Fine Dining in Flagstaff? We’ve Got Just the ‘Place’

By Mary Frederiksen

During the planning stages of our recent trip to the Grand Canyon, we searched the internet for a fine dining restaurant in the Flagstaff area. On past trips, we just “drove by” this town on our way to “somewhere else” and thought of it as a truck stop kind of town.

To our surprise, Flagstaff has a number of inviting restaurants, many hotels, a university, and lots of fun activities available.

One of our “finds” was The Cottage Place restaurant. It has been voted “Best Fine Dining” and “Best Wait Staff” for many years by the readers of the Arizona Daily Sun. For 16 years, it has received the “Award of Excellence” from Wine Spectator magazine for its outstanding wine list.

Frank Branham is the owner and executive chef. He has been an executive chef for 23 years. He and his wife Nancy have owned The Cottage Place restaurant since 1994.

It is located in an old Flagstaff residence that was built more than 100 years ago — a good example of the “bungalow” style of architecture that was common during the early 20th century. Several families called it home before Ron Freeman converted it to a restaurant in 1980. Since then, it has been a favorite of locals and tourists alike who enjoy its intimate atmosphere, fine food, excellent service and exceptional wine list.

When we arrived at The Cottage Place, we were warmly greeted by Kristen, the front-of-the-house manager. She took our coats, seated us and introduced us to Chapman, our waiter. We were impressed with the efficient, professional manner of all the staff. I was offered and accepted a tour of the kitchen. It wasn’t more than a 10-foot by 12-foot space — and that included the dish washer! I was amazed that all the wonderful foods emanated from this compact kitchen.

Our dining party consisted of two couples. We decided to try a selection of items from the menu. Glen ordered the monthly “Tasting Menu,” a multi-course extravaganza with the option of wine pairings. (Do I need to mention that he added the wines?) I ordered the venison dish, while the other couple shared the Chateaubriand for two.

All of us proclaimed that our dishes were delicious, artfully prepared and presented perfectly.

The Chateaubriand was a beautiful tenderloin roast carved tableside and presented with béarnaise, port wine demiglaze, fresh vegetables and Cottage Place smoked gouda gratinee potatoes. Our friends enjoyed every morsel. The portions were generous but not overwhelming. The tenderloin could be cut at the table with a regular table knife, a testament to the mastery of the chef.

My dish was a loin of venison in an elegant cherry demiglaze sauce. To accompany this tender and flavor-filled meat, there was a side of pumpkin spaetzle and butter-cooked fresh spinach with crisp sweet potato chips. I enjoyed every bite as well.

Glen’s October “Tasting Menu” consisted of six courses, which he shared in small tastes with all of us! (Thank you, Glen.)

The first course was a charcuterie plate consisting of housemade pate, smoked duck, cured sausage and brioche with Cumberland sauce made from local Concord grapes.

As a second course, we all enjoyed a winter squash veloute. This was served from an elegant silver terrine on a cart that was bought to our table. It was the best veloute I have tasted. In fact, all the bowls were cleaned, and I honestly could have made a meal of this silky delicacy.

(Wine pairing: NV Sokol Blosser Evolution #15, white wine, Dundee Hills — An aromatic blend of several white grapes, it showed sweet apple flavors that complemented the rich, creamy soup.)

Course three was a warm spinach salad tossed with bacon vinaigrette, hard-boiled egg slices and diced tomato. It was topped with Gorgonzola crumbles and avocado.

(Wine pairing: 2009 Schug Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast — Bright and forward, full of fresh cherries. The best pairing of the evening.)

Intermezzo was a mulled wine sorbet. Delicious! It took me back to the ice bars in the Austrian Alps.

The entrée Glen selected was charbroiled beef tenderloin medallions, set over forest mushroom risotto and served with béarnaise sauce.

(Wine pairing: 2010 Turley Cinsault, El Porron Vineyard, Lodi — A warm, spicy red that showed supple dark fruits, with just enough tannic backbone to hold up next to the beef.)

Dessert was an apple flambé prepared tableside by our waiter, Chapman Thompson. He artfully used caramelized local apples flambéed with Smirnoff apple-infused vodka, Captain Morgan spiced rum and E & J Brandy. It was served with cinnamon pecans and a shortbread cookie over vanilla ice cream. As you can see in the picture, Chapman cooks a mean flambé!

(Wine pairing: 2010 Quady Orange Muscat Essencia — Very light on its feet, compared to the rich dessert. Enticing aromas and flavors included honeysuckle, orange marmalade and geranium.) For a look at previously reviewed Quady wines, click here.

All in all, it was a first-rate meal presented in classic Old World-style elegance.

In November of 2011, Frank released Cottage Place Flavors, a comprehensive cookbook with amazing color photography, essays, anecdotes and — best of all — more than 100 of his most popular recipes. You can find details and purchase information here.

If you are ever in the Flagstaff area, do yourself a favor and try this outstanding dining house. You will not be disappointed!

Cottage Place restaurant is located at 126 W. Cottage Ave, Flagstaff, AZ 86001. Check out their inviting and informative website for upcoming events, hours of operation and a peek at all the “extras” offered by this fine restaurant.

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Natural Wine Goes South — Really Far South

By Thomas Madrecki

Louis Antoine Luyt isn’t like most winemakers in Chile.

If his name wasn’t enough of an indication (he’s French), his wines will fill in any gaps in understanding. They’re pure, focused, almost Pinot Noir-esque — nothing like the big, bombastic reds many Americans associate with South America. They have the unexplainable “liveliness” that some natural wines have, where the flavors are so readily apparent and the wine just glides off your tongue.

That “different” quality compared to other Chilean wines is anything but unintentional. Luyt’s route to getting there is intentionally non-interventionist; the former dishwasher later picked up an interest in producing wines with character and distinction, a search that led him back to France for his training.

As Luyt explained in an interview with Louis/Dressner Selections:

“At first, I was surprised how homogenous Chilean wine tasted to me; this sparked an interest in local wine and the people who made it. What I came to realize is that there are incredible vineyard sites here, and even though a large part of it is completely industrialized, there were still some independently run parcels. Everyone told me they were worthless, but I didn’t believe it.

In 2001, I came back to France to work a harvest. I ended up working for Phillipe Pacalet, and discovered there was a viticulture/oenology school in Beaune. I begrudgingly went back to Chile after that harvest, but came back to France in 2002, determined to go to school. The idea was to apply what I would learn back in Chile. But before that, I wanted some work experience to see if this was really what I wanted to do. I eventually hired by Louis Jadot’s in Morgon; I learned a lot there, and had a great experience. I then worked the 2002 harvest in Burgundy, followed by my schooling in Beaune. I met Matthieu Lapierre there, and this was my introduction to natural wine. I got to visit the estate many times, and to spend some special moments with Marcel.”

In Europe and France in particular, the idea of natural wine and less intrusive winemaking techniques is gaining widespread acceptance thanks to a generation of sommeliers, chefs and young drinkers. In Paris, it’d be more shocking to see a new wine bar flaunt sulfur-added wine than it would be to encounter an oxidized and cidery unfiltered white wine. But in Chile, the concept of natural wine is still a new one — or maybe not:

“It’s a little odd talking about all this stuff from a Chilean point of view, since every single peasant here makes natural wine. But then again, these peasants don’t sell their wines much further than a few doors down the road from their farms. I’m the only guy doing this and exporting it, and I’m the first to claim the wines to be made “this way.” All my oenologist friends out here think i’m absolutely crazy, and this is why I have less and less oenologist friends!

Being in Chile protects me from all the pissing contests and mini-chapels about natural wine. I’m not part of the A.V.N, but I know that everyone in France respects what I do. I’m expressing unique terroirs, and that’s what’s important.”

On this point, Luyt is right on the money. His wines really are unique, and I’m unbelievably happy to have tried them. Here’s my tasting note for his Carignan:

2010 Louis Antoine Luyt Empedrado Carignan, Maule, Chile

As if natural Chilean wine wasn’t unusual enough, here’s a natural Chilean wine – a Carignan, no less – that is absolutely silky smooth and easy to drink. At 12.9 percent alcohol, it is more Old than New World, reflecting the profile of its maker’s French upbringing and general noncomfority. Delicious upon opening, but absolutely stunning after an hour decant. Delicate cherry fruit, Asian spices, meaty duck, woodsy pipe tobacco and black tea all glide across the palate. Lithe but not shy, this wine manages to balance the ”liveliness” of many natural wines with the tremendous fruit potential of South American reds.

MSRP: $21.99
Wine Lines Rating: 91


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Assessing the Great Starbucks Wine Experiment

By Bob Johnson

Prosecco or Pike Place Roast?

Pinot Grigio or Americano?

Sauvignon Blanc or Salted Caramel Mocha?

Chardonnay or Chocolate Cookie Crumble Frappuccino?

Brachetto Sparkling Rosé or Strawberry Smoothie?

Pinot Noir or Pumpkin Spice Latte?

Malbec or Mocha?

Vino Nobile de Montepulciano or Very Berry Hibiscus Refresher?

Cabernet Sauvignon or Cinnamon Dolce Latte?

As if one didn’t have enough beverage decisions to make at Starbucks, a number of the ubiquitous coffee houses around the country have added another category to a menu that already included brewed coffee, espresso drinks, blended Frappuccinos, smoothies, Tazo teas, bottled beverages and energy-boosting Refreshers: wine.

No, you can’t get a glass of vino with your morning scone. But after 4 p.m. at a growing number of test locations, guests may now experience “Starbucks Evenings.” In addition to the usual array of beverages and pastries, the menu includes a selection of “bites,” appetizers, small plates and desserts, as well as wine and beer.

Over the past week, I’ve sampled a number of items at the Starbucks on Michigan Avenue at Adams Street in downtown Chicago. It’s a history-steeped corner — right across the street from Chicago’s famed Art Institute, and right at the very beginning (or very end, depending on which way you’re headed) of old Route 66.

Which logically (especially if you’ve had a glass of wine) leads to this question: Can Starbucks have the same level of cultural impact in the evening as it has had in the morning?

The obvious answer is no, and the reason has more to do with volume than any social science analysis. At its “big city” locations, I’d guesstimate that at least 90 percent of Starbucks’ business comes from “take-out” customers — folks who stop by to pick up a cup of coffee or a latte, and perhaps a pastry or breakfast sandwich, on their way to work.

That simply can’t happen with wine, which must be consumed on the premises. Further, wine is a beverage that is not “chugged.” Rather, it’s sniffed, swirled, sipped and lingered over. And with only so many seats available in any given Starbucks location, the volume of wine consumed will be limited by the space available inside the four walls.

That said, the venture could still make sense for Starbucks. A glass of wine generates a higher “ticket.” All things being equal, it would take two or three coffee drinks to generate the same level of profit as one glass of vino. And if an almost-empty coffee house suddenly has seven or eight wine drinkers on hand, that’s basically “found money.”

But Starbucks doesn’t need me to analyze the P&L statement of this venture. It is methodically rolling out test locations — first in Seattle, now in Chicago and Southern California — and carefully analyzing the results. Thus far in Seattle, stores that offer wine reportedly have seen double-digit sales growth during the evening hours.

Would similar results be realized in cities that are less densely populated? I would guess not… but that’s why they test.

Thus far, from a food menu that offers a dozen selections, I have tried and liked the Truffle Mac & Cheese ($5.95), the Caramelized Onion and Roasted Peppers Crostini ($4.95), the Parmesan-Crusted Chicken Skewers With Honey-Dijon Sauce ($4.95), and the Calabrese Salami, Tomato and Mozzarella Flatbread ($5.95).

All arrived at the desired temperature and were very tasty. Beyond that, they matched very well with the wines I selected to drink with them.

With the Truffle Mac & Cheese, there was only one choice: a glass of Ferrari-Carano Chardonnay ($10).

With the Crostini, Ruffino’s “Lodola Nuova” Vino Nobile di Montepulciano ($12) was sublime. This probably was the best pairing of all.

With the Chicken Skewers, I thought the Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc ($8) from New Zealand worked quite well.

And with the Flatbread, Sanford’s “Flor de Campo” Pinot Noir ($10) was a decent match, but next time I might opt for the Alamos Malbec from Argentina ($7), or maybe even the sparkling Brachetto “Rosa Regale” ($8).

Another star of the wine list is a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from Markham ($15), but nothing on the food menu jumped out at me as a “perfect” pairing partner. Perhaps that is one wine that should be sipped solo at Starbucks.

The “Starbucks Evenings” experiment brings back memories of the McDonald’s “Dinner Menu,” which I encountered back in 1980 in Southern California. I remember having a Beefsteak Sandwich and an order of Onion Nuggets and thinking, “I don’t think this is going to catch on.”

It didn’t.

On the other hand, McDonald’s has had great success with its breakfast menu and, more recently, with its enhanced beverage menu. During the global economic crisis, a good many consumers traded down from their $4 Starbucks latte to a $1 cup of McDonald’s coffee.

Has the economy improved enough that people will “trade up” from a $4 Frappuccino to an $8 glass of wine at their friendly neighborhood Starbucks? That is the great unknown.

For me — one of those people who uses Starbucks as a “third place” and a “second office” — I plan to make room in my budget for “Starbucks Evenings” a couple times per month. It’ll be interesting to see whether substituting a glass of Cabernet for a Tall Hazelnut Non-Fat Latte has any impact on the quality of my blog writing.

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Olivier Lemasson and My Crush on ‘Vin de Soif’

By Thomas Madrecki

Confession #1: I have an unhealthy relationship with an endlessly flirtatious redhead from Touraine. My girlfriend would not approve — if it weren’t for the fact that I’m talking about a wine.

The redhead in question is “Le Petit Rouquin” from Les Vins Contes, the label of young Loire Valley winemaker Olivier Lemasson. 100 percent carbonically macerated Gamay, it is incredibly affordable, incredibly drinkable and incredibly different than almost every wine you’ve tried before.

Confession #2: I’ve classified this post as the first entry in Wine Lines’ new “What’s New” series, despite knowing Olivier Lemasson and his wines for some time. He is one of the darlings of the natural wine scene, with his sheer disregard for his appellation’s agrement and his proclivity to make simple wines that are just pleasing to drink. But just because the likes of myself, Louis Dressner, Alice Feiring and hipster sommeliers in Paris and New York City have sung the praises of a producer hardly means he receives the widespread attention he deserves. Thus, he will make an appearance here.

A former sommelier, Lemasson exclusively produces unfiltered, terroir-driven natural wines that might be termed “vin de soif,” a phrase that loosely translates as “thirst-quenching or chug-able wine.” These wines, which are usually served lightly chilled, are universally low in alcohol and meant to be enjoyed with food. They are fun and fruity, but also have an indescribable savoriness that speaks to both uneducated consumers and wine snobs alike.

I’ve written previously about lightly chilled Old World wine, but there’s nothing quite like Lemasson’s “Le Petit Rouquin.” Vintage after vintage, it’s a steal at $15 a bottle, with dense, vibrant cherry fruit and a faint fizziness thanks to residual levels of CO2.

In my time traveling the world and tasting wine, I’ve begun to separate bottlings into two distinct but very simple categories: Boring and Exciting. Just because a wine is technically good doesn’t mean I find it particularly unique. Then there are other wines that grab hold of your senses from the first sip and refuse to let go. They speak to something that is very personal and remind you why people started waiting around for grape juice to ferment in the first place.

Lemasson’s wines clearly fall in the latter category. Their uniqueness is rivaled only by their drinkability, which is the only real downside — despite the low alcohol content, it’d certainly be quite easy to imbibe far too much. One doesn’t ponder and think about these wines so much as one drinks a whole bottle while tearing at a platter of pork shoulder and sausages roasted over an open fire.

But then again, that might be the point. To me, “vin de soif” isn’t so much a style as a philosophy. The emphasis here is on hedonism and enjoying life to its fullest. It’s just wine — really tasty, really affordable wine.

Now who can object to that?

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What’s New in the World of Wine?

This September, the entire Wine Lines team has its eyes peeled for new and exciting discoveries.

That exciting, up-and-coming French producer you’ve never heard of? You’ll find him (or her!) here. That grape making a shocking comeback? You’ll find it here. That cool ingredient, hip kitchen gadget, breathtaking travel destination … yup, you guessed it: It’ll be here, too.

Obviously, as a site about first and foremost about wine, you can expect a lot about the goodness of the grape. But all through the weeks ahead, prepare for something different. Get down with lesser known regions and stay ahead of the wine cognoscenti. If it crosses our palate and causes us to remark, “Wow, that’s really neat!” you can expect it’ll get attention. Or maybe it’ll just be a spur-of-the-moment take on an industry trend.

Whatever the case may be, be sure to check back often. Just click on the main homepage image to read through our latest posts in the “What’s New” series.

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August 29: Cambria and Byron Bring Back Great Memories

By Glen Frederiksen

It was serendipity that brought me to the Santa Maria benchlands and the Cambria and Byron wineries. Some last-minute emails added them to my itinerary on the day before wrapping up our month in California’s Central Coast region and heading home to Las Vegas.

Visiting them brought this trip — and my life trek in the world of wine — full circle.

A quarter of a century ago, as I was transforming from occasional wine drinker to certifiable wine nut, I made frequent weekend trips to the wine country of California. Living in Southern California, the closest high-quality wine region was the Central Coast. The only decent places to stay were clustered around Buellton and Solvang in the Santa Ynez Valley. From there, it was an easy jaunt up the “Foxen Wine Trail” to the Byron and Cambria wineries. I was especially fond of Chardonnay, and these two estates made some of the best.

Over the ensuing years, Byron hit some economic rough patches. Different holding companies acquired it, then sold it again. Fortunately, Byron is now under the umbrella of Jackson Family Estates, part of the Kendall-Jackson empire.

Kendall-Jackson has purchased, rescued and/or resuscitated a number of other iconic wineries, including Edmeades, Freemark Abbey, Murphy-Goode, Matanzas Creek and La Crema. I am happy to see that all is going well today at both Cambria and Byron, two historical wineries that helped put the Santa Maria Valley on the wine map.

The wines they’re making today were like old friends to my well-traveled palate, as memories from the past welled up with each sip.

Denise Shurtleff is the winemaker at Cambria Vineyards.

My first stop was Cambria Winery, where I sat down with winemaker Denise Shurtleff. She has been a resident of the Central Coast for nearly 30 years, with Cambria for 13 years, and has seen the changes in the vineyards and the grapes being planted. She is very excited about new plantings just completed, and the direction of the winery for the future. Judging by the quality in the glass now, she is doing a great job.

Cambria is open to the public for tasting and tours (there is a fee). For more information, visit their website:

Here are my reviews of the wines I tasted with Denise:

2010 Cambria Pinot Gris, Santa Maria Valley

2010 Cambria Viognier, Santa Maria Valley

2009 Cambria Chardonnay, Katherine’s Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley

2007 Cambria ‘Clone 4’ Chardonnay, Santa Maria Valley

2009 Cambria Pinot Noir, Julia’s Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley

2007 Cambria Pinot Noir, Bench Break Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley

2010 Cambria ‘Clone 115’ Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley

2010 Cambria ‘Clone 4’ Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley

2009 Cambria Syrah, Santa Maria Valley

Following my visit at Cambria, it was back in the car and down the road to Byron Winery. There, I met up with winemaker Jonathon Nagy, who has been with Byron for more than a decade, having arrived in 2001.

Jonathan Nagy has been with Byron Winery since 2001, where he continues to craft well-balanced, highly enjoyable wine.

We did a quick walk around the state-of-the-art facility, which uses gravity feeds all through the winemaking process to reduce damage to the grapes and the juice.

Of special note were a dozen or so barrels filled with fermenting Pinot Noir grapes, a fairly expensive technique that best allows the juice and the wood flavors to marry. I could have happily stood in that room and breathed in the heady aroma for a long time.

As was the case at Cambria, tasting the current releases brought back many pleasant palate memories. The Pinot Noir bottlings made at Byron by Ken Brown during the early 1990s were some of my favorites at the time.

Byron is not normally open to the public (although special events are held there). They do have a tasting room not too far away in Los Olivos. Go to their website for tasting room hours of operation and directions, to see their calendar of events, or to purchase wines:

But first, click through my reviews for a preview…

2006 Byron ‘Wente Clone’ Chardonnay, Santa Maria Valley

2010 Byron Chardonnay, Santa Maria Valley

2010 Byron Chardonnay, Nielson Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley

2010 Byron Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley

2010 Byron ‘Clone 667’ Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley

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On National Cabernet Day, Think… Argentina?

By Bob Johnson

When people learn that I’m a “wine guy,” the question they most commonly ask is, “What’s your favorite wine?”

Early on, I’d ponder the question, struggling to find an appropriate answer. Did they mean what type of wine? Were they hoping I’d name a specific winery?

Depending on the venue, the time of year and my mood, the answer could vary widely. On some days, it would be the Rutherford-designated Cabernet Sauvignon from Pine Ridge Winery. On other days, it would be the mineral-infused, Burgundian-style Chardonnay from Chalone Vineyards. On still other occasions, I might offer the less-specific “G-S-M,” shorthand for the blends of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre from France’s Rhone Valley or the vineyards of South Australia.

After literally years of struggling with this seemingly simple question, I finally decided upon a stock answer. Now, when I get that query, my answer consists of two words: “Good wine.” And that typically initiates a conversation during which I might mention any number of long-time “favorites” as well as a few newly discovered gems.

This being National Cabernet Day, I thought it might be fun to explore an emerging category of potential “favorite wines” — Cabernet Sauvignon bottlings from Argentina.

Yes, I know that Argentina is known for its Malbec — the “orphan” variety from Bordeaux that has become a superstar in the land of the gaucho. But Argentina gradually is gaining a reputation for Cabernet Sauvignon as well, and at the forefront of that trend is Susana Balbo, the winemaker for Dominio del Plata Winery.

There isn’t much in the wine world that Balbo hasn’t seen. She has practiced her craft for more than 30 years, and has made wine in many countries. The P.R. team for Dominio del Plata asked her what it is about Argentine Cabernet that makes it so special.

“The thermal amplitude of Argentina’s climate is reflected in the wine with intense colors, defined aromas and elegant tannins,” she explained. “All together, these components meld into wines of high international quality, with excellent concentration, complexity and varietal expression.”

Another plus for Argentine Cabernet is the consistency of the climatic conditions.

“Argentina is blessed with a climate that provides these optimal conditions almost every year,” Balbo adds. “This makes Argentina a unique spot in the world for Cabernet… Argentine Cabernet deserves a place among the top-level Cabernets in the world.”

Three renditions that Balbo crafted from the 2010 harvest lend credence to this assertion, offering a mix of value, food friendliness and pure drinking pleasure. From the surprisingly mouth-filling Crios to the lush BenMarco to the decadent Susana Balbo, these are “serious” wines for people who like Cabernet Sauvignon, and proof that there’s more to Argentine cuisine than asado and Malbec.

You may even discover a new “favorite wine.”

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August 23: Exploring the Rhone Without Flying to France

By Bob Johnson

You can buy Chardonnay at Zaca Mesa Winery & Vineyards, just as you can at most wineries in California. But Chardonnay is not the reason to visit Zaca Mesa, which is located in far-northern Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County, just east of Los Alamos Valley.

Being a pioneer in the area — its first vines were planted in 1973 — came with a price. Matching grape varieties to climate was not the precise science that it is now, and virtually every variety planted then — Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc — is now gone.

Only Chardonnay remains, the others either ripped out and replaced or simply no longer farmed.

“Ten years ago, Chardonnay was two-thirds of our volume,” says Brook Williams, Zaca Mesa’s President, COO and winegrower (right in photo). “Today, it’s less than 10 percent.”

With Chardonnay’s leading role diminished and all those other varieties abandoned, what is the focus of Zaca Mesa today? Varieties that are associated with France’s Rhone Valley. In fact, if you’ve ever been curious about Rhone varieties, Zaca Mesa is a great place to learn about them.

Williams notes that all of Zaca Mesa’s wines are estate-grown, which means he and winemaker Eric Mohseni (left in photo) have complete control over the finished products — as long as Mother Nature agrees to cooperate, of course.

“Each vintage is different,” Williams says. “There are no ‘averages’ in nature. We want to tell the story of the season in our wines. So we will have vintage variation year to year.”

Eliminating the varieties that fare better elsewhere was the first step in making Zaca Mesa a Rhone-focused estate. The process included taking a long, hard look at the entire estate — which includes 244 plantable acres.

“The weakest blocks [of grapevines] are now gone,” Williams adds. “We have solid blocks throughout. And the newest plantings are now coming on line.”

Like most winegrowers, Williams believes that good wines are created primarily in the vineyard.

“I’m a big fan of doing your work early — of doing it in the vineyard,” he explains. “That makes the job in the cellar a lot easier. I’m not a big fan of manipulating wines to a desired profile. An individual wine should speak for itself.”

So, Williams hopes wine drinkers will embrace not only the uniqueness of each variety, but also the uniqueness of each vintage.

“A lot of people encounter a wine they’ve never seen before and say, ‘Oh, no, it’s different.’ I want people to say, ‘Oh, cool, it’s different.”

What would Williams like people to know about Rhone-style wines?

“Don’t be afraid of them,” he says. “They’re easy-drinking, solid wines, and they’re interesting. Why drink the same thing every day? I’m always glad when we move on to a new vintage, because we have several new wines to enjoy.”

I joined Glen Frederiksen at Zaca Mesa during Glen and Mary’s month-long trip to the Central Coast, and we tasted through nine wines. All are well made and most are food friendly, with the standout being the 2008 “Mesa Reserve” Syrah.

Here are our reviews:

2011 Zaca Mesa ‘Z Gris,’ Santa Ynez Valley

2009 Zaca Mesa Chardonnay, Santa Ynez Valley

2009 Zaca Mesa Viognier, Santa Ynez Valley

2008 Zaca Mesa Roussanne, Santa Ynez Valley

2007 Zaca Mesa ‘Z Cuvee,’ Santa Ynez Valley

2008 Zaca Mesa Syrah, Santa Ynez Valley

2007 Zaca Mesa ‘Z Three,’ Santa Ynez Valley

2008 Zaca Mesa ‘Mesa Reserve’ Syrah, Santa Ynez Valley

2009 Zaca Mesa Mourvedre, Santa Ynez Valley

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August 17: Christian Roguenant, Central Coast Master Winemaker

By Glen Frederiksen

I first met Christian Roguenant (above) in 1991, when he was a judge at an international wine competition and I was serving as a wine steward.

He seemed soft-spoken and easy-going, with a quick wit and twinkle in his eye. Over the last two decades, I’ve come to know him as a friend to the wine world, ready and willing to help out at a moment’s notice. But until I sat down with him and chronicled the history of his 30 years in the wine industry, I had no idea how many hats this affable Frenchman has worn.

The story begins in France in 1982. Roguenant was completing his wine education at the University of Dijon, and took part in his first harvest in the region of Beaujolais. A year later, as he finished school, he worked the harvest in Champagne. Within 12 months, he had joined Champagne house Deutz as a winemaker, also helping wineries in the Loire and Rhone regions.

In 1986, Roguenant came to America to head up a new project — a sparkling wine facility in Arroyo Grande named Maison Deutz. There he stayed through 1999, even after the winery was sold and became Laetitia Vineyards and Winery (in 1995).

That year — 1995 — was a watershed year for Roguenant, as he partnered with Roederer on a new label called Carpe Diem.

Then came 1999. Roguenant took over the helm at Orcutt Road Cellars, the new home of Niven Family Wine Estates. Today, there are five wineries in the portfolio under his watchful eye: Baileyana, Zocker, Tangent, Trenza and Cadre. Each product line reflects a special niche in the wine world. More about these labels can be found here.

Ever the world traveler, Roguenant has somehow found time to work with Deutz & Gelderman in Germany, Navarro Coreas in Argentina, Montana in New Zealand, and even Dae Sun in South Korea, where he helped craft the first sparkling wine made in that country.

Back in his adopted home of California, he has assisted numerous wineries with special bottlings, including several sparkling wines. These wineries include Alma Rosa, Dierberg, Star Lane, Sanford, Gainey, Fess Parker, David Bruce and Bear Boat, among others.

Even with all that, he still finds time to judge wines in international competitions, and provide educational seminars.

Resting on his laurels is not Roguenant’s style. He still looks forward, not back, as he readies for his 31st harvest. He sees himself as an educator and mentor. Each year, he picks out one of his employees and gives them a special boost in their life aspirations.

One time, a female staffer shared her dream of going to New Zealand to work for a year. He immediately whipped out his cell phone, called a friend in the wine biz there, and handed her the phone. She got the job, ended up staying four years, met and married her husband, and then came back Stateside. She now says that, outside of her parents, Roguenant has had the greatest positive influence in her life. Others tell similar stories.

I have always appreciated Roguenant, the master winemaker, and carried several of his labels in my wine shop. He does not try to “chase the numbers” by making overly extracted, high-alcohol wines that seem to be the darlings of the trade publication writers. His wines are, first and foremost, balanced. They express the terroir of the vineyard. No massive oak. Little in the way of manipulation. His are honest wines, meant for the table, to be enjoyed with good food and friends.

Roguenant is the ultimate teacher, not just of winemaking, but of life. You could do worse than emulate him. But probably not much better.

Here are my reviews of his current releases.

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Bargain Hunting in Billings

By Thomas Madrecki

As a wine snob (err, yes, I’ll admit to it) of a younger sort, one of my favorite part-time pastimes is to spot under-priced bottles on out-of-date or out-of-the-way wine lists. There’s tremendous satisfaction in “getting your money’s worth,” and even more so when you’re able to locate an actually decent wine in an area you wouldn’t normally expect (say, the middle of rural America).

The easiest way to do this, of course, is to know a wide variety of producers and vignerons by name. That way you’ll be able to easily spot the gems tucked in around the less-than-desirable rubble. But beyond that, what can you do?

Well, knowing something about vintages and appellations helps, too. Earlier this year, while out celebrating my birthday, I took a chance on a 2004 Chenin Blanc that seemed drastically under-valued at a wine bar menu price of $39.99. The results were stunning; Chenin this old is often uniquely complex. Likewise, a 1990 white Rioja caught my attention at a wine shop for $24.99.

Generally, my belief with these wines is that given the reasonably affordable price-tag, the potential upside of an aged wine outweighs any doubts. If the producer seems like a generally good one — not some fly-by-night industrial operation, but a real producer of wine — and the wine has seen some time in the cellar, I’ll make the gamble. Most of the time, it (quite literally) pays off.

This past week, I’ve had the (mis)fortune of spending a considerable amount of time in Billings, MT, for a work trip. Now, I appreciate open-space and rural America as much as anyone, but I’d by lying if I didn’t think Billings was among the most boring “cities” across the country. Again, I’ll admit to being an East Coast snob. Cowboy hats and bars that have last call at 8:00 p.m. just don’t do anything for me.

A coworker (who lives in Billings) had a suggestion, though. “Why don’t we go to Bin 119, the wine bar,” he said.

Needless to say, I wasn’t exactly jumping at the prospect. A wine bar … in Montana. Uh-huh. Oh, and their sign says they also offer tapas.


Well, despite me having less optimism than a horseless rancher, I’d like to report that you can indeed have a decent wine experience in Billings.

You just have to know what you’re looking at.

See, the wine list at Bin 119 was littered with the usual suspects. A $45 bottle of Syrah there (that would be $15 in your everyday supermarket), a $60 bottle of Pinot Noir there (that would be $30 in your Whole Foods), a $110 red blend (that would be $50 in your local wine shop), and … wait, what? A 2005 Merlot from Columbia Valley-based Merry Cellars? For $50?

Deal. I’m rolling the dice on that one.

Did I know that the winemaker behind Merry Cellars, Patrick Merry, is a native Montanan? Nope. Did I know that he hand-selects and hand-picks his grapes? Nope.

And I’ll go even further. Had I even heard of Merry Cellars prior to tonight? Nope.

But trust me, I have an eye for dumb pricing schemes in restaurants and can also spot “small-scale producers” from a mile away. Industrial wines don’t have such … mm, how do I say this … non-marketing-friendly names, nor do they come in bottles sealed with wax.

So yeah, I’ll have the 2005 Merlot for $50 when Duckhorn’s tasty but arguably unremarkable Decoy brand is $45. And you better have bet it paid off.

Spotting under-priced wines isn’t actually that difficult. It just takes a careful eye — and a willingness to take chances.

Kind of like a wine bar in Billings…

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