Purple Prose

Nectar of the Gods: Chateau St. Jean Dessert Wines

By Glen Frederiksen

There was a time, around two decades ago, when the majority of Late Harvest dessert wines made in California simply didn’t stack up well alongside the dessert wines of the rest of the world. Labor intensive, difficult to make — world-class dessert wines like Sauternes from France and Eiswines and Trochenbeerenauslese wines from Germany commanded hefty price tags but were worth it due to their exquisite honeyed fruit flavors, balance, concentration, and ageworthiness. In a good vintage, German dessert wines can age gracefully for thirty years or more. Sauternes from France can be cellared a half century – some Chateau d’Yquem vintages don’t reach maturity until 25 years of age.

California winemakers have been trying for years to replicate the great dessert wines from around the world. One problem is that the warmer, drier climates in California’s wine regions are not conducive to the development of Botrytis cinera, a fungus that dehydrates late-hanging grapes and thus concentrates the fruit sugars. Known as the noble rot, Botrytised grapes produce a few drops of incredibly concentrated, honeyed juice that can be fermented into an exquisite elixir comparable to the nectar of the gods. In the late 1970s, Beringer winemaker Myron Nightingale pioneered a technique to inoculate late harvested grapes with Botrytis, ensuring yearly bottlings of dessert wines and thus began the second California gold rush – this one in the vineyards.

Even with Botrytis-innoculated grapes, making a sublime dessert wine isn’t easy. Keeping acids in balance with the honeyed wine is important; otherwise, it becomes thick and cloying, fatiguing the palate instead of stimulating it. Wine spoilage yeasts can lead to the formation of ethyl acetates, giving it the odor of acetone or nail polish remover. This was a common occurrence in the early attempts at late harvest wines in California.

Winemaking technique in California has improved greatly in the last twenty years. The dessert wines now being released seem on a par with the rest of the world. For me, one question still remained – do the domestic dessert wines have the structure and balance for long-term aging and enjoyment?

To test out this hypothesis, the Wine Lines Online staff tasted two older late harvest Rieslings from Chateau St. Jean winery. There, they have been producing late harvest wines for over thirty vintages.

What a difference a few decades make! The heavy-handedness and flaws common to the early California dessert wines were nowhere to be seen (and smelled and tasted). Instead, a delightful, concentrated, perfumed glass of liquid amber delighted our senses. These are sublime, world-class wines that more than hold their own with the other, more famous players from around the globe.

Nectar of the gods, indeed!

Below, you can follow the links to the two wines tasted, and also can peruse the Wine Lines Online vault for other dessert wines.

2006 Chateau St. Jean ‘Special Select Late Harvest’ Riesling, Belle Terre Vineyard, Alexander Valley

1999 Chateau St. Jean ‘Special Select Late Harvest’ Riesling, Belle Terre Vineyard, Alexander Valley

The Dessert Wines vault

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Malbec: The People’s Choice

By Glen Frederiksen

One of the more interesting things about wine grapes is that each varietal has a specific microclimate that elevates it to its finest presentation. In Old World wine regions, grape growers had a few thousand years to figure out which grapes grew best, and where. Italy found an affinity for Sangiovese. Spain succeeded with Tempranillo. Germany found its sweet spot with Riesling.

France narrowed things down even better. Bordeaux was found to produce wonderful Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc – and even better Cabernet Sauvignon, the offspring of the first two grapes. The Rhone Valley became home to Syrah and Grenache. Burgundy blossomed with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. And the Loire Valley championed Chenin Blanc.

Wine production in the New World began as a hodge-podge of plantings. The new settlers brought with them whatever they were familiar with in the Old World regions they had just left. Many proved to be a bad fit in their new homes, as the microclimates were quite different. It is only in the last half century or so that attention has been paid as to which grapes would reach their peak in the many wine regions of the New World.

California found success with Cabernet Sauvignon, and an obscure grape called Zinfandel by the locals. In Australia, the Syrah grape of the Rhone Valley became Shiraz. In New Zealand, Sauvignon Blanc shined. Chile excelled with Bordeaux varietals, including a long-thought-lost grape called Carmenere.

And in Argentina, a bland Bordeaux blending grape, Malbec, has recently become the people’s choice.

Originally brought to Argentina in the mid-1800s, the grape languished for a century, until a push for higher quality wines a quarter century ago renewed interest in it. With the advent of modern growing practices, new clones, and hygienic wine-making techniques introduced from France and California, Argentinean Malbec became clean, pleasant reds that made the world take notice.

Recently here in the United States, the savvy wine drinkers have joined the frugal tipplers in the push for Malbec. Like the many animal-festooned Australian bottlings of Shiraz that invaded our shores beginning in the mid-1990s, the Malbecs of Argentina deliver a quality quaff at a pittance of a price. A quick gander at any of the Big Box wine shops will show that 80% or more of the Malbecs sell for under $10.

It is easy to see why the grape varietal has become the Millennial Wine Lovers’ go-to red for everyday drinking.

Reviews of Malbec wines, most from Argentina, can be found by clicking HERE.

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A Toast to Choices… of the Bubbly Variety

Champagne… Cava… Prosecco… sparkling wine by any name. This week, more bubbly will be sold than in any other single week all year, as folks prepare to welcome in the new year.

It’s a good time to remind ourselves that not all sparkling wines are created equal. And because they’re made in an array of styles, it’s helpful to know which types work well which various types of food.

The sweeter sparklers make great companions to fruit-based desserts, or can be used as desserts in place of food.

Dry sparklers are ideal for appetizers and main courses.

If there’s another turkey, or perhaps a Cornish game hen, in your near future, think: “Brut.”

Blanc de Noirs can be paired with “challenging” meats, such as ham, or with similarly salty fare such as dates wrapped in bacon.

Blanc de Blancs is the go-to sparkler for sushi, shellfish and other delicacies from the sea.

Generally speaking, sparkling wines are among the most versatile of all food companions, so don’t be afraid to do some experimenting.

Or, simply raise a glass when the clock strikes midnight “next year” and toast the fact that we have so many delicious choices.

You’ll find an array of sparkling wine choices for this week’s shopping list here.

To learn about the history of sparkling wine, click here.

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R & R on the Central Coast and Fine Dining at The Range restaurant

By Mary Frederiksen, AKA The Happy Cooker

Two wonderful “finds” on our vacation to the Central Coast are an excellent massage therapist and an excellent dining place.

If you are in the Arroyo Grande area and are in search of a wonderful masseuse, look up Laurie Waller. She has an office in old town Arroyo Grande on Branch Street. She came highly recommended to me and she was excellent! But beware; she books up quickly. You can check out her web site at www.lauriewaller.massagetherapy.com

Tell her Mary sent you ☺

During one of our sessions, I asked her about good restaurants in the area. She recommended a place in Santa Margarita named THE RANGE. It has been in business since 2006 and this was first time I had heard of it. So of course we went there to dine the next evening.

The Range restaurant in Santa Margarita

The Range restaurant in Santa Margarita

After having dinner there, I can see why they have no need to advertise. Once a dining establishment maintains a wonderful reputation, “word of mouth” from highly satisfied customers is all the advertisement they require. Reviewers on YELP gave them a perfect 5 out of 5!

The building is small and charming, with an indoor seating area that accommodates 30 diners and an outside area that will seat another 50 or more. There are only five parking spots outside the door, so be prepared to park along the street or at businesses nearby that close early.

The main dining area inside The Range -- can you hear the Old School Country and Western music playing?

The main dining area inside The Range — can you hear the Old School Country and Western music playing?

We were warmly greeted by Marti, our server, and another gentleman whose name I did not get. The service throughout our dinner was superb. The attentiveness and care exerted a very calming, comfortable atmosphere and made for a wonderful overall experience.

All the dishes we selected were meticulously prepared and artfully presented, and was a delight to our palates! The pictures of each dish speak volumes about their attention to details. The flavors were fresh and refreshing! They use many locally grown and produced products.

We started with an assortment of breads that were prepared in their kitchen. Their jalapeno cornbread was not too spicy but full of flavors not usually seen in cornbread. The molasses gave the bread a light brown color and the cornmeal was ground to a wonderful texture. With just a hint of jalapeno, we enjoyed it thoroughly. They served a homemade rye bread that Glen announced was one of the best he had tasted. The herbed garlic bread and the French style bread rounded out the bread plate. All were served with a generous amount of fresh creamery butter. Seconds were available upon request, but don’t spoil your appetite! The feast was just beginning.

The yummylicious breads

The yummylicious breads

One of the appetizer specials of the evening composed our next course. It was a flatbread of pesto, fresh mozzarella and pecorino romano cheese, chicken confit, topped with heirloom tomatoes, local basil, frieze, arugala, shaved red onion, all bathed in an elegant vinaigrette dressing. It was perfect!

A pizza and salad all in one!

A pizza and salad all in one!

Carmelized onion soup followed. It was prepared with a sherry thyme broth and topped with Gruyere croutons. Perfect, again!

Classic caramelized onion soup

Classic caramelized onion soup

The original Man Salad, a take on wedge salads

The original Man Salad, a take on wedge salads

Our salad course was The Original Man Salad. It consisted of a Salinas iceburg wedge, Homestead Farms Hampshire bacon threads, heirloom tomatoes, croutons, herbed blue cheese in a Kendall Farms crème fraiche dressing. It was a masterpiece and could have been a meal in itself.

Glen’s main course was forest mushroom ravioli with garlic confit in a Champagne herb cream sauce. As you can see from the picture, the serving size was very generous and we took home two of the raviolis to enjoy the next day at lunch!

mushroom ravioli

I chose a chef’s special for that evening and it, too, was perfect! Panko crusted Alaskan sand dabs in a caper beurre blanc, with garlic mashed potatoes and fresh vegetables, including yellow and zucchini squash, cauliflower and spinach. The plate was garnished with fresh herbs and fried onion twists. I have had sand dabs in other restaurants but this was the best, by far.

sand dabs special

We saved some room for dessert and ordered the Meyer lemon pound cake with fresh berries, vanilla bean ice cream and berry coulis. It was yummy and, with coffee, the perfect end to our meal.

Thanks to the chef, the owner and all the serving staff for developing such a fine dining establishment. Whenever we return to the Central Coast, we will be dining there again.

If your travels take you to Santa Margarita, be sure to make dinner reservations at THE RANGE and prepare yourself for a wonderful culinary adventure.

They accept only cash or checks, NO CREDIT CARDS. Our dinner bill was $94 with tax — a steal, in my opinion.

They do not have a web site but I have included their information for your convenience.

22317 El Camino Real
Santa Margarita, Ca. 93453
Open everyday from 5 – 9 pm

A note from Glen: The Range has an excellent wine list, with nearly all selections coming from the Central Coast wine regions. There are a number of jewels here, at very reasonable prices. I was surprised, and happy, to see wines from Saxum, L’Aventure, Tablas Creek, John Alban, and a Petite Sirah from Aaron Wines.

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Innocent Bystander: A Red-Hot Affair With a Cool-Climate Wine

By Glen Frederiksen

Okay… confession time.

For the past 20 years, I have had a love affair with Australian wines. Sure, it began as an innocent dalliance. A couple of plump, spicy Shirazes caught my attention. Soon enough, jammy Grenaches oozing blueberry turned my head. Then came the crisp Sauvignon Blancs and citrusy Verdelhos.

I knew I was in too deep when I first tasted the ambrosia of Australian dessert “stickies,” fortified or not. Then came the tropical Viogniers, the floral Rieslings of Clare Valley, the fig-laden Semillons of Hunter Valley, and the hauntingly scented Bordeaux varietals of the Coonawarra.

Still, something was missing. I thought I’d found it when I sipped my first Leeuwin Chardonnay from Margaret River. Such elegant class in a glass!



Then I realized it. I had not tasted a world-class Pinot Noir from the land Down Under. Without it, our love affair was incomplete.

Sure, I had heard rumors. There was a misty valley called the Yarra — or was it Xanadu? — just an hour’s drive north of Melbourne. Sadly, during my three-day stay in that southernmost port town, I did not make the trek to that fabled land.

Here in the United States, stories about Pinot Noir from the Yarra Valley were whispered in hushed tones. I managed to procure a fine example from Tarra Warra winery. It was full of syrupy black cherries, a delightful example of New World opulence.

But I kept hearing there was more. Some wineries in the shrouded mists of Yarra were producing light, feminine renditions of Pinot Noir that evoked memories of (a chill goes down my spine) red Burgundy!

Happily, I can now report that I have tasted the seductive elixirs produced in Xanadu… er, Yarra Valley.

Welcome to Innocent Bystander.

Owner/winemaker Phil Sexton fell into the wine game innocently enough. Growing up in the Margaret River area, he saw the wine industry there grow with him. A Renaissance man, Sexton pursued many ventures; he was an Air Force pilot, coffee roaster, brewmaster and restaurateur. Along the way, he became intrigued by the cool-climate Chardonnay being produced in the Yarra Valley, half a continent away.

In 1997, Sexton took the plunge, buying land in the Yarra Valley adjacent to Yarra Yering. He established the Giant Steps label, whimsically named after a jazz album by John Coltrane, and produced single-vineyard Burgundian varietals. Under the direction of head winemaker Steve Flamsteed, the first releases came from the 2001 vintage.

By 2004, the umbrella winery Innocent Bystander was established, with several other labels and varietals in production.

The winemaking philosophy is pure and simple: Let the grapes speak for themselves. Judicious cropping, hand-sorted fruit, and minimal manipulation of the juice ensures that the resultant wine is the best expression of the varietal and the Yarra Valley.

These wines are just now making inroads into the United States wine market, and are well worth seeking out.

Recent reviews of a few of these wines are available here.

For more information about Innocent Bystander winery and their wines, visit their website.

P.S.: Please don’t tell my wife, a.k.a. The Happy Cooker, about this dalliance with Yarra Valley Pinot Noir. It’s really quite Innocent.

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Is It White? Is It Rosé?

By Glen Frederiksen

Ask a winemaker the questions posed in the headline, and it’s enough to make him or her blush.

Most casual wine drinkers know the basic differences between red wine and white wine. Aside from color, they know that red wines are good for you (or so their doctor says), they are dry, some can be very expensive, and some can age for quite a while. As to white wines, Joe Drinker is aware that they can be sweeter, sometimes smell and taste like buttered popcorn, and are generally “easier” to drink.

But what of rosés? And what does it mean when a bottle is labeled White Zinfandel or White Merlot?

Here, things can get tricky. Let’s see if we can (no pun intended) throw some light on the subject.

By definition, a rosé is a type of wine that incorporates some of the color from red grape skins, but not enough to be considered a red wine. This can be accomplished in three ways: reduced skin contact with the grape juice, bleeding off some juice early in the fermentation process (the French call this Saignée), or adding red wine to white wine.

Rosés can be bone dry, such as those that hail from the Southern Rhone in France; a bit sweeter, like those hailing from the Loire Valley; or clearly sweet, such as the White Zinfandel bottlings from (mainly) California. There are other examples from nearly every wine-producing region in the world.

While the aforementioned are still table wines, rosés also are popular among the sparkling wine estates. The primary grape varietals grown in the Champagne appellation of France are Pinot Noir (red) and Chardonnay (white). Most Champagnes are a blend of these two grape varietals, but the color is nearly light straw, as the juice from the grapes is quickly removed before color leeches out of the skins. To make a sparkling rosé, the juice of a red Pinot Noir wine is added into a traditional blend.

The bottling of rosé wines can be traced back to the beginnings of winemaking, as the practice of extended skin contact and hard pressing of the must likely were not practiced (or even contemplated) early on.

But what of White Zinfandel, White Merlot and White Cabernet? Contrary to what many Joe Drinkers believe, these are not grape varietals. Rather, red grapes (Merlot, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon) are made in a rosé style by pulling their juice off the skins after minimal contact.

In the mid-1970s, Sutter Home struck gold by marketing a lightly hued Zinfandel with some residual sugar as White Zinfandel, and the rest is history. A few years later, Mill Creek Winery in Sonoma County released a lightly colored, off-dry Cabernet Sauvignon as Blush Cabernet, and the wine public embraced the “blush” term to refer to any off-dry wine with a lighter, rosé-style color.

While the sweeter New World versions of rosé (like White Zinfandel) have dominated the marketplace — at least here in the United States — for several decades, there has been a resurgence in the popularity of the more traditional dry styles of rosé.

There are a few factors feeding into this more prominent placement of rosé:

• The Old World wine-producing countries have cleaned up their winemaking act and are producing clean examples of rosé now.

• The price of rosés tends to be lower than traditional bottlings of red and white wines (you’ll find a good number of “Value Vinos” in this category).

• Rosés have a great affinity for the dinner table, as well as being enjoyable, stand-alone aperitif wines.

With warmer weather finally here, it’s time to add some rosé and blush bottlings to your wine-drinking rotation. Check out our most recent reviews here.

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San Antonio Winery: A Hidden Gem in Downtown Los Angeles

By Glen Frederiksen

The greater Los Angeles area, also called “the Southland,” is the second largest major metropolitan area in the United States. Today, it is nothing but houses, businesses, and skyscrapers jammed together in a 34,000-square-mile plot that’s home to 20 million people, give or take a few million. (In 2011, the Census Bureau estimated the population at 18.1 million.) It is a vibrant financial hub, home to many television and entertainment vehicles, celebrated beaches, and a complicated web of streets and highways.

The area now known as “Downtown Los Angeles” was founded in 1781, and was known as “El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles” (now thankfully truncated to Los Angeles). It has been under Spanish (1781-1821), Mexican (1821-1847), and United States (1847 to present) rule over the years.

But what was there at the beginning of the 20th century — 100 years ago? In 1900, the city of Los Angeles had a growing population of 102,500. Even then, it was the center of economic activity in Southern California — like its sister city, San Francisco, was to Northern California. Both cities had sheltered harbors to allow for the import of goods and raw materials. And land, not yet covered with concrete, was rich, benefiting from a mild Mediterranean climate and prime topsoil.

Nearly anything could grow in the Southland, so the residents planted, among many other crops, winegrapes.

In its heyday early in the 20th century, the area surrounding downtown Los Angeles had more than 80 wineries growing and producing table wines, ports, sherries, sparkling wines and cooking wines. There were more wineries in the Los Angeles area than in the rest of California combined. Los Angeles probably would be California’s Napa Valley today but for one little experiment in civilizing the country (gone wrong): Prohibition.

Ushered in nationally by the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919, the national ban on selling alcoholic beverages effectively wiped out the wine industry in Los Angeles and elsewhere. What began as a noble effort by organized religion and women’s groups to eliminate male vagrancy, dereliction, and wife and child abuse (all blamed on demon alcohol) ultimately served only to foster lawlessness. Organized crime syndicates sprang up to deliver what the government ceased to provide the populace, and speakeasies across the country arose to quench the thirsts of otherwise law-abiding Americans.

The Great Depression, beginning in 1929, found a quarter of the nation out of work and in need of solace, liquid or otherwise. In 1933, the social experiment of Prohibition came to a close with the passage of the 21st Amendment.

By that time, nearly all wineries had gone out of business, save for an enterprising few. Some had continued to farm grapes and ship them as must (freshly pressed juice, grape skins included) to the east where people quickly learned the recipes for making their own bathtub wine. A lucky few wineries had made arrangements with local churches to produce wines for holy and medicinal purposes, since the churches were excluded from Prohibition.

In Los Angeles, the winery that was given the right to produce sacramental and medicinal wine was San Antonio Winery. It is no wonder that, by the turn of the 21st Century, it was the only remaining pre-Prohibition winery still in existence and continually in production.

The story of San Antonio Winery is one of the American Dream. Santo Cambianica left his home in Northern Italy in 1910, went through Ellis Island in New York, and made his way to California. He settled down in Los Angeles on Lamar Street and, in 1917, founded the San Antonio Winery.

Just two years later, with the passing of the Volstead Act, wineries began shutting their doors. A pious Catholic, Cambianica struck a deal with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to produce wines for sacramental and ceremonial purposes, thus saving the winery. Then when Prohibition was repealed in 1933, San Antonio Winery was one of the few ready and able to produce the suddenly back-in-demand wine for a thirsty nation.

Stefano Riboli came to the United States in 1936 and apprenticed with his uncle Santo at the winery. Married to Maddalena Satragni in 1946, Stefano helped build the business in Southern California, even as many winemakers were relocating to the Napa and Sonoma valleys north of San Francisco. Along the way, the family purchased parcels of land in the north for grape-growing, but the main winery remained in Los Angeles.

Today, San Antonio Winery and the Riboli family oversee vineyards they own in Napa Valley, the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County, and Paso Robles, where they have now opened a tasting room for the public.

It would be easy to overlook the San Antonio Winery on a visit to Los Angeles. It is still located at the original site, just off of Lamar Street, a mile or two from historic Union Station and Olvera Street. Tucked down a cul-de-sac, from a distance it looks like any other weathered, century-old warehouse.

But don’t be fooled. Inside, there is a state-of-the-art winemaking facility, a full restaurant that can seat several hundred customers, and a newly-expanded wine tasting room and retail sales outlet. Fourth-generation winemaker Anthony Riboli oversees the wine production facility, and many other family members work daily at the restaurant and retail outlet.

Rick Rechetnik, Sales Manager for San Antonio Winery and Maddalena Vineyard Brands

Rick Rechetnik, Sales Manager for San Antonio Winery and Maddalena Vineyard Brands

For more than two decades, Rick Rechetnik (shown above) has been the Sales Manager for the San Antonio Wine company. As the only California winery to continuously produce through Prohibition, San Antonio was grandfathered in on a variety of liquor licenses. It can buy, sell, make, import and distribute wine, and also run a restaurant, all under one umbrella license. Its distributorship, Maddalena Brands, imports wine and spirits from all over the world, providing them wholesale to retail outlets. Rechetnik is the man who moves the merchandise, along with his able crew of salespeople.

Rick Rechetnik leads the tour of San Antonio Winery

Rick Rechetnik leads the tour of San Antonio Winery

On a recent visit to the San Antonio Winery, Rechetnik led yours truly, the Happy Cooker and four old college buddies on a tour of the facility, after which we enjoyed a lovely lunch at the on-premises restaurant. We tried five wines with our lunch and were impressed with each and every one of them. Simply click on each wine name below to read my reviews.

2010 Maddalena Chardonnay, Monterey County

2011 Windstream Chardonnay, Santa Lucia Highlands

2009 Windstream Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands

NV Stella Rosa ‘Stellaberry’, Italy

2009 San Antonio Winery ‘Limited Reserve Red,’ Paso Robles

You also can find all five reviews, as well as a couple of archived reviews, here.

I heartily recommend checking out the San Antonio Winery if you are visiting Los Angeles… and don’t forget to eat lunch there.

San Antonio Winery
737 Lamar St.
Los Angeles, CA 90031

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Fans of Fortified Wine Should Get to Know Blandy’s

By Glen Frederiksen

Quick now: Name the three most common fortified wines.

For most, it is fairly easy to tick off the top two.

Port, whether made in Portugal or in any number of New World appellations, quickly comes to mind.

Likewise, Sherry, from Spain or other parts of the world, has a well-deserved reputation.

No. 3 might take a bit more thinking…

Take your time…

Give up?

In that case, “Have some Madeira, my dear.”

The fortified wines from the Madeira Islands have a long and noble history.

The story begins not long after the discovery of those islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean by Portuguese explorers in 1419. They were quickly colonized by members of Portugal’s nobility. Within 50 years, large tracts of land were cleared away and planted to sugar cane, wheat… and vines.

Some of the initial plantings of grapes included Malvasia Candida from the island of Crete. The grape became known as Malmsey, and remains one of the important grapes on Madeira today.

By the 16th century, competition from Brazil and other lands led to the waning of sugar cane production and the increased planting of grapes. The New World needed wine, not more sugar — and Madeira, being fortified, was a perfect choice for the long sea voyages to America.

It is said that the celebration of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 was toasted by George Washington with a chalice of Madeira wine. Fellow founding father and wine connoisseur Thomas Jefferson stated his favorite wine was Madeira.

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 meant that Madeira was no longer a port of call for many ocean-going vessels. Geo-politics and world wars further reduced the export of Madeira wines. Today, most people think of Madeira as a cheap cooking wine. Few have enjoyed it in its many forms and styles.

Madeira wines are made from five principal grapes: Tinta Negra, Sercial, Verdelho, Boal and Malvasia. The youngest wines are Seleccionado and Rainwater. Fortified blends can come in bottlings with an average age of five, 10, 15, 20, 30 and 40 years, much like Port. There also are bottlings of coheita and vintage designations.

Vintage Madeiras are some of the longest-lived wines in existence. Many 19th century bottlings are still drinking superbly.

The oldest continuously producing estate on Madeira is owned by the Blandy family. John Blandy, the late founder of the wine estate, arrived there in 1808. Seven generations later, Chris Blandy, along with his father Michael, continue to produce and promote the Blandy’s brand.

I recently had the opportunity to taste through several of the Blandy’s wines. Here are links to my reviews…

NV Blandy’s ‘Rainwater’ Madeira

NV Blandy’s ‘Alvada’ 5 Years Old Madeira

NV Blandy’s ‘Malmsey’ 5 Years Old Madeira

NV Blandy’s ‘Malmsey’ 10 Years Old Madeira

Madeira wines are not easily found in the marketplace, and that is a shame. True connoisseurs recognize the quality of the wines, and the historical significance they represent.

The wines also are quite food-friendly. You’ll find some recommendations for Madeira and food pairings here.

For more information about Blandy’s wines, check out their website.

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Lawer Family Wines: Scents and Sensibility from a Small Family Estate

By Glen Frederiksen


The 1980s saw a boom in the California wine industry, especially in the North Coast regions of the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. A few hundred family-owned wineries and vineyards there had trebled to a thousand, and there appeared to be no end in sight. The land rush for vineyard properties was not unlike the state’s Gold Rush of the 1850s, or Alaska’s Gold Rush at the turn of the 20th century.

Sadly, things change. People’s thirst for higher-end wine often mirrors the ebb and flow of a nation’s economy. During the good times of the mid-’80s, mid-’90s, and mid-2000s, the prices for fine wines skyrocketed. At the end of each decade, economic downturns caused inventories of wine to languish in warehouses, and prices to plummet. Since the most recent economic downturn that began in 2007, many well-known winery institutions in Napa and Sonoma have either gone belly-up or sold, pennies on the dollar, to large winery consortiums.

Sasha Lawer, Director of Marketing for Lawer Family Wines

Sasha Lawer, Director of Marketing for Lawer Family Wines

The wine world is not for the faint-hearted. Fortunes can be won or (more likely) lost as those bitten by the Wine Muse heed her call.

For Betsy and David Lawer, diverse backgrounds — he is a lawyer and weekend chef, she is a financial tour de force who manages the largest state-based bank in Alaska — led them to inevitably take the plunge and buy vineyard acreage in Knights Valley, straddling the Napa and Sonoma County line just northwest of Calistoga. For years, Napa Valley had been a vacation destination for them, and they decided to develop a property that could serve as a gathering place for family and friends.

With hallowed neighbors like Peter Michael and the Beringer empire, there was no doubt that the land purchased could produce world-class wines. Establishing a winery in 2002, the first few vintages were mostly for personal consumption and the enjoyment of those close to them. The Lawers loved the laid-back, genteel feel of the North Coast wine country, and began spending considerable time there when not in Alaska, their home state.

Rather than produce over-extracted, cult-style wines that are the darlings of the wine press, the sensibility born from three generations of living in Alaska drove them to seek a style that was balanced and food-friendly.

They hired John Pina as their vineyard manager. With 44 years of experience in Napa and Sonoma vineyards, he knew the land and the types of grapes that would thrive there. Today, the acreage owned by the Lawer family is planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Viognier.

In 2006, they brought on board Larry Levin to make the wine. When Levin took the helm at Dry Creek Vineyard at age 22, he was the youngest winemaker in the United States. Since then, he has worked with a number of wineries and industry icons around the world. His wines have graced the cover of Wine Spectator and have been regularly featured in the magazine’s annual “Top 100 Wines” list.

Lawer Family Wines

Now pushing a production of 3,000 cases annually, and with expectations of moderate growth in the near-future, the Lawers are going commercial. They currently have three label designations: Three Coins, Duck Shack and Hooker. Each celebrates a milestone in their history.

Three Coins is a tip of the hat to Betsy Lawer’s father, who worked as a gold prospector in the foothills of Alaska’s Mt. McKinley. To ensure that he didn’t have too much water pressure while sluicing payload from the hillside, he would toss three coins onto the area to be worked that day. If the coins didn’t show up in the bottom of the sluice box, it meant that the pressure had been too great, and the coins, along with gold, had been washed into the tailing pile.

Coming from avid outdoors-people stock, Betsy recalled the many nights she and her three sisters spent at the family duck shack. The men were there to hunt, but there also were the magical nights, looking up at the star-filled sky and occasionally glimpsing the Aurora Borealis. The Duck Shack label is a nod to this childhood memory.

The third label, Hooker, stems from the family history of playing rugby. Betsy’s father had been a rugby player during his days attending Stanford University, where he played the position of Hooker. When Betsy was a student at Duke, she was smitten by a young man with curly blond hair and steely blue eyes who was a standout Hooker on the Duke rugby team. Despite Dad’s protestations that she shouldn’t date hooligans from the rugby team, Betsy and David married, and the union has lasted some 40 years (and counting).

All in all, the Lawer Family Winery is a reflection of the principal owners. The wines are made in a ready-to-drink style, with enough acidity and balance to be food friendly, yet structured for years of graceful aging.

Check out our reviews of the latest Lawer wines here.

There are plans on the drawing board to build a tasting room for the public, and the three houses on the property are available for rent for visitors coming to the North Coast wine country. Additional information about the winery, favorite recipes, and ways to order wine can be found on the Lawer website.

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From the Wine Lines Archives: Valentine’s Day 1998

(Ed. Note: One of the really fun aspects of developing the Wine Lines Online website involves digging into our extensive archives and unearthing features, essays, columns and reviews that haven’t seen the light of day for a long time. The column that follows is one such “discovery.” It was written by Bob Johnson, and appeared in the February 12-18, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent. We’re including the reviews that Bob wrote at the time because you may recognize some of the names — including one winery that made WLO’s “Top 10 Wines of 2012” list with a different varietal (http://winelinesonline.com/2013/01/no-4-wine-of-2012-tasting-history/). The Sonoma County Independent used a “4-cork” rating system, which we also have retained for this post. For our archived reviews, we have included a rating based on WLO’s 100-point system.)

By Bob Johnson

As a single dad for more than a dozen years, it has been a long time since I’ve done any serious dating. When it comes to romance, I’m more than a bit rusty.

In order to obtain some truly useful information for a report on romantic wines — in honor of the February romance ritual known as Valentine’s Day — I called upon a female acquaintance for counsel.

“What,” I asked her, “is your idea of the perfect romantic date?”

“Hmm,” she hummed. “We’d get dressed up and go out to dinner — not to eat, but to dine. We’d have some good conversation, some good food, some good red wine, and then, later on… well, you know.”

Of course, I know. I may not have been dating much lately, but I’m not dead. After the dressing up, the good conversation, and the good food would come… good dessert!

But back to the good wine.

Without question, a romantic dinner is one of those occasions that cries out for wine. And not just any wine. If you’re trying to impress a date, this is the time for red wine.

Fortunately, red wine isn’t hard to find. It’s produced in virtually every wine-growing region around the world, although the quality lessens as the climate grows cooler. In Italy, where some of the world’s most romantic men reside (so I’m told by the aforementioned female friend), a red wine is called rosso. In France, it’s rouge. And in Spain, it’s tinto.

The United States makes its fair share of red wine, too, with most answering to the name of a varietal grape: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel and so on. And some of America’s finest red wine is vinified in Sonoma County.

In fact, one of the most highly sought-after Cabernets in the world is the Alexander Valley bottling from Silver Oak. Other outstanding Alexander Valley Cabs come from Jordan, Geyser Peak, Chateau Souverain, Simi and Clos du Bois.

In the mood for Merlot? You can’t go wrong with Sonoma County bottlings from St. Francis, Matanzas Creek, Chateau Souverain or Armida.

The Dry Creek Valley is Zinfandel country, with excellent renditions provided year after year by Lytton Springs, A. Rafanelli, Quivira, J. Pedroncelli, Alderbrook and Mazzocco.

No, you don’t have to go “over the hill” to find world-class bottlings. More good news: If you’re a romantic on a budget, red wines of comparable quality from Sonoma County typically cost less — sometimes much less — than their Napa Valley counterparts.

The red wines that follow are rated on a scale of one to four corks, with one cork being equivalent to first base on the “make-out” scale; two corks equaling second base; three corks equaling third base, and four corks equaling a home run. Batter up!

• Field Stone 1994 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 
— This is a wine that has been on the market for several months, yet for some inexplicable reason can still be found on many wine shop shelves. The nose conjures up images of caramel, cream and chocolate-covered cherries, while the flavors lean toward black cherry, cocoa and cassis. As flavorful and satisfying as many Cabs costing twice as much. Rating: 3 corks.

• Cardinale 1993 Meritage ($60) 
— The Wine Spectator (referred to simply as “God” by wine geeks) recently panned this bottling from Kendall-Jackson and, frankly, I don’t get it. While it’s not as fruit-forward as the 1992 version and will benefit from a few years in the bottle, this still is great juice. The grapes used in the blend come from both Sonoma and Napa counties, and the resulting wine is a smorgasbord of flavors, ranging from raspberries to plums and from chocolate to vanillin oak. Rating: 3.5 corks.

• Stonestreet 1995 Alexander Valley Merlot ($21-$24) —
If it didn’t say Merlot on the label, one could confuse this wine for a Cabernet. It’s big and bold, and the fact that it’s unfiltered allows all the aromas and flavors of the fruit to shine. It smells like a combination of coffee roasting at daybreak and Mom’s kitchen when she’s baking a chocolate cake, and it’s loaded with jammy fruit and smoky oak flavors. Certainly a candidate for aging, but why wait? Rating: 3.5 corks.

• J. Fritz 1995 Dry Creek Estate Merlot ($15-$18) —
If you like the taste of fresh berries, you’ll love this wine. And if you enjoy the floral aroma of Cabernet Franc, this also is the wine for you; Cab Franc comprises 20 percent of the blend. Balance is provided by just a hint of vanillin oak. Like the Field Stone Cabernet, a true bargain. Rating: 3 corks.

Supplies of these wines vary; the J. Fritz Merlot, in particular, could sell out quickly. That’s the bad news. The good news is that wines like these tend to be gobbled up by restaurateurs, who include them on their wine lists. Furthermore, all are wonderful food wines, making them ideal companions to a romantic dinner… no matter how you define “romantic.”

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