There’s gold in that furrow!

Driving up a dusty dirt road, at the edge of a vineyard in Lodi, you could see the history in the vines.  These gnarled old beasts were baking in the late spring heat, and you could just feel the struggle as they worked to survive the turbulent weather.

This was Rauser Vineyard, planted with old vine Carignane and Zinfandel.  Our guide, Mike Mike McCay, was enthusiastically giving us an oral history of the last 20 years, while digging in the dry, crumbling dirt of the vineyard.  Mike is an innovator, something that is more common in Lodi than you would expect.  Not satisfied to go with the status quo, he is always looking for new ways to survive the ever persistent drought, and to produce some amazing wines.

His winemaking style centers around the terroir of Lodi, and specifically this patch of land.  Using Native yeasts while concentrating on Zinfandel and Rhône varietals, he has brought out the true expression of htis small AVA in the region.

Tiptoeing through the high furrows of dusty red soil, Mike poured us his ClIMG_0653ements Hills Viognier.  This mineral driven white enjoyed a long, warm growing season, which resulting in ripe pears and stone fruit, followed by rich floral aromas.  It was just the thing to whet our palates on the hot and dusty day.

After learning a bit of history of this piece of land, we met up with Mike’s family at his house for a down home Lodi style BBQ.  Quite the chef, Mike McCay fired up the vine driven barrel barbeque and quickly got to work making a feast – perfectly designed to showcase his wines.

 

Mike pulled out all the stops, retrieving some beautiful examples of Lodi’s Rhône style wines from his cellar, plus, by special request Cabernet Franc.  One might not expect either Cab Sav or Cab Franc to be successful in what amounts to a high desert climate, however, with the varied terrain and terroir of the larger Lodi growing region, it did beautifully.IMG_0655

 

 

McCay Cellars specializes in Rhône varietals, and also has a beautiful Cabernet Franc and is working with old vine Zin.  Growing slowly and steadily, Mike has witness major changes in Lodi over the last 20 years.  Industrial grape production has made way for artisan, small lot producers, and the wine tourism business has seen growth in Lodi tourism and the affiliated business.
The careful attention McCay pays to his vineyards and his winemaking are evident in the beautiful wines he produces.  But don’t take my word for it!  Stop by and visit when you’re in town.  McCay Cellars has a tasting room in Lodi, open no weekends (Thursday-Sunday) from 11-5.
The next time you’re in Lodi, be sure to experience the Rhône varetals from McCay Cellars!  If Mike’s int he tasting room, you’re sure to get a history lesson along with your Grenache.

Everything’s Coming up Roses! (Wine & Roses)

After a full day of exploring some of Lodi’s diverse wines and terroir, we settled in at our host hotel, Wine & Roses.  This resort style hotel has a beautifully relaxing interior courtyard, and situated on one side is the hotel’s restaurant, the Towne House.

Chef John Hitchcock, a Lark Creek Group alumnus, masterfully prepared a 7 course menu to go with the intriguing wines that Sue Tipton, owner of Acquiesce Winery & Vineyards had brought to share with us.

I had personally become acquainted with the wines of Acquiesce several years ago, and had always enjoyed the light, elegant style of Rhône style wines that owner and winemaker Sue Tipton produces.  As we were meandering through Lodi exploring “everything but Zin” I was excited to get the opportunity to taste these wines again.

IMG_0612The deck of the restaurant overlooks the interior courtyard of the hotel, and as the sun went down, the temperature had cooled off enough to be comfortable outside in the relaxing environment.  Chef John was about to amaze us with the beautiful pairings, and while I wan’t quite hungry yet due to the amazing and large lunch at Pietro’s earlier, the menu looked amazing.

IMG_0614First up, we kicked things off with these gorgeous Blue Point Oysters, served with Yuzu pearls.  Blue Points are particularly large and meaty oysters, so I wasn’t sure how they would pair with the delicate Picpoul Blanc, but they were perfect.  The salinity and minerality of the shuckers  played delightfully off the wet river rocks, crushed shells, and freshly zested citrus in the wine.  With just a hint of floral notes on the edge of this wine, it was a natural and delicious pairing.  The true test of an oyster pairing to me is if I can actually use the wine as a mignonette – pour a touch of the
wine in to the oyster and slurp it down.  In this case, it was a palate sensation, and just confirmed my earlier delight.

 

 

IMG_0618Next, Pan Seared Foie Gras (thank you California for bringing back the Foie!  Feel free to judge me now) with poached pears, pear geleè, and house made brioche – paired with the 2014 Roussanne.  With juicy pears and apricots, drenched in fresh cream dancing across my tongue, the richness of the Roussanne worked well with the creamy richness of foie.  One of my favorite things about Roussanne in particular is the acidity that sneaks up behind the juicy and rich mouthfeel.  This is no exception, and the Acquiesce was perfect with the classic foie pairing.

 

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The third course was intended to be tuna tartare, but Chef John was able to sub out salmon on the fly due to an allergy.  This was no little ask, as the pairings were tested and created well in advance, but he did a masterful job at thinking of a pairing and creating it on the fly with perfect timing.  Paired with the 2015 Grenache Blanc, and served with avocado, wakame, wasabi vinaigrette, wasabi foam and a lotus chip, one would never know that the brilliant copper of the salmon was not intended for this dish.  The Grenache Blanc is a fresh and playful white wine with bright green apple notes and the minerality of a beach that has been freshly washed with shells and stones.  The coolness of the wine cut through the wasabi and creaminess of the salmon brilliantly.

 

IMG_0622As an intermezzo, Blli Bi, a saffron infused cream soup brimming with muscles was paired with the 2015 Viognier.  While we were starting to get full, we couldn’t pass up on the savory richness of this cream soup that had more mussels than a gym on New Year’s.  The Viognier has a richness of honey soaked apricot, ripe satsumas and summer peaches with classic floral notes that played off of the saffron.

 

 

Finally, as we tried to find even a tiny spare slot IMG_0626in our very full stomachs, grilled quail with King Trumpet risotto, and porcini mushroom broth was paired with Grenache Rosé.  While you would think the richness of the game animal and mushrooms would overpower the rosé, the pairing was elegant and restrained.

All of Sue’s wines are priced at under $25, which makes them even more enjoyable, and affordable.  The next time you are looking for a refreshing white for summer, look over to Lodi’s Rhône renegade!

Thank you to Wine & Roses, Towne Hall and Chef John for creating these wonderful dishes that paired so well with the wines of Acquiesce.  Fresh seafood, fruit, and vegetables are perfect for these light and fresh wines.

 

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Refugio Ranch – a hideway for the stars

Refugio Ranch

After the mayhem of the Wine Bloggers Conference had subsided a bit, the #QBP (and token Joe) decided to stick around a bit longer an enjoy the relative peace of Los Olivos on a Sunday afternoon.

As luck would have it, fearless leader Melanie had arranged for a visit to Refugio Ranch Winery for some tasting and tweeting.  As we gathered in Los Olivos to relax in the Montana style hunting lodge tasting room, I could tell it was going to be a great visit.  But the tasting room was only the beginning…

In 2005, owner Kevin and Niki Gleason found the 415 estate property, which they planted to 26 acres of vines.  Intending to maintain the property, tucked behind the town and well hidden form any view or civilization, the estate ranch is a piece of history that is truly stunning to enjoy.  Our group was whisked away from the tasting room and taken through the winding roads of the Santa Ynez hills, stepping back in time as we drove farther out of time.

Approaching the retreat house, you can see the prime acreage planted to Rhone grapes, and the careful maintenance of the land is evident by the sprawling gardens, oak trees, and agriculture use.  There is no monoculture here.Refugio Ranch

The Grape Whisperer, aka vineyard manager Ruben Solorzano, carefully selected blocks and varieties that he thought would best suit the property.  Winemaker Ryan Deovlet began producing these amazing wines in 2011, and together with the Gleasons, they have created a small slice of heaven.

Tucked away on the ranch, the guest house is a rustic reminder that this is still a weekend retreat for the family.  Sitting on the porch, overlooking the ranch, you might think you were an extra in Little House on the Prairie – except the wine in your hand will make you forget about everything modern, sit back, and relax.  It’s no coincidence that you feel your inner cowgirl / cowboy coming out on this property, much like a back lot at Universal Studios, as Refugio Ranch was an untouched cattle ranch that had been in operation for centuries.  The transition to vineyards was a natural one, but the owners are carefully maintaining the native habitats and ecosystems, while using the best pieces for vineyards – maintaining a clear balance between past, present, nature, and man.

Refugio Ranch

Next time we’ll sit out there!

Refugio Ranch is the only vineyard on this side of the Santa Ynez River, and gently rolls up from teh river to the ridge.  With only 26 acres planted, it’s hard to spot the vines, but easy to taste the terroir that makes this property unique.  The prime area is only 6 miles from the ocean, and is planted in salty, ancient sandy loam – the result of ancient sea beds, and long term drought.  This area of Santa Ynez gets very little fog in the morning, but a lot in the evening, lending a cooling influence perfect for those Rhones.

Keeping in tune with the cowboy theme, with a Spanish influence, the labels are a throwback to the cattle ranch days.  I couldn’t pick a favorite since our host, Director of Sales & Marketing Jeff Butler kept pouring delicious wines, but here are some thoughts for your tasting pleasure:

2012 Viognier – 100% Viognier, fermented partially in stainless, as well as French oak.  Fresh and lively, with stone fruit and lychee, folllowed by fresh wildflower honey.  This was a beautiful example of what viognier should be, with rich fruit but bright, lively personality.

2011 Ineseño – 57% Roussane / 43% Viognier.  Fermented in stainless and concrete eggs, with 29% new oak, and 10% neutral oak, another Rhone style gem.  Brilliant gold peaches, spice box, and fruit compote.  A perfect glass with Thai food, or sitting on your porch enjoying life.

2012 Escondrijo – a rich blend of Syrah, Grenache, and Petite Sirah, this “hideaway” is a winter warmer, with cigar box, rose petals, saddle leather, and tobacco, along with blackberry cobbler and cherry pie.  This is something I wanted more of in my glass, even on a hot day and would be amazing with Pumpkin Pie on your holiday table.

Refugio Ranch

Herb garden & insectary

Refugio Ranch

Refugio Ranch

The view from our tasting porch

All images by Thea Dwelle, all rights reserved.  But if you ask nice, I might share.  The experience was courtesty of the winery, but we all left with several bottles in our hot little hands – which should encourage you to visit.  While the ranch is closed to the public, and we felt like movie stars, the Los Olivos tasting room is open and waiting for you.
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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.

Miraflores

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!

It’s so good – Elyse Vineyards

Elyse Winery Logo

Elyse Winery started in 1987, with a classic California varietal – Zinfandel.  Over the last 25 years, they have grown, but have remained focused on creating vineyard driven wines that pair with food.  While you may think that a Napa winery can’t make quality Rhone varietals, but with the help of some great fruit from the Sierra Foothills, Elyse is making it’s mark with two red blends and a white blend.

The 2009 C’est si Bon is a red blend with 5 Rhone reds and a touch of Viognier.  The powerful Grenache and Mourvedre bases give it a rich and bold foundation, peppered with black pepper, spice, and blue fruit.  I love the addition of the Viognier, since it adds a brightness and aromatic tone that you wouldn’t otherwise get.  Chewy leather and meat combine with cloves, gingerbread and earthy notes with plums, cherries and a bright burst of citrus.  The C’est si Bon is a great example of the power of Chateaunuef de Pape and how it can be transformed in the Sierra Foothills.

On the white side, the 2011 L’Ingeneue – Naggiar Vineyard would have you believe she is an innocent or unsophisticated young woman (the definition of inginue).  However, there is nothing innocent or unsophisticated about this white Rhone blend!  Comprised of 52% Roussanne, 32% Marsanne, 11% Viognier, and 5% Grenache Blanc, this elegant white blend evokes grilled pineapple, ruby red grapefruit, nectarines, and sweet cream.  The dominant Roussanne gives it a bold body and rich creamy each base, with honey suckle, honey, and juicy pear following.  The long, silky finish is a nightclub act in 1932 Paris.

Elyse is a winery to watch!

These wines were provided by the winery for consideration.  All options are my own.

 

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Ranchero Cellars

Ranchero Cellars is a small winery, based in Paso Robles.  When visiting for Hospice du Rhone this year, I made it a point to visit with Amy Butler, owner and winemaker for Ranchero on the recommendation of some local friends.

After graduating from UC Davis in the late 90s, Amy started her career in Napa before moving south to Paso in 2002.  Honing her skills at Edward Sellers Vineyards for several years, and still consulting to several local wineries (including my friends at Alta Colina), she started her personal project Ranchero Cellars to create small batches of unique wines, with natural yeasat and minimal processing.  I like it!

The concept behind Ranchero is to pay homage to the cowboys of the Old West, and the early days of Paso Robles, which was, and still is, a ranching community.  You throw in some fun trivia with Amy’s old Ford Ranchero, and you have a match made in heaven.

With minimal intervention, and unique style, Ranchero’s current Rhone releases offering a refreshing departure from the norm.  I simply loved these wines, and hope you will too.  Amy herself is a funny and charming hostess, and isn’t afraid to tell a story or two.

The 2010 Chrome is a Rhone blend of 23% Viognier and 77% Grenache Blanc.  A personal favorite white varietal of Amy’s, it’s one of mine as well.  To help round out the Grenache Blanc, the Viognier from the same site was blended in to add viscosity and delicious floral notes.  I found pears, stone fruit, and telltale floral notes from the Viognier, as well as bright green apple and Asian pears.  the neutral oak treatment really lets the wine shine through.  Run out and find this wine for your summer parties!

The 2010 Viognier, is made from the same fruit that is blending in to the Chrome.  With 2009 being the first Viognier vintage, Amy experimented with fermentation styles.  For the 2010, this resulted in a third of the fruit being destemmed and fermented on the skins and then fermented in neutral barrels.  Another third  of the whole clusters was pressed in to neutral oak barrels, fermented with native years.  the final third was whole cluster pressed and fermented in a concrete tank.

The finished wine is so much more than the parts, with tons of minerality, brightness and honeysuckle notes.  This is a non-Viognier lovers Viognier!  It’s a gorgeous white wine, and avoids some of the bitterness that can be present in lesser Viogniers.  Imagine ripe nectarines and floral aromatics with a honeyed viscosity without being cloying.

Finally, we moved on to the big red of the show.  The 2009 Carignan had half of the fruit fermented on stems, half destemmed, and fermented equally in old, new, and neutral American oak.   This is a big boy, and has tons of dark blueberry, coffee, and tobacco notes.  Deliciously meaty, it was silky with a rough edge.  It reminds me of a girl in a wedding gown with cowboy boots on underneath.  Sneaky one, that.

We had an amazing day tasting with Amy, and I appreciate her hospitality as well as her attitude towards wine making and style.  The Wine Wonkette and Houston Wino and I all walked out with several bottles!  I recently purchased another three pack, since I knew that i needed more of this delicious nectar.

Happy drinking!