By Glen Frederiksen
Those of us in the world of wine know that many factors can influence the taste and appreciation of a fine Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon. Are the grapes picked early or late? Is there residual sugar left in the finished wine? Did the wine undergo a secondary fermentation? Was it barrel aged? Is the wine flawed?
These, and many other factors, are addressed in the vineyard and in the process of vinifying grapes into wine by the winemaker.
Once it arrives in the marketplace, additional factors can affect the way a wine smells and tastes. Food pairings bring out and/or emphasize different aromas and flavors in wine. The glassware used to serve that wine can alter our perception of it.
Lastly, the temperature a wine is served at can make a big difference. Too cold, and wines close down the fruit components and over-emphasize wood treatments and natural acidity. Too warm, and a wine can become “blowsy,” with the alcohol in the wine becoming too prominent.
So, what is the right temperature? Restaurants would have you believe that all whites and sparkling wine bottles should be doused in a bucket of ice water, while all reds should be served at room temperature.
It really isn’t that easy. Buttery, oaked Chardonnays need more warmth than Champagne or steel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc. Rosés could use a bit of a chill. And full-bodied reds tend to be best at a cool room temperature of around 60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit – try finding that in a restaurant in America.
So, what is the answer? Wakefield Estate winery of Clare Valley in Australia has devised a full-proof way of knowing when a wine is at its peak temperature for serving. Besides prominently displaying a tag listing the correct temperature on each bottle (many wineries do this), they have gone the extra mile and included a temperature-sensitive strip that shows when a bottle of wine has reached its optimal temperature for serving. It is on the back of every bottle they now produce, and is a handy way of knowing when to pop the cork (or unscrew the cap) and pour a glass.
Wakefield Estate wines are available in the wine marketplace world-wide. To see our reviews of the latest bottlings, click the link here.
Bet you didn’t know that today (Thursday, May 21) is National Chardonnay Day.
We here at Wine Lines can think of no better way of commemorating the occasion than by sharing reviews of three recent releases by a true pioneer in California Chardonnay: Wente Vineyards.
Until 1936, you might never have known what grapes were used to make a bottle of white wine in California. Terms like “California Chablis” were common on labels. But that year, the Wente family became the first to print “Chardonnay” on a label, helping to bring much-deserved recognition to the variety.
Today, Wente makes Chardonnay in a number of styles, and we have reviews of three recent releases here:
You may also not be aware that you taste a little bit of Wente in literaly dozens — perhaps hundreds — of bottlings bearing other winery names. That’s because the Wente clone of Chardonnay is widely planted all over California. In fact, it is the most widely planted Chardonnay clone in the Golden State.
Here’s to National Chardonnay Day… and to the Wente family, known far and wide as “California’s First Family of Chardonnay.”
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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)
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Goldeneye is located at 9200 Highway 128 in Philo, Calif. Call 707-895-3202 for hours of operation.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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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 www.ranchocapistranowinery.com.
By Bob Johnson
Bella Vineyards is known for Zinfandel, as my recent blog on the Dry Creek Valley estate demonstrated. Proprietors Scott and Lynn Adams have worked hard to develop the brand and the reputation.
But they do not live on the Bella estate. Their home is in the Russian River Valley — specifically, on a 10-acre vineyard that grows that region’s two top varieties: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Their homegrown fruit has always been of exceptional quality, but in order to protect the Bella brand, they always sold it to neighboring wineries.
In 2008, the Adamses decided to take the next step with their Russian River Valley grapes: They developed a new, small winery utilizing that fruit, supplemented by grapes from the Sonoma Coast region. Their “ten acre project” evolved into Ten Acre Wines. And to provide one additional line of separation from Bella, they hired a separate winemaker for Ten Acre: Michael Zardo.
With Zardo and Scott Adams, I had the opportunity to sample five Ten Acre wines — one Chardonnay and five Pinots.
When Zardo was asked about sourcing Chardonnay for the new label, he said his first choice would be the Richie Vineyard, located along Eastside Road in the Russian River Valley. It took two years to procure an allotment, but it was worth the wait as the 2012 vintage perfectly balances fruit, tannin and acid. The initial oaky impression gradually gives way to an apple aroma and then to a lemon curd note.
The 2010 Cummings Vineyard Pinot Noir is made from grapes grown just outside the city of Santa Rosa. For the vintage, the wine is surprisingly intense, and would match nicely with a thick slice of prime rib.
Ten Acre’s Russian River Valley Pinot Noir seeks to present a consistent style from vintage to vintage, tapping a small all-star team of vineyards as well as coopers. The 2012 vintage is a benchmark Pinot Noir, with an enticing aroma, silky mouthfeel and smooth finish.
Zardo is particularly enthusiastic about the 2012 Ramona Pinot Noir, made from grapes grown just outside Forestville. “What I really like about it is how well it expresses its site,” Zardo says. “Sites can be hidden by the winemaker’s hand, but I don’t like to do that.” As a result, the luscious fruit seems to jump out of the glass, accented by engaging spiciness.
Perhaps the most Burgundian of the Ten Acre Pinots comes from the Jenkins Vineyard, located outside of Sebastopol. An initial sense of earthiness in the nose quickly dissipates with swirling, revealing a Rainier cherry aroma. In a word, this wine is elegant.
While Ten Acre is a second label for Scott and Lynn Adams, it absolutely is not a “second label” in the traditional sense of that term (meaning something “less” than the original label, offered at a lower price point). It is separate and distinct from Bella, and doing a nice job of carving out a niche in the Russian River Valley region.
Perhaps Scott and Lynn Adams took a cue from Dorothy in the “Wizard of Oz,” who so wisely observed, “There’s no place like home.”
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Ten Acre wines are available at the Bella Vineyards tasting room at 9711 West Dry Creek Road in Healdsburg, Calif. For hours or directions, call 707-473-9171.
By Bob Johnson
Mention the word “fun” when discussing wine, and many people would envision a glass of blush or perhaps a rosé… typically with a hint (or a lot) of sweetness.
So when Joe Healy, the winemaker for Bella Vineyards in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley, told me that he considered Zinfandel a “fun wine,” I wanted to hear more. After all, the verbiage most often associated with Zinfandel trends toward big… bold… racy… complex — positive descriptors, to be sure, but not exactly words that evoke fun.
Well, it turns out Healy takes a somewhat different approach to Zinfandel than many other winemakers.
“I like balance and finesse,” he says. “I don’t want an alcoholic fruit bomb,” the style commonly associated with California Zin.
He also takes it easy with his oak barrel program.
“We use no more than 20 percent new oak,” he says. “The oak is in the background so the wine is about the specific fruit flavors. That is what’s so fun about Zinfandel.”
After tasting through five Bella Zins — two from 2010, one from 2011 and two from 2012 — I began to understand what Healy meant, and to embrace the “fun” concept. Many of the “typical” adjectives associated with Zinfandel found their way onto my notepad, but each wine was nicely balanced and not at all “hot” (a sign of a too-high alcohol level).
The 2010 “Hills & Benches” bottling, a blend of Lily Hill and Florence Vineyard fruit, was big, spicy, jammy and… balanced.
The 2010 “Barrel 32” Zin was perhaps the most “easy drinking” of the five, which makes sense given how it’s assembled. It’s a Sonoma County cuvee that embraces numerous vineyards. “We go through every barrel in the cellar, looking for a few that speak to us,” Healy says, “Then we’ll experiment with the blend until we have that ah-ha moment.” The wine gets its name from its first vintage in the mid-2000s when, as proprietor Scott
Adams puts it, “the 32nd barrel was the wow barrel.”
2011 was a challenging vintage for much of California’s North Coast region, but Bella got its fruit in before the storms hit and was able to make a nice wine for its flagship Lily Hill bottling. That’s the Bella Zin most familiar to consumers, as its inaugural vintage was 1999. (Yes, you could say that Bella has been making Lily Hill Zin for two millennia.)
Aromas of violets and sweet peas jumped from my glass of 2012 Florence Vineyard Zin, which shows a lot of red fruit flavor on the palate. The vineyard is sited just down the road from the winery, and farmed by a friendly neighbor.
Like many wineries, Bella also sources fruit from the acclaimed Maple Vineyard — specifically, a one-acre grouping of vines known as Annie’s Block. The vines were planted more than half a century ago and are head-trained and dry-farmed.
Bella also makes other single-vineyard Zins, as well as a late-harvest Zin.
“We’re not trying to be over-achievers,” insists Adams. “There are wineries that make more Zins than we do. But we try to make each wine distinctive, and we let our customers decide which ones they like best.
“People who love Zin love Zin, and they love it for different reasons.”
And that, Joe Healy will tell you, adds to the fun.
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Bella Vineyards is located at 9711 West Dry Creek Road in Healdsburg, Calif. For $55, it offers “The Ultimate Tour,” which includes visits to the estate’s vineyard and wine caves, barrel samples, a Pinzgauer ride, tasting of limited-release wines and more. To make a reservation, call 866-572-3552.
We’ve been telling you about the fine wines of Patz & Hall for years. In fact, P&H’s Hyde Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Carneros region of California’s North Coast was Wine Lines’ No. 1-rated wine two years running.
There was only one “problem”: While Patz & Hall’s roots run deep in Sonoma County — home to several of the vineyards that supply the raw materials for its wines — its “Tasting Salon” was located in Napa — in a corporate park, no less. It was a bit of a disconnect — even though the wines were stellar.
Now, that disconnect has been… well… disconnected. A few miles south of the historic Sonoma Plaza, Patz & Hall has opened Sonoma House, featuring a drop-in tasting bar as well as a luxurious, by-appointment-only Tasting Salon. And when the weather is nice — which is most of the year — guests can lounge on a patio and soak in views of the estate vineyard and nearby mountains.
“When we started out over 25 years ago, we used to entertain everyone out of our homes,” recalls founding partner Donald Patz. “We spent a lot of time making friends and building lasting relationships. This is an extension of that original approach, but in a great new home.”
As Sonoma House was under construction, the Patz & Hall team chronicled the progress in a blog, which you can read here.
To learn more about Patz & Hall wines, the new Sonoma House, and the various tasting opportunities, click here.
And to read our archived reviews of Patz & Hall wines, click here.
By Bob Johnson
I have taught journalism classes, English classes and bowling classes at various intervals of my life. But the only time I’ve ever encountered an entire roomful of blank stares is when I taught a beginning wine class.
In preparing my presentation, I tried to keep things as basic as I could. I wanted to make sure that my students were not even a little bit intimidated by the subject, since a walk down a supermarket’s wine aisle can be daunting, to say the least.
But I quickly found that even the most “obvious” (to me, anyway) of terms could be like a foreign language to wine newcomers. A perfect example is “dry.” I can’t tell you how many times wine class students have asked, “How can a liquid be dry?”
Then there are the fruit aromas and flavors that wines exhibit. To many people, that concept is a head scratcher because, after all, shouldn’t something made out of grapes smell and taste like… grapes? Yet a “grapy” impression actually is considered a negative in most wines.
As a full-time writer and part-time educator, it has always bothered me that my words alone were not getting through to my students.
What to do? The answer became obvious when my S.O. saw an ad for a whiskey bar in Pasadena, Calif., home of the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl football game. We decided to pay a visit to The Blind Donkey with the idea that I could place myself in the role of a newcomer to a particular product — in this case, whiskey.
I wanted to know what it felt like to try to learn about an adult beverage that I knew nothing about. Perhaps experiencing that feeling would help me become a better wine educator.
It didn’t take long for “that feeing” to engulf me. I quickly realized that I knew… and understood… less about whiskey than any of my wine students knew about wine. But thanks to Blind Donkey staffer Travis Mills, I learned a lot — perhaps just enough to be “dangerous” when talking about whiskey — but I also knew that our 90-minute session at the bar had barely scratched the surface of whiskey knowledge.
Mills took us through three flights of three whiskeys each, the first consisting of a single-barrel bourbon, a wheat whiskey and a rye whiskey.
“A lot of people equate a good whiskey with a sweet, smooth experience,” Mills said. “Depending on the type of whiskey and where it’s made, you can get a lot of woody sweetness and cinnamon or, at the other end of the spectrum, a smokier flavor. It’s all about what it’s made with and how it’s made. There are lots of variables.”
Indeed, The Blind Donkey stocks more than 300 selections from around the world, and divides its whiskey menu into three sections: The Americas, The Irish and the Scottish. For the adventurous, or for a newcomer to whiskey, there also are three flights, each consisting of sample-size pours of three different selections.
Even with Mills talking about what made each selection unique, I found it challenging to identify the specific characteristics he mentioned. The only real commonality I experienced was a burning sensation in the back of my throat from the high alcohol level of the beverages.
That was the moment I understood how daunting “wine appreciation” could be for those with little wine-drinking experience. I did not doubt what Mills was telling us about the nuances of each pour; my palate simply could not connect with his words.
That said, there are similarities between how wine and whiskey are perceived and consumed.
“There’s definitely terroir when you talk about whiskey,” Mills said. “And the terroir contributes to what we experience in the mouth — everything from yeasty to smoky to briny to medicinal. I suppose it’s the same with wine: The only way to learn about whiskey and the differences between the various types and brands is to do a lot of tasting.”
Whiskey also lends itself to food pairing, although the possibilities may be somewhat more limited than with wine. Among the whiskey-friendly food Mills suggests are dark chocolate, desserts with nuts or spices (such as pecan pie) and a New York strip steak with a nice char.
“Because we’re a whiskey bar, we get a lot of customers who come in and know exactly what they want,” Mills says. “We also get a lot of people who don’t know what they like, and we’re happy to help them go through the menu or go through one of our flights.”
And there is an order to the education, just as there is with wine (which goes something like White Zinfandel to Moscato to dry white wines to rosés to fruit-forward red wines to dry red wines).
“I usually start people with Bourbon,” Mills says. “But if they’re still a little faint of heart, I’ll recommend a cocktail.”
And the cocktail list at The Blind Donkey is creative, blending various whiskies with other ingredients to create enjoyable, sippable concoctions that beginners like us could enjoy. There’s even one — the California Sour — that blends Bernheim Original and lemon with an ingredient I actually know something about: Pinot Noir.
Mills knows his stuff, as do the other staffers at The Blind Donkey, and that contributes to an atmosphere that is invigorating for whiskey veterans yet non-threatening for whiskey newcomers.
That, perhaps, was the greatest lesson I learned during our visit. When attempting to educate anyone about anything… be it journalism, English, bowling, wine or whiskey… it’s critical that the student or the customer, first and foremost, feel at ease. After that, the words may or may not be understood, but at least the door would be open for learning.
And when it comes to learning — be it about wine or whiskey — nothing beats tasting.
Practice… Practice… Practice.
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The Blind Donkey
53 E. Union St.
Pasadena, CA 91103
Mills says a new Blind Donkey location is being planned for Long Beach, Calif.