Thursday, March 15, 2012

Martin Ray Winery – A Historic Winery in Santa Rosa, California

The roots of the Martin Ray Winery go back to 1852 when Charlers LeFranc founded the Almaden Winery. Paul Masson married LeFranc’s daughter and ran both the Almaden Winery and his Mountain Winery. He changed the company name to the Paul Masson Champagne Company, before finally trading the Almaden Winery for a 26,500 acre ranch near Gilroy and selling the remainder of the company to Martin “Rusty” Ray in 1936.
 In 1942 Ray sold the winery, vineyards and inventory to Seagrams, but he retained the company title and changed the name to the Martin Ray Winery. With the proceeds of the sale he purchased the adjoining mountain and continued to produce the 100% varietal Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. In the late 1960s he formed a partnership to develop the surrounding area, but the partnership soured and Ray ended up losing control of the winery and all but 5 acres to what became Mount Eden Vineyards. He named his remaining 5 acres Peter Martin Ray Vineyard after his stepson. Production continued, after his death in 1976, into the early 1980s, headed by Peter and his widow Eleanor. In addition to estate grapes, they purchased high quality grapes from Stelzner in Stag’s Leap and Winery Lake vineyards in Carneros. The label was defunct until 1990 when it was acquired by Courtney Benham in Sonoma who became the proprietor and principal winemaker of Martin Ray Winery in 2003.
 While it has born various names, this historic site is distinguished as the oldest winery in continuous operation in Sonoma County and one of the oldest wineries in California. The winery houses a 1 million gallon production facility that serves not only Martin Ray’s wine production, but also as a custom crush facility where over 20 clients can crush their grapes and produce their wine. Visitors can tour the immense production facility, which houses thirty 11,000 gallon old-growth redwood tanks dating back to 1904 (and which are still used to this day), as well as thirty-two open-top concrete fermentation tanks which hold 33,000 gallons each. Wines produced include Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Merlot and a  Dry Rosé .
In front of the historic grape crush barns is a well-manicured lawn with a stone pathway accompanied by picnic tables that leads you to the newly remodeled Martin Ray Tasting room tasting room. The tasting room serves two lines, the Angeline which is a fresh, fruit forward style wines that are value priced ($14 - $16 per bottle) and the Martin Ray which is their traditional line which consists of premium priced wines ($20 - $25) derived from hillside vineyards which are $5 to $10 more per bottle. But, all the wines no both lines are under $30 which makes them all very affordable and both tasting flights consist of a Chardonnay, a Pinot Noir and a Cabernet Sauvignon. While visiting I sampled the following from Martin Ray line:

The first wine was the 2010 Russian River Chardonnay. On the nose I picked up lemon zest, green apples, pears and a hint of toast. On the palate the wine is light, crisp with a medium length finish. This wine sells for $20 a bottle.

The second wine was the 2010 Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir. This wine has a bouquet of fresh cherries, plums, smoke, spice and a hint of forest floor. On the palate the wine is well balanced and has good acidity and a medium length finish. This is a really good Pinot at the $25 price point.

The third wine was the 2009 Napa Valley Merlot which is a blend of 95% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. On the nose I picked up cherry crème, cassis, dark plums, vanilla and a hint of herbs. On the palate it has supple but firm tannins and a clean finish. A fine Merlot for only $20 a bottle.

My final pour was the 2009 Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine has a really big nose which exudes black currants, mint, anise and a hint of smoke. On the palate the wine is full bodied with a rich texture with supple “drink now” tannins that have a slight drying effect. This is a really great “every day drinking wine” in the $20 price range so I brought one home.
To visit or for more information:

Martin Ray Winery

2191 Laguna Road

Santa Rosa, CA 95401

Phone: 1-707-823-2404

Monday, March 12, 2012

Orange Poppies in the Vineyard at PlumpJack Winery – Oakville, California

If you travel to the Napa Valley during the Mustard Season (February – March) typically you’ll find that most the mustard flowers are blooming in vineyards around wineries along Highway 29 between Carneros and St. Helena. You won’t see any along the Silverado Trail nor in any vineyard north of St. Helena such as in Calistoga. However, what you will find along the Silverado Trail are a lot of small orange poppies at the base of the vines. So, having recently visited numerous wineries along 29 with blooming Mustard Flowers I decided to visit PlumpJack Winery, which is in the Oakville Appellation just 6/10 of a mile from the Silverado Trail on the north side of the Oakville Cross Road.
 The winery is owned by the PlumpJack Group and the name “Plump Jack” was Queen Elizabeth’s name for the rotund Falstaff (a fat, vain, boastful, and cowardly knight) of Shakespeare’s Henry IV. So delighted was she with this roguish character that she asked the Bard to write another play in which Jack would fall in love. Shakespeare answered her with The Merry Wives of Windsor.
 The PlumpJack Group was founded in 1992 by two entrepreneurs; the first was Gavin Newsom, who was later elected Mayor of San Francisco in 2003 and later became the California Lt. Governor. The other was Gordon Getty, a San Francisco composer who composed the opera Plump Jack, inspired by Shakespeare’s play. Together these men opened a wine store called PlumpJack Wines in the Fillmore neighborhood of San Francisco. Over the next five years, the business expanded to include a boutique hotel and three restaurants and eventually the PlumpJack Winery in 1997 when they acquired a century-old 53 acre vineyard in Napa Valley on Oakville Cross Road. The winery facility and tasting room was designed by Leavitt-Weaver, the same design firm that the PlumpJack Group used for the designs of its restaurants and hotels. 

While wine debates over the best closure for wines has raged on for years (organic or synthetic cork vs. screw cap) PlumpJack Winery was the first Napa Valley winery to use the Stelvin screwcap closure on its most expensive wines beginning with the 1997 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. 

PlumpJack has two flights, one from the Oakville winery and the other from Cade, their sister winery on Howell Mountain for $15. Some of the wines are the same grape (Merlot and Cab Sauv.) made by the same winemaker. So, essentially, the difference between the two is the difference between valley fruit and mountain fruit. If you have never experienced the difference this would be an excellent opportunity to sample them both. In general, Napa Valley mountain wines (Mt. Veeder, Spring Mountain, Howell Mountain) tend to be more dense, concentrated, earthier with more mineral and graphite components whereas valley wines tends to be fruitier. 

While visiting I tasted the following wines:

My first wine was the 2010 PlumpJack Reserve Chardonnay. This wine reflects a warm climate with tropical notes, dried pineapple, fresh pears and melons on the nose. On the palate the wine has medium weight and body with slight creaminess and moderate acidity. In many ways this wine reminds me of a lighter-weight version of Bogle’s Chardonnay ($8 at the grocery store) and yet this wine sells for $46 a bottle. So, with the first wine we weren’t off to a good start.

My second wine was the 2009 PlumpJack Merlot, which is a Bordeaux blend of 78% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Franc, 6 % Malbec, 5% Petit Verdot and 2% Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is very intense with dense concentrated fruit. On the nose I picked up black cherries, dried plums, dried cocoa and a hint of anise. On the palate the wine delivers soft and supple fruit on the mid palate, bright acidity followed by lean drying tannins on the front of the mouth and a lingering chocolate covered cherry finish. A beautiful wine but a bit steep at $50 a bottle.

My next wine was the 2009 PlumpJack Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, a blend of 98% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Petit Verdot. This wine is WAY too young to be drinking now and it needed a lot of time and patience to coax the aromatics out of it. If you are going to serve this wine within the next couple years I’d highly recommend decanting it to give it some air to breath. After swirling the glass for 10 minutes or so it eventually opened up and delivered black cherries, black berries, subtle herbs and a very distinct minerality with a hint of mint on the finish. Another really fine wine but at $90 a bottle I know of many at half the price that are just as good.

I was then poured a sample of the 2008 CADE Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon to compare with PlumpJack Cab. This wine is 93% Cabernet Sauvignon and 7% Malbec. This wine is very dense and concentrated and the bouquet seemed more open than the ’09 PlumpJack but I swirled them both in separate glasses and tasted them side-by-side. On the nose I picked up black cherries, black berries, black currant, black olives, chocolate a touch of vanilla and cola on the back end with just a touch of earth. There was also a lingering graphite minerality on the finish. Although less expensive, I preferred this wine over the PlumpJack. At the tasting room this wine was listed for $72 but the web site states $60. Perhaps the price difference is to cover shipping costs for online purchases? Still, the price is really steep and I have a few other Mountain Cabs from other wineries that I prefer and only paid $45 for them.

My final wine was my favorite in the line-up, the 2009 PlumpJack Syrah. This wine is very earthy and meaty with a touch of dark plums, pepper, black olives, coffee and bacon with just a hint of dried herbs. And for $46 a bottle I brought one home!

To visit or for more information:

PlumpJack Winery

620 Oakville Cross Road

Oakville, CA 94558

Napa Valley, CA 94558

Phone: 1-707-945-1220


Friday, March 9, 2012

Mustard Flowers in Full Bloom at Sawyer Cellars – Rutherford, California

With only a few weeks left in the mustard season and sunny weather and a temperature in the low 70’s in the forecast there was no better place for a wine country traveler to be to last weekend than traveling through Rutherford, the heart of the Napa Valley. So my first stop of the day was at Sawyer Cellars which is located between Highway 29 and the Napa River in Rutherford. 
 The winery was founded by Joanne and Charles Sawyer who started making wine in 1995. In 1997, they refurbished the site’s dark wood 1920’s era barn structure with a metal roof and then built a modern winery inside. Immediately behind the barn they built an underground barrel room and wine library. Above they constructed a modern, gravity-fed cellar. In fact, the barn was actually lifted from its foundation to create the cellar 28 feet below. 

 In 1999 the Sawyers were joined by winemaker Brad Warner who had previously worked at Charles Krug Winery and Robert Mondavi Winery.

Sawyer Cellars is surrounded by 50 acres under vine all of which are planted to Bordeaux varietals including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Sauvignon Blanc with additional 10 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon nearby. However, they only produce about 4,200 cases per year using only the best of grapes from the vineyard and the rest of the grapes are sold to various buyers. 

As you enter the winery you pass under a grape trellis that leads inside past the winemaker’s small office and into the tasting room. The tasting room has inlaid cedar walls along with vaulted ceilings and an old vine chandelier hanging above the black granite tasting bar. 

While visiting I tasted the following wines for $10:

My first sample was the 2010 Estate Sauvignon Blanc. This wine has a very expressive nose with vibrant lemon zest, white grapefruit, a hint of lemon grass and dusty chalk. On the palate the wine is crisp and refreshing with really good acid and a lingering citrus finish. One of the best S.B.s I’ve tasted in the Napa Valley and $22 I brought one home.

My next wine was the 2007 Estate Merlot. Most winery’s current releases are ‘08s and ‘09s so I was surprised to find that all of their reds were 2007’s which was an excellent year for Napa Valley. This wine exudes big fresh cherries, cassis, a hint of anise and mint on the nose. The wine has an excellent mid-palate and a long finish. IF you’re a Merlot fan, I’d recommend picking this one up for $39 a bottle.

My second red wine was the 2007 Estate Bradford Meritage. A blend of 58% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot, 2% Cabernet Franc each of which is fermented and aged separately before blending. On the nose and palate I picked up cocoa, black currants, blackberries and a touch of spice followed on the palate by well integrated tannins and mouth watering acidity. If there is one word that describes the chief character of this wine it is – “BALANCE.” All of the flavors and aspects of this wine are in harmony with each other with no one character overshadowing or outweighing the other. This is a really fine wine for $46 a bottle and many of their competitors sell similar wines for $60+.

My next red was the 2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. This is another really nicely balanced wine with layers of blackberries, currant, anise and just a touch of cigar box. It’s a tough call to say whether I preferred the Meritage or this 100% Cab and usually I find that I prefer blends over straight Cabs but I decided to go with this one and brought one home for $49.

My final wine was 2007 Petit Verdot, which is a blend of 85% P.V. and 15% Merlot. This wine is intense with concentrated notes of blackberries, black currants, molasses, cedar and damp earth. On the palate the wine has a bit of a dry grip with pronounced tannins on the front. A really nice wine but a bit steep at $54 a bottle.

To visit or for more information:

Sawyer Cellars
8350 Sr. Helena Highway (a.k.a Highway 29)
Rutherford, CA 94573
Telephone: 1-707-963-1980

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Anaba Wines- The Spirit of West Carneros in Sonoma, California

The Anaba Wines Tasting Room is at the crossroads of Hwy 116 (which runs east-west from Hwy 101 to Sonoma) and Hwy 121 which is also known as the Carneros Highway and parallels 116 running along the southern borders of Napa and Sonoma Counties. The tasting room is located just outside the town of Sonoma and it sits in a converted farmhouse that stood on Anaba’s J McK Estate Vineyard property. 

I have driven by this tasting room numerous times while visiting neighboring wineries (Gloria Ferrer, Cline, Jacuzzi, and Viansa) and every time I did I said to myself, “One of these days I’m going to visit that place.” Well, that day came this past week as I dropped in to sample their wines.

Anaba Wines was created by John Sweazey who became a home winemaker while an undergrad student at Stanford University and living in San Francisco. After earning a degree in economic he started a real estate finance company, but his real desire was to settle in the Sonoma wine country to grow grapes and make wine. So, he sold his business in 2003 and purchased a winegrowing property in western Carneros in Sonoma County.

The name of the winery, Anaba (“anna-bah”), is derived from the cool, upward-flowing breezes called anabatic winds that frequently stream through the estate vineyard during the warm summer months. These unique air currents make the vineyard more temperate and slow down the ripening process. To take advantage of the air currents, John is believed to be the first vintner in Northern California to harness wind power which supplies supplemental power to his tasting room offices and case goods storage. Plans are to harness solar power and add more turbines when a new 60,000 case winery is built on the estate vineyard property.

The portfolio of Anaba’s wines are sourced from Rhone and Burgundian varieties grown at the estate vineyard in Carneros and in other vineyard properties in Sonoma County. The first wines were released in early 2009.

Anaba’s wines are a reflection of a team effort which includes Jennifer Marion, director of winemaking and vineyard operations, whose devotion to the vineyards began when she worked with Napa Valley-based Crop Care Associates, one of California’s largest independent agricultural technology consulting firms. At the time, she was completing her Viticulture and Enology degree at the University of California at Davis. Later she became the assistant winemaker at MacRostie Winery in Sonoma. Another important team member who works along with Jennifer is Larry Bradley, Anaba’s consulting viticulturist. 

Anaba sources grapes from esteemed grape growers such as Sangiacomo Vineyard, Windsor Oaks, Ferguson Ranch and Bacigalupi Vineyard. Their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay come from the cooler regions of the Carneros, Sonoma Coast and Russian River Valley appellations, where the wind and fog are perfect for growing well-balanced Burgundian varieties. They also source from their Rhone varieties from long-term partners in the warmer areas of the Sonoma Coast and Sonoma Valley growing regions, which are ideal for producing intense flavors and brilliant color. 

While visiting I tasted the following wines for a $20 tasting free:

My first wine was the 2009 Wente Clone Chardonnay, Denmark Vineyard, from the Sonoma Coast. On the nose I picked up lemon zest, custard, and very fresh orange peel. On the palate the wine is tangy and creamy yet maintains good acidity followed by a nutty prolonged finish. This wine sells for $32 a bottle.

The second pouor was also a Chard but with a radically different profile – the 2009 Gap’s Crown Vineyard Chardonnay, also from the Sonoma Coast. On the nose picked up butterscotch followed by red delicious apples. On the palate it has a creamy full bodied mouth feel followed by a nutty finish. This wine sells for $37 a bottle.

The third pour was the first red wine, the 2009 Gap’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. This wine is HUGE and yet it maintains the varietal characteristics. Dark plum in color and on the nose and palate I picked up Big jammy raspberries, super ripe cherries, blue berries and Asian spice. It has refined tannins and a really long finish. Some Pinot fans might be put off by this wine but I liked it. So long as a Pinot doesn’t taste like a Syrah or lose its finesse, I like an occasional BIG Pinot so for $45 I brought this one home.

My fourth sample and second red wine was the 2009 Annadel Estate Vineyard Mourvedre, Sonoma Coast. This wine has a nose full of blueberry pie followed by beef jerky, soy sauce followed by vanilla and sweet oak. I suppose we’d say it has an “umami” profile. A delicious wine for $32 a bottle.

My final pour was the 2009 Las Madres Vineyard Syrah, from Carneros. This wine displays a lot of black fruit followed by sweet tobacco, smoke and a hint of animal meatiness with a distant herbal quality. On the palate it is big and round with supple tannins and a hint of pepper on the finish. A really nice wine for $32 a bottle.

To visit or for more information:

Anaba Wines Tasting Room

60 Bonneau Road, Sonoma, CA 95476

Phone: 1-877-990-4188 (Toll Free)

Local: 1-707-996-4188

Saturday, March 3, 2012

A Sunny Winter Day at Cuvaison Estate Wines – Carneros, California

Cuvaison Estate Wines has been producing estate grown wines from their Carneros and Mount Veeder vineyards since 1969. I visited their Calistoga tasting room on the Silverado trail years ago and decided to check out their “all green” tasting room in Carneros last weekend.

The name Cu∙vai∙son [koo∙veh∙ZOHN] is derived from “The French term for the period when grape juice is kept in contact with the skins and seeds during both fermentation and maceration. Critical in the making of red wines, cuvaison allows color, tannins, and aroma to be transferred from the skins and seeds to the juice.” [1]

The winery was established by two engineers from Silicon Valley who founded Cuvaison with a 27 acre vineyard at the winery’s Calistoga location in 1969. Ten years later the Schmidheiny Family of Switzerland purchased Cuvaison Estate Wines. In 1998 they added to their land holding the 170-acre Brandlin Ranch on Mt. Veeder, from which they source their Cabernet Sauvignon. Then in 2004 the Carneros winery was completed to produce their estate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir production facility in Napa Valley. Three years later on their 40th anniversary this facility went completely solar as they completed construction of their new barrel room in Caneros.

Their 400 acre Carneros Estate Vineyard is in the southernmost corner of Napa Valley and Sonoma County as the AVA spans both counties. This is an ideal climate for producing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as the terroir is characterized by dense clay soils and the cooling effect of the San Pablo Bay. The morning fog keeps the grapes from heating up too quickly, while the afternoon ocean breezes decreases the leaf temperature and dries the dew left by the morning fog.

Cuvaison’s other Estate Vineyard is the historic 170-acre Brandlin Vineyard located in the Mayacamas range on the southwest side of Napa Valley, in the Mount Veeder appellation. This rugged and isolated vineyard was settled by the Brandlin family in the 1870’s on the steep, rocky slopes composed of gravelly loam soil over shale, the vineyard lies on a ridgeline overlooking Napa Valley. The first vines were then planted in 1926 and was then purchased by Cuvaison in who then carefully restored this noble site maintaining the integrity of the estate, with only a fraction of the land being planted to vineyards maintaining glens of old oak trees and sustainable viticultural practices to support natural biodiversity and the land’s abundant wildlife. The vineyard is divided into 15 sustainably-farmed blocks, that showcase the varied aspects in sun exposure, slope and soil composition. Vines endure the drought stress typical of exposed peaks and free-draining mountain soils renowned for producing powerful wines.

The Carneros tasting room is out of site of the road below and has breath taking views of the vineyards. The facilities and tasting room have a modern Swedish minimalist architecture feel comprised of simple wood, metal and glass with very clean straight lines and full-unobstructed surrounding windows that provide a panoramic view of the vineyards. You can sample the wines perched on one of their simple aluminum tables and chairs (made from recycled materials), on the outdoor patio or reserve a seat in the lounge that reminds me of an Ikea showroom.

When visiting you can choose from one of Cuvaison’s two flights. The first is $15 for four samples and the second is $20 for four wines. In both of them you are served the 2009 Carneros Pinot Noir and the 2008 Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon. So the primary difference between the two is that the $15 flight includes the 2010 Carneros Chardonnay and 2009 Carneros Syrah whereas the $20 includes the 2010 S Block Chardonnay and the 2009 Diablo Syrah. Not having any indication what if any quality differences there might be between these Chards and Syrahs I chose the $15 flight.

My first pour was the 2010 Carneros Chardonnay. On the nose and palate I picked up light green fruits (green apples, pears), lemon followed by a subtle creaminess and tangy orange peel on the finish with a hint of nuttiness on the return. A respectable wine for $23 a bottle.

My second wine was the 2009 Carneros Pinot Noir. A very elegant wine with strawberries, raspberries, plum, cola and spice on the nose. On the palate it is very soft with a full round mouth feel and a hint of anise on a medium length finish. A nice wine but at $35 a bottle the competition is stiff in Carneros as there are many Pinots just like this at this price or even a little lower.

My third wine was the 2009 Carneros Syrah.  A dark and intense wine with concentrated blackberries, a hint of pepper followed by cedar and black pepper on the tail end. On the palate this wine has supple tannins and a full bodied mouth feel and a peppery finish. An okay wine but a but steep at $35 a bottle.

My final wine and favorite in the line-up was the 2008 Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon. This is a very lush wine with layers of cassis, blackberries, blueberries, anise, boysenberry pie and vanilla on the nose. On the palate it is very lush with supple but slightly drying tannins and a lingering finish. This wine sells for $45 a bottle and at that price range there is a lot of competition in the $35 and under dollar range.

To visit or for more information:

Cuvaison Estate Wines– Carneros

1221 Duhig Road, Napa CA 94559

Phone: 1-707-942-2455

[1] source: © Copyright Barron's Educational Services, Inc. 1995 based on The Wine Lover's Companion, by Ron Herbst and Sharon Tyler Herbst