Tastemakers: Madrona Vineyards, Excellence in Cabernet Franc

Earlier this year, when I was in El Dorado wine country in Northern California, I had my first experience with Madroña Vineyards.  This family run business is in an idea climate for Rhône and Bordeaux varietals, and the elevation in Apple Hill gives it a special terroir that stands out from the rest of the pack.

Sitting at 3,000 feet, Madroña has three vineyards, all family owned:  The estate vineyard, the Enyé Vineyard, and the Sumu-Kaw Vineyard, in Pleasant Valley.  Each vineyard has a unique character, and with over 26 varietals planted, winemaker Paul Bush can experiment with small selections, and tweak them until he is satisfied.  Some of that desire to blend, tweak, and perfect, resulted in this unique horizontal tasting of four Cabernet Francs.

While talking to Paul on my recent visit, I had the opportunity to taste two of these Cab Francs, and was instantly smitten,  When I found out he was doing a Cab Lovers Experience, I was excited to taste all four of his offerings side by side.  In the Cab Franc 4-pack, each bottle is a vastly different expression of the grape.  What would the single block near the barn tattie like?  Hint:  One of these things is not like the other.  Would an experiment with mechanical destemming vs hand selection make a marked difference?  Good question.  Finally, is the sum of the parts equal to the parts themselves (what happens when you blend, Vinny?).  For me, the side by side tasting experience is a clear showcase of how micro terroirs and winemkaing technique can alter the final product.  Oh, and it’s good juice.  Very, very good juice.

First up, the comparison between La Machine and Grain by Grain, where the grapes were picked at the same time, the same way, but processed slightly differently.  The Grain par Grain (berry by berry) and La Machine were both hand harvested, but the Grain par Grain was carefully destemmed by hand, and transferred to fermentation puncheons by nuns who have never eaten processed food.  Ok I was just kidding about the nuns; but compared to the La Machine that was destemmed by a traditional destemming machine, and pumped in to the puncheon, it was a much more etheral experience – which clearly impacted teh final result.  Everything past the destemming and transfer to puncheon was performed identically.  What were the differences?

2011 La Machine Cabernet Franc ($40) – Bursting with red fruit, bing cherries, pomegranite, and forest berries, the cedar plank and mint notes were apparent from the get go.  Given a bit of time, milk chocolate, baking spices, dutch cocoa, molasses, and a hint of green peppercorn came out to dance on the palate.  The La Machine was slightly sharper, with harder angles and brighter acids.  Bright red fruit and hibiscus shine through, and on the second day, more earthy notes were detectable.

2011 Grain par Grain Cabernet Franc ($60) – like a velvet glove, cloves, cracked pepper and smoke hung over blackberries and ripe plums, while dried herbs and cassis lingered in the background.  This was a much more feminine wine, unctuous at times, and perfect with blue cheese or just on it’s own.  It would seem, to me at least that the manual deconstruction of the grape bunches and careful transfer to puncheons made a silkier, smoother, more feminine wine.  I also found that the La Machine provided more acid and brighter red fruit.  This might be in due to the bruising of the fruit in the machined process, or the tannins that inevitably get in the fished wine with some escaped stems or seeds.

Next up, the 2011 East Block Cabernet Franc ($35).  This is a departure from the first two, as it was done essentially the same way the La Machine was, with the exception of using open top fermentation bins.  The East Block had a specific character that wasn’t present in either of the first two, and that could be due to the yeast strain, or the micro terroir in the half an acre block.  It was darker and chewier than the first two, with firmer tannins, beef jerky, and less fruit notes.  The overwhelming flavor of black tea was lingering on my tongue as I sipped this small lot wine.  Was it due to the different strain of yeast, the physical location of the block, or something different?  The East Block had a delicate floral note to it, more so than Grain par Grain or La Machine, and had a cooler climate influence with brooding tobacco and plum.  What a departure from the first two, with the addition of 6% Cab Sav, 1% Merlot, and .5% Malbec.

Finally, the 2011 Signature Cabernet Franc ($22), which, sadly – is sold out.  Mechanically destemmed and also fermented in open top fermenters, this was the workhourse of the group   With a touch of Cab Sav blended in to round it out, it was polished and simpler, with lilacs, violets, and plums as well as pure cherry.  A beautiful expression of Cab Franc, and easily approachable.

Located just about two hours from San Francisco, I encourage everyone to get out and explore El Dorado County, for the wine, the fruit orchards, and the history.  Stop by Madrona and taste for yourselves!


Thank you to Madrona Vineyards and Paul Bush for showing me the beauty of Cab Franc from El Dorado!  (Samples)






VinoMax – an aerator with a twist

I’ve written about several aerators over the years, and have rarely seen a new one that is unique and functional enough for me to actually use frequently.  The Vinomax is one such gadget however, that I am finding myself using more and more.  Vinomax is different because of it’s patented triple aeration system, which focuses on not over aerating your wine.  If you’ve left your wine out in the open for long enough, you know what too much air does; it isn’t pretty.  However, with an aerator, you are trying to outsmart Mother Nature by increasing the oxygen contact while short-cutting Father Time.


With both bottletop and stand alone devices, as well as a travel option, Vinomax is giving us the best of both worlds.  While the handheld device looks exactly like a giant Vinturi, it actually behaves quite differently.  This device actually mixes your wine with air three times, increasing contact and aeration, creating the perfect glass, every time.

I found that this tool is very useful for those big wines that you just don’t have 4-6 hours to open up, let alone something that might need 12 hours!  By aerating the wines, you are softening the tannins and making them more ready to drink immediately.

While nothing is a substitute for good old fashioned time, these tools are handy to have in your arsenal when you need to help a wine along in the aeration process.  The handheld model is oversize cylinder, with a bigger barrel and more oomph than the original aerator, the Vinturi.  I like the way it feels in my hand, and quickly aerated a glass of red wine.

The bottle top model is nice to have if you’re pouring through a whole bottle, and allows you to pour directly from the bottle to your glass without the added (and sometimes messy) step of using a handheld aerator.  In this case, I preferred the handheld model, but the bottle top is handy indeed.

When you want a quick glass of wine, I’d go with the handheld.  If you’re pouring for a crowd, go for the bottle top.

When I look for wine accessories to give to my friends & family as gifts, I will definitely be giving the Vinomax hand held product to my wine brethren this year.  The triple aeration process seems to work better than a single aeration chamber, and while my heart still belongs to the Wine Soiree

Thanks to Vinomax for the samples!  Now go forth and shop at VinomaxProducts.com!

The Artful Wine Lovers Journal

As a wine writer, blogger, and social media junkie, I’m often attached to my phone for hours on end, clicking my thoughts in bits and bytes.  There are times, however, that I like to have an actual notebook.
When that happens, I look to a compact, purse size notebook, that can fit in my hand comfortably.  But who wants an ugly notebook?   Enter the Renaissance Art leather wine journals!  These pretty little folios are handmade Italian leather, with a beautiful wine tasting notebook inside.  The best part about this, is that once your notebook is full, or if you want more room – you can simply insert your own notebook for future note taking.
I have really enjoyed my sample, and it tucks in to my purse perfectly; the handy leather thong strap, is a great way to keep your favorite pen secured as well.
Renaissance Art was founded over 16 years ago in Sante Fe, a place well known for it’s artists and unique, hand crafted treasures.  Its founder, Arthur, began the company out of necessity.  He wanted to start recording his own on paper, and nothing in the market quite suited him.  As any enterprising young artist would do, he went out and created his own.
The results are beautiful, elegant yet rustic, leather bound journals that are hand crafted with love.  As a tool to encourage you to write your thoughts wherever you go, these little babies are just the ticket!


Check out the rest of the products HERE.  From wine journals, to sketchbooks, classic moleskins and custom book covers, set the mood with the oldest tool of the trade:  a blank book.  With the custom finish options and book variations, you will never need another book cover again.

Would you like to win a wine journal?  Leave a comment on the blog to be entered!

Now back to life as we know it…


2015 is finally here!  I think I join a large contingent of people that agree, good riddance to 2014 and it’s bumps, bruises, pitfalls and elated highs.  Personal challenges were a common theme in my circles, and for me personally – a major career shift, family health issues, focus on personal relationships and a very intense and yet rewarding wine class pushed me a touch over the edge.

Phew.  Good bye, and good night!

With the new year, thoughts of new goals, new ideas, and new inspirations run through my brain.  While I’m certain that I cannot attain all of them at least I know that the challenges faced last year won’t repeat themselves.  Yes, there will be new challenges, perhaps even more difficult to manage, but we’ll take those as they come.

As i sit here on this cold (finally!) First Friday of 2015, I look forward with excitement as I push myself to make sure that I blog more regularly, manage my time more effectively, and find some new experiences to pique my interest.

Trips to Portland, Seattle, and some unknown international destination are in the works.  More education in wine and other pursuits is on my mind.  While I still don’t know if I passed my CSW exam (yes – it feels exactly like the SATs all over again, something I am NOT happy about), I do know that there are areas of the world that I long to explore more – both in person and on my palate.  Other educational pursuits might follow, getting back to my love of photography, those lost seven years of French class, cooking school.

The new year always brings optimism and a fresh light, and here’s hoping that we can all maintain that for the next 11 months and 28 days!

So, for 2015, I give you a welcome – and a hearty Cheers to health, happiness, and great wine!

Hello stranger!

wineschoolI’m here, hanging on, muddling through what is theoretically Fall.  Given that it’s in the high 70s/low 80s, it’s tough to stay inside and stare and the computer, but I’m trying.

You might be wondering why I’ve been so silent recently:  well I’ll tell you.  Earlier this year, I took the California Wine Appelation Specialilst (CWAS) class offered by San Francisco Wine School  The three day intensive class was probably the highlight of my year, and I earned y credential with flying colors.  I still kick myself for missing 3 questions on the 100 point test, but there is always the next time.

As a result of that, I decided I really wanted to pursue my Certified Specialist of Wine credential, on the way to being a Certified Wine Educator.  Yes, I know, lofty goals for this blogger!  So, in September, I embarked on the 11 week course for the CSW.  Wow!  When you sit down to examine the entire world in 3 months, you realize what you really don’t know.  So, my free time has been spent working, studying, and reading – mostly about the wines of countries that I really don’t know anything about.

Given that I already spend 8-11 hours in front of the computer for my day job, it’s been a challenge to push myself to maintain the blog in the standards to which I was once accustomed.  After working a full day, and then pulling out the study guide and flashcards, my brain is full of obscure knowledge that has little to do with what I blog about.   What is the German name for adding sugar to a wine that is still fermenting?  The classifications for Austrian wine that are not in Germany?  What about the communes in Chianti?  Sangiovese, Garnacha, Riesling oh my!  Step away from the computer before you do something rash!  So, that is how the blog got lost in the shuffle.  But I’m determined to get it back, and I’m going to start with some fun ideas for your holiday gift giving.

Stay tuned for good things to come, and with some luck, more studying, and a bit of wine – I’ll be a Certified Wine Expert (and not even in my own mind) in no time!


Writerz Block…I haz it!


It’s funny how life can take a turn sometimes.  This year has been one of major change, a crazy work schedule, a bit of life’s most unhappy moments thrown in for good measure, and pure mayhem.

Somewhere on the way, I lost my focus and my passion for this blog.  I am not sure where it went, or if it is just crushed beneath the weight of life, but I’m struggling to find my voice again.

What do YOU do when you just can’t seem to get inspired?

A cool dry place – Avalon Bay Wine Cooler

Air-N-Water.comWith summer finally arriving here in Northern California, it’s good to know that my wine is stored in a cool, dry place.  While it’s only ooccasionallyover 80 degrees in San Francisco proper, there are plenty of days outside of the city limits that can stretch well in to the 90s.  When  my Avalon Bay AB-WINE27DS Dual Zone Wine Cooler arrived from Air n Water, I was looking forward to being able to just pop a bottle open at the right temperature and not worry about it. This particular model is a dual zone version, which is great for making sure that both your reds and well as whites or roses are chilled just right.  For me, the top shelf, which has three racks, is perfecting for keeping all my roses just right.   The bottom section, which I keep at about 57 degrees, is just right for my red wines that I want to have ready to drink.  The sleek, tall design of this model makes it perfect for storing under my counter / bar top, and it fits right in next to my other furniture.


My favorite feature is that it is whisper quiet.  With no compressor, and thermoelectric cooling technology, it’s easy on the wallet and easy on the ears.  Another advantage to the thermoelectric cooling technology is that there is no danger of leakage, so you can put this on any carpeted surface without worry. Each zone has a separate light, so you can see your wine behind the glass door, and with removable shelves you can get creative with it.  Love! This model is $249 and is available online as well as your local Sears store.  Compared to another wine cooler I reviewed recently, I like the sleek design and dual zones on this very much!  The Avalon Bay has a slightly better QPR and would be better suited for narrower spaces and those that want dual zone options.


This product was provided for consideration by Air n Water, but all opinions and wine are my own!


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.


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!


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!

Live Blogging: RIOS de Chile Carmenere

After tasting the value priced Sav Blanc yesterday, I’m excited to try the Carmenere today.


The vineyard is just at the foot of the Andes, and the vines struggle.  The nose on the wine is very spicy and green, which is different than the palate.  The palate has black pepper, earthy and spicy, and would be amazing with east Asian food with a spicy backbone.

Carmenere is a misunderstood grape, and this is a great example that is pure and honest — and is not pure green pepper.  At $12.99, I would buy this every day!

Live Blogging: Vineyard 511 Diamond Mountain Cabernet

The 2010 Vineyard 511 Cab is distinctly Diamond Mountain.  I love hillside fruit, and this is no exception.

Rich and lush, but with a beautiful bright note hiding under the blackberry, this cab has dusty notes of coffee and chocolate.

The tiny production of 160 cases will not last long, so go get this lush gem!

Live Blogging: Garnet Vineyards Monterey Pinot Noir

I happen to be very lucky and I know Alison Crowe well.  She is a vibrant, energetic and influential winemaker as well as blogger.  I am happy to call her a friend.

This $15 pinot, is a fun, fresh and youthful wine made from Central Coast fruit.  As a Santa Barbara County native, Alison was educated at UC Davis and worked her way up through jobs at Chalone and other well known wineries.  She now has her own brand, Garnet and also consults with Saintsbury.

Pinot Noir is the easiest grape to show true expression of the fruit, and Alison loves to play with it.  The Monterey fruit is different than all the other pinots as it’s a classic Central Coast wine, with fresh, savory red fruit.  Crowd pleasing and inexpensive!

Viva la Garnet!

Live Blogging: Consilience Syrah

I have been exposed to Consilience for over 10 years, and it’s been so wonderful to be able to taste the development of these wines.


This 2011 Santa Barbara County Syrah is under $30, and is a blend of Tierra Alta and Estelle Syrah, as well as a touch of this and that.

This is juicy and fresh, with cinnamon, clove, and cracked black pepper.  I love syrah and this is yum!

Live Blogging:

Wines with a accent!  The Brecon Estate tasting room is only 3 months old and we are tasting the Cab Franc, which is also brand new.

Classic Cab Franc flavor profie, full of green leafy vegetables and hard spices.  Black pepper, green pepper corn, and mouthwatering lavendar.  You don’t typically see Cab Franc from Paso Robles, so this is a refreshingly fun wine.

The calcareous soils are from the highest point of the estate, at 1400′, which helps the vine struggle and produce amazing wine.  Planted in the 80s, now the vines are producing wines of elegance and style that I just love!


Viva la Cab Franc!

Live Blogging: Labyrinth

Based in Santa Maria Valley, Labyrinth Presqu’ile Clone 667 Pinot noir is a Santa Maria classic.

The winemaker from Australia, has been making wine here since 1997.  His wife was the original winemaker for Hitching Post.

The clone 667 is from the south side of Santa Maria Valley, which is the cool zone and you can tell by the beautiful acid in this wine.  Bright tangy cherry, 100% whole cluster, rich brown sugar, and zingy fruit.

I love this pinot!  The tangerine notes on the finish make it a winner!  Retailing for $50, it’s a great splurge and I love the salinity on the finish.


Live Blogging: Taken Wine Co Red Wine

Taken Wine Company is based in Napa and has 3 blends.

This one is Taken Napa Valley Red Wine, a Bordeaux style blend, made from Cab and Merlot.

This is a rich cab based wine, with deep purple fruit, blackberry, and smokey dried blueberry.

The budget friendly $30 makes this an everyday enjoyable wine from Josh Phelps, who is part of the Phelps family.

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