Thursday, October 23, 2008

Mount Brow Winery, La Bella Rosa Vineyards and Irish Vineyards - Sierra Foothills

The town of Sonora is found in the beautiful Sierra Nevada Foothills, in the heart of California’s “Gold Country.” It was founded by Mexican miners during the California Gold Rush (to remind them of the state of Sonora, Mexico), who settled the City in 1848 and Sonora still echoes some of its history through preserved architecture. Known as the “Queen of the Southern Mines”, this pristine City still holds on to its historic charm with many of its existing buildings dating back to the 1800’s. In fact, a walk along most streets in the City allows one to reminisce with days gone by; a brick or stone building, a slate wall, an iron shutter or fence, or a historic home nestled in an old fashioned garden.

Incorporated in 1851, this hastily established mining camp took on the identity of a town and while gold mining was the driving force of the City it quickly evolved into the commercial, government and cultural center for the region. The prosperity of California ’s “Mother Lode” that drew the gold seekers of yesteryear to this beautiful area is still being discovered today as Sonora remains the center of commerce for the region.

Along with museums, art galleries, live theater, year-round outdoor recreational opportunities at resorts, campgrounds, lakes, golf courses and high country waterways are several very fine wineries.

On Saturday October 18th I took the two hour drive from the San Francisco Bay Area up to Sonora to visit two fine wineries, Mount Brow Winery and La Bella Rosa Vineyards, and then jotted over to Vallecito to sample the wines of the foothill’s finest wineries - Irish Vineyards.

Mt. Brow Winery

Mount Brow Winery, located at 10850 Mt. Brow Road in Sonora California, is a 12 year old family owned and operated winery located in Tuolumne County, in the foothills of Central Sierra Nevada Mountains. The climate provides a long growing season with warm days and cool nights.

While tasting the wine I had to opportunity to learn about the winery from Jim Costello, a first generation American of Italian descent. Mt. Brow Winery was licensed in 2002 and opened in 2004. The 6 1/2 acreage vineyard was planted in 1993 on their 82 acres of property. The estate varietals on the 14 year old vineyard include Sangiovese, Merlot, and Zinfandel. They produce about 1,800 cases a year; 1,200 cases come from the Estate vines and the another 600 cases are made from grapes in addition to purchasing grapes from other Tuolumne County vineyards, such as La Bella Rosa Vineyards, giving us access to excellent Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

Before opening the winery Jim worked in the Timber industry which came in handy when it came time to clear the land along with his eldest son Dennis. The Costello family made wine for many years just to share with friends and family in the celebration of life and Italian heritage. Eventually the popularity of their wine demanded that they increase production and then in 2003 at the winery experienced their first commercial crush with the first release of their wines in November, 2004.

Jim wears many hats around the winery including winemaker, business manager, and overall ‘godfather’. He is inspired by his grandfather who made wine in his San Rafael home with grapes purchased grapes from Sonoma.

Jim’s wife Pam Costello is the bookkeeper and retail sales manager and Dennis, the eldest son of Jim and Pam, is the Operations Manager for the vineyard and the production aspects of the winery. Dennis trained in viticulture through the U.C. Davis Ag Extension Program and he did the research, selected the original varietals and root stock, and laid out the original vineyard. He did everything from drive the D7 to rip the hillside selected for the vineyard to installing every post, wire, and emitter of the trellis and irrigation system.

While at the winery I tasted their Sauvignon Blanc ($12) “Caruso” named after the famous Italian opera singer Enrico Caruso, who was a relative of Jim Costello, as well as a White Sangiovese ($16), the Estate Sangiovese ($16), Merlot ($15) and a Red Blend called Tartaglia, named after Jim’s grandfather. It is a blend of Cabernet Franc (50%), Syrah. Merlot, and Sangiovese. I then tried their 50-50 blend of Cabernet and Merlot called “Twice Red” and finally their excellent port wine which is made from a blend of Zinfandel, Tinto Cao and Sangiovese. At only $14 its a great buy so I picked up a bottle. The wines are available only through the winery and a few local stores and restaurants.

For more information:

La Bella Rosa Vineyards (“The Beautiful Vineyards”)

My next stop was at La Bella Rosa Vineyards is located at 17990 Old Wards Ferry Road in Sonora. Owned and operated by Ron and Lynda Peterson, the property was purchased 11 years ago and the 8 acre vineyard was planted 2 years later with Cabernet Cauvignon (6 acres) and Syrah (2 acres). While visiting the winery I was able to chat with Lynda who was watering the flowers in front of the tasting room when I arrived as their cat sat comfortably on top of a nearby wine barrel. Lynda’s husband Ron, who has a background in construction, handles the wine making side of the business while Lynda handles the sales and hospitality. The wines are also available only through the winery and a few local stores and restaurants.

While chatting in the tasting room, I tasted the 2005 Chardonnay ($10), the 2005 Sangiovese ($16), the 2005 Merlot ($15), and the 2004 Cab Franc ($15). Their two best wines are the 2005 Estate Syrah ($18) and my favorite the Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($20).

I purchased a bottle of the Cabernet to share with friends the following evening. On Sunday morning I had some Black Currant preserves with crumpets and later in the evening when I enjoyed the bottle with friends over dinner, it was remarkable how strongly this wine reminded me of the preserves I had for breakfast.

One of the most unique experiences at the wineery is the the 2004 Aglianico (pronounced “ah-LYAH-nee-koe”) ($18). It is a full bodied wine with firm tannins and high acidity and very concentrated. The wine color is a deep garnet and it has strong notes of chocolate and plum aromas.

This is a rare varietal in California. Aglianico is a black grape grown in the Campania and Basilicata regions of Italy. The vine originated in Greece and was brought to Campania by Greek settlers. In early Roman times, it was the principal grape of the famous Falernian wine which was the Roman equivalent of a First Growth wine today.

Traces of the vine have been found in Molise, Puglia and on the island of Procida near Naples, though it is no longer widely cultivated in those places. The grape was called Ellenico (the Italian word for "Greek") until the 15th century when it got its current name Aglianico.

In Basilicata, Aglianico forms the basis for the region’s only DOC wine, Aglianico del Vulture, and is concentrated around the areas of Matera and Potenza.The most sought-after productions of Aglianico del Vulture come from the vineyards located in and around the extinct volcano Mount Vulture. In Campania the area in and around the village of Taurasi Aglianico's only DOCG wine is produced, also called Taurasi. More Aglianico can be found in the province of Benevento. In Campania, it is also the principal grape of Aglianico del Taburno and Falerno del Massico.

For More Information:

Irish Vineyards


I then made a trek over the hills to Vallecito for my final stop for the day, as the Autumn sun was beginning to set, at Irish Vineyards where I had the opportunity to chat with the owner and wine maker, Russell Irish. I first visited this winery in 2004, about a year after it first opened and it is amazing to see how much this winery has grown and improved. I have been to about 30 or so wineries in the Sierra Nevada Foothills and I have to say that this is one of my favorites.

In 1998, the Irish family left the California Valley in pursuit of their dreams, hoping to find a quaint location where they could raise their children and build a winery. The small town of Vallecito had both, and the historic Batten house became the foundation on which this dream would grow. The Batten farmhouse, built in 1867, offered the family a new beginning, and the 8.3 acres was the perfect place to plant grapes and start their winery.

The family-owned and operated winery offers many wines including small lots of a number of Rhone varietals including Alicante Bouschet, Apricot Wine, Blarney Red - Blend Of Merlot And Cab Franc, Blarney White - Blend - Chenin and Chardonnay, Cab-Shiraz Blend, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sparkling Wine, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Dry Rosé, Graciano, Grenache, Late Harvest Malvasia Bianca, Malvasia Bianca, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Petite Sirah & Cab Sauv, Portugal Varietals, Shiraz / Syrah, Tannat, Touriga Nacional, Viognier, and Zinfandel. Their Signature Varietals are the Petite Sirah and Blarney Blends.

While chatting with Russell, I tried the 2004 Viognier ($16), the 2005 Petite Sirah ($29), the non vintage Blarney Red ($20), a Meritage blend with 50% Cabernet Franc and 50% Merlot, the Kilkenny Red ($26), also a non vintage, a blend of 45% Petite Sirah, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 45% Zinfandel, the 2006 Barbera ($39), and the 2006 Grenache ($24). All of these wines were absolutely superb and I’ll be visiting again in a couple weeks to pick up a case or two.

For more information or to visit:

Irish Vineyards
2849 Highway 4,
Vallecito, CA 95251
Phone: 1-209-736-1299

Monday, October 6, 2008

A Book Review Of: “Red, White and Drunk All Over” by Natalie MacLean

The experience one derives from wine is not like any other beverage; it is an adventure of exploring the land and the people from which it comes. It is an expression of the Providential weather, climate and soil as well as the blood sweat and tears of those who pour out their lives into the craft of wine making.

There are many books on wine that provide facts about the history of wine, viticulture regions, step by step instructions on how to make wine and a lot of “how to” tips on enjoying it. But they tell you little about the soul of the writer and nothing of the adventure of traveling the wine country, meeting the people or what it is like to have first hand experience in the wine making process.

The difference between Natalie MacLean’s book Red, White and Drunk All Over and so many others is that while many authors provide a lot of technical information, Natale shares her knowledge of wine she has gained from personal experiences, “ real wine education has largely been through the people I’ve met and the places I’ve been.” Like most wine enthusiasts I have met, Natalie has a story to tell of her discovery of the grandness of wine that sounds almost like a religious conversion experience. It is a moment when the light comes on and the mystery of wine grabs hold of you “that evaporates with the cold touch of analysis.” You develop an insatiable appetite to learn more about wine and why it is the perfect catalyst for enjoying food and fellowship with friends. Natalie shares her personal story with her readers and as you travel with her you will find greater inspiration for exploring vineyards as well as the desire to expand and mature in your appreciation of the culture of wine. In her book Natalie takes you along with her on her wine travels to Old World and New World wine regions and invites you into the inner sanctum of fine wine shops as well as into the battlefields of wine critics.

Sound intimidating?

Well, have no fear for along the way you will learn with Natalie all that you need to know about wine. You will gain a knowledge of various wine varietals, soils as well as the enigmatic and allusive concept of terroir. Along with Natalie you will experience the process of nurturing the nectar of the grapes from vine to wine while gaining an appreciation of the heritage of Old World wineries as well as come to love the visionary souls of those who are pushing the envelope in New World territories. Yet this is no dry textbook, it reads as a Meritage of adventure story, romance novel and an introductory class on enology and viticulture.

If you are looking for a fun, leisurely and yet insightful way to learn about wine then I highly recommend that you pick up a copy of Red, White and Drunk All Over. Then pour yourself a glass, snuggle up to a cozy fire and read along with Natalie. Or, better yet, buy several copies and get together with your family and friends, open a bottle and get ready for a fun time of adventuring the world of wine exploration.

To listen to an interview with Natalie, check out the following video:

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Exploring Marsala from Oak Ridge Winery in Lodi

Although I have been traveling up and down the California coastline, valleys and mountains for over ten years, it was not until recently that I came across a winery, in fact two , that produce a Marsala in the traditional style.

The first was at Hecker Pass Winery in the Santa Clara Valley just a few weeks ago and the second was last Saturday at Oak Ridge Winery in Lodi, a Conti Royale Marsala. Both are very similar and reasonably priced. Both have loads of butterscotch and caramel on the nose, subtle hints of oak and dried fruit. They are balanced and slightly sapid with a taste of almonds and hints of liquorice. If you have never had an American produced Marsala I highly recommend that you check one out!

WHAT?! You never heard of Marsala?

Marsala is a fortified wine originally produced in the region surrounding the Italian city of Marsala in the west section of Sicily and it first received Denominazione di origine controllata, or DOC, status in 1969 The creation of Marsala dates back to 1798 when the locals managed to substitute their own wines in place of the standard rum in an English naval shipment. In those seafaring days, something had to be done to wine to allow it to last the long ocean journeys. Brandy, another fortified wine, was added to allow the wine to last longer, and to be more resistant to temperature changes.

There is both a ruby red and a golden ambur white style of Marsala. Traditionally, red Marsala is made form Pignatello, Calabrese, Nerello Mascalese, Nero d’Avola grapes whereas the amber white is made from Grillo, Catarratto, Inzolia and Damaschino

Marsala is made in the “solera” tradition - a melding of years. First, a keg is put down and then subsequent years with similar tastes are placed in kegs above the first. When liquid is drawn out of the bottom, it is resupplied with wine with wine at the top, and so on. In this manner, the taste remains the same throughout the cycle, and every bottle you get potentially has some wine from the very first vintage.

Like Port, Marsala is classified according to its color, sweetness and the duration of their aging. The three levels of sweetness are secco (with a maximum 40 grams of residual sugar per liter), semisecco' (41-100 g/l) and sweet (over 100 g/l). The color and aging classifications are Oro (Golden color), Ambra (Amber color) and Rubino (Ruby color). The coloring in comes from the mosto cotto sweetener added to the wine. The levels consist of: “Fine” has minimal aging, typically less than a year, “Superiore” is aged at least two years, “Superiore Riserva” is aged at least four years, “Vergine” is aged at least five years, “Soleras Riserva” is aged at least ten years

Marsala wine is also frequently used in cooking, and is especially prevalent in Italian restaurants in the United States. A typical Marsala sauce, for example, involves reducing the wine almost to a syrup with onions or shallots, then adding mushrooms and herbs. One of the most popular Marsala recipes is Chicken Marsala, in which flour-coated pounded chicken breast halves are braised in a mixture of Marsala, butter, olive oil, mushrooms, and spices. Marsala is also used in some risotto recipes, and is used to produce rich Italian desserts such as zabaglione and shortcake.

So, if you are interested in checking out a bottle of Marsala, I highly recommend visiting Oak Ridge Winery in Lodi. They have a really an interesting tasting room that is made from a transformed redwood wine holding tank that dates to the end of Prohibition. The tank had a capacity of 49,429 gallons and now it has a great size and shape for a tasting bar, done in brick with beautiful redwood walls. The winery itself was founded in 1934 and Oak Ridge utilizes 50 to 100 year old vines to produce a very deeply flavored Old Vine Zin as well as other local Lodi grapes. In addition to extremely robust variety of wine they produce very silky smooth Cream Sherry and a wonderful Solera Zinfandel Port style wine and as I said, a really nice Marsala. But like many other Lodi wineries, they are known for their Zinfandels and their OVZ and Moss Roxx Ancient Old Vine Zin are excellent representatives of the Lodi region.