.”

At times, that could be scary. In 1989, a notoriously challenging year weather-wise in Napa Valley, it was a skill that proved to be the difference between making dreadful wine and exceptional wine. (There wasn’t much in-between that vintage.)

“You just had to be in the vineyard every day,” Trujillo explains. “We’d taste the grapes, sometimes twice a day, and you could just taste the dankness coming on. We caught it early, and got our grapes harvested in time while most other wineries waited it out and ended up with fruit that wasn’t great.”

Trujillo drew on that experience in dealing with the problematic 2011 vintage.

“The veteran winemakers fared okay,” he says. “They knew what to do, both in the vineyard and in the cellar. With a vintage like that, you just have to let up on the gas a little bit, and you can end up with a pretty, sexy wine.”

Part of the process involves invoking techniques and practices that result in wines that have what Tchelistcheff called “a perfect flow. And when it has that flow, whether it’s a red or a white, it has the potential for aging.”

Adds Trujillo: “I wouldn’t be bashful to say that our 2011 Cambium could go a good 10 years in the bottle, and still be drinking nicely.”

The Tchelistcheff influence can also be seen — and tasted — in Sequoia Grove’s Chardonnay which, unlike most other California Chardonnays, does not undergo malolactic fermentation.

“Andre never wanted us to do M.L. and we never did,” Trujillo says. “To bring up the creaminess and the nuttiness [associated with the M.L. process], it’s actually the grape clones, oak and lees working in combination with one another.”

Trujillo says that he thinks about his old friend and mentor every day, but especially when he’s facing a challenge in the vineyard or cellar.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said to myself, ‘What would Andre do?’”

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