Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Wine Tasting On A Foggy Summer Day at Chateau Julien Wine Estate and Talbott Vineyards in Carmel Valley

Monterey is about 2 hours south of where I live, a straight drive down Highway 101 and then a cut over to the coast on Highway 156 to the Pacific Coast Highway 1. As I approached the bay a thick marine layer of fog loomed in. Then as I drove east on Carmel Valley Road the sun peered through revealing wineries, golf courses and a winding road out to the Carmel Valley Village, the home of many wine tasting rooms and fine restaurants.

The town of Monterey was first established in 1770 by Father Junípero Serra and Gaspar de Portolà (governor of Baja and Alta California (1767–1770), explorer and founder of San Diego and Monterey. About 200 Years Ago Franciscan friars, in the Spanish mission of Soledad California, planted the first crop of wine grapes over two hundred years ago. But then the area died out and was revived in the 1960's.

In 1960 Professor A.J. Winkler, a viticultural authority from the University of California at Davis, published a report classifying grape growing districts by climate. So, in the early 1960's, the first plantings of vineyards began by such wine making pioneers as Wente, Mirassou, Paul Masson, J. Lohr and Chalone. Since then Monterey Wine Country has grown to more than 45,000 acres planted in vineyards varying in size from sixty to several thousands acres, making it one of the largest premium wine grape growing regions in California.

The area has superb soils and an ideal combination of warm sunshine and cool ocean breezes which allows for slow ripening of up to 60 days longer than other wine growing regions. It is particularly well suited for Chardonnay, Riesling, and Pinot Noir and other varietals that are grown here as well such as Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah.

The Monterey Wine Country includes nine American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) that are identified as unique, having unique characteristics that are particularly well suited for specific varieties of grapes. These AVAs include Monterey, Santa Lucia Highlands, Arroyo Seco, San Lucas, Hames Valley, Chalone, Carmel Valley, San Antonio Valley and San Bernabe.

If you are exploring the wine countries of the California coastline, Monterey is definitely a “must see” and “must taste” for wine lovers and I especially recommend Talbott Vineyards.

Chateau Julien Wine Estate

My first stop on Carmel Valley Road Chateau Julien Wine Estate which was founded in 1982 by Bob and Patty Brower and it sits on 16 acres at the foot of the Carmel Valley Mountains. The winery's first release was the 1982 vintage Chardonnay and Merlot in 1985. Currently, this is the only winery in Carmel Valley that is surrounded by vineyards as most of the tasting rooms reside in the village and their wineries and vineyards reside elsewhere. Across from the Chateau, surrounded by six acres of Sangiovese grapes, is the “Chai” barrel room which is built into the ground. Like a wine cave, with 12"-15" thick walls, it has a naturally cool temperature and humidity perfect for aging wines.

My first tasting of the day was the 2008 Barrel Aged Pinot Grigio (86.3% Pinot Grigio, 13.7% Muscat). This wine is fruit forward and has a somewhat floral bouquet along with plenty of tropical fruit character such as pineapple, citrus, apple, melon and a hint of oak.
It is medium bodied with a nice sugar to acid balance which accentuates the full forward fruit and mildly creamy texture through the finish. It retails at $25 a bottle.

My second wine was the 2008 Sur Lie Chardonnay which is made in the traditional French “Sur Lie” style which means it stays in contact with the inactive yeast cells throughout 100% barrel fermentation and aging. The result is a rich, creamy Chardonnay with a round, full texture and yet it also maintains nice acidity. On the nose and palate I picked up pear, butterscotch and apple with a little butter on the back end. It is well balanced with a velvety mouth-feel and crisp acidity. While I enjoyed the wine, at $32 it is a little steep and isn’t too hard to find this style of California Chardonnay for under $20 at your local grocery store.

My first red wine of the day was the 2004 Estate Syrah ($28). The grapes are grown on their Estate Vineyard in South Monterey County's Lockwood Valley on the western Santa Lucia Mountain Range which the vineyard sits at a 980 foot elevation about 14 miles from the Pacific Ocean. This is a full-bodied wine with moderate tannins. On the nose and palate I picked up blackberries, pepper plumbs with a bit of oak and vanilla. Over the past few weeks in Amador and Paso Robles I have tasted a number of Syrahs which I preferred over this one at around the same price of $28.

My final wine in the line up was the 1999 Reserve Merlot. The wine is beginning to show its age as it has a slight brick-red tint to it. It is a full bodied wine with moderate tannins with subtle notes of cola, black cherry, cedar with a smooth and short finish. At $42 a bottle I would have to say “pass.”

Talbott Vineyards

Very rarely do I visit a winery at which I am impressed with every wine. When I visit a winery I might like one or two in a line up of six or so wines. So when I find a tasting room in which I love every wine – it makes the entire trip worthwhile and I just have to tell all my friends about it. Talbott Vineyards is one of the wineries, especially if you are a Chardonnay or Pinot Noir fan! All of their wines absolutely blew my mind!

My first wine was the 2005 Diamond T Chardonnay. This wine is HUGE! Luscious pineapples, sweet honey, refreshing pears, intense peaches, fresh apricots and nectarines, well crisp acidity followed by a prolonged toasted oak finish. Unfortunately, it is a little out of my price range at $63 a bottle. But, it is without a doubt one of the best Chards I have had in the last 10 years!

Just when I think I’ve had the best Chardonnay in my entire life, they pour me the 2005 Cuvee Audrey Chardonnay. This wine is absolutely hedonistic! It is so big that I can’t imagine any light dishes, such as fish or poultry, being able to pair well with it. Yet, it such an absolutely delicious and complex wine that I it works well by itself as a cocktail. It provides a mouth full caramel, pineapple, guava, crème brûlée, dried peaches, honey, French vanilla, cinnamon, honey, buttered toast and just a hint toasted oak on the finish. This is another budget buster at $75 a bottle.

The third mind-blowing wine from Talbott was the 2005 Cuvee Carlotta Chardonnay. It is both elegant and opulent with a mouth full of intense pineapple, apricot , ripe peaches, butterscotch, hazelnut, cinnamon toast, vanilla cream and cotton candy. It is well balanced, has refreshing acidity with a clean lingering finish. This gem sells for $63 a bottle.

Having been overwhelmed with the high quality of their Chardonnays, as my server changed glasses I was eager to taste the line up of pinot Noirs. This is THE first winery that I have ever been to that actually serves Pinot Noir in an appropriate glass!

Good Pinot Noir absolutely must be served in properly designed glasses if it is to adequately show off its best attributes. I have on many occasions been disappointed by what were probably good Pinots but were not as impressive as they should have been simply because they were not displayed well in an aromatically correct stemware.

My first red wine from Talbott Vineyards was the 2007 Kali Hart Pinot Noir. It is the lightest wine in the line. On the nose and palate I picked up a hint of sarsaparilla, red berries, sweet bing cherry flavors, tart plums, a hint of cinnamon followed with a silky texture and finish. For only $21 this is a very impressive wine.

My next wine was 2005 Logan Pinot noir. Harvested from the Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, this is a medium bodied wine with very soft, velvety tannins and yet it has a bounty of cherry and black berry, plum, root beer, with a whiff of smoke, cinnamon, vanilla and touch of pepper. This is a well pleasing Pinot for $30.

My final red wine was the 2006 Talbot Pinot Noir. This is one of the best California Pinot Noirs I have tasted in the last ten years. It is a rich ruby in color with seductive aromas of fresh cherry, plum, blueberry, root beer, with a slight mushroomy character followed by notes sweet oak and cinnamon. On the palate, velvety smooth Pinot has amazing fruit vibrancy with layers of potpourri, cola, cinnamon and just a hint of freshly cracked pepper. It ahs a prolonged finish with lively acidity and moral floral and fruit notes on the return. This wine retails for $40, and I took two home to add to my cellar!

If you love Pinot Noir like I do and you are in the area, YOU MUST visit the Talbott Vineyards tasting room – and tell them Erik Wait sent you!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Independence Day at Adelaida Cellars, Donati Family Winery, Eagle Castle Winery, Halter Ranch Vineyard, Justin Vineyards and Winery and Tablas Creek Vineyards

Several years ago I stopped at a couple wineries in Paso Robles on along Highway 101 on my way to Santa Barbara. The terrain seemed interesting and as I passed through I made a mental note to myself, “I’ve go to come back here.” So, with a three day weekend at hand I decided to spend the 4th of July weekend in Paso Robles, tasting the wine and exploring the vine covered rolling hills.

This past year in my enology studies at Las Positas College, I’ve learned that knowledge of a wine country’s history is important to understanding its character, the people and the wines they produce. Most people have become familiar with Napa, Sonoma and because of the movie Sideways, Santa Barbara. But few are aware of the great wines let alone the history of Paso Robles.

Paso Robles (full name: El Paso de Robles which means “Oak Pass” or “The Pass of the Oaks”) is in San Luis Obispo County, California. The population is about 32,500 and it still feels very much like a cowboy town. The city streets and down town area are rustic. Paso Robles is located at approximately halfway between the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco on what is known as the “Central Coast”. The elevation of Paso Robles ranges from 675 to 1,100 feet, but the majority of the main downtown area of the city sits at about 740 feet above sea level.

The topography of the area consists of oak tree and vineyard covered rolling hills on the eastern half of the city, and foothill peaks which rise in elevation to the Santa Lucia Coastal Range on the west. “Paso” sits on the eastern foothills of the Santa Lucia Coastal Mountain Range which run in a North-South direction, starting at Monterey, then runs down South all the way down to San Luis Obispo. If you are traveling to Paso heading south on Highway 101 just before you arrive you will pass through a mind boggling ocean of vineyards.

The town is on the border where northern San Luis Obispo County and southern Monterey County meet, and is situated roughly 25 miles from the Pacific Ocean. On Saturday July 4th I went for an early morning job along the beach at Moro Bay along the foggy shore and then was greeted by the sun peering through the clouds and vieyards and I drove back over the hill ridge into Paso Robles. It was absolutely beautiful! The climate of Paso Robles is unique. Part of it is a semi-arid, dry, steppe-type climate and other portions are is the typical, coastal Californian and very Mediterranean.

Paso Robles has a long wine history. Wine grapes were introduced to the area in 1797 by the Spanish conquistadors and Franciscan missionaries. Spanish explorer Francisco Cortez had encouraged settlers from Mexico and other parts of California to cultivate the land, the first of which were the Padres of the Mission San Miguel. Their old fermentation vats and grapevine artwork can still be seen at the Mission, north of the city of Paso Robles.

Commercial winemaking was introduced to the Paso Robles 1882 when Andrew York, a settler from Indiana, began planting vineyards and established the Ascension Winery at what is now York Mountain Winery. York found that the climate and soil were suitable for vineyards and within a few years he found that the vines were yielding more than he could market so he built a small stone winery. Following Andrew York’s early success Gerd and Ilsabe Klintworth planted a vineyard in the Geneseo/Linne area around 1886. They sold jugs of Zinfandel, Port, and Muscatel, as well as white wine made from Burger grapes. The Casteel Vineyards in the Willow Creek area were planted just prior to 1908. Cuttings from the old vines provided gave birth to other vineyards and today they still producing grapes in the area.As the popularity of wines began to grow, so did the Paso Robles wine region. Lorenzo and Rena Nerelli purchased their vineyard at the foot of York Mountain in 1917. Their Templeton Winery was the area’s first to be bonded following the repeal of Prohibition.

There was a lot of growth in the area in the early 1920s when several families immigrated to the area to establish family vineyards and wineries. Sylvester and Caterina Dusi purchased a vineyard in 1924 and their old head-pruned Zinfandel vines are now owned and cultivated by their son, Benito. The Martinelli, Busi, Vosti and Bianchi vineyards were also established around this time.

The Paso Robles wine region gained more notoriety when Polish statesman and concert pianist Ignace Paderewski visited Paso Robles and decided to plant himself along with Petite Syrah and Zinfandel on his Rancho San Ignacio vineyard in the Adelaide area, a 2,000 acre estate.

Following Prohibition, Paderewski's wine was made at York Mountain Winery went on to become award-winners establishing Paso Robles’ reputation as a premier wine region.
Today the Paso Robles American Viticultural Area (AVA) is one of the fastest growing premium vineyard and winery regions in California, with the number of bonded wineries and vineyards in the area of Paso Robles more than doubling between 1993 and 2002. More than 25 different varieties of grapes are grown in the Paso Robles Wine Country and there are over 250 bonded wineries. But, in my opinion, the area’s greatest strength is in its production of Rhone varietals such as Viognier, Rousanne, Marsanne, Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre.

If you are a Rhone Ranger fan, this is the place to be!

Adelaida Cellars

I left my home in Castro Valley on July 3rd, Friday morning, around 7 a.m. and arrived in Paso Robles at around 10:30 a.m., just as wineries were opening their doors for the day. My first stop was at Adelaida Cellars. The winery is surrounded by oak trees and their vines are just around the corner over the hill ridge firmly planted in rocky limestone soils and calcareous shale on the west side of Paso Robles on California's Central Coast. The winery, which originated in 1981, is located 14 miles east of the Pacific Ocean at an elevation of 1,800 feet in the Santa Lucia mountain chain.

Adelaida wines come from produces its own Estate vineyards as well as a select group of contracted vineyards on the west side of Paso Robles. Amongst its holdings are the two estate properties: Viking Vineyard which produces Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah planted in 1992 and HMR Vineyard which was planted in the early 1960’s.

My first taste of wine for the day was a white Rhone blend, the 2007 Pavanne 2007 (47% Roussanne, 34% Grenache Blanc, 13% Chardonnay, 6% Viognier). The wine offers a refreshing complexity of flavors, particularly tropical fruit flavors, pineapple, kumquat, quince and grapefruit with both a full mouth feel of rich and contrasting tart flavors with a crisp mineral finish. This is a great wine for only $22 so I brought one home.

My second wine was another white Rhone blend, the 2007 “Version” from the Glenrose Vineyard 2007 (58% Roussanne, 42% Grenache Blanc). This wine has fine bouquet of grapefruit, lime, pear with a subtle hint of honey. It is refreshing, clean on the palate, has great minerality, crisp acidity. It is a fine wine for $27.

My first red was the 2006 Anna’s Estate Syrah ($28). This is an extremely dense purplish unfined and unfiltered fruit forward wine with notes of blueberry and a distinct smoky character on the nose. On the palate the nose is confirmed along with additional spice and leather on the finish.

My second red wine was the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is deep garnet in color, fruit forward on the nose and a mouth full of black currant, raspberry, cedar, spice and graphite pencil shavings. A fine representative of a Paso Cabernet that rivals many fine Cabs in Napa for a lot less money at only $32.

My third red wine was the 2005 Cabernet/Syrah Chelle Mountain Reserve. Fresh cherries and black currant on the nose, along with supple tannins, nice acidity and mouth filling blackberries o the palate. A bit steep at $50.

My final sample from Adelaida was a return to a palate cleansing and refreshing white wine, the 2007 Glenrose Vineyard Viognier (58% Roussanne, 42% Grenache Blanc) milder representative of this varietal, with and attractive and not overbearing floral bouquet followed by citrus such as grapefruit and lime along with pear and just a touch of honey. A really nice wine at $27.

Halter Ranch Vineyard

A little further down the road and over the hill along Adelaida Road on the west side of Paso Robles was my next stop, Halter Ranch Vineyard. The ranch property dates to the 1880s, when it was part of a 3,000-acre ranch owned by Paso Robles pioneer Edwin Smith. When I first arrived I roamed the beautiful Victorian farmhouse Smith built in 1885 as well as the 900 acres of the original ranch which re planted grapes suitable to the terroir – Bordeaux and Rhone-style, plus Zinfandel, Tannat and Tempranillo.

After taking a number of pictures I ventured into the tasting room behind the farmhouse. My first tasting of wine was the 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (96% Sauvignon Blanc, 4% Viognier) It has a straw yellow hue and has aromas of lime, pink grapefruit, cut grass, peaches and herbs. On palate, the wine delivers well balanced dry mouth full of lemon, tangerine, peach, a little spice with a lingering citrus finish. A nice wine for $21.

My second wine was the 2008 Rosé (49% Grenache, 38% Syrah, 13% Mourvèdre). This Southern Rhône Valley-style Rosé is very complex dry, pink wine with intense raspberries, cranberries, watermelon, and red cherries. On the palate, nose is confirmed along with a slight spicy finish. This is a fantastic refreshing summer wine at only $14, so I brought two bottles home.

My third wine was the 2004 Ancestor, Estate Reserve (72% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Petit Verdot, 5% Merlot, 5% Malbec) This is an elegant Bordeaux-style blend with a complex nose of cassis and blackberry fruit followed by red currant, mint, cedar, mild tabacco and cigar box notes with supple tannins. A fine wine but a bit steep at $44.

My fourth sample was the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon (79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Petit Verdot, 9% Malbec) This is an excellent vintage, dark (almost black) in color, black currant, black cherry and dark berry fruit, followed by dark chocolate, cedar, black olive and sweet oak contributing complexity. On the palate the fruit and and secondary vanilla oak flavors are well integrated to provide mouth full of fruit along with well balanced acidity providing a prolonged finish. An excellent wine for $25.

My next wine was the 2006 Syrah (76% Syrah, 17% Malbec, 7% Mourvèdre) An intense garnet and purplish hue with a nose cherries, blackberries, black pepper, smoke and brown sugar. The palate fulfills the promise with rich, ripe flavors of blackberry, black cherry, vanilla and smoke, followed by supple and well structured tannins, vibrant acidity and lingering taste of vanilla and a little heat. At 15.5 % alcohol it is a little high, but otherwise a fine wine at $28.

My final wine was a classic Rhone blend, the 2006 GSM (52% Grenache, 33% Mourvèdre, 15% Syrah) A ruby red wine with aromas of black plums, red cherries and cranberry, a little smoke, cumin, rosehips and sweet oak tones completing the olfactory picture. On the palate, this is a medium-bodied wine with well-structured tannins with red black cherry, raspberry and pomegranate flavors followed by a classic character of mint, tar, toast and cedar. A nice wine at $28.

Tablas Creek Vineyards

Paso Robles is unquestionably one of the best regions in California for Rhone varietals and Châteauneuf-du-Pape style blends. Of all the wineries I visited over the 4th of July weekend I was most impressed with Tablas Creek Vineyards.

The winery was created two international wine families, the Perrin family, proprietors of Château de Beaucastel, and Robert Haas, founder of Vineyard Brands. In 1989, they purchased a 120-acre parcel in west Paso Robles and named it Tablas Creek Vineyard, after the small creek running through the property. The property elevation averages 1,500 feet, and the shallow, rocky limestone soils are of the same geologic origin as those at Beaucastel. Hot Summer days and cool nights from the influence of the nearby Pacific Ocean provide the vines with an ideal Rhône-like climate that allows the grapes to fully mature and maintain crisp acidity.

My first wine was the 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc which is a blend of three estate-grown varietals (68% Roussanne, 22% Grenache Blanc, 10% Picpoul Blanc), propagated from budwood cuttings from the Château de Beaucastel estate.

The Picpoul Blanc (also spelled Piquepoul Blanc) is one of the lesser-known Rhône varietals. Literally it means “lip stinger,” named for its great acidity. It is one of the thirteen permitted varietals in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where it is used primarily as a blending component to add acidity. Like the better known Grenache and Pinot, Picpoul has red, white and pink variants, though Picpoul Noir and Picpoul Gris are very rare. Picpoul Blanc is used in this blend to add bright acidity, minerality, and a clean lemony flavor.

The 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc well balanced and refreshing white wine, it has a wonderful floral bouquet, followed by lemon drops, honey and a touch of white pepper and the nose is confirmed on the palate with a long, dry, tropical finish.

My second white wine was the 2007 Côtes de Tablas Blanc is a blend of four estate-grown white Rhône varietals (42% Viognier, 26% Roussanne, 21% Marsanne, 11% Grenache Blanc). It has concentrated aromas of stone fruits and minerals followed by dried apricot and herbs on the palate with a full-mouth rich texture, moderate acidity and a long nectarine finish.

My third wine was the 2006 Roussanne (100% Roussanne). The appreciative character of this wine is its subtlety and elegance. It has a very light character of honeysuckle, pear, and pistachio on the nose. Yet it also has a rich, viscous feel on the mid palate, bright acidity with just a touch of oak followed by a prolonged mineral finish.

I then did a vertical tasting of the 2004, 2005 and 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel. The 2004 is 50% Mourvèdre, 27% Syrah, 17% Grenache, and 6% Counoise. The 2005 is 44% Mourvèdre, 26% Grenache, 25% Syrah, and 5% Counoise and the 2006 is 45% Mourvèdre, 28% Grenache, 22% Syrah, and 5% Counoise. Of the three I preferred the 2004 and 2006. I had tasted the 2005 twice before in an enology class at Las Positas College last semester, then and now the ’05 seems to be overly earthy on the palate with a touch of rubber glove on the nose that I did not care for.

The 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel was my favorite. It is delicious wine with a complex nose and palate and nose of red plum, cherry, figs and orange peel, and nutmeg with a silky layered mouthfeel.

My final wine was the 2006 Tannat (88% Tannat, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon). The Tannat grape has intense fruit, spice, and is known for its heavy tannins which is why it is traditionally blended with Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc. This wine has a concentrated purple color with some red hues toward the rim. On the nose it has black berries, sage and juniper, chocolate, coffee and tobacco. On the palate it has layers of raspberry, plum, with big-ass ripe tannins (that will hopefully soften with time) and a prolonged finish. A very interesting wine for $35.

The 4th of July!!!

My day began with a jog on the beach at Morro Bay. It was a bit foggy but as I neared the giant rock it began to lift and as I drove back over the hill ridge to Paso Robles, I caught a beautiful array of light shining over the vineyards. A spectacular sight and the perfect way to start the day. After breakfast I headed out to take pictures of vineyards along highway 46 West and stop in for a tasting at a few wineries.

Eagle Castle Winery

My first stop of the day was at Eagle Castle Winery, located two miles west of Highway 101 off of Highway 46 west. Eagle Castle Winery sits among the Santa Lucia Mountains in west Paso Robles. All of the wines are sourced from 750 acres of six separate vineyards from, located on both the west and east sides of Paso Robles.

My first wine of the day was the 2007 Chardonnay (100% Templeton Hills Chardonnay). It is light gold in color with subtle floral scents and apple, pear and vanilla on the nose. This wine is barrel fermented (50% new Hungarian oak, 25% new French oak, 25% new American oak) and so it is little oaky on the palate but it finishes clean with nice acidity. If you like the typical California wine style, this is a fine representative at only $18.

My next wine was the 2008 Viognier ($25). The grapes come from the Fralich Vineyards located on the East side of 101 in the town of Templeton. This is a classic Viognier with characteristic character of floral, spice, and tropical fruit, dried apricot and pineapple on the nose and palate with a little lemon drop on the finish.

My third wine of the morning was the 2008 Syrah Rosé. A bouquet of strawberries, cranberries, watermelon, and a little spice on the nose. The palate is bright and fruity, with a finish that is very refreshing with a pleasing berry flavor on the return. A great summer wine for only $14.

My first red wine of the day was the just released 2007 Syrah (100% Syrah). This is a deep red wine with a bouquet of strawberry; followed by cassis, light chocolate and a hint of coffee. It is an okay wine as this region provides a lot of competition for Rhone varietals. I think there are better representatives in the area for $22.

My second red of the morning was the 2006 Trinity, a blend of 58% Estate Merlot, 25% Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Estate Syrah. They use different percentages of American, French and Hungarian oak barrels for each and then blend them as finished wines. It is violet with red hues toward the rim with black cherries, cloves, vanilla and a little root beer on the nose. It is fruity on the attack with nice round mouth feel in the evolution followed by a dry and yet balanced finish. This is a fine wine at $22 and it was my favorite of the line up.

My next wine in the line up was the 2006 Barbera (100% Barbera). A full bodied red wine with notes of plum, spice and pepper. This wine didn’t ring my bell at $30 a bottle.

My final wine was the 2005 Zinfandel (100%). A deep red wine with an array of cherry, white pepper, sage and dried plums and raisins on the nose. An okay wine for $22, but I’ve have had better zins from Lodi and the Sierra foothills for less money.

Donati Family Winery

A little further down the west side of Highway 46 on the left hand side is Donati Family Winery. They produce the only wine designated by the AVA “Paicines” which is in the larger San Benito AVA, in the heart of San Benito County. The Donatis came to Paicines (pronounced pie see ness), in California’s Central Coast, in 1998 when they purchased land that would soon become home to Matt Donati and his family. Since then, Matt and his father Ron, engaged in planting the family vineyard and planning their winery in Paso Robles.

My first wine was the 2007 Paicines Chardonnay ($20). This is a nicely balanced wine. It underwent 80% barrel fermentation in French Oak and 20% stainless steel fermentation with only partial malolactic fermentation, which gives it a very light buttery feel and yet the fruit remains the chief character. It has tropical the notes on the nose and palate, particularly pineapple, with a little coconut and lemon.

My second wine was the 2007 Paicines Pinot Grigio. It has wonderful fruit and minerals on the nose, is loaded with pear and apple, peach and orange blossom, concentrated and well balanced with body, lively acidity and an elegant finish. A great summer wine for $20, so I brought one home.

My third white wine was the 2008 Estate Vineyard Paicines Pinot Blanc. This wine is bone dry with crisp acidity and a silky mouthfeel. This is a very unique “Old Vines” Pinot Blanc coming from the 35+ year old vines. It has expressive fruit on the nose and palate consisting of bananas, pear, and light floral aromas. A great wine for $20, so I brought one home.

My first red wine was the 2006 Paicines Estate Vineyard Claret. This is their flagship wine, which is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. A deep garnet in color, bright cherry and cocoa followed by black plums and blackberry on the nose with notes of vanilla, sage, and cedar. On the palate the wine exhibits a round mouth feel with noticeable tannins followed by a long finish, with lingering flavors of cherries, chocolate and ripe. This is a great buy at $25.

My second red wine was the 2005 Estate Vineyard, Paicines Merlot (92% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Petit Verdot). A lively representative of this varietal, deeply fruity and solidly colored, with a backdrop of subtle smoke and vanilla. The wine spent 22 months on French and Appalachian oak. A really nice wine for $25 but unfortunately it is only available to their wine club members.

My final red wine was named in memory of Ron Donati’s father Ezio. The 2005 Paicines Ezio is a Bordeaux style blend of 48% Merlot, 43% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Malbec, 3% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Petit Verdot. On the nose and palate it displays dark berry fruit, cocoa, black olives, coffee and fresh ground black pepper. This wine is really well balanced with supple tannins and a long lingering finish. A really fine wine, but a little steep at $50.

Justin Vineyards and Winery

My final stop for the trip was Justin Vineyards Winery. If you travel to Paso Robles, this is a “must see” and “must taste” winery! Justin is a family owned and operated winery making estate grown and produced wines. The property was founded in 1981 by Justin and Deborah Baldwin when they planted their 160 acre property to the major Bordeaux varietals and created their Estate vineyard. Their emphasis is placed on making Bordeaux-style blends and single varietals.

My first wine was the 2008 Justin Sauvignon Blanc, Paso Robles ($15). The 2008 Sauvignon Blanc has seen NO oak and spent 5 months in topped up stainless steel. It has a light, translucent hue containing just light straw colored rim. The aroma combines multiple tropical characters including kiwi, grapefruit, fresh peeled tangerine, pineapple and orange zest. The entry is soft and layered, with Meyer lemon, melon and herbal characters that lead into a mid-palate combining bright, fresh acidity with a slightly creamy, balanced mouth feel. The finish is crisp, clean and perfect for warm days, summer nights, or side by side with fresh fish or fruit.

My second wine was the 2008 Justin Chardonnay, Paso Robles. This is NOT your typical big oaky California Chardonnay. Yet it is very rich and crisp. The wine was barrel fermented in 100% French oak (26% new) and aged “sur lies” in barrel, and stirred weekly during its 8 month ageing process. To retain its acidity and citrus characteristic, the wine did not undergo malolactic fermentation. It has aromas of pear, apricot and caramel and toasted oak on the nose. On the palate it is crisp with crisp acidity with flavors of white peach, banana, lemon and hints of mineral and toasted almonds. The wine is full bodied with multiple layers of honey, cream, and a touch of spice from the “lees” stirred French oak. A great value for under twenty bucks ($19.79).

My third wine was the 2008 Justin Viognier, Paso Robles. Unlike the Chardonnay, the wine was barrel fermented in 100% Neutral French oak in order to avoid any influence of the oak and maintain the character of the grape varietal. Fermentations were temperature-controlled at 55 degrees Fahrenheit. After fermentation ceased, the wine was aged “sur lies” in barrel, and stirred weekly during its 4 month ageing process. To retain its acidity and stone fruit characteristic, the wine did not undergo Malolactic fermentation. The 2008 Viognier has a light straw color and transparent rim with peaches, apricot, and orange on the nose. This wine displays classic Viognier characters with layers of citrus fruit, peaches, mandarin orange and cream followed by a crisp dry finish. A nice wine at $22.50.

My fourth wine was the 2007 Justin Syrah, Paso Robles. Purple in color with a light maroon rim. The nose has layers of blueberry, plum, black currant, pepper, slate with overtones of bacon fat and smoke with just a touch of forest floor, caramel and vanilla. The palate is supple on the attack, followed by layers of spice and black fruit evolving into a weighty mid palate and a full mouth feel with supple tannins. A great wine for $26.25.

My next wine was the 2007 Justin Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles The 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon is dark red with a violet hue. It has layers of cassis, cherry, black plum, on the nose and palate with leather on the back end and the finish is slightly chalky. This wine has supple tannins ad is ready to drink now. A really nice wine for $26.25.

My final wine for the day and my entire trip was the 2006 Justin Isosceles, Paso Robles. This wine is inky purple with a slight red hue around the rim. On the nose it has Aromas of blackberry, black plum, leather, mocha and cassis combine with light layers of butterscotch, vanilla and a touch of smoke. On the attack there is loads of . Supple tannins and acidity with a full mouth feel with ample length and weight on the finish. A classic wine for $62 that will undoubtedly score high with the wine critics.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Sobon Estate Vineyards, Dobra Zemilja Winery, Amador Foothill Winery and Karmère Vineyards

This summer I am traveling around California, exploring wine countries up and down the coast and in the central valley. Last Saturday I made a trip up to Amador County, about 45 minute drive east of Sacramento, where you’ll find about thirty wineries in the heart of the historic Sierra foothill Gold Country. The Amador Vintners have tasting rooms in the Shenandoah Valley, Fiddletown, Sutter Creek, Willow Creek and Ione areas.

Most of the vineyards are planted on hillsides ranging between 500 and 2,300 feet, with most between 1,200 and 2,000. The vines are planted in well-drained, volcanic, decomposed granite soils, which limit vegetative growth and result in small crops of intensely flavored grapes. This area gets a lot of heat and sunshine so many of the wines are a bit high in alcohol (15 percent or more is not uncommon) and they tend to be very fruit forward with dense concentrated flavors.

The nice thing about this area is that it doesn’t have the hectic tourist traffic of Napa or Sonoma. The long winding roads provide a scenic drive with beautiful vistas of oak covered rolling hills and the atmosphere of the tasting rooms are very relaxed with a lot of “out in the country” hospitality. You also don’t have to spend a ton of money on tasting fees and the wines are generally reasonably priced.

Since this is hot climate you won’t find much Cabernet, Chardonnay let alone cool climate grapes like Pinot Noir. What you will enjoy here is Rhône varietals such as Viognier, Syrah and Petite Syrah as well as a few Italian wines such as Nebbiolo and Sangiovese but more than anything else – loads of Old Vine Zinfandel.

Sobon Estate Vineyards and Winery

My first stop on this hot Saturday (101 degrees!) was at Sobon Estate a family-owned winery that also owns Shenandoah Vineyards. Adjacent to the tasting room there is a small museum with some very interesting antique wine making equipment.

The Sobon Estate winery started in 1989 when Leon and Shirley Sobon bought each other a second winery for their 30th wedding anniversary present. They purchased the historic D'Agostini Winery, one of the oldest in the state.

I sampled the 2008 Viognier which is 96% Viognier and 4% Grenache Blanc, barrel Fermented and Sur Lie aged in older French and American Oak. Viognier is by nature an intensely floral wine and so the little bit of Grenache Blanc helps rein it back and brings out its spicy notes. This is an excellent wine at this price ($16).

The next wine was the 2008 Rousanne which is comprised of 85% Roussanne, 9% Viognier and 6% Grenache Blanc. It was fermented and aged in 50% new French and American Oak barrels. This wine is more complex than the Viognier with layers of floral aromas, butterscotch, honey and caramelized pear. At only $14 this is a great wine so I brought two bottles home.

My first red was the 2007 “Cougar Hill” Zinfandel (14.9% alc.). It is 95% Estate Zinfandel 5% Petite Syrah, aged 12 months in 30% new French & American Oa., It is a smooth medium bodied wine with plenty of cola, cedar, a wisp of cigar box and tobacco on the nose. Lush with a bit sweetness and plenty of black and red berries palate, well balanced acidity and refined tannins with a lightly spiced white peppery finish. At $18 it is a fair price.

My second red was the 2007 "Old Vines" Zinfandel which consists of 100% Estate Zinfandel (97%) from various estate vineyards and a little Petite Syrah (3%). This is a good everyday drinking table wine. It has lots of oak, soft and fruity on the nose and palate with fresh blackberry pie and a touch of chocolate. Not as spicy and peppery as some their other zins. At only $12, this is a great buy.

My next red wine was the 2007 "Rocky Top" Zinfandel which is 96% Zinfandel and 4% Petite Syrah. This is an excellent example of the “Amador” Zinfandel style with intense and concentrated aromas of ripe blackberries, cherries, and cocoa. This wine is made entirely from their estate owned CCOF certified organically grown grapesThis is a classic zin blackberries, cherry cola and black pepper, with a touch of honey sweetness on the nose. On the palate the nose is confirmed but with more dominant cherry cola, violets and black pepper on the finish. . It is five bucks cheaper ($17) than the “Fiddletown” Zin and yet this one was my favorite.

My final red wine was the 2007 “Fiddletown” Zinfandel ($22) which is 91% Zinfandel from the Lubenko Vineyard, Fiddletown and 9% Petite Syrah (15.2% alc.). It is aged 14 months in 40% new American and Hungarian Oak barrels. This is a multilayered wine, with loads cherry on the nose and palate with earthy dusty on the back end. Plenty of Spice, moderately complex with full concentrated fruit form start to finish.

Dobra Zemilja Winery

My second stop was at Dobra Zemlja (pronounced: dobra zem-ya), which means means "Good Earth" in Croatian. The winery and tasting room are housed in a restored late-19thcentury facility, complete with wine cave where you can taste the wines with a view of their barrels. The grounds are beautiful and there are plenty tables enjoy a picnic lunch, sip a bit of wine with a view of the garden and a nearby duck pond.

I tasted the Milan Ruz (non-vintage) ($16), the 2008 Viognier ($18) which has lots of fresh peach flavors, it is floral but not overly so and it has a nice minerality. I also tasted the 2007 Sangiovese ($26), the 2006 Syrah ($26), the 2006 Barbera ($26), the 2007 Sangre De Toro Tempranillo ($26) and finally the 2007 Kikas (or “kick ass”) Zinfandel Style Port ($26). Of all the reds I preferred the Barbera and brought one home.

Amador Foothill Winery

My third stop was at Amador Foothill Winery which is located at 12500 Steiner Road in Plymouth. While tasting their wines I had the opportunity to chat with the owner-winemaker Katie Quinn. Amador Foothill Winery produces three classic vineyard-designated Zinfandels and as well as Sangiovese and Aglianico, Sauvignon Blanc, a Late Harvest Semillon, and an Rhone-style blend called Katie’s Cote.

I tasted the 2006 Esola Vineyard Zinfandel ($18) which comes from Lena Esola's gnarly, 65 year old vines. It has intense and luscious spicy, dark fruit aromas and complex raspberry and plum flavors as well as supple, ripe tannins and firm acidity, and exceptional balance. I bought a bottle and enjoyed it the following evening at a barbeque with some friends.

I then tasted the 2006 Ferrero Zinfandel ($18) which comes from a 50 year old section of John Ferrero's head-pruned, dry-farmed vineyard. Plenty of black cherries, tar and chocolate with well integrated spice, vanilla and subtle oak. 

My final wine was the 2006 Katie's Cote Rhone style blend which consists of 51% Syrah and 49% Grenache. They have planted some Mourvèdre which they intend to add to the blend to make it a classic GSM, but the vines are too young at this time. The wine has raspberry and blackberry fruit on the nose and palate and a touch spiciness on the finish.

Shenandoah Vineyards

My fourth winery was Shenandoah Vineyards, founded by Leon and Shirley Sobon in 1977. They were one of the first four wineries in Amador County's now well known Shenandoah Valley appellation. I visited this winery a couple years ago and in my opinion they make the best wines in the area. Their wines come from all estate grown grapes from their sustainably-farmed vineyards. They have an impressive line up of wines and for $5 you can taste their reserve wines and take a souvenir wine glass home.

I first tasted the 2007 ReZerve Paul's Vineyard Zinfandel which consists of 96% Zinfandel and 4% Petite Sirah. The fruit is concentrated, ripe and intense. It has a prominent character of old leather, blackberries and oak followed by a touch of cola, pepper and on nose and palate, with a prolonged spicy finish. A great wine for only $24 so I brought one home.

My second wines was the 2006 ReZerve Tempranillo which is 82% Tempranillo, and 18% Cabernet Sauvignon ($24). Deep, red-purple color, very approachable with an intriguing nose with spice, berry and herbaceous notes. The tannins are supple and yet firm, with a medium finish, nice balance of fruit, spice and acid.

My third wine was the 2006 ReZerve Barbera which consists of 92% Barbera, 4% Sangiovese and 4%Syrah ($24). Rich fresh nose of mint, cherry, and subtle wild flowers. Lively raspberry, plum, and cocoa flavors. Balanced and tart with refreshing acidity, and a bit of heat in the finish (14.5% alc.).

Shenandoah Vineyards also has an nice line up desert wines and I tasted the 2007 ReZerve 30th Anniversary BZP Port 500ml ($18) and the 2007 Vintage Port 375ml ($14).

All of these wines are impressive and I brought a ReZerve Paul's Vineyard Zin and BZP Port home with me.

Karmère Vineyards

After enjoying a picnic lunch my final stop of the day was at Karmère Vineyards and Winery at 11970 Shenandoah Road in Plymouth. The name "Karmère" (car-mare) is in honor of co-founder Marilyn K Hoopes’ mother Karma Hoopes: "mère" is the French word for mother. Marilyn is an attorney and her husband Todd is an optometrist and they have three grown children, Josh, Jared, and Hayley (who was my server) all of whom are involved in the winery or vineyards. Todd continues to practice optometry and Marilyn works as a part-time Administrative Law Judge devoting the majority of her time to the winery and vineyards. The have 67 acres planted on their 105 acre estate consisting of Zinfandel (planted in l994) Syrah, Barbera, Viognier, Primitivo and Nebbiolo.

I tasted the Drew's Syrah ($19.31), the Rachel’s Syrah ($21.15), the Morgans Nebbiolo/Syrah ($24.83), and the Daisy's Zinfandel ($19.31). The temperature outside by this time was 101 degrees and the inside of the tasting room wasn’t too much cooler. The result was that the wines seemed a little too warm. I had visited this winery a couple years ago and was impressed then so I didn’t want to judge their wines based on their exaggerated room temperature. They seemed to have a little too much heat, felt slight flabby on the palate and yet maintained their fruit quality. I bought two bottles of their wine and tasted the Morgans Nebbiolo/Syrah the following day at a barbeque under better temperature conditions and there was a noticeable improvement.