A star rises in Amador County

 Bella Grace Vineyards

This past summer,

after the mayhem that is the Wine Bloggers Conference, I was delighted to be invited to visit Bella Grace Vineyards in Amador County.
Just under an hour from Lodi, the Bella Grace Vineyards tasting cave  is tucked away in a hidden cave on 20 acres of vines in Plymouth, with an additional tasting room in the small town of Sutter Creek.

Bella Grace Vineyards

Bella Grace’s Stephen Havill

Our driver, guide, host, and 2nd generation owner, Steven Havill, showed off his family’s property, planted with a wide variety of grapes, with a particular focus on Rhone varietals as well as the classic Amador offering, Zinfandel.

 

Sustainable Quality

With an emphasis on sustainability, it is particular important to the Havills that the highest quality grapes come out of their vineyard, establishing Bella Grace as a force to experience for yourself.

Perfect Pairings

On our visit, Robert Havill, prepared delicious food pairings with the wines.  What happens when you put 10 wine bloggers in a cave and make Frank Morgan get in the car?  Magic!

 

Cutom made t-shirts really throw the message home: Frank Morgan! GET IN THE CAR (if it’s going to Bella Grace)

Variety

Bella Grace has many wines to chose from, including a sparkling brut that is bottled at Anderson Valley’s Roederer Estate facility.   This kicked off the afternoon, as we tasting through the meandering menu of delicious nuggets.  While Zinfandel typically dominates in this region, the rolling foothills also offer some delicious Rhone inspired wines.  Additionally, the Havills source grapes to add variety to their portfolio.

 

 

Olive Oils

Bella Grace also produces a wide variety of olive oils, both natural and with essential flavor components.  I particularly enjoyed the grapefruit and lemon oils!

My wine picks

With so many to choose from, and a long after noon of tasting, it was hard to narrow it down, but my favorites were:

Bella Grace Vineyards

Vermintino – While there is some Vermitino in the 3 Graces Blanc, this is new release and is a great alternative to Sauvignon Blanc.  This Italian varietal does well in Lodi and the foothills, where the hot days yield to cooler evenings, giving this white it’s characteristic acid.

This Spring, Bella Grace is featured in the Wine Bloggers Conference scholarship Wine Club, which was founded by yours truly and Worlds Best Wine Clubs features some unique wineries as well as benefit the scholarship that I work so hard on.

Today, at 6pm, we are featuring the Vermintino from Bella Grace on a live tasting.  Curious in checking out the wine club?  Join us on Facebook Live and hear more about this wine and the club!

Grenache Blanc – one of my go to varietals, this is no exception.  A rich white with creamy acid shows golden delicious apples, lime zest, a hint of oily petrol, and crumbled shale minreatlity.

Grenache – another favorite varietal, which has a wide swatch of expression.  Here, the bold garnet red color shows it’s young nature, with rose petals and ripe cherries.  With earthy leather and tobacco buried in the mid-palate, it finishes with figs and chocolate.  Delicious!

3 Graces Noir – Bella Grace’s GSM blend shows off the Mourvedre base with cracked spices and forest notes.  The fruitiness of the Grenache softens the bones of the Mourvedre, while the Syrah rounds everything out and smooths over the cracks.

Reserve Barbera – Perhaps one of my faovirte domestic Barberas that I have tasted, this luscious and acid forward wine didn’t last the tasting!  This is the oen one I kept going back to with our food pairings.  Inky dark and rich but repleate with red fruit and bitter plum skin, I can’t wait to taste it again and see how more age has mellowed her out.

Melanie, the Dallas Wine Chick, is clearly enjoying her wine!

If you are visiting Amador wine country, it is approximately 2 hours from the San Francisco Bay Area.  Plymouth, where Bella Grace is located, is another 20 minutes on country roads which are a beautiful way to experience the region in good weather.  A second tasting room is located in the historic town of Sutter Creek.

 




A trip to Iberia within reach

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Markus Bokisch was raised in California, but has a long history of ties to Spain.  As a child, Markus spent his summers there, and as is the norm in European tradition, water & wine were served at meals.

With this pre-disposition to love the rich wines of Spain, Markus moved to Spain with his wife Lisa and worked his way up in the Spanish wine industry.  With endeavors in Raimat and Penedes, he became and expert at the cultivation of these special varietals.  When he moved back to California, he knew that Lodi had something special – hidden behind 100 years of old Italian field blends and Zinfandel, and that it was the perfect location to begin his endeavor with Iberian varietals.

The Terra Alta Vineyard in Clements Hills was the first property they purchased, whereCapturethey imported Spanish budwood to firmly root Bokisch as the go to resource for these plantings.  In 1999, they planted Las Cerezas Vineyard, which is the motherblock, planted to Tempranillo, Albarino, and Graciano – classic Spanish grapes.  Two years later, the first vintage of Bokisch Vineyards wine was released.

Today, Bokisch grows over 2500 acres under vine, and works with wineries all over California in addition to producing their own wine.  With a careful consideration for the environment and sustainability, they are making a mark on how viticulture can be beneficial for the land as well as the economy.

I first tasted Bokisch wine shortly after that initial release, when I was part of the now (sadly) defunct Wine Q wine service.  I knew immediately, even though my palate was still developing in those early years of my wine career, that I would love what was to come.

Here we are, 8 years later, and I am lucky enough to taste the current releases of Bokisch frequently through a variety of tastings.  On this day, we enjoyed two different Albarinios – the first being from the Terra Alta Vineyard, where the tasting room is located, and the second from Las Cerezas, that motherblock planted in 1999.  While they were both welcome refreshers on this warm day, the Las Cerezas edged out the Terra Alta, with intensely tropical notes, and juicy fruit with lime zest and firm minerality on the finish.

Next, the Garnacha Blanca – a personal passion of mine – was a clear expression of how terroir impacts the finished product.  The medium body was full of fresh stone fruit, oranges, and pungent green herbs.  The creamy finish is perfect for cheese, hearty fish dishes, and just plain summer sipping.  Stylistically, Garnacha Blanca tends to be bolder than it’s cousin Grenache Blanc, and I appreciate the weight and texture.

The last of the whites, the age old question of Verdelho vs. Verdejo.  Often confused as the same grape, Verdelho has roots in Portugal and is used widely in Madeira.   In contrast, Verdejo is a Spanish white grape, which has been traced back to North Africa, and is now widely grown in Rueda.  Confused?  Well, taste them side by side and you can see the differences.

 Moving on to the reds, Garnacha (once again) holds a special place in my heart.  Whether it’s Grenache, Garnacha, or GSM, the varsity of styles it can be made in – let alone Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris, and Grenache Noir (or Tinto), the diversity is delicious.  Tracing its origigans to the Aragon region of Spain, the Bokisch Garnacha fils your mouth with blackberries, boysenberries, and dark red fruit.  A finishing touch of blood orange and forest spices tease the palate as vanilla vapors envelop your senses.  I love to serve Garnacha with a slight chill, and of course, anything is better with fresh Manchego cheese.
IMG_0267A bolder red wine, Graciano is one of the grapes commonly used as a blending component in parts of Rioja.  It’s also thought to be the oldest variety commercially grown in Spain.  A deeply purple black wine in the glass, bittersweet chocolate, Mission figs and cherries, with a hint of fresh violets tempt you, while tobacco and old saddle leather round out the palate.  Graciano is a meaty grape, and this is a fantastic wine for steak and a classic Rioja cookout.
And now:  Mourvedre.  Mataro.  Monastrell!  Depending on where you are in the world, this blue hued grape is called different things.  In France, Mourvedre.  In Spain, it can be either Mataro, particularly in the Catalan dialect, or Monastrell.  The 2013 Belle Collne Vineyard Monastrell is classically blueberry, bergamot, and baking spices.
The passion and dedication of Markus and Liz are infectious.  His single focus of making Lodi a top wine destination of distinction, and their dedication to sustainability is second to none.  Keeping these wines affordable is also of critical importance, and with prices between $18-32, the QPR on these wines is outstanding.
If you are in Lodi, a stop at Bokisch is a must do ! The sweeping view from the picnic tables to the seven oak tress in the gently rolling hills is bliss, and it is less than two hours from the Bay Area.
Cheers!

 

bokish

 

Oh Lord, stuck in Lodi again

   Just about a year ago
I set out on the road
Seekin’ my fame and fortune
Lookin’ for a pot of gold
Thing got bad and things got worse
I guess you know the tune
Oh Lord, stuck in Lodi again

Credence Clearwater Revival made the song, and the town, famous in 1969.  At the time, the small town of Lodi was a bit of backwater, located somewhere between Stockton and Sacramento, and was a thriving farming community.

Fast forward 50 years, and it is still a thriving farming community, but today, most of the agricultural pursuits center around wine.  In the 70s and 80s, and to some extent today, large production facilitates that focused on both bulk wine and zinfandel made the wine of the region famous.  Lodi is still the self-proclaimed capital of Zinfandel, and over 40% of premium Zin from California is produced here.

In addition to a strong heritage of Zinfandel, Lodi has also been home to many other varietals. With the 4th and 5th generation wine families, you can find Iberian, Rhone, Austrian and German grape varietals all thriving.

This year, the annual Wine Bloggers Conference is headed to Lodi in August.  Ahead of the storm, I was invited by the Lodi Wine Commission to a whirlwind tour of Lodi – focusing on “anything but zin” – my specific request to showcase the lesser known grapes that thrive in this region.

A short 90 minute (just don’t leave at rush hour!) drive from the Bay Area, Lodi is a hidden IMG_0238goldmine of delicious and living history.  One such vineyard is Mokelumne Glen Vineyard, which specializes in German and Austrian varietals.

With strong ties to Germany, the Koth family has over 40 varietals of both obscure and more common grapes planted here, in a hidden spot where the river dips and a natural “glen” is formed.

Originally planted to Zinfandel vines, as so much of Lodi was, Bob Koth (right) had a natural curiosity about viticulture and started researching what other grapes would do well there.  Today, that has culminated in the German Collection Vineyard, an experimental block next to their house, where 35 of the 41 varietals are planted.  With just a row or two of most, it is a true experimental vineyard.  If you’re lucky enough to get a bit of this fruit, it is true gold.

After touring the property, we went in to town and sat down for lunch at Pietro’s, where we tasted some lovely wines from Bob’s fruit.

IMG_0579 Sidebar Kerner – This aromatic white is a cross between Trollinger and Riesling, and is common in Germany, but unsual outside oft hat region.  This was a nice refreshing white, with a medium body and delicious saline and mineral finish, with rich apricot notes.
IMG_0582 Markus Wine Co Nativo white blend – The Markus Wine Company is a coop between winemaker Markus Niggli and Borra vineyards, where Swiss born Niggli can play a bit with styles and structure.  The Nativo is a fresh and fun light white, that is 53% Kerner and 28% Riesling, with a 15% dollop of Bacchus.  Bacchus, as it turns out, is another blended grape – developed as a cross between Silvaner and Riesling, and then that result crossed with Muller-Thurgau.  Does everyone have their family tree ready to fill out?  The intensity of the grapefruit note was brilliant, with bright acid and fresh cut herbs, floating in a field of flowers.  This was the perfect white wine for a warm lunch al fresco!
IMG_0589 Forlorn Hope’s Gemischter Satz is a true chorus of voices, which is a clear representation of Mokelumne Glen‘s Germany Block project.  With 5-7 vines of each varietal (final blend is a well kept secret), it dances with white jasmine and spring flowers, and refreshing citrus on a foggy day.
IMG_0593 One of my favorites of the afternoon was the Borra Vineyards Vermentino, a delightfully light, crisp, and citrus driven white.  I have loved Vermentino since my first trip to Italy, where the fruit forward dry white is an easy sipper, as the mineral core keeps the sweetness of the ripe citrus at bay.
IMG_0594 Who doesn’t love a rose?  On a warm day, I would drink rose…all day.  The Borra Vineyards Rosé Members Reserve is no exception, and is a classic Provencale recipe for happiness:  63% Syrah, 37% Carignane, and 100% love.  Bright wild strawberries, watermelon, and earthy hints of Tuscan melon and dried figs.  I could, and did, drink this glass, and another, and another.

 

One key point to note about all of these wines is the absolutely stunning QPR.  With an average price of $20 or under, these are luxuries you can afford every day!

 Thank you to the Koth’s for their generous hospitality and pioneering spirit!  There is so much more to come from this vineyard and these winemakers.  Head to Lodi and find out what!

There is so much more to say about Borra and Markus wines, such as the intriguingly acid driven Petite Sirah, and the blends.  But that, is for another day of discovery.

 

Eight Tips on being a great wine writer – from Karen MacNeil

IMG_9563One of the highlights of this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference was the welcoming keynote speech by Wine Bible author, Karen MacNeil.  In her address to some 250 bloggers, writers, and wine industry professionals, she gave clear and concise advise on how to be your best self.

I’ll give you a hint:  Drink a lot of champagne!  Or, as Karen put it, drink a glass of the good stuff, every night.

But more importantly, how do you become even more successful as a writer and / or blogger?  That has always been an issue for many of us who have been blogging for a long time.  As someone who has been around the wine blogging scene since it’s early days in  2008, I am always asking myself how to be better, smarter, larger.  Better is an interesting word however, as the interpretation of the word can be fraught with misinterpretation and differing opinions.

Karen made several great points in her keynote, of which we can all interpret our own messages from.  Each one of us has to decide how to implement them, and what they mean to us.

Here are my takeaways:

  • Know your subject!  Whether it is wine, whiskey, or Winnetka, you need to know your subject.

This goes without saying.   There are plenty of blogs, websites, books, and so forth that are written well but lack subject matter expertise.  Clearly, most of us blog about wine for pleasure and passion, but take it to the next level and learn your subject.

After completing my Certified Wine Specialist credential this year, I’m constantly thinking about my next step in my wine education.  Whether that be another credential or a new book, when you stop learning, you die and become a dinosaur.

  • Agonize over your writing

This, I have mastered.  As many writers, I am my own worst critic, and often it takes me much longer to write a piece as other bloggers I know as I sit and write, rewrite, analyze, and consider each word.

  • What makes YOU is something important.  Be unique.

Remember, that you need to be real, and be authentic.  Your uniqueness makes you special.  Who wants to be like 100 other wine blogs out there?  While my voice may have evolved over the last 8 years, at its core, it is still the same Luscious Lush.

  • Practice, practice, practice

This is something I need to work on.  There are more ways to practice than by being a prolific blogger.  One way to practice is to find other forums, such as a writers group, or blogging circles that issue challenges.

I often shy away from the cliques or groups that do things together, but the more I write, the more I realize, it’s important that other people see my word and give me inspiration.  Are there writers groups that you belong to?  What inspires you?

  • Be a great writer, don’t be a serviceable one.

Because who wants to be mediocre?  Why not practice (see above) and stand out from the crowd?  There are literally thousands of blogs (and writers) out there that are mediocre at best.  Do you want to be acceptable, or do you want to be amazing?  The key to being amazing is to practice, and learn from other great writers.

  • Great writing tells a story.

If you want to be good, tell your story.  If you want people to engage, and stay engaged, tell your story well.  The worst posts that I read (of my own, and others) are those that don’t tell a story, or get to a point.  While blogging is a unique platform, it doesn’t have to be an excuse to not tell the story.  What was interesting about that wine?  How can you tell a story about that experience?

  • If you really know your subject, you can explain it in 17 words.  Writing tight and writing short are massive skills to have as writer.

This is challenge for me – as I strive to write the story (see above), brevity takes a leap off the cliff.  One thing that has been a great exercise for me is to start the skeleton of an article with 17 words, and then use those as a foundation to expand your story.

  • Feed your reputation

With today’s focus on social media, this should be easy right?  Wrong.  Feeding your reputation can be as tricky as feeding yourself a healthy diet – reputation is more than your social profile.

It’s a daunting task to be on top of social media all the time, and I certainly cannot maintain a constant presence with a full time job and other obligations to maintain.  However, keeping on top of your top social networks is key to feeding your reputation.

But, you need to build your reputation before you can feed it.  Networking with your local wine culture is one key to building a solid reputation.  Additionally, ensuring that your voice is constant, and true will help you build a solid reputation.  You don’t need to be a constant voice, but a clear and strong one in order to have a powerful reputation.

People often ask me how I became so “popular” as a wine blogger.  When I beat myself up and struggle to maintain a blogging schedule or traffic, I think – wait.  Someone thinks I am successful, because I am great networker.  Like any other job, networking isi a skill that has to be practices to be done well.  But networking is a key component in feeding your reputation.  Make it your business to make sure people who you want to know, know you – and for the right reasons, not the wrong reasons.

Once you build a reputation, feed it by participating in the community.  This includes commenting on other blogs (something I have all but given up on due to the fact that…well…the comment is dead), engaging on social platforms, and participating in events like the Wine Bloggers Conference, online events, and online communities.

For me, the Wine Bloggers Conference is an important networking event.  Yes, it’s partially summer camp, partially a high school reunion, and partially an educational forum, with a lot of wine thrown in, but at it’s core it is a chance for bloggers and writers to meet each other, connect, and engage with the wine industry.  For you, that might be the Wine Writers Symposium or a tasting group that you meet with every month. Whatever drives your success, participate, connect, and engage.

As I strive to get back in my game, I appreciate Karen MacNeil’s years of writing experience and her willingness to share them with a room full of (primarily) wine bloggers.  Those of us who write for other reasons can appreciate the solid advise that she offered up.  Primarily, Karen encourages us to persevere, improve, and keep learning; all life skills that I hold dear.  Seeking inspiriation, I am taking her words to heart and hope to spend the next eight years developing as much as she has.

WBC15: Historic Seneca Lake Part 2

On the second day of our pre-conference excursion around Seneca Lake, the summer day greeted us in Geneva with a sparkling view, and I wandered down to check out Opus Coffee, owned by local chef Heather Tompkins (who prepared dinner the previous evening).

Thank goodness for caffeine!  After an evening at Microclimate, a unique wine bar featuring wines from around the world as well as the Finger Lakes, coffee was much needed on the warm summer morning.

Before heading back to Corning to kick off the official conference, the second day of our Seneca Lake excursion would bring us to Anthony Road Wine Company, as well as one of the first ladies of the Finger Lakes, Fox Run Vineyards.

Anthony Road Wine Company was started in 1990 by Ann & John Martini, renovating an old farm shop and cobbling together a production winery from borrowed, used, and otherwise improvised equipment.

I particularly enjoyed the rosé (of Cabernet Franc, a dry, tannic rosé (that was perfect on this hot day), as we learned about the history of Anthony Road, and the experimental vineyards they are using to determine what varietals to plant next.  The rosé was replete with tart cherries, under ripe strawberries, Tuscan melon and dried herbs.  Refreshing!

Our last stop on the pre-conference excursion was Fox Run Vineyards.  If Dr. Frank is the President, Fox Run is the First Lady of Finger Lakes wine.  Situated on what was once the lakeshore, in a region called Torrey Ridge, Fox Run overlooks the deepest part of Seneca Lake.  Here, the microclimate is slightly different, as the deep waters offer more substantial cooling effects.

For over 100 years, Fox Run was a working dairy, and the first grapes were planted in 1984 in the old dairy.  Focusing on sustainable practices, this family owned vineyard now is looking toward the future with a stunning wine & cheese program.

 

The Food & Wine Experience at Fox Run features a pairing lunch in the barrel room, with selection of local cheeses, charcuterie, greens and fresh baked bread.  A flight of specially selected wines is paired with each bite, created to bring out the best in each wine.  Our group was treated to a special Riesling tasting afterwards, with 4 unique wines:  Riesling 11 – Hanging Delta Vineyard, Riesling 12 – Hanging Delta Vineyard, and Riesling 11 and 12 from Lake Dana Vineyard.  Essentially, each of these wines comes from a different block in their vineyards, but the winemaking goes beyond that with twists and tweaks for each vintage.  This experience alone was worth the stop at this Grand Dame of the Lake.

The Seneca Lake experience was magical, and full of history.  With a wide variety of wines and experiences, I look forward to going back and experiencing more!

In fact, in part 3 of my Lake Seneca tour, our Magical Mystery Bus (Friday Excursions at WBC) took us back to Lake Seneca a third time, with all new stops and experiences.  But you’ll have to stay tuned for that!

 

 

 

 

WBC15: Chasing history on the Seneca Lake Wine Trail

Earlier this month, as some 300 wine writers and industry folk convened in Corning, NY for the annual Wine Bloggers Conference, we were greeted by an overwhelmingly friendly, hometown, local wine culture of the Finger Lakes.IMG_9301

The people of Corning, and the surrounding towns which make their business from the wine industry of the Finger Lakes clearly showed a great pride in the uniqueness of the local wines, and how they stand out among the rest of the U.S. as well as the world.

Before the official conference began, I joined the pre-conference tour of Seneca Lake, which provided a deep dive in to the specifics of the largest and deepest of the Finger Lakes, and the wine industry on it’s shores.

As my friend Melanie and I (@dallaswinechick) first drove in to the area from Philadelphia, I was struck by the pastoral beauty, and calm of the gently sloping hillsides and glacial lakes, carved by the last ice age to reach the Hudson Valley.

While this region has been home to winemaking for much longer, in 1986 the Seneca Lake Wine Trail was formed to encourage visitors to the area to experience all the region could offer.  Today, the largest lake also provides the largest, and most diverse wine trail in New York – 30 wineries, a distillery, breweries, and cider producers all line it’s shores.

The deepest of the Finger Lakes, Seneca Lake is 632 feet and it’s shores provide a perfect locale for wine grapes.  On our first day, as we set out from Corning to Geneva, we bounced along the small towns and shoreline communities learning about the history and tasting several wines.

First up, we visit the Villa Bellangelo Winery in Geneva, NY.  Villa Bellangelo is on the western shore of Lake Seneca, and specializes in cool climate varietals, with a razor sharp focus on what the Finger Lakes is famous for – Riesling.  Here, we were treated to several older vintages, tasting the progression of both the winery, and the wine, as it traveled through time.  IMG_9299

Along with Bellangelo, King’s Garden Vineyards was pouring a 10 year vertical of Cabernet Sauvignon.  Ironically located in Lodi (New York), King’s Garden Vineyards makes a bit of everything, upsetting the traditionally apple cart of the Finger Lakes a bit, by veering off in to Chardonnay and Cabernet, versus Riesling and other aromatic whites.  I particularly enjoyed the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as the unique tasting of two 2010s, one that had been in bottle for a few months, and one that was just bottled – giving it extended oak aging.  Somewhat surprisingly, the Finger Lakes actually has some great Cabernet Sauvignon, and the ageability of these wines is remarkable.

After enjoying the afternoon at Bellanagela, we headed to Ventosa Vineyards, where the Finger Lakes Women in Wine greeted us with a powerhouse team of female winemakers & winery owners, and one awesome chef.

IMG_9375Before dinner, we tasting through some local ciders to refresh our palates, and heard from these leaders in the region on their contributions to the Finger Lakes wine business.  Each woman had a unique perspective on her journey to the wine business, and each one had unique barriers and stories.  From Marti Macinski of Standing Stone Vineyards, who went in IMG_9335to the business with no formal education or training, to Jenna LaVita, Ventosa’s winemaker.

From law student to sudden winemaker, she inherited the role unexpectedly when she was working harvest.  Finally, Liz Leidenfrost, winemaker of Leidenfrost Vineyards, discussed her progression in to wine, her burlesque career, and former life as a budding classical musician.  With her rockabilly style and take no prisoners attitude, she entered the family business intent on shaking it up and making a change for the better.

 

This panel of women are making waves in the Finger Lakes, and each one offered a unique perspective on the region, on winemaking, and on breaking the glass ceiling.  A sunset dinner over the lake was the perfect ending to a magical introduction to the region.

After an overnight stay in Geneva, we were off to Day 2 of our excursion on the shores of Seneca Lake!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9:55 am:   Dropoff at Anthony Road Wine Company at 1020 Anthony Rd, Penn Yan, NY 14527

Noon:       Pickup at Anthony Road Wine Company

12:15 pm: Dropoff at Fox Run Vineyards at 670 New York 14, Penn Yan, NY 14527

3:15 pm:   Pickup at Fox Run Vineyards

4:30 pm:   Dropoff at Radisson Hotel Corning at the same location where some attendees were originally picked up.

 

 

 

Annual Wine Bloggers Conference – Advice from the trenches

Yikes!  The 9th annual Wine Bloggers Conference is next week!  Somehow this year went by way too fast.

Harvest is in full swing here in Northern California, kids are going back to school, work is buzzing, and  – 250 wine writers, industry reps, PR plebes, and other will converge on Corning, NY next week.

As one of a handful of people that have been to every conference (shout out to Craig Camp, Janelle & Joe Becerra, Liza Swift and Jon Steinberg), I have learned a lot since the first conference in Santa Rosa in 2008.

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.

  • Bring business cards.  Yes it may seem archaic, but it’s the best way to quickly introduce yourself with a memorable item.  The stacks of cards collected are reminders when we get home to follow, tweet, and read other peoples information.
  • 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.  The Finger Lakes can be very warm and quite humid, but cools off at night.  Jeans, sweaters, t-shirts, something nice for dinner.  Currently the weather says mid 80s all week, but there is a high probability that there will be R A I N mid week, so bring an umbrella!  For us Californians, this wet stuff is exciting indeed.  Most of all,  be comfy!
  • 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 Friday at lunch at the Expo to to say hi and learn who made this conference possible. Be sure to stop by the WBC Scholarship table and learn about what we do and how you can help.
  • Mix and mingle – the first mingling event is Thursday night, at Riverfront Park.  Wines from Keuka Lake will be featured along with nibbles if you’re hungry.
  • 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!  All of you introverts, use Twitter!  #wbc15 is your best friend.  Buy some badge bling from the Scholarship table and say hi to your fellow winos!
  • 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.  It’s important to take sanity breaks since these are three days of busy events.
  • 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 you are representing bloggers as a whole, and should have some decorum.  It’s a business conference at the core, disguised as a party.  Present yourself accordingly.
  • Don’t forget to sleep!  There are always many after hours events and parties.  While going to these is fun and a great way to meet people, don’t overdo it.  Sleep is critical during this busy weekend of events.
  • Don’t have any party invites?  Don’t worry!  Stay tuned to the #WBC15 twitter stream, talk to people, and mingle.  You’ll get plenty!
  • Have an open mind.  You never know if there are wines you wouldn’t normally try, that you will love!
  • Bring something from home that represents your region, style, and / or personality.  This could be wine, but it could also be food, a book, or a t-shirt.
  • Attend the break outs.  Too many people don’t attend the core of the conference and they miss out.  While You Need to choose which bits are important to you as a blogger, just to pull the meat out.

Here’s what I think I’ll be doing:

  • Keynote, of course!  I cannot underestimate the importance of these opening sessions, as they set the tone for the day and really give you a peek in to how other professionals, wine writers, and tech luminaries view blogging.  This year, Karen McNeil will be opening the conference
  • Intro to the Finger Lakes – a great way to get an overview of the region before we start tasting!
  • Live Wine Blogging: Red and White – Also known as Speed Tasting, Speed Dating, or Insanity, I get a kick of out fast first impression tastes and the twitter storm that occurs.  You can tweet or blog, or take notes to blog later.  I suggest tweeting, as it’s the fastest way to keep up with the tasting.  This year, all live blogging wines are from the Finger Lakes!
  • Friday evening excursions to wine country – this is one of the best experiences at WBC.  Small groups are sent on mystery buses to various area wineries, where you get a deep dive in to the wine, winemaking philosophy, styles, and terroir of several area wineries.  The fun is that you don’t know where you’re going tile you get there!  No cheating now 😉
  • Women in the Wine World – Several successful women in wine will talk about their success and struggles
  • The Spectrum of Dry Riesling – As the Finger Lakes is well known for this varietal, I’m looking forward to tasting a wide selection and learning more about each style.
  • Panel of Successful Wine Bloggers I am moderating this sessions which will dive in to conversations with several successful bloggers, and what success means to them.  Bring your questions and join the discussion!
  • After parties to be determined
  • who knows what else!

I will see you next week!

Focus on Finger Lakes: Cabernet Franc Five Ways

IMG_9070It’s no secret that the Finger Lakes region of New York has long been known for it’s Riesling and aromatic white wines.  Often compared to wine growing regions along Germany’s Rhine river, the region has been making wine well over 100 years.  Initially famous for sparking wines the 1860s, the Finger Lakes won numerous international awards, spawing a boom in vineyards.  In fact, by the turn of the century, there were some 25,000 acres planted to vine.

Unfortunately, like much of the United States at the time, phyloxerra devastated the area in the early 20th century, leading to a gradual decline in the industry.  In 1951, Dr. Konstantin Frank emigrated to the region to work at Cornell University, which ran the Geneva Experiment Station.  Here, Frank and his team experimented wit Vinifera varieties grafted to hearty rootstock.  In 1962, the modern wine industry was born, when Dr. Frank founded Vinifera Wine Cellars

Today, the Finger Lakes have moved beyond it’s initial roots in Riesling, and is now producing high quality, low alcohol red wines.  In this batch, I tasted five Cabernet Francs from the Finger Lakes, 4 from 2012 and one from 2013.  All of these wines vary from 12.5 to 13.9% ABV, which for the US is exceedingly low. This refreshing difference brings back the earthy, herbal, aromatic qualities of one of my favorite grapes.

2012 Damiani Finger Lakes Cabernet Franc – earthy and dusty on the nose, with muted plums and bramble berry.  Rich black berry and smoke on the palate, with blueberry, cedar and campfire completing the voluptuous sip.  Velvety but with bright red fruit and acidity, it’s a lovely, balanced wine.  $22

2013 Hector Wine Company Seneca Lake Cabernet Franc – This is the first vintage of Cabernet Franc for Hector Wine Company, and is is fermented with 100% native yeast, with no fining.  Dark black and blue fruit on the nose, slight floral notes, the palate is rich and elegant, with juicy loganberry, milk chocolate and coffee notes.  Bright acid and juicy red cranberry round out the finish.  $22 (sold out)

2012 McGregor  Vineyard Finger Lakes Reserve Cabernet Franc – earthy and brooding, with forest floor and cedar on first sniff.  A lighter more restrained style of Cabernet Franc that reminds me of a young Bordeaux, dried cherries, dried herbs, cedar chips, and smooth tannins show early on.  More earthy and subtle than the Hector Wine Company or Damiani, the finish lends itself to wintergreen on a cool winter morning.  $22

2012 Chateau Layfaette Reneau Cabernet Franc herbaceous sachets meandering out of the glass,  with dusty ripe fruit on the palate, and dark tea flavors.  Dark chocolate, dried plums, blackberries, and current sprinkled with cracked pepper give way to firm tannins which linger, but the overall impression is suave.  $19

2012 Lakewood Vineyards Finger Lakes Cabernet Franc – the brightest in the bunch, with garnet / ruby coloring, and a nose full of grass and green herbs.  Stewed fruit, campfire smoke and dutch cocoa finish it off.  $16

Overall, these are clear expressions of Cabernet Franc that are ripe for the drinking.  The price point (under $25) and the lower alcohol are refreshing, and while they might be “hipster” today, they are the classic model from Europe, and old school wine-making in other parts of the New World.  Over time, they open up to reveal more personality, a deeply earthy core, and a sparkle of fruit on top.  I look forward to enjoying these over the next few days!  My personal favorites were the Hector Wine Company and the Damiani Wine Cellars, but I’d love to know what you think!

I am very much looking forward to visiting some of these wineries sand more while in the Finger Lakes in August for the 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference! Special thanks to the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance and the wineries for providing these samples for review.

Refugio Ranch – a hideway for the stars

Refugio Ranch

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

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

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

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

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

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

Refugio Ranch

Next time we’ll sit out there!

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

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

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

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

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

Refugio Ranch

Herb garden & insectary

Refugio Ranch

Refugio Ranch

The view from our tasting porch

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

syrah territory

 

 

 

Kaena & Beckmen: One winemaker, two stories

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

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

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

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

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Kaena’s Mikhael Sigouin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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Live Blogging: RIOS de Chile Carmenere

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

 

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

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

Live Blogging: Vineyard 511 Diamond Mountain Cabernet

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

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

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

Live Blogging: Garnet Vineyards Monterey Pinot Noir

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

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

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

Viva la Garnet!

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