Exploring the wines of Santa Barbara County

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After our #QPB left Los Olivos and settled back in to WBC mode, we had one more adventure to see too before the official conference began.  Earlier this year, I was thrilled to be a guest of the San Francisco Wine School’s inaugural 3-day intensive California Wine Appellation Specialist (CWAS) program, for which I know hold the credential (97 baby!). With the NorCal Wine luminary Fred Swan leading the way, SF Wine School and several illustrious Santa Barbara County wineries converged on Dierberg Star Lane Vineyard in Happy Canyon to present a special deep dive class in to the terroir, viticulture, and wines of Santa Barbara County.  This was an amazing way to kick off the weekend in Buellton, and firmly planted Santa Barbara’s diverse growing regions as one of my favorite California wine regions in my personal wine bible. In the county, there are many well known areas – Sideways made Los Olivos, Buellton, and Solvang famous, along with Santa Ynez.  But there are also many lesser known areas, such as the tiny Happy Canyon or newly AVA’d Ballard Canyon, that produce amazing wines as well. As with many areas that are now firmly rooted in wine culture, Santa Barbara’s first plantings were by the missionaries; in this case Junipero Serra arrived in 1782, prior to establishing the mission in 1786.  Santa Barbara became the center of the mission winemaking culture, with 45 vineyards, 260 acres and 17 winemakers, but of cousre all of that died when Prohibition came in to place.  Wine stayed dead in Santa Barbara until well in to the 1960s, when the Amerine Winkler Scale identified the region as perfect for viticulture.  Growing slowly but steadily, by the 1980s, there were 13 wineries, and by the 1990s, that number tripled.  Today, there are over 100 wineries, 21,000 planted acres, and 5 AVAs (with more pending).  Today, with so many microclimates, there are diverse varieties, styles, adn philosphies in the region.  There is so much more here than just Pinot Noir Miles! With it’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean, Santa Barbara County has a unique terroir, in part due to the transverse range that suddenly hangs a left at Albequerque and heads east, away from the ocean.  With foggy, cool breezes, and coastal influences, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay thrives on the west end, while Rhone varieties and Cabernet Sauvignon seek sun and warmth on the east end, away from the coastal influence. While there are too many AVAs within the county to talk about in detail in this post, I will give you more detail on a few.  First, Pinot Powerhouses Santa Maria and Sta. Rita Hills.  Santa Maria Valley is one of the few AVAs that straddles counties.  With it’s cooling breezes and foggy days, Santa Maria is one of the rare AVAs that has dry farmed vineyards, thanks to 14 inches of rain a year (ok not this year but…).    I love the Pinot Noirs from this area because of the high acidity, bright red […]

Kaena & Beckmen: One winemaker, two stories

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 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. 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 […]

Things are a little yeasty in there

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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

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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 […]

Roaming the El Dorado Foothills: Pleasant Valley Wine Trail

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It 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. 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. 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. At 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 […]

Rosés of Summer – Tribute to Grace Grenache Rosé

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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.

Rosés of Summer: Casey Flat Ranch, past and present

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In land far away, on a hill steeply above the valley, lies a secret place in Capay Valley called  Casey Flat Ranch.  Located at 2000 feet above sea level in the Vaca Mountains, between Napa Valley and the Central Valley, the area was originally settled in the late 1850s during the Gold Rush.  Now, a new rush is on – both for sustainable organic produce, and wine. The Capay Valley AVA was established in 2002, which is somewhat surprising with only two vineyards:  Casey Flat Ranch and Capay Vineyards.  The 150 square miles of Capay Valley has only 100 acres under vine, with it’s primary resource being agriculture.  The produce from Capay is legendary, and many an urban CSA gets it’s offerings from this area.  While Capay Valley has had wineries since the Gold Rush, the pressure from neighboring Napa all but killed the wine industry out until recently. With Casey Flat Ranch being established in 1987 as a Texas Longhorn cattle ranch, vineyards were only added in 2004, initially as an experiment.  Why not?  If Napa could have all that success a mere 22 miles away, why not here?  Lucky for us, this experiment yielded beautiful results! Focusing on Bordeaux and Rhone varietals, Casey Flat Ranch produces Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah Rose, Viognier, and an Estate Red blend.  It’s sister label, Open Range, produces Sav Blanc and a red blend as well.  Winemaker Laura Barrett is an exciting, young women winemaker, who started her career in New Zealand.  Receiving her Masters in Enology from neaby UC Davis, Laura joined Casey Flat Ranch in 2008.   When you arrive at the base of the mountain, it is clear that you are not in traditional wine country any more.  This is cattle country!  Expecting cowboys to come meandering down the hillside, we were greeted by the 2013 Estate Syrah Rosé instead.  This bright and fresh rosé  is a lovely alternative to pinot noir rose, and is bursting with blood orange, red berry, and fresh, juicy peaches.  It’s got a lushness and fullness of body that just makes my heart go pitter patter!  I love a Syrah rose, and this was no exception.  At $18, it’s a great front porch sipper, and perfect for barbeques. Once at the top of the mountain, at the luxe ranch house, we were eagerly waiting for our lunch, prepared specifically to pair with the wines by Thomas McNaughton, executive chef of SF cult hotspots flour + water, Central Kitchen, and Salumeria.  Swoon! Our first course of a Spring Vegetable Salad was perfectly paired with the 2013 Sav Blanc.  The crisp, tropical refresher with strong floral and herbal notes.  Fermentation is started in tanks, and neutral barrels and stainless steel barrels age the wine sur lie. Next up, King Salmon with the 2013 Viognier.  On a warm day, the light and refreshing Viognier has stone fruit up front, Golden Delicious apples, and beautiful minerality under the fruit.  This was Casey Flat Ranch’s second single varietal bottling, and I think they did a wonderful job with the 50% neutral […]

HALL Wines: An Art Treasure steeped in Cabernet

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It was a bright and warm late spring day when I ventured up to St. Helena to see the new Hall Wines facility and tasting room.  While I had visited before, in 2009, it was shortly after the LEED Certified production facility had opened, and what a difference 4 years can make! With a focus on sustainability and responsibility, along with diverse culture, Hall has gone to new heights with the new Wine and Art Exploration tasting & tour which gives visitors to the winery a peek in to the passion for art & design that Former Ambassador Kathryn Hall has always expressed. Arriving at the St. Helena property, the first thing you see is “Little Bunny Foo Foo” – a large metal sculpture in the circular drive.  This imposing and  imipressive piece welcomes you in to the parking lot and sets the tone for the day to come.  This is just one of the many stunning pieces of visual art that are on permanent display at Hall. As we we were welcomed in to the visitors center by a cold glass of Sauvignon Blanc, we were surrounded by the textural art in the tasting room that screams reach out and touch me.  Alas, we were not allowed to do so, but that type of art work that intrigues and inspires imagination is what draws you in and leaves you wanting more. Wandering around the property, you will see several examples of these large pieces of art work that you can spend your time gazing at and just relaxing. Completing your tour in the tasting room, your palate is delighted by the focus on Cabernet Sauvignon, which is what Hall focuses on, as well as the WALT Pinot Noirs.  A visit to HALL is a must on any stop in Napa, and you may never want to leave! The winery also has special programs throughout the year, including the Friday Sunset Cruise – where guests can linger outside after hours, and taste through the wines open from the day, while sitting in the Adirondack chairs by the reflecting pool, eating some delicious appetizers. Another program is Demystifying Wine & Food, where guests can expand their tasting experience with a guided food and wine experience. There are many more experiences to choose from, so you should check them all out here. I can’t possibly pick my favorite wine, since all of the Cabernets are silky, beautiful and luscious, but if you are a Cabernet Lover, you could opt for the  Ultimate Cabernet Collector experience, where guests can enjoy history in a glass, one Cab at a time. These experiences range from $30 to $100 and reservations are required. If you are a wine lover, an art lover, and a Cabernet Sauvignon lover, take some time out of your day to stop and relax at HALL WInes in St. Helena. Google  

Advice from a Veteran Blogger: WBC do’s and don’t

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It’s hard to believe that in 35 days, the 8th Annual Wine Bloggers Conference will be here.  Eight years?  Eight locations?  Eight conferences?  Almost eight years of blogging?  It’s pretty amazing when you think about it.  My blog, much like life in general, has gone through many changes in those 8 years, and so has the WBC.  As one of a very small handful of bloggers that have been in attendance at every conference since 2008, I’ve learned a lot, been a speaker, and helped to influence the shape and content of the conference as an advisory board member. What does this mean to you?  As newbies and experienced conference attenders alike, there are always some rules of engagement that you should remember, and some advice that us veterans have learned about how to approach the conference. Some of my key observations and advice on how to best enjoy the conference are outlined below.  Obviously, to each their own but if you want to earn the respect of your fellow bloggers and industry attendees, these tips are essential – and common sense. Wear comfortable shoes.  you never know when we’ll be hiking up a hill in a vineyard Wear comfortable business casual / wine country casual clothes with layers.  This is not a lawyers convention!  It can get chilly at night with fog coming in, so bring a sweater.  Wear layers. Be professional.  While we’re there to have fun and learn, no one likes a party animal that gives bloggers a bad name.  We all remember some years where people were not responsible and made the local community dislike bloggers in general.  Please don’t’ be that person. Get to know your sponsors.  We have a few hours on Thursday at the Registration, Expo, Gift Suite, and Opening Wine Reception to to say hi and learn who made this conference possible. Mix and mingle – the first mingling event is the after hours tasting sponsored by the Santa Ynez Winery Association, right after the Expo hours.  This is your chance to walk up and say hi to someone you don’t know, meet new wineries, and meet other attendees. Don’t be shy – reach out and touch someone.  Ok maybe not literally, but turn to the person sitting next to yourself and introduce yourself.  We don’t bite and we want to get to know you! Attend the keynotes.  These sessions are great kick starters and will get you in to the groove. Go with the flow, don’t get overwhelmed.  While content is king, if there is a session that isn’t’ interesting to you, use the time to blog, hang out with your fellow attendees, or just chill. Be prepared to want to do more than one thing at once – at the same time, there are often two sessions running at the same time that you might want to go to.  There is no wrong choice, and you can’t do it all so don’t try to. Spit spit spit.  I can’t emphasize this enough.  Yes, there are moments (dinner, after hours parties) where I don’t spit and enjoy myself, but […]

Rhône Road Trip

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Ahhh only 2 short weeks to the fabulous long weekend that is the gateway to summer:  We call it, Memorial Day.  It’s been a long stretch since President’s Day, and I think most of us could use an extra day off. I am looking forward to a short road trip, exploring some of the Sierra Foothills wine country.  Specifially, I will be travelling to El Dorado County, where there are several AVAs that are perfect for the delicious Rhone style wines of Grenache, Syrah, Viognier and more. On May 24h & 25th, the Pleasant Valley Wine Trail is hosting the Rocks and Rhône festival and 5 area wineries.  Each of these wineries is known for their Rhône sytle wines, and will rolling out the stops with food pairings, music, and fun along the trail. Here are some more tid bits to whet your appetite!  For $40 at the door (each day) you are sure to have a rocking good time.  I’m going to hang out in Placerville, and check out the history, and learn more about El Dorado wines.  Additionally, I plan to check out nearby Fair Play which also boasts some great wineries. In historic Placerville, you can meander haunted hotels, check out old mining sites, and just wader down main street.  I’ll be touring the old town with Gold Rush Tales & Ghost Tours of Placerville, who was recently featured in AAA’s VIA Magazine! There is plenty to do for a long weekend, and I can’t wait to explore nature, wines, history, and some old…very old…residents! Event tickets for Rocks and Rhônes were provided by Pleasant Valley Wineries (not the one in NY either!) .   Thanks for keeping me from being thirsty! Sleeping quarters provided by El Dorado Tourism, somewhere with ghosts I hope!   Super cool ghost touring sponsored by Gold Rush Tales & Ghost Tours.  With any luck, I’ll meet a nice Miner Forty-Niner.  Wonder if he’s single? Google

Eguren Ugarte – getting lost in history

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Before we finish my tour of Rioja with the ultimate wine experience in Haro, I have one last (and favorite) stops was Bodegas Eguren Ugarte, in the Paganos area.  Situated high in the hills, with the mountains looming behind it and the stunning expanse of Rioja below, the Ugarte property combines old world charm and new world hospitality with a luxury hotel, winery, and restaurants. Three generations of the family have made wine here since 1870, in the Basque countryside or northern Spain.  With over 120,000 hectares of grapes, it’s easy to see the influence that they have had in the region. Eguren Ugarte is known for it’s 2 kilometers of underground caves, hand dug and sloping downwards farther in to the stone hillside.  Each side tunnel has private cages that can be purchased by wine lovers, and walking through the tunnels is walking back in time.  While my pictures didn’t come out, there nooks and crannies with private dining areas are a particularly unique experience that must be enjoyed on any visit to Rioja. After a tour of the caves and the hotel, we tasted through the wines before enjoying a traditional lunch in their cozy restaurant. 2010 Crianza  – a young, fresh and lively blend of 92% tempranillo and 8% garnacha.  The goal was to create a fresh experience without as much oak influence, and the big, dark red fruit comes through with a touch of coffee.  A crowd pleasing friendly wine with a touch of anise and oak influence. 2008 Reserva – classic style, 90% tempranillo and 10 graciano, with bright acidity and firm tannins.  With 14 months in new oak, and another 2 years of bottle aging ,this is Rioja at it’s best, full of smok and lavendear notes. 2004 Grand Reserva – the Queen of the dance, with 90% tempranillo and 10% mazuelo (carignane).  I love the bright red fruit, currant, raspberry and tomato notes.  The darker black fruit and firm tannins will age for years, and are especially tasty with grilled meats and cheese. Eguren Ugarte is full of character and is as diverse in it’s wine as it is in it’s offerings.  Step back in time in the caves; enjoy a luxurious getaway at the hotel and it’s spa; dine in one of the two restaurants.  This is a must stop in the mountains of Basque Spain, even on the shortest of trips. Google

Bodegas Bilbainas – Classic Rioja

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Meandering through the country side of Rioja, Bodegas (wine cellars) are dotted along the back roads like farmhouses in Iowa.  Bodegas Bilbaninas is in the heart of Rioja, in the Haro district of Rioja Alta. With 250 hectares (615 acres more or less ) of vineyards, they have been known for excellent wines since 1859.   Never content to sit back and let change pass them by, Bilbanianas recently added the modern and upstart Vina Zaco to it’s line up.   Currently owned by a French company, the family of brands also produces cognac and champagne.Bodegas Bilbainas has the oldest bottling registration in Rioja, which is unique among such an old wine tradition.   As we toured the winery, we were greeted by a visual history of the bodega, which is a living piece of history.  When wine first became the economic center of the region, as today, there were many attempts to counterfeit true Rioja.  To combat this, Bodegas Bilbaninas and others, began the process of adding the net over the bottle that we can still see today (though now it’s decorative in nature).  Why you might ask?  As our host explained to us, if you put a net over the bottle after the label is affixed, you can’t slap another label on top.  Genius I say! As the largest vineyard owner in the Haro area, Bodegas Bilbaninas believes in the importance of the estate vineyard.  With 250 hectares of contiguous land, this is unusual and unique in Rioja and sets them apart from the competition. Having experienced the smaller bodegas and the larger bodegas, Bodegas Bilbaninas runs regular tours and tastings to educate the enotourist on the special aspects of Rioja Alta. Make sure you taste the young, fresh and fun Vina Zaco.  Make of 100% Tempranillo, the Vina Zaco is a fruitier expression of Rioja that is indicative of the newer wine movement in the region. For a more traditional approach to winemaking, Bodegas Bilbaninas also produces Vina Pomal, and La Vicalanda wines. Be sure to include Bodegas Bilbaninas on your trip through the region!  You won’t be sorry. Google

Risky business at the Marques de Riscal hotel

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       After spending a leisurely morning horseback riding in the high tableau above La Rioja and her vineyards, the intrepid travelers were treated to a luxurious after noon at the Marques de Rical Spa. Opened in 2006, this stunning art piece stands high on a hill, well hidden from the prying eyes of road warriors, in the town of Elciego, Spain.  Master architect Frank Gehry, who is well known for his work on the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, designed the building in a similar style – with a waving metallic roofline, and soft, unctuous features. Since the opening, the Marques de Riscal has become a famous retreat for the elite, as well as the masses, with a focus on design, art, gastronomy and of course – wine.  For our group, we spent the afternoon relaxing in the spa, massaging away the horseback – behind, travelers aches, and other stresses.  The Spa Vinothérapie Caudalie Marqués de Riscal is tucked away in the lower levels of the hotel, with a peaceful outdoor sitting area overlooking vineyards and the hillside.  With an indoor pool and hottub, as well as a variety of luxury treatments, I could have stayed with my book all afternoon. Special treatments at the spa were designed to highlight the benefits of essence of the grapes, from the surrounding wine culture, to sooth and invigorate the skin.  I had a massage with grape oil, and there is an option for a barrel bath, soaking in the grape pomace.  Ahhhh! After our spa treatments, and exploring the hotel grounds, we headed to the restaurant for an epic feast.  Awarded with a Michelin Star in 2012, the traditional Spainsih fare is turned on it’s head with a modern twist. From wine “caviar” to beer “soup”, our evening progressed in to a classic, and long, Spanish dinner, full of wine and laughter.  The dishes were magical a retelling of simple and classic traditional Spanish items, and we enjoyed them to the very last crumb of dessert. Spa treatments start at 60 Euro for a 20 minute massage, with a Barrel Bath treatment at 110 Euro.  The pool area is open to hotel and spa guests, and is a fantastic way to relax on your trip to Rioja.  A full day of touring in the region and and access to the spa is a very affordable 80 Euro for you day trippers out there! For those who are points collectors, the Marques de Riscal is a Starwood Preferred Guest program property, and I can envision myself saving up some points to stay here!  I highly recommend a visit to the Hotel Marques de Riscal, in the “City of Wine”, in the heart of Rioja.  You won’t be sorry! This visit was provided by the good folks at: Google

Naramata Bench adventures

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 On the first full day of the 2013 Wine Bloggers’ Conference, while I was doing some last minute rehearsal and logistical planning for my discussion on Saturday about positioning your blog(more on that later however), the rest of the attendees were enjoying some interesting insights on podcasting, the use of photography, and other digital media in their blogging efforts. After a morning and afternoon filled with Google Plus, Compelling Content, Wines of Ontario, and a rather wonderful speech from author James Conway, we were off on our chosen buses to our evening excursions to local wineries. Unlike past WBCs, we were able to chose our buses based on an activity, or theme.  I chose the paddleboarding adventure, since I hadn’t been to the Naramata Bench area of the Okanagan and was curious. Off we went in our two mini buses, darting in and out of wineries for a quick dry by tour before stopping to hear more about the unique terroir of the area.  The Naramata Bench Wineries Association is a group of 24 wineries that stretch along 24 kilomenters of lakeshore, both high and low, on the east side of Lake Okanagan. With sandy cliffs and gently sloping lakeside land, these vineyards have a unique climate that is perfect for some of the areas Bordeaux styel reds.  The views aren’t bad either! Our adventure took us through a vineyard, and culminated at Sandy Beach Lodge, where the Naramata Bench wineries were hosting a walk around tasting and dinner, showcasing the best of the area. In addition to the tasting, here at the sandy beach, we had the option of partaking in the paddleboarding.  Now, I wasn’t dressed for the occasion (hey it was my birthday!) but several of my blogging brethren certainly did!     If you go, be sure to stop by these wineries: Black Widow Winery – specializing in single vineyard wines, I especially liked the Merlot. Elephant Island Orchard Wines – I was not expecting to enjoy these fruit wines, but boy was I wrong.  Some were more like a hybrid between wine and cider, others were refreshing and unexpected. Howling Bluff – I love Pinot Gris, and the Okanagan makes some stunning examples.  This is one of my favorites. Popular Grove – the view from the terrace is simply stunning and second to none.  The home of Vanilla Pod restaurant, this was my favorite stop on my first visit to the region.  The red wines are world class and I wish I could take home a case! With four seasons and a festival for each one, now is the time to visit the area! Google    

Tinhorn Creek

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On another gorgeous early Summer day in the Okanagan, in the general direction of Covert Farms, I made a beeline for Tinhorn Creek Vineyards.  Founded in 1993, Tinhorn Creek has been growing grapes and making wine for 20 years in the south Okanagan.  A driving force behind the beauty of the Okanagan, Sandra Oldfield, has been an active member of the social media community of wine writers for several years and wasn’t exaggerating when she said it was one of the greatest places on earth.  Built on a strong friendship, the winery has become a destination. A refugee defector from the Sonoma County wine industry, Sandra headed north in 1995 and landed in Oliver after studying winemaking and Canadian history at UC Davis (ok well that’s an interesting combination!).  Slogging away at producer Rodney Strong in Sonoma County, she is now part owner at Tinhorn Creek.  While we miss her talent and energy here in California, Sandra is part of an exciting future for the Okanagan wine industry and I can’t wait to go back and visit more. Tinhorn Creek sits on a unique hillside, rising steeply above the river valley, where you have rock, gravel, sandy loam an alluvial fan soil beds all mixing together to create a fantastic terroir for wine.  Tinhorn Creek owns two distinct tracts of land, in an area of the south Okanagan called the Golden Mile; with 50 acres of estate vineyards and 100 acres of additional land on the Black Sage Bench, Tinhorn Creek has the perfect growing climate for some amazing Bordeaux style wines as well as aromatic whites. In addition to expressing the best of the region, Tinhorn Creek focuses on sustainability and being ecologically responsible.  With programs that includes recycling, composting, and making smarter choices, they maintain stewardship of the land and local people to maintain their livlihood and safety while reducing carbon production and water use, keeping the area clean and pristine for generations to come. But what abou tthe wine?  Not that I’m biased or anything, but Tinhorn Creek would be one of my favorite wineieres in the Okanagan.  I was told about the Cab Franc from my friend Marcy, who had previously travelled tot he region on a scounting mission while I was on the northern end in 2012.  Her depiction of the wine and the winery made me crave my own visit.  As kismet would have it, I walked in the door of the winery, and randomly walked straight in to Marcy – who was also in Penticton a day early for WBC13.  Well!  An expert guide to the wine was just what I needed. And now, the wine!  The Oldfield Series 2 Bench White blend is a unique wine, with a blend of a Sauvignon Blanc and Semillion that were co-fermented  in addition to a co-fermented Semillion and Viognier that was blended in.  The result is a rich, barely off dry white with beautiful aromatics that are perfect for porch sipping.  I love the use of Semillion in Sauvignion Blanc, because it rounds out any […]