Tastemakers: Italian Focus with a diverse history!

One of my favorite stops the last time I was in El Dorado was Miraflores, a sprawling hilltop winery with a beautiful terrace and expansive views.  On the day we next visited, it was raining, but that wouldn’t deter our delicious tasting of Italian focused winemakers here in El Dorado.  There is a long history of Italian immigrants in the area, largely due to the Gold Rush and enterprising folks who started restaurants, businesses and other ways of striking it rich supporting the miners, and maintaining cultural ties to the homeland.  Today, we tasted through some examples of modern day Italian winemakers:

MirafloresMiraflores is located on the Pleasant Valley Wine Trail, in the heart of El Dorado wine country.  Winemaker Marco Cappelli is both an artist, and a scientist, like any good winemaker, and focuses on creating wines of distinction that reflect the varying terroir of the region.  With 12 years of experience at Miraflores, Marco also has been a winemaker in Italy, France, and Australia – learning about terroir, wine styles, and the uniqueness of each region.

Mirafloras sits at 2700 feet, on granite based, well drained soils.  The 2012 Barbera is clone 4, which is lower in acid than other clones, which creates a richer, more mellow final wine.  Fermented in opt top vats, it aged 22 months in neutral oak to allow the fruit to show through.  Rich, and bold red fruit, with chewy and dense figs, leather and coffee give way to bright Bing cherry and a zippy finish.  A great example of what elevation can do!  $28

C.G. Di Arie VineyardC.G. Di Arie Vineyard and Winery was founded in 2000, when Chaim and Elisheva Gur-Arieh purchased the 209 acre property in the Shenandoah Valley.  With the rolling hills averaging about 1,700 feet, they knew that this area had the potential to create world class wines.  Today, they are able to produce up to 15,000 cases of wine, in the state of the art gravity flow facility that also houses an art gallery.  With 40 acres currently planted, they plan to put 30 more to vine by 2020.  Chaim strives to make wines that have balance and style.

The 2012 Primativo is a lighter style wine, mimicking the Zinfandel that so many immigrants to this region planted.  It’s spicy gingerbread flavors are uniquely different than the classic California Zinfandel from this region.  The bright acidity make this an excellent wine for burgers, BBQ, and general enjoyment.  $25

Nello-Olivo-175Nello Olivo is a character straight out of a Hollywood movie.  Larger than life, and full of verve, this second generation Italian-American has wine in his blood.  Born to a large brood in the Bay Area, Nello started a successful property development business in Los Angeles, where he raised his family before the real estate market crashed in the early 1980s.  Heading north to the Cameron Park area near Sacramento, which was near his beloved Lake Tahoe retirement dream, Nello and his family purchased 21 acres in 2000.  Here, he planted seven varietals, focusing on the historical Italian grapes that he is so connected to.  Initially selling most of his grapes to the newly founded El Dorado wine community, Nello kept a small amount for himself for some home winemaker experiments.  Eventually, he was enticed to begin his own winery, and in 2005, produced his first vintage of commercial wine.

Leaning on the skills of winemaker Marco Cappelli, Nello decided to set his sights on an obscure grape of his ancestral home in Umbria – Sagrantino de Montefalco.  This unique wine is representaitve of the family history, and is a an unusual varitety to be planted in California.  Fortunately, it took, and a successful venture was born.  Sagrantino is native to Umbria, and is only grown in the Monte Falco region.  It is considered the most tannic wine in Italy, and can be sharp and bitter while young, yet ages marvelously.  The 2012 Sagrantino is full of plum, berry, cherry and cloud berry flavors, followed by tangerine and milk chocolate.  While this was a young wine, I can see the aging potential and look forward to trying a glass in 5 years.  $79

Mastroserio WineryRuggero Mastroserio has degrees in engineering, geology and music, and also trained in enology in Italy.  Phew!  After crafting wines in the area for 10 years, Ruggero founded Mastroserio Winery in 2010.  The region of Fair Play is idea for producing varied, nuanced wines, sitting in a granite bowl high atop the El Dorado Hills.

The 2010 Barbera is a bowl of dark chocolate covered cherries, rich and opulent.  With dark berry, fig and plum character, it is soft and plush on the palate, with a touch of acidity at the end, as Barbera should have.  This soft cashmere sweater warms you with dried herbs and crushed black pepper, waking up the palate and piquing your curiosity.  $77

With so many wineries and varieties in El Dorodo, I hope you will take a road trip and discover them for yourselves!  Special thanks to the El Dorado Winery Association and Solterra Strategies for arranging a varied, and complex look at the region.  There are so many wineries to choose from, I look forward to more trips and more posts soon!

 

Tastemakers: El Dorado’s Founding Families

IMG_8625In the late 1970s, a group of upstart winemakers and like minded wine lovers, left the confines of traditional winemaking geography, and headed up to the hills.  While winemaking was just coming in to the golden era in Napa Valley during this time period, a few renegades decided that it was time to head to someplace more wild, more unknown, more…diverse.

With a long history of agriculture, El Dorado wine business started with the Gold Rush, when immigrants sought land to plant thier native grapes.  When Prohibition came, acreage shrank from some 2,300 planted acres in 1900, and vineyards made way for pears and other tree fruit.  When the fruit industry suffered from a pest infestation int he late 1950s, UC Davis moved in and used the area for experimental vineyards.  The commercial wine industry was born out of this, and in the late 1970s, the founding fathers began a tradition that is still strong today.

  • Madroña Vineyards – in 1973, Dick & LEslie Bush fell in love with the beauty and surroundings of Placerville.  Taking a huge leap of faith, as tehre were no other commerical vineyards and wineries to lean on or learn from, the Bush’s planted thier vineyard, which was – at the time – the highest in California.

With the vineyard becoming a family project, the Bush’s involved thier children and their parents, while Dick’s engineering background helped layout the vineyard and build thier future home.  Today, the winery has evolved to include Paul & Maggie Bush, who make the wines and manage the vineyards, as well as Maggie’s role managing the winery operations.  Additionally, David & Sheila Bush purchased some nearby land, the Sumu-Kaw parcel.

At Madrona, wine is the family business.  There is a careful focus on artisianal winemaking, sustainable care of the land, and family.  At the winery in Camino, the elevation is perfect for growing the wide variety of grapes that make the Rhône and Bordeaux focused wines.  At 3,000 feet, there are three vineyards that make up the family business.  Madrona, Enye, and Sumu-Kaw.  Each site is unique and has distinct terroir, and with over 26 varietals planted, what might seems as “anything goes” at first, is actually carefully selected for it’s blending potential and sum of the parts.

Tasting the wines, I was particularly enthralled by the amazing Cabernet Franc. Paul Bush has a particular passion for this grape, and it shines through in the glass.  His particular verve for balance and epxression of terroir is clean in the two different expressions of Cab Franc.  In fact, he made 4 variations of Cab Franc, each one with a specific tweak and unique element.  We were able to taste the very special Grain par Grain (berry by berry) version, and if you are a Cab Franc lover, get yet to Madrona Vineyards!

– 2011 Grain par Grain Cabernet Franc – whole berry maceration for 20 days in new French oak puncheons, hand turned and then punched down twice a day.  Aged for 20 months in 3 year old French oak, with just a hint of Cab Sav (1.4%) .  With only 24 cases made, this is a rare gem indeed.  Full of dark cherry, blackberry, and spiced fig notes.  This is a rich and elegant lady, with a velvet smoking jacket on.  Coffee in one hand, chocolate in the other.  $60

  • Sierra Vista is another one of the long standing wineries here in El Dorado County.  When the McCreadys settled here in 1972, they had an eye on the soil and topography as a perfect place to plant a vineyard.  When the first plantings in 1974, as I experineced on my Pleasant Valley adventures last year, there are some lovely wines, and view, from this property located on Red Rock Ridge at an elevation of half a mile.

Today, the winery farms 28 acres of mountain side vineyards, at 2,800 feet, on varying mountain terrair.  With low yields, and high intensity of flavor, the terroir is perfect for Rhoen varietals.  WIth the first syrah plantings in 1979, John’s eye was always on the Rhone varieties.  Using syrah grapes that are descended from Cote Rotie fruit, John found that El Dorado was very similar in geography adn terrain to many parts of the northern Rhone.   Today, they produce about 5,000 cases, focusing on those rhone varieis.

2013 Fleur de Montagne is a bright and fresh rose, with wild strawberries and watermelon flavors.  The clean finish is great for a picnic or summer lunch on the deck, and the $25 price will make your wallet smile

  • Boeger Winery sits on a site that was a homestead during the gold rush, and the original house, cellar and distillery that were build then, are still in use today.  The winery itself survived Prohibition by producing wine for the local church, but the vine didn’t fare as well.  As vineyards were replanted to fruit trees, the vines didn’t return until after the pear crop failed.  That is when the Boegers purchased the property, and turned it back to vineyards.  While a small amount of vines still remain from the 1800s, most were replanted in 1972 when the Boegers purchased the property.

With 40 acres of vineyards on two sites, the winery also manages and additional 50 acres under contact in El Dorado County.  With the steep, rocky hillsides, over 30 varietals are planted and thriving.

– 2014 Sauvignon Blanc is floral and delicate, with the additional of Semillion, Chardonnay, and Flora (a blend of Gewurztraminer and Semillion) in the blend.  The old vine Savignon Blanc gives a rich mouthfeel, which has a mild acidity and juicy finish.

  • Lava Cap Winery planted thier first vines in 1981, and the winery opened it’s doors in 1986.

Lava Cap Winery The Jones family, a family of geologist, specifical sleected this site for the volcanic soils that were perfect for vineyards.  With the focus on hand crafted wines and sustainable acriculture, Lava Cap has become one of the most well known examples of El Dorado wine today.

  • 2013 Chardonnay – as the largest production in Lava Caps lineup, this unique white wine is made of 4 clones.  With 70% barrel fermentation in French oak, the wine is started with native yeast and finished with an inoculation of commercial yeast.  Bursting with Meyer lemon, this is a nice example of a chardonnay that can be barrel aged but is not overly oaked.  It is refreshing, with a strong mineral finish.

Throughout this visit, we tasted more wines from these producers.  Next up, pairing some delicious wines with the innovative food of The Independant!

 

These are just a few of the wines and wineries visited in my exploration of El Dorado County.  A special thank you to Solterra Strategies and the El Dorado WINery Association for extending their lvoely hospitaltiy and opening doors to these unique wineries!

 

 

Chinon: The Lady of the Lake

Chinon might well be best known for it’s Chateau, and it’s central role in Joan of Arc’s story.  But in this case, Chinon is known for it’s Cabernet Franc, and it’s other wines.

 

Chinon is located in the region of Touraine, which is located in the central Loire Valley, in northwestern France.  Chinon is especially known for it’s Cabernet Franc, although up to 10% of Cabernet Sauvignon can be blended in.  There is also some Chenin Blanc planted in the region.  Cabernet Franc from Chinon is quite varied and can be bold and grippy, or light and minerally, but both aqre quite affordable and great alternatves to some of the more expensvie regions in France.

2012 Domaine de noiré soif de tendresse chinon – $16.00

When I first opened this, it was very dusty, closed and full force potpourri.  But now, after an hour, it’s coming around to lusciousness.  On the nose, violets, rosepetals and grassy notes.  The palate opens up to reveal a medium bodied grippy red with prune, cherry, wild strawberry, coffee, and smoke notes.

 

 

2011 Les pensees de Pallus – $20

Smokey with perfume notes, pencil lead, and bright raspberreis, the peppery notes open up to sour cherry, blackberry, and chewy stewed meat

 

Truchard Vineyards – a step back in time

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When you step out of your car, in the small makeshift parking lot that is really the vineyard, you are immediately transported to a rural setting a scant 10 minutes from downtown Napa.  The iconic redwood barn and farmhouse stand proudly as sirens to Truchard Vineyards, straddling the Carneros region close to San Pablo Bay.

Arriving in California in the late 1960s, Jo Ann and Tony Truchard were Texas transplants that were enchanted by wine country as they went on a road trip exploring their newly adopted state.  Ever the adventurer, Tony thought it would be fun to plant a vineyard in the then relatively unknown Napa Valley, paying homage to his family roots from Lyon, France.  There had always been wine in Tony’s blood, including a pre-Prohibition winery in South Texas.  On one of these meandering road trips through Northern California, the Truchards came across the abandoned orchard in Carneros that would become Truchard Vineyards.

Today, Truchard is known for it’s pioneering creativity, fighting back the brackish waters in Carneros to produce some delicious wines, but it started out as a labor of love.  Serving as a doctor in the army, Tony soon started practicing in nearby Reno.  But every weekend, they would drive down to Carneros to work the vineyard and camp out in the orchards.  Slowly, the estate was expanded to include 400 adjacent acres, with plenty of open space and unplanted hillsides to maintain the bucolic feel of southern Napa.  The estate also prides itself on being environmentally responsible, with approximately 80% sustainably grown and  20% organically grown grapes.

While we were there, the memory of the Napa earthquake of 2014 was still fresh.  With the epicenter being less than 5 miles away, one might expect cracks in the caves, broken bottles, and ore of a mess.  But aside from some cracks in the dried earth of the vineyards on top of the cave, and a few cracks that were structurally insignificant, Truchard was amazingly lucky; the farmhouse where the Truchards live was not as lucky as most of the contents were smashed, but the house itself?  Looks like a Queen sitting in state.  Nature really is amazing.

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Well known for Pinot Noir, given the ideal grown area in Carneros, Truchard also produces some lovely Chardonnay, but my personal favorite is the Syrah.  The smokey funk on the end of this medium bodied Syrah, made as an homage to Cote Rotie and the Truchard family legacy, compliments the dark blackberry and plum notes perfectly.  The finish of cracked pepper and spices leaves you wanting another sip, and while funky, it’s funk in the best possible way.

Truchard is open by appointment only, and a visit includes a tour as well as a tasting.  This is a must do for any visit to Napa Valley!  For another take on Truchard, please visit my blogging buddy Tom Riley’s post on American Winery Guide.

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A special thank you to Toby at Fineman PR for arranging this visit, and to Anthony Truchard, II for leading us on the tour & tasting.  We were lucky enough to have Jo Ann visit with us after the tour, and if you want a day full of stories, see if she’s around! 

Holman Ranch: A step back in time

     

Holman RanchHolman Ranch was established in 1928, well before the rush of wineries started to populate the rural and bucolic Carmel Valley.  When one thinks of Carmel Valley, you might well think Carmel (by-the-Sea), but in teh short 10 miles up the narrow valley, Carmel by the Sea dissolves away in to Carmel Valley, where horse ranches and vineyards dot the rugged hillsides that once housed cattle and horse ranches.

The family owned Holman Ranch is at the northeastern end of the valley, and while only a few miles from the ocean, is a world – and a century away.  The Ranch itself sits above a small subdivision on a hillside in Carmel Valley Village, but once you enter the gates – you are transported a world away.

IMG_8404Of the original 6500 acre Spanish Land Grant, the 600 acre property that would eventually become Holman Ranch was purchased by a wealth businessman from San Francisco for use as a “gentleman’s retreat”.  With an historic Spanish Hacienda style main house built from local stone, the guest rooms were added later when the property changed hands in the mid 1940s.  The addition of the guest quarters made it an ideal retreat for Hollywood luminaries, and it quickly became the hot spot for stars from Joan Crawford to Charlie Chaplin to escape to.

Fast forward to the late 1980s, and the property was converted back to a private estate to preserve the history and tranquility. This is when the original vineyards were planted, and the stables were added.  In 2006, the Lowder family purchased the Ranch and began a restoration project that included adding 17 acres of vineyards as well as wine IMG_8412caves and event spaces.

Waking up in the peaceful mountains above the valley, it’s easy to see why the stars would want to retreat here.  The early morning hours are silent and golden, and a walk through the property reveals the rugged hillsides and steep slops of vineyard that undulate down the hillsides.  You can certainly see why the Hollywood elite escaped here.

Even though Carmel Valley is only 12 miles from the Paciifc Ocean, the temperature is much warmer; the early morning fog cools down the vineyards, and for this reason, is ideal for Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Chardonay.  Holman Ranch specializes in Estate Pinot Noir, and offers four versions, plus 2 Pinot Gris and Chardonnay.  I loved the Pinot Gris, and the Hunter’s Hill Pinot Noir really hit the spot while admiring the rustic cowboy theme in the tasting room.

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While the Ranch itslef isn’t open to the public, it does host special events for the wine club as well as weddings, meetings and corporate retreats.  I think I might start planning my 25th birthday party!  Ok well maybe 40th.  (shush you.).

If you find yourself in the Monterey Bay region, be sure to take the detour to the narrow little valley that time forgot.  Knowing that Clint Eastwood was the mayor of Carmel by the Sea, I would expect to see him riding the range above Holman Ranch from time to time.  Stop your horse at the hitching post outside the tasting room, pull up a cowhide and sip a while.  Or have dinnner at the newly acquired historical diner Will Fargo across the street.  You won’t be sorry!

A special thanks to Holman Ranch for hosting us at the Ranch and allowing me to go back to summer camp for one night!  I’ll be back…

Celebrate with Franciacorta!

During the holidays, more often than not, we celebrate with something sparkling.  For some it might be the old classic Champagne; others, California Sparkling.  But have you tried Franciacorta?

Franciacorta, the DOCG region in Lombardy, Italy, is known for it’s excellent sparkling wines made in the traditionally method – meaning, the secondary fermentation occurs int bottle and not by, shall we say, the soda stream for wine or a bulk method.  Lombardy is perfect for sparkling wine, where the Alps meet the Lago d’Iseo, moderating temperatures and making the traditional grapes for sparkling wines grow so well.  Since Franciacorta was the first Italian sparkling wine to have the secondary fermentation int he bottle, and since the producing region is the first traditional method sparkling wine in Italy to reach DOCG status, they really are a treat.

Since becoming a DOCG (the highest level of regional wine designations in Italy) in 1995, Franciacorta has set strict rules governing the production of it’s sparkling wines.  Using the same Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc (Bianco) and Pinot Noir grapes that are traditionally used in France, Franciacorta requires lengthy aging and hand harvesting, to maintain in increase quality.

With five distinct styles, there is something for everyone!

Some of my favorite products that I have been enjoing this season are reviewed below.  So this holiday, go out and say Cin Cin to Franciacorta!

Berlucchi Franciacorta Brut – 90% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot Nero (Noir).  Yeasty, buttered toast, crisp lemon curd.  Beautiful bright acidity with the richness of cream and ripe pears.  This would be fantastic with oysters or brunch, and at $30, an affortable alternative to Champagne.  With only 12.9% ABV, this is a sipper you can enjoy all day!

Contadi Castaldi Franciacorta Brut – 80% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot Nero (Noir), 10% Pinot Bianco (Blanc) –  a field of flowers, with rich  yellow and green hues, Tuscan melon and lime jump out of the glass along with stone fruit and a slight green herbal note.  $23 for this beauty rivals some of the better Proseccos and would be lovely in a Spritz or other cocktail.

If you would like to check out some of the other styles of Franciacorta, they range from dry to sweet, and have a host of other style elements such as the typically 100% Chardonnay Saten.  A Millesimato is vintage sparkler that is aged at least 30 months.

So, the next time you are having a party, consider stocking up on some Franciacorta, and wow your party guests with Italy’s fastest growing sparkling wine category!

 

These bottles of deliciousness were provided as PR samples, but all sips and tips are mine!

 

 

 

 

Quinticentually Quintessa

_MG_0049Earlier this year, before I embarked on a somewhat fool-hearty mission of getting my CSW credential, I visited the Napa Valley estate of Quintessa.  Tucked away, hidden from the Silverado Trail in Rutherford, the unique gravity flow moistly underground winery pokes out from the hillside.  When the Huneeus family took ownership of the land in 1990, the land was wild and pristine – and had never been used, or abused by other vines or crops.  Having never been planted to vine, the land had none of the after effects of the post-phylloxera recovery efforts, and mandatory replanting that some older, established Napa vineyards did.  It was virgin territory, and this prime real estate was ready to plant some amazing Bordeaux varietals.  With further research done on what naturally defended against the root louse that destroyed the industry in the past, new rootstock and innovative techniques were put in to place to create an amazing site.

In 2002, the estate winery opened, it was built with a vision of a building that blended in to the natural elements.  In addition to the aesthetic beauty, careful consideration was given to the environmental impact as well as functional design for a working winery.  The result is a stunning gravity-flow winery that beginnings on the top of the hill where the crushpad is located, and continues through chutes in the floor of the crushpad that transport the juice directly to the fermentation tanks with a minimal of intervention.  With all the modern, yet mostly non-intervention techniques, you can bet there will be some great juice coming out of there!

When you visit Quintessa, you have a wealth of tasting experiences to choose from.  The Estate Tasting Experience gives guests a comprehensive visit to the facility as well as the vineyard, and a seated tasting paired with local artisan products.  But the penultimate experience is what we enjoyed, the Quintessential Quintessa.  Here, you start at the winery where you see the operation, and then take a meandering walk up the hill to the ridge where tasting pavillions have been built.  These glass gazebos offer the ability to have a fully indoor / outdoor experience, while overlooking the vineyard property below.

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Up on the ridgeline, you leave the winery and the hustle bustle of the busy Napa Valley behind.  You are truly alone, and have the time to relax, and enjoy the details of the geology of the soils, a full tasting, and a great conversation about what makes teh property so special.  And oh, the cheese!  The cheese…

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With a tasting comparison of the current releases as well as library wine, this experience is a rare and special treat in the valley.  Trying to impress out of town guests?  This is the way to do it.  I especially enjoyed comparing the fresh, young current release, with the vibrancy and fruit forward notes of blackberry and earth, as compared to the library wine, showing dense and chewy notes of tobacco, baking spice and black pepper.  Having the luxury to taste the different blends and different vintages really shows a wine lover how wines can develop over time, but also how particular vineyard sites, soil, and blending decisions impact the final result — which make no mistake — was yummy.

The Quintessential Quintessa is $125 per person, and advanced reservations are required.  I promise, it’s worth every penny!  I look forward to going back and experiencing it again soon!  Alternately, you can book an Estate Tasting, which will also be delicious and informative.

**There are no tasting notes on this post on purpose, because I encourage you to form your own opinions about the wine.  However, if I was forced to choose, I’d highly recommend the unctuous and delicious Cabernet based blends, particularly the 2010 and the older vintages that have surpassed their awkward teenage years.  The discussion of the different vineyard blocks and types of soil ties directly in to each vintage, blending decisions and final results, which is part of the fascinating study of wine.  Go forth and taste them for yourself!**

Special thanks to Fineman PR for arranging this visit.

 

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.

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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.

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Herb garden & insectary

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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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Ballard Canyon – Syrah Incubator

Wrapping up my week in Buellton at the Wine Bloggers Conference, the focal tasting seminar on Ballard Canyon and its Syrah was the highlight of the conference for me.  One of the newest AVAs, Ballard Canyon was established within the Santa Ynez Valley in 2013.  Long known as an excellent source for Grenache and Syrah, the area is a long, thin canyon running north to south in a curving line.  This orientation shelters it from much of the wind and cooling breezes that the rest of Santa Ynez experiences making it an excellent location for the richer, bolder Rhone red grapes.

Ballard Canyon has come in to it’s own, now with a brand identity as “The Syrah AVA”.  The panel discussion that we attended at WBC included a tasting of 6 Syrahs from the area, as well as an in depth look at the AVA and those wines.  We were able to taste along with some rock star winemakers and growers from Beckmen, Harrison-Clarke, Jonata, Kimsey, Larner, Rusack, Saarloos & Sons, and Stolpman.

Syrah is coming of age today, and has been called one of the most electrifying wines in the US.  With an AVA that hsa ideal conditions to grow it, Ballard Canyon has become the Syrah AVA.   Syrah can be vastly different depending on cool vs warmer climate growing regions, and Ballard Canyon creates some of the best cool climate Syrah in California.  With approximately half of the AVAs vines planted to Syrah, vintners are able to focus of the microclimates within the canyon, and create excellence in style.

The wines coming out of this region are cool climate wines, which are moderated by the warmer climates surrounding it;  with the wind, weather, and sandy soils dominating Ballard Canyon, Syrahs from this area are broad and distinctive, with a mix of characteristics that you can only find here.

Some quick notes of the wines we tasted:

Rusack Wines – Lighter and fresh, with wonderful acid and deep red and blue fruit.

Kimsey – Rocking in the glass with chocolate dried fig, and espresso

Harrison-Clarke Wine  – Bursting with ripe bosenberry, blueberry and espresso notes, followed by a black raspberry finish 

Jonata – co-fermented with 5% of Viognier, blackberry, dark chewy beef jerky, tobacco lead, aromatic and dense.

 

The over whelming these of these wines are that you have deep complexity, richness, as well as acid which balances the wine.  The large diurnal shift in temperatures allows for both ripe bold flavors, as well as maintaining the acidity levels, which produces wines with more structure and interest than a warmer climate Syrah.

Ballard Canyon is the place to be, and I can’t wait to taste more wines from this region!

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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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Things are a little yeasty in there

After meandering over to Alta Maria, it was finally time to meet my #QBP – Queen Bitches Posse  over at Tercero Wines, around the corner in Los Olivos.  As I had somewhat secretly clandestinely arranged this day of pre-WBC shenanigans, I was looking forward to being able to relax and enjoy my free day before the conference officially got under way.

Meeting me at the Tercero Wines tasting room were BrixChick Liza, Marcy Gordon who always Comes for the Wine, and Melanie, the Dallas Wine Chick.  Although I wasn’t able to caravan down from the Bay Area with them, once they walked in to the tasting room it was all downhill fun and games from there, with my #QBP sisters.

Tercero Wines specializes in artistic, small production Rhone style red & white wines.  Mastermind Mad Scientist Larry Schaffer creates unique, small lot wines from Viognier to Grenache, and everything in between.  Larry has also been mastering his breadmaking skills, and on this visit we were treated to all things yeast – one of his passions, and three kinds of bread to boot!

While I am a fan of pretty much all of Tercero Wines offerings, this visit my favorites were:

2013 Mourvedre Rose – From a small parcel in the Happy Canyon AVA of Santa Barbara County, they only touched the skins for about an hour, giving it a bright but light and fresh pink color.  Fermented in 100% stainless steel tanks, it slept in neutral oak for 5 months before finally being released.  The bright pop of red berry is followed by blood orange and aromatic stone fruit, luscious watermelon and hard spices.  At only $20 this is a great summer sipper.

2012 Grenache Blanc – it’s no secret that this might be my all time favorite white grape.  Spiked lemonade over river rocks, this beautiful bright and fresh wine is the perfect summer palate cleanser.

2010 Verbiage – a class GSM blend, this black beauty is made up of 62.5% Grenache from two vineyards, 25% Syrah from two vineyards, and 212.5% Mourvedre.  Named Verbiage, like Larry’s person wine blog, because he likes to tell stories, banter, and talk, this wine is a conversation in a bottle.  Dark purple and inky black in color, this wine is full of lavender, lilac, chewy blackberry and beef jerky.  Finished with a dusting of white pepper and gingerbread spice, it’s a great bottle for a foggy summer night, or in front of the fire at the holidays.

Tercero Wines is located in Los Olivos, CA in the heart of the Santa Ynez wine region.

Much wine was purchased by the #QBP on this day, but the tasting was provided free of charge!  Unless you count us listening to the HMFIC payment enough…

 

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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Rosés of Summer – Tribute to Grace Grenache Rosé

Angela Osbourne is a special woman, with a long history obsession with Grenache.  A native of New Zealand, she now makes her home in the Santa Barbara Wine Country, where she sources unique vineyards for her variations on the beauty that is, Grenache.

You can read more about her story here, and I highly recommend that you get on the mailing list; now!  no, not tomorrow, not later, NOW.  Having known the winemaker for several years, I am consistently entranced by her wines, and have not had one I didn’t fall instantly in love with.

As I was hopping on a random bus for the Friday evening excursions at the Wine Bloggers Conference recently, I was delighted to learn it was the Renegade Rhone bus, and at the second stop, I walked in to Andrew Murray Winery and there was Angela, an A Tribute To Grace.  After holding my summer allocation of Grenache and Rose for several months in order to preserve the precious few bottles I own, I, at first, thought I must be having a Rhône hallucination.  But as luck would have it, Angela was there – live and in person – amongst some of my favorite Rhône varietal producers.

So this week, it is only fitting that I bring you my Rosés of Summer:  A Tribute to Grace 2013 Rose of Grenache.  Make with 100% Grenache, this wine reminds me of a summer’s day in Provence, where the light, pale pinks dominate the landscape.  The Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard, which is also where Angela sources some Grenache for red wine, is in the middle of the Sierra Madre Mountains, at 3200′ elevation.

The vineyard is sustainable managed, and while there are 12 varietals planted here, Grenache is only 4% of the total yield; this is somehow unsurprising given that there are less than 10,000 acres of the fruit in California, compared to over 98,000 of Cabernet Sauvignon.  Here, at Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard, they take Grenache seriously:  4 distinct clones are planted, and only give winemakers have access to fruit from the block this wine is made from.

The whole clusters rested for 24 hours in their skins, given it a just kissed baby’s cheek color; Clone 2 also contributes to the pale rose gold tone, and picking early in the seasons gives this wine an intensity of acid and spice that is perfect ot me.  With watermelon, blood orange, Tuscan melon and raspberry notes, with underlying rosehips and hibiscus.  This wine represents everything I look for in a rose, and makes my little heart go pitter patter.  At $23, get some before it’s going-going-gone!

I purchased this wine myself, although any sips I may have taken in Los Olivos at WBC were entirely provided by the wineries pouring.

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