California wine country has a history that dates back to the late 1800s and the founding of its first missions. Through the subsequent years, countless individuals and families have made their contributions to the land. Their vineyards and towns have flourished, and so has the lore. With the help of Touring & Tasting, we’ve collected some great wine country stories to share with you.
Buena Vista Winery, Sonoma
This historic winery, located just five minutes from Sonoma’s downtown plaza square was first established in 1857 by Count Agoston Haraszthy. The “Count of Buena Vista” is often referred to as the Father of California Viticulture—for many good reasons. He is credited with creating California’s first gravity flow winery, digging the area’s first wine caves, and importing more than 300 different varieties of barrels from Europe. When you visit Buena Vista’s Historic Press House today, you can take a History and Wine Tour with a guide dressed as a historic figure with many fascinating tales to tell.
Villa San-Juliette, Paso Robles
The story of this stunning winery began in Hollywood when childhood friends and top television producers Ken Warwick and Nigel Lythgoe (American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance) decided to purchase a winery. They interviewed 100 winemakers and settled on Matt Ortman who oversaw the construction of a fabulous new winery last year. Villa San-Juliette offers vista views, seated tastings, fun wine events, occasional A-list parties, and a great list of wines.
Trinchero Napa Valley, St. Helena
Named for its founder, Mario Trinchero, Trinchero Napa Valley has a fascinating story to tell about Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s told in the tasting room with A Taste of Terroir, a horizontal line-up of four of the winery’s single-vineyard Cabernets from St. Helena, Rutherford, Atlas Peak, and Mt. Veeder. By examining the aromas and flavors of these wines side-by-side, guests can detect the differences in these valleys. Daily seminars allow you to dig even deeper.
Demetria Estate, Los Olivos
In Greek Mythology, Demetria is the goddess of the harvest. So it’s quite fitting that John and Sandra Zahoudanis chose the name for their winery, which they started to uphold John’s Greek heritage and the couple’s love of the land. The winery was one of the first in Santa Barbara wine country to use Biodynamic farming practices. Each wine tells a story of the land, the planets, and the moon. Winemaker Harry Waye crafts two distinctive portfolios: Rhône varietals from the estate and Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from nearby Santa Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley. The storybook winery is tucked at the end of a long winding road overlooking Foxen Canyon. Well worth the drive!
Villa Terra Nova, Sonoma
This enchanting vacation 5,300-square-foot home is a place where new stories are made. It’s just a short drive from historic Sonoma Plaza, countless wineries, and restaurants. Picture spending the day wine tasting then stopping at the local Farmers’ Market for fresh produce before you head for this splendid home. A massive, professionally equipped kitchen awaits, along with beautiful dining areas both inside and out. Cook together, or rely on Villa Terra Nova’s private concierge service to arrange for an onsite chef. With five bedrooms and a two-bedroom guesthouse, this luxurious property accommodates up to a dozen guests. Ideal for family get-togethers and reunions.
Harney Lane Winery, Lodi
It seems that most Lodi wineries have a multigenerational family to tell, and this one is no exception. Jorja Lerner, a member of the family’s fifth generation, and her husband Kyle are calling most of the shots these days, but the fourth and sixth generations do their part too. They manage every aspect from vineyard, to bottle, to consumer, and amazingly, they still find time to sit by their outdoor fire pit from time to time and enjoy their garden. And their wines, which consistently stand out at the major competitions.
Rancho Caymus Inn, Rutherford
The historic land where Rancho Caymus Inn now stands was once awarded to George C. Yount as part of the Napa Valley’s first land grant. More recently, it was purchased by the Komes family in 1991 and transformed into an elegant retreat in the heart of Rutherford Bench country. Here, each and every suite has a story to tell. Each is named for a pioneer in the Napa Valley, like Robert Lewis Stevenson and Black Bart. Guests can read about them as they settle into their well-appointed accommodations, with dozens of world famous wineries nearby.
If you believe that art tells a visual story, you should know about Peju. This fabulous boutique Napa Valley winery is dedicated to beautiful architecture, art, and wines. Housed in a unique 50-foot tower building, the winery features a manicured garden with enchanting sculptures and fountains. It has been named Top Artisan Winery of the Year by Wine & Spirits Magazine and a Top California Cabernet Producer by Wine Spectator. Family owned and family run, Peju is a feast for the eyes and palate.
Michael David Winery, Lodi
Seven generations strong, Michael David Winery produces premium quality wines with eye-catching labels and great stories behind them. But you couldn’t guess this as you pull up to the winery, located at the southwestern edge of the Lodi appellation. The Michael David tasting room is housed in the Phillips family’s 40-year-old roadside fruit stand. They still sell produce picked in the family’s fields. Plus there’s a great café serving farm-style breakfasts, lunches, and legendary pies. It’s a great place to swap tales and discover some very good wines.
Firmly grounded in the heart of Sonoma County for 30 years, the story of Kendall-Jackson has always been the tale of a family. Winemaker Jess Jackson began the first chapter with a bang: the 1982 Kendall-Jackson Vintners Reserve. The vintage sold out in a matter of weeks and went on to win the American Wine Competition’s first-ever Double Platinum award. But despite all the accolades, the real story here is about family and the time-honored principles of hard work, quality, and hospitality. A visit to the winery feels more like a visit to the home of a friend who encourages you to walk through the kitchen and check out the garden. The vibe is unhurried and utterly genuine.
The following article was provided by our contributing partner – Touring and Tasting Magazine. Cheers – Ken
I get a lot of requests for affordable Cabernet Sauvignon selections all the time. So I thought it would be a time good to do a quick post highlighting the best value Cabs that I found this fall and winter. We will start with the 2010 Joseph Carr “Napa Valley” Cabernet Sauvignon for $19. We scored this wine 92 points. That said, this impressive Napa Cabernet likely almost gone. There are a few prominent online retailers that still have this gem. Be sure to order this one soon. It is medium to full bodied, balanced, and displays tasty blueberry and ripe plum flavors with notes of nicely integrated mild vanilla oak. This Cab would pair perfectly with a New York strip steak. Buy it up before it disappears.
The next two gems both scored 90 points. The 2010 Kilikanoon “Killerman’s Run” Cabernet Sauvignon for $20 is a very good wine. It hails from South Australia. It is medium bodied, nicely balanced, and very juicy. The flavor profile is a juicy blackberry with notes of spice, black currant, and black licorice. There is also some nicely integrated oak intertwined throughout. I would suggest pairing this Cab with Kerrygold Dubliner cheese and stone wheat thin crackers by the fireplace.
The 2011 Don and Sons “B Side” Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa for $25 was a very pleasant wine. It is medium bodied, balanced, and very smooth. The flavor profile is a tasty blueberry with hints of black cherry, minerality and boysenberry. Its finish is dry and its moderate tannins stick around for quite some time. This Cab is very food friendly and would pair well with beef bourguignon.
Our 89 point recommendation is the 2010 d’Arenberg “The High Trellis” Cabernet Sauvignon from the McLaren Vale in Australia. It’s a very nice Cabernet for the money. ($20) On the palate, this wine is a fruit bomb and is loaded with ripe black fruit flavors. Those flavors are a blend of blackberry and black currant with hints of mild oak, black plum, and gentle minerality that is nicely integrated in the background. It closes with its flavors and dry moderate tannins stick around in your mouth for a little while. This Cab is foods friendly and would pair well with a juicy Angus bacon burger with sautéed mushrooms.
We will close with four 88 pointers.
2011 Columbia Crest Cabernet Sauvignon “H3″ (Horse Heaven Hills, WA) $15
This Cab is medium bodied, balanced and easy to drink. The flavor profile is a pleasant black cherry with hints of oak and red licorice. This is a very good everyday Cab. It would pair well with a Five Guys bacon cheese burger.
2010 Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon “Sonoma County” (CA) $16
This Cabernet from Rodney Strong would make a nice by the glass option. It opens with an inviting bouquet. On the palate, this wine is medium bodied, balanced, not overly complex, but very easy to drink. I enjoyed its mild oak infused black cherry flavors with hints of minerality and a touch of black currant. This is a very nice everyday Cab that would pair well brick oven pizza.
2011 Kendall Jackson Cabernet Sauvignon “Vintners Reserve” (Sonoma County, CA) $19
This Cabernet from KJ is medium bodied, balanced and easy going. The flavor profile is a gentle plum with hints of mild oak, minerality and a touch vanilla. The finish is dry and its moderate tannins stick around for quite some time after it is gone. This friendly Cab would pair well with juicy Kobe burger.
2011 Penley Estate Cabernet Sauvignon “Phoenix” (Coonawarra, Australia) $20
This Cabernet is medium bodied, balanced, juicy and easy to drink. Its flavor profile is a mild plum with hints of black cherry and a touch of oak and acai berry. This Aussie Cab is very easy to drink and a very good everyday red. Pair it with an Angus burger with sautéed mushrooms.
I hope you enjoy these Cabs as much as I did! If you know of other great Value Cab’s please share with the group and post a comment. Cheers – Ken!
Winery tasting rooms are cozier in the winter. Some even have blazing fireplaces, inviting you to relax and spend a little extra time. In the winter, you’re also more likely to find the owner or winemaker behind the tasting bar with a little more time than usual to exchange stories. Touring & Tasting, the premier guide to wine country in the U.S., has passed on this nice list of 10 wineries with extra cozy, tasting rooms to investigate… just right for this time of year.
Broken Earth Winery, Paso Robles, CA
Director of Winemaking Chris Cameron came to Broken Earth Winery with more than 30 years of international winemaking experience. Now, he focuses his time and energy in Broken Earth’s Rancho Tierra Rejada Vineyard and winery, crafting beautiful, structured, and balanced wines. The tasting room is expansive, but very cozy. In fact, Gusto Gourmet Market and Café serves some of the best Panini sandwiches around.
Trione Vineyards & Winery, Geyserville, CA
For nearly four decades, brothers Mark and Victor Trione have farmed and managed some of the Sonoma County’s most premium vineyards. When they decided to start their own portfolio to honor their family name, everyone rolled up their sleeves. Mark’s daughter Denise found the ideal winemaker in Scot Covington. They also found an ideal tasting room supervisor in Andrew Opperman, who will make sure you feel right at home as you taste the impeccable wines on the historic grounds.
Cathedral Ridge Winery, Hood River, OR
When owner Robb Bell purchased the former Flerchinger Vineyards in 2003, he named his new winery after its landscape: perched along a sharp ridge on the northwest summit of Mount Hood. Robb is outgoing and prolific. His portfolio of wines (crafted by Winemaker Michael Sebastiani) is long and imaginative. Robb loves to chat it up with his guests at the winery in Hood River Winery, and at his new tasting room in Dundee, as well.
Skinner Vineyards & Winery, Fair Play, CA
Owners Carrie and Mike Skinner reestablished their winery in 2006, 150 years after Mike’s great-great-great grandfather, a Scottish miner, had made wine on their property. They’re often on the premises, a beautiful winery overlooking their vineyards and nearby mountains. Winemaker Chris Pittenger spends as much time as he can there, too—sharing his enthusiasm for Skinner’s great portfolio of French Rhône varietals. On weekends, the Skinners often host food, wine, and music events.
Miraflores, Placerville, CA
This beautiful ten-year-old winery in the beautiful Sierra Foothills is all about teamwork. Owner Victor Alvarez encourages Winemaker Marco Cappelli, Vineyard Manager Rick Wickham, and Manager Matricia Haigood to work closely together. It’s not unusual to meet one or more of them in the striking Mediterranean-style tasting room. They even keep a group of barrels there to encourage impromptu sampling and purchases through the winery’s creative futures program.
Sextant Wines, Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo, CA
Third generation grape grower Craig Stoller and his wife Nancy have two lovely tasting rooms: one in Paso Robles and one in the quaint town of Old Edna. Both feature their fabulous lineup of distinct Zinfandel, Grenache/Syrah/Mourvèdre, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. The Paso Robles tasting room opened recently and features an Enomatic dispensing machine for self-guided tastings. Wine club members are invited to relax by the fire in the members-only suite.
Beckmen Vineyards, Los Olivos, CA
This unassuming tasting room is located in a beautiful spot just outside the tasting room laden town of Los Olivos. Winegrower Steve Beckmen works constantly: mostly in the vineyards, but don’t be surprised if he pops into the tasting room. This cozy spot overlooks Purisima Mountain Vineyard: one of California’s most coveted vineyards for Rhône varieties. When you visit Beckmen, ask all the questions you can think of about grape farming, especially Biodynamic farming practices. Steve and his staff and considered experts on the subject.
LangeTwins Family Winery & Vineyards, Lodi, CA
Twin brothers Randall and Brad Lange are just part of the multigenerational family of Lodi grape growers that dates back to the 1870s. They oversaw the successful launch of the family’s wine business seven years ago and were instrumental in establishing The Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing. Recently, the winery’s sleek tasting room, The Press Room, opened to the public. The twins and other Lange family members are often on hand, eager to share their wines and family lore with guests.
Buttonwood Farm Winery & Vineyard, Solvang, CA
The charming farmhouse-turned-tasting-room where Buttonwood’s exquisite wines are sampled is a cozy spot year round. Even in the winter when the surrounding flowerbeds are dormant, the tasting room is filled with natural light. Beautiful artwork by Seyburn Zorthian, the owner’s daughter and designer of its distinctive labels, are displayed on the walls. From its distinctive wines to its overall ambience, Buttonwood Winery is a delight to the senses.
HammerSky Vineyards, Paso Robles, CA
This little gem of a winery is tucked behind low lying vineyards and a majestic farmhouse that serves as a beacon to passersby. Owners Doug and Kim Hauck commute as much as they can from Newport Beach. If they’re not in the tasting room to greet you, rest assured that someone who knows fine Bordeaux wine will greet you in their place. HammerSky’s Bordeaux-centric portfolio deserves a leisurely tasting. You can even reserve the farmhouse for the ultimate cozy tasting experience.
The following article was provided by our contributing partner – Touring and Tasting Magazine. Cheers – Ken
When most of us think of American wine country, the word “Napa” quickly springs to mind. Rightly so, the Napa Valley is amazing, but don’t stop there! Did you know that there are fabulous wine regions from sea to shining sea? Here are 11, all recently featured in Touring & Tasting, America’s Premier Guide to Wine Country.
The heart of Washington wine country is located in the southeast corner of the state of Washington in an area called the Tri-Cities. This booming wine region has grown so strong, it actually consists of four cities: Kennewick, Pasco, Richland, and West Richland. Boasting 300 days of sunshine each year and three exciting rivers, the Tri-Cities is a great place for wine touring and all kinds of outdoor adventures. Play golf, hike, kayak, and fish as you sample wines at some of the more-than-200 wineries within an hour’s drive!
Just 30 minutes outside of Seattle, Woodinville wine country offers more than 100 wineries and tasting rooms featuring wines that representing all of Washington’s 13 AVAs. They are grouped in three districts. The Warehouse Winery District is set in a series of industrial office parks; while the Hollywood Winery District and West Valley Winery Districts offer a more rural setting with valley views. You won’t have to travel far to taste an impressive variety of exceptional wines, from Riesling and Rousanne to Cabernet Sauvignon and Cab Franc.
Willamette Valley, OR
About 50 years ago, the orchards and hillsides about 30 minutes southwest of Portland began to see a rebirth when they were planted with Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. Today the Willamette Valley is known for some of the world’s most distinctive Pinot Noirs. Cyclists and hikers appreciate the rolling terrain. The dedicated bike route, the Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway, stretches 132 miles and offers a myriad of options for wine tourists. Stay in a family-run bed and breakfast as you sample the region’s remarkable wines.
Sierra Foothills, CA
California’s Gold Country is an incredible place, with hills, dales, valleys, canyons: creating an amazing variety of conditions for growing grapes. In fact, many winemakers have relocated to Nevada, Placer, El Dorado, Amador, and Calaveras counties to work with these exceptional winegrapes that range from Italian, Rhône, Burgundian, and Bordeaux. As a getaway, the Sierra Foothills offer you loads of recreational opportunities and plenty of historical sites. Complete your day with dinner at a local restaurant and slumber at a small bed and breakfast or cozy inn.
Sonoma Valley, CA
Lying just west of the Napa Valley, 45 miles northeast of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, Sonoma Valley is a genuine farming community with friendly towns, scenic parks, and exceptional wines. Start your visit in the Carneros Corridor’s low-lying vineyards and wetlands and work your way north to the charming, historic city of Sonoma, home to both California’s oldest commercial winery and oldest family-run winery. Sonoma Valley stretches even further north. With plenty of top-notch restaurants, distinctive lodging, and friendly wineries to enjoy along the way.
The farming community of Lodi has been growing winegrapes for a very long time. Many of its residents are multigenerational farmers who consider the land to be a part of their personal legacy. You’ll find plenty of family owned and operated wineries here with inviting tasting rooms run by family members. The wines are remarkably diverse, in fact, Lodi grows more than 50 varieties! Located just 90 minutes east of San Francisco and 30 minutes south of Sacramento, Lodi is definitely worth discovering.
Pismo Beach, CA
Picture a beachside town with a splendid pier jutting out into the Pacific Ocean, where winemakers surf and walk with their dogs before they head for work. This classic California scene really does exist at Pismo Beach. The town is located in southern San Luis Obispo County, about midway between LA and San Francisco. Besides a fabulous 23-mile beach, it has more than 20 wineries within 15 minutes of town. Pismo Beach is laid back, and family and dog friendly: giving you the perfect atmosphere for discovering the distinctive wines of Edna and Arroyo Grande Valleys.
Santa Ynez Valley, CA
Ten years after the release of the independent film Sideways, Santa Ynez Valley has more appeal than ever. Its wild, rustic terrain attracts adventurers and seekers of the road less traveled. As the region’s largest AVA with more than 100 wineries, Santa Ynez Valley produces a range of varietals from fine Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to elegant red Bordeaux. There are many quaint towns which beg to be explored including the former Danish settlement, Solvang, home to many boutiques, bakeries, and tasting rooms. Santa Ynez Valley offers more than 30 accommodations, so check in and cheers!
Temecula Valley, CA
Talk about a great location, Temecula Valley is located just an hour from San Diego, Orange County, and Palm Springs. It’s a beautiful wine region boasting more than 30 wineries, perched on knolls and nestled in valleys. Many of the wineries have gourmet restaurants with inventive menus designed to complement the wines, so plan to have brunch, lunch, and dinner along the way. Temecula Valley is ideal for weddings, reunions, and other special events, so don’t hesitate to bring your family and friends.
Traverse City, MI
The northern woods of Michigan offers many gems with 150 inland lakes, rivers, streams and the hip little town of Traverse City. Here, innovative local cuisine and distinctive local wines are a popular topic. Recently named one of America’s Top Five Foodie Towns by Bon Appetit, the region taps its local resources for fresh fish, grass fed livestock, and delicious cheeses. The vineyards, located on the Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas, offer flavorful wines from 33 wineries. After a day of outdoor fun, you can snuggle by the fireplace while you discover another wonderful local wine.
Loudoun County, VA
It may be hard to believe that there are vineyards just 25 miles from the heart of Washington DC, but it’s true. Loudoun County is known for its horses, Civil War history, scenery, and fabulous food and wine. The region is grouped into six driving clusters: each a unique wine touring experience. Choose one and stop at the historic homes, parks, gardens, restaurants, and of course, wineries, you find along the way. Loudoun County produces exquisite wines and in many cases, you may run into the owner or winemaker when you visit. At the end of the day, check into in a quaint inn, or back in Washington D.C.
The following article was provided by our contributing partner – Touring and Tasting Magazine. Cheers – Ken
As we approach New Year’s Eve, I like to post a summary of our favorite Sparkling Wines and Champagnes. This year we had many winners! There is a style and price point that will work for all readers. These are all very good options that we are sure that you and your guests will all enjoy!
My first suggestion is the only 92 point wine. The non-vintage Gosset “Grand Blanc de Blanc” for $100 opens with lots of little fine bubbles that dissipate quickly. It displays a mild bread dough bouquet with a hint of green apple. On the palate, its flavor profile is a chalky mineral infused lime with hints of white pepper and a touch of Anjou pear. This is a classic French Champagne and it is very good friendly. I would suggest pairing it with bacon wrapped scallops.
At the 91 point level we have seven offerings. We will start with the non-vintage J Vineyards “Cuvee 20″ Sparkling Wine from Sonoma County. At $28 this sparkler is a steal. On the palate, this wine is medium bodied, slightly acidic and lively. We loved its mineral infused green apple flavors with notes of lemon. I also detected a hint of white pepper and touch of pineapple. This sparkler was a crowd pleaser and would be a great opening wine at your New Year’s Eve party. With 30,000 cases made it should be very easy to find.
The 2009 Schramsberg “Blanc de Noirs” for $40 was well received by our mini-tasting group. It has lots of medium bubbles and opens with a mild apple bouquet with a hint of lemon. On the palate, this wine is light bodied, slightly acidic and easy to drink. We found the flavor profile to be a mineral infused Anjou pear and bread dough with hints of tart lemon. This sparkler would be best, served as an aperitif.
The non-vintage Perrier Jouet “Grand Brut” Champagne for $45 opens with a stream of fine bubbles and a gentle strawberry and pear bouquet. It is medium bodied, balanced and very easy to drink. The flavor profile is a mild mineral infused green apple with hints of light lemon and bread dough. It finishes dry and its flavors drift away nicely. This Champagne would be a perfect New Year’s Eve offering. Serve it with chicken satay!
The non-vintage Nicolas Feuillatte “Brut Rose” Champagne for $52 opens with a bouquet of wild flowers complemented by fresh Bing cherries, pink grapefruit, and hints of currant. It is medium bodied and has an elegance that has always been the motto of Feuillatte Champagnes. It displays berry fruits (strawberry, raspberry, blueberry, and currant) that intermingle with a caramelized cream note, which is followed by a hint of toast, and finished by the distinct touch of age that is present as roasted nuts. All of these flavors linger for what feels like is forever.
These three high end offerings also scored 91 points. The 2002 Nicolas Feuillatte “Palmes d’Or” for $139 is a classic styled Champagne and tied for first place in our first big blind tasting of sparklers. It opens with a mild dough like bouquet with hints of honey and candied apricots. On the palate, it is light bodied, balanced, and savory. The flavor profile is honey with hints of Anjou pear, toast, and Key lime. The panel suggested pairing this gem with scallop ceviche or caviar with toast points.
The 2006 Perrier Jouet “Belle Epoque” Champagne for $150 was our other first place finisher in our first big blind tasting. This offering opens with a mild dough like bouquet with a hint of apple and almond. It is light bodied, balanced, and elegant. Its flavor profile is a mild bread dough with hints of minerality and a touch of grapefruit and apple. The panel felt this Champagne was perfect for food or your anniversary dinner. They suggested pairing it with swordfish or oysters.
Our final 91 pointer is the 2003 Gosset “Celebris Rose Extra Brut” Champagne for $202. This salmon colored Champagne with many tiny bubbles was very well received by our mini-tasting group. It opens with a fragrant bread dough and strawberry bouquet. It is light bodied, acidic and crisp. The flavor profile is a mineral infused red apple with hints of bread dough, strawberry and a touch of plum. Our group felt this Champagne was a perfect match for shrimp cocktail.
The next several Sparklers and Champagnes all scored 90 points. Each one would be a terrific New Year’s Eve option. You will find a majority of these to be quite affordable.
Helfrich NV “Cremant d’Alsace Brut” (Alsace, FR) $20 (90)
This sparkler made from 100% Pinot Blanc displays tiny refined bubbles and opens with a bread dough like bouquet with a hint of mild apple and honey. It is light bodied, smooth, and elegant with mild acidity. Its flavor profile is a mineral infused mild green apple and pear with a hint of lemon.
Mumm Napa NV “Brut Prestige” (Napa Valley, CA) $22 (90)
This sparkling wine from Napa is medium bodied and has always been a great alternative to Champagne. It provided nice balance. The creaminess and ripe fruits of this sparkler are perfectly balanced with the acidity and big bubbles, leaving you refreshed and intrigued.
Roederer NV “Brut” (Anderson Valley, CA) $23 (90)
This sparkler displays lots of bubbles and opens with a doughy bouquet with hints of apple and twig. On the palate, this wine is light bodied, bubbly and displays plenty of acidity. Its flavor profile is a mineral infused tart green apple with notes of tangerine. The panel suggested pairing this wine with cherrystones and sushi.
Roederer Estate NV “Brut Rose” (Anderson Valley, CA) $28 (90)
This light copper colored sparkler opens with a mild walnut and gentle strawberry bouquet with a hint of dough. It is bubbly, acidic and lively with strawberry flavors with hints of walnut, dough, orange, and red cherry towards the end. The panel suggested pairing this very nice sparkler with Legal’s popcorn shrimp.
Gloria Ferrer 2007 “Blanc de Blancs” (Carneros, CA) $28 (90)
This Blanc de Blanc opens with a fragrant ripe pear and honey bouquet with a hint of candle wax. It is light bodied, slightly acidic and lively. Its flavor profile is a mineral infused green apple with notes lemon-lime and a hint of white pepper. This sparkler would be a good aperitif with bacon wrapped scallops.
Schramsberg 2010 “Blanc de Blanc” (North Coast, CA) $38 (90)
This sparkler showed very well for the panel. While it does not have many bubbles, it opens with a faint apple and lemon like bouquet. It is medium bodied, bubbly and balanced with mild apple flavors and notes of grapefruit, key lime, and orange throughout. Panel members suggested serving it with grilled swordfish kabobs or grilled tuna.
J Vineyards NV “Brut Rose” (Russian River Valley, CA) $38 (90)
This Brut Rose from J Vineyards opens with a strawberry, cream and toast like bouquet. You will find this sparkler to be full bodied and display a plethora of fruits that range from your everyday red delicious apple to the more exotic blood orange. It is crisp, clean, and concise with upfront fruits that lead to a creaminess.
Louis Roederer NV “Brut Premier” (Champagne, FR) $49 (90)
This Champagne from Louis Roederer is always in on our recommended list. It displays very quick tiny bubbles. It is medium bodied, slightly acidic and mouthwatering. The panel enjoyed its mild green apple and pecan flavors with hints of tangerine and cantaloupe. Most of the panel felt this Champagne could be served on its own.
Nicolas Feuillatte 2005 “Cuvee Speciale” (Champagne, FR) $75 (90)
This premium Champagne displays very tiny bubbles. It is medium bodied, balanced, and elegant. The flavor profile is a gentle light lime with hints of minerality, dough, and touch of green apple. The panel suggested that this Champagne would be perfect with Coquilles St. Jacques or stuffed mushrooms.
Below is a list of all our very good high eighty point offerings. Their scoring range is from 89 points down to a Good 86 point offering from Germany. You can find some of the most affordable offerings in this grouping.
Gloria Ferrer NV “Blanc de Noirs” (Carneros, CA) $24 (89)
Gloria Ferrar 2005 “Royal Cuvee” (Carneros, CA) $32 (89)
Schramsberg 2009 “Brut Rose” (North Coast, CA) $43 (89)
Nicolas Feuillatte 2005 “Brut Chardonnay” (Champagne, FR) $47 (89)
Gosset NV “Brut Excellence” (Champagne, FR) $47 (89)
Delamotte NV “Brut” (Champagne, FR) $50 (89)
Delamotte NV “Blanc de Blancs” (Champagne, FR) $65 (89)
Gosset 2000 “Grand Millesime Brut” (Champagne, FR) $90 (89)
Mionetto NV “Prosecco Organic” (Veneto, IT) $14 (88)
Villa Sandi NV “Valdobbiadene Extra Dry” (Veneto, IT) $17 (88)
Laeticia NV “Brut Cuvee” (Arroyo Grande, CA) $25 (88)
Laetitia 2009 “Brut Rose” (Arroyo Grande, CA) $30 (88)
Veuve Clicquot NV “Brut” (Champagne, FR) $49 (88)
Mionetto NV “Prosecco Brut Treviso” (Veneto, IT) $15 (87)
Zardetto NV “Z Prosecco Brut” (Veneto, IT) $16 (87)
La Marca NV “Prosecco Extra Dry” (Veneto, IT) $17 (87)
Henkell NV “Blanc de Blancs Dry Sec” (Germany) $10 (86)
We hope your enjoy these Sparkling Wines and Champagnes as much as we did. We are confident you will. We also have an announcement to make. We would like to introduce Nicolay Castro as our new Chief Bubblehead! Nicolay works for Colonial Spirits in Acton, MA. He is their New World Wine Director. That said he loves his Champagne. He is the perfect person for the job. Nicolay will oversee all of our Champagne and Sparkling Wine reviews throughout the year. He will also head our big blind tasting in the fall. We look forward to Nicolay overseeing this very important category. Cheers! Ken
These are the top wines that the panel and I have discovered so far this year. All these wines scored 92 points or better. If you want to give the wine lover in your life a top quality high end wine as a gift, try to find one of these. The recipient will not be disappointed and you will be a hero! Merry Christmas!!!
Our first four wines all scored 94 points and really rock! The first one is from Spain and is a great deal at $56 per bottle. The 2009 Alejandro Fernandez “Tinto Pesquera Reserva” from Ribera del Duero is special. It is made from 100% Tempranillo. I found it to be medium to full bodied, balanced and very smooth. I loved its delicious black currant flavors with nicely integrated cedar and black plum. This is a terrific wine to pair with a Grill 23 ribeye steak. They made 2,500 cases, so you should be able to score a bottle or two.
Our next winner is a new project led by Aaron Pott. You will find several of Aaron’s wines on this list. This project is called Dylan’s Ghost. Their 2010 “The Beast” also scored 94 points. The unique blend is combination of 34% Cabernet Franc 33% Merlot & 33% Petit Syrah. I found it to be full bodied, smooth as silk, rich and still show a sense of elegance. Its flavor profile is a concentrated blend of black currant and blackberry with notes of black pepper and mild black licorice. This wine has a Napa cult wine feel and taste at half the price of its peers. Grab some soon before it’s gone. It will not last long once the secret is out!
The 2010 Buccella Cabernet from Napa Valley for $145 was a new discovery for me. This excellent Cabernet opens with a fragrant black cherry and menthol bouquet with hints of blackberry liquor and blueberry. Right out of the bottle this wine is initially full bodied, slightly acidic and juicy. However, with a little decanting and air this wine balanced out and develops a nice smooth texture. The flavor profile is a fruit forward black plum with notes of red raspberry and eventually some blueberry, blackberry, subtle minerality and oak flavors emerge to make this wine very complex. This Cab is a terrific wine and I would pair it with a filet mignon over the next several years.
Our final 94 pointer is the 2010 Ramey 2010 “Pedregal Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon from Oakville. This very impressive Cab was our top scoring wine in our first big blind tasting of High End reds. It opens with a fragrant and inviting black currant bouquet with a hint of anise, menthol, and graphite. The panel found it to be an extremely well balanced and smooth wine. They loved its delicious black currant flavors with notes of black licorice, cherry and oak. The panel suggested enjoying this wonderful Cab with a Grill 23 dry-aged ribeye!
We have six 93 pointers to tell you about. Our first is the 2010 Pina “Buckeye Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon for $85. This Howell Mountain Cabernet finished tied for second in our first big blind tasting. It is medium bodied, balanced, elegant and smooth. The panel loved its tasty black currant flavors with nicely integrated minerality and smoky old oak. They also detected hints of plum and black cherry. They suggested pairing this tasty Cab would pair well with Stuart’s rosemary steak treats, prime rib, or sipping alone by the fireplace.
Next up is another one of our top finishers in our recent blind tasting. The 2010 Stonestreet “Christopher’s” Cabernet Sauvignon for $100 was impressive. It opens with a very interesting blueberry bouquet with hints of smoky oak and black cherry. On the palate, it is full bodied, nicely balanced, and savory. The flavor profile is a mild black currant with a gentle streak of integrated minerality. We also detected hints of blackberry as well. The panel suggested pairing this impressive Cab with a New York strip steak or braised short ribs.
This $100 wine from Rioja in Spain really impressed the mini-tasting panel that tried it. The 2010 Artadi “Pagos Viejos” is made from 100% Tempranillo. It is more New World that Old World style. Our tasters found it to be full bodied, balanced, elegant, and fruit forward. Everyone appreciated its delicious juicy plum flavors with hints of blueberry, minerality and gentle oak. It finishes dry and its well managed tannins drift away nicely. They suggested pairing this wine with prime rib or even on enjoying it on its own.
The 2010 Hall “Kathryn Hall” Cabernet from Napa Valley was shared with us by one of our tasting panel members. The consensus was that it is very impressive. We found it to be full bodied, balanced and smooth. We described its flavor profile as black currant with notes of integrated oak. We also detected hints of anise, mild black cherry and gentle plum. It finishes dry and its moderate tannins stick around for quite some time. Everyone agreed that this cab was made for ribeye steak.
Our last two 93 pointers come from St. Helena. The 2010 DR Stephens “Moose Valley Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon for $135 finished tied for second in our first big blind tasting. It opens with a black cherry and cassis like bouquet with a hint of eucalyptus. On the palate, this wine is medium bodied, balanced, and elegant. The panel loved its black cherry and boysenberry flavors with hints of mild minerality and gentle oak. The finish is dry and its solid tannins build up and stick around for quite some time. The panel suggested a well-marbled ribeye steak and perhaps a cigar.
Our last 93 pointer is the 2010 Spottswoode “Estate Grown” Cabernet for $145. It is midnight blue colored tied for second place with the DR Stephens in our first big blind tasting. This Cab is full bodied, balanced, and fruit forward. Its flavor profile is black currant with notes of integrated oak. We also detected hints of minerality, coffee, and black plum. It finishes dry and its moderate tannins stick around for quite some time. The panel thought this very nice Cab would pair well with braised short ribs.
Our 92 pointers tend to be better deals as a majority of them are under $100. We will start off with with a great deal from Washington State. The 2010 Chateau Ste. Michelle “Ethos Reserve” Cabernet Sauvignon for $42 is unique and impressive. On the palate, this wine is medium to full bodied, balanced and smooth. It flavor profile is a tasty and unusual blend of blueberry and root beer with hints of black currant and faint oak. It finishes with moderate tannins are well managed and slow nice length. Our mini tasting group thought this Cab would go nicely with a New York strip steak with a dollop of butter on top.
This is the first of three 92 point Aaron Pott made Blackbird offerings. It is list ahead of the other two because of its $50 price point. The 2011 “Arise” red blend from Napa is made from 61% Merlot, 27% Cabernet Franc & 12% Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is medium bodied, nicely balanced and very easy to drink. I really enjoy it tasty black cherry flavors with hints of boysenberry, gentle plum, and faint oak in the background. This offering finishes with moderate fine tannins that drift away nicely.
We return to Washington State for another impressive blend. The 2010 Betz “Clos de Betz” for $55 is another steal. This blend is made from 58% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, & 7% Petit Verdot was well received by our mini-tasting group. It is medium bodied, slightly acidic, fruit forward, and very easy to drink. The flavor profile is a tasty blueberry and boysenberry blend with a hint of minerality and a touch of oak, cocoa, and plum. It was pretty complex. The finish is dry and it moderate and friendly tannins are pleasantly prolonged. Our group thought this wine would pair well with beef bourguignon.
The 2010 Paul Hobbs Cabernet from Napa for $75 was a hit with our mini tasting group. This offering is medium to full bodied, rich and very fruit forward. It displays extracted blackberry and black currant blend with notes of black licorice. We also detected a hint of boysenberry and oak. This Cab went well with our Kobe cap steak at Grill 23.
The 2010 Mt. Brave “Mt. Veeder” Cabernet for $75 is full bodied, balanced, refined and super smooth. The flavor profile is a gentle mineral infused and mild black currant blend with a hint of black cherry and oak. The finish is dry and its fine tannins drift away nicely. The panel suggested pairing this impressive Cabernet with a filet mignon.
An impressive wine list would be incomplete with a wine made by Robert Foley. His 2009 “Napa Valley” Cabernet Sauvignon for $86 was the clear winner of our first Cab blind tasting this fall. It opens with a very inviting black currant bouquet. On the palate, it was full bodied, nicely balanced, smooth and fruit forward. The flavor profile is a very tasty blueberry and black currant blend with notes of oak, minerality, and a hint of black cherry. It finishes dry and its substantial tannins linger for quite some time. The panel suggested pairing this terrific Cab with a well-marbled ribeye.
The next 2 offerings is a pair of 92 pointers from the Alpha Omega winery in Napa. Both wines cost $92. The 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon is full bodied, extremely well balanced and smooth. Its flavor profile is a delicious black cherry and ripe black currant blend with hints of plum and some earth tones. This one finishes dry and its big tannins sail away nicely. The other Alpha Omega offering is the 2010 “Proprietary Red.” This blend is made from 59% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 9% Petit Verdot, and 2% Cabernet Franc. It is full bodied, balanced and savory. Our friends really liked its tasty mild blueberry flavors with hints of oak, minerality, and dark chocolate. It finishes dry and its well managed tannins show very nice length. You can’t go wrong with either of these wines.
Another pair of 92 point winners are from Aaron Pott and Blackbird. Both cost $125. We will start with the 2010 “Illustration.” This big boy red blend from the Napa Valley consists of 48% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc and 22% Cabernet Sauvignon. It is full bodied, rich and concentrated with extracted blackberry flavors with notes of black pepper and black licorice. I also detected hints of black cherry. It finishes rather dry and its dusty tannins are sticky and last for quite some time. This one would benefit from some cellaring so give it to someone who can sit on it and wait. Another option is the 2010 “Contrarian.” This one is a blend of 48% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Cabernet Franc, and 20% Merlot. It is full bodied, balanced, juicy and very smooth. The flavor profile is an extracted blackberry with notes of black currant. I also detected hints of black licorice and a touch of oak. It finishes dry and its moderate tannins are a tad sticky and linger. A little more ready than the Illustration, but it would benefit from a little decanting in the near term. Then I would serve it with a well-marbled ribeye,
The Chappellet “Pritchard Hill” is always one of our top high end wines. This year the 2010 Cabernet blend for $135 is made up of 76% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Malbec and 10% Petit Verdot. It is wine medium bodied, smooth, and balanced. The panel found its flavor profile to be a complex blend of black currant with notes of integrated minerality and hints of black plum, black pepper and gentle vanilla oak. The panel felt this impressive Cab would pair well with a wild mushroom and boar ravioli or thick cut ribeye steak.
Our final suggestion is not for fans of wimpy wines. The 2010 Robert Mondavi “Reserve” Cabernet Sauvignon from Oakville runs $135 per bottle. It opens with a black currant and blackberry bouquet with hints of black cherry and menthol. On the palate, this wine is full bodied, balanced, and rich. The flavor profile is black currant with integrated notes of anise, blackberry, minerality, and oak. It finishes with big dusty tannins that build up and stick around for quite some time. This Cab is still quite young, so the panel suggests cellaring it for a while.
Many of these wines are hard to find. Some fine wine shops stock up on wines like these just before the holidays. Stop by in the next few days and pick up a last minute gift for someone special in your life. You will also find several of these are still available online. Perhaps you can have it express delivered. The recipient of your gift will love receiving one of these gems.
Happy Holidays – Cheers! Ken
There’s no place like wine country for the holidays. Wherever you turn, the tasting rooms, inns, bed and breakfasts, resorts, and restaurants warmly greet you with great gift ideas, wonderful cuisine, and plenty of fine wine. Here are 10 great places to check into along the Pacific coast.
Willows Lodge, Woodinville, WA
Located just outside of Seattle in the heart of Woodinville wine country (boasting more than 100 wineries and tasting rooms), Willows Lodge is a charming retreat. Slip away from the holiday crowds and sit back in your soaking tub while you enjoy a full view of your stone-trimmed fireplace and large flat-screen TV. There’s also a 2,500-square-foot spa and two fabulous award-winning restaurants onsite. The Barking Frog received the 2013 Wine Spectator Award of Excellence and The Herbfarm Restaurant is a AAA 5 Diamond Award winner.
Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center, Walla Walla, WA
The Walla Walla wine country icon, the historic Marcus Whitman Hotel and Conference Center is more vibrant than ever during the holidays. Located in the heart of downtown, just steps from more than 20 tasting rooms, it offers beautifully appointed guest rooms plus plenty of delightful places to discover including on-site wine tasting rooms, an art gallery, and a nationally lauded restaurant, The Marc. James Beard-recognized Chef Antonio Campolio creates modern American menus that need to be sampled to be believed.
Cathedral Ridge Winery, Hood River and Dundee, OR
With a winery on the Columbia River Gorge and a tasting room in the heart of the Willamette Valley wine country, Cathedral Ridge Winery provides an amazing variety of fabulous ways to toast the holidays. Founder Robb Bell never settles for second best. He enlists the talents of fourth generation California winemaker Michael Sebastiani and vintner Lonnie Right and reaps many accolades and awards for his lengthy portfolio of wines. Stroll the winery grounds on a sunny winter day or drop into the tasting room in downtown Dundee.
Chateau St. Jean, Kenwood, CA
The exquisite Chateau St. Jean is always a sight to behold, but it’s a sight for sore eyes during the holidays. The Visitor Center and elegant gardens are serene and welcoming. There’’ a delectably stocked charcuterie for picnickers, a courtyard garden, and a demonstration garden for leisurely strolls. But the pièce de resistance is the exceptional wines. Winemaker Margo Van Staaveren has been at the helm for more than 30 years. She was named Wine Enthusiast’s Winemaker of the Year. Take a stroll, savor the wines. À santé.
Wente Vineyards, Livermore, CA
Not far from San Francisco, the Wente family has been growing and making wine for 130 years. Wente Vineyards enjoys an impeccable reputation in fact; it was awarded 2011 American Winery of the Year by Wine Enthusiast. Besides the beautiful tasting room, you should enjoy a meal at The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards, whose recent accolades include the 2013 Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence and high scores from Zagat. The restaurant uses locally grown organic ingredients with splendid results.
Robert Mondavi Winery, Oakville, CA
For genuine holiday hospitality, you can never go wrong with a visit to Robert Mondavi Winery in the Napa Valley. Its legendary founder believed that the region could be the center of a gracious lifestyle embracing wine, food, and art and the winery epitomizes this. Take an educational tour or seminar and visit the beautiful gift shop for wonderful wine-related gifts. The main tasting bar was recently moved to the Vineyard Room to give guests a place to relax and savor the wines and stunning To Kalon Vineyard. So cheers!
Dolphin Bay Resort & Spa, Pismo Beach, CA
Escape to a tranquil, oceanfront setting in the Classic California town of Pismo Beach. The resort features both one- and two-bedroom suites with all the comforts of home, plus a terrace or patio with a stunning view of the Pacific Ocean. Besides taking leisurely walks on the beach, long soaks in the whirlpool, and energizing workouts in the 24-hour fitness center, enjoy being pampered in the spa. Lido, Dolphin Bay’s signature restaurant and lounge offers exquisite cuisine and a list of more than 450 wines. Just wait until you see the sunset.
Blair Fox Cellars, Los Olivos and Santa Barbara, CA
Renowned winemaker Blair Fox, recipient of the 2008 André Tchelistcheff Winemaker of the Year Award, grew up in Santa Barbara wine country. For a wonderful holiday afternoon, visit the tiny Los Olivos tasting room (designed by his wife Sarah) to taste the small-lot wines sourced from some of the county’s finest vineyards, then have lunch nearby. Next, drive over the foothills to the coastal town of Santa Barbara. Recently, Blair and Sarah opened a second tasting room in the new Santa Barbara Art Foundry in this sublime city’s Funk Zone. Revisit a favorite wine while you tour the intriguing gallery.
Lucas & Lewellen Vineyards, Solvang, CA
The Danish-inspired village of Solvang holds many holiday treasures with quaint shops, bakeries, and two tasting rooms that Lucas & Lewellen wines. The Toccata tasting room focuses on Italian varietals and also features great gift solutions with gourmet foods and wine-related items. Less than a block away, the Lucas & Lewellen tasting room is a local favorite. They voted it The Best Tasting Room in Santa Ynez Valley. If you have children along, there’s an activity table where they can write a letter to Santa while you enjoy the wines.
Falkner Winery, Temecula, CA
Something always seems to be happening at Falkner Winery in the heart of Temecula Valley wine country (just about an hour from San Diego and Los Angeles). There’s a good reason the tasting room is such a lively place. Falkner wines are soft, approachable, and readily drinkable. The winery’s onsite restaurant, The Pinnacle, also has a strong following. It features outstanding healthy Mediterranean American cuisine and sweeping vineyard views. Plan to have brunch or lunch on a holiday afternoon and shop for gifts in the tasting room.
With the holidays just around the corner, we thought we’d offer up a few ideas for wine country getaways that are sure to please even the most discriminating travelers and palates.
Set in the hillsides of picturesque Livermore Valley and just a quick trip from downtown San Francisco, the Purple Orchid Resort and Spa offers ten beautifully appointed guest suites, each with a fireplace and Jacuzzi tub. The stunning 9,000-square-foot log cabin-style resort, nestled amongst 24 acres of Manzanillo olives, exudes a sense of Old-World charm. Whether gathering poolside with friends, enjoying a treatment at the Purple Orchid’s world-class spa, or simply cozying up to a fireplace with a glass of wine, guests get a new sense of rejuvenation. Each evening, guests are invited to the Gathering Hour, where olive oils and products made from the resort’s own Livermore Valley olive orchard are served with local wines.
Tasting Tip: Be sure to visit Murrieta’s Well and immerse yourself in Livermore Valley history at an Estate that was discovered in the 1880s and purchased by the incomparable local vintner Philip Wente in the 1930s. You’re sure to savor not only the charming setting, but also some truly unique wines.
Located less than an hour from Sacramento, you and your beau can escape to an environment that’s as romantic as its name. The Wine & Roses Hotel, Restaurant, and Spa offers visitors to Lodi wine country a splendid retreat. From the moment they arrive, guests feel they’re in good hands. The Wine & Roses staff has a knack for sensing just how much pampering one requires and proceeds accordingly. Garden Rooms boast rustic luxury, while Spa Rooms emanate a Zen-like feel, and the Signature Suites are abundant with custom details and amenities. No matter where they land, guests feel right at home at Wine & Roses.
Tasting Tip: While in Lodi, be sure to visit Harney Lane Winery’s warm and inviting tasting room, where you’ll sample a portfolio of unique, memorable estate varietals including Old Vine Zinfandel, Tempranillo, Primitivo, Petite Sirah, and Albariño—along with classic Chardonnay.
If you’re looking for the quintessential wine tasting getaway with your favorite wine lover, look no further than Napa Valley’s own history-steeped Rutherford appellation. The Rancho Caymus Inn stands on land once awarded to pioneer George C. Yount as part of the Napa Valley’s first land grant. Today, the 26-suite inn provides guests with an elegant retreat in the heart of the world-famous Rutherford Bench wine country. The beauty of the natural springs and hillside caves of the Flora Springs estate inspired the design of the Inn’s unique tasting emporium. An appointment is not necessary for those wishing to drop in for a wine tasting flight or wine and food pairing. But for those able to plan ahead, tasting on the scenic Rooftop Lounge and Barrel Cave Room tastings are both possibilities, as are lunch or a delightful picnic served in a charming wine country table setting in the picturesque Vineyard Courtyard picnic area.
Tasting Tips: While in Rutherford, be sure to add the following wineries to your route:
- Grgich Hills – co-founded by the winemaker famous for crafting the Chardonnay which upset the 1976 Paris Tasting. Mike has continued receiving international awards for his estate grown wines since that unforgettable day and has also been recognized as a leader in natural winegrowing and sustainability.
- Peju – this beautiful oasis in Rutherford Estate also holds the distinction of being one of only 21 certified organic wineries in the Napa Valley. Wine tasting is taken to a new level at Peju, where its 50-foot French Provincial tower serves as the expansive tasting room and centerpiece of the property.
- Artesa Vineyards + Winery – While it’s a little outside of Rutherford, the excellent wine, epic family history, dramatic views and stunning architecture, and one-of-a-kind artistic installations by artist-in-residence Gordon Huether make Artesa Vineyards & Winery a destination-worthy experience. Fifth-generation Napa Valley winemaker Mark Beringer contributes his award-winning skills to Artesa’s lineup of handcrafted wines which bring the true flavor of the Napa Valley alive on your palate.
While the country roads of the Paso Robles AVA less than an hour from San Luis Obispo are winding, one never has trouble finding HammerSky Vineyards & Inn or trouble recommending it to friends after staying there. HammerSky is distinguished by a strikingly beautiful century-old farmhouse, which sits regally alongside the entrance driveway and where guests can enjoy an overnight getaway. Beyond the gates beckon a panorama of rolling vineyards, a New England-style barn, and an ultra-modern tasting room where intriguing Paso Robles wine awaits. Winemaker Rich Hartenberger’s blending talent is evident in the winery’s Open Invitation, a Meritage blend of the best of the harvest; and The Party of Four, a fun, complex mélange of four varietals. It’s no wonder the HammerSky wines have an enthusiastic following and sell out every year.
Tasting Tip: Should you choose to leave your HammerSky haven and venture further into Paso Robles wine country, make a note to stop at one of Paso’s true jewels: Villa San-Juliette. This slice of heaven is the brainchild of Ken Warwick and Nigel Lythgoe, childhood friends and producers of some of television’s hottest programs including American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance. More than 100 winemakers were considered to craft VSJ’s wines and Ken and Nigel staged a blind tasting to select the winner. Their top two favorite wines were both crafted by one very talented winemaker, Matt Ortman.
A treasure in the heart of Santa Barbara wine country, the sumptuous Santa Ynez Inn welcomes guests with elegance and grace. Its authentic Victorian-era architecture and antique furnishings are so genuine that first-timers are surprised to learn that the Santa Ynez Inn was built from scratch just a decade ago. The inn has been honored with the AAA 4-Diamond award rating every year since opening and was named in Trip Advisor’s Top 25 Small Hotels list in 2013. The Santa Ynez Inn offers an ideal oasis after a day of touring, tasting, and exploring the quaint towns of Santa Ynez, Solvang, and Los Olivos.
Tasting Tip: Nearby, Zaca Mesa embraces the California Code of Sustainable Winegrowing to achieve balance in the vineyard and view the estate as one living, breathing system. Zaca Mesa wines have enjoyed the spotlight often and have been served both by President Clinton at a White House state dinner and at President Reagan’s 80th birthday party. The 2006 Estate Syrah was listed #29 in Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of 2010.
This “V” shaped Willamette Valley is home to Oregon’s largest city, Portland, making it easily accessible to out-of-town wine lovers. Bordered by the Columbia River to the north, the Calapooya Mountains to the south, the Cascade Mountain foothills to the east, and to the west by Oregon’s Coast Range, wine lovers are sure to swoon when they discover that around 200 wineries call it home. Quaint B&Bs and cozy, romantic hotels can be found throughout the Valley.
Tasting Tip: Tasting Tip: While in Willamette, be sure to visit Domaine Drouhin, which The Oregonian newspaper named Domaine Drouhin as Oregon’s Best Winery for Tastings in 2012. The winery itself is a four-story gravity flow design, built into the hillside. Fourth-generation Winemaker Veronique Drouhin-Boss gently oversees the entire Domaine winemaking process using traditional techniques, learned from a lifetime in wine.
Merlot has been bashed for quite some time now. I personally feel too long. It is a great grape that makes very nice wine when done well. You will not get as many 90 pointers out of Merlots, but you will get a lot of smooth, friendly, and easy to drink wines that are very good. That is what you will find below after the first few terrific top scoring options. I would strongly suggest that you revisit this grape if you have left to explore others. Merlot has remained and will always remain a significant player. Try some and you will see for yourself.
Our first two options both scored 92 points. They are both on the higher end of the price spectrum, but they also show how good top notch level Merlot can be. Our first recommendation is the 2010 Steven Kent “Small Lot Offering” Merlot from the Livermore Valley in California. Even at $50, these 70 cases will disappear quickly. I would call the winery fast if you want to try a bottle or two of this gem. It is medium bodied, slightly acidic, and coats the mouth with flavors. It displays ripe black cherry flavors with notes of black pepper and hints of oak, plum, cola and touch of cinnamon. The finish is dry and its moderate, yet unobtrusive tannins stick around for quite some time. This is a Merlot you can enjoy with a nice steak. A New York strip came to mind first.
Our second 92 pointer comes from Mt. Brave. Their 2010 “Mt. Veeder” Merlot is very impressive. It is pitch black colored and opens with an inviting black cherry bouquet with a hint of blackberry. On the palate, this wine is medium bodied, nicely balanced, juicy and rich. I loved its ripe black cherry flavors with notes of blueberry and hint of faint cola, oak and minerality in the background. The finish is dry and its fine tannins linger for a little while. At $75, this Merlot should be saved for a special occasion. That said, it is a very food friendly Merlot and it would be a perfect pairing for a filet mignon.
Two of the four Merlots that scored 90 points are two of our best values. We start with the 2010 Beringer Merlot from the Napa Valley. At $20 this wine is a real bargain. It was one of our top finishers in our recent blind tasting. It opens with a pleasant boysenberry bouquet with a hint of black cherry, menthol and oak. On the palate, this wine is full bodied, balanced, dense and albeit bit rustic for a Merlot. The panel described its flavor profile as concentrated blackberry with notes of oak with hints of black raspberry and black pepper. They suggested pairing this Merlot with comfort foods. Pot roast was their first choice.
Next up is the 2010 Joseph Carr Merlot from the “Napa Valley”. This wine is also a good value at $20. It opens with an attractive black cherry bouquet. On the palate, this wine is medium bodied, balanced, and savory. I really enjoyed its mineral infused plum flavors with notes of gentle oak and dark chocolate. It finishes dry and its fine tannins make it rather food friendly. I would also pair this tasty Merlot with comfort foods. Beef bourguignon came to mind first.
Next up are two premium Merlots. Both are 90 pointers, but do carry a much higher sticker price than the two previous options. The 2010 La Jota “Howell Mountain” is a very nice follow up to last year’s 2009 vintage that took first place in our blind tasting. The 2010 is medium bodied, refined, and smooth. I found that it displays some really nice flavors. Those flavors are a mild mineral infused black cherry with hints of faint oak and black plum. In the end, this wine drifts away nicely with its fine grained tannins. That smoothness makes it very food friendly and versatile. Choose something nice to eat and enjoy. The 2009 Mt. Brave “Napa Valley” Merlot for $75 is a very limited production offering. Only 121 cases were made. It is not quite as good as the 2010 listed above, but was one of our top finishers in our recent big blind tasting as it did stand out. The panel described it as medium bodied, slightly acidic and savory with oak infused black plum flavors. They also picked up hints of black cherry, oak and black pepper. Given its bigger style, the panel suggested pairing this bold Merlot with tender grilled bourbon steak tips.
Here Are Some Quick Hits On Our Very Good 89 To 87 Point Offerings
Franciscan 2010 Merlot “Napa Valley” (CA) $21 (89)
Medium bodied, smooth and a little bit thin. Mild black currant flavors with a touch of mineral, tart black cherry and oak. The finish is dry and its moderate tannins build up and linger. Pair with a juicy Angus bacon burger.
Sbragia 2010 Merlot “Home Ranch” (Dry Creek Valley, CA) $25 (89)
An everyday drinking Merlot to be enjoyed with food. Medium bodied, balanced, and smooth. Blueberry and cherry cola flavors with a hint of cedar plank and plum. The Panel suggested pairing with a tangy pulled pork sandwich.
Kendall Jackson 2010 Merlot “Grand Reserve” (Sonoma County, CA) $30 (89)
This midnight blue colored Merlot from KJ is medium bodied, balanced, and smooth. The flavor profile is a mild black plum with hints of minerality, faint oak and a touch of red currant. Pair with homemade meatloaf.
Freemark Abbey 2011 Merlot “Napa Valley” (CA) $34 (89)
This Merlot is medium bodied, balanced and very easy to drink. Tasty black cherry flavors with notes of plum. I also detected a hint of oak and gentle boysenberry in the background. Pair with slow cooked pulled pork.
Peju 2010 Merlot “Napa Valley” (CA) $35 (89)
Medium bodied, balanced and smooth. The flavor profile is a black currant and plum blend with hints of milk chocolate, black cherry, and mild oak. The finish is dry and sticky. Decant and serve with braised pork belly.
Blue Rock 2010 Merlot “Best Barrels” (Alexander Valley, CA) $60 (89)
A fruit bomb! It opens with a fragrant and inviting blackberry bouquet with a hint of anise and black cherry. Medium bodied, slightly acidic, and savory with juicy blackberry and black raspberry flavors with notes of anise and black plum. It paired nicely with a Trader Joe’s dark chocolate covered almonds.
Joseph Carr 2011 Merlot “Josh” (CA) $15 (88)
This California Merlot is medium bodied, balanced, and fruit forward. Its flavor profile is a ripe red raspberry with notes of plum and pomegranate with a hint of oak. It would pair well with pork tenderloin.
Candor NV Merlot “Lot 5″ (Central Coast, CA) $20 (88)
This Merlot is medium bodied, balanced, lush and appealing. I enjoyed its ripe black cherry and blueberry flavors with nicely integrated mild oak in the background. It would pair perfectly with juicy burgers topped with blue cheese and caramelized onions.
Chateau St. Jean 2010 Merlot “Sonoma County” (CA) $25 (88)
This Merlot is slightly acidic and fruit forward. It displays ripe blackberry and boysenberry flavors with hints of mild black licorice and gentle oak. Its moderate tannins are sticky. Pair with barbecue steak tips.
Merriam Vineyards 2008 Merlot “Windacre” (Russian River Valley) $29 (88)
Merriam’s Merlot is medium bodied, balanced, and savory. It displays black currant flavors with notes of black pepper, minerality, and old oak. It finishes dry, with dusty tannins. Try it with a pulled pork sandwich.
Reininger 2009 Merlot “Helix” (Columbia Valley, WA) $29 (88)
This Merlot from Washington State is medium bodied, balanced, and juicy. I enjoyed its plum and black cherry flavors that blended nicely with gentle oak and a touch of black pepper. A bit sticky and shows nice length.
Gundlach Bundschu 2010 Merlot “Sonoma Valley” (CA) $30 (88)
This Merlot is medium bodied, balanced and slightly rustic. Its flavor profile is a slight tart black cherry and black raspberry blend with integrated old oak and a hint of black pepper. Pair with a mushroom burger.
Reininger 2008 Merlot “Walla Walla” (WA) $39 (88)
This Washington State was well received by the panel. It is medium bodied, balanced, and smooth. They liked its red cherry flavors with notes of gentle oak and a touch of red raspberry. They suggested blackened tuna.
Chappellet 2010 Merlot “Napa Valley” (CA) $40 (88)
This deep purple colored “Napa” Merlot is also medium bodied, balanced, and smooth. The panel enjoyed its mild black cherry flavors with hints of black currant and very light oak. They suggested pairing it with Hungarian goulash.
Our last suggestion is a Good Merlot that is also a Good Value. The Red Rock 2011 “Reserve” Merlot from California is only $14 and received 86 points. There were 76,000 cases made, so it should be easy to find. It is medium bodied, slightly acidic and juicy with ripe black cherry flavors and some integrated oak and blackberry. It is a good weekday Merlot that would pair well with an Italian sausage sandwich with sauteed onion and peppers.
We hope you enjoy these food friendly Merlots as much as we did. Please share your favorite Merlot discoveries with the group by posting a comment. Enjoy – Ken
With harvest in full swing, it’s a great time to visit wine regions across the country—but watch out for those grape trucks! The Premier Guide to Wine Country, Touring & Tasting, has come up with a great list of wineries and places to stay in wine country as you toast the harvest. Discover these 10 Great Wine Country Harvest Finds (all featured in the Summer/Fall issue of Touring & Tasting magazine) each chosen for its own special appeal at harvest time.
Richland and Woodinville, Washington
With two tasting room destinations (one just outside of Seattle in Woodinville and one in the Columbia Valley town of Richland) there’s no excuse for Washingtonians to miss J. Bookwalter at harvest time. For the most part, the grapes come from the upper east end of the Wahluke Slope AVA in a vineyard that Winegrower Jerry Bookwalter has managed for more 25 years. His son John partnered with Winemaker Claude Gros about five years ago and the wines are receiving amazing scores. If you can’t visit them in Washington, visit the wines anyway. Two of J Bookwalter’s red wine blends have been featured on Ken’s Wine Guide in the past–the 2004 Merlot, which received a 90.3 score and their “Lot 21″ brand, which received an 88.
Willamette Valley, Oregon
There’s something indescribable about getting away to Oregon wine country at harvest time. Distinctive Destinations has three properties in the Willamette Valley: Lions Gate Inn B&B, a historical luxury boutique bed and breakfast in Newberg; Vineyard Ridge, a vacation rental with sweeping valley views; and Lake House, a fairy tale cottage aside a private little lake. Each property offers a personal concierge service to help you plan your wine touring day and side excursions to the Gorge, Portland, and Mount Hood.
James Frey was a professional photographer and painter before he and his wife Andrea committed themselves to wine. They planted two vineyards—one on the Coast Range in the southwestern corner of the Yamhill-Carlton AVA, and a second in the heart of the Ribbon Ridge AVA. Later they added a third in the Dundee Hills—all yield Pinot Noir and Riesling exclusively. The resulting portfolio boasts more than a dozen Rieslings and Pinot Noirs, many of which can be sampled in the exquisite tasting room that includes a 1,500-square foot art gallery displaying James’ work.
Lower Lake, California
Kai Ahlmann, a practiced mathematical statistician, and his family started Six Sigma Ranch based on the Six Sigma philosophy. They apply it to the old-world art of winemaking and handcraft each bottle of wine to be as excellent as the next. Harvest time is amazing at the 4,300-acre Six Sigma Ranch. Only 50 acres have been planted to grapes, but they are carefully selected acres, chosen to express the ranch’s unique character. A tour around the amazing property in the Six Sigma Pinzgauer all-utility vehicle should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Bodega Bay, California
For as remote and elegant as Inn at the Tides may seem, most of us have been there before. Alfred Hitchcock put this beautiful property on the map when he filmed his legendary film The Birds. Today’s Inn at the Tides just plain utterly romantic. It is set along the isolated Sonoma coastline with everything you could ask for: well appointed guest rooms with incredible views, two restaurants, a heated swimming pool, and spa. Besides, wine country and all the excitement of harvest is nearby.
Located in the heart of Lodi wine country on seven acres of stunning, landscaped grounds, this sustainable and certified organic vineyard also boasts a brand new tasting room. Tasting rooms guests are treated to exclusive, limited-production wines and are free to roam the scenic property and enjoy a picnic overlooking vineyards that have been hand-hoed, trellised, and hand thinned. This level of care has not been lost on industry critics, who have consistently recognized their wines in both domestic and international competitions.
Santa Rosa, California
Talk about a gem! This little jewel of a winery covers only six acres, but it produces some of the Russian River Valley’s finest Cabernet Sauvignons. And that’s all–Proprietors Wendy and Kevin Morrow produce only 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. Each bottle is numbered and hand waxed by Dillon Morrow, their son, who has studied viticulture and spent a good deal of time in the cellar. The Morrows believe fun and wine go hand-in-hand which is why they’re hosting an adventure through Portugal next May. Their website has all the details.
This multigenerational family winery has recently opened its stylish new tasting room, The Press Room, to the public. It’s named LangeTwins after Randall and Bad Lange whose ancestors have been farming their land since the 1870s. The twins didn’t get into winemaking until seven years ago, but they caught on fast. Under the leadership of Winemaker David Akiyoshi and Winemaker Karen Birmingham, they have built a portfolio with varietal complexity. If you can’t visit, look into the wine club which offers a 20 percent discount and other perks.
Paso Robles, California
Back when Darren Mitchell was growing up on his family’s 80-acre ranch, he had no idea that he’d come back there someday to grow winegrapes and make wine. Since then, he fell in love with his wife Angela, followed by a 1987 bottle of Eberle Cabernet Sauvignon. Darren started studying winemaking, planted 20 acres of vineyard on his family ranch, and today, he and Angela are reaping the rewards of their labor, with a fabulous portfolio of award-winning wines. On harvest weekends, visitors enjoy the expansive views from Mitchella’s homey Tuscan villa-style tasting room.
Paso Robles, California
Each bottle of Silver Horse wine carries the inscription: “Not for us alone!” which tells us a lot about the philosophy at Silver Horse Winery. This family winery started with a tasting room in a converted barn 17 years ago. Today, Silver Horse is a local destination with a fantastic tasting room and grounds with vista vineyard views. The winery is built for parties with a dance floor, outdoor kitchen, and band and food stations. It’s a great place to celebrate harvest.
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