Monday, August 25, 2008

Wente Vineyards in Livermore

The day started off with overcast and the typical Bay Area morning fog. But by noon the skies had cleared and it was a beautiful blue sunny day, the perfect weather for a trip out to the Livermore Wine Country.

Founded in 1883 by C. H. Wente, the Wente Vineyards is now managed by the fourth and fifth generations of the Wente family. The winery and tasting room is on Tesla Road along side many of the Livermore Valley wineries. But they also have tucked away back in the hills a beautiful Golf Course and restaurant at the Wente Vineyards Event Center & Vineyard Tasting Room

While many of Wente’s wines are of the large production type, which may be found at your local grocery store, they also produce many higher-end wines from small production lots which may only be purchased directly from the winery such as the “Small Lot” and “Nth Degree” series. These are the wines which are worth exploring!

Wente offers three different groups of tastings or “flights,” two of which are $5 and the third is $10. On Saturday I tasted the “Harvest Flight” ($5) at the event center.

The first wine in the line up was the 2007 Riva Ranch Chardonnay ($19.95). This white wine is a little heavy on the oak. The oak flavor in a wine (if any) should be a nuance to the wine and not a dominating characteristic. Otherwise this wine had a nice complexity, crisp acidity, some mango, peach and apricot flavors and a rich buttery feel that continues to linger after the heavy wood has faded.

The second wine of the flight was the 2006 Grenache ($34.95). This wine is light ruby in color with a hint of cranberry on the nose, cheery on the front of the palate followed by a little cedar, mild earth tones and a mild spicy cinnamon and “heat” in the follow through. Overall a nice wine but a little too steep in the pocket book.

The third in the line up was the 2005 Charles Wetmore Cabernet Reserve Sauvignon ($24.95). The wine is a light claret in color with mild oak and vanilla on the nose. This lighter styled Cabernet has soft tannins accented with Bing cherries and mild blackberries. This cab was “okay” but it really isn’t my style.

The fourth wine was the 2006 Syrah ($34.95), which reminded me why I prefer a Petite Syrah. It had a dry chalky feel which might be fine if I was drinking this with food, but on its own I didn’t care for it.

The final tasting of the day was the 2006 Cabernet Franc ($34.95) which surprisingly my favorite in this flight. I usually do not care for an unblended Cab Franc but this one was really nice! On the nose it has strong bell pepper, green olive and Portobello mushroom aromas. On the palate, it has a rich fresh feel as I detected a little thin mint chocolate. While the price tag may be a little steep, this one is worth taking home!

To see more pictures of Wente Vineyards, check out Erik Wait’s Wine Country Photography at:

To visit or for more information:

Wente Vineyards
5050 Arroyo Road
Livermore, CA 94550
Phone: 1-925-456-2400

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Adventures in the Lodi Wine Country

Last Saturday was an absolutely amazing day out in the wine country. Yet, the venue of my adventure is probably one of the most over looked wine countries in California - Lodi. This past weekend I visited Borra Vineyards, M2 Wines, Lucas Winery and an old favorite of mine - St. Amant Winery.

The town of Lodi, located in San Joaquin County in the Central Valley of California, has that “out in the country” feel that the Napa Valley had thirty years ago. The landscape is one of oak lined roads, old country barns and small quaint tasting rooms. Yet when people think of this region many are probably prone to recall the lyrics of Credence Clearwater Revival’s song:

“Things got bad, and things got worse, I guess you will know the tune. Oh! Lord, stuck in Lodi again.”

There was a time in which wineries in this area would use the appellation “California Central Valley” for fear that “Lodi” might make some people think that they were producing jug wines that are not worthy of a critic’s esteem. But this is no longer the case. The Lodi appellation has grown up so now many wine growers here are not only producing respectable vintages but are proudly waving the Lodi banner.

The great thing for the wine adventurer is that many of these wineries are crafting their wines without having to charge an arm and a leg in order to sell them. If you want to spend a day tasting and exploring fine wines without the crowds, hustle and bustle of more popular and overpriced regions in California then come to Lodi! You’ll often find that the server may also be the owner and wine maker who is more than happy to talk to about his love for the craft of wine growing.

Lodi has its own unique character for producing fantastic wines and it is steadily developing a reputation of being “The Zinfandel Capital of the World.” There are currently 38 wineries with tasting rooms in Lodi and an additional 22 that do not have such a facility available. Some of the wineries are spread out throughout the region along with their vineyards, while others host their wines at the Vino Piazza (the Winery Plaza).

In 2005 the Lodi Winegrape Commission began the annual “Zinfest” which is held at the beautiful Lodi Lake and features Lodi’s finest Zinfandel wines. It is usually held on the third weekend of May. Over the past few years radio talkshow host Gene Burns has broadcasted his show “Dining Around with Gene Burns” on KGO 810 AM at the event, publicizing the Top 12 Zinfandels of the year.

Borra Vineyards

I tasted several wines at Borra vineyards. The first was a Rhone-style Rosé ($16) made with equal parts of Syrah and Grenache. It has a floral, strawberry and grapefruit perfume with watermelon notes on the finish. This is not your typical unmanly “White Zinfandel” rosé that is sweet. On a hot day this is a nice wine for sipping while relaxing in the shade on the patio. The second was the 2006 “Fusion White” ($16) a blend of classic Rhone varietals of 73% Viognier, 26% Roussanne, and 1% Marsanne. The third was a Gill Creek Ranch, Estate Bottled Old Vine Zinfandel 2004 ($20). The third was the 2004 Gill Creek Ranch, Estate Bottled Merlot ($18). It is an unfiltered and unfined wine which I think adds to its character and helps it maintain more body than your typical Merlot.

M2 WinesI tasted six wines at M2 - the 2007 “Celestial” Viognier, Fair Play ($26), the 2006 “Singularity” Cabernet Sauvignon, Frazier Vineyard, Napa Valley ($35), the 2006 “Duality” Red Wine, California ($20) which is a ‘petite sirah/syrah’ blend, the 2006 “Trio” Red Wine, from the Sierra Foothills ($18), and the 2006 Old Vine Zinfandel, Soucie Vineyard, from Lodi ($28). All of these were descent wines at a fair price.
My favorite of the line up was the 2006 “Row 23” Petite Sirah, Herzog Vineyard, from Clarksburg ($22). The grapes are from a region that I have yet to explore but I am already making plans to do so. This wine displays all the characteristics that the Petite Sirah varietal is known for - inky, floral, spicy and full bodied with fruit, a nice balance from start to finish with a pleasing bold structure that will pair well any good barbequed meats. Petite Sirah is quickly becoming a favorite Summer red wine for me, rivaling Old Vine Zinfandel, so I picked up a bottle to take home.

St. Amant WineryI first visited St. Amant several years ago when I went wine tasting with a friend that I met in seminary along with another couple from my church. I had heard about this winery from Gene Burns on the radio as their Marian’s Vineyard Old Vine Zinfandel had made the Top 12 list at the Zinfest.

The lineup at this winery is absolutely impressive and over the past few years I have probably gone through at least a half-dozen cases of their wine. Rarely do I ever visit a winery at which I am in love with every one of their wines and it is probably impossible for me to pick one as a favorite. I have shared their wines with many of my friends who in turn also have become big fans of St. Amant.

One of the fun things about getting out of the wine shop and the grocery store to explore the wine country is to taste rare varietals that are hard to find and offer a new experience an education for the palate. St. Amant Winery is a very unique winery in an unpretentious business park like setting. I remember the first time I visited this winery, as I drove past the front gate I asked myself, “Can this place really produce good wines?” Then as my friends and I entered the tasting room the interior consisted of a plastic table (occupied by a cat) and a simple wood plank on top of barrels. Soon my friends and I discovered why you can’t “judge a book by its cover” nor a winery by its tasting room. Not only are their wines extremely reasonably priced but they are absolutely top notch!

St. Amant’s Verdelho ($15), a Portuguese white grape from Amador, is one of my favorite white wines of all time. Unlike many other whites, this one has lots of bold spice that make it a great partner to a spicy chicken dish or it can be used to cut through heavy cream sauced pasta dishes.

One of the most unique wines that you will not find anywhere else is their Tres Cachos from Amador ($15). This wine is not produced every year and it is a blend of three grapes usually used in making port. This Portuguese-inspired red blend (Touriga, Tinta Cao, Tinta Roriz) has a mouth full of plums, cherries, and a definite taste of licorice in the finish. It has nice lively tannins that give this fruit forward wine a nice balance. It also has a significant spice component that will accompany any great barbequed meats.

Another hard-to-find wine is their 2006 Touriga from Amador ($18). This is a new bottling that they are currently serving in the tasting room and you might think of this wine as sort of a dry port. If you have never tasted this varietal, this is a great opportunity to educate your taste buds and expand your palate.

St. Amant’s Tempranillo from Amador ($18) is probably my favorite of this varietal, surpassing many Spanish imports that sell for more than twice this price. This is the deepest, darkest, boldest bad-assed Tempranillo I have ever had and they are consistent with it each year. It is a bowl full of bright cherries bouquet, dried tobacco and with a gold-country mineral finish. Yet the tannins are incredibly balanced and it is an absolute steal for only eighteen bucks!.

The Mohr-Fry Ranch Old Vine Zinfandel ($18) is probably the wine I purchase the most from St. Amant. From old vines planted in 1944, this wine is loaded with bright raspberry, dried fruits like plum and figs, and lushes of blackberry flavors with soft tannins and an absolutely wonderful finish. This is a great wine for barbequed meats, pasta, and it is absolutely killer with pizza!

The Mohr-Fry Zin is only surpassed by the Marian's Vineyard Zinfandel ($24), which I did not taste on Saturday but I have a few bottles of the 2003 at home. This wine comes from vines were planted in 1901 that will give you a taste of heaven with a mouth full of plum, chocolate and blackberry. This wine is rich and your guests will find it hard to believe that a wine can taste this good for only twenty-four bucks!

To be honest, I’m not a big port drinker as about the time dinner is over I am ready for a cup of coffee, not another glass of wine. But even if you’re not a bibber of ports St. Amant’s Vino do Sol White, Bootleg and Vintage Ports are not to be missed.

It is not uncommon to find wineries that make “ports” using California zinfandels which usually (in my experience) have a rather simple sugary sweetness. Here is where St. Amant sets itself apart as a maker of Ports.

The Veno Do Sol White Port ($18) is made with fortified Verdelho grapes from 67-year old vines. Their red Port are made from the traditional blend of the five classic Port-wine grapes; Touriga, Tinta Cao, Alvarelhao, Souzao, and Tinta Roriz. From these they produce two different red ports the Bootleg Port and their St. Amant Vintage Port .

Since the line up at St. Amant is an entire adventure by itself, you may need to come back more than once to truly experience and appreciate all their wines. Or better yet, buy a mixed case and try them at home during your family dinner with friends.

The Lucas Winery
The Lucas Winery defies all stereo types of Lodi wines as each bottle exemplifies the wine growing philosophy of David Lucas; great wines come from the maintenance of balance and harmony in the vineyard, they are grown and nurtured – not made.

On Saturday I had the opportunity to spend about an hour with David Lucas, one on one. We discussed his wines, the history of the winery and his wine growing philosophy of "balance" in the vineyard. It was a very rare and unique opportunity to learn from someone who pours his heart and soul into every bottle and readily acknowledges how he has learned from his mistakes, the errors he sees that are common amongst novice wine makers, and how wisdom ought to be gained from our forefathers who grew wines in the past and in historic wine regions such as Bordeaux and Burgundy.

California Chardonnays can have the reputation of being overly oaked, too buttery and the designation “Lodi” can lead some people to assume that the wine can only fit into the low-end spectrum of this wine’s place in the market.

The 2005 Lucas Chardonnay ($28.95) definitely defies this stereotype so that while it definitely has a subtle oak character it does not overshadow its fruit flavors and crisp acidity. I would put this wine up against any Chardonnay from the Caneros region of the Napa Valley. David Lucas has proven that Lodi isn’t just about Zinfandel as it has a great potential for making great Chardonnays as well.

My favorite wine from Lucas was the 2006 Zin Blossoms Rosé ($19.95). It was about 95 degrees on Saturday so this cool refreshing 100% pure Zinfandel really hit the spot. Strawberries, kiwi fruit and melon are prominent from start to finish.

Other worthy wines that I tasted were the 2003 ZinStar Zinfandel and the 2003 Citizin Zinfandel ($26.95). But my second favorite of the afternoon was the Late Harvest Straw Wine ($64.95) which is an incredible dessert wine. A little of this chocolate-boysenberryish wine goes a long way and it exemplifies the intense labor that goes into the craft of making such a wine as it is far cry from the overly raisony type late harvest wines that you will find at most wineries.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

John Christopher Cellars - Fine Wine at the Blacksmith Square in Livermore

If you are adventuring in the Livermore Wine Country in California you may be tempted to limit your exploration to Tesla Road where most of the wineries are located. But there are many others worth visiting in the outlying areas such as in Pleasanton, Sunol and other locations in Livermore.

This past Saturday I took a stroll out to the Livermore Valley and dropped in on a little party called “Livemore Taste of Down Town” that was taking place at the Blacksmith Square located at South Livermore Avenue on August 9 – 10th. The Square has a nice patio area with umbrella covered tables where visitors can leisurely sip their wine. There is also room for a small stage where on occasion live bands can perform like the blues band that performed this past weekend.
There are five wineries that have tasting rooms at the Blacksmith Square: John Christopher Cellars, Battaion Cellars, Cuda Ridge Wines, Hidden Creek Wine/ Red Skye Winery, Retzlaff Estate Winery (also located at the winery at 1356 South Livermore Ave) and Thomas Coyne Winery (also located at the winery at 51 East Vallecitos Road).

I had visited Retzlaff and Thomas Coyne at their main winery some time ago and Hidden Creek Wine/ Red Skye Winery last Christmas Eve with a buddy of mine. Unfortunately Battaion Cellars, which makes sparkling wines, was not open.

So, I tasted at John Christopher Cellars and had the opportunity to talk to the wine maker Tom Doczy. The winery is named after two of his sons who often lend a hand in naming the wines.

For a $5 fee you can try five wines which is waved if you purchase a bottle of wine. My first wine was the 2006 Fraser/Howard Vineyard Chardonnay (Livermore Valley). This wine is a good representation of a California styled Chardonnay which is light on the mid palate with a noticeable but not overly buttery feel stemming from its full malolactic fermentation. It has a lingering finish that is not overly oaky but if you prefer crisper and more acidic whites this may not appeal to you. At only $19 a bottle I thought it was a fair price.

My second wine was the 2004 California Petite Syrah which comes from the wine maker’s two favorite vineyards in Lodi. According to Tom, 70% comes from the Ripken Vineyard and 30% comes from the Cranston Vineyard. This is definitely a full bodied wine, with soft tannins and a mouth full of blueberry jam. For only $22 a bottle it is a good deal as I have tasted similar wines in the region for well over $30.

My third wine was the 2004 Reserve Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel. I purchased a bottle of this wine the last time I visited at John Christopher Cellars on Christmas Eve 2007. I’m not sure if it was the difference in the weather (Summer verses Winter) but it seemed to me like this wine is now exhibiting more dried fruit characteristics than before, particularly dried plums and figs. It is not quite raisony but close to it. It has very soft tannins and I am sure many would enjoy it, but I prefer my Zins to have a little more spice and I know of others that would be $5-$10 cheaper as this one rings in at $26. Having said all that, this wine would pair well with any great barbequed meat with a spiced rub.

My next two tastes were very similar, one being the bigger brother of the other. According to Tom, the 2003 Epic is an equal portion blend of 37% Zinfandel and 37% Petite Syrah with the remaining 26% being Syrah. The wine is well balanced, has a nice tannin structure with a touch of blackberry and a light peppery finish. At only $20 a bottle I thought this was an excellent value and it was my favorite in the line up until….

My final pour was the 2005 Endeavor which is a similar to the 2003 Epic with a noticeably pronounced emphasis on the Zinfandel. After tasting my first sip I asked Tom about it and he informed me that this blend is a 40% Zinfandel, 50% Petite Syrah and 10% Syrah. That slight change in the percentages seemed to my palate to make a huge difference as it quickly became my favorite of the afternoon. The slightly more Zin gives this wine a little more of a fruit forward appeal and yet the other two grapes in this blend bring a more full mouth feel in the mid palate and finish. While I am a big Old Vine Zin fan, I found the addition of the Petite Syrah and Syrah in this blend gave each other what the other lacked. This is a superb wine for $28.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Bottle Shock - The Movie

This movie is based on the book Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine which tells the story of when two California wineries defeated the French in a blind taste test. In 1976, a Paris wine shop arranged a tasting as a gimmick to introduce some California wines; the judges, of course, were all French and militantly chauvinistic. Only one journalist bothered to attend, a Time correspondent, looking for a possible American angle. The story he got turned out to be a sensation. In both red and white blind tastings, an American wine won handily: a 1973 Stag's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon and a 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay. When the story was published the following week, it stunned both the complacent French and fledgling American wine industries—and things have never been the same since.

When you hear about a movie such as this the hit movie Sideways immediately comes to mind. But I think there are some significant differences that must be kept in mind. Sideways was a completely fictional movie that focused on two characters with wine surrounding it as a venue to tell the story.

Bottle Shock on the other hand is based on a true story, an actual event in history, with wine as its primary star of the film with the winemakers as their co-stars. Then, of course, there are the two radically different locations (Santa Barbara in Southern California vs. Napa in Northern California) and the different varietal of wines that play the hero (Pinot Noir vs. Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.

The Official Trailer:

Behind the Scenes:

An ABC Interview:

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Rosenblum Cellars - On the Dock of the Bay in Alameda

When you think about going wine tasting, what sort of image comes to your mind? If you are like me you picture in your head a beautiful wine country getaway with rolling hills covered with vineyards and gorgeous chateaus or small back roads country farm houses with quaint little tasting rooms.

Alameda is a city known for its Victorian home lined streets with old oak trees on a small island across from San Francisco, adjacent to the Oakland International Airport. It was once home to the Alameda Naval Air Station and is still the port for ships and privately owned boats. The area does not have suitable land or climate for growing grapes as the island that Alameda occupies was originally a low-lying and marshy peninsula. Today it is next to the murder capital of the west coast; as such it is probably the last place you would expect to find a great winery.

But there is it…. Rosenblum Cellars.

I first visited a Rosenblum Cellars a few years ago at a large Open House wine tasting party they had with live music and huge crowd of a few hundred people. It was a rare opportunity to get to taste any of their 40+ wines, a lineup unmatched by any other winery that I have ever visited. Rosenblum rotates their wine tasting list from week to week as they only open about 7 of their wines at a time. The daily line up includes Zinfandels, Syrahs, Petite Sirahs, white Rhones and dessert wines. Tours of the winery are available by appointment.

This past Saturday was a beautiful clear-blue-sky day, the first on a weekend we have had in over a month due to the raging fires that have been plaguing California this summer. After an enjoyable mountain bike ride around Lake Chabot I decided to go back to Rosenblum to taste their wines in a less crowded and more relaxed atmosphere.

I first tasted their complimentary flight of wines which included that day the 2007 Kathy’s Cuvee Viognier ($18), the 2005 Russian River Merlot ($18) and the 2006 Richard Sauret Zinfandel ($25). Then for an additional $8 I tasted their reserve flight which included the 2006 Annette’s Reserve Zinfandel ($35), the 2006 Rockpile Road Zinfandel ($35), the 2005 Hillside Vineyards Syrah ($25), and the Rockpile Petite Syrah ($45).

After tasting their wines, it is clear why it has become known as the “mecca for zin-fanatics.” Rosenblum has also established a reputation for its Rhône varietals in number of categories such as Reserves, Vineyard Designates, Appellation Series and Cuvée Series. Rosenblum Cellars produces over 50 wines annually organized into six unique tiers. These various tiers offer remarkable wines, each with their own unique character.

Overall I would describe their wines as “fruit forward.” Most of what you will taste is upfront and in-your-face. If you like big jammy wines, this is the place for you. Any of their zinfandels, syrahs or petite syrahs would greatly accompany your barbecued meats.

Adventures in Wine Tasting with Podcaster Gary Vaynerchuk

There are a number of wine audio and video podcasts available through the internet. But let’s get real, what is exciting about WATCHING someone else drink wine and go on and on about what HE thinks about a beverage?

“Blah, blah, blah.... a little bit of spice... blah, blah,blah... a nice nose.... blah, blah, blah... clean finish... blah, blah,blah...”

Watching someone else drink wine can be about as enjoyable as listening to your neighbor talk about his trip to Tahiti. The experience is great for them but hearing about it does nothing for you.

However, watching and listening to people with more experience with wine can help you prepare for your own Adventures in Wine Tasting.

How does he/she describe the wine?

Is there something that the wine taster you are watching is doing that you might try?

I have watched and listened to a number of wine Podcasters and most of them lack any personality and are as entertaining as watching paint dry on a wall.

But there is one guy that I enjoy who is sort of the Chef “Blam!” Emeril of the wine podcaster world, his name is Gary Vaynerchuk and the above video is a sample from his wine podcast. He is uses a lot of unconventional and off beat descriptions of wine like “Cotton Candy” or “Jolly Rancher” which you may never find in the Wine Spectator. But I think his enthusiasm in approaching wine can be very contagious and his humor makes wine approachable to the everyday man. Gary Vaynerchuck is definitely no wine snob!

Check out the above tasting video from his podcast - Wine Library