Tuesday, December 30, 2008

2005 Sones Wiedeman Vineyard Zinfandel

As winemaker for Bargetto, Michael Sones is responsible for one of the area's largest producers. However he still finds time to produce a few cases for his own label. He mainly sources fruit from the Wiedeman Vineyard in Santa Clara Valley.

The 2005 Wiedeman Vineyard Zinfandel checks in at almost 16% alcohol. This was served warmer than the last time I tasted it; as a result the alcohol seemed a bit more evident. It was also significantly heavier than the previous wines of the evening (a Pinot Noir and a Bordeaux). On the palate there was lots of sweet raspberry fruit and a bit of white pepper, but it could have used a bit more acidity. The tannins are soft; it's a wine that's made to drink now. Reasonable value at $16 from The Wine Club, Santa Clara.

Monday, December 29, 2008

2004 Testarossa Rosella's Vineyard Pinot Noir

There's no denying that Rosella's vineyard, in Monterey's Santa Lucia Highlands, produces some excellent fruit. The list of wineries that the vineyard sells to reads like a "Who's Who" of new-wave Pinot Noir producers, many of whom don't have estate vineyards but seek out quality fruit from across the region. Testarossa is one such producer; despite being based in the historic Novitiate winery in Los Gatos the vineyards are no longer in production.

I opened this for Chrismas dinner last week, and decanted it for a couple of hours. In the glass it has has a lighter garnet colour than many domestic Pinots. On the nose there's a delicious combination of fruit and flowers (roses?) and on the palate there are cherries and wild strawberries. A rich mouthfeel and a long finish with silky tannins. I'd say this was at its peak right now, but will certainly hold for a good few years if so desired. An excellent wine though sadly not an excellent price; at almost $60 it's not something I'd buy regularly.

2007 Calera Central Coast Chardonnay

Although Josh Jensen's Calera Wine Company is known primarily for its distinctive, mineral Pinot Noir grown in his estate vineyards in the Mount Harlan AVA, the winery also purchases fruit from other areas. The 2007 Central Coast Chardonnay includes grapes from seven different vineyards in three counties. Over 40% comes from Santa Clara County (San Felipe, Kellner & Besson vineyards), just over 30% from Monterey county (Scheid, Lone Oak and SMD) and 27% from Santa Barbara County (Los Alamos).

The wine comes sealed with a glass stopper; I've heard of these but hadn't seen one until now. It's a piece of solid glass shaped like a T, with a plastic ring at the top of the T. The stopper pulls out fairly easily provided your hands aren't too greasy; unlike traditional stoppers made from plastic and cork there's no ridges to grip onto.

Very light in colour, there's notes of vanilla and apple pie on the nose. The palate shows sweet apples and a caramel/butterscotch note. The acidity is reasonable and the oak isn't obtrusive. It retails for $16 at the winery, but I've seen it in a couple of local retailers for $11 - at that price it's a very good value.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Wine Spectator's "report card" for 2008

The first critical reviews of the 2008 vintage are coming in, even though the wines are still fermenting. Wine Spectator has issued a "report card" which graded the vintage for some major growing areas. Over on his blog, Lenn Thompson has some valid comments and questions, many of which apply equally well here.

Looking at the article, it appears that anything south of San Francisco Bay has been lumped in the category of "Central Coast", which been awarded a grade of B-. Now while everyone agrees that 2008 was a tough vintage and that yields are much lower than expected, I'm not convinced that it was the same everywhere from Woodside to Santa Barbara. After all, we are talking about over 30 different AVAs spanning over 400 miles. The Santa Cruz Mountains was largely spared the spring frosts that caused so much damage elsewhere; on the other hand the effects of the smoke from the many wildfires is still to be determined.

The only local producer referenced in the article was Bill Brosseau of Testarossa which, despite being based in the old Novitiate winery in Los Gatos, has no vines and makes little or no wine from Santa Cruz Mountains fruit.

From what I've heard from local growers, the potential for excellence is certainly there from the best producers; good vineyard management, careful harvesting and sorting, controlling tannins during fermentation, should lead to some superb, concentrated wines. But anyone who tried to focus on yield over quality is likely to regret it.

Furthermore with such low yields producers who don't control their vineyards and rely on purchased fruit may have to decide between paying higher prices or settling for lower quality fruit. In the current economy none of those options really sound too promising.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

2006 Storrs Annamaria's Vineyard Chardonnay

In the late 1970s, Bob Roudon of Roudon-Smith planted a 5 acre Chardonnay vineyard in the hills between Scotts Valley and Soquel and named it after his wife Annamaria. Those vines provided the fruit for Roudon-Smith's estate Chardonnay for many years. Following the retirement of the founders, the winery and vineyard were sold separately; the latter being purchased by Cesar Ramirez, a long-time employee.

This is a nice, structured Chardonnay. On the nose there's green apple, vanilla and lemon curd. As you'd expect there's decent acidity here; it's richly textured with a good finish, and was a splendid pairing to a herb crusted tilapia. Over a couple of hours an interesting butterscotch component developed.

This sells for $30 at the winery, but I've seen it for $24-$27 at other retailers; a fair price for a good wine. Don't waste your time looking for information on the Storrs website; for some reason it's not listed there.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Happy 75th Anniversary

75 years ago today Rusty Ray woke up Paul Masson by ringing a huge bronze school bell to celebrate the official end to prohibition. You can read the episode in the book Vineyards In The Sky, which is now available online courtesy of Google Books.

Unfortunately the wording of the constitutional amendment gave rise to a crazy system of distributors, state-run monopolies, byzantine laws and licensing requirements. For example: as a private individual I can legally ship firearms from one state to another, but I can't legally ship a bottle of wine. In several states you can order prescription drugs over the internet from around the world, but not wine. There are even 'dry' areas where alcohol can't be bought and sold. Yes America, you successfully replaced one ridiculous law with myriad little ones. But today is definitely a reason to celebrate. Raise your glass and toast Section 1 of the 21st Amendment!

PostScript: I discovered this marvellous quote on Wikipedia:

There are two ways, and only two ways, in which an ordinary private citizen ... can violate the United States Constitution. One is to enslave someone, a suitably hellish act. The other is to bring a bottle of beer, wine, or bourbon into a State in violation of its beverage control laws—an act that might have been thought juvenile, and perhaps even lawless, but unconstitutional?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Pinot Noir and Chardonnay

It's a funny thing, but when a producer makes one varietal so well you can often overlook the fact that they even make other wines. A couple of cases in point are Varner and Windy Oaks.

Now Bob and Jim Varner are justly famous for their excellent Chardonnay. From the Spring Ridge vineyard in Portola valley make the "Bee Block", "Home Block" and "Ampitheater Block", as well as a blend under the Neely label. However they also make a small amount of Pinot Noir. I tried the 2005 Neely Pinot Noir earlier this year, and frankly wasn't all that impressed. Then one evening last month I was looking through the cellar for something to pair with a stuffed pork chop and spotted a 2005 Varner Hidden Block Pinot Noir that I'd picked up. I decided I may as well quaff it, after all it was nothing special.

The colour didn't give much away; it's so amazingly light, I've seen darker Rosés. If you drink a lot of Burgundy then you're no doubt used to it, but Californian winemakers (with a few notable exceptions) seems to prefer their wines much darker. And the nose wasn't much of a clue at first - dusty oak and some white flowers. But on the palate I was surprised - wave after wave of rich, sweet fruit; cherries and redcurrants, together with mixed spice and more. The depth was amazing and it just got better with air. Highly recommended.

On the other hand, Windy Oaks are best known for their Pinot Noirs. They have around 14 acres of Pinot planted down near Corralitos, together with one acre of Chardonnay. Yet that one acre makes some amazing wine. I've tried both the 2005 and 2006 recently; they each had flavours of lemon meringue pie, pineapple and custard. Overall I think the 2006 has the edge. Again, a highly recommended wine.

While on the subject of Windy Oaks I'd like to mourn the passing of a bottle of their 2006 Proprietor's Reserve Pinot Noir. I intended to open an older vintage to impress a good friend from France. Unfortunately the 2006 had just arrived and I picked the wrong one. If you own any of these babies I implore you to please let them rest; they need at least 3-5 years of beauty sleep before they are ready.

2004 Perrucci Family Sangiovese

Last August I wrote about the Perrucci Family Cabernet Sauvignon and noted that I'd picked up a bottle of the 2004 Sangiovese.

Last month I was invited to the Stefania Winery Volunteer Appreciation Dinner; since this was an ideal opportunity to share a new local wine with fellow enthusiasts I took it along. Unfortunately as a result I didn't get to take any notes on it. What I can say is that it was well received; several of the people who tasted it were surprised by it. It seemed to be fairly priced too at around $28. I shall certainly look for it again.

The wine of the night however was a 1994 Ridge Jimsomare Cabernet Sauvignon that Wes brought.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Several tastings this weekend at the new BevMo

I just got an email from BevMo informing me that their Santa Clara branch is moving from the location at the corner of Stevens Creek and Kiely to the strip mall at the corner of Winchester. They'll be in what used to be a branch of Good Guys; I bought my home theatre system there, many years ago.

They are having a big opening event this weekend (October 17th-19th), with tastings from several California wineries and breweries. On Friday, Brenda Murphy of Clos La Chance will be there from Noon-3PM and George Troquato of Cinnabar will be there from 3PM-6PM. On Sunday from 11AM-2PM Michael Sones will be representing Bargetto and Chaucer’s along with Richard Alfaro of Alfaro Family Vineyards and Rob Jensen of Testarossa Vineyards. From 2PM-5PM Mike Faul from Rabbit's Foot Meadery and Red Branch Cider Company, and Dane Stark from Page Mill Winery will be there.

Those are just the local wineries; there will also be representatives from various others, from Napa to Paso Robles. The full list is here.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Thai food pairings?


Last weekend a few of us went out for dinner at an old favourite, Thai Basil in Sunnyvale. This used to be a tiny hole-in-the-wall on the end of Murphy Street in Sunnyvale. It was so successful that the owner opened a much larger second branch in the nearby Town & Country Village. Now that mall is being demolished and rebuilt, the original Thai Basil has expanded into what was formerly a particularly seedy looking bar called the Miramar. This is the first time we been there since it reopened.

The obvious question arose: what wine to take? What goes best with Thai food? Conventional wisdom has it that the best match for many asian cuisines is an off-dry Riesling, but although Felton Empire was once famous for it's Rieslings I don't think there's much planted here any more. Besides, I'm not a huge fan of Riesling or of off-dry wines in general. As Stephen Colbert might say: dry or sweet, pick a side, we're at war. Red wine didn't seem appropriate and although a nice sparkler might work there are very few that would really stand up to a sweet or spicy dish.
Unfortunately my cellar is somewhat lacking in dry whites these days. A 2007 Storrs Sauvignon Blanc looked promising; I also picked out a 2004 Varner Home Block Chardonnay.

The Storrs is from the San Lucas AVA, which is in Monterey County. It's a light, fruity wine with lots of the typical grapefruit flavours as well as melon, gooseberry and something tropical - guava perhaps. There's a slight sweetness that showed up particularly when paired with a bowl of Tom Yum Soup.

The Storrs didn't last long, so we moved on to the Varner. In theory this should have been a good pairing; it's a full bodied, rich, creamy Chardonnay. The oak has integrated nicely after a couple of years in the cellar; there even seemed to be a hint of petrol on the nose like you'd expect from a Riesling. But in practice the sweetness of the sauces, nuts and coconut, and the spice of the chili and basil somewhat overpowered the wine. With hindsight I think a Fogarty Gewurztraminer would probably have been a better choice; I'll save the Varners for something more appropriate.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

2007 Alfaro Family Rosé

Recently my wife was complaining that we had no rosé left in the cellar, so a restocking was in order. I called in at K&L and saw the 2007 Alfaro Family for $14.
I visited Alfaro Family earlier this year as part of the Pinot Paradise event and I remember being impressed with their Pinot Rosé; it had a nice flavour of strawberries, perfect for the hot weather.

Maybe they were pouring the 06, or maybe it's the four months in bottle, but the flavour profile of this was very different than I remember. The dominant flavour is now raspberry, backed by a kind of fruit punch. It's fruity without being sweet, and light in acidity. Overall a perfectly serviceable, though not particularly inspiring sipper for those warm evenings and weekends as summer draws to a close.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Woodside Vineyards

Woodside vineyards was bonded in 1963, which makes them officially 45 years old this year (and slightly older than me). In this anniversary year some significant changes are afoot. Now aged 82, Bob Mullen has sold his property on Kings Mountain Road along with the vineyard and winery buildings, but not the business. Woodside Vineyards is now in the process of looking for a new home, preferably within the Woodside area.

The good news is that the new owner isn't planning on taking immediate posession, so the 2008 vintage will continue to be produced as normal. The future of the vineyard is not certain, but it seems likely that it will continue to be managed by Woodside Vineyards for at least the next year, possibly longer. Since that is only one of around 25 vineyard sources used by the winery there shouldn't be any significant impact.

This last weekend the vineyard held an open house for mailing list members and were pouring several new releases. Wes and his group had visited on Saturday; I managed to get up there on Monday.

1997 Sparkling Wine I wasn't particularly impressed with this the last time I tasted it. The price has been reduced from $30 to $20 so clearly I'm not the only one. There's some green apple but a lot of what some might call minerrality, but to me it just tasted like baking soda. There's far better bubbly for the money. $20

2006 Chardonnay Lots of vanilla and green apples. Fruity with a rich mouthfeel. Quite low in acidity for a Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay and a surprisingly tannic finish; I'm guessing this was fermented on the skins for longer than is typical. I'm in two minds over this; I got one to try at a later date, but it's not my favourite. $22

2005 Pinot Noir This is the first chance I've had to taste the Pinot, but I've heard good things about it. At Pinot Paradise I think it was the first wine to run out, and unfortunately I'd started at the other end of the room. I wasn't disappointed; it really delivered. It reminded me of a much more concentrated version of the 07 Great Blue Heron I tried on Saturday; not entirely surprising given the proximity and the shared history. Lots of chocolate and cherry, with a long finish. $36. Go get some before it sells out!

2005 Estate Zinfandel I do like the Woodside Zinfandel. Lots of bright raspberry fruit and pepper, with some coffee and chocolate from the oak. The finish is long too. $30

2005 Kings Mountain Cabernet This wine and the Estate Cabernet both won Gold medals at the SCMWA Commercial Wine Competition, with the Kings Mountain being voted best SCM Red. I'm sorry, but the judges got it wrong. The Kings Mountain cab is a good wine; lots of blackberry/blackcurrant fruit, a little coffee and caramel, but it didn't wow me like the (Silver medal winning) Pinot did. I'm not even convinced that the 2005 is as good as the 2004 I opened recently, though to be fair the 2004 had a year of cellaring. Having said that it's still a damn fine wine and one of the best Santa Cruz Mountains cabs for opening tonight. Excellent value at $22. I bought two and would have liked a case.

2004 Estate Cabernet A lot more structure - tannin and acidity - than the Kings Mountain. Typically the Estate needs a few years in the cellar to show well and this one is no exception. There's plenty of fruit but it needs time to come round. $40.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Great Blue Heron Vineyard

When Paul and Robin Smith built their home in Woodside about 10 years ago they approached Bob Mullen of Woodside Vineyards for suggestions on what to do with their estate. Bob recommended planting Pinot Noir; he oversaw the first phase of planting and took the fruit from the early vintages.
Later vintages were custom-crushed at Thomas Fogarty by Michael Martella, but Fogarty needed the capacity for their own use so Paul set up a winery in his three-car garage under Martella's supervision.

A group of us met at the vineyard last weekend. Wes had arranged a tour calling at Ridge for their "Taste of Monte Bello" event and at Woodside for their open house, but I had other commitments and was only able to make this event. I was accompanied by my one-year-old son which made taking notes impractical, so this is from memory.

The vines are now fully mature and produce enough fruit for 100 cases of Pinot Noir. Paul would like to increase production, but as ever it's a question of sourcing suitable fruit. The wine is sold at Roberts of Woodside for around $21 and is also at a few local restaurants, as well as being available directly from the winery. Unusually for Pinot the wines are bottled in Bordeaux-style bottles. This was done to give more space for the bottle label; the plan is to have a different label every year with artwork from local artists. The name Great Blue Heron comes from one of the resident wildlife who apparently helped keep the area clear of gophers when the vineyard was planted.

The first vintage was 2005, and was scored 86 by Wine Spectator. We tasted the 2006 and the newly bottled 2007. The painting that graces the 2006 label was the first to be commissioned by the winery and depicts a heron sitting on a lake. The wine had a reddish-brown colour reminiscent of an older wine; on the palate there was some candied fruit and a character I couldn't immediately pinpoint. On the way home I wondered if the wine was slightly madeirized.

The 2007 on the other hand had a more vibrant purple colour and really nice, rich cherry and chocolate flavours. I purchased a couple of bottles and plan to let them stand for a few weeks before sampling again; I'll probably end up going back for more. The label has a photograph of two herons in flight.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Post Sales Support

These days the interwebs are full of sites where you can find other peoples tasting notes on pretty much any wine that's out there. Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate have extensive online databases of their published scores and notes; collectors post comments on CellarTracker and Cork'd and discuss the wines in online forums (or is it fora?); consumers and retailers alike discuss the latest releases in their blogs.

But for any given wine, who opens the most bottles? Who knows the wine best? Obviously it's the people who made it. They are uniquely positioned to track the progress of a wine over the years; after all they've had it in ideal conditions since before it was even released.

The finest example in this regard is Penfolds of Australia. Every few years they hold a tasting of the entire library going back over 50 years and publish it on their website as "The Rewards Of Patience". For a collector, whether of the iconic Grange or the more affordable but still long-lived Bin series it's the ultimate resource.

Yet if you go to most other wineries web sites, 99% of the time the only thing you'll find information on is the latest and future releases. It's all about selling; where's the after sales support?

Recently Wes told me that a couple of years ago Jeff Emery had held a tasting and posted notes on the entire library of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard wines. Although I'd visited the site before I'd never noticed it because for some reason on my browser (Firefox) it shows up as black on black. But sure enough, the notes are there going back all the way to 1979, and they make interesting reading.

Take for example the rainy 1982 vintage; the Bates Ranch Cabernet is "Complex and soft, perhaps just past its peak. Drink now or last Tuesday" whereas the Estate Pinot Noir is "a HUGE wine that still needs time. Lots of tannin, but lots of deep fruit too. Hold until 2010 to 2015". Notes like these from the people who know the wines are a fantastic resource that will prevent you from opening a bottle too soon or keeping it too long, and I wish that more wineries would share them.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

La Honda Winery

Silicon Valley is of course well known for its dot-com millionaires. Having made a fortune in the tech industry many of them purchase large properties in the Santa Cruz Mountains and, rather than maintain a huge garden, some of them have a vineyard installed. There are several local companies that specialise in installing and maintaining home vineyards; one of them is called Post and Trellis.

A former geologist, MBA and amateur winemaker, Ken Wornick has installed a number of vineyards from Woodside to Saratoga, including his own 2.5 acre Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese vineyard in La Honda. In 2001 the company purchased an industrial unit in Redwood City and began making private label wines for the vineyard clients. Ken also began making his own wines under the La Honda Winery label.

Skip forward to the present day. With around 25 vineyards being managed, 15 of which are over an acre in size, and a growing inventory of his own label wines La Honda Winery finally decided to emerge from stealth mode and release the wines to the general public. My friend Wes and I made an appointment with Ken for a private tour and tasting one Tuesday afternoon.

The winery is located in a largely residential part of Redwood City. What was once a fairly ordinary industrial unit has been greatly embellished with stonework and art over the course of several years. Trucks carrying fruit can drive through the winery to the crushpad at the rear. Fruit is destemmed, but not crushed, and the individual berries are fed onto a table where they are sorted by hand. The wines are bottled unfined and unfiltered. Ken aims to keep alcohol levels reasonably low; all the wines we tasted were a little over 13%. Despite the fact that the law permits a margin of up to 1.5% in the declared alcohol content, Ken insists on labelling the wines to two decimal places. The winery has the capacity to handle up to 5,000 cases, but currently is at around a third of that capacity, and plans to remain there.

For a new winery, La Honda certainly has a wide range of wines. The current release list includes three whites and six reds, four of which are sourced from local vineyards that he manages. An additional 4 or 5 reds are planned for release in Winter 2008; two from Chalk Hill AVA in Sonoma, the rest from local vineyards. Case production varies from less than 25 cases up to 235 cases. We tasted four wines; two from local vineyards and two from purchased fruit. Unfortunately I lost my notes, so this is from memory - for an alternate perspective check Wes's blog entry

2006 Syrah, Santa Cruz MountainsFruit for this Syrah is sourced from several vineyards, but the bulk of it comes from a vineyard in the Los Altos Hills. The nose is pretty subdued initially; plenty of tannin but not a huge amount of acidity. Spicy flavours of blackberry and liquorice, and a decent finish. Stylistically it's more like an Australian Shiraz than a Syrah. Decent value at $19 and drinkable but would certainly benefit from short-term cellaring. 58 cases.

2006 Pinot Noir "Black Capsule North", Santa Cruz Mountains Ken manages several Pinot Noir vineyards; this is a blend of fruit from four different vineyards at the northern end of the AVA, from Los Altos Hills to Woodside. It's matured in American oak. In contrast there's another blend called "Red Capsule South" (which we didn't taste) that comes from four vineyards between Los Altos Hills and Saratoga. Frankly if it didn't say Pinot Noir on the label I doubt that would have been my first guess; it has a rather dark colour and initially is very closed, showing mostly oak and tannin. With time in the glass I got flavours of blackcurrant, orange peel and some black cherry. Should really be cellared for at least 2-3 years. 93 cases. $34

2006 Cabernet Sauvignon "Naylor's Dry Hole", Chalone AVA Duncan Naylor has a 2 acre vineyard next to Brosseau Vineyard in the Chalone AVA. When planting the vineyard water was a problem; he dug several wells that came up dry before finally finding water. Consequently he named the vineyard Dry Hole. It's mostly planted to Pinot Noir, which goes to the Loring Wine Company.
Initially the nose has a lot of vanilla from the oak; my first thought was "ice-cream". On the palate it's a nice, soft, drink-me-now cab with good blackcurrant flavour. I preferred it to the Perrucci Family Cabernet that I tasted last weekend, and at $26 it's $7 cheaper. 72 cases.

2005 Viognier, Napa Valley Most of Ken's wines have a story behind them. This fruit came from three rows that were surplus to requirements and so hadn't been picked. The resulting wine is still around 13% but has 3.8% residual sugar; though not sweet enough to be a dessert wine it would make an excellent aperitif. The nose is typical Viognier; sweet and floral. On the palate there are concentrated flavours of peaches, pears and canteloupe with just enough acidity to counter the sweetness. $24 - 235 cases.

La Honda Winery seems to be doing all the right things. Ken is clearly doing something that he enjoys and the wines I've tasted have all been well made and reasonably priced. I'm looking forward to following his progress.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

2005 Perrucci Family Cabernet Sauvignon

Perrucci Family Vineyards is a small producer based in Los Gatos. Andy and Greg Perrucci come from a family of Italian fruit growers, but instead chose to pursue high-tech careers. In the late 1990s they planted Sangiovese on their father's estate. The first vintage was in 2003; they also purchase fruit from other Santa Cruz Mountains vineyards as well as Paicines.

This Cabernet Sauvignon includes fruit sourced from both AVAs, though the ratio isn't listed. As a result it's entitled to use the Central Coast Appellation, though I didn't see one listed. It's blended with around 15% Merlot and aged for 2 years in American oak.

This was from a newly opened bottle. The nose was enticing, with black fruits and coffee. This was matched by similar flavours on the palate; lots and lots of blackcurrant and chocolate and soft tannins. Not a lot of acidity. However it faded a bit on the finish, where there was a hint of green tannins. Would probably benefit from a year or so in the bottle; I'd appreciate the chance to try it again from a bottle that's had some air.

Overall then a decent effort. What lets it down is the price; at $33 it's about $10 more than most of the immediate competition, such as Mount Eden Saratoga Cuvee or Woodside Kings Mountain, and lacks some of the structure of similarly priced Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernets.

Monday, August 18, 2008

On medals and scores

I finally got round to reading the press release from the SCMWA on the winners of the 2008 Santa Cruz Mountains Commercial Wine Competition.

First off, congratulations to the winners. Woodside Vineyards not only got best SCM red wine for their 2005 King's Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon (I reviewed the 2004 just last month and was very impressed) but also got gold for their Estate Cabernet and silvers for their 2005 estate Pinot Noir and Zinfandel. Beauregard got best SCM White for their 2006 Bald Mountain Vineyard Chardonnay, as well as three other silver medals, all for Chardonnays.

The two top wines were a bit of a surprise. Best In Show went to a white port from Picchetti Winery called Angelica. Now personally I find port to be over-rated; I'm more of a Sauternes fan. I'll withhold judgement until I've tried it. But the highest score of all went to a Soquel Vineyards Zinfandel from Lodi!? What's the world coming to?

I was a bit surprised by the number of medals that were handed out; there were more gold medals awarded than Michael Phelps got. It turns out that rather than divide the wines into classes and award first, second and third place within each class all the wines receive a score out of 100 (I'll put aside my views on the 100 point system for now). Anything scoring over 90 points gets a gold, anything over 85 gets a silver and anything over 80 gets a bronze. Out of almost 150 wines only five of them failed to get any kind of medal. It reminded me of the scene from Meet the Fockers where DeNiro says "I didn't know they make 9th place ribbons" and Hoffman replies "Oh, they've got them all the way up to 10th place."

All that aside there were some interesting results, including Golds for Black Ridge (I've been saying that they were worth keeping an eye on) and - of all things - a 2007 Pelican Ranch Lodi Pinotage.

Nice to see several wines from Santa Clara Valley getting decent scores, including Muccigrosso Vineyards "Lynzin" (90, Gold) and "Stanzin" (89, Silver), Sarah's Vineyard 2005 Estate Pinot Noir (89, Silver), Martin Ranch 2004 JD Hurley Cabernet Sauvignon (89, Silver) and Clos LaChance 2004 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (88, Silver).

The medal winners will be on display during the Santa Cruz County Fair, which runs from September 9th-14th. The SCMWA is organising a tasting event for that weekend.

The official results table is here.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Scotts Valley Art & Wine Festival

It's the Scotts Valley Art & Wine festival this weekend. Several local wineries will be pouring;
Bargetto, Domenico, Glenwood Oaks, Hallcrest, Heart O' The Mountain, Hunter Hill, Naumann, Pelican Ranch, Roudon-Smith and Sones. Additionally, Heart O' The Mountain's sister winery High Valley Vineyard from Lake County will be there.

The event is on Saturday and Sunday from 10AM to 6PM on Kings Village Road in Scotts Valley. Wine glass plus two tastings costs $15. For more info see the festival web site.

Bottle Shock review

I was reading the Chronicle's review of the movie Bottle Shock. From the trailer it looks like a fun movie, and in my view anything with Alan Rickman in it is worth watching.

One line in the review annoyed me though. People in the Bay Area had known for decades that the wine coming out of Napa and Sonoma was good stuff Excuse me? Sonoma? Nine out of the twelve US wines at the event were from Napa, the other three came from the Central Coast - two from the Santa Cruz Mountains and one from Monterey County. Precisely zero came from Sonoma. Guess the movie isn't as factual as I'd hoped.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

2006 Chaine d'Or Chardonnay

Chaine d'Or (Golden Chain) is the nickname given to the Santa Cruz Mountains by Paul Masson. It's also the name of a small winery nestled in the hills above Woodside. For the past 20 years they have produced around 400 cases a year of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon from their small estate vineyard.

The 2006 vintage was the last to be made by founding winemaker Anne Anderson. It's a nice, light, fruity Chardonnay. It's buttery, but not overly so, and it's lightly oaked. When first opened there was an aroma of pears; as it warmed up the vanilla of the oak became more evident. On the palate it's very fruity, with hints of apple, pear and pineapple. The finish is mouthwatering, showing the acidity and a hint of oak. Good value at $18.

Sadly there won't be a 2007 vintage - the fruit was all sold to Clos LaChance. However the new winemaker, Paul Romero, plans to resume production with the 2008 vintage.

Wine Spectator Pinot Noir Report

UpdateThis post was based on an article on winespectator.com. However the publishers seems to have pulled the article from their site; it's no longer available at the original URL. Sorry.

Wine Spectator magazine has published a round-up of over 600 of the current Pinot Noir releases. It focuses mainly on the 2006 vintage, which overall they rate fairly poorly. Of the 400+ wines from the vintage just 31 rated in the 91-94 range, and none rated 95-100

There aren't many local wineries on the list. Here's a round-up; for the complete listing see the web site or the September 30th issue of Wine Spectator magazine.

Bargetto 2006 Santa Cruz Mountains scored just 81.

David Bruce has six wines rated. The highest score went to the 2005 Santa Cruz Mountains which got 90. The lowest went to another Santa Cruz Mountains wine, the $75 2004 Estate Bottled which got 78.

Mount Eden got 90 points for the 2004 and 88 for the 2005. Note that the web site shows the wrong price for the 2005 Pinot - it's actually $60 at the winery, though can be found for less. The 2005 Saratoga Cuvée only rated 82.

Rhys had three wines rated, plus three of the sister label, Alesia, made from fruit sourced from other AVAs. All were 2006 vintage; the Swan Terrace got 89 and the Alpine Hillside got 91 but the Alpine Vineyard only got 82. Good luck getting any though; the Rhys mailing list has a fairly long waiting list.

Sonnet had 5 wines rated, two of which were the Muns Vineyard. 2005 scored 83 and 2006 scored 81. I was particularly surprised by this as it's one of the few wines reviewed that I have actually tried. It was being poured at Pinot Days right next to Silver Mountain's 2005 Muns Vineyard (which is made in the same facility by a different winemaker) and of the two I preferred the 06 Sonnet.

Testarossa had no less than 13 wines reviewed, none of which are made from local fruit. Most of their scores were in the 87-90 range. The 2006 Palazzio, which is a blend including some Santa Cruz Mountains fruit scored 87.

Vine Hill 2006 Gatos Locos scored 82. That's about in line with my impression from the Pinot Paradise tasting last April.

New (to me) Wineries

I've spent the evening recompiling a whole bunch of code and cleaning up the errors. At the same time I decided to go through and review the winery database.

I'd heard of a couple of new wineries recently and wanted to ensure my lists were up-to-date. Sure enough, several wineries that were marked as simply "Registered" last time I checked (way too long ago I admit) now have web sites and in most cases are selling wines. I'll try to dig out more information on them and hopefully get hold of some bottles to taste. But here's a few new names to look for.

GBH Vineyard is a tiny producer based in Woodside. The winery makes about 100 cases of estate Pinot which retails for around $21. GBH apparently stands for Great Blue Heron, though I suspect that part of the name is fellow British ex-pat Paul Smith's private joke. The 2006 vintage is available now; the 2007 will be released some time soon.

Regale Vineyards is another Pinot producer. Based in Los Gatos they also claim to produce a range of unspecified wines from other appellations. Their waiting list is currently open, but no indication of when the first release will be.

Big Dog Vineyards is based in Milpitas and is producing estate Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, together with a sweet wine based on Cabernet Sauvignon. They are also sourcing Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah from Napa Valley. All are priced around $32 except the sweet wine which is $22 for a 375. The current releases are all from the 2005 vintage.

Satori Cellars from Gilroy has two 2006 Estate Zinfandels carrying the Santa Clara Valley appellation priced at $25 and $28 as well as a 2006 Walla Walla Cabernet Sauvignon at $30. Total production appears to be around 400-500 cases.

Monte Verde Vineyards are producing estate Merlot in Morgan Hill carrying the Central Coast appellation. There's also a second Merlot and a Syrah, as well as a red blend called Tres Amigos. All of these are 2006 vintage, but the web site is "under construction" and there's no prices or release date posted.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

2004 Woodside Kings Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon

Emmet Rixford was one of the early wine-making pioneers in the Santa Cruz Mountains. In 1884 he planted "La Questa", a 40 acre vineyard in the hills above Woodside. The cuttings are said to have been sourced from Chateau Margaux in France. Eventually Rixford died and his sons didn't have the knowledge or vision to maintain the business. For a while the vineyard was managed by Rusty Ray, before finally being subdivided and used for housing. Of those original 40 acres around one acre still exists today, in the gardens of a couple of houses. They may be the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon vines in the USA.

The vines were rediscovered by Bob Groetzinger in 1957. His friend Bob Mullen began producing wine from them in 1960 as hobby. The following year Bob Mullen purchased a nearby property, and Woodside Vineyards was bonded in 1963.

Today the winery still manages that first acre and has added 16 or so more recently planted acres that it owns or manages around the town of Woodside. Production is up to about 2,000 cases. The winery makes three Cabernets, labelled Kings Mountain, Estate and - in good years - La Questa, which is sourced exclusively from that single acre.

The 2004 Kings Mountain is a rich, ripe Cabernet, made with grapes from other local vineyards that the winery manages. Lots of blackcurrant, not too much oak, soft tannins. Of the three it's the one that's intended to be drunk in the near term, and it's drinking really well right now. The 2004 is now sold out at the winery; the 2005 is priced at $22 a bottle, which I think is very good value.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Smoke Taint?

Interesting post on the Westwood Winery blog about the possibilities of the grapes being affected by the smoke from our recent fires. Most people I've spoken to haven't seemed that worried about it; apocryphal tales of vintages having an additional smokiness, but mostly the view that it's probably imagined, with no real hard facts to go off.

Well it turns out there are real, hard facts. Vines can indeed be affected by smoke, with compounds entering the plant via the leaves and ending up inside the berries, not simply collecting on the skins. How significant the effects will be is going to vary depending on the degree of exposure. But if you do notice a certain smokiness to the 2008 vintage, it may not just be your imagination.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Cellar rat: It's a wonderful life

My friend Paul Romero has an apprentice. A student at Princeton, Rajiv Ayyangar is spending his summer vacation working as a cellar rat and general dogsbody. He's started documenting the experience in his blog. I hope it works out for him, and I look forward to reading more about his experiences.

I've spent a couple of days here and there working with Paul in the vineyards. It's a total contrast to the high-tech life; it's hard slog, but strangely enjoyable and peaceful. I'm planning to take a day off in August to help with the bottling too. And one of these days I intend to make my own barrel of wine.

2004 Cooper Garrod Cabernet Franc, Francville Vineyard

There's a wine term I'd heard several times but never really understood: "reductive".

Now reduction is a chemical term, meaning the opposite of oxidation. In a wine environment it refers to characteristics produced in an oxygen poor environment. Typically sulphur is the major component of the effect. The characteristics are variously described as burned matches, rubber or eggs. You always wanted to know that, didn't you? The good news is that it is reversible with oxygen, which means it will eventually 'blow off' while in the decanter or the glass.

Anyway, last night I opened and decanted a 2004 Cooper Garrod Cabernet Franc. ($22, from Whole Foods) It had a nice, surprisingly light colour, but the first sniff reminded me of rubber bands and hard boiled eggs. On the palate there was a tongue-numbing combination of tannin, acid and alcohol (even though it's less than 14%). Not a trace of fruit in evidence. But it was early in the evening so I gave it a chance to open up.

After a couple of hours there still wasn't anything there. I was swirling and sniffing and sipping, but all I was getting was a numbness in my tongue. I considered pouring it back in the bottle to try again the following day, but I wanted to know how long it would take to come round, if indeed it would at all.

Finally after about 3 hours the fruit started to show. Not much at first, but at least it was there. By the fourth hour it no longer smelled of rubber and eggs and I could taste the blackberries and tobacco that I was expecting. I still thought it had a way to go, but by then it was midnight and time to call it a night.

So for me this turned out to be a wine that was more educational than enjoyable. Not that it isn't a pleasant wine; it had good fruit flavours when it eventually emerged from its sulphur-induced coma. But next time I open a wine like this I'll be sure to pour it into a decanter or jug to give it some air, then back in the bottle, seal it and come back a day later.

From K&L: Does a Leaky Capsule Always Indicate Bad Wine?

My friend Rama pointed out this interesting post on the K&L Wines Blog. I didn't realise that K&L HAD a blog, so I'm doubly grateful for that.

The post concerns a magnum of 1979 Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard Bates Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon that had a leaky capsule, but turned out to be perfectly sound. I particularly liked Joe Manekin's three conclusions:

1) Wine is sometimes as resilient as it is fragile
2) CA Cabernet can pack a whole lot of richness and flavor, and still be under 13% alcohol
3) Santa Cruz Mountain wines, when they're good, age every bit as well, and often better than, wines from Napa.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Wines for $10 or less

I was reading an article on SFGate.com where three sommelliers were given $70 and told to buy 7 bottles of wine. Not surprisingly, very few of the wines purchased were from California.

Looking locally, about the only winery I can think of that has a range of wines worth drinking that are available at retail for under $10 is Clos LaChance; I've frequently seen their "Glittering-throated Emerald" unoaked Chardonnay on offer in Safeway for under $10.

All is not entirely lost however. Some wineries do occasionally clear out excess inventory to make way for the latest vintages. Recently I've taken advantage of a couple of these. The only down side (if you consider it to be) is that you have to buy a whole case.

Silver Mountain makes a non-vintage blend called Oscar's Wild. At $17 a bottle it's in the same price range as Cinnabar's Mercury Rising, or Fogarty's Skyline. And it's a reasonable enough blend of Bordeaux varietals. At $17 I'd probably pass, but on a recent vist they were clearing it out for $100 a case - a better than 50% discount.

Down in Santa Cruz, Alexander Cellars are currently selling their 2000 Zinfandel at $22. But to clear space for the next vintage they are offering it at $100 a case. I tried it recently - I doubt that you'll find a better Zinfandel anywhere for the price.

Around the corner from Alexander cellars in the same complex you'll find Equinox and its sibling label, Bartolo. The Bartolo range includes several different varietals including a Sangiovese Rose for $12, a red and white blend called "Cioppino" for $14 and a Syrah for $16. Currently the winery is offering a mixed case - any 12 bottles - for $120.

So that's six wines for $10 or less. The original challenge was for seven; provided they stayed in budget the contestants were allowed to go as high as $15, and all of them included a sparkling wine. Well you could certainly pick up any number of sparkling wines at Safeway for under $15, but we don't necessarily have to go outside the area. Woodside Vineyards has a NV "Champagne" for $12. It's made for them by Weibel vineyard in the East Bay using the Charmat bulk process, which helps keep the costs down, And while I grant you there's far better available if you're prepared to spend the extra money, it'll certainly hold its own against the likes of Korbel, Freixenet and the rest of the sub-$10 sparklers.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

2003 Cooper Garrod Chardonnay, Gravel Ridge Vineyards

I picked this up in Whole Foods a few months ago. The winery must have been clearing out the remaining 2003s in anticipation of the release of the 2005s, because the next time I visited they had cases of the new vintage.

This is a typical example of a Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay; not too much oak, still enough acidity to be lively (despite being 100% malolactic) and flavours of lemon and minerals. Good value at around $15. According to wine-searcher you can still get the 2003 in a couple of places.

As an aside, one of the things that I like about Cooper Garrod is that they maintain the old Santa Cruz Mountains tradition of individually numbering the bottles. Like an artist's print, each bottle is unique in its own right.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

2005 Neely Pinot Noir, "Holly's Cuvee"

Bob and Jim Varner make some of the best Chardonnay in the Santa Cruz Mountains. That's not just my view; Robert Parker has rated several vintages in the 90-95 range. They also grow Pinot Noir and used to grow a small amount of Gewurztraminer, which they sold to Bargetto, but have now grafted over to Pinot Noir.

Varner grow their Chardonnay in three "blocks", named Bee, Home and Ampitheater. The fruit is vinted separately and three bottlings are offered. In 2002 they added a fourth bottling with a new label; Neely, in recognition of the vineyard's owner, Dr. Kirk Neely. The Neely Chardonnay is a blend of barrels from the three blocks.

In 2005 the Neely Chardonnay was joined by a Pinot Noir. Like the Chardonnay it's a blend of two different blocks, named Hidden and Picnic.

The 2005 Neely Pinot Noir is pleasant enough. The nose is light but pretty, showing cherries and some oak. On the palate it's smooth; cherries and cranberries and a little spice. Overall it's a very nice, well made $20-$25 wine.

Unfortunately it's not a $20 wine. It goes for $35-$40, and that's the problem; it simply dosn't have enough going on to justify the tag. For the price of a Neely you could get a Pinot from Thomas Fogarty, McHenry, Woodside or Mount Eden - and probably have enough change left over for a bottle of Varner's other label, the excellent Foxglove Chardonnay.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Thomas Fogarty


Skyline Boulevard runs for about 40 miles along the top of the Santa Cruz Mountains, from Route 92 in Redwood City down to Route 17, south of San Jose. It's a nice road to drive; very scenic and winding.

About 5 miles south of the junction with Route 84 sits Thomas Fogarty Winery. Dr Fogarty was a surgeon who invented the Balloon Embolectomy Catheter. In the 1970s he took up home winemaking, and in 1981 he established the winery.

The tasting room inside the winery overlooks Portola Valley; on a clear day you can see the bay. Unfortunately right now smoke from the various local fires blocks part of the view. There are two tasting flights; one costs $6, the other $12. Each flight includes six wines. I did both flights side-by-side so as to compare similar varietals.

2005 Estate Chardonnay ($35)
A rich, slightly oaky nose. On the palate it's lemony and, well, gravelly - like sucking small pebbles. There's some vanilla oak and good acidity. Nice finish.

2005 Gist Ranch Chardonnay ($45)
Very similar to the Estate. Perhaps slightly higher acidity and I detected some pear. that wasn't in the first, but it didn't seem significantly better. Maybe with some bottle age it'll show more; for now I'll stick with the Estate.

2006 Gewurztraminer, Monterey County ($18)
Great nose, typical Gewurztraminer; very floral. Fairly dry (0.4% residual sugar), fruity and light in acidity. Good value. Bottled under a screw cap.

2006 "White Harvest" Pinot Noir ($22)
Almost too pale to be considered a Rose, this sits on the skins for less than an hour. Very faint, floral nose; crisp and dry. Interesting, but way overpriced. The Gewurztraminer is by far the better value.

2006 Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains ($25)
I tried this at Pinot Days recently; as I said at the time it's a great value. Good cherry flavour and nice acidity; it's drinking great right now.

2006 Michaud Pinot Noir, Chalone AVA ($45)
Much more open than my last tasting, also at Pinot Days. A very nice nose; floral, with cranberry and spice (cinnamon?). On the palate it's rich and spicy, with cherry and cranberry flavours. The finish is good, turning dry and tannic. A few years in the cellar would pay dividends.

2003 "Barbiolo"
A blend of Barbera and Nebbiolo. A jammy, oaky nose. On the palate my first impressions were of bacon and saltines crackers. Notes of blackberry and liquorice followed. This wine would to great with cheese.

2004 Barbera - Fiddletown
Rose hip syrup on the nose. Seemed slightly oxidised. On the palate it was surprisingly sweet - perhaps some residual sugar? It reminded me of a gummy candy called "Wine gums" that I enjoyed as a child.

At this point I realised that I was short of time, consequently the last four were just quick impressions.

2003 Estate Merlot, Razorback Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains ($45)
This was tight and tannic, not giving much up. It deserved more attention from me than it got.

2004 Martella Syrah, Camel Hill Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains ($55)
The only non-Fogarty wine of the flights, this is winemaker Michael Martella's own label. A smoky, heavy, serious Syrah. Certainly needs cellar time.

2003 Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains ($50)
More elegant than the Napa; the tannins were finer, the fruit less pronounced, the acidity higher. Surprisingly the (stated) alcohol level was higher - 14.2% as opposed to 13.9% for the Napa offering. I'd have guessed it was the other way around. Good cellaring potential.

2003 Cabernet Sauvignon, Vallerga Vineyard, Napa Valley ($50)
The Vallerga Vineyard is located in Yountville. This rich, fruity cab had good flavours of sweet blackcurrant backed by oak and some fairly strong tannins. A long finish. Nice.

In summary, there are several very good wines, and very good values here. The $12 tasting doesn't really do that much to justify its higher price; if you are only doing one flight then the $6 option is the best.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Alexander Cellars


Jeff Alexander's CV includes stints at David Bruce and Congress Springs. He's made beer as the Los Gatos Brewing Company and worked on San Francisco's cult vodka Hangar 1. His latest endeavours see him producing both wines under the name Alexander Cellars and spirits - Gin, Vodka and soon Brandy on the Sarticious label.

The tasting room is in the same buildings as Equinox, Bartolo and Trout Gulch and is part of the Surf City Vintners collective.

2005 Chardonnay, Chestnut Hill Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains ($24)
There's a nutty flavour to this chardonnay. It also tasted slightly oxidised.

2006 Estate Reserve Chardonnay, Chestnut Hill Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains ($24)
The nose has a strange characteristic - the only word I could find was oily. It has a similar nutty flavour to it as the 2005, but no trace of oxidation. Very nice finish.

2004 Zinfandel Pine Valley Vineyard, Monterey ($11)
The nose and palate scream port. Didn't do anything for me.

2000 Zinfandel, Central Coast ($22, $100 a case!)
From two old vineyards in Gilroy and Paso Robles. Good flavours of raspberry, black fruit and pepper. In spite of my usual stance that Zinfandel should be drunk within 5 or 6 years this is still holding up well. They need the space so are clearing it out at $100 a case, at which price it's a screaming deal. I bought a case and opened a bottle last night; it's not the most complex Zinfandel I've tasted, but for $8 I can't fault it!

1999 Zinfandel, Central Coast ($24)
Slightly lighter and a little more tannic than the 2000.

Pelican Ranch

Phil Crews is a professor of chemistry at UCSC's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. In 1997 he and his wife Peggy took their hobby of winemaking one step further and launched Pelican Ranch winery. Initially they were based in the Roudon-Smith facility in Scotts Valley, but recently they moved into a new facility in Santa Cruz, alongside several other winemakers. Pelican Ranch produces an eclectic range of wines from different varietals and vineyards. All their wines are bottled in screw tops.

2007 Chardonnay, Los Carneros ($25)
Pretty typical Carneros chardonnay. Lots of creamy butter, vanilla and toast with light acidity.

2007 Gewurztraminer, Monterey
The characteristic Gewurztraminer floral nose. On the palate there's flavours of lychee and rose petals.

2007 Gris de Pinot, Santa Lucia Highlands ($18)
Dusty nose with light cherry flavours. Made in the typical saignee method of bleeding off some juice so as to increase the ratio of skin to juice. The drawback is that with such a small amount of juice (less than a barrel made) the economics don't work; at $18 it's a poor value I'm afraid.

2006 Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley ($45)
Light coloured with a slightly brownish tint. Sweet cherry flavours with some slightly green tannins on the finish.

2006 Pinot Noir, Green Valley Road Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains ($45)
Altogether more rounded than the Russian River Valley offering, with a much better finish. Best wine poured.

2006 Syrah, Ventana Vineyard, Monterey County
A very tannic wine with a really meaty finish. It's crying out for a few years in the cellar and a big hunk of roast beef.

NV Raspberry wine ($16)
Bright scarlet colour and flavours of raspberry - well what did you expect? Makes a great Kir Royale for those who find Chambord too sweet.

Sunday, July 6, 2008



Storrs winery is based in an industrial estate just off River Street in Santa Cruz. Founded 20 years ago by Stephen Storrs and Pamela Bianchini, the winery has gone from producing 1200 to 12,000 cases a year. They are perhaps best known for their Zinfancel and Chardonnay, but they make a wide range of wines from fruit sourced mainly from the Santa Cruz Mountains and Santa Clara Valley.

2006 Annamaria's Vineyard Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains ($30)
The 5-acre vineyard is located in the foothills between Scotts Valley and Soquel. It was planted in the 1970s by Bob and Annamaria Roudon, and was part of the Roudon-Smith estate. Following Annamraia's death and Bob's retirement the vineyard was sold to long-time employee Cesar Ramirez who now maintains it. This is a rich, buttery chardonnay with good fruit and crisp acidity.

2007 Sauvignon Blanc San Lucas ($18)
Unusual to pour a Sauvignon Blanc after a Chardonnay, but it seemed to work. Fermented in 100% stainless steel. Very crisp and refreshing, with flavours of grapefruit and melon. I typically only buy Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand these days, but this was worth a purchase.

2005 Two Creek, Santa Clara County ($25)
A rich Rhone-style blend of Carignane, Syrah, Grenache and Grand Noir - a cross between a cross between Aramon and Petit Bouschet.
This newly opened bottle wasn't showing much fruit, just earth and tannins.

2002 Merlot, San Ysidro ($18)
A dusty nose. On the palate it showed plums and earth. Nice finish.

2004 St Clare Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains ($22)
A Bordeaux blend of Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot from another fresh bottle. Once again the nose is dusty and the wine is tight and tannic. Notes of liquorice.

2005 Rusty Ridge Zinfandel, Santa Clara County ($30)
Storrs make two Zinfandels from Santa Clara County. The Rusty Ridge is a rich, fruity Zin with a long finish. There's no obvious heat from the 15.2% alcohol. The fruit is sourced from a series of old vine vineyards, head-pruned and dry-farmed, located on the eastern edge of the Santa Cruz Mountains.


A beautiful July afternoon saw us out and about in the mountains, visiting a few wineries we haven't seen in a while. First stop was Hallcrest, one of the oldest wineries in the mountains. The original Hallcrest was founded in 1945; following the original owner's retirement in the 1970s it was renamed Felton Empire. In 1987 it was purchased by the current owner John Schumacher, who restored the Hallcrest name and also launched a second label, Organic Wine Works.

Unfortunately the 60 year old estate vineyards had to be torn up a few years ago due to disease and the winery has still not replanted. Plans are in hand to replant the six acres with Pinot Noir and Riesling, a varietal for which the winery was renowned.

Hallcrest is one of the wineries that maintains the mountain tradition of individually numbering wine bottles.

2006 Hallcrest Sauvignon Blanc Belle Farms Vineyard ($20)
The only Sauvignon Blanc currently grown in the Santa Cruz Mountains comes from this family vineyard near Watsonville. Flavours of gooseberry and grass are backed by strong acidity, which is only slightly ameliorated by some residual sugar.

2005 Hallcrest Barrel Select Chardonnay ($24)
Oaky but not overpowering so. Good acidity; flavours of green apples.

2007 Organic Wine Works "A Notre Terre" ($12)
A blend of mainly Syrah, with some Merlot and Zinfandel. Bottled without filtration or sulphites. A smoky nose. On the palate it's light and fruity; cranberries and cherries. The finish is strongly tobacco.

2004 Hallcrest Terra Serena Pinot Noir ($42)
The current incarnation of Hallcrest is well known for Pinot Noir, sourcing fruit from several local vineyards. The Terra Serena vineyard is in Corralitos;. the 20+ year old vines are dry farmed. It has a good berry nose with rich cherry and raspberry flavours. The finish is crisp.

2003 Organic Wine Works Mendocino Cabernet Sauvignon ($28)
This has a good Cabernet nose and sweet blackcurrant flavours. The finish is smooth, without too much tannin. The alcohol level is a reasonable 13.5% Because they are bottled without sulphites, the Organic Wine Works labels are intended to drink in the short term.

2003 Zinfandel Nova Vineyard, Lake County ($28)
Nose of oak and coffee. Rich flavours of pepper and black fruits. No real heat showing from the alcohol.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

2004 Pleasant Valley "Dylan David" Pinot Noir

Pleasant Valley Vineyards is a small producer located in Aptos, close to Windy Oaks and Alfaro Family. They make Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from their 2 acre estate vineyard.

I've tried the Pinot Noir a few times and although it's a nice wine I found it difficult to justify the price tag - at $85 it's one of the most expensive wines made in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It doesn't have the obtrusive tannins and sharp acidity that scream "Cellar Me!", it just seems like a pleasant, well made wine.

Then last night I tasted the 2004 Dylan David Pinot Noir. This particular bottle had been opened a few days earlier for a tasting, but was not used, so it had been recorked and kept in the fridge. The difference was remarkable. The nose suggested a tart raspberry syrup along with the oak. On the palate there was an assortment of flavours; raspberry and cherry combined with sweet spices - cinnamon and nutmeg. The finish was lovely, though not particularly long. We took a break part way through dinner to go see the fireworks. When we returned, almost two hours later, the wine hadn't faded at all.

So it seems there's a lot more to this wine than I originally thought. It doesn't show all that well in the "pop-and-pour" context of a wine tasting, but give it time and it shines. While $85 is beyond my personal spending limit, at least now I can see how it's justified.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Barbecue Rose

I read DrDebs article on summer barbecue wines. It's got some good, general suggestions for wines to pair with typical barbecue dishes.

One of her suggestions is Rose. Now I'll freely admit I don't drink much rose as I find most of them bland and sweet, and not much better than white Zinfandel. But recently I've tasted a few that were more interesting.

Alfaro Family have a very nice Rose of Pinot Noir. Nice fruit flavours with good acidity; not sweet at all. Goes for about $15

Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard makes a Grenache Rose from McDowell Valley. Again it's completely dry and has interesting flavours of raspberry. Good value at $12, but Jeff just makes a couple of barrels so it's only available from the winery.

Bonny Doon makes an excellent Vin Gris de Cigare. It's typically a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Grenache Blanc and is a lovely light, floral summer wine. It's made in large quantities and is widely distributed, so should be available in most states. It usually costs under $12; I've seen it as low as $9.

Monday, June 30, 2008

A few brief notes from Pinot Days

Yesterday saw the fourth Pinot Days event at Fort Mason in San Francisco. This very well organised event seemed larger than last year - the full list of participating wineries is here. There were a lot of new wineries that I'd never heard of before. However the number of participating wineries from the Santa Cruz Mountains was way down; several well known names were missing, such as Windy Oaks and Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard. Overall nothing really excited me; there were very few "wow" wines and no real revelations. Here are a few brief notes from the event - I would be interested to hear what you thought if you were there.

Richard Alfaro was pouring four 2006 wines from Martin Alfaro and Alfaro Family.
The Deer Park vineyard shows good fruit with earthy notes.
The Garys' vineyard was very rich, as is typical from that property.
The Schultze vineyard was delicious, my favourite of the line-up.
The Lindsay Paige is very structured; lots of tannin and acidity. Needs at least 3-5 years to really show.

Cathy and Craig Handley of Pleasant Valley Vineyards were pouring the 2005 and were previewing the unreleased 2006 Dylan David. The 2005 is light with an earthy finish. The 2006 was also light, showing much more fruit. The 06 seems good to go (though it won't be released until September); the 05 probably needs a year or two.

Craig informs me that for 2007 they also sourced fruit from the nearby Deer Park vineyard. They will have about 125 cases available, and it will be priced somewhat lower than the Estate, probably around $60. If all goes well they hope to make 250 cases in 2008.

Silver Mountain had the 2004 Miller Hill vineyard. This is from the land next to the winery and technically meets the criteria to be classified as Estate. It had a nice raspberry flavour to it, with good acidity. They were also pouring the 2005 Tondre's Grapefield (which I tasted but neglected to make a note) and the 2005 Muns Vineyard. This highly structured wine comes from the highest Pinot vineyard in the appellation at 2600 ft above sea level. It needs 5 years in the cellar to really show.

In contrast, at the next table Tony Craig was pouring his Sonnet 2006 Muns Vineyard. This is somewhat richer than the Silver Mountain and was generating something of a buzz - at least four other people asked me whether I'd tried it. Give it another year to let the oak integrate properly.

Sonnet also had three other Pinots from other regions, but unfortunately I neglected to taste them. Close by, Savannah-Chanelle were also pouring a couple of their wines, but neither was from the Santa Cruz Mountains and I neglected to take notes.

Brandon Brassfield was pouring the 2005 and 2006 Heart O' The Mountain releases.
The 2005 is excellent as I've said before, though it seemed more tannic than the last time I tasted it at the Vintners Festival. There are around 20 of the 180 cases left. The 2006 is scheduled to be released in September. It's a little softer than the 2005, but still very good. 500 cases were made. So far only half of the six acres are producing; there are two more acres suitable for planting, but the rest of the 150 acre estate is canyons and wilderness. They expect to be producing around 1200 cases in a few years.

Thomas Fogarty were pouring three wines:
The 2006 Corda vineyard from Marin County showed distinct notes of cherry cola.
The 2006 Santa Cruz Mountains is a blend from 5 vineyards of which 2 are part of the Fogarty estate. Very good value at $25, it had plenty of fruit and nice acidity.
In contrast the 2005 Michaud Vineyard had lots of tannin and not as much fruit.

Hallcrest were pouring a pair from 2004.
The 2004 Belle Farms has good dark berry, bing cherry and cranberry flavours. The fruit is sourced from a small family farmk in Watsonville.
The 2004 Barrel Select is a blend of 5 different vineyards. Though it has plenty of tannin it's rich and surprisingly easy drinking.

The sole representative of the Santa Clara valley was Sarah's Vineyard. Tim O'Kelley was pouring the 2005 Estate and Reserve. Both are rather good, with spicy cherry flavours. They also will be producing a Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot soon, from purchased fruit.

As I noted earlier, there were many others from outside the region, too many to name. David Dain Smith continues to produce beautiful wines on the Dain label. Freeman and Kanzler were both pouring great stuff. And Flying Goat had a very nice estate Pinot that was new to me.

If you're on a tight budget, there wasn't much for you, but I did enjoy 42 Degrees South from Tasmania that was being poured by The Jug Shop, and the 2006 Carmel Road from Monterey - both under $17.

Overall a very good event. Mark your calendar for next year.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Martin Fire Latest

With over 900 fire personnel on the scene the fire is now 90% contained. The damage estimate has again been revised down, to 520 acres. Mild winds helped prevent the fire from spreading since it was initially reported. 3 residences and 8 outbuildings are confirmed destroyed, with a further three buildings listed as damaged. Martin Road remains closed between Ice Cream Grade and Pine Flat Road, but is expected to reopen today. Most of the residents who were evacuated have been allowed to return.

Officially the cause of the fire remains under investigation and Fire officials have released a sketch of a man they would like to interview in connection. Local residents suspect that it was accidentally started by hikers in the Moon Rocks area of the Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Martin Fire Update

CDF have revised their estimates on the extent of the damage. They are now reporting that the fire covers 600 acres and the preliminary assessment is that 10 houses have been destroyed; so far just two are confirmed destroyed. As of Friday evening the fire is 65% contained.
This evening the winds have blown the smoke over the valley; Paul Romero sent me this photo from his vineyard in San Jose. However unlike the Summit Fire there's no smell of smoke (yet?)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Martin Fire: Here we go again

Another big fire is raging in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Unlike the Summit Fire, this one is in a populated area close to the community of Bonny Doon and just over a mile from the Bonny Doon Vineyard tasting room. The fire began on wednesday afternoon, around 3PM.

Around 1500 people are reported to have been evacuated from Ice Cream Grade Road, Martin Road, Moon Rock Road, Smith Grade and Pine Flat Road. Over 1000 houses and other buildings are threatened. Latest estimates are that 700 acres have burned (with the fire only 5% contained) and the acreage is expected to be at least twice that before it's extinguished. The Governor has declared a State of Emergency for Santa Cruz County.

Paul Romero's blog has a post on the fire - he manages a small vineyard very close to the perimeter. McHenry and Beauregard are also nearby.

There are some photos of the fire (or, more accurately, the smoke from it) on Flickr by "Soaked In Sin". My thanks to her for allowing me to use her photos in this post.

UPDATE: Bonny Doon Vineyard is reporting that their tasting room is out of immediate danger and will re-open once the restrictions are lifted.

Map of the affected area

News reports:
Mercury News
Santa Cruz Sentinel

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Notes from the Vintners Festival

On Saturday afternoon I went over to Santa Cruz for the Vintners Festival. Here are a few notes from the trip.

Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard were pouring out of their new premises on Ingalls Street in Santa Cruz, alongside Pelican Ranch and Beauregard. The permits finally came through last Thursday, just in time. Right now the unit is completely empty, but the equipment will be moved in soon. The unit will be shared by Dragonfly Cellars, the own label of Jeff's assistant winemaker, Denis Hoey. SCMW were pouring five wines; a dry Grenache Rose, a Tinto Cao from San Antonio AVA (which I didn't much care for), two excellent Pinots from Brancifore and Bailey's vineyards and the Durif from Mendocino.

Sones Cellars were also pouring in the same location; they plan to move into the unit next door once everything is done. See seperate post.

Although not officially part of the vintners festival, Vino Tabi were pouring out of their unit in the same block. They were offering a Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay and two Central Coast Bordeaux blends, both made at Silver Mountain by Jerold O'Brien. Vino Tabi aims to be a kind of custom crush wine club, where people will be able to take part in the winemaking process and buy a barrel or shares in one, rather like Crushpad in San Francisco. The idea sounds like a lot of fun, though if you hope is to end up with some inexpensive wine at the end you may need to rethink; the sample wines on offer were priced around the $24-$26 mark and while they are decent quality there is certainly plenty of juice that's as good or available at a lower price.

Over in Soquel at Michael's On Main there were six local wineries competing for our attention. Cordon Creek concentrate on Bordeaux varietals from El Dorado and the Sierra Foothills, and are as just as good as they sound.

Clos Tita had their Cuvee and the very nice Estate Pinots, as well as a Bordeaux blend called Gironde and an unusual Syrah/Merlot blend.

Naumann were pouring a decent 2006 Chardonnay and some rather meaty Merlots; 2002, 2004 and barrel samples of the 2006 which was offered for sale on futures by the case.

Heart O' The Mountain had their excellent 2005 Pinot and a sample of the unreleased 2006, which is just as good. They too had a futures offering: 10% discount if you pre-order six bottles. Not a huge discount, but better than none and at least it covers the sales tax.

La Honda were pouring a nice Sauvignon Blanc and a Santa Cruz Mountains Syrah. Unfortunately the restaurant was closing at 4PM for a wedding so I didn't get to try the Syrah or the wines that Delmonico were pouring.

Sones Cellars

Michael Sones is the winemaker for Bargetto. In his spare time he launched his own label, Sones Cellars. This has proven so successful that they have now moved into their own premises in downtown Santa Cruz.

Sones sources much of their fruit from the Wiedeman Vineyard in the Santa Clara Valley.

2007 La Sirena White Table Wine This is a blend of Viognier, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc from three different vineyards. Although the 2006 vintage carried the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, for 2007 some different sources were used and as a result it carries the California designation. A light, crisp, fruity wine that's ideal for summer.

2005 Wiedeman Vineyard Zinfandel, Santa Clara Valley. Despite the 15.9% alcohol content this isn't a fruit bomb; it's a softer, medium weight wine with good flavours and no real heat evident. The vines are over 25 years old.

2004 Petite Sirah, Monterey County. As I've noted in previous posts, I'm not a huge fan of Petite Sirah; they tend to be tannic monsters that are hard to pair with food. Sones has tamed the beast by pressing earlier; the wine still has plenty of fruit and colour, but it's much more approachable than most Petites.

2004 Wiedeman Vineyard Syrah, Santa Clara Valley. From the same vineyard as the Zinfandel this is a pleasant, easy drinking wine.


What's the smallest commercial winery in the world? It's not a quiz as I don't know the answer, but with an annual production of just 44 cases Equinox must be a leading candidate.

Winemaker Barry Jackson began making a couple of barrels of premium sparkling wine in 1989. He uses only Chardonnay grapes and styles the wine Blanc de Blancs. The bottles must be riddled by hand. The wine was released in 1992 and quickly sold out, mostly to other local vintners.

Barry continued to make the wine, but with very little in the way of promotion it became a local secret. It was on sale in some Bay Area restaurants - I first discovered it in Emile's in San Jose - and occasionally showed up in The Wine Club or K&L. The wine was made at Storrs in Santa Cruz.

Equinox recently moved into new premises down in Santa Cruz alongside several other local winemakers. He's launched a second label called Bartolo, made mainly with fruit from Mike Mann's vineyard in Gilroy. The wines carry the Central Coast designation, though I believe the vineyard is in the Santa Clara Valley AVA.

1997 Equinox Blanc de Blancs This wine spent nine years on the lees - three times the length required for vintage Champagne. The result is a powerfully intense wine - lots of toast and richness while still showing some of the characteristics of the Trout Gulch vineyard from which the fruit was sourced. At $50 a bottle it's not cheap, but it's arguably the best sparkling wine in California and can certainly hold its own against more expensive offerings from France.

Bartolo Rose I neglected to make a proper note of exactly what this was; it was a light, off-dry rose. Pleasant enough, but not my thing. $12

2006 Bartolo Cioppino Rosso This is a blend of small lots; although it's a red wine it contains Chardonnay and Riesling among others. It's an inexpensive, fruity "spaghetti red" that was proving very popular with the other customers - at least 3 cases were sold while I was tasting. $14

2005 Bartolo Syrah A smooth, medium weight Syrah that's intended for drinking now. $16

2005 Bartolo Merlot A rich, heavy Merlot. Very drinkable indeed. $25

Also pouring in the Equinox facility was Trout Gulch. As well as their current releases (which I've covered in the past) they had two interesting library wines - 1992 and 1999 Pinot Noirs. Both were very good; the 99 had more of the primary cherry fruit while the 92 had more complexity and secondary flavours. Of the two we gave the nod just to the 99; it still has plenty of tannin and could continue to improve a little while longer.

Friday, May 30, 2008

After the fire

Now that the fire is all but out I decided to take a drive down to see how bad things are. It looks pretty simple on the map - just take 17 south, come off at the Summit Road exit and head south.

Unfortunately what Google Maps doesn't show you is that once you go past Highland Way and on to Loma Prieta Avenue the road turns into a Rally Cross off-road stage. Where there is a proper road surface it's pitted with potholes the size of gallon saucepans, but mostly it's just compacted dirt criss-crossed by dried up rivulets and covered with pointy looking stones. For the first time in my life I wished that I owned a 4WD SUV.

For a long time the only signs that there has even been a fire are the hand written signs saying "THANK YOU, FIRE FIGHTERS" (of which there are many) or the more professional banners promoting upcoming fundraising events. Then suddenly you round a bend and you see the unreal hellscape of a mountain side dotted with the burned stumps of Madrone trees. The road ahead was blocked by a temporary barrier and I could hear the sounds of heavy machinery, presumably clearing the burned remains of trees from the roadway. I took some photos and turned the car around. To the right was an area that had been bulldozed, presumably as a firebreak and staging area. There were small heaps of charred logs and a CDF official taking a break. He told me that he had been there all week, since the start. Everything is now under control; the only major concerns are for underground hot spots that could suddenly flare up again.

On the way back I passed several large houses, at least three of which had small vineyards installed. I called in at Burrell School and asked how they had got on. They were maybe 5 miles from the fire, but fortunately the wind was blowing in the opposite direction so they weren't in any real danger. Mark, the Vineyard Manager pointed at the hillside across the road, bare of trees - it had burned in the big fire of 1985. I asked if he'd heard of any other vineyards affected by the fire, but he wasn't aware of any.

I'd been wondering about the longer term effect of the fire on the grapes that were in flower, but everyone I've spoken to says there shouldn't be any lasting impact. There has been some soot and ash in the vineyards, particularly downwind in Corralitos at places like Windy Oaks and Woodruff, but nothing serious; no more than the amount of dust that would get kicked up by a tractor. Any significant pH changes in the soil can be corrected.

So hopefully everything is back to normal, just in time for the Vintners Festival the next two weekends. And I'd like to echo the sentiments of the people on Summit Road - a heartfelt THANK YOU FIRE FIGHTERS.