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 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.