Sonoma County Vineyard

Friday, June 25, 2010


Lastnight we went to one of my favorite dining spots in Sonoma: Meritage (Martini and Oyster Bar). A great place steps off the plaza with a light and airy atmosphere, excellent bar, attentive (but not intrusive staff) and varying menu. Okay, so I'm not a martini person, but I understand they make some outstanding martinis. I do, however, enjoy a Manhattan from time to time so I ordered one....
This one was made with Makers Mark, my favorite bourbon. It was a great way to start the meal.
We started with a fresh mixed green salad with a Cabernet vinegarette dressing. Chef Carlo Cavallo picks the vegetables used in the cuisine from local farms, so the menu can change on a daily basis depending on what's available. He opened Meritage over ten years ago in Sonoma because the town reminded him of his hometown in Italy and because of the availability of local produce. We only discovered Meritage two years ago, but it quickly hit the top 3 list of my favorite restaurants in Sonoma.

Just look at this meal....
The steak was perfectly done, the potatoes were rich and creamy and the medley of vegetables were bursting with good, it's not hard to believe they were picked that morning.

We brought a bottle of Bella's Two Patch Vineyard Zinfandel with us. The fruit in the wine had unbelievable concentration. You may remember it was my favorite wine from a recent visit. It's so opulent and full in the mouth that it could possibly overpower some foods. However, my steak was perfectly matched. The wine, like the food, was gone too quickly. But at least I know that we can go back and enjoy the bounty of Sonoma again.


Monday, June 21, 2010

Sojourn Cellars

Recently, I had a chance to visit Sojourn Cellars just off the plaza in Sonoma. The tasting salon has only been open for about 18 months, but is quite successful already. They specialize in small lot Pinot Noir and Cabernet. When I heard that, I was very curious because those two wines are usually made in very different ways. More on that in a moment, but first some pictures...

The outside of the salon....

What a cool little "house" wonder it's so comfortable.

We were met with quite a spread....

Oh, how I love cheese, especially when paired well with wines!

Okay, let's get back to the wine.

I was greeted with the Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. In case I need to remind you, I'm a hard sell on Pinot. This one was good, not great, but good. It takes a lot for me to really enjoy a Pinot Noir and while I wouldn't kick any of these wines out of bed, I liked a couple of the other ones better.

Next I had the Rodgers Creek Pinot and I thought this one had a little more complexity and thought immediately that it would be a perfect Pinot for a lot of different food pairings. Dishes with mushrooms came to mind.

Then came the Gap's Crown Vineyard and the Sangiacomo Vineyard Pinots. These two blew me away. Seriously. This is what Pinot is all about. The winemaker was there to talk all about the differences in the vineyards and the locations. Maybe there was just more of a story to tell about these two places, but I think that these two vineyards are just more expressive. I would drink a glass (bottle) of either of these wines in a heartbeat. Their velvety smooth texture and abundance of aromas and flavors were just amazing.

Now on to the Cabernet Sauvignons. Unlike Pinot, I generally like most Cabernets. Of course, there are many styles and I can't say that I like them all. It was interesting to learn that the Cabernet wines were made in the exact same way as the Pinot Noir - open top fermenters (very rare for Cab) and basket pressing, one of the oldest ways to crush grapes. Sojourn is also small enough that they can do a lot of sorting. They sort clusters in the vineyards and then again back at the winery and they also sort berries. Yes, berries. Now that is meticulous. All of this extra work leads to higher price wines, but generally better quality and flavor. Pretty important, if you ask me.

Like the Pinot Noir, the Cabernet differences were based on vineyards (soil, heat, vine management, etc...). They currently have three different releases: 2006 Sonoma Valley, 2006 "Reserve" Mountain Terraces Vineyard and 2007 Home Ranch. All three were good, solid wines. The standout, for me, was the reserve. And before you jump to conclusions about reserve being better, you should know that the term / word "reserve" on a label is not controlled by the government. A winery or winemaker can use it on any of their wines. In this case, I really thought it was the best of these particular wines. I will let you know that these Cabernets were lighter than the typical Cabs, due in part to the way the grapes are handled. It was a nice change though because the wines were ready to drink now - you wouldn't have to wait!

The setting: relaxed, home-like. The service: outstanding. The wines: very good - great. Will I go again? Yes. And I recommend you visit the tasting salon on your next trip to Sonoma.


Sunday, June 6, 2010

An afternoon in Healdsburg

Yesterday was a special afternoon. The kids were at my in-laws house and my wife and I headed up to Healdsburg for a couple of wine events. Time alone (even with groups present) is precious and rare, so we took full advantage.

The first event we went to was a release party for Bedarra Vineyards. Bedarra is a small (very small) winery producing about 500 cases a year and is not open to the public, so it was an experience just to be there. They specialize in white wines - Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay grapes from Dry Creek Valley.

Normally, Chardonnay grapes aren't found in this area because it's too warm, but Jeff and Brigid Harris are out to prove that wrong. The biggest issue with growing Chardonnay in warm to hot climates is that it can have lower acid when picked, compared to cooler areas. Lower acid can lead to fatter, more buttery Chardonnays. I don't know exactly how this couple manages to create high acid Chard with tons of complexity and a creamy texture (no butter), but they need to keep it up. In addition, this outstanding product - found almost exclusively on their website - is sold at very reasonable prices. This is their vineyard. The palm trees are very fitting with their "story".
Check them out and you won't be disappointed. I highly recommend the Beachfront - a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, but thought all the wines would fit nicely into my cellar.

Our second stop was Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves, a small, though not as small as the above winery, family owned winery in Dry Creek Valley. We were invited to a special library / vertical tasting held after hours. Library refers to anything older than the current vintage being offered and a vertical is the same wine from different vintages.

Bella was founded in the mid-1990's by a couple who loved wine and wanted to pursue their passion. If you're not aware, getting into the wine business from a grower / winemaking standpoint is a losing proposition. If you start from scratch it's at least a 3-5 year process before you even get grapes. Once the vines produce grapes that can be harvested, it's another 1-3 year process before that wine can be bottled and sold. That's a long time before you start to see any return. So, for a couple to jump right in and produce the results that these two have, it's an amazing story.

The entrance looks rustic, but don't be fooled these guys are producing some phenomenal wines and are definitely not low tech. We started with the 2007 and 2008 Two Patch Zinfandel from Alexander Valley. This wine is absolutely amazing and the 08 was one of my favorite wines from the entire tasting.
A toast to the two hours ahead.... Shortly after arrival we jumped into this....
What is it? It's called a Pinzgauer and it's a 6 wheel drive go anywhere Swiss Army vehicle from Austria. In addition to wine, I'm a total car nut and this thing is awesome! The estate's driver, Ross, took us up to the top of the 42 acre property. If you visit, definitely take the tour.

Some pictures from our Pinzgauer tour of Lily Hill Vineyard....
In addition to Zinfandel, the winery produces very small amounts of Syrah and Granache. They also have a fresh and lively Rose. One thing you won't find at Bella? White wines.
The obligatory dog (not associated with the winery). His name is Otis....
An amazing view from the top....
One of the things I love about wine events is you get to meet local people that own local businesses. Like Jeff Mall, owner of Zin restaurant in downtown Healdsburg.
He's holding his book, a cookbook collaboration with another Restaurant (Syrah) in Santa Rosa called Down home, downtown. Jeff was very much down home - what a nice guy!

There were several food pairings, including this lamb kabob....
And my favorite pairing of the evening: Late Harvest Zinfandel with chocolate mousse cake.
We had a fabulous afternoon / evening out. I'm sure it won't soon be forgotten. The wines were oustanding, the people were wonderful and the two properies we visited were just amazing. I love wine country!


Friday, June 4, 2010

Wines under $15 (and $5)

I'm pretty lucky. It's not bragging, and it's not snobbery, but working in the wine business means I get some pretty great wine. Most nights we get to take home some "leftovers" to enjoy. There are some other perks too, including discounts at most wineries in the area which means I'm able to acquire some other great wines at reasonable prices. In fact, I can't remember the last time I bought a bottle of wine at a grocery store or retailer. With one exception. I occasionally buy a Cava (Spanish Sparkling wine) from Trader Joe's. It good and under $6. Again, I'm not trying to be a snob, but felt I needed to preface the posting below with this information.

Carneros Highway (Highway 12 Winery) sells this Chardonnay for about $14 a bottle... This wine was quite good. The grapes in the wine came from the Los Carneros region and it spent 10 months on oak. My only criticisms would be that maybe there was a little too much oak for me, but it came through in some nice nutty and creme brulee notes and it was just a little on the buttery side. This characteristic is not uncommon in wines that cost two and three times more than this, so I wouldn't consider it a flaw at all. In general, it's still what the American public seems to enjoy the most.

We also opened this bottle....
This wine is a blend of 60% Shiraz (in California we call this grape Syrah) and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon. Surprisingly, this wine had a real cork. Australia is known for embracing the screw cap revolution and I thought it was interesting that this wine didn't have one. My experience with Australian wines is pretty limited, but mostly they are known for fruit forward, big (giant in some cases), bold wines. This wine followed suit: tons of fruit on the nose and it continued in the mouth. It was rich and full, but had a relatively short finish. My only complaint was that until the wine got enough air, it had a medicinal quality that was underneath the fruit and not that appealing. Overall, I'd try it again. Plus the regular retail price is $10, but a local store had it for under $5. A steal, in my opinion.

The next night, I thought I would try this one....
I was not overwhelmed by this Shiraz from Barefoot. In fact, I was quite underwhelmed. I couldn't even finish half a glass. I think I equated it to rot gut. It was totally void of fruit, oak or even one single character. This wine sells for under $5, but I've had plenty of 2-Buck Chuck over my drinking years that was far and above this one. Sorry, it's true.
The lesson? There are plenty of great wines out there at reasonable prices. But I think in the under $10 range, you have to search with more diligence. I also think in the under $5 range, it's like finding a needle in a haystack - it takes some serious effort to find good to great wine.