Sunday, January 27, 2013

Auburn James Winery – A Boutique Urban Winery in Danville, California

From the end of November until the beginning of the mustard season in February, most vineyards aren’t very picturesque. So, during this time of the year as a wine country traveler it is a good time to visit urban wineries. These wineries are unique because they are often located in industrial, inner-city or business districts where you don’t expect to find a winery tasting room. And most, if not all, of them don’t own their own vineyards but rather source their fruit from select premium grape growers. Many of them have long term contracts to ensure a consistent and reliable source of quality fruit.

Around the San Francisco Bay Area there are numerous wineries in unexpected places such as Alameda, Berkeley, Redwood City, Oakland, San Francisco and Treasure Island. Some are located in business parks, old warehouses, inner-town storefronts or even old military aircraft hangers. There are a few in the East Bay that are part of the Livermore Wine Growers Association that I have wanted to visit for quite some time. So, this past weekend I drove to visit the tasting room of Auburn James Winery. 

Their 7,000 square foot winemaking facility is in Livermore and produces approximately 3,500 cases annually, but most Auburn James varietals and blends do not exceed 400 cases. The tasting room and impressionist art gallery, which showcases their wines, opened in May 2011 and is located in the heart of the quaint town of Danville. The décor is heavily laden with beautiful hardwood and the color scheme reminds me of a steak house.

While visiting I met with the tasting room host Dave Matherly. He is extremely hospitable and very knowledgeable about wines – a real professional. I arrived shortly after the tasting room opened around noon and being the only visitor we had quite a wine-geek conversation. 

Later that evening I returned in order to take some night shots as they are one of the very few tasting rooms in California that are open as late as 8 PM. Most wineries in Livermore, Napa or elsewhere close between 4 and 5 PM. The great thing about being open so late is that becomes a great place to hang out and taste wine and they host live music. The risk of remaining open that late is that some people might confuse them with being a bar and complain when they don’t stay open ‘till after midnight. A tasting room is, after all, a place for wine TASTING 2-3 ounce samples in order to determine if you want to purchase a bottle – it is not about wine DRINKING so you can get drunk. However, they do sell wines “by the glass” for you to enjoy. 

When I returned in the evening the place was humming, almost every seat was taken, servers were busy and a lovely young woman with a beautiful voice was playing piano and singing popular songs. I was also able to meet the proprietor Matthew Ospeck who teamworks with winemaker James Frost. Their first vintage together was the 2005 Raywood Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.

Auburn James as several different flights to choose from. I was in a mood for Pinot Noir, so I chose the “Alternate Red” line-up and sampled the following wines:

My first pour was the 2008 Auburn James Pinot Noir – North Coast. On the nose it has aromas of strawberry jam, cherries, a hint of earth, a bit of smoke and just a hint of pencil eraser (or burnt rubber tires). For some that may sound like a bad thing, but it is the kind of earthy complexity that Pinot lovers often look for but are rarely found in California. A lot of California Pinots are fruity and spicy but tend to lack the earthy components commonly found in Oregon or Burgundian Pinots. The rarely found California Pinots like this tend to run for around $45, yet this one sells for only $34 so I brought one home. This wine is very limited in supply and currently is only available in the tasting room. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention it – I travel around with my own Pinot stemware but I didn’t need it because they serve their Pinots in PINOT NOIR Riedel stemware!

My second wine was the 2007 Auburn James Shale Peak Sangiovese. The vineyard is located in the arid dry climes of far northeastern Solano County. For a Sangio, this wine is very dark ruby red. The nose it is really tight so it requires a lot of breathing and swirling of the glass, but eventually I coaxed out of aromas of intense concentrated cherries, black currants, a hint of black licorice and just a waft of sweaty gym socks with a faint hint of herbs and earth. If I tasted this one blind I would have guessed that it had a little Cabernet as it seemed more like a Super-Tuscan. But it is 100% Sangiovese. That being the case I knew off the bat that this wasn’t a Sangiovese Grosso clone, so I thought it might be a Sangiovese Brunello. But when I returned to the tasting room in the evening to take some night shots, Matthew Ospeck informed me that it was a Sangiovese Piccolo. This wine is well balanced with medium tannins, medium (+) acidity and a medium (+) length finish. This wine is not listed on the web site and sells for $34 at the tasting room.

My next sample was the 2006 Auburn James Hidden Creek Livermore Valley Syrah. This wine is intensely purple at the base with a bit of ruby at the rim. On the nose it is BIG and jammy with layers of blueberries and blackberries and a hint of vanilla on the back end. On the palate it is big and round, silky smooth with a bit of heat on the finish. It has medium tannins, medium acidity and a medium length finish. This wine sells for $32 a bottle.

My final wine was not on the flight list, the 2009 Auburn James Diablo Rosso. It is a blend of 58% Tannat and 42% Cabernet Sauvignon. In all my travels I have only come across a half dozen or so Tannats in California and usually they tend to be quite tannic and simple. This wine is extremely dark at the base and violet at the rim. On the nose I picked up cassis, tobacco, and a hint of smoke and vanilla. On entry this wine is surprisingly silky with a touch of sweetness (1% R/S). It is very Zinfandel-like and definitely has the delicious factor going on. This wine is not listed on the web site and sells for $60 at the tasting room. A bit pricy but I brought one home.

For more information or to visit:

Auburn James Winery
Tasting Room & Gallery
321 Hartz Avenue, Suite #1
Danville, CA 94526


Monday: Closed
Tuesday - Wednesday 3:00pm – 8:00pm
Thursday - Friday 12:00pm -- 8:00pm
Saturday 12:00pm – 8:00pm
Sunday 12:00pm – 5:00pm

Phone: 1-925-984-2138

Friday, January 18, 2013

Salvestrin Winery – The 2013 Mustard Season in St. Helena, California

The Mustard Season in the Napa Valley normally runs from February until the end of March. During this time wineries prune the canes from the previous year’s growth as the vineyards begin to bloom with wild flowers, orange poppies, purple lupines but most of all yellow mustard flowers. It is one of my favorite times of the year for doing wine country photography. 

After visiting the old vine Chardonnays of Hanzell Vineyards in Sonoma last Saturday I was curious to see if the heavy rain we have received this year might have started the growth of the Mustard Season a little early. So, I drove through Los Carneros and up to St. Helena on Highway 29, where the vineyards tend to be the most densely populated with wild flowers. My drive from Sonoma to Napa was well rewarded for as I arrived in St. Helena found that the vineyards of Salvistrin Winery were absolutely booming with wild flowers and they have some picturesque Old Zinfandel vines as well. 

Salvestrin Winery is very small family-owned business that began in 1932. The founders, John and Emma Salvestrin, were Italian immigrants who purchased a portion of the historic Crane Ranch, including the Victorian home of Dr. Crane. After the repeal of prohibition in 1933, they grew grapes and sold them to neighboring wineries which frequently won awards for making wines with the fruit of their vines. 

John and Emma’s son Ed Salvestrin continued the family business growing quality grapes from the 1960’s through the 1980’s preserving the family legacy for future generations. Then Rich Salvestrin, a third-generation family member, enrolled in the Fresno State University wine program. Shortly after completing his studies in 1987 he began making wine with the first vintage released under the Salvestrin family label in 1994. Then in 2001 the small estate winery was constructed amongst the family vines with a very small tasting room above the winery that overlooks the estate vineyards.

Today, three generations of the Salvestrin family live on the 26 acre property and it is anticipated that Rich and Shannon’s three young daughters will become 4th generation owners and winemakers.

While visiting I sampled the following wines:

My first pour was the 2011 Sauvignon Blanc. On the nose it has notes of citrus, grapefruit, lemon zest, apricots, and a subtle chalky minerality. On the palate it is crisp, light bodied and it has a medium length finish. This refreshing white wine sells for $24 a bottle.

The second sample of wine was the 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon. On the nose it has intense and concentrated aromas of cassis, blackberries, and vanilla. On the palate it very fruit forward, slightly astringent tannins, full bodied and ends with medium (+) length finish. This is a really nice wine that has all the classic characteristics of a fine Napa Valley Cab. It sells for $55 a bottle.

The third and final wine was the 2008 3-D Cabernet Sauvignon. On the nose it is similar to the previous Cab with aromas of cassis, blackberries and vanilla but with an additional underlying note of dark chocolate. On the palate it is full bodied with slightly softer and more refined tannins and the fruit and is carried through into a prolonged finish. This wine sells for $125 a bottle, a bit too steep as there are many similar wines in the valley that sell for far less.

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

To visit or for more information:

Salvestrin Winery

397 Main Street

St. Helena, CA 94574

Phone: 1-707-963-5105 / Phone: 1-707-996-3860

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Hanzell Vineyards – California’s Oldest Chardonnay Vines in Sonoma, California

During the winter, until the wild flowers bloom in February through March, it can be a bit challenging for the wine country photographer. In this season vines tend to look like nothing more than a twig sticking up out of the ground. So, for the wine country traveler and photographer it is a good time to either visit urban wineries which have no vineyards or check out wineries that have very old gnarly twisted vines which look quite interesting even when barren.

With that in mind I made an appointment to visit Hanzell Vineyards located in the Sonoma hills which is home to the oldest Chardonnay vines in California. It was originally owned and founded by James David Zellerbach (future United States Ambassador to Italy) who acquired 200 acres in the Mayacamas Mountains in 1943 and began planting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in 1953. The first planting consisted of two acres of Pinot Noir and four acres of Chardonnay and since then it has grown to a total of 42 acres planted between 1953 and 2001. The winery’s namesake is a conflation of David wife’s name Hana Zellerbach (Han-Zell) who owned the winery from 1943-1965. Then it was owned by Douglas and Mary (née Schaw) Day (1965 - 1975) and it is currently being stewarded by the de Brye family, Jacques and Barbara, and now their son Alexander (1975–present).

The original vines planted at Hanzell are purported to be the oldest continually producing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines in the Western Hemisphere. The original Chardonnay vines planted at Hanzell are Wente Clone derived from the McCreas’ Stony Hill Vineyard in St. Helena, which obtained its cuttings from the Wente Livermore Vineyard in 1948. I recently visited Stony Hill Vineyard so it was interesting to find that both wineries are of the same high caliber and similar in style as they both produce extremely well balanced age-worthy Chardonnays, a very rare-find in California.

The original Pinot Noir vines planted at Hanzell were cuttings derived from Martin Ray estate which I visited in March 2012. They are now commonly referred to as the Mount Eden clone. The original Pinot Noir vines at Mount Eden Vineyards were pulled out in 1997, and the original block of Pinot Noir at Chalone planted in 1946 was replaced in 2003.  As of 2010, the 1953 blocks (C53 and N53) at Hanzell continue to produce quality fruit, which is usually blended with grapes from the vines planted in subsequent years. However, when merited by a particularly favorable vintage, wines derived solely from these old vines are bottled separately and labeled “Ambassador's 1953 Vineyard” wines.

Four winemakers have been served at Hanzell since its founding. The first winemaker was Brandon Webb (1956 - 1973) who was followed by Bob Sessions who served for nearly 30 years and continues to advise the current winemaker Michael McNeill.

Before sampling their wines I took a tour of the vineyards and was amazed by the breath-taking views. Hanzell’s 44 acres of vineyards are planted on hills overlooking the town of Sonoma on one side and with a fantastic view of the San Pablo Bay on the other. 

I then explored their wine cave and then headed into the historic tasting room with the tour guide where I sampled the following wines:

The first pour was the 2011 Hanzell Vineyards “Sebella” Chardonnay, which on the nose displays subtle green apples, pears, and white flowers. On the palate it has sharp tart apricots, green apples and a Chablis-like minerality. It is very crisp with rather high acidity and it seems somewhat austere. After much swirling and warming of the glass (it was 55 degrees that day!) additional subtle tropical notes arise followed by a very prolonged finish. An absolutely superb wine which sells for $36, I brought four of them home. One to “drink now” and the others to lay down for 5 – 10+ years

The second sample was the 2010 Hanzell Vineyards Chardonnay. It is a little more golden in color, on the nose it is distinctly different than the previous wine with more pronounced aromas of peach, apricot, lemons, limes, a faint hint of marshmallow followed by a waft of orange blossoms and honeysuckle. On the palate it is slightly creamy with medium body and extremely well balanced with a very prolonged finish. It is a bit steep at $75 a bottle, I brought two of them home. One to “drink now” and another to lay down for 5 – 10 years

The final wine was the 2006 Hanzell Vineyards Pinot Noir. It has explosive fruit on the nose, with aromas of luscious rich dark cherries, strawberry preserves, cinnamon, cloves, black tea, and smoky forest floor which combined reminds me of a scented Christmas candle. Refined tannins, medium bodied, medium (+) acidity, more pronounced spice on the palate, with an extremely long spiced finish. An absolutely superb wine, without a doubt the best Sonoma Pinot Noir I have ever experienced! It was probably THE most expensive Pinot I have ever purchased (thus far) at $95 a bottle, but I just had to bring one home.

Hanzell Vineyards is a “must visit” winery, especially if you are a Chardonnay and Pinot Noir lover!

To visit or for more information:

Hanzell Vineyards
18596 Lomita Ave
Sonoma, CA 95476
Phone: 1-707-996-3860

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Thomas Fogarty Vineyards and Portola Redwood Forest– Woodside, California


Skyline Drive (Highway 35) to Portola Redwood State Park

On New Years Eve 2012 we had a beautiful (cold) sunny day in the forecast, so in keeping with my recent theme of visiting redwood forests and wineries I decided to visit Portola Redwood State Park and Thomas Fogarty Winery. To get there I took another scenic drive along Skyline Drive (highway 35) that runs along the top of a mountain ridge through forests and winds around steep inclines and cliffs. Along this route there are several vista points at which you can stop and look to the west to see the Pacific Ocean or look to the east and see the south end of the San Francisco Bay and the Silicon Valley.

“Old Tree”

280 feet tall, 12 feet in diameter and 1,200+ years old

Whereas Muir Woods, Henry Cowell Redwoods, and Big Basin Redwoods are tourist destinations with well laid out trails and a handy gift shop Portola Redwood State Park is more well suited for campers than for day-time visitors. This worked out nicely, for although it was a sunny day it was rather cold (55 °F) and the campsites were all closed. Consequently, I practically had the entire forest to myself and I enjoyed the quite and solitude with only an occasional crow making his presence known and the sound of the rushing streams in the background. It was not until the end of my hike that I met an older couple that was also enjoying the tranquility of the forest.

After visiting Portola Redwood State Park I then headed up north along Skyline Drive and stopped in at Thomas Fogarty Winery. I had been to the tasting room a few times before and taken pictures but had not taken notes or written a review so I was eager to revist the winery. During the Spring and Summer months they are frequently booked for weddings and special events on weekends and during such times the grounds are off-limits to non-invited guests. But if you are there when there are  no special events taking place the 4,000 square foot Pavilion overlooks a Chardonnay vineyard and has a spectacular view of the south bay and the Silicon Valley.

Thomas Fogarty Winery and Vineyard was established by Stanford Cardiovascular Surgeon and world-renowned inventor, Dr. Thomas Fogarty. Like many other hobbyists turned winemakers, he took up home winemaking in the early 1970’s in a small cabin on the current winery site. He then planted his first vines in 1978 and three years later established a commercial winery the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1981.

When you enter the main building you can see the production area below with the stainless steel tanks, vats and barrels before you go into the tasting room. The tasting bar has been extended to accommodate more visitors since the last time I visited several years ago and the serving staff was quite friendly. While visiting, I sampled the following wines:

 Portolla Spring Vineyard - Autumn

My first wine sample was the 2008 Portola Springs Estate Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains. On the nose this wine exudes butter, caramel, peaches and apples on the nose with butter being the dominating aroma. On the palate it has additional notes of tart green apples and pineapple with a medium body, crisp medium (+) acidity and a medium length finish. 

  Portolla Spring Vineyard - Winter

Although I like all styles of Chardonnays, this wine is a bit too buttery for me as it overwhelmed the fruit. Apparently this wine was in short supply and was not for sale but someone had “accidently” opened a bottle so they were pouring it in the tasting room. The ’08 is not listed on the web site but the ’09 sells for $50 a bottle.

  Langley Hill Vineyard - Autumn

The second pour was the 2009 Langley Hill Estate Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains. This bouquet of this wine is not as pronounced as the previous Chard, but it was a bit cold so I warmed the glass in my hands. It then opened up a bit and displayed subtle notes of butter, popcorn, yellow apples and pears followed by almonds and MORE popcorn. On the palate it has a medium body and acidity with intense notes of popcorn and a bit of oak on the finish.  Like the previous wine, this one is too buttery and the popcorn overwhelms the fruit. This wine sells for $50 a bottle.

My third sample was the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon - Gist Ranch Vineyards, Santa Cruz Mountains.  Very few wineries are still serving any ‘07s which is an excellent vintage. A blend of 90% Cabernet and 10% Merlot, on the nose this wine displays layers of cassis, black cherries, licorice, and dark chocolate with a hint of vanilla. On the palate, it has supple tannins, medium (+) acidity and a prolonged finish. This is a fantastic Cab, but at $56 a bottle it is a bit pricy.

The fourth pour was the 2006 Lexington Meritage, Santa Cruz Mountains. It was another surprise to be sampling a wine of this vintage. It is similar in profile to the Cabernet with less aromas of licorice but more dark cherries and vanilla. On the palate this wine is very soft and silky with a definite delicious factor as it has just a hint of sweetness followed by a medium (+) length finish. I preferred this wine to the ’07 Cab and yet it sells for $8 less at $48 a bottle so I brought one home.

The fifth wine as also a vintage pour, the 2007 Estate Syrah “Fat Buck,” Santa Cruz Mountains. This wine displays intense blackberries, blueberries and just a hint of pepper. On the palate it is somewhat soft with supple tannins, the fruit is very intense and concentrated and it has a touch of sweetness on the finish. This wine sells for $45 a bottle.

The final wine of the day was the 2007 Barbera - Oleta Vineyard, Fiddletown. On the nose this wine is slightly smoky which dominates the bouquet for a while but then it gives way to blackberries and blueberries. On the palate it is medium bodied, has moderate tannins, medium (+) acidity and a medium length finish. This wine sells for $31 a bottle.

To visit or for more information:

Thomas Fogarty Winery and Vineyards 
19501 Skyline Blvd.
Woodside, CA 94062
Phone: 1-650-851-6777