Tuesday, August 30, 2011

David Bruce Winery - A Quest for Pinot Noir in the Santa Cruz Mountains

I’ve been on a Pinot Noir kick all summer this year, and so I visited the Russian River, Santa Barbara County and even a local Livermore winery specializing in Pinot Noir. Continuing this venture I decided this past weekend to visit a couple wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountain wine country that also specialize in Pinots.

David Bruce Winery – Los Gatos

My first stop was at David Bruce winery, which is on top of the Santa Cruz Mountains and to get there you have to travel up a long narrow and very, very, very winding road. It would be a lot of fun driving up there if you’re on a motorcycle or driving a Porsche but if you are planning on renting a limousine to take you up there I’d say, “Forget about it!” There are also several turn-out spots that give you the opportunity to get a fantastic view of the forested valley below.

Without a doubt the most well known winery in this region for Pinot Noir is David Bruce Winery, and for good reason. David Bruce Winery has earned an international reputation over the past four decades for its dedication to producing some of the finest Pinot Noir in the world.

The winery was founded by David Bruce, a local dermatologist, in the remote Santa Cruz Mountains in the early 1960s. David discovered wine while a medical student and after completing his medical residency he purchased 40 acres of land above the fog-line in the Santa Cruz Mountains, then cleared the land himself and planted the vineyard by hand. During the first 25 years of the winery, David divided his time between maintaining a fulltime dermatology practice in Los Gatos and running the winery, until his retirement from his medical practice in 1985.

Today David Bruce’s wines are produced from the winery’s 25-acre mountain estate vineyard as well as from fruit sourced from more than 20 of the finest growers in Northern and Central California.

After a quick walk around the winery snapping shots with my camera I ventured into the tasting room with my Reidel Pinot Noir glass in hand. And it is a good thing too, for they DO NOT use Pinot Noir stemware!.

While many wineries that specialize in Pinot utilize the appropriate stemware (such as Talbot in Carmel Valley, Bouchaine in Los Carneros, La Rochelle in Livermore) many do not. So, if you are on the hunt for Pinots, bring your own stemware. You can buy a set of 4 Vivant series Reidel Pinot Noir glasses at Target for about $35.

The first wine pour I received was the 2008 Chardonnay (Monterey). The wine displays candy lemon drops, dried pineapple, candied ginger, apricots and a slight nuttiness. On the palate it has more citrus with a very heavy mouth feel, viscous but not cloy. This is a very complex wine of high quality, but not my preferred style. It sells for $28 a bottle.

The second wine was a Pinot Noir Rosé, the 2008 Saignée (Sonoma Coast). It was served a bit too cold and so the aromatics of the wine were somewhat muted. But even after warming it up a bit the nose was a bit too restrained. In agreement with the wine maker’s notes I did manage to pick up some slight strawberries, cranberries and a slight floral component on the nose as well as cherries and pink grapefruit on the palate. But over all the wine was too understated and rather disappointing. I had tasted a number of Pinot Noir Rosé along the Russian River that I found much more impressive for about the same price. The wine sells for $28 a bottle.

We then moved on to a line-up of Pinot Noirs, and I was NOT disappointed.

The first was the 2006 Pinot Noir (Santa Cruz Mountains). This wine is Corvette red, clear but not quite “see thru” when viewed from the side. This is a very light styled wine with a classic California profile of red cherries, root beer, spice, pepper with a really long finish. It sells for $30 a bottle.

The second was the 2007 Pinot Noir (Santa Maria Valley). This wine has  bigger and more earthy nose than the previous Pinot, very intense and concentrated fruit, floral and spice notes including fresh picked strawberries,  blackberries, vanilla, forest floor and black pepper. For an additional $10, I would definitely pay $40 a bottle for this one rather purchase the previous wine.

The third and most impressive wine was from the library, the 2002 Estate Pinot Noir (Santa Cruz Mountains). All I can say is – WOW! I think I swirled and sniffed my glass for at least 15 minutes before taking my first sip! On the nose I picked up cinnamon stick, sarsaparilla, big black cherries, and an overall impression that reminded me of a sweet spicy Christmas candle. I think I could use this wine for aroma therapy and enjoy it all day long just smelling it in the glass. This wine sells for $55 a bottle, but I was fortunately enough to be able to buy a case for ½ off!

My final wine was the 2002 Syrah (Santa Cruz Mountains). This wine is very herbal and has hints of fresh leather and a slight “sweatiness” on the nose, followed by dark cherries, plums, black olives and pepper. On the palate I picked up intense and concentrated black fruits, anise and just a hint of eucalyptus. It’s an okay wine for $25 a bottle but there are probably many others on the market that are similar in the $15-$20 range. BUT, this wine was also ½ off by the case so if you liked it and took advantage of the sale you’d be getting your money’s worth.

If you are as much of a Pinot Noir fan as I am, then David Bruce Winery is a “must visit” in your wine country travels and adventures!

To visit or for more information:

David Bruce Winery
21438 Bear Creek Road
Los Gatos, CA 95033
Telephone: 408-354-4214 or 800-397-9972

Big Basin Vineyards – Saratoga

After visiting David Bruce I headed back north to the other side of the mountain and drove down to the town of Saratoga to visit the tasting room of Big Basin Vineyards. There is no winery or vineyards near by, just a small store-front with a tasting bar and a few tables with bar stools so you have to keep your eyes open as it is easy to drive right by it and find yourself driving up another long winding road to other nearby wineries such as Mountain Winery or Savannah-Chanelle Vineyards.

Once you enter the tasting room you’ll notice some interesting art work on walls. Ask the server to borrow their 3-D glasses, it’s a trip!

Big Basin Vineyards specializes in Pinot Noir and Rhone varietals, particularly Syrah. They have two tasting flights but I was only interested in tasting their two Pinots and there one estate Syrah. So, the server, Tom Keenan, graciously allowed to break protocol and taste 3 wines from two different lists for $10.

Like David Bruce, this winery does NOT use Pinot Noir stemware in their tasting room so you’ll need to bring your own!

My first wine was the 2008 Alfaro Family Vineyard Pinot Noir. This wine is a clear, bright ruby red wine and easily “see thru” when from the side. I picked up tangy cherries, cranberries, thyme, and a hint of cigar box on the nose with similar notes on the palate along with silky tannins and a lingering finish. This is a nice wine, but it didn’t “wow” me and seemed similar to David Bruce’s 2006 Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir, which goes for $30 a bottle whereas this wine sells for $44 bottle.

My second wine was the 2008 Woodruff Family Vineyard Pinot Noir was definitely a step up. Similar in color and hue to the previous wine. As I continually swirled my Pinot glass I picked up raspberry, root beer, some spice and a hint of fresh picked roses. On the palate this wine has fine tannins and acidity that provides a really nice backbone and a good “grab” that would be a perfect marriage with lighter and heartier meats. This wine sells for $52 a bottle.

Switching glasses to the one offered by the tasting room, my third wine was the 2007 Rattlesnake Ranch Syrah. This wine has BIG black fruit, intense fresh blackberries, bacon fat, underlying floral notes and some subtle fresh cracked pepper. On the palate the nose is confirmed as the wine dominates the palate with a basket full of fresh blackberries and vanilla with some pepper on the return. A really nice wine, but a bit steep at $40 a bottle.

To visit or for more information:

Big Basin Vineyards
14598 Big Basin Way Ste B
Saratoga, CA 95070
Telephone: 408-5647346

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Forgotten "S" in Wine Tasting - Stemware!

This is my first attempt in making a wine blog video. I'm not sure if or how long I'll continue to do this but with Gary V. retiring I thought I'd give it a try. 

My approach will be a little different, focusing more on "wine geek" education and wines from California.

Monday, August 15, 2011

La Rochelle Winery – A Passion for Pinot Noir in The Livermore Valley

My California Wine Tasting Adventures this summer has been primarily focused on exploring California Pinot Noir with a recent trip to the Russian River and the Alexander Valley up north and Santa Ynez, Buellton and Lompoc in Santa Barbara County down south. So, in keeping with this theme I decided this past weekend to 
visit a winery a little closer to home in Livermore.

Without a doubt, some of the finest wines and best Cabs using local grapes in the Livermore Valley are found at Steven Kent Winery. I last paid them a visit in early 2009 and wrote about in my article “Awesome Cabernet in Livermore.” [1]

What many people don’t know is that Steven Kent also has a sister winery next door, “La Rochelle Winery,” that produces some excellent Pinot Noir, but not from Livermore grapes. They soruce high quality grapes from small lot  vineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands, Santa Cruz Mountains, and Russian River Valley appellations. So, my goal this visit was to see if Steven Kent’s Pinots are comparable in quality to his Cabs.

La Rochelle Winery has two "sit down" flights, each with a differnet French varietal emphasis. For a tasting fee of $20 you can choose between the two and each is accompanied with a Pairing Platter of various cheeses and a Fig and Olive Tapenade.

I decided to try both flights (using my spit cup) but in between them I took a lunch break at Tommie’s Café next to the local library which was recommended to me by one of the servers. The sandwich was quite good, better than anything you’d find at Subway by far.

Burgundy Flight

The first pour was the 2008 Pinot Noir, Bradley Vineyard, Umpqua Valley, Oregon.  This wine is specially labeled for fund raising for the Taylor Family Foundation in Livermore which was founded to help children suffering from various ailments:

“The Taylor Family Foundation's Mission is to preserve the wellness and enhancing the quality of life for children in Northern California living with life-threatening and chronic illnesses, developmental disabilities and youth at-risk through unique therapeutic experiences and support.”[2]

Steven Kent donates ½ of the profits towards this charity, which amounts to $7 from every bottle. This is a lighter style Pinot (comparable to a Le Crèma Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir which sell for about $20 at BevMo) with bright cherry, ripe strawberry and a faint hint of cinnamon stick on the finish and it sells for $28.

The next wine was the 2007 Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir. This is a darker and earthier Pinot than the previous wine with dark plums, cola, cigar box and cinnamon on the nose and palate. A definite step up in quality and price from the  Bradley Vineyard Pinot at $48 bottle.

The third wine was my favorite in the lineup - the 2007 Arroyo Seco Mission Ranch Pinot Noir. This wine has a full mouth feel and on the nose and palate I picked up root beer, dark cherries, clove and a little pepper on the finish. My cellar is currently well stocked with Pinots but if I was going to add to my collection, this one would be the one I’d buy. It sells for $48 a bottle.

My fourth wine was the 2008 Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir. This wine is more floral, earthier and jammier than the previous wines and softer in tannin on the palate. On the nose I picked up dark cherries, raspberries, mulberries, cola and cedar. A nice wine for $48 a bottle but I preferred the Mission Ranch over this one as it was a tad bit spicer.

My final wine was the 2007 Deer Park, Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir. The nose seemed a bit muted but I did pick up some sublte floral accents. On the palate this is the biggest Pinot in the lineup with a more fruit forward character of dark cherries, cola and a cherry cream finish. A fine wine and probably the best bang for the buck at $38 a bottle.

After tasting each wine (and spitting) I then tasted them again, this time swallowing and trying each one with a cheese from the Pairing Platter which consisted of the three cheeses: St. Andre Triple Cream Brie,  Manchego made from Sheeps’s Milk (Spain), Blue Castello made from Cow’s Milk (Denmark) and a Fig and Olive Tapenade. Each wine paried well with the various cheeses but I felt like tapenade tended to dominate the wine and I prefer to pair Pinot Noir with either Salmon or Portobello Mushrooms. So, personally while I like the concept of demonstrating a wine’s capabilties with food I could have done without the Pairing Platter.

Bordeaux Flight

After an hour or so break for lunch I returned to La Rochelle Winery for the Bordeaux Flight, all of which are from Livermore Valley grapes that demonstrate that this region can indeed produce very fine wine.

The first pour was the 2008 Steven Kent Small-Lot Petit Verdot from the Ghielmetti Vineyard in the Livermore Valley.  The Ghielmetti Vineyard is Steven Kent’s estate site on the east side of the valley that was planted in 2001-2002, with grafting of several blocks done in 2006, and it is provides nearly all the fruit for the Steven Kent Winery estate project.[3] Very few wineries in California bottle 100% Petit Verdot and when they do it is often sold exclusively to wine club members, so I was REALLY glad to be able to not only taste but buy a bottle. Of all the California PVs I have tried over the years, this is without a doubt the MOST impressive one I have ever tasted! This wine has a HUGE nose and an immediate eye-opening attack on the palate and yet it does not cross the line over to becoming a fruit bomb.  Dense and concentrated black berries, molasses, cigar box, on the nose with a silky milk chocoate and a lingering vanilla finish. A bit steep at $50 a bottle but I bought one for my collection.

The next wine was the 2008 Steven Kent Small-Lot Malbec, also from the Ghielmetti Vineyard in the Livermore Valley. A big nose of blueberrys followed by dried cherrys and bramble berrys. This wine has silky tannins and a long finish, a  great wine but a bit steep at $50 a bottle.

My next two wines were 2006 and the 2008 Steven Kent Livermore Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Noticeably missing is the 2007 as they are unfortunately completely sold out of the vintage which I had tasted and loved not too long ago. The ’08 is very approachable with soft tannins and on the nose I picked up black currant, black olives, dark cherrys with dusty powdered chocolate on the nose. The ’06 is the last Steven Kent Cab to include grapes from the McGrail Vineyard and I picked up bright cherry, black currant and just a hint of eucalyptus. The ’08 is a nice Cab for $40 and I actually prefered it to the ’06 which sells for $60.

For more information or to visit:

La Rochelle Winery
5443 Tesla Road, Livermore, CA 94550
Telephone: 925-243-6442

Monday, August 1, 2011

Exploring the East Side of Paso Robles

I haven’t been wine tasting in Paso Robles since July 2009 when I visited during the Independence Day holiday weekend. So, I was excited to return to this region which I think is the best for producing Rhone varietals in California. The last time I toured this region I visited wineries on the west side of Highway 101 off of westbound 46 so this time I decided to visit a couple on the east side on eastbound 46. [1]

One of the major challenges of tasting so many wines is the problem of palate fatigue in which is when it seems like your palate gets tired or overwhelmed so that you cannot taste a new pour of wine with a fresh tongue. The result is that they begin to all taste alike. Some say that the problem is in your brain, not your tongue and so the solution is to take a break, walk around, and let your mind rest for a few minutes.

But I find this is not the case. In fact, in my experience the bigger the wine (especially Portuguese varietals and Petite Sirah) the more prone I am towards fatigue and drinking water or neutral crackers can help. But, I was recently introduced to a product called SanTásti that works absolute wonders. A bottle of this really came in handy when I tasted a large number of wines at Eberle Winery and Vina Robles.

 So, if you are going to taste a large number of wines, or a series of really big wines, I HIGHLY recommend checking out this beverage which you can find at their web site:

And in case you are wondering, I am not being paid to advertise for them!

Eberle Winery and Wine Caves

I usually research and plan ahead of time what wineries I intend to visit but this time I decided to just cruise around the east side of Paso Robles and stop at two that caught my eye. My first stop was at Eberle Winery which has wine caves that you can tour. If you have never been in a wine cave, they’re a “must see” and one of the oldest and most historic is at Beringer Vineyards in the Napa Valley. So, I stopped in, walked around taking some pictures and then ventured into the tasting room where after sampling their wines and took a guided tour of their impressive wine caves. Eberle Winery has two tasting flights, a complimentary list of five wines or the Reserve tasting list for $10 returned with a purchase. As always, I chose the Reserve wines.

My first wine was the 2006 Latin Quarter a blend of two Portuguese varietals (27% Tinta Madeira, 27% Touriga), as well as a southern France grape (23% Petit Sirah, also known as Durif), and an Italian varietal 23% Sangiovese. This is a dark and rich wine with really soft tannins and blackberries and cassis dominating the fruit profile. It sells for $35.

My second wine was the 2006 Hodgepodge, which as its name indicates is a “unique” blend of grapes including 28% Sangiovese, 23% Zinfandel, 22% Touriga, 14% Petit Verdot, 13% Cabernet Sauvignon. On the nose I picked up violets, dried plums, black cherry, and vanilla on the finish. This wine is very dry on the palate and sells for $35.

My third wine was the 2007 “Love and Kisses” Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. On the nose and palate I picked up black currants, black cherries and dark chocolate. It is an okay wine, but it lacks pizzazz and doesn’t merit the $125 price tag.

My fourth pour was the 2007 Eberle Reserve Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. In contrast to the previous Cab, this one is very bright and fresh with layers of cassis, milk chocolate and vanilla with a very long finish. Although it is a $50 less than the previous wine I preferred it and yet again I don’t think it merits the price tag of $75.

My final tasting was the 2007 Eberle Port. A traditional blend of Tinta Madeira, Touriga, Tinta Roriz (also known as Tempranillo) which is my preferred blend for a port style wine. This wine has concentrated dried fruits, is somewhat viscous but is not goopy and it has a long cherry cough drop finish and could probably use a few more years of aging. It’s a nice wine but at $60 it is WAY over priced as I know of MANY in the $30 - $35 range that are far superior. In fact, I was recently tasting ports in Madera California at Ficklin and Birdstone wineries that would beat this one hands down in a blind taste test which you can read about:

Overall, I would say the wines at Eberle are okay and their Portuguese varietal blends are a unique experience that you should try to expand your palate. But, in this economy I can’t see anyone paying their prices.

To visit or for more information you can contact them at:

Eberle Winery
3810 Highway 46 East
Paso Robles, CA 93446

Vina Robles

My next stop was just on the other side of the highway at Vina Robles, which is owned by a pair of Swiss businessmen, Hans Nef and Hans Michel (pronounced Mikel). The winemaker is Nicholas “Nick” de Luca who has worked at Cline, Star Lane and Dierberg Vineyards and in 2008 was one of SF Chronicle’s “Winemakers to watch.”[2]

Vina Robles has two flights and as always I chose the Estate Tasting but the server was quite generous and allowed me to taste not only wines from both lists but also some that were not even on either lists.

My first wine was 2010 Viognier from the Huerbuero Vineyard. Aged sur lie in 3 year old French oak barrels, this wine has a big floral nose, a beautiful bouquet of honeysuckle followed by butterscotch and citrus followed by orange peel. On the palate the nose is confirmed with great acidity and yet also a full mouth feel creaminess – a great wine for $19! (I brought one home)

My first red wine 2008 “Red 4” (62% Syrah, 34% Petit Verdot, 2% Grenache, 2% Mouvedre), which is also from the Huerbuero Vineyard and is aged in 16 months in neutral French oak. This is has the freshness and fruit forwardness of a new world wine and yet also some interesting characteristics of old world style. On the nose it has blackberry, raspberry and some spicy and floral notes but it also has a “sweaty” fresh leather and herbal character and something that kind of reminds me of a rye cracker on the finish. It has good structure, soft tannins and great acidity. The alcohol is a little high at 14.8% and yet it is extremely well balanced as it has no heat. A really nice wine for $16.

My second red wine was the 2007 Halter Ranch Meritage (68% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Petit Verdot) aged 16 months in French Oak (60% new). The grapes come from Halter Ranch Winery, which I visited the last time I was in Paso Robles, and it is Swiss owned by Hansjörg Wyss who ranks #164 on the Forbes list of billionaires, with a net worth of approximately $6 billion, making him the second richest person in Switzerland. This wine has a huge hedonistic attack on the front end of cassis, blueberry, violets, cocoa and vanilla. The nose is confirmed on the palate along with soft tannins, great structure and a full mouth feel. Again, the alcohol is at 14.8% and yet it is well balanced without any heat. A really nice wine for $36!

My third red wine was the 2008 Halter Ranch Meritage which was not on the menu. It is a completely different blend than the ’07 with 95% Petit Verdot and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine has a HUGE floral nose of violets that goes on for days followed by dried raspberries, red currants, cloves, anise and on the palate it has supple tannins, a full mouth feel and a lingering milk chocolate on the return. The alcohol is at 15.5% and yet AGAIN it is well balanced without any heat. This wine sells for $36 a bottle.

My fourth red wine sample was the 2007 Signature (66% Petit Verdot, 34% Petite Sirah) which is aged 16 months in French oak. Part of the cuvee collection, this wine is similar in profile to the ‘08 Halter Ranch Meritage but not as powerful on the nose and palate. It has 14.8% alcohol in comparison to the 15.5% and a lower percentage of Petit Verdot which may account for the difference.

My fifth red wine was my favorite, the 2007 Suendrero (86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Petit Verdot) aged 16 months in French oak (85% new). This wine is also part of the of the cuvee collection, and on the nose I picked up cassis, blackberries, sweet tobacco and on the palate it has a full mouth feel, mouth drying tannins and a long finish with French roast coffee on the return. An awesome wine, but a bit steep at $49 yet I brought one home to lay down for a few years.

After tasting these wines I then did 3-Way (A, B, C) side by side comparisons of three Petite Sirah tasting and this is when a bottle of SanTásti really came in handy. But tasting such big intense and concentrated wines also requires a lot of concentration to be able to recognize subtle differences in the wines as well:

(A) The 2008 Jardine (pronounced “har-deen”) Vineyard Petite Sirah, is 100% Petite Sirah, aged 16 months 45% in new French oak. This wine is sweet on the nose and has more of a jammy profile than (B) and (C). Loads of black fruit and silky tannins, probably the “best buy” of the three at sells for $26 a bottle.

(B) The 2007 Penman Springs Vineyard Petite Sirah is aged 16 months in French Oak (40% new) and is more herbal on the nose than (A) or (C), it is a bigger wine than (A) with more tannin and a nice mineral finish. But the price difference is significant as it sells for $42 a bottle.

(C) The 2007 “Fore” Petite Sirah is named after their 12 year old Jardine Vineyard, where golf balls are often found from the nearby golf course. This wine has intense, ripe blackberries, black currant and plums with notes of black pepper and bacon and chocolate on the return. This was my favorite in the lineup and sells for $49 a bottle.

Over all, all three were of superb quality but if I was in need of adding a Petite Sirah to my library, I would have bought (A) - the 2008 Jardine Vineyard Petite Sirah – for its high quality and value.

The last two were Syrah and Syrah/ Petite Sirah blends:

The 2007 Syrée (pronounced “se-rey) is 79% Syrah and 21% Petite Sirah. A rich and lush fruit driven and meaty wine with earthy characteristics and spice on the finish. Like many in the lineup, it has high alcohol at 15.6% and yet maintains its balance without any heat. It sells for $39 a bottle.

My final wine was the 2007 Ryan Road Syrah. This wine is 100% Syrah aged 16 months in new French barrels, it exudes dark cherries on the nose and has aggressive tannin on the palate with a dark chocolate finish. Of all the wines that had a 14+ percentage of alcohol, this one at 15.6% was the only one that displayed any heat on the palate. It sells for $42 a bottle.

To visit or for more information you can contact them at:

Vina Robles Hospitality Center
3700 Mill Road
Paso Robles, CA 93446
Telephone: 1-805-227-4812

[2] http://articles.sfgate.com/2008-12-12/wine/17130009_1_assistant-winemaker-bordeaux-varieties-napa-and-sonoma-valleys