Wednesday, June 22, 2011

California Wine Tasting Adventures on The Madera Wine Trail

Although I have been traveling California wine countries since 1997, there were still are  still some rarely talked about ones that I have not yet toured – Clarksburg, Lake County, Mendocino, and The Madera Wine Trail just to name a few. Everybody has heard about Napa, Sonoma and Santa Barbara but there are many more little ones tucked away here and there that need to be explored.

So I decided that this Summer I would make it a point explore all four of these. Knowing that Madera gets extremely hot in July and August, I ventured down last Saturday to this little known wine region while the temperature were still relatively comfortable (about 89 degrees).

Settled in Madera County, at Yosemite’s southern gateway, the town of Madera was laid out by the California Lumber Company in 1876. The name “madera” is the Spanish term for wood which is not to be confused with Madeira which is a fortified Portuguese wine made in the Madeira Islands.

The Madera American Viticultural Area (AVA) is located in both Fresno County and Madera County, in central California. Established in 1984 and recognized as an AVA in 1985, it consists of 230,000 acres, 38,000 of which are planted to vineyard. The wineries of the Madera Wine Trail are part of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA) which is committed to better stewardship of the land and vineyards.

The Madera microclimate is aided by cooler evenings provided by the San Joaquin River on the southwest and the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the east. Warm summer temperatures combined with varied soil types provide a foundation for the full development of the grapes. With one of the hottest climates in the state (averaging 96 degrees in July, frequently reaching 110 degrees and only cooling down to 95 degrees at night) grape growers in area can achieve very large yields, but such heat presents challenges as well.

In cold wine regions the challenge to making wine is getting the grapes to naturally develop enough sugars to generate sufficient alcohol. In such regions wines tend to be high in acidity and make excellent white wines, such as Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling. But, because they are lacking in sugar foreign countries often permit wine makers to add sugar to their unfermented grape must in a process called chaptalization.

In hotter regions, however, high sugar levels are easy to obtain but achieving desirable levels of acidity can be a real challenge and without it wines can seem flabby. While adding acid make it legal, it often results in a wine being perceived as artificial as the acidity is not well integrated into the wine. Consequently, extremely hotter regions such as Madera tend to make better Ports and dessert wines than they do table wines.

Although some wineries in along the Madera Wine Trail produce table wines from grapes resourced from Napa or from along the California Coast, I was only interested in seeing quality of wine can be produced from the Madera American Viticultural Area (AVA). Consequently, some of the wineries I visited offered more wine than I sampled.

Birdstone Winery

After about a 2 ½ hour drive from the San Francisco East Bay down Highway 99, my first top in Madera was a family-owned operation, Birdstone Winery. A long dirt driveway past a pasture of absolutely beautiful horses on the right and 4-5 year old vineyard on the left brought me to the tasting room where the staff was preparing for a wedding. 

The tasting room is also where the wine is made so as you enter you’ll see the equipment on your right and the tasting bar and an assortment of nick-knacks for sale on your left.

At this time Birdstone’s does not have any estate wines available as their first crop has yet to be bottled. So, all of their grapes for the wines I tasted are from other resources in the Madera area, but not from the vineyard pictured here. I tasted one dry white, one rose, 4 red wines, 1 dessert white wine and 1 dessert red wine.

My first 2006 Alegria Reserve Chardonnay ($15). Somewhat aromatically challenged, had to work hard in swirling the glass to coax anything out of it. On the palate I picked up some slight almond, dried apricot, pie crust and baked apple. There are plethora of California Chardonnays in this price range or lower (Bogle for $8) that are far more impressive.

My second wine was the Merlot Rosé. Another aromatically challenged wine, slight cranberry and orange peel, a lot more pepper and spice on the palate.

My first red wine was the Alegria Reserve Dolcetto ($25). Another aromatically challenged wine, slight raspberry, blackberry, soft tannins, very earthy with anise and a little black pepper on the finish.

My first red wine was the Tempranillo ($20). This wine is very earthy on the nose and palate, with a rusty nail minerality followed by Dutch licorice, toasted almond and cinnamon stick. I wasn’t particularly fond of this wine, but there were others in the tasting room that were raving about it and bought a case.

My second red wine was the Winemaker’s Reserve Zinfandel. Another aromatically challenged wine. On the palate I picked up mostly dried fig, spice with a long peppery finish.

My third red wine was the Winemaker’s Reserve Primativo ($25). A lighter cousin of the Zinfandel in every way.

I then tasted the Muscat Canelli ($10). Layers of honey, melon, and dried peaches. Sweet but not syrupy and it had a prolonged finish. It was the first wine to truly impress me and so I brought one home.

My final wine was the Winemaker's Reserve Tinta Madeira Port ($25). A tawny port, golden in color with layers of caramel, butterscotch and hazelnut with a prolonged finish – NICE! I brought one of these home as well.

If you are in the area and want to check out the winery, you may want to do so in the fall or winter when it isn’t so hot. I am also curious to see what their first estate release will be like.

Birdstone Winery
9400 Rd 36
Madera, CA 93638
Phone: (559) 974-4440 Description:

Ficklin Vineyards

My next stop was at Ficklin Vineyards, which has been producing wine for over 50 years. Walter C. Ficklin and his wife Mame purchased the farm land in 1918 and after World War II did they transitioned from raisins and fruit to producing wine. Ficklin Vineyards cover some 35 acres planted to the same varietals that were planted in the 1940s.

Although they produce table wine from Madera grapes as well as outside the region, they are more well known for their port style wines and for good reason – they are excellent!

Their annual production is nearly 10,000 cases of the non-vintage “Old Vine” Tinta Port, which they consider to be their “flagship wine,” and in exceptional years they also produce a vintage-dated Port in limited quantities of about 1,000 cases. When I visited they were sampling a 1996 Vintage Port. 

They also produce an “Aged 10 Year Tawny Port,” which I preferred to the NV Port, which they first released in the Fall of 1995.

Winemaker Peter Ficklin has also set aside a group of special barrels for a 20 year old Tawny Port.

Because I wanted to stick to the Madera grown wines, the only not port wine available that I tasted was the 2009 Touriga Rosé ($14). This was the first time I had ever tasted a Rosé made from this Portuguese grape. Frankly, I wasn’t too thrilled with it.

I then went on to the 1996 Vintage Port ($36). A blend of the traditional grapes - Tinta Cão, Tinta Madeira, Cinsault, and Touriga Nacional – it is aged 3 years in the barrel and the rest in the bottle. This wine is sort of root beer in color, it has a complexity of dried fruits (plums, raisins, figs), plenty of acidity and a lingering clean finish.

My next wine was the Old Vine Tinta Port ($15) which they consider to be their “flag ship” wine. This port is made in the solera method in which a succession of wine barrels are filled with wine over a series of equal aging intervals (usually a year). One barrel is filled for each interval. At the end of the interval after the last barrel is filled, the oldest barrel in the solera is tapped for part of the wine which is then bottled. Then that barrel is refilled from the next oldest barrel, and that one in succession from the second-oldest, down to the youngest barrel, which is refilled with new wine. This procedure is repeated at the end of each aging interval. The transferred wine mixes with the older wine in the next barrel. No barrel is ever drained, so some of the earlier product always remains in each barrel. This remnant diminishes to a tiny level, but there can be significant traces of product much older than the average, depending on the transfer fraction. In theory traces of the very first product placed in the solera may be present even after 50 or 100 cycles. This port is a little darker, than the previous and has a silkier texture. I picked up dried fruits, caramel and butterscotch and a little brown sugar on the nose and palate. What’s not to love?

My final wine was the “Aged 10 Years Tawny Port” ($28) which is a light toffee in color, significantly nuttier than the previous port and in addition to the dried fruit, caramel and butterscotch there was some velvety vanilla lingering on the finish. This was my favorite in the line up so I brought one home.


For more information check out their web site at:

Chateau Lasgoity

After lunch I made one final stop to sample some local table wines to see if I could find anything that impressed me from this region. So, I dropped in at Chateau Lasgoity which had some enormous head pruned vine along the entrance way. The server at the counter was just “filling in” so he didn’t know anything about the wine or the vines, but presumably they were zinfandel  grapes.

Since I only wanted to taste wines made from local grapes I may have passed over some of their better wines for what I did taste wasn’t impressive. 

The 2009 Blanc du Val ($10), a blend of French Columbard, Malvasia Bianca and Chardonnay was a simple wine with some citrus notes, but lacked crispness.

The 2009 Chardonnay ($12) had a soapy feel to it on the palate and lacked any real character.

The 2008 Zin Rosé ($10) was okay, but failed to impress me.

The 2006 Rouge du Val ($12), a Rhone style blend of Grenache (40%), Syrah (40%), and Alicante Bouschet (20%) this is an earthy dense, dark fruit forward wine but it lacked acidity and any backbone.

My final wine was the 2008 Pinot Noir ($15). This wine lacked any complexity or that one hopes to find from this varietal which is undoubtedly due to the unsuitability of the Madera terroir for this grape. It is a simple jug wine that one would expect from wine makers like Gallo.

There are some other wineries along the Madera Wine Trail that I hope to visit in the future, some are far off the beaten path up in the hills (such as Westbrook Wine farm) and others that produce primarily dessert wines (such as Quady Winery) which so far from my experience the most well suited style of wine for this region. If you want more information about this wine country, check out their web site:

Friday, June 17, 2011

CWTA in Virginia - The Winery at La Grange

Later in the week during my trip to Virginia I departed from Fairfax Country and headed out to explore another winery, this time in Haymarket Virginia.

Haymarket is a town in northwest Prince William County. A well traveled Indian hunting path became Old Carolina Road which was later used by settlers as a route from Pennsylvania to the Carolinas. Haymarket then became a crossroads at the intersection of Carolina and Dumfries Roads.

Later during the Civil War almost the entire town was burned by Union troops in 1862. Only St. Paul’s Church and three small houses nearby survived. Since then, the town has been revived with a collection of quaint restored buildings and shops, including the manor which now serves as a tasting room at The Winery at La Grange.

The Winery at La Grange – Haymarket, Virginia

The Winery at La Grange opened September 2006 as Prince William County’s only established winery. The red brick three and a half story La Grange manor house built in the 1790s is now owned by group of investors brought together by Chris Pearmund, who also founded their sister winery Pearmund Cellars and he also helped start Paradise Springs Winery in Clifton, Virginia. 

While the 5,500 newly planted Cabernet Sauvignon vines are still maturing, the manor house has completely refurbished and the new Winery building is being put to good use, making and storing wine.

After a stroll around the grounds, snapping pictures of the vineyards and facilities I ventured into the manor to taste their impressive lineup of wines – three whites, one rosé, seven reds and one port styled wine.

My first white wine was the 2010 Pinot Gris. Also known under the Italian name “Pinot Grigio” and the German “Ruländer” this grape is highly reflective of the terroir in which it is grown so I was really curious of how well it would do in Virginia soil and climate. I picked up hints of grass, pear, lemon, ginger, peach and lemon on the nose. On the palate this wine is fruit forward with full mouth feel and a fresh yet soft lingering finish. This wine sells for $20.

My second white wine was the 2008 Fletcher’s Chardonnay. Fermented in French oak fermentation with no malolactic fermentation, this wine is big and mouth filling with melon, crisp, apple and a little citrus. There is an earthy component followed by a little almondine and vanilla. This wine sells for $24.

My third wine in the lineup was the 2009 Viognier. An aromatic wine with aromas of honeysuckle, tangerine and orange blossoms as well as lemon peel and grapefruit. Like the Veritas Viognier I had tried earlier in the week, it had loads of fruit and floral character but it was not as crisp as I tend to expect from a Viognier. As this was my second Virginian Viognier I was beginning to suspect that this may be what is to be expected from VA terroir.

My fourth wine was the 2009 Cuvee Blanc (40% Traminette, 30% Vidal Blanc 20% Viognier, 10% Reisling). Like Paradise Springs Winery’s Sommet Blanc, this wine is also a white blend containing Traminette, although a higher percentage, as well as Vidal Blanc. Vidal Blanc is an inter-specific hybrid variety of white wine grape, a cross of Ugni Blanc (also known as trebbiano which is the most widely planted white grape of France) and Seibel, another hybrid grape, which was developed by in the 1930s by Jean Louis Vidal. This wine is similar to Sommet Blanc as it has on the nose floral and tropical aromas with pineapple, but with more peachy notes. This wine is off-dry white on the palate, crisp with pleasing acidity and a prolonged clean finish. This wine sells for $20. 

My fifth tasting was the 2010 Rose of Merlot (90% Merlot and 10% Chambourcin). This was the first wine I have ever had that is blended with Chambourcin. It is a French-American interspecific hybrid grape variety. It was originally named Johannes Seyve 26-205 after its developer Joannes Seyve and it was released in 1963. When Seyve died he left no documentation of its parentage so its heritage is a mystery. It is most likely based on better Seibel hybrids and may involve as many as eight American Vitis species. This dry wine is light peach in color and on the nose and palate it has aromas and flavors of strawberries, cranberries, and raspberries. It sells at a fair price for $18 a bottle.

My first red wine tasting was the 2009 Cabernet Franc. Varietal correct, on the nose and it has intense plum, strawberry, and dry rose petals. On the palate I also picked up a slight bell pepper character. It sells for $22 and I found this wine to be the most impressive in the lineup and I brought one home to share with friends.

My second red wine was….. interesting…  the 2009 “Benoni’s Dead But Still Red.” It is 100% Cabernet Franc BUT it is infused with cherry concentrate which overwhelms the palate on the finish. It sells for $18 and that is a lot of money for a wine that tastes like cough syrup.

My third red wine was the 2008 Merlot. On the nose and palate I picked up red cherries, plums and soft tannins, a touch of spice and a long finish. At $22 a bottle, this wine is just “okay.”

My fourth red wine as an the 2008 Meritage. The 2008 is a blend of the five traditional Bordeaux Varietal’s but it is higher in percentage in Cab Franc and Petit Verdot than normal - (38% Cab Franc, 23% Petit Verdot, 23% Merlot, and only 16% Cabernet Sauvignon which, in California, is usually the dominant grape in Meritage blends. The wine has been aged 14 months in American Oak, which is noticeable but is not too oaky. Garnet in color, the wine is notes of red currant, cherries and a hint of vanilla. The fruit is lively and there are some herbal notes on the return and prolonged finish. A fair wine at $25 a bottle.

My fifth red wine was the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon. Bright, fresh berries, layers of red and black currants dominate this wine with a subtle earthiness in the transition on the mid palate, finishes well with subtle tannins and a prolonged return. It sells for $26 a bottle.

My sixth wine was the 2008 Tannat. Rarely am I impressed with a non-blended Tannat as I tend to find them to be a one trick pony, but I found this one to be quite nice. It is full bodied wine with tobacco, smoke, plum and raspberry, great tannin structure followed by a long, generous finish. This wine sells for $26 a bottle.

My final tasting of the day was the port styled wine, the 2009 Snort. This dessert wine is a blend of two French varietals, Petit Verdot and Tannat, with two traditional Portuguese grapes - Touriga Nacional and Tinto Cao. Although it has 17.6% alcohol and 8% residual sugar it is not goopy, syrupy or overwhelmingly sweet and it has an extremely silky finish. I’m not a big fan of ports, but I found this one to be impressive at $35 a bottle.

To see more pictures of the Winery at La Grange, check out Erik Wait’s Wine Country Photography at:

For more information, to order wine or arrange a visit:

The Winery at La Grange
4970 Antioch Road
Haymarket, VA 20169
(703) 753-9360

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

CWTA in Virginia - Clifton Wine Shop and Tasting Room and Paradise Springs Winery

As the name indicates (California Wine Tasting Adventures), this wine web site/blog was started as a means to share my travels through the California wine countries.

My desire is to share my exploration of California wine regions from as far north as Mendocino to as far south as Temecula and Escondido near San Diego. Thus far, I have been wine tasting the most well known regions of Napa and Sonoma but also in eastern slopes of the Sierra Foothills and Amador County as well as down the western coast through Santa Cruz, Monterey, Paso Robles, and Santa Barbara.

Although I also plan to venture far north in the future to do some wine country travels in Oregon and Washington, the purpose has always been to focus on my home state of California.

But recently I had the opportunity to the Eastern Coast to travel the countryside of Virginia. While there I had the opportunity to stop in at a couple wineries and visit a tasting room in the quaint town of Clifton in Southwest Fairfax County, Virginia. The historic buildings, quaint shops, narrow streets, and active railroad track running through the center of town, all add to the ambiance of the town.

The countryside and architecture of the area is absolutely beautiful, very colonial with sprawling lawns, dense forests and narrow winding roads. My stay there would have been absolutely spectacular if it wasn’t for one thing – the weather! It was 100 degrees with 93% humidity when I landed while back home in the San Francisco Bay area with a comfortable 75 degrees with relative humidity.

According to the official Virginia Wine Country web site ( the two varietals that are making a name for themselves in this region are Viognier and Cabernet Franc, so I made it a point to pay special attention to these when available.

Paradise Springs Winery -  Clifton, Virginia

Currently, the only winery in Clifton is Paradise Springs Winery – the closest winery to Washington D.C. and the gateway to Virginia’s wine country.

Seated on 36 acres bordering Hemlock Regional Park, originally the property was part of a one-thousand acre land grant from Lord Fairfax in 1716 to the current owner’s direct ancestors and has been passed down through the generations since and several hundred acres still remain in the family today. 

The original log cabin on the property that once served as the tasting room is estimated to have been built between 1800 and 1825 as there is no record of the exact date. In 1955 the property undertook a major renovation led by Howard Richter, a protégé of the great Frank Lloyd Wright. In 1956 a red barn that sat just off Main Street in downtown Fairfax, was relocated to the property.

More than 20 years ago, Jane and her Aunt, the late Esther Kincheloe Podolnick, envisioned turning the property into a winery. Then in 2007 with the recent renaissance of the Virginia wine industry, the dream was turned into reality as Jane’s eldest son, Kirk Wiles, along with acclaimed winegrower and vintner, Chris Pearmund, founded Paradise Springs Winery as a family business and their first vintage was released that fall, a Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. 

In April 2008, the first vineyard was planted on the west end of the property and since then the estate Cabernet Franc has since seen exceptional growth due to the rich fertile soils within the Occoquan Watershed.

After exploring the grounds, snapping shots of the buildings, the vineyard and the deer in the field I ventured into the nice, cool tasting room to escape the heat and humidity as well as taste their impressive list of wines.

I tasted three white wines, a rosé and two reds. Unfortunately their 2009 Viognier was sold out and their 2010 Viognier was not yet available.

The first white wine was the 2009 Sommet Blanc. This is a very unique proprietary blend (38% Vidal Blanc, 21% Traminette, 17% Viognier, 14% Chardonnay , 10% Reisling) as I had never heard of, let alone tasted, a Traminette. It is a cross of the French American Hybrid Joannes Seyve 23.416 and the German Vitis viniferia cultivar Gewürztraminer made by Herb C. Barrett (1965) at the University of Illinois, Urbana/Champaign.

Reflecting the Viognier and Reisling influence, this well balanced wine has on the nose floral and tropical aromas with pineapple, green melon rind notes. This wine is off-dry white on the palate, crisp with pleasing acidity and a prolonged clean finish. This wine sells for $24.49.

My second white wine was the 2009 Petit Manseng. This is a rare grape that originates from the Southwestern portions of France, in southern Aquitaine near the Pyrenees, and to a lesser extent, the island of Corsica. It is also known throughout Europe as Escriberou and Ichiriota Zuria Tipia in Spain. This was the first time I had tried this varietal so I wasn’t sure what to expect. This medium bodied wine is bone dry with a light touch of honey, fruity, citrus nose followed by a hint of cinnamon, white flowers, and peaches. This wine sells for $25.

My third wine was the 2010 Chardonnay which is aged in 1st and 2nd year French oak for 9 months Sur Lie. This wine is a great balance middle of the road for both those who like the crisp stainless steel Chards and the more oak influenced Chards. It is a fruit forward full-bodied, wine with layers canned pears and crisp green apples followed by a long, silky finish of butter and toasted marshmallow.  I have no doubt that wine could easily be mistaken for California Chardonnay. This wine sells for $29.

My next wine was the 2010 Nana’s Rosé. A light peach in color, I found this wine to be a little odd. It has notes of sandalwood and leather which I didn’t care for they seemed to dominate the fruit characteristics of the wine. But once I got past that, there was notes of strawberry and dried cherries on the nose and palate. I suppose many others might prefer this wine, but it wasn’t my style of rosé. This wine sells for $23.

My first red was the 2009 Cabernet Franc Estate. Fresh red stone fruit, red plum, slight wood smoke, a hint of green pepper, black pepper, with vanilla in the finish. This wine sells for $25.

My second red and final wine was the 2009 Meritage (30% Cabernet Franc, 28% Merlot, 16% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Petit Verdot, 11% Malbec). A full bodied wine, fairly complex with a balanced tannin structure. Black currant, cherry and anise with a hint of vanilla. This wine sells for $32.

Overall, I’d say I was impressed with the quality of the wine as it exceeded my expectations of the region. If I were to score them I’d say they were all within the 85-89 point range. But I found the prices to be a bit high as I know back home I can find many higher quality wines for about the same price. BUT, what is definitely worth taking home are the Sommet Blanc and the Petit Manseng because you’re NOT going to find wines like these in California.

For more information about this winery, visit them or check out their web site:

Paradise Springs Winery
13219 Yates Ford Road
Clifton, VA 201124
(703) 830-WINE

Clifton - The Wine Shop and Tasting Room

My next stop for the day was a little wine shop in town where their motto is “Taste The Good Life!”

I had a great time talking about wine with the owner Julie Thompson and two servers, Lucinda and Danny. An impressive little wine shop, especially for such a small town, as guests can belly up to the tasting bar to sample the day’s line up of local, national and international wines. 

Although I was primarily interested in tasting Virginia wines I also sampled an Italian wine.

Castell Del Remei, Blanc Planel ($13.99). An imported wine Italian with a blend of Sauvignon and Macero. On the nose it is very floral and on palate I picked up lemon zest, citrus, a chalky minerality, with a crisp prolonged finish. A fantastic wine for only $14!

We then went into the 2010 Veritas Monticello Viognier. A fruit forward wine with tropical, fresh banana, nectarine and peach skins notes on the nose. On the palate I also picked up a hint of salted butter. Slightly creamy for a Viognier and not quite as crisp as I would prefer, but over all a nice wine for about $25.

2009 Veritas Monticello Merlot ($17.99). This is a huge fruit bomb with loads of cherry up front with silky milk chocolate on the back end, hedonistic and candy like but finishes with an exaggerated and lingering vanilla extract. I’ve tasted plenty of California Merlots just like this, if they would back off on the oak this wine would be a lot more balanced.

Unfortunately I did not have time to visit the Veritas winery. For more information, check out their web site at:

If you are in the town of Clifton, definitely drop in and check out the wine shop and tell them you heard about them on CWTA!

Clifton Wine Shop and Tasting Room
7145 C. Main St.
Clifton, VA 20124