Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Paoletti Estates Winery – An Italian Winery in Calistoga, California





Continuing with my search for Italian inspired California wineries, this past weekend I headed up to the Napa Valley to visit Paoletti Estates Winery. The winery is located off the Silverado Trail at the northern tip of Napa Valley in Calistoga. It borders Sterling Vineyards to the west and Cuvaison Winery on the east with Clos Pagase Winery to the north. They specialize in Italian varities as well as Bordeaxu and Super Tuscan blends from 100% estate grown fruit.


The vineyard where the winery is located was purchased by Gianni Paoletti in January 1989. After harvesting the Zinfandel and Petite Sirah the vineyard was replanted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sangiovese. The winery sells about 80% of their grapes and keeps the remaining grapes for his their own production. Paoletti Estates Winery’s first release was in 1994, with a production of about 1800 cases. Today the head winemaker is Gabriella Gazzano and the winery produces around 3500 cases annually. 


The proprietor, Gianni Paoletti, was born in Venice Italy, and began cooking when he was seventeen. He then studied at the Rivera cooking school in Rapallo and had a successful career took in London and Germany. 


In early 1964, Gianni moved to Hollywood California to cook at a number of successful restaurants including The Maples, which was home to many movie stars and producers. In 1972 Gianni and a partner opened his first restaurant which they named Valentino. Two years later, he sold his share of the business in order to open his own restaurant in Brentwood, which he named Peppone.


Gianni and his wife, Lilia, have invested heavily in the Napa winery to not only be a producer of fine wine but also the owners of a unique wine cave art gallery. Visitors are able to taste their exceptional wines whole touring the extensive cave system that showcases numerous Italian sculptures and works of art.


After doing a tour of their stunning wine cave I sampled the following wines:

The first pour was the 2010 Fiore Rosa, a rosé wine made from 66% Merlot, 12% Syrah and 10% Grenache. On the nose I picked up watermelon, canned cranberry sauce and pomegranates.  On the palate it is sweeter than most rosés with 3.23 % residual sugar which gives it a cloying mouth-feel and it is somewhat lacking in crispness. This wine reminds of the white zinfandels that were popular in the 1970’s. Unfortunately, when a wine is this sweet the sugar overrides the varietal characteristics of the grapes. This wine sells for $19 a bottle and there are probably many like it on the market for under $10.

The second wine was the 2011 Bella Rosa, a rosé wine made from a blend of 25% Merlot, 35% Sangiovese and 40% Malbec. This has aromas of strawberries, cranberries, cherries and dried roses. On the palate it is drier than the previous wine with significantly improved crispness and a prolonged clean finish. This wine sells for $22 a bottle and the extra $3 per bottle is definitely worth it! The only bummer is now that summer is past and we’re heading into cooler weather so I tend to not drink too many rosés this time fo year.

The third pour and first red wine was the 2010 Sangiovese, a blend of 88% Sangiovese and 12% Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine has very pronounced aromas of cherries, raspberry preserves and vanilla cream. On the palate it is delicious (!), very fruit forward with a mouth full of cherries and cassis. It has supple tannins, medium acidity, is full bodied and with a lingering finish. This wine is fruitier and more full bodied than most Sangiovese on the market which is probably due to the 12% Cabernet Sauvignon. So, it is more like a Super Tuscan than just a Sangiovese. This wine sells for $28 a bottle and I brought one home.

The fourth wine was the 2008 Nero D’Avola (100%). The name means “Black of Avola” in Italian and although it is the most important indigenous red wine grapes in Sicily very little of it is grown in California. This ruby red in color wine and has a vibrant nose of peppermint and black and red berries. On the palate it is soft and silky with additional notes of boysenberries. It is medium (+) bodied with good acidity and backbone. On the finish it has hints of black pepper and a hint of mint. I have only had a few old world versions of this wine so I don’t have a large base for comparison, but this wine sort of reminds me of a new world Syrah. I brought one home a bottle for $32. Sometime in the future I’ll buy an old world Nero and do a side by side comparison.

The fifth wine was the 20008 Bella Novello, a Bordeaux blend of 90% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Malbec, and 2% Cabernet Franc. On the nose I picked up black currants, black cherries and a hint of vanilla. On the palate this wine is very fruit forward and soft with medium tannins and acidity with seemingly a touch of sweetness on entry and a touch of pepper on the finish. This wine has a hedonistic delicious factor to it which is great if you want to enjoy by itself, but I’m not sold on it as a food-pairing wine. This wine is reasonably priced at $28 a bottle.

The sixth sample was the 2010 Piccolo Cru, a blend of the five well-known Bordeaux grapes (minus Carmenère) with 48% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Merlot, 8% Petit Verdot, 6% Malbec, and 4% Cabernet Franc. This wine exudes aromas of cassis, black licorice, blackberries, vanilla and just a hint of black pepper. On the palate this wine is very fruit forward, soft and supple, full bodied with a big delicious factor ike the previous wine makes it enjoyable to drink all by itself. This wine also sells for $28 a bottle but I prefer it over the Bella Novello.

The seventh wine was the 2010 Oak Knoll Cabernet Sauvignon, a blend of 90% Cabernet and 10% Cabernet Franc. This wine is dark purple with pronounced aromas of cassis, blackberries, mint and a hint of black pepper. On the palate it has supple tannins but with a little grip on the gums, it is full bodied with ample acidity. This really is an awesome Cab and much more of a food-friendly wine than the previous two Bordeaux blends but at $69 a bottle it is REALLY steep!

My final wine in the line-up was the 2010 Malbec, which is a blend of 95% Malbec with 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. This is an explosive wine which gushes blueberry pie on the nose and palate. In fact, this is probably the most intense Malbec I have ever had and it definitely is BIG on the delicious factor! On the palate it is full bodied with a mouth full of fruit, well balanced tannins and acidity and a very long finish. But at $59 a bottle it is a major hit to the bank account.


To see more pictures, check out Erik Wait’s Wine Country Photography at:

http://erikwait.blogspot.com/2013/03/paoletti-estate-winery-calistoga.html

To visit or for more information:

Paoletti Estates Winery
4501 Silverado Trail
Calistoga, CA 94515
Phone: 1-707-942-0689

Monday, October 15, 2012

Wise Villa Winery – Lincoln, California




The day after visiting Montolivia Vineyards in Chicago Park and Avanguardia Wines in Nevada City I headed over to the town of Lincoln on my way back to the S.F. Bay Area. The town is located in Placer County and it was named in honor of Charles Lincoln Wilson, one of the organizers and directors of the California Central Railroad. It seems like it is WAY out in the boonies but it is also a growing wine country.


One of its youngest wineries is Wise Villa Winery, founded by proprietor and winemaker Dr. Grover C. Lee, who is assisted by Kevin Luther the associate winemaker and manager. Dr. Lee first gained interest in winemaking while attending school at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. As his passion for wine grew he began studying winemaking and made his own wine in the early 1990’s at local winery Cante Ao Vinho using grapes from a small vineyard he planted at his home in Granite Bay. Around this time he joined the Sacramento Home Winemakers club, where he continued to hone his winemaking craft while learning from local winemakers. He also took extension courses from UC Davis in Viticulture & Enology, expanding his technical knowledge of winemaking. This winemaking knowledge was laid upon the foundation of his extensive background in the sciences, including chemistry and biology, obtained during the pursuit of his doctorate in clinical pharmacy. In 2006 Dr. Lee planted his first vines on the Wise Villa Estate, and in 2011 celebrated the opening of his tasting room with the release of his 2009 vintage, the first from his estate grapes. 


While visiting I was served by two very hospital young ladies and was able to interact with Dr. Lee while sampling the following wines:

My first wine was the 2011 “Sur Lies” Chardonnay. On the nose I picked up butterscotch, caramel, baked apples and almonds. On the palate the nose is repeated with harmonious notes of baked apples and spice, it is medium bodied, with medium acidity and a fairly long finish. This wine is reasonably priced at $29.27 a bottle. ($29.27 seems to be a common price for their wines, I’m not sure why they chose such an odd number. Usually wines sell for round numbers like $28 or $29)

The second pour was the 2011 “California Style” Chardonnay. This wine is exactly what you’d expect from the title. Whole big buttery Chards were a fad a while back they seemed to have fallen out of favor and so most wineries have backed off this style and use more neutral oak and less malolactic fermentation. But, if you like the BIG buttery, oaky style this wine is for you! On the nose I picked up buttered popcorn, marshmallows, vanilla, marzipan, and toasty oak. On the palate it is full bodied with a lingering finish. This wine sells for $29.27 a bottle.

The third wine was the “Midnight Delight,” a blend of Chardonnay and Muscat. This wine exudes aromas of orange blossoms, honey, canned peaches and tropical notes. On the palate it is medium (+) bodied with medium acidity and a prolonged finish. This wine sells for… you guessed it…  $29.27 a bottle.

The fourth sample of wine was the 2011 Torrontes. This is the first time I have visited a winery that produces this Argentinian varietal.  I have tasted about a dozen or so from Argentina and none of them impressed me. So, this wine was a very pleasant surprise! The bouquet on this wine is BIG with intense aromas of orange blossoms, tangerines, and grapefruit. On the palate the wine is medium-light bodied, it has crisp acidity and a prolonged finish. I bought two bottles of this wine which sells for $29.27 each.

The fifth pour of wine was the 2011 Pinot Noir “Blanc de Noir.” This is a rosé wine made from estate grown Pinot Noir grapes. I was really surprised to find a winery that is growing Pinot Noir this far inland. Most California Pinots and grown within 30 miles of the Pacific Ocean. They are also producing a red Pinot Noir from the same grapes but it is still in the barrels (been there for 2 years!) so I am really curious as to how it will turn out. There are some Pinot Noirs produced in the central valley but must of them lose the subtle nuances that the varietal can deliver and turn out to be just basic dark table wine with drab plum notes. So, hopefully the wine will turn out well. This is a rosé wine is really quite nice, it is peach in color with notes of watermelon, cherries, strawberries and oranges. On the palate it is slightly sweet, light bodied with medium (+) acidity and a lingering finish. A really nice summer wine, this wine sells for $29.27 a bottle and I brought one home.


The first red and sixth wine was the 2010 Merlot. This wine is more Cabernet-like with pronounced aromas of black cherries, currants and spice. On the palate it has medium (+) tannins and acidity; it is well-structured and well balanced. If you know anybody who says they don’t like Merlot but they like Cab Sauv, give them a glass of this wine but don’t tell them what it is. They’ll be surprised. This wine sells for $29.27 a bottle.

The seventh wine was the 2010 Cabernet Franc. I wasn’t real fond of this wine. On the nose is has upfront green bell pepper notes followed by tart cherries and blueberries. Some people may like that in a Cabernet Franc as it is very common. But it isn’t for me. On the palate it is fairly soft with a medium weight body and medium acidity. This wine sells for $29.27 a bottle.

The eighth wine was the 2009 “Wisdom of Wise”, a proprietary blend of 35% Merlot, 31% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Petit Verdot, and 17% Petit Syrah. On the nose this wine has pronounced aromas of blackberries, dark chocolate, new leather, oak and a touch of vanilla. I think the Petit Syrah gives the nose a bit more “oomph!” that what you might expect from a Meritage-like wine. On the palate it has Medium (+) body, medium tannins and acidity and a fairly long finish. This wine sells for $29.27 a bottle.

The ninth wine was the 2010 Tempranillo, which was my favorite red wine in the line-up. Keep in mind, that I am only TASTING the wine and then spitting it out. If I was DRINKING the wine by this time they’d all taste great and be my favorite! This wine has an explosive nose of Bing cherries, black licorice, a hint of earthiness, vanilla and spice. On the palate it is medium bodied with supple refined tannins and a medium (+) length finish. This wine sells for… (drum roll please)… $29.27 a bottle… and I brought one home.

The tenth wine was the 2010 Syrah. This wine displays aromas of blackberry jam, dark chocolate, anise and dark plums.  The wine is fruit forward with medium body, medium tannins and a medium (+) length finish. This wine sells for $29.27 a bottle

The eleventh wine was the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon. The nose on this wine is somewhat muted but it may need more time to open up. After MUCH swirling I was able to pick up subtle notes of black currants, hints of bell pepper, and herb tea. On the palate it has medium (+) tannins and medium acidity with a medium length finish. This wine was the most expensive in the line-up as it sells for $33.47 a bottle.

My final wine was the “Eclipe”- a traditional Port-style wine made from Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz. On the nose it has aromas of blackberry sorbet and dark chocolate but NO dried fruits that you typically find in Port wines. On the palate it has a lot of complexity with additional notes of cola and vanilla. This wine sells for $24 for a 350 ml. bottle.

Overall, I was more impressed with the white wines than the red, but I did like the Tempranillo enough to bring a bottle home.

 
To visit or more information:

Wise Villa Winery
4100 Wise Road
Lincoln, CA 95648 
Mailing Address:
2217 Plaza Drive, Rocklin, CA 95765 
Telephone: 1-916-543-0323

Friday, October 12, 2012

Avanguardia Wines – A Unique Italian-Blend Winery in Nevada City




After visiting Montolivia Vineyards in Chicago Park I headed north-west on 174, a back roads scenic drive, to Nevada City to visit the Avanguardia Wines. Avanguardia Wines has two tasting locations, a tasting room in Grass Valley and at their winery in Nevada City. I wanted to see the vines and meet the owner/winemaker so I called the winery. According to their web site, if you don’t call first there might not be anybody available to pour the wines. When I arrived they were in the middle of a crush and pressing of grapes.


Avanguardia Wines is a small family business developed by Rob and Marilyn Chrisman that produces between 800 and 1,000 cases of wine per year. They moved to the high foothills of Tulare County in 1977 where Rob developed a small experimental vineyard. With degrees in Slavic Studies, he was self-taught in viticulture and oenology, but relied upon expertise in the field. He contacted University of California at Davis Foundation Plant Services and worked with them to import new varieties to the United States. According to U.C. Davis he was one of the first US vintners to import grape varieties from Italy previously unknown in the US.


In 1990, the Chrisman family moved to Nevada City, a small rural town in the sierra foothills at a 2,500 foot elevation with a population of under 4,000 people. Ten years later they established the winery focusing 100% on very unique proprietary blends many of which are made from Italian varieties. 


While visiting Rob poured me a sample of the following wines, all of which were reasonably priced:

My first wine was the 2009 “Selvatico” - a proprietary Italian white blend of 50% Friulano, and various percentages of Peverella, Forastera, and Pinot Grigio. Peverella is from the Trentino area in north-central Italy and is grown in the foothills of the Alps, ideally adapting it to our Sierra Foothill environs. Forastera is an island grape in Italy and is responsible for at least half of the wine known as Ischia Bianco Superiore on the island of Ischia just south of Capri. On the nose I picked up aromas of dried peaches, apricots, orange peel and a slight tropical note. On the palate the wine is light-bodied, crisp and refreshing with a medium length finish. This wine is reasonably priced at $14 a bottle.

The second pour was the 2008 “Cristallo” - a proprietary white blend of 70% Rkatsiteli, Melon de Borgogne, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Blanc. The dominant grape is the Georgian  Rkatsiteli (pronounced “rkah-tsee-tely” which literally it means “red stem”), widely planted in eastern Europe. In Georgia, clay vessels were found with seeds of Rkatsiteli grapes which date back to 3000 B.C. Prior to the fall of the USSR, at one point was responsible for more the 18% of all Soviet wine production. This wine is REALLY unique and it is difficult to compare it with any other wine or accurately describe. On the nose it sort of has aromas of dried citrus fruit, pantone roll (like a fruit cake that you buy for Christmas), orange peel, dried flowers and a hint of nuttiness. On the palate, however, it is quite different than what you might anticipate from the nose as the nuttiness disappears and the fruit profile is more like fresh rather than dried fruits. It is medium bodied with medium acidity and it has a fairly long length. This wine was so unique that I neither liked nor disliked it as I was mostly intrigued by its enigmatic qualities. This wine sells for $14 a bottle.

The third wine was the 2008 “Due Fiori” - a proprietary white blend of 40% Semillon, 30-40% Flora, 20-25% Chenin Blanc, and the balance Orange Muscat (also known as Moscato Fior d’Arancio in Italy). The Flora grape is a cross of Gewürztraminer and Semillon made by Dr. Olmo of U.C. Davis in 1958, and the name means flower in Latin; the second flower in the wine name is the Moscato, hence the name Due Fiori (Two Flowers). As might be expected, this wine has a spicy floral nose with hints of orange peel. On the palate it is medium bodied, with medium acidity and it has a slightly creamy mouth feel with a hint of spice on the finish. This wine sells for $16 a bottle.


The fourth sample of wine was the 2011 “Cara Mia Rosato” – This is a proprietary Rosé blend. According to the web site this wine is made from Sangiovese and “other red grapes” but when I visited Rob said it was made from Tempranillo and Tannat. So, perhaps it is a blend of Sangiovese, Tempranillo and Tannat? I tasted a number of rosés over the summer and regardless of the grapes the most common characteristics are strawberries, cranberries, watermelon and sometimes they have some spice and perhaps a touch of sweetness. And this one is no different. It is a nice easy-going blush wine that sells for $16 a bottle.

The fifth wine and first red was The Lot 56 “Premiato” - a 2006/2007 vintage proprietary Italian blend of 2/3 Barbera, 1/3 Dolceto. This was my favorite wine in the line-up. It has an absolutely explosive nose of red currants, raspberries, fresh cherries, Christmas fruit cake and spice. On the palate it is fruit forward, medium bodied with supple tannins and a prolonged finish. A really nice wine for only $20, so I brought one home.

The sixth wine was the Cuvee 67 “Sangineto” - a 2006/2007 vintage “Super Tuscan” proprietary blend of 90% Sangiovese using three different clones, including the Brunello clone. The other 10% is Carmine which is a cross of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carignane. It was created by Dr. Harold Olmos, of the University of California, who designed it to be a Cabernet alternative for California’s ‘cool’ coastal regions. This wine has medium intensity aromas of black cherries, black currants and oak. On the palate it is medium bodied with medium (+) acidity and a medium length finish with more flavor on the return than on the initial attack. This wine sells for $20 a bottle.


My final wine was the 2009 “Ampio”- According to Rob this wine is 1/3 Carmine and 2/3 Refrosco. Refosco is an indigenous red variety from Friuli (NE Italy). This wine has deep violet color with the aroma and flavors of plums, black cherries, and black currants. On the palate it has medium (+) tannins, medium acidity and a slight tannic bitterness in the finish. This is not a sipping wine, it needs a steak to be thoroughly enjoyed. This wine sells for $18 a bottle



To visit or more information:

Winery
13028 Jones Bar Rd
Nevada City, CA 95959
Phone: 1-530-274-9482 Weekends, call first.

Grass Valley Tasting Room
209 West Main Street
Grass Valley, CA 95959
Phone: 1-530-274-9911 Open Daily.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Montoliva Vineyards and Winery – A Taste of Italy in Chicago Park




Most so-called Cal-Italia wineries only make a select few Italian varietal wines; mostly Sangiovese, Pinot Grigio and perhaps Barbera. But there are a few, however, that go the extra mile and produce a limited supply of other not-so-well-known Italian wines.


In search of a winery that produces unique Italian varietals this past weekend I traveled to the Sierra Vintners Wine Trail and the Placer County Wine Trail, two wine countries I had never visited. They’re located North-East of Sacramento and about 2.5 hours from the San Francisco Bay Area.


My first stop was to Montolivia Vineyards located at an elevation of 2,300 feet in the pine tree covered hill country of Chicago Park near the town of Auburn. The winery isn’t in a “wine country” surrounded by neighboring wineries but a bit remote in a rural community. But it is definitely worth the drive!

Montolivia Vineyards specializes in producing Italian varietals such as Aglianico, Barbera, Dolcetto, Negroamaro, Pinot Grigio, Primitivo, Sangiovese, Teroldego as well as unique Italian blends. They’re a small family owned winery that produces only around 1,500 to 2,500 cases a year - that means they only produce around 200 cases of some of these varietals.


Montoliva Vineyard and Winery is located in the foothill community of Chicago Park, just below Grass Valley. When you visit more than likely the winemaker Mark Henry will be the one to pour the wines. He is extremely hospitable and informative so if you want to learn more about Italian varietals, this is the place to go! The winery is adjacent to his home, and his tasting room and patio looks out over his vineyard and neighboring farmland.

Mark began his beverage making career as a Brewmeister in Seattle in the 1990s. He later ventured into wine making with a desire to focus on Tuscan-oriented Italian wines, especially Sangiovese, in the old world style.

While visiting I sampled the following wines:

My first wine was the 2011 Pinot Grigio – San Juan Ridge, Jack Rabbit Vineyards. Made from organically grown grapes, from fourteen year old vines.  The vineyard is located in the North San Juan region of Nevada County, at 3,200 feet elevation. On the I picked up peaches and apricots and on the palate it has medium body, medium (+) acidity and a refreshing prolonged finish. A really nice wine for only $15.

The first red wine was the 2008 Aglianico – Sierra Foothills. There are VERY few wineries in California (such as Domenico) that produce this wine and some that do get their grapes from the same source. This wine displays red fruits, especially cranberries, and on the palate it has supple but firm tannins and medium (+) acidity. Mark only produced 60 cases of this wine and it wine sells for $24 a bottle.

The third pour was the 2008 Primativo – Sierra Foothills. Originating from Puglia Italy, it is a closely related cousin to Zinfandel so it has a lot of similarities to Zin and yet there are some very distinctive Italian qualities about it as well. This is a well-balanced wine with raspberries and spice on the nose, it is fruit driven but not overly jammy. This wine sells for $24 a bottle.

The fourth sample of wine was the 2009 “Sierra Bella” a proprietary blend of Sangiovese, Teroldego, Dolcetto, Cabernet Sauvignon and Barbera. This wine has a complex expressive nose of red and black berries with underlying earth tones. On the palate it has medium tannins and acidity and a pleasing finish. A really nice wine for only $15, so I brought one home.

The fifth pour was the 2009 Dolcetto – Sierra Foothills. The grapes for this wine come from the Due Vigna Vineyard in Georgetown. There aren’t very many wineries that produce this varietal whose name means “little sweet one.” But don’t let the name fool you, it isn’t a sweet wine but rather it is a wine that tends to be softer in tannins and easier to drink which makes is more approachable when it is young. The wine has a bouquet of blackberries, cherries, spice and sweet oak. On the palate it has soft and supple tannins and medium acidity. This wine sells for $24 a bottle.

The sixth sample of wine was the 2009 Barbera – Sierra Foothills. The grapes for this wine are sourced from the Viani Vineyard on Pilot Hill in Placer County. The wine exudes aromas of intense blackberries and black licorice. On the palate it has just a touch of sweetness giving it a delicious factor. This wine sells for $24 a bottle and I brought one home.

The seventh wine was the 2007 Sangiovese, The grapes for this wine come from Montoliva’s estate vineyard and the nearby Clavey Vineyard. This wine is darker and earthier than most Sangioveses I have tasted in the past and very old world in style. On the nose it has aromas of black cherries, dried tobacco leaves, dark chocolate and on the palate it has medium (+) tannins and acidity. This wine sells for $17 a bottle.

The eighth pour was the 2007 “Sinistra” a proprietary “Super Tuscan” blend of 35% Sangiovese, 35% Teroldego, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Aglianico. This wine is rich and opulent withlayers of red and black fruits, black cherries, currants, medium (+) tannins and acidity. Only 40 cases of this wine were produced. This wine sells for $30 a bottle and I brought a bottle home.

The ninth sample was the 2007 Teroldego, There are VERY few wineries in Italy that produce this wine and far fewer in California. In Italy, there is approximately 900 acres of Teroldego grown, almost grown primarily in the northeastern region of Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, Italy.  In California there are about 100 acres grown.  The wine is deep color ruby in color, has aromas of blackberries, a hint of spice, vivacious acidity and moderate tannin and. is somewhat similar to Zinfandel. This wine sells for $24 a bottle and I brought one home.

My final wine was the 2010 Late Harvest Barbera. This is sweet without being syrupy and has aromas intense and concentrated aromas and flavors of blackberry and boysenberry sorbet. This wine sells for $16.00 per 375ml bottle.


To visit or more information:

Montoliva Vineyards and Winery
15629 Mount Olive Road
Grass Valley, CA 95945
Phone: 1-530-346-6577

Friday, October 5, 2012

Luna Vineyards – A Cal-Italia Winery in Napa, California




Continuing with the Cal-Italia theme, after eating lunch at Tra Vigne, my second stop for the day was at Luna Vineyards located at the southern end of the Silverado Trail. I visited this winery back in 2000 the first time I was in my Italian varietal phase and was immediately impressed with their wines. I particularly loved their Super Tuscan wine “Canto.” In fact, I was so impressed I was a member of their club for a couple years.



The winery was co-founded George Vare and Mike Moone in 1995, who set themselves apart from their neighbors by planting the Italian varietals Pinot Grigio and Sangiovese. But, Luna isn’t exclusively focused on Italian varietals as they also bottle Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and now they have two unique proprietary bends called “Lunatic.”



Recently I picked up a bottle of their “Lunatic” red at a grocery store which is a unique blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet and Souzao (suh-zay-oh), a Portugese varietal. I was really impressed with it and so I was eager to return to Luna to experience their wines again. They also have a “Lunatic” white blend of Chardonnay, Albarino and Malvasia Bianca. Unfortunately they were not pouring these wines at the tasting room.



In addition to the Luna lineup of wines, the winery has a long term partnership with Arnold Palmer and produces the much acclaimed Moone-Tasi wines, which are very small production and enjoy a cult-like status. 

The tasting room has two wine tasting flights but after I told them I was only interested in the Italian varietals they graciously allowed me to pick and choose from both of them. So, while visiting I tasted the following Italian wines:

My first pour was the 2010 Pinot Grigio – Napa Valley. This wine is a blend of 92% Pinot Grigio  and 8% Albariño. On the nose I picked up canned pears, peaches, apricots and a touch of white flowers. On the palate this wine has medium acidity, with a medium weight (slightly more than Benessere’s Pinot Grigio). It is slightly creamy and not as sharp giving it a full-mouth feel. A nice wine for $18 a bottle.

My second wine was the 2010 Reserve Pinot Grigio – Napa Valley. This wine 100% Pinot Grigio. It is more focused than the previous wine with more pronounced aromas of freshly peeled pears, peaches and grapefruit. On the palate it has a longer finish. It is definitely worth the extra ten bucks at $28 a bottle and I took one home.

My third wine was the 2009 Estate Sangiovese – Napa Valley.  Made from 100% Sangiovese, this wine has pronounced aromas of cherries, red currants with a hint of spice and vanilla. On the palate this wine is really well balanced with medium (+) acidity and medium tannins. This is what I’m looking for in a Sangiovese! I brought a bottle home for $25.

My final pour was the 2009 Canto. A Super Tuscan blend of 60%  Sangiovese  and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is deep ruby in color with aromas of dark cherries, plums, blackberries and just a hint of anise and a touch of minerality. On the palate it is medium (+) bodied, well integrated tannins and medium (+) acidity. A really well balanced wine with a prolonged finish that it just to die for! A really superb wine but a major hit on the bank account at $60 a bottle.



To visit or for more information:

Luna Vineyards
2921 Silverado Trail
Napa California, 94558
Phone: 1-707-255-2474

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Benessere Vineyards and Tra Vigne Restaurant – A Taste of Cal-Italia in St. Helena




In keeping with my Cal-Italia theme from my previous trip to Sonoma, in which I visited Viansa and Jacuzzi, this past weekend I drove up to the Napa Valley to visit Benessere Vineyards. Benessere (“beh-NESS-eh-ray”) means “well-being” or “prosperity” in Italian. It is situated along the Napa River between Calistoga and St. Helena.



Surrounded by an ocean of Cabernet and Merlot in the Napa Valley, Benessere is one of the very few wineries in the Napa Valley that specializes in Italian varietals producing Sangiovese, Moscato di Canelli, Zinfandel (a cousin to Primativo) and Sagrantino. They also grow a bit of Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon which they add to their Sangiovese for making “Phenomenon,” their version of an Italian Super Tuscan. They also make an Aglianico which they source from the Collins’ vineyard, a close neighbor. Unfortunately it was not available for tasting during my visit.

The estate was previously occupied by the notorious Charles Shaw of “Two Buck Chuck” fame who ran into economic difficulties and the land consequently laid in disrepair for some time. In 1994, John and Ellen Benish purchased the 42-acre property and restored the winery, vineyard and residence. The following year they had their inaugural release of 135 cases of Sangiovese.


The winery is and the end of a long dusty driveway, far off the main road among estate vineyards and gardens. The tiny tasting room is set in a charming, sunny-yellow farmhouse. But, if you don’t want to stand at the tiny tasting bar you can enjoy the wines and the view while relaxing out on the rose-bordered garden patio overlooking the vineyard



While visiting I tasted the following wines:

My first wine was the 2010 Pinot Grigio – Carneros. This wine has pronounced floral aromas along with a vibrant bouquet of apricots, peaches and nectarines. On the palate it has refreshing acidity that delivers dried apricots and peaches with a fairly lengthy finish. This wine sells for  $15 a bottle and I took one home.

The second pour was the 2008 Estate Sangiovese – Napa. This wine has aromas of dark cherries, pomegranates, spice and anise and a very strong oakiness. On the palate it has medium acidity and tannins and the oak appears again. The wine isn’t overly oaked but it does seem to be a bit overbearing. This wine sells for $28 a bottle.

The next sample was the 2007 Estate “Phenomenon.” This is a proprietary blend of 49% Cabernet Sauvignon, 38% Sangiovese, 11% Merlot, 2% Syrah.  This wine has pronounced aromas of red and black currants, dark chocolate covered cherries, black licorice, leather and dried black fruits. The flavors of this wine are complex and multilayered that deliver something different each time you return to the glass. On the palate it has medium tannins, medium (+) acidity and a prolonged finish. There is no doubt as to why they named this exceptional wine because it is phenomenal!  But it also has a big price tag to match at $50 a bottle.



My final pour was the 2008 Estate Sagrantino.  Sagrantino is native to the Umbria region of Italy, confined to 250 acres of vineyards around the ancient hill town of Montefalco. California produces only 70 tons, just two of them from Benessere’s half-acre and they produce 100 to 150 cases annually. I have only tasted this varietal once before, and only recently at Jacuzzi, so with such limited experience with this wine it is difficult to evaluate it. I need to find more domestic and imported versions of it in order to really get a sense of what this grape is all about. Over all, this wine was more impressive than Jacuzzi’s who source their grapes from the Tracy Hills. On the nose I picked up very exuberant cherries, raspberries and other red fruits with just a hint of spice. The palate, on the other hand, hand was not as pronounced and it basically says, “Hi, my name is Sagrantino and I’d go well with pizza.” So, I wasn’t overly impressed with the wine but I’m not sure if this wine is true to the varietal or if this grape is just an everyday drinking sort of wine. Unfortunately the price wasn’t so an everyday-drinking  at $50 a bottle. But, for my personal wine education I bought a bottle to save and compare with other versions of this wine.

Benessere also had available two Zinfandels, one from 90+ year old vines. But because I only was interested in tasting distinctly Italian varieties, with the exception of the Super Tuscan-esquePhenomenon,” I didn’t taste them, However, Zin is a close relative to Primativo (if not the exact same thing) but I kind minor differences to the California grape so I chose not to taste them. If you visit the winery and liked their Zins, make a comment below!



For more information or to visit:

Benessere Vineyards
1010 Big Tree Road
St. Helena, California 94574
Phone: 1-707-963-5853 ext. 105

Tra Vigne


After visiting Benessere Vineyards I then went to one of my favorite restaurants in the Napa Valley that specializes in Italian cuisine – Tra Vigne in St. Helena. They have two restaurants, a fine dining restaurant and a pizzeria. I haven’t tried the pizza yet so perhaps I’ll do so on my next trip. The restaurant’s menu changes periodically but I try to keep my eye out for their pasta dishes that feature agnello (lamb). The service is excellent, their serving staff are well informed and attentive without being annoying. They’re prices aren’t cheap so for two people with 2 glasses of wine each with appetizers it cost me $160 with the tip.

For more information or to visit:

Tra Vigne
1050 Charter Oak Ave
St. Helena, California 94574
Phone: 1-707-963-4444