Kaena & Beckmen: One winemaker, two stories

_MG_2565 After #GoingRogue with Tercero, it was time to meander down the road a bit to Beckmen Vineyards, were the #QBP had a barrel tasting arranged with Keana and Beckman winemaker, Mikel Sigouin

I first met Mikel last year at Rhone Rangers in San Francisco, and when I mentioned that some wine bloggers were going to be in his neighborhood, he eagerly invited us to taste through his wines. Mikael, a native of Hawaii, makes wines for Beckmen Vineyards by day, and Kaena Wines by night, so I knew this would be a golden opportunity to taste some world class Grenache.

Little did I know that we would taste through more wines than I thought possible, each one more unique and delicious than the last!

But before we started this barrel adventure, we had to make our way out of Los Olivos, and down the road to Beckmen.  As I attempted to corral the #QPB out of the door of Tercero, what would appear to our wandering eyes but Frank Morgan – the erstwhile Drink What You Like Virginian.  If you are not familiar with this breed of wine blogger, it is a unique one; this breed mysteriously appears when least expected and is amiable to almost any activity.

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Kaena’s Mikhael Sigouin

Since we were a posse of all girls, Melanie and I shouted out the car window for Frank to get in the car.  A few hollers later, some coming from the mobile command center of Brix Chicks Liza, the unwitting Frank hopped in the car.  It was clear from the look on his face that he was wondering how the wine mafia had tracked him to tiny Los Olivos.  Was it an ex-girlfriend?  Someone who didn’t appreciate his reviews?  No, it was just the #QBP, wine-napping him for an afternoon of delights.

A few miles later, we met back up at the winery and began tasting our way through the barrels.  Here in the expansive barrel room, it’s hard to tell where Beckmen ends and Keana starts, a clear marker of how there is little separation in this extended family.

When the Kaena brand was launched in 2001, it was to express Mikael’s passion for Grenache.  The name itself, Kaena, shows his spirit, with it’s meaning of “potential for greatness” and brings back Mikael’s Hawaiian culture.  Honing in on his obsession with Grenache, he has made a name for himself as the Grenache King, but hasn’t limited his style and influence on the other wines of Keana.

While Grenache is certainly one of my favorites, I cannot slight the other wines that he had his hand in.  As we meandered the barrel room, tasting a bit of this and a bit of that, it was difficult to tell any favorites since they were all so good.  As they age in the barrels for the next year or two, I look forward to a return visit to see how they are developing.

On this trip, I was intoxicated at the vastness of the selection, and focused on the nuances of barrel toast and vineyard blocks.  Admittedly, I didn’t take as many detailed notes as I normally do, and that I regret.

Revisiting the bottled wines a few days later, there were certainly some that stood out to me.  Of coure, that didnt’ stop me from filling my case box up and takeing these and more home!

Beckmen Cuvee le Bec – a GSM with a dash of Counoise, a brilliant expression of Rhone style wines in California.

Beckmen Grenache Rose – a deep rose, rich and bold but still a bright expression of rose on a hot day.

Kaena Grenache Rosé – light, bright, rose petals and necterines.  The perfect thing to quench your thirst and quite the opposite of the Beckmen.

Kaena Larner Vineyard Grenache – highly aromatic and floral, with dried herbs and banking spices wrapped around bright cherries and raspberries.

Kaena Tiera Alta Syrah – Luscious blackberries, cassis and grilled meat, bacon fat and gingerbread

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Thank you for such a great visit!  If you find yourself in Los Olivos, be sure to stop in and taste both Beckmen and Kaena. You won’t be sorry!

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Alta Maria Vineyards: Stop in and stay a while in Los Olivos

And now, on to something completely different!  This year marked the 7th edition of the North American Wine Bloggers Conference, which I will heretofore call the Wine Whatever Conference to avoid any confusion about who attends, what we do and what happens during it.

 

Arriving in the area several days prior to the conference to take care of some family obligations, and a general need to run away and hide, I arrived in Los Olivos before my #QPB (more on that later) and found myself with some time to wander before the pre-pre-conference got under way.  Not knowing where I should taste, I texted my friend, Tercero winemaker Larry Schaeffer, who told me (warned them?) to head over to Alta Maria, on main street in Los Olivos.  Little did I know that this would be a very popular stop on this day!

 

As I walked in, I noticed the info sign welcoming the Wine Bloggers.  I wasn’t quite sure how to break it to them, that they were in for a wild and crazy weekend, but Stephanie was excited to share the wines, and tell me a bit more about their methodology.  As luck would have it, winemaker Paul Wilkins was in the house, and I was able to spend some time learning about his philosophy on winemaking for both Alta Maria, and his own label, Autonom.  I was also able to taste through the Native9 wines, a special project of viticulturist James Ontiveros.  But more on that later!

 

Alta Maria specializes in small production, artisan wines, with a focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the cool climate of Santa Maria Valley.  Alta Maria also focuses on making wines in the most environmentally friendly way possible, with organic and sustainable practices, including making the place and the people who are part of the process, sustainable.

 

Winemaker Paul Wikins as a third generation farmer, who fell in love with wine when he attended Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.  Vitculturist James Ontiveros has deep roots in California, with a long hitsory of farming in California – his ancestors were Mexican land grant recipients, and while Rancho Ontiveros Vineyard is not part of the original family holdings, it does represent the long history in the area.  Together, Paul & James focus on the unique Burgundian style of Alta Maria, along with personal (and collaborative) projeccts of Autonom and Native9.  Together, they strive to make appellation specific and terroir driven wines.  It was hard to pick out my favorites, but here are some of my highlights:

 

  • 2012 Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay – 80% stainless steel, 20% neural oak.  Aged sur lie, this high acid bright white wine had lush lemons, fresh lemonade, and a hint of fresh cream.  The intense mineral finish had a touch of kumquat.  This is what California chardonnay should be!  Somewhat of a comeback kid, with the 2011 and 2010 harvests being botriyticized, this wine is primarily made from Block W in Bien Nacido Vineyard.  These 40 year old vines are still going strong.
  • 2011 Bien Nacido Pinot Noir – 40 year Pommard vineyard, 100% whole cluster fermentation lends itself to the best kind of funk possible.  Luscious, with savory meat and bacon fat but a zingy finish.
  • 2010 Native9 Pinot Noir – a classic in the making, made from a blend of 8 clones planted in the Rancho Ontiveros vineyard.  This property is high on a ridge in Santa Maria Valley, and this dark, juicy baby opens up to baking spice, dried cherry and black pepper.  The 8 clones in the field give it a very savory and herbal edge, while maintaining the core of Pinot Noir flavors.
  • 2010 Autonom Red Rhône Cuvee – Knowing that I am a Rhone Head, I was very excited to taste these wines.  While I had enjoyed all of the Burgundian varietals, the Red Cuvee, made of 80% Syrah, and 20% Grenache.  While each vintage is unique, this bottle had the inky depth of a Syrah with the juicy pop of cherry that Grenache brings.
  • 2010 Autonom Grenache – yes, I admit it.  I love Grenache.  I might even run away with it.  This is no exception to why I love this grape so much.  Planted in 1964, the Nielson vineyard in a warm corner of Santa Maria Valley, and the more recently planted Thompson Vineyard makes up the balance of the blend.  Bing cherry, green fig, hibiscus, tobacco leaf.  A sweet and savory treat in your mouth.
  • 2010 Autonom Syrah – Speaking of fun, come meet the Syrah.  As the name indicates, the Law of Proportions Syrah blends two vineyards (63% Thompson, 37% Laetitia) from very different terroirs.  The resulting blend is mostly warmer climate (Thompson) but with the depth and richness of the cool climate fruit.  Dark purple plums, cigar box, blackberry jam.

Suffice it to say, I bought more than a little wine while visiting Stephanie & Paul!  I am looking forward to revisitng them soon, and seeing how the wines develop in my glass…and my cellar.If you are heading down to Los Olivos, be sure to stop in and say hello!

 

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Roaming the El Dorado Foothills: Pleasant Valley Wine Trail

Pleasant Valley Wineries Rocks & RhonesIt was a warm Spring weekend, when I took my new car out for it’s first road trip, up to El Dorado County, and some delicious Rhône style wines.  The Pleasant Valley Wine Trail, just outside of Placerville, California, is a sleepy little road, meandering through gold country and rough and rugged mountain landscapes.  The Rocks and Rhône Festival featured 5 wineries, good food, delicious wine, and live music in the heart of old California.

Just over 2 hours from San Francisco, without traffic, Placerville is a hop, skip, and jump from Sacramento and is a great place to center your wine experience; this historical main street is full of antique shops, great restaurants, and of course – wine bars.  Fifteen minutes outside of town, you climb from 1800′ elevation suddenly and surprisingly, as you drive along Pleasant Valley Road.

Our first stop was Miraflores Winery, where they were dishing up beef stew and onion tarts to go with thier Rhône style wines.  We were treated to a vertical of Viognier, Syrah, and Petite Sirah before meandering out to the patio, with it’s sweeping views of the vineyards.  As were headed out, we were whisked away to meet the owner of the winery, Victor Alvarez, who was generous enough to share some unique wines that were not being poured for the event.  Victor, a native of Colombia, moved to the States to pursue his still active medical career.  Still practicing in Arizona during the week, he commutes to the winery on weekends.

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Victor and Russ Beebe, The Winehiker

Of particular note are the sweet wines that Miraflores is known for.  Known for their Amarone style sweet wines, the grapes are hand picked and dried for several months before the wine is made.  The result is a delicious nectar of the gods, and as precious as the gold in the hills surrounding the winery.MIraflores

I have never been a huge fan of sweet wines, but these were spectacular.  Ranging from the bright and pretty floral freshness in the Muscat Canelli, to the rich nutty tones of the Botricelli, these were a special treat.  Our small group gave up the spitting customary with wine tasting as we tasted these wines, knowing they were rare treats.  

After we loaded up some of the delicious Miraflores wine in to our cars, we were off to Sierra Vista & Holly’s Hill, 2 wineries next door to each other facing the beautiful mountains.

Holly’s Hill Winery was dishing up cheesesteak that made everyone happy, which paired perfectly with their syrahs.  Tasting through their Rhônes, I was particularly impressed by their Grenache Blanc and Grenache blends, a particular favorite of mine perennially.  The QPR on these wines is exceptional, with most being under $25 and several hovering around $20.

Sierra Vista Winery

From L to R: Jolaine Collins, El Dorado superstar; Russ Beebe, The Winehiker; me; John MacCready, owner of Sierra Vista Winery

Sierra VistaAt Sierra Vista Winery & Vineyards, owner John MacCready was pouring barrel samples for us.  As we wandered through the 2800′ high plateau where the winery sits, I was particularly impressed by the Roussane and Viognier, as well as the Grenache.  Bucking the tradition of Sierra Foothills zinfandel, Sierra Vista has been making wine in these parts since they bought the property in 1972.  Cabernet in the Sierras?  You bet!

The day passed too quickly, and I look forward to returning for another visit.  With several small AVAs within easy distance of Placerville, I can’t wait to explore more!

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Thank you to Visit El Dorado and the Pleasant Valley wineries for their hospitality!  Stay tuned to hear about ghost tours, gold mines and a fantastic B&B as well as more in depth wine reviews!

A King of Cabs

There are few grapes that are as well known in Napa Valley as Cabernet Sauvignon.  Most every winery makes at least one, and every sub appellation vies for the best, the most unique, the most impactful, fruit to make this king of wines out of.

Faust celebrates an ongoing, and renewed, passion for Agustin Huunees, that a great wine must be a reflection of a great vineyard.  This rich, full bodied Napa Valley Cabernet is sourced  from vineyard holdings primarily in Rutherford and Coombsville, with small lots from Yountville, Mount Veeder, Atlas Peak and St. Helena.  This unique combination of powerful valley floor fruit, unique Rutherford Bench fruit, and acidic, bright, and interesting mountain fruit from Atlas Peak makes this a special wine.

Faust is vinified at Quintessa, which was founded by Huneeus.  With his 50 years of history in wine, he firm belief in terroir is evident in this bottle.  Dark and rich, with dark chocolate and blackberry jam, a touch of Cabernet Franc and Malbec gives it an earthiness that offsets the rich valley floor fruit.

If you’re looking for a splurge bottle, check this out – at $60, it’s worth a steak dinner!

This wine was provided by the PR agency, but I drank it all on my own.

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HALL Wines: An Art Treasure steeped in Cabernet

It was a bright and warm late spring day when I ventured up to St. Helena to see the new Hall Wines facility and tasting room.  While I had visited before, in 2009, it was shortly after the LEED Certified production facility had opened, and what a difference 4 years can make!

With a focus on sustainability and responsibility, along with diverse culture, Hall has gone to new heights with the new Wine and Art Exploration tasting & tour which gives visitors to the winery a peek in to the passion for art & design that Former Ambassador Kathryn Hall has always expressed.

Hall WinesArriving at the St. Helena property, the first thing you see is “Little Bunny Foo Foo” – a large metal sculpture in the circular drive.  This imposing and  imipressive piece welcomes you in to the parking lot and sets the tone for the day to come.  This is just one of the many stunning pieces of visual art that are on permanent display at Hall.

As we we were welcomed in to the visitors center by a cold glass of Sauvignon Blanc, we were surrounded by the textural art in the tasting room that screams reach out and touch me.  Alas, we were not allowed to do so, but that type of art work that intrigues and inspires imagination is what draws you in and leaves you wanting more.

Wandering around the property, you will see several examples of these large pieces of art work that you can spend your time gazing at and just relaxing.

Completing your tour in the tasting room, your palate is delighted by the focus on Cabernet Sauvignon, which is what Hall focuses on, as well as the WALT Pinot Noirs.  A visit to HALL is a must on any stop in Napa, and you may never want to leave!

The winery also has special programs throughout the year, including the Friday Sunset Cruise – where guests can linger outside after hours, and taste through the wines open from the day, while sitting in the Adirondack chairs by the reflecting pool, eating some delicious appetizers.

Another program is Demystifying Wine & Food, where guests can expand their tasting experience with a guided food and wine experience.

There are many more experiences to choose from, so you should check them all out here.

I can’t possibly pick my favorite wine, since all of the Cabernets are silky, beautiful and luscious, but if you are a Cabernet Lover, you could opt for the  Ultimate Cabernet Collector experience, where guests can enjoy history in a glass, one Cab at a time.

These experiences range from $30 to $100 and reservations are required.

If you are a wine lover, an art lover, and a Cabernet Sauvignon lover, take some time out of your day to stop and relax at HALL WInes in St. Helena.

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Roses of Summer: Ousterhout Wines Russian River Valley

Ousterhout Wine & VineyardIt isn’t often that I find a new winery, that I haven’t at least heard of.  Recently, when I received the invitation to the Ousterhout Wine & Vineyard Release party here in San Francisco, I was excited to be able to go and try new wines without having to go very far from home.  Leave it to me and my city dwelling blogging friends to be able to go wine tasting on a Tuesday night in the Marina!

Owners Douglas and Nancy Ousterhout create delicious Pinot Noir Rose and Zinfandel from a small vineyards in Sonoma County, as well as thier estate vineyard in Alexander Valley.  With strong agricultural roots, the Ousterhouts are wine naturals. With a thriving medical practice in San Francisco, the vineyard property is a weekend retreat where they can build their brand in the tranquility of this quiet corner of Sonoma.

Winemaker Michah Wirth cut his baby teeth in Oregon, working with cult producers like Raptor Ridge before moving back to Healdsburg.  Here, he started working with Gary Farrel Winery, where he spent 7 years learning how to create stellar Pinot Noir.  Like most young winemakers, he wanted to create his own wines, which he did in 2007 with Joseph Jewell in 2006.  Today, he makes the wines at Ousterhout in a refreshingly different style.  While the zins are bold, they are not overpowering.  The roses are distinctive and not sweet.

 With three roses and two Zinfandels, along with a Sauvignon Blanc for added measure, Ousterhout is tightly focused on their wines.  In particular, the three roses really caught my attention.

This week, my rose of the week is the porch pounder summer loving Russian River Valley Rose of Pinot Noir.  Along with two vineyard designate roses, the Russian River is a delightfully crisp refreshing Rose.  With bright red fruit, Tuscan melon, strawberries and mineral note, this is a great rose for grilled chicken, salads, and turkey burgers.  At only $22, it’s an afforable summer wine, that is brest served well chilled on the deck with friends.

Check out Ousterhout’s other wines here!  Enjoy a great dry rose of Zinfandel, or a classic Zinfandel from Dry Creek!

Jack Steffan, Director of Sales & Marketing graciously provided me with a bottle of wine for further inspection, but all options and expression of joy are my own. 

 

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Bucher Vineyards – a step back in time

When I first came to know the wines of Bucher Vineyards, it was through my love of all things Pinot.  A very specific spot in the Russian River AVA, with a true sense of terroir, I had been drinking the wines of Holdredge Winee for years before I came to know the people behind the amazing fruit from Bucher Vineyards.

As I tasted more wines from producers that were lucky enough to get a share of these babies, like Thralls Family Cellars and Siduri, I was excited to be able to taste the Bucher Vineyards wines at Pinot on the River last year.

Once I tasted them, I knew I was hooked and I had to go see the property for myself.  Fortunately, I was able to get to know John & Diane Bucher a bit, and they happily welcomed a small group of bloggers to their property for a history lesson and tasting.

Bucher Vineyards was born out of the family diary farm next door, which John’s parents, Joe & Annmarie, founded as immigrants from Switzerland int he 1950s.  Starting out in San Francisco, they elder Buchers fell in love with the farming communities of the Russian River Valley and found the property that the dairy currently sits on.

Selling to local milk processors like Clover Stornetta, the dairy was the focal point of the 11,000 White-O Ranch, dating back tot he 1930s.  With the purchase of a small 360 acre property, and a few dairy cows, the Buchers built up the herd to a prosperous 650 head. Joe & Annemarie’s son John grew up on the diary and learned the family business.

Attending UC Davis in the early 1980s, John returned after graduation to manage the operation.  His goal at that time was to make it 100% organic, which he did successfully – all while looking for ways to diversify the family business operations. In 1997, after two years of researching varietals, analyzing soils, and talking to neighboring grape growers, John planted the first Bucher Vineyard Pinot Noir blocks. starting with Pinot Noir, the plantings have grown to include Chardonnay, and now include 38 acres of planted grapes in 15 unique vineyard blocks.  Being next to an organic dairy farm has it’s benefits, and the Bucher’s practice sustainable viticulture in the vineyard. After successfully selling grapes for a number of years, John & Diane decided to start their own label.  In 2013, the first vintage of Bucher Vineyards was released and became Diane’s full time job.  I have to say, her passion and dedication pays off! The wines we tasted truly show a sense of place, and as I like to call it “The Bucher Dirt”.


2013 Russian River Chardonnay
This was a richer style Chardonnay but not at all like a classic California wine.  With beautiful balance, and bright citrus based acid, this was a creamy lemon custard, green apple, and stone fruit. Fermented in stainless steel and aged in neutral barrels, except for a single new barrel, there is just a kiss of oak.  $28

2013 Rosè of Pinot
Beautiful rose petals and floral aromas break in to blood orange and pink grapefruit, with nectarines.  Dry, with explosive fruit, this is a luscious rose.  The 667 clones of Pinot in this block are intensely floral, and created a delectable wine.  $18 (sold out)

 

2012 RRV Pinot Noir – Is classically Russian River, with pungent, beautiful blackberry flavors bursting out of the glass, followed by a hint of rose petals.  Cola and cracked black pepper follow the burst of fruit, with a nice finish of tangerine and baking spices.  A blend of three vineyard blocks, the backbone comes from a primarily Swan clone block, with Pommard and 667 making up the balance and adding complexity.  A hint of oak from 40% new French barrels rounds out this luscious Pinot Noir.  At $40, it’s well worth more, and I look forward to adding it to my collection soon!

 

If you’d like to visit Bucher Vineyards for yourself, join their mailing list here.  Tours & Tastings are available by appointment only, and Diane would love to see you!

Rosés of Summer: 2013 Stepping Stone Corallina

2013 Corallina Napa Valley Syrah RoséToday is the day before Summer officially starts.  Here in the Bay Area, summer has a tenancy to be a bit confused, and we’ve had some amazing weather, then cold weather, then amazing weather, then fog, then…

As confused as it can be, Summer to me is the time to drink Rose and think pink.  There is a lot of pink wine out there, but not every pink is the same.  Rose wines can vary from just barely pink, almost clear, to deep, rich, translucent ruby.  Every grape under the sun has been made in to a rose wine, but the most common are Piont Noir, Grenache, Syrah, and a smattering of other grapes such as Cab Franc and Mourvedre.

Typically, my personal favorites are Grenache and Pinot Noir rose, but there is a very special crop of pink Syrah out there that makes my heart go pitter patter!

Each year, Cornerstone Napa creates the Stepping Stone Corallina is a beautiful women of distinction, created from the Syrah fruit from Napa Valley.  And each year, General Manager Craig Camp, promises me that it is the best year ever.  Last year, I didn’t think that the team at Cornerstone could possible top the 2012.  But, it seems that they have done it with the 2013!

The 2013 Corallina Napa Valley Syrah Rosé is made as Cornerstone processes their white wines, where the Syrah is kept in whole clusters and gently pressed to maintain complexity and the nuances of a purpose made rose.  A bone dry rosé , this beauty bears no relation to the sweet, sticky White Zinfandels that are still (unfortunately) mostly closely associated with rose wine.

The light, fresh, and crisp Corallina has bright watermelon, Tuscan melon, and blood orange notes with an interesting fresh tomato note that was at once, unexpected and delicious.  The refreshing crispness of the Syrah has bright cherry notes, floral aromas, and an edge of herbaciousness that keep you guessing.

At only $25, I can drink this all summer.  Bright and juicy, it is perfect for summer sipping with everything from barbecued chicken to burgers, and can stand up to salted watermelon salad, and rich cheeses as well.

Corallina was given to me by the winery as a press sample, but clearly I love this beautiful women.  For more Rosés of Summer, keep watching every Friday!

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Rhône Road Trip

Ahhh only 2 short weeks to the fabulous long weekend that is the gateway to summer:  We call it, Memorial Day.  It’s been a long stretch since President’s Day, and I think most of us could use an extra day off.

I am looking forward to a short road trip, exploring some of the Sierra Foothills wine country.  Specifially, I will be travelling to El Dorado County, where there are several AVAs that are perfect for the delicious Rhone style wines of Grenache, Syrah, Viognier and more.

On May 24h & 25th, the Pleasant Valley Wine Trail is hosting the Rocks and Rhône festival and 5 area wineries.  Each of these wineries is known for their Rhône sytle wines, and will rolling out the stops with food pairings, music, and fun along the trail.

Here are some more tid bits to whet your appetite!  For $40 at the door (each day) you are sure to have a rocking good time.  I’m going to hang out in Placerville, and check out the history, and learn more about El Dorado wines.  Additionally, I plan to check out nearby Fair Play which also boasts some great wineries.

In historic Placerville, you can meander haunted hotels, check out old mining sites, and just wader down main street.  I’ll be touring the old town with Gold Rush Tales & Ghost Tours of Placerville, who was recently featured in AAA’s VIA Magazine!

There is plenty to do for a long weekend, and I can’t wait to explore nature, wines, history, and some old…very old…residents!

Event tickets for Rocks and Rhônes were provided by Pleasant Valley Wineries (not the one in NY either!) .   Thanks for keeping me from being thirsty!
Sleeping quarters provided by El Dorado Tourism, somewhere with ghosts I hope!  
Super cool ghost touring sponsored by Gold Rush Tales & Ghost Tours.  With any luck, I’ll meet a nice Miner Forty-Niner.  Wonder if he’s single?

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Change is in the air – Stepping Stone by Cornerstone

When Cornerstone Cellars burst on the scene with their sister label, Stepping Stone, it was an existing time for wine lovers.  The quiet powerhouse of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon had the opportunity to move in to some fun and interesting varietals, such as Syrah, Cabernet Franc, and a beautiful rose of Syrah.

Recently, with the leadership of General Manager Craig Camp and winemaker Jeff Keene, the Stepping Stone label has grown up:  Now, Stepping Stone by Cornerstone (Cornerstone Black Label) represents the best in class of the support cast of characters that make Cabernet Sauvignon, and Bordeaux, so sexy.

Cornerstone Stepping Stone Cabernet FrancWith the new labels, Stepping Stone by Cornerstone slides seamlessly in to the Cornerstone lineup.  The elegant white on black label mirrors the black on white labels of the Cornerstone Cabernet lineup and makes a bold statement about where these wines lie on the quality and flavor spectrum.

My favorites (well ok they really are ALL favorites but…) is the 2011 Stepping Stone by Cornerstone Napa Valley Cabernet Franc.  When I stopped by the see the gang at Cornerstone earlier this year, I tasted through the lineup and once again, the Cab Franc stand out.

I’ve always been a huge fan of Cab Franc in general, and Cornerstone’s in particular.  The 2011 has all of the savory herbaciouness that makes Cab Franc so unique, with a pop of raspberry and plum.  Hiding in the back of the mouth, I get dried herbs, French lavelddar, and tobacco along with some dark chocolate dancing on my tounge.

This is a silky, rich, unctuous wine, but it’s also bright.  With the herbal backbone it’s a great pairing for herbed chicken, pepper steak or pretty much anything.  For $45 this is an affordable luxury that you can share with your friends to warm up on a chilly late spring evening.

Here in Northern California, we aren’t sure what season it is yet.  We had about 3 days of high summer, followed by a day of winter.  It’s now calmed back in to Spring, so I say open a bottle of Cornerstone tonight and make it choose your season for you!

Corenrstone Cellars is located in yountville, just north of the town of Napa.  If you’re making a trip to Napa, make sure you stop in.  You won’t be sorry!

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Mumm’s the word

Mother’s Day is coming up, and hopefully you are able to spend some time with your mom to celebrate her.  What better way to celebrate mom putting up with your crazy than some bubbly?

Recently, I visited Mumm Napawith Vindulge’s Mary Cressler, my partner in crime and bubble buddy who was visiting the Bay Area.  While there, we took the tour through the production facility, which includes a taste of the still wines that will become the magical sparkling wonder – made in the traditional way, Méthode Traditionnelle.

On the way to the winery, we stopped by the demonstration vineyard and heard more about the varietals Mumm uses in their sparkling program.  While many producers focus only on the classic chardonnay and pinot noir grapes for their bubbles, Mumm adds in Pinot Muenier (“Little Miller”), a grape that I think is underused in both still wine and sparkling wines in the US.

pinot meunierPinot Meunier tends to have less sugar and a higher acidity, and is harvested earlier ,which lends a brightness and cleaness to the wines made from it.  Mumm has between 40-60 unique growers that they work with, including their own vineyards, which allows them to select from the best grapes to make the best sparkling wine.  

As we toured through the facility, we stopped to taste the still component wine, and play wit the blends.  This has to be the best part of being a sparkling winemaker.  As we had two glasses of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (white juice, no skin contact), we played with the blends that make up the largest percentage of Mumm’s production.  using the component wine, which is not at all like a finished still wine, we created our own blends and began to see how the flavor profiles develop in the sparkling.
After our blending fun, we walked through the now famous permanent collection of Ansel Adams works.  This is the largest single collection and is truly breathtaking.  In addition to the permanent collection, currently Mumm is showcasing The Golden Decade Photography at the California School of Fine Art, 1945-1955.  These works capture the post war boom and growth in California and is a wonderful way to enjoy a glass of sparkling wine.
As we emerged in to the bright sun, we were escorted to the Oak Terrace by our wonderful guide Charles.  Waiting for us was a beautiful table, ready to taste through the sparkling lineup.  We also had the artisan cheese plate to pair with our wines ($25) which I highly recommend.  Tastings on the Oak Terrace are $40 per person, and include two glasses of your favorite library wine – which is a wonderful value.  With some library selections going back several years, this is a great opportunity to taste older sparkling wines, magnums, and rare production wines which aren’t generally available.Mumm Oak Terrace
As there were three of us, we were able to taste and share just about everything.  This is also a great way to do Mumm – bring a few friends, and order something different.  The generous tasting pours make it easy to share your favorites.  There are so many options to taste, I am going to highly my favorites:
  • 2001 DVX – this library selection of the flagship tête de cuvée honors the work of Guy Devaux, who founded Mumm Napa in 1979.  This rich golden oldie is full of brioche, yellow peaches, vanilla custard and baking spice.  Made with only 11 select lots of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, this special selection had 15% barrel fermented to add richness and depth.  Sitting quietly for 13 years, this was a special treat.  $85
  • 2007 Santana – yes, it’s that Santana.  Carlos Santana and Mumm Napa have had a partnership going back several years, and every year the legendary local musician creates a new blend.  The 2007 was soft and lush, with deep red fruit and figs.  With a hint of Syrah added to the mostly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, this is a fun wine that benefits the Milagro Foundation.  $56
  • Brut Reserve Rose Magnum – there is something special about wines in large format bottles.  This non vintage bottling of a classic Pinot Noir & Chardonnay blend was my favorite, with bright cranberry, raspberry, and cherry flavors.  It was completely different than the 750 bottling, which we also tasted and was a great way to show off how wine ages differently in different size bottles.  $68
  • Sparking Pinot Noir – a rare sparkling red, this dry red wine created in the traditionally champagne style is something totally different and fun.  Ripe plums, baking spice, blackberry pie and chocolate all in one, this unique wine leaves you thinking and wanting more.  $34

Mumm Napa is open 7 days a week, and is located on the Silverado Trail in Rutherford, just north of the city of Napa.  Treat your mom to a special Mother’s Day and stop by next Sunday!  Mumm is also widely available in your favorite wine shop or retail outlet and offers excellent value in sparkling wines.

A special thank you to Charles, our tour host and conversationalist, and Kate Regan at Folsom & Associates for arranging this visit!

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Hopping up to Hopland

Hopland PassportIt’s that time of year again!  The Easter Bunny is coming, hams will be baked and wines will be opened.  After the celebrations of food, wine, and family, why not spend a weekend away from the hustle and bustle in Mendocino’s hopping wine town of Hopland.

On Saturday and Sunday, May 3-4, 17 wineries in Hopland will open their doors to celebrate spring.  Hopland, about 90 minutes north of San Francisco, is the gateway to Mendocino County and offers both the atmosphere of a small town, but the fun and elegance of any wine destination.

From 11am to 5pm, these wineries will have their best wines open for tasting, including library wines, as well as live music, food pairings, and other fun things.  Even better, a shuttle service will take you from one end of of Hopland to the other, so you don’t have to worry about driving!

Some of my favorite stops on the list for this event are:

  • Campovida, with a stunning Rose that always sells out.  The Rhone style wines, located in the old Fetzer property are simply stunning.  Don’t miss this stop!
  • McFadden Vienyard, right in town, has budget friendly yet stunning wines from Pinot Gris and Riesling to Zinfandel.  Don’t miss the bubbly here!
  •  Saracina, a beautiful property north of town with fantastic Sauvignon Blanc
  • Seebass Family WInes, a new kid on the Passport trail, with delicious syrah

And more!

Tickets are $45 including the free shuttle service, and designated drivers are always free.  Collect all the stamps in your passport and enter to win a passport for next year!

Thank you to Destination Hopland for letting me attend, and saving me some yummy wines for Sunday!

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Expression is in the eye of the drinker

What do you think about when you think about wine?  Flavor, name, price?  When I think about wine, I think about location.  Where is it from?  Is it from a vineyard I know?  An area that I’m fond of?  Somewhere new?  All of these things are characteristics of wine that peak my curiosity, and make me want to know more.

I love wines that express their sites and show the uniqueness of the area.  Luckily for me, there are winemakers that are as driven and curious as I am.  In this case, Matt Licklider and Kevin O’Connor of LIOCO, who founded the winery with the fundamentoal idea that wine should be an expression of terroir.  in this case, Matt Licklider and Kevin O’Connor wanted to express the unique charachteristics of various terroirs of California Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as well as a unique blend – Indica, a Rhone style blend.

By selecting the best possible fruit available from independent grape growers,, they are able to express control over their fruit and hone in on the exact fruit and characteristics that make the best wine.  Through careful clonal selection, sustainable practices, and careful site selection, the wines are born in the vineyard.

Moving indoors to the winemaking itself, using wild yeast in hand sorted grapes, with very little oak treatment, you get unique, wild, clear representations of the fruit in each bottle.  Having known about LIOCO since my early days of blogging, I was excited to have the opportunity to taste the latest releases.

First up, the fresh and lively 2012 Estero Russian River Valley Chardonnay.  This blend of two vineyards, both in Russian River Valley, reflects the cooling influence of the sites, low in elevation and susceptible to the fog fingers that linger in the mornings.  This proximity to the ocean creates a need for longer hang time, delivering a strength in flavor and bright acidity that is so magical in this wine.  This is what chardonnay should be:  expressive, bright, fruit driven.  Vinified in all neutral oak, the selection of blocks for the Estero is very specific, with all other lots going in to the Sonoma County bottling.  The Estero is showing Meyer lemon, lemon curd, fresh cream, underripe nectarines, fresh cream, and a flinty mineral finish that dances on your palate.  For $35, I’d drink this all day.

Next, two Pinot Noirs from different areas of California.  The first, the 2012 Laguna Sonoma Coast, is a blend of the Teach-Mor and Hirsch vineyards, both from the extreme Sonoma Coast.  This wine is everything I love about Sonoma Pinot Noir, with tangy, hibiscus and bright cherry filled bursts of flavor, with forest aromas of cedar and mushroom.  Fermented from wild yeast, the fruit was fermente with 30% whole cluster bunches.  With vineyards in the fog catching zone, the cool temperatures create the bright red fruit and zingy acidity that I love so mcuh.  This wine was not long for the table as we drank it quickly and happily, but it will age well and the big black raspberry and pomegranite notes are tasty with Thai curry and anything bacon.  Yum!  At $38 it’s an affordable luxury.

The second Pinot is from the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, south of San Francisco at at elevation.  The 2012 Saveria Vineyard Pinot Noir is also 30% whole cluster, and is unfined and unfiltered.  Finding fruit from a well kept secret in the Saveria Vineyard 6 miles from the Pacific Ocean, clones 115, 667 and 777 are cooled by constant morning fog and a diurinal swing of ~40 degrees.  That ocean is fickle she is!  Aromas of gingerbread and Christmas trees are followed by flavors of balsamic strawberries, rose hips, cranberry sauce with orange zest and black cherry.  The juicy red fruit lingers with the spice box on the finish that is just wonderful, with a touch of cedar smoke lingering on my palate.  A splurge at $50, this would be a wonderful wine with your Easter ham.

The wines of LIOCO bring back the true meaning of terroir, and what it means to be a winemaker and not a wine factory.  WIth so many wineries tryign to achive continutity year after year, makign a product that is a known entity, LIOCO strives to go beyond that and focus on expressing the fruit as much as they can.  Every vineyard and every vintage demands different treatmetn, and deserves careful attention and focus through bottling.  These guys are doing it right.  Balance, flavor, uniqueness.

If you would like to visit the winery, it is located in an urban wine ghetto in Santa Rosa, CA.  Open by appointment only, you can find them at liocowine.com.

These wines were provided by the PR company for consideraton, but I have been known to buy a bottle or two of LIOCO myself.  After this trio, I will buy a bottle or three more!

Passport to the best of Dry Creek Valley

It’s that time of year again – warm sunny days, cool rose, and wine events galore.  One of the best events in Dry Creek is Passport, which takes place April 26-27 in Dry Creek Valley, part of the Sonoma County region.
This year, the region celebrates 25 years of Passport to Dry Creek, where 50 wineries open thier doors and welcome wine lovers.

Saturday and Sunday, special vineyard tours are offered to give visitors an insider peek at the grape to glass experience.  This year, you can choose from Pasternick, specializing in Rhone style wines, Grey Palm Vineyard, who is home to the newest member winery – Cast Wines,  or on Sunday, head over to Palindrome Vineyard where you can dig in the red bench soils, or – finally  – Hawley Winery high up on Brandford Mountain.  These tours are a once in a lifetime opportunity to get a deep dive in to a particular area of Dry Creek, and worth the price of admission alone!

I love the themes, the music, and the fun atmosphere of this event.  I also love that there are many wineries that are not open to the public, and this is my best chance to taste the wines and visit the properties.

Check out some of my favorite wineries along Dry Creek Valley:

  • Frick is serving up Rhone style wines in a quiet secluded spot with gorgeous views
  • Kokomo Winery – with so many options, it’s hard to choose which is my favorite wine, but the pinot and the grenache rose are very special.  Take a taste of some fusion cuisine, and enjoy the new age bluegrass band
  • UNTI – always amazing, will be shucking oysters to pair with thier rose, as well as food from local fave Spinster Sisters, all to the tunes of the Healdsburg High School band
  • Ridge Lytton Springs will have southern confort food to go with their stunning zinfandels and rhone blends
  • Mounts Family Winery is a hidden gem on the west side, with a circus theme of magical elixirs to quench your thirst

With over 50 wineries participating, and musical, food, and winery experiences, why not spend the weekend in Dry Creek Valley!  Sunday only tickets are sold out but you can book your full weekend pass for $120 now Many of these wineries are not open to the public on a regular basis, so this is your to check them out!

I plan on visiting my favorites, but also a few new stops along the way.  I’ll be sure to report back after the event with some top stops along the wine road.

My passport is stamped and I’m ready to go!

My visit was provided by the Winegrowers of Dry Creek, but my picks and thougts are my own.  Follow along on Twitter for updates during the weekend at #DCVPassport and be sure to follow @DryCreekValley and @luscious_lushes on twitter!

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From Blogger to wine maker – Thralls scores a home run

Thralls Family Wine - Luscious LushesIt’s enough to make a make for TV movie, or at least – a great article in the Sunday food section.  You know the story, small town boy, goes to the big city to live a dream and makes it big.

In this case, this is the story of a little blogger who could.  When I first met Ed Thralls, he was part of the first handfull of bloggers that were a group, around wine country, figuring out what this social media thing was all about.  Ed was also one of the finalists for the now infamous Murphy-Goode lifestyle (which is another story – for another blogger – who also makes wine.  But more on that later).

Interning at Holdredge Wine (who, as it happens, is someone I have known for over 10 years, and also makes world class Pinot Noir) as cellar rat, Ed sucked up as much knowledge about winemaking as he could.  Realizing that he couldn’t possibly leave this wonderful world of delicious Pinot Noir and juice, he made the leap and moved to wine country full time.  While working a full time job in the wine business, he tested, crafted, experimented, and made wine.  Thus, the Thralls Family Wine label was born.

These days, Ed has created a line of four distinct, terroir driven Pinot Noirs from around Sonoma and Mendocino counties.  Each wine expresses a different piece of personality that makes Pinot Noir such an amazing wine.

Thralls Wine

Ed Thralls – Photo by Thea Dwelle

First up, the so called entry level 2012 Russian River Pinot Noir.  This juicy, balanced, and bold example is everything I love about Russian River Valley.  Not overblown like so many Russian River Pinots can be these days, the bright cherry, cranberry adn red fruit sing out with bold flavor and juicy fruit.  Using 1/3 new French oak gives this wine those beautiful hints of baking spice, without overwhelming it.  This is a fantastic everyday drinker for $32.

Next, moving in to a single vineyard showcase, the 2012 Bucher Vineyard Pinot Noir is one of my favorites.   With a deeper cherry flavor base, Bucher shows more black cherry, dark raspberry, and forest floor than the brighter Russian River.  The nuances of cedar and white pepper on the finish leave you guessing for more after the first sip.  This is a wine that gets better with time, so try it over a couple of days, and see what develops!  $40

Moving further west, the 2012 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir takes a step away from the bolder 667 and 777 clones of the Russian River bottlings.  Bringing in some bright 115 and 114 froim the cool, foggy Sonoma Coast, this Pinot Noir has alpine strawberries, cranberry, bergamot smokiness and amazing acid.  This wine goes native, using all wild yeast with 10% whole cluster fermentation to give it a bit of a wild thing note.  Yum!  $36

Finally, for the Pinot Noir geeks in the group, the 2012 Roma’s Vineyard Pinot Noir from Anderson Valley is one for the ages.  100% Pommard clone goes in to this unfined and unfiltered gem, which looks a bit like cloudy cherry Kool-Aid but tastes like a dream.  Roma’s Vineyard sits at about 1800 feet in elevation, high above the valley floor, which creates a sunbelt in a cool climate.  This beauty is popping with mushroom, pine needles, bright cherry cider and rhubarb pie.  It’s bright and has brilliant acidity, and will pop with any mushroom dish or creamy cheese.  $42  (Editor’s Note:  Another fabulous Roma’s Pinot, make in an entirely different style, can be found in Cartograph’s Anderson Valley Pinot Noir.)

The 2012’s are Thralls’ third time out of the gate, with the 2008 Syrah being his first attempt at going it on his own.  Beginning with the 2011 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, Ed fed a passion for pinot, and intends on continuing this tradition of small lot, hand crafted premium pinot noirs while also sourcing chardonnay for his next release.

I can’t wait to see what comes next for the Navy Brat from Atlanta, who came to  Sonoma County to pursue a dream!

Hats off to you Wine Tonight, and cheers!

 

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