Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Bonny Doon and the Surf City Vintners

Randall Graham is a bit of a controversial figure in the wine world. His methods and philosophy of wine making and promotion are provocative, insightful, enigmatic and [add your own description here].

But, say what you will like many other shakers and movers before him, Graham is an important American icon in wine culture that can’t be ignored. What the United States lacks in wine history and culture it more than makes up for in wine experimentation, natural and scientific wine research, and a constant integration of tradition with innovation. For his contributions in these areas, Randall Graham will undoubtedly be remembered throughout history as a seminal thinker.

Following men like Robert Mondavi, Michael Grgch and Warren Winiarski, Graham has pushed the envelope in how we think about wine, vineyards, terroir and wine culture. There is a lot more to Bonny Doon’s wine than just catchy inquisitive labels. Beyond the cartoonish figures is very some serious vino that requires you to stop and think about your sensory experience.

Some may say that Graham’s is nothing more than a clever use of comical labels as a marketing gimmick, but recent changes at Bonny Doon Vineyards challenges such superficial judgments. Randall has sold off the “grocery store” line of wines such as Cardinal Zin and Big House Red so that now Bonny Doon primarily focuses on only high quality, well crafted wines.

A few years ago I visited the old Bonny Doon tasting room that was tucked away in the Santa Cruz redwoods for 5 years and since then I have always had an admiration for their wines. Recently I caught wind that the tasting room had been moved to an “urban winery” in Santa Cruz with an added cafe, so I decided to drop in to see what was new.

Randall Graham, the original “Rhone Rider,” and Bonny Doon specializes in Rhone varietal wines with Le Cigare Volant leading as their flagship. On Saturday I tasted the 2006 Le Cigare Blanc ($22), which is 75% grenache blanc and 25% roussane, the 2005 Monferrato Rosso ($18) a soon to be discontinued Pedmontese blend, the 2004 Le Cigare Volant ($30), a Rhone blend of 8% grenache, 35% syrah, 12% mourvedre, 8% carignane and 7% cinsault, the 2005 Syrah Le Pousseur ($18) which is 96% syrah and 4% grenache, and finally the 2005 Bien Nacido Syrah ($40) and finally the 2007 Pommeau ($25), a really interesting apple cider and apple brandy blend.

The surrounding area of the winery is “unique” in that it is in a very urban area. But the nice thing is Bonny Doon has several neighbors that are worthy of checking out as well within Santa Cruz’ Surf City Vintners; a group of wineries in close proximity to each other on the west side of the city of Santa Cruz. In addition to Bonny Doon I visited including Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard. Sones Cellars, and Vino Tabi.

I didn’t take the opportunity to check out the cuisine at the Cafe, but the neighbors at the adjacent wineries were raving about the excellent pairing of Bonny Doon’s wines with the chef’s menu. So, the next time I’m in town I’ll definitely have to check it out.
You can get directions and more information about Bonny Doon Vineyards at:

Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyards
After checking out Bonny Doon my next stop was at Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyards. For 33 years this winery was hiding in the mountains and was hard to find, but now they have moved into town to join the Sun City Vintners. I tasted four of their wines, the 2005 Durif - McDowell Valley ($18), the 2005 Tempranillo – Pierce Ranch ($18), and the 2006 Grenache - McDowell Valley ($18).

Sones Cellars

I then dropped in at Sones Cellars where I tasted the 2007 La Sirena, White Wine Blend of Viognier, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc ($21). This is a very unique blend and an extremely interesting wine with plenty of citrus, passion fruit and floral scents. I then tasted the 2006 Devery Vineyard Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir ($29) followed by the 2006 Petite Sirah from Lodi ($23) and the 2006 Zinfandel from Santa Clara ($25). All of their wines were impressive and the tasting room staff were hospitable and accommodating.

Vino Tabi

My final stop for the day was at Vino Tabi, a unique Micro-Crush Winery as it is the region’s first custom participatory winery that offers customers various opportunities to become involved in the wine making process, all the way from harvest through to the labeling process. They also can participate in various wine education learning events, have frequent access to the winery's expert winemakers and the equipment of the winery itself.

Vino Tabi’s “Wine by the Barrel” allows consumers to purchase a 60-gallon barrel of ultra-premium wine (24 cases), made from high quality grapes of this year's Crush, such as the Santa Cruz Chardonnays or Pinot Noir and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. They can also join Vino Tabi’s Barrel Buddies network to share the barrel with others. Customers then participate as much as they choose -- participating in the harvest, blendings and experiments, and making critical decisions about the making of the wine to call it their own. Winery customers will private label their finished products for themselves and their customers. Starting at $1,300.00 you can get 1/4, 1/2 or full 60 gallon barrel of selected wines.

Vino Tabi also produces several wines and offer a few wines from wine made at their location that you can purchase by the bottle to get an idea of the quality that they offer. On Saturday I tasted the 2007 Pinot Gris - Russian River Valley - ($25) made by Windsor Oaks Vineyard, the 2006 Chardonnay - Santa Cruz Mountains California - ($24) made by Silver Mountain Vineyards, the 2006 Pinot Noir - Los Carneros - ($28) made by Vino Tabi, the 2003 Central Coast Bordeaux Blend - ($24) made by Vino Tabi, and the 2004 Central Coast Bordeaux Blend ($26) also made by Vino Tabi.

Of all the wines I tasted I was most impressed by the the 2004 Central Coast Bordeaux Blend, and its difficult to find a really meritage for only $26 so I picked up a bottle.

The Surf City Vinters are located at 334 Ingallis Street in Santa Cruz California, 95060. You can check out their web site at:

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Exploring Petit Verdot

The primary focus of this online wine journal has on wine and travel, with an occasional detour into wine education and other means of exploring the wine world. I don’t do the simple “buy a wine, drink it, give an opinion” sort of entries which seem to dominate other wine blogs. But in this case I am going to make an exception because the wine I had a couple nights ago was an eye opening experience and which taught me a few things

A couple years ago I was collecting bottles of the some of the less frequently consumed Bordeaux varietals, Malbec and Petite Verdot. The goal was to train my palate so that I could distinguish what these wines contributed to a Meritage. These wines usually make up less than 10% of a Bordeaux blend wine.

After going through a dozen or so different bottles of these two varietals from various California wineries in about a year or so, I thought I had a pretty good idea of the characteristics of these varietals. I also (prematurely) came to the conclusion that while Malbec is a fine “stand alone” varietal Petit Verdot was better kept as a blending wine.

Well, the other night I was going through my wines and I found that I still had a bottle remaining from this exploration of minor Bordeaux varietals- a 2004 Trinchero Napa Reserve Petit Verdot. After decanting it for about an hour I decided to enjoy it with a Turkey Meat Loaf and a Caesar Salad.

I now have to confess that my judgment of Petit Verdot was probably premature. This is an absolutely fabulous wine, although the fact that it also contains 14% Cabernet Sauvignon may be contributing to the wine what the others I had tried were lacking as they were all 100% Petit Verdot.

This wine is extremely well balanced, plenty of dense and concentrated fruit with loads of blackberries, black currant and a little spice. It has firm but supple tannins and an awesome full-mouth feel from front to mid palate and a lingering finish.

This Petit Verdot comes entirely from a three-acre block at Trinchero’s Main Street Vineyard located just east of Highway 29 at the southern end of the St. Helena AVA. Most of their Petit Verdot goes into their Meritage, so this is a very small production wine at only 1800 6 pack cases.

The price is a little steep at $50 but I am convinced from this experience that I need to return to exploring this varietal. Unfortunately very few wineries produce or release to the public bottles of 100% Petit Verdot. If there are any out there you would like to recommend, let me know!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Fleming-Jenkins Winery and Testarossa Vineyards in Los Gatos California

It been rather cold but sunny all week leading up to New Year’s Day, though “warm” in comparison to the midwest states. However, I was too busy doing house hold chores, studying, reading and writing to get out and visit the wine country. I had been on vacation since Christmas day but was using most of my time to catch up on things left undone during the hectic schedule of the Fall semester leading up to the holidays. So when I finally had some free time to get out of the house and go wine tasting it began to rain.

So I decided NOT to any visit wineries, right? No way!

It was the day after New Year’s Day and rain was pouring down. A friend and fellow wine country traveler, who has also been spending the week diligently studying, and I were eager to take a break and get out visit a couple wineries. So we headed down Highway 17 to visit a couple wineries in the South Bay.

Fleming-Jenkins Vineyard and Winery

Our first stop was at the Fleming-Jenkins Vineyards and Winery tasting room in the cozy little town of Los Gatos, which has the look and feel of a ritzy European village. In 1999, Gold Medal Olympian Peggy Fleming and her husband planted a small Chardonnay vineyard on their ridge top property in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, high above the town of Los Gatos. They also source grapes from various other areas and make a number of wines in the historic Novitiate Winery in the Los Gatos hills, alongside Testarossa Vineyards.

The wines we tasted included a Chardonnay their estate vineyard, a Napa Valley Cabernet blend, and two Syrahs, one sourced John Madden's vineyard in the Livermore Valley.

For a nominal fee of $5, the day’s line up included the 2007 Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay ($38) the 2006 Madden Ranch Syrah from John Madden's vineyard in the Livermore Valley, ($40), The Santa Cruz Mountains Black Ridge Vineyard Syrah ($40) the 2004 Napa Valley “Choreography” a Bordeaux style blend ($50) and finally the 2004 Petite Sirah Port ($34). All of these wines were exceptional and it was a tough to decide which syrah was better. But the wine which distinguished itself from many others available in the wine world was the Estate Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay. It had very dense and concentrated mountain fruit qualities with a lot of complex apple and tropical fruit character.

For more information:

Testarossa Vineyards

Our next stop for the day was at Testarossa Vineyards, owned and operated by Rob and Dianna Jenson. The winery is located at the fourth oldest continuously operating winery in California, the historic Novitiate Winery in the hills above downtown Los Gatos. They offer a number of fantastic wines crafted by their winemakers Bill Brosseau and Adam Comartin.

The winery itself has an interesting history and as you enter the tasting room through a wine-cave like entrance you can view a number of pictures of the local wine making padres and read about the winery’s origins.

The winery was originally built in 1888 by Northern Italian Jesuit Fathers and Brothers from the college at Mission Santa Clara (now Santa Clara University) as a means to fund their new seminary college built on the grounds the same year. The term Novitiate means “house of the novices,” the name used for seminary students. For nearly 100 years, the Jesuits made altar wines, as well as sweet, fortified wines at the Novitiate Winery. The Novitiate Winery was best known for its famous fortified Black Muscat dessert wine (similar to a tawny port), which was a perennial gold medal winner at the annual California State Fair.

The original 19th Century, three-floor, gravity-flow winery is still in use today to make Testarosa wines. However, the original structure is now mostly hidden from view by the many expansions the winery went through during the first half of the 20th Century. Ironically, but not surprisingly, the demand for Church altar wine production skyrocketed during Prohibition (1919-1933), and the winery and adjoining vineyards more than doubled in size during this period. With the repeal of Prohibition, the winery continued to grow through the 1950s, as did the number of students, who were also recruited to be volunteers in the vineyards and winery. By the late 1950s, over 100,000 cases of Novitiate wine was produced at the winery.

With the advent of the 1960s, things started to decline at the old winery. The nearly century old vines were past their prime production years, and costly replanting was needed. The seminary population was also beginning to decline thus, it was decided to shut down the seminary college in Los Gatos and move the students to Santa Barbara in 1968. At this same time California’s wine industry began to boom and the interest in fortified and sweet dessert wines gave way to a strong interest in varietal labeled, dry table wines. Sadly, in 1986 the Jesuits shut down their Novitiate Winery brand, ending an amazing 98 year run. During the better part of the next decade, the old winery was leased to two different wineries, which both quietly went out of business.

But in 1997, a new renaissance was born at the old winery. That year, Rob and Diana Jensen, moved their then four year old fledgling, barely known wine brand, Testarosa, to the old Novitiate, where they made just under 4,000 cases of small lot Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Every year since, Testarossa has invested in repairing and improving the once old and neglected facility and every year, Testarossa wines have gotten more and more consistently outstanding. In 2003, in conjunction with Testarosa’s 10th anniversary, the old Tasting Room underwent a major restoration, and is now open to the public seven days per week. Demand for Testarossa wines has never been higher, but the temptation to dramatically ramp up production, at the expense of quality, has never been a consideration. By 2005, Testarossa wine production has crept up to approximately 14,000 cases with more than half of the annual production being sold directly from the winery.

Our first tasting was the 2007 Castello Chardonnay ($24) made from Central Coast vineyards followed by the 2006 La Cruz Vineyard Chardonnay from Sonoma. ($31.20) Both have loads of citrus and tropical fruit notes, the second has a more round creamy mouth feel.

Although Testarossa produces a number of fine wines undoubtedly their specialty is Pinot Noir. Our first was the 2007 Novitiate Pinot Noir ($16.80) which seemed to me to be too light and watery, lacking any real back bone to be paired well with food. The next two were a significant improvement - the 2007 Palazzio Pinot Noir ($29.60) and the 2006 Brosseau Vineyard Pinot Noir ($43.20). The second was much more substantial with plenty of cherry and cranberry fruit qualities with a lingering spicy cinnamon finish.

The next two wines were excellent syrahs, the 2006 Thompson Vineyard Syrah ($39.20) and my personal favorite of the day’s line up the 2006 Gary’s Vineyard Syrah. ($43.20)

For more information:

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Lavender Ridge Vineyards and Stevenot Winery in Murphys California

Murphys is located in the central Sierra Nevada foothills between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park, in Calaveras County, California. Located at approximately the 2,000-foot elevation level, Murphys is above the central valley fog, yet generally below the snowline.

It was a sunny but chilly afternoon the day after Christmas, the perfect kind of weather to go wine tasting in the Sierra Foothills. Snow covered the nearby hill tops, the air was fresh and brisk and post-holiday shoppers were busy in town bustling about the quaint little shops in the town of Murphys. In addition to restaurants, shops, and antique stores the town is now home to numerous winery tasting rooms.

A freind and I, a local pastor who first introduced me to wine when we were in seminary, visited two tasting wineries that day.

Lavender Ridge Vineyards

Our first stop was at Lavender Ridge Vineyards. Lavender Ridge specializes in Rhone varietals and produces unfiltered wines in including Viognier, Roussanne, Grenache, Rose, Grenache, Carignane, Mourvedre, and Syrah. They also sell a number of lavender products which unfortunately seem to compete with the aromas of the wine in the tasting room.

We tasted 2006 Cotes du Calaveras which is a blend of Syrah, Mourvedre, and Grenache, ($18), as well as the 2006 Grenache ($24), the 2006 Mourvedre ($26), the 2006 Syrah ($30), a lovely and fair priced 2007 Grenache Rose ($15) which a really fresh bouquet of strawberries and cranberries. The 2007 Viognier ($22) was also quite nice and the Vin Doux Dessert Wine ($18) was a pleasant mouth full of honeysuckle and caramelized pears.

Stevenot Winery

Our second stop for the day was at Stevenot Winery. Established in 1973, the winery is a number of nice wines from Chardonnay and Orange Muscat to Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Zinfandel, Merlot. But their best wine is without a doubt their Reserve Tempranillo.

They have a tasting room on the corner of Sheep Ranch Road and Main Street in Murphys but I reccomend visiting the tasting room at their historic winery, located in the 1870 Shaw Ranch house at 2690 San Domingo Road, four miles from Main Street off Sheep Ranch Road. They are open 7 days a week from 11a.m. to 5 p.m at can be contacted at: (209) 728-0638.

Adventures in Wine Education in 2008

I began my exploration and adventures in wine tasting while I was a student at Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido California. On June 12th 1999 I took my first trip to the Temecula Wine Country with a fellow student and it was there that I got the “wine bug.” After my first tour of a winery where I saw how grapes were grown and that wine was an art and science, I wanted to learn as much as I could about wine through reading books, magazines, watching videos and making frequent trips to wineries throughout the San Diego mountains and Temecula.

Shortly thereafter I took a trip up the coast to Santa Barbara and the Bay Area and visited wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains. About a year later I moved back to the Bay Area and began exploring the Northern California American Viticulture Areas in Sonoma, Napa, Livermore, Lodi, the Sierra Foothills, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Santa Clara, Monterey, and Paso Robles.

While all these trips have been an enjoyable and relaxing adventure they have also been an education and expansion of my understanding of wine. Each wine from a different AVA (American Viticulture Area) was a learning experience about the particular region, the way the particular varietal (Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, Syrah, Pinot Noir etc.) is expressed in that area’s climate and soil as well as in the vintage.

More or less my adventures in wine for the past ten years have been nothing more than a hobby and a peculiar fascination. But last September my wine interests took a new turn as I began a formal education in enology (the study of wine) at Las Positas College. For years the idea of studying wine at a university or a college was a dream. It was an unlikely pursuit as U.C Davis was too far away from where I lived, my work schedule was not conducive to taking classes and it was unlikely that I was going to return to college, spending thousands of dollars, for another undergraduate degree.

But then Providence brought a change in my circumstances with a new job, a new work schedule that opened a new door to the Enology and Viticulture Program at a local college in Livermore California. Suddenly I found myself a student again, with text books, lectures, quizzes and exams.

This past semester I took three classes (Introduction to Enology, Wine Marketing, and California Wine Regions) and a couple weeks ago I took my last Final Exam for the Fall semester. To study wine formally in a classroom setting is a strange experience. Wine tasting had always been just a relaxing pass time, something fun to do with friends on a Saturday afternoon or around the dinner table at someone’s home. Now it was serious and I soon found out that I didn’t know half as much as I thought I did about wine.

Studying wine in such a context has been a humbling experience, yet it also has been very exciting as new doors of exploration have been opened. I have had the opportunity and privilege of learning three nights a week from people who have “been in the business” for decades and who have made wine for some very well known wineries.

But it hasn’t been all fun and games. My day starts at 5 a.m. as I spend time reading before heading off to work on the other side of the Bay Area and then at 5 p.m. I drive back across to the East Bay in bumper to bumper traffic and then spend 3 hours in class, my day ending around 11 p.m.. Sometimes at 7 p.m. I am so stressed out from work that all I feel like doing is going to the gym, eating dinner and then going to bed. The last thing I feel like doing is listening to lectures about wine, taking notes, turning in assignments and taking a quiz or exam. Studying in a formal academic setting can take the fun, romance and glamour out of the love of wine. By the end of the semester I was just looking forward to being able to drink a glass of wine without having to analyze it to death and express my inept evaluation of it in front a room full of people.

To make matters worse, in the past if I had a bad cold and my nose was not functioning optimally I could choose not have any wine and would not take a trip to the wine country until my olfactory senses had returned to normal. But in an academic setting (or in the wine business for that matter) life cannot be put on hold until your schnoz is working at its peak efficiency. The result is that I often found wines to be disappointing as I struggled to accurately evaluate them because i was dead tired and was not feeling up to par. Evaluating wine is such a subjective experience and I soon discovered that when your proboscis has taken a holiday a $100 bottle of wine can taste like a bottle of vinegar poured over a salted pretzel. Many times the portion of he class that I looked most forward to became something to endure and I was greatly disappointed with myself in my inability to force my nose and palate (despite the illness) to tell me the truth.

But this too is a great learning experience. If you truly want to work within the wine world it is a lot of hard work with long hours and you will not always feel like doing your job. Life throws at you many unwanted and unexpected twists and turns, trials and tribulations, so if you really want to succeed it is going to take a lot of faith, patience, endurance and perseverance in and out of season. I am looking forward the next semester and I intend to buckle down and get even more serious about my studies, to be the best enology student that I can be.

However, the college isn’t the only place that I am learning about wine. Just a couple weeks ago I had my first day on the job working part-time at a winery. I was recently hired by Borra Vineyards in Lodi to work a couple Saturdays a month and so far it has already been an eye opening experience with many lessons in customer relations, seeing how various marketing ideas may be employed, brand names are utilizes, marketing niches and funnels are utilized but most of all how a family winery operates as a sort of communal gathering place for club members and devoted followers of the winery.

I think 2009 is going to be an interesting year, with more unanticipated avenues and new windows of opportunity for expanding my appreciation and love for wine.