Sunday, April 26, 2009

Lavanda Restaurant and Wine Bar, Palo Alto

I generally don't do restaurant reviews; there's enough things to write about just covering wines and wineries. But once in a while won't hurt, and Lavanda is certainly worth talking about.

Lavanda is on the corner of University and Emerson, in Palo Alto. The restaurant is partly owned by Howard Graham, a Pinot Noir grower from the Russian River Valley and partner in the August West label, so obviously there's a great focus on wines. The bar has a good selection of wines by the glass and the restaurant's extensive wine list features several local wineries; mark-up is typically to around 2X retail. Corkage is normally $20 but - as I only discovered when the bill arrived - on Fridays and Saturdays it's slashed to just 25c!

Chef Armando "Tiny" Maes' menu has a number of tapas-style hot and cold small plates for $5 each, along with appetisers, salads and main dishes. We initially planned to have a few small plates and then order a main course, but in the end we just kept ordering more small plates. Some highlights included braised lamb ribs, an interesting chick pea pancake, grilled artichokes with aioli and sardines a la plancha. The only dish that didn't work for us was a warm beet salad; the beets were nice but the dressing was a little too oily. I took a 2001 Guilliams Cabernet Sauvignon from Spring Mountain in Napa Valley; a balanced, food-friendly wine that turned out to be peaking nicely.

The total bill for two diners: a total of nine small plates, including tax and corkage was under $50; very good value, particularly in the current economy.

2007 Sarah's Vineyard Pinot Noir, Central Coast

There's not much good Pinot Noir around for under $20; by all accounts it's a difficult grape to grow well. The Santa Cruz Mountains is a great place to grow Pinot, but it's typically expensive; there's a lot of demand for the fruit and little supply.

Sarah's Vineyard make two highly regarded Pinots; one from Estate fruit, another from small vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Each retails for $35. But they also have a third wine; a blend of barrels that didn't make the cut for the other two. This wine sees less oak and carries the Central Coast appellation; it's aimed primarily at the restaurant market, for their by-the-glass programmes.

This is a lovely, rich Pinot with a cherry/floral nose and lots of sweet cherry and spice flavours. There's enough structure that it doesn't come across as flabby; although it's not going to fall apart any time soon I don't see it getting any better than it is right now.

In fact the only downside with this wine is its availability; it goes directly into the wholesale market and isn't even sold out of the winery tasting room. The only retailer I can find currently offering it is Vineyardgate in Millbrae, who have it for the bargain price of $17 (the RRP is $24). If you spot this wine on a restaurant wine list you should definitely consider it. Value.

Friday, April 24, 2009

2007 Alfaro Rose

The warm weather we've been having recently put me in the mood for a nice rose, so I opened one of these. As I recall, I didn't like this as much as the previous vintage when I tried it last time and I was wondering what a bit of time in bottle had done.

It turns out to have improved significantly. The nose reminds me of glace cherries; sweet and minerally. On the palate there are tart cherries and strawberries, with a mineral component. A very nice wine for a warm spring evening.

This cost $14 from K&L and is still the current release

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Release day at Stefania, Spring 09

Up to Chaine d'Or for the Stefania spring release event. Chaine d'Or is located just off the 84 near to the junction with Summit Road. It's a great, winding drive through Woodside and some lovely wild countryside, with great views over the south bay. The winery itself is underneath a private house. There are no signs from the road; you have to know where to go. It's nicely equipped for its compact size. Paul and Stef Romero recently took over managing the winery and its 20 year old vineyard; around 2 acres, planted on a gentle slope to Chardonnay and Cabernet, with a few other Bordeaux varietals for blending.

2007 Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains $45
Sourced from a small vineyard in Corralitos near to Windy Oaks. Yields were very low in 2007 resulting in less than 2 barrels being made; as a result this has been sparsely allocated to mailing list members only.
Remarkably similar in style and profile to Windy Oaks. There's a light, floral nose with notes of tart cherries. The nose became more prominent after the wine had been open a couple of hours and had warmed up a little. Nice rich mouthfeel, with spicy flavours of cherry and cranberry, and a tart finish. No trace of heat despite the near 15% alcohol. Very good.

2008 Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains (Barrel sample)
The nose is very different from the 2007; more spicy (allspice?). It's showing more acidity & tannin now; good cherry fruit and nice spice. They yield in 2008 will be slightly larger, but not much; around 65 cases.

2006 Haut Tubbe $20
A blend of several small lots including Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Syrah.
Notes of mushroom and underbrush. Flavours of blackberry and raspberry with an earthy finish. Nicely balanced.

2007 Haut Tubbe $20 (not yet released)
The 2007 is a blend of primarily Syrah and Zinfandel. It's got a smoky, earthy nose; on the palate there's raspberry, plum and other black fruit. It's rich, with plenty of tannin and a smoky finish. Very good value.

2005 Chaine D'Or Cabernet Sauvignon $24
This has a very 'barnyard' nose; not Brett, but very funky. On the palate it has some nice blackberry/blackcurrant fruit, but the finish is lacking. Paul ascribes the nose to the inclusion of the 'press' wine; in future vintages he plans to reduce the amount in the blend.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

2006 Pinder Viognier, Finley Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains

The fruit comes from one of Cooper Garrod's estate vineyards, so I was hoping for something along the lines of the Cooper Garrod Gravel Ridge Chardonnay, only with that floral and apricot character that I associate with Viognier. Unfortunately that's not what I got.

On the nose there's pears and some white flowers. On the palate it's rich; almost an oily/glycerine character, but unfortunately it's really lacking in either fruit or bite. It's as if the wine is way past its peak already; maybe it was left in barrel too long, although it's not particularly oaky either. Disappointing.

$24, available from the winery only.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

2005 Storrs "Rusty Ridge" Zinfandel

Critics often disagree over particular wines. It's understandable; after all, they are only human, and there can be any number of reasons, from bottle variation to a dislike of a particular style or a perceived flaw. But if I were to pick a particular vintage, let's say for example 2005, and a particular grape, such as Zinfandel, then you might reasonably expect critics to agree on whether it was a decent vintage or not. Surely you wouldn't be in the situation where one publication says it's one of the worst vintages in the past 25 years whereas another says it's a great vintage?

Well yes, actually, you would. As for me, so far I've been reasonably impressed with the 2005 Zinfandels that I've tasted, and the Storrs "Rusty Ridge" has raised the standard further. The fruit is sourced from a number of old head-trained, dry-farmed vineyards in the Santa Clara valley, across the eastern edge of the Santa Cruz Mountains. It's aged mostly in American oak with some French.

This is exactly what old vine Zinfandel should be about. Rich, concentrated raspberry aromas and flavours; not sweet, not overly hot despite the 15.2% alcohol, and enough tannin and acidity to support it all without ending up flabby. The oak is integrating nicely and there are secondary notes of pepper and spice. It retails for around $25-$30 and at that price I highly recommended it.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Mann Cellars

Mike Mann purchased a 20 acre prune orchard on the east side of Gilroy in 1980. They planted grapes, which were sold to various local wineries, including Storrs and Bartolo. In 1996 he began making his own wine under the Mann Cellars label, and now produces around 1500 cases. The wines are mostly made in a rather ripe style; fruit forward with low acidity.

2007 Johannesburg Riesling
2% residual sugar. Nose of white flowers, slight hint of petrol. On the palate it's sweet and slightly petillant, with notes of canteloupe.

2006 Syrah
Spicy aromas of cinnamon and clove. On the palate there's ripe, sweet blackcurrant and plum fruit, with an earthy finish.

2005 Cabernet Sauvignon
A rather peppery, toasty nose. More acidity and tannins than others in the range; flavours of earth and blackcurrant.

2005 Merlot
Bright, hot, fruity nose. Ripe jammy plum, with a hint of spice and soft tannins.

2006 Malbec
Perfumed nose, with a hint of aldehyde. Tart flavours of plum/damson and some minerality, smooth finish.

A ruby style port made from a blend of Merlot & Malbec.
Though it has the oxidised flavour it lacks the structure and bite of a true port style; it's more of a sweet blueberry syrup.

De Rose Vineyards

DeRose Vineyards sits quite literally atop the San Andreas Fault in Cienega Valley. It's credited with being the oldest existing winery in California by the acclaimed historian Charles Sullivan, and over 40 of its 100 acres of vines are from 100 to 150+ years old. Once part of the Almaden label, it was sold in the 1980s and eventually purchased by Pat De Rose and his partner Ernie Miller.

2007 'Sharknose' Chardonnay
Barrel fermented in just 10% new oak, this has a lemony, mineral nose. It's crisp and fruity; the oak barely shows at all.

2006 Chardonnay
While not seeing much more new oak, the regular Chardonnay does spend longer in barrel, resulting in a more 'rounded' wine. Notes of lemon, melon and apricot; sweeter fruit and less acidity with a long, pleasant finish.

2006 Cabernet Franc
Lots of earthy notes on the nose; underbrush and mushrooms. On the palate there's good blackberry fruit and big tannins, with tobacco on the finish.

2006 Negrette
Previously known as "Pinot St. George", Negrette comes from the south-west of France and is a direct descendent of a grape from Cyprus called Mavro. At over 150 years, these vines are some of the oldest in the state.
The wine has a dark colour in the glass, and an earthy, blackberry nose. There's heavy, sweet fruit and good tannins, reminiscent of a Petite Sirah.

2006 Zinfandel
Compared to the Negrette, the zinfandel vines are a sprightly 100 years old. This has a bright raspberry nose and good raspberry flavours; it's rich and concentrated with a long finish.

Hollywood Red, 12th release
This non-vintage wine is made in a Solera style, whereby the barrels contain a blend of the current and previous vintages, theoretically going back to the first. It's mainly Zinfandel plus six other grapes including "Rose of Peru", which it turns out is another name for 'Mission'.
Mature nose, but no sign of bricking in the glass. There's a rich core of raspberry fruit, but lots more and a long finish.

Fernwood Cellars

While the vines on Fernwood's estate may be less than 10 years old, the family connection to the property goes back several generations.

Matt Oetinger is the present owner and the winemaker since the first vintage in 2001. The winery produces about 3,000 cases a year. All the fruit comes from vineyards that they own or manage, mostly within the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA but also a Zinfandel vineyard owned by his father in the El Dorado foothills.

2007 Vanumanutagi Chardonnay
Vanumanutagi is Samoan for "valley of the singing birds". It was named by the widow of Robert Louis Stevenson, who lived there following his death in 1894. The blocks within the vineyard are named after Stevenson's novels.
A rich, butterscotch/caramel nose. Big, creamy vanilla flavours; lots of lemon curd. Balanced, not over oaked.

2006 Merlot, Small Vineyards Selection
Made from 5 small domestic vineyards that Matt manages in the Los Altos/Los Gatos/Saratoga area, and containing 4% Cabernet Sauvignon.
There's a real barnyard (brettanomyces) nose to this. On the palate the fruit is there, but it's restrained. At this stage it's more about the structure, which is very good. You could put this wine in a Bordeaux tasting and I'm sure it would be difficult to spot.

2005 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
Contains just 2% Petite Verdot. Up front there are notes of toast and mineral, but when you taste it's remarkably fruit forward. Lots of rich blackcurrant, and a dry, tannic, liquorice finish

2006 Petite Sirah, Machado Creek Vineyard
The wine is labelled as Central Coast, though the vineyard is within the Santa Clara Valley AVA. It's made from old, 100% head trained vines.
An inky colour, and a smoky yet fruity nose. On the palate there's a fruit candy note (something like Swizzels) but it's balanced; there's good acidity and the tannins are well controlled.

2009 National Womens Wine Competition

Congratulations to some of our local women winemakers who won medals in the 2009 National Womens Wine Competition.

2006 Reserve Merlot, Santa Cruz Mountains (Silver)

Creekview Vineyards
2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Clara Valley (Silver)
2007 Chardonnay, Santa Clara Valley (Bronze)

La Rusticana d 'Orsa
2005 Santa Cruz Mountains (Silver)

Martin Ranch
2005 JD Hurley Cabernet Sauvignon, SCM(Silver)
2005 JD Hurley Merlot, Santa Clara Valley (Silver)
2005 Therese Vineyards Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (Silver)
2005 Therese Vineyards Estate Cabernet Franc(Bronze)
2005 Therese Vineyards Syrah, Lester Family Vineyard, SCM (Bronze)

Stefania: Spring 09 releases

I caught up with Paul and Stef Romero at a distributor tasting event in San Jose. (More notes from that event to follow.) They were pouring their latest releases, including their 2006 Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon, sourced mainly from some smaller vineyards that they manage.

2007 Syrah, Eaglepoint Ranch, Mendocino
Having opened the 2005 last weekend; this was a good opportunity to try the other vintages. The 2007 sees a touch more oak than previous vintages; 1/3 as opposed to 1/4
It has a lovely floral nose, with black fruits. On the palate there's good fruit and a big twist of black pepper, particularly on the longish finish. Good acidity, nice balance.

2006 Syrah, Eaglepoint Ranch, Mendocino
A much brighter, fruitier nose than the 2007. On the palate there's more red fruits - redcurrants - than black. Nice finish, but less than the 07. While it's a nice wine, I prefer the 07.

2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, Uvas Creek Vineyard, Santa Clara Valley
Nose of blackcurrant jam on toast. Great, soft valley fruit - blackberry/blackcurrant, lovely rich mouthfeel and a good medium-length finish.

2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains
Lots of mint and eucalyptus on the nose, backed by blackcurrant fruit. These come through on the palate too. The tannins are fine and soft, and the finish is longer than the Uvas. Great stuff.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Big Basin Spring Celebration

Big Basin Redwoods State Park is California's oldest State Park, with over 18,000 acres of old growth and recovering redwood forest. It's home to the largest continuous stand of ancient coast redwoods south of San Francisco.

A couple of miles down the road, on the delightfully named "Memory Lane", stands an old ranch property that had been established in the late 19th century. Grapes were grown there the 1960s, but 30 years later little remained of the vineyards except for a few odd vines and some hand split redwood stakes.

Bradley Brown saw the potential of the property. In 1998 he took over, named it Big Basin Vineyards and began resurrecting the old vineyards, planting Syrah. The first vintage was in 2002 and the winery quickly established a reputation for quality, consistently earning 90+ scores from critics including Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate. As well as the estate Syrah the winery sources Syrah from the Fairview Ranch in Santa Lucia Highlands and has recently begun sourcing Pinot Noir from a number of Santa Cruz Mountains vineyards. There are also more recent estate plantings of Grenache and Rousanne, as yet unreleased. The winery even has its own yoga studio, which is a first for me.

Last Saturday was the Spring Release event, held at the winery. To get there you take Route 9, which winds through the mountains until it reaches the town of Boulder Creek. Pausing only to put your watch back 100 years you turn right and head out a further 4 miles to Memory Lane. It's a surprisingly long drive from home; as a result I arrived late and missed out on several of the wines.

2008 Aura, Rose of Syrah
A lovely floral nose, with strawberry and lychee notes. Fruity, yet dry with a good finish.

2007 Branciforte Ridge Pinot Noir
Branciforte Ridge is also a source for Santa Cruz Mountains Vineyards, who make a big, earthy, spicy wine from it. The earth is less apparent here, perhaps due in part to the vintage. Great nose of mushrooms and black cherries, this is a rich, structured wine that needs time.

2007 Bald Mountain Pinot Noir
Bald Mountain is in the Ben Lomond AVA and is farmed by Ryan Beauregard. A bright, cherry nose leads into layers of sweet cherry fruit followed by a smoky finish.

2008 Alfaro Family Pinot Noir
A barrel sample, showing rich, concentrated strawberry and cherry fruit. The finish was disappointing at this stage, but it's early days yet.

2006 Sri Syrah
I didn't get the story on this; I suspect it's made from younger vines. A smoky nose with hints of blackcurrant and blueberry. On the palate it's rich and smooth; fruity with notes of white pepper and caramel. There's a dry, tannic finish.

2006 Fairview Ranch Syrah, Santa Lucia Highlands
Showing oak and tobacco on the nose, with some black fruit. Sweet, layered berry flavours and a long finish.

2006 Mandala Syrah
A blend of estate and Fairview Ranch fruit. I really liked the nose on this one. Hints of chinese five spice, sweet cherry and redcurrant jelly. On the palate it was nicely balanced; gamey and smoky, with good red fruit flavours and a medium length finish. Good structure. Overall this was my favourite of the wines I tasted.

Weekend notes, April 5th 2009

2007 Black Ridge Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains
Nice nose of tart cherries. Good cherry and cranberry fruit on the palate, but lots of tannin and acidity. Worth getting, but leave it at least two years before opening.
2005 Stefania Syrah, Eaglepoint Ranch
I love the way this wine has developed. Lovely floral/herbal nose; Nice balance of black fruits and game with a touch of cedar. Continues to improve each time I try it; will I have any left by the time it peaks?
2007 Clos LaChance Estate Muscat
I rarely drink Muscat as I find them simple and uninspiring; I much prefer Sauternes or Tokaj. However I like to keep some around as I find it's the perfect compliment to a fresh fruit salad. This is a perfect example; the sweetness level and orange flavours match rather than mask the berries. A bargain on closeout for $3.

Friday, April 3, 2009


Tasted at the Wine2.0 event in San Francisco last night.

2006 Gravel Ridge Chardonnay $22 at the winery, but Whole Foods often carries this at around $17.
Lovely rounded nose, showing apricots and pears. Smooth flavours of melon and apple. Quick finish. Shows less acidity than the last Gravel Ridge I had.

2005 Cabernet Franc, Francville Vineyard $25
Rich fruity blackcurrant and berry nose, with a hint of smoke. On the palate there's sweet tobacco, white pepper and berry fruit. But a bitter, green finish spoils it.

2003 Lone Oak Cabernet Sauvignon $28
Soft, toasty/berry nose. Rich and smooth, with sweet blackberry flavours. Nice balance, light tannins and a good finish

2002 Georges Cabernet Sauvignon $35
Hint of barnyard on the nose. Rich, smooth blackcurrant flavours with nice acidity and tannins. Long finish. Really good - my favourite of the lineup.

2003 RV's Fine Claret $32
Blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Cabernet Franc
Elusive, bright fruit nose. Flavours of sweet brambles, dough and pepper. Soft tannins on the pleasant finish.

2004 Syrah, Finley Vineyard $24
A light plum and pepper nose. Bold and tannic, with nice berry and spice notes. Tannic finish. Needs cellar time.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Aver Family

Aver Family vineyards is an 8 acre estate off Watsonville Road in the Uvas Valley, near to Sycamore Creek and Jason/Stephens. It was part of a larger estate that had been supplying Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah to David Bruce, until the Avers purchased it in 2005.

John Aver immediately began with a major overhaul of the vineyard. The old "California sprawl" trellising was replaced by a modern VSP system. Some of the older vines were removed, others were grafted over to Grenache. There are currently 5.5 acres of vines of varying ages, roughly evenly split into Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Grenache and Syrah, with an additional acre yet to be planted. The farming is organic; although it's still in a transition phase the family intend to apply for official certification.

The wines are made at Crushpad's facility in San Francisco. 2006 is the first vintage; just 150 cases were produced, all from estate fruit. The plan is to gradually increase production to around 1,000 cases.

2006 'Homage' Syrah 25 cases, $35
Blended with 5% Petite Sirah and matured in 50% new French oak, this dark wine has a faintly smoky, coffee nose. On the palate there's bitter chocolate and good black fruit with nice acidity.

2006 'Heritage' Cabernet Sauvignon 100 cases, $44
On the nose there's very bright fruit; blackberries and a little heat from the 15% alcohol. A big wine with flavours of blackcurrant, brambles and spice. Nice balance and a long finish with chocolate notes.

2006 'Blessings' Petite Sirah 25 cases, $55
John Aver says he expects the Petite Sirah to be his flagship wine. As I've said before, the key with Petite Sirah is to keep the tannins in control, and he's managed to do that. It's got a nice nose of dark berry fruit and a smoky hint. Rich, concentrated flavours of blueberries with some smoke and spice. The tannins are clearly present but aren't overpowering. This does seem like a wine that would age well.

Overall an excellent maiden release for yet another new Santa Clara Valley winery. Future vintages will include a Grenache as well as a Durrell vineyard Chardonnay.