Wednesday, November 24, 2010

iPhone apps

I've been an iPhone user since the first generation unit was released - in fact I'm still using the same one. I love it, despite the fact that it's made by Apple and forces you to use iTunes to do anything. It's probably the handiest gadget I've ever owned; a phone, camera, map, notepad and web browser all in one package.

One of the selling points of the phone is its extensibility through dedicated utilities and games; it's such a huge market that there are even TV commercials for iPhone apps. The wine world is no different; there are dedicated winery apps; Ridge has one which has details of current releases, photos, events and a link to the store. Then there's which offers an alternate interface to Cellar Tracker's inventory management and tasting note database.

I recently got an email announcing a new free app covering the wineries of the Santa Cruz Mountains, so thought I should try it and see how it compares to the competition. I already have a review copy of Winery Quest Pro.

I thought that I'd reviewed the Winery Quest app in the past, but it doesn't appear to be on the site. Not sure what happened there. There are two versions; a 'basic' version costing $4 and a 'pro' version costing $8. It's effectively an interface into the Wine Questers web site, showing the same winery data in an easier to read format. This means that if you're in a cellphone blackspot - such as large parts of the Santa Cruz Mountains - then it can't get any data. The interface opens up with a scrollable list of over 20 regions, from Mendocino to Temecula. The Santa Clara Valley wineries are classified as "Gilroy - Morgan Hill", so wineries outside that area such as J Lohr, Coterie Cellars or Casa de Fruta aren't counted. Overall the interface is a little confusing, but after a while you start to get used to it.

Winery Quest's key selling point is the accuracy of its maps - the developer visits each winery with a GPS rather than relying on Google's address mapping software; if the winery hasn't been visited then it's not on the list. Unfortunately the choice of icons results in a map that looks rather cluttered. The data is further limited to tasting rooms that are regularly open to the public, which means that many smaller wineries that are appointment only or only open at certain times aren't listed.

There are a number of 'just because we can' features, such as a 'spin the bottle' game that randomly selects a winery for you to visit. Overall it's a tool for someone who wants to plan a trip to a wine region for the first time and visit a few tasting rooms; it's not intended to be a guide for the serious geek looking to discover new hidden gems. The price may seem a little high for what you get, but it's less than a typical tasting room fee.

The new app, which bears the unwieldy title of Santa Cruz Mountains Winery Directory (though given the title of this blog I have very little room to talk), seems to target a similar audience. The main screen follows a more traditional grid layout of icons with functions at the bottom. Since it's a free app they've saved costs by using stock clip-art, so the differing icon styles look a little odd. Unlike Winery Quest the data seems to be stored locally, which means that it works offline. There's also elements of 'because we can' to it; for example in the list of wineries each entry has a picture next to it that's too small to be useful, is of varying size, and takes a while to load on my old phone.

The app uses the phone's location facility and groups the wineries by proximity. That would be fine if you were looking for the nearest winery to wherever you are, but if you're planning a trip it would be more useful to specify the start point, or to find wineries that are close to each other. It also doesn't help that the data isn't entirely accurate; last time I checked Ridge was still on Monte Bello Road, not at Stevens Creek and De Anza. The Google map is a little easier to read than the Winery Quest version, although the same colour pin is used for wineries and other locations which can be a little confusing.

Speaking of the maps, there's a rather unfortunate bug here; once you enter the map screen the button to go back doesn't work; the only solution is to quit and restart.

The free app has a different set of wineries to Winery Quest. For the most part they overlap, but not entirely; for example Windy Oaks is included but not Zayante. The set also includes around half of the Santa Clara Valley wineries. Once again, if there's a selection criteria it's unclear; with Fernwood and Martin Ranch included but J Lohr, Creekview and Jason/Stephens missing.

Overall for a free application it's hard to be too critical; it's worth the 2Mb or so of space that it consumes and presumably will continue to be updated since it must intend to somehow derive revenue from advertising.

Looking on the app store I see that there's also another app called Wineries Locator. It costs $5 but the reviews look terrible.

Maybe I should learn how to write iPhone apps.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Big Basin Tasting Room

At the end of August Big Basin Vineyards opened a new tasting room in Saratoga. Wes and I took a trip out to the winery and called in on the way to see the place and taste the current range.

The tasting room is in a brand new building on Highway 9, next door to Cinnabar - the address is at 14598 Big Basin Way. The room is light and airy, with a large L shaped bar and some comfortable seats. The walls are decorated with photographs of the vineyards taken by the owner and winemaker Bradley Brown and artwork by Matt Jones, whose work is used on several of the wine labels.

Tasting for a flight of 6 wines is $10, refunded with $100 purchase. There is currently a 2 for 1 promotion. You can also purchase wines by the glass; since the tasting room is open until 7PM on Fridays and Saturdays that makes it an ideal place to meet up prior to dinner.

2009 'Aura' Rose of Syrah, Monterey County
Floral nose, with notes of rose hip. While not sweet it doesn't come across as bone dry; it's fruity with a slightly bitter finish and flavours of crisp red apples. Light acidity. $18 89

2007 Alfaro Family Vineyard Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains
I've often found the wines from the Alfaro Family vineyard to be rather tannic and unyielding when young, but Bradley's treatment doesn't show that at all. The nose has sweet candy and dried cherry; in the mouth it's richly textured and spicy with flavours of dried cherry and white pepper, and a tart finish. $42 91

2007 Syrah
This is a 50/50 blend of Santa Cruz Mountains and Monterey County fruit.
The nose is soft and plummy, the fruit is smooth and light fruit with some tart berry notes and a light finish. $28 88

2006 Rattlesnake Rock Syrah, Santa Cruz Mountains
The flagship estate wine; when I've tasted previous vintages it's been a really big textured wine. This seems lighter than in other years; the nose is fairly restrained with dried currant notes. However it's still pretty big and rich; there are layers of layers of dried fruit, herb and minerals and a longish finish showing those mineral notes again. $54 92

2007 Mandala, Santa Cruz Mountains
This is predominantly estate Syrah, with around 14% Cabernet Sauvignon from a vineyard in Los Gatos blended in. Surprisingly the Cabernet seems more prominent; the nose shows blueberry and pepper, with a balsamic note. On the palate there's blueberry and blackcurrant with oak and tannin showing on the finish. $39 91

2007 Coastview Syrah, Monterey County - Gabilan Mountains
Interesting nose; more assertive than the Rattlesnake Rock with herbal notes, some green pepper and nice black fruit. In the mouth it's another big, richly textured wine; concentrated black fruit flavours with some candied orange peel and meaty notes, leading up to a long finish. Nice smooth tannins; really a delicious wine. $48 93+

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Wine and doughnuts?

I get a lot of emails from wineries announcing particular tastings or promotions. I don't usually post them here, largely on the grounds that I can't do them all (translation: I'm too lazy). But there's a particularly bizarre event this weekend at Poetic Cellars - pairing doughnuts with wine. And not just sweet wines either; there's a chocolate doughnut paired with a Cabernet Sauvignon. I wonder what Homer would say.
For more details go to

Wild yeast?

At the recent Ridge bloggers' tasting there was a fairly interesting discussion about the relative merits of cultured and 'wild' yeasts. Ridge is one of those wineries that never adds yeast, relying on the fruit to ferment on its own, with yeasts from the environment. The debate mainly centered around whether those yeasts were endemic to the vineyard or the facility.

My personal view on this is that there's a strong correlation between the use of 'wild' (or 'natural') yeasts and quality wine, but that (as 99.7% of statisticians will tell you) correlation doesn't imply causality. Or, in other words, just because vintners who use wild yeasts typically make great wines doesn't mean that using wild yeasts will automatically result in a better product.

I was planning a blog post on the subject, only to come across an interview with the man himself - Paul Draper on Alice Feiring's blog. Clearly he can explain these things way better than I can. It's a good read; I especially like the sign-off quote:
In California for at least the last ten or fifteen years we have heard that the wines are now made in the vineyard. What is not mentioned is that in most cases they are then re-made in the winery.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Delayed Tasting Notes

As you've no doubt noticed, the blog has had to take something of a holiday over the past few months due to family and work pressures. But that doesn't mean I haven't been drinking some great local wines. Here's a roundup of some highlights over the past few weeks in no particular order.

2006 McHenry "Swan Clones" Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains
A little known gem from the Bonny Doon area. I believe that technically the vineyards lie within the Ben Lomond Mountain sub-AVA, though it carries the SCM appellation. Interesting nose, with lots of forest floor and earthy funk. On the palate there's great cherry flavours and some savoury "umami" notes, and a medium length finish. Only about 150 cases made, but terrific value at around $26. 91+

2009 Martin Ranch "JD Hurley" Sauvignon Blanc, Santa Clara Valley
My tastes in Sauvignon Blanc typically run to the more acidic New Zealand and Sancerre styles, but this was really good on a hot autumn night. Nose shows apricot and lime; on the palate it's soft and creamy with light acidity and citrus flavours, and some caramel on the finish. Apparently it contains some Semillon. 88

2007 Sarah's Vineyard Estate Pinot Noir, Santa Clara Valley
Nose is earthy and smoky, with dried herb and dried cranberry notes. Great flavours of cranberry and cherry. 90

2006 Fernwood Cellars "Small Vineyard Selection" Merlot
The fruit for this wine is sourced from a number of private vineyards in Los Altos, Saratoga & Monte Sereno. On the nose it's rather old world; lots of earthiness and underbrush, with some black fruit. But in the mouth it's got plenty of new world sweet fruit. 89

2007 Aver Family Vineyards "Hope"
A Rhone blend, with around 1/3 Petite Sirah (which technically isn't a Rhone grape, but the Rhone Rangers have claimed it as one of theirs). Good nose of blueberry, cranberry, dried herbs and pine. Flavours of blueberry, gooseberry and white pepper. Tannins are marked but not excessive. Benefited from an hour in a decanter. 90+

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Santa Clara Valley Passport Weekend

The Wineries of Santa Clara Valley are holding their autumn Passport event this weekend, October 2nd and 3rd. For those more familiar with the Santa Cruz Mountains events, this is more like the SCMWA Vintners' festival than their quarterly passport program.

A passport costs $30, includes a souvenir glass and is valid for both days only. All the member wineries will be open from 11-5PM both days, and may have additional promotions, refreshments and entertainment. This is a great opportunity to visit some of the less well known local producers.

In addition Aver Family Vineyards will be pouring at D’Vine Jazz & Wine from 12-5PM and at Westside Grill from 11–5PM both days. They may also be joined by Mann Cellars - who poured at both locations in March - though this is unconfirmed.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Ridge Bloggers' tasting #3

For the third edition of Ridge's quarterly bloggers' tasting we were invited up to the Lytton Springs facility in Healdsburg. This was a first time for me; though I've visited the Dry Creek area several times and think it's arguably the best AVA overall for Zinfandel, I've never been to Ridge's other tasting room.

The ultra-modern facility was built around 10 years ago and combines numerous environmentally friendly features. (You can read about it here.) It's constructed from recycled lumber and bales of rice straw, covered with adobe made from the local clay. The shining roof is covered with solar cells which produce up to 65kW. The crushpad is shaded from the sun by a large overhang - this last feature was of particular importance, since it was an unusually hot weekend for September and that was where we would be tasting.

The focus of the event was on Ridge's Lytton Springs bottling. This is a field blend of mainly Zinfandel, with some Petite Sirah and Carignane. Though the blend typically contains more than 75% Zinfandel the varietal designation was dropped after 1992.

We were to taste 10 vintages spanning 20 years. Now as a general rule I don't age Zinfandels beyond around 5-8 years, usually much less. I find that when bottled as a pure varietal the fresh raspberry notes are so pleasant in the early years that it's hard to justify keeping them. In addition the current trend - particularly in hotter regions such as Amador, Lodi or Paso Robles - seems to be for wines that are high in alcohol and low in tannin and acidity, wines that aren't intended to be kept around. But as always Ridge is an exception; many of their Zinfandels will age gracefully for a decade or more.

All the wines were opened around 2-4 hours earlier and double decanted.

First flight

We began with the older vintages, starting with the oldest first.
1987 Lytton Springs Zinfandel
Red/brown brick in colour. An interesting meaty, musty nose, with hints of mint or wintergreen.
Plenty of dark fruit and nice weight, though there's not much tannin left. I wouldn't have guessed that it was 20+ years old. Drink now. 93

1992 Lytton Springs Zinfandel
Very similar in colour to the 1987, though slightly darker. More herbal than the 1987, less musty but possessing similar fruit and mint notes. On the palate it's really intense; strong flavours of black cherry and raspberry which go on and on. One of the best old Zinfandels I've tasted. Drink now. 94.

1993 Lytton Springs
A lighter brick red than the previous two. Nose shows smoky, gamey meat, hawthorn, and that minty note again that seems to be a signature of Lytton Springs. Lighter bodied, but nicely balanced. Flavours of raspberry and pomegranate, light tannins and a nice finish. Drink now. 93

1996 Lytton Springs
A darker, deeper, more opaque reddish colour.
There's a definite consistency of those herbal, meaty flavours between vintages. The minty note is less pronounced, but still detectable. On the palate there's plenty of rich dark berry fruit and for the first time the tannins are pronounced. This one still has plenty of potential, so hold on to it. 92+

1999 Lytton Springs
Deep red in colour, very little fading in the meniscus. Got some initial heat on the nose; aromas of white pepper, black plum and raspberry. In the mouth it's very spicy/peppery. There's lots of primary raspberry fruit, and it's definitely the sweetest so far. Seems to possess less structure than the 1996, so I'd drink it sooner rather than later. 92

Second Flight

After a short break we resumed with the newer vintages. This time we tasted the younger wines first.
2007 Lytton Springs
A deep, inky purple colour. The nose shows liquorice and berry. There is some of that herbal and mint character but it's very much in the background at this stage. In the mouth the intense fruit hits you. There's loads of raspberry, with a touch of cocoa. Some ripe sweetness again, as with the 1999. Obviously it's very young. 92+

2005 Lytton Springs
The most floral nose of all the wines tasted, and possibly the highest acidity (though that's one of the few details Ridge omit from their notes.) Tart golden raspberries, with citrus and herbal notes. The dark fruit and tannin from the Petite Sirah shows well. This should be a very long lived wine; apparently it's one of Paul Draper's favourites too. 94

2003 Lytton Springs
While similar to the other young vintages the nose was noticeably lighter. Overall it seemed tighter than others; the fruit more restrained. There was an interesting brine and baking soda note particularly on the finish. 91+

2002 Lytton Springs
This had a particularly ripe fruity nose, with blackcurrant and eucalyptus. Immensely rich, layered currant fruit, with some bitter chocolate and a great finish. Reminiscent of a cool climate Cabernet Sauvignon. Just lovely. 95

2001 Lytton Springs
The nose on this was very different to many of the others; notes of autumn leaves and dried fruit. Flavours of dried berry, with savoury notes but there was a rather harsh note; perhaps because it seemed to be a little warmer than the rest. The tannins also appeared more harsh. Showed the least well of all the wines; probably needs more time. 90+

Third Flight

For a final flight Chris had brought three older vintages of Monte Bello in 375s. This is a flight that's going to be available in the Monte Bello tasting room in October. The wines were opened and tasted individually to check for variation, then two bottles combined in a decanter.
1991 Monte Bello
Really herbal nose. Light fruit. Some eucalyptus notes.
Lots of fruit on the palate; Blackcurrant, bramble jelly, some leather. There's a fresh earth note on the finish. Thoroughly delicious. 95

1992 Monte Bello
Amazingly rich red colour in comparison to the similarly aged Lyttons.
Similar herbal notes to the 1991;
If anything it seems more mature.
But on the palate it's another story - very fresh fruit, bright acidity. Tannins are soft but still present, less earthy. Hint of menthol on the finish. 94

1994 Monte Bello
Interesting smoky note on the nose, in addition to the herbal and cassis notes.
Lithe acidity, good fruit. Still plenty of acid and tannin; despite being from a 375 it will still stand cellaring for several more years. 93

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Thomas Kruse


California has always had a tradition of home winemaking. Even during Prohibition, families were allowed to produce up to 200 gallons for personal use (that's around 3 bottles a day). Thomas Kruse began making wine at his home in Gilroy in the early 1960s. Pleased by his initial vintages he began studying oenology and viticulture, and opened a store for fellow enthusiasts, selling home winemaking supplies and sharing his new found knowledge.

In 1971 he purchased a small acreage on Hecker Pass Road where he established a vineyard and the eponymous winery. He made wine from whatever grape varieties were available, even table grapes; His maverick style and value pricing attracted a loyal local following.

After 20 years the winery moved to a larger 22 acre property on Dryden Road. Kruse planted 12 acres of vines, mostly red, with some Chardonnay. The vineyard is named Claire's Field, after the late family dog.

All wines are Estate except the non-vintage Clare's Field Red. Prices range from $10-$14, with significant discounts (50% or more) for case purchases. There is also a méthode champenoise sparkling wine which was not poured.

2009 Blanc de Noir
A dry blush Zinfandel with a floral nose. Fruity, soft and simple with flavours of red apple. 81

2009 Chardonnay
This had a cidery, yeasty nose and gave the impression of a floral, oaky cider with a bitter note on the finish. 75

NV Claire's Field Red
A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot & Syrah.
Smoky nose with notes of red fruit
Smooth, soft redcurrant flavours, with a bitter finish. 79

2007 Merlot
Smoky nose; Simple fruit, lots of tannin, quick finish. 80
The bottle had been open some time; a second, fresher bottle was a little better - 82

2007 Cabernet Sauvignon
Light nose showing blueberry and smoke. Pleasant blueberry and herb flavours with an earthy finish 84

2007 Zinfandel

Earthy raspberry nose, but on the palate it's sadly lacking fruit. There's lots of tannin and a hint of wintergreen. 82

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Burglaries at Santa Clara Valley Wineries

As if our local wineries didn't have enough to worry about with the economic downturn and the unusually cool weather, it seems that they are increasingly being targeted by burglars. Over the past year at least 7 Santa Clara Valley wineries have been robbed - that's around a quarter of the total. Just this month two more were attacked, with the thieves causing significantly more damage than the value of items they took.
Fortunately one of the targeted wineries had installed hidden security cameras and the thief was photographed.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Bloggers' Event at Ridge: ATP Tasting

Ridge are best known for their Estate wines and Zinfandels. What's perhaps less well known is that they also produce a wide range of wines from other varieties. Paul Draper is a great believer in the expression of terroir through single vineyard designated wines, so on joining Ridge in 1968 he began to seek out quality vineyards around the state.

Production of these wines tends to be around 1000 cases and while that's more than the total production of many local wineries, by Ridge's standards it's pretty limited. Consequently these wines are only available at the winery or via the ATP wine club.

For the second Ridge bloggers' tasting event, tasting room manager Chris Watkins decided to focus on this range. We compared current and older vintages of four different ATP releases. But as is customary we began with some estate Chardonnay:

2008 Jimsomare Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains
Opens with vanilla oak and lemon curd. There's creamy lemon and a mineral finish. Right now the oak is a little harsh, so short-term cellaring might be in order. 91

2008 Mikulaco Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains
A more lemony, floral nose than the Jimsomare, with less oak evident.
Lighter weight, with creamy green apple and a hint of ginger, and a chalky finish. Drink now. Good value at $25. 90

Buchignani Ranch Carignane

Carignane is believed to have originated in north eastern Spain, but nowadays it's mostly grown in the Languedoc region. In the 1980s it was France's most widely planted grape, producing huge amounts of low quality vin ordinaire, though government sponsored vine pull schemes have reduced the acreage significantly. In California it's also in decline; the number of acres planted has decreased by over 50% in the past 10 years, but that seems to have stabilised. Currently there are around 3500 acres planted, mostly in Madera and San Joaquin counties, where it's used as a blending grape providing tannin, colour and acidity to jug wines. Ridge is one of a handful of wineries making varietal wines.

Buchignani Ranch is close to Dry Creek Valley, in Sonoma. The head-pruned vineyard was first planted in 1927; today the vines are between 50 and 80 years old.

2002 Buchignani Ranch Carignane, Sonoma County
The earthy, smoky nose initially masks the fruit. It's light in weight, with bright acidity and flavours of cranberry, tart strawberry and some dried herbs. 88

2005 Buchignani Ranch Carignane, Sonoma County
Bright nose of black cherry and raspberry. Again it shows some bright acidity and light fruit with an earthy finish. The tannins are rather soft. 89

2008 Buchignani Ranch Carignane, Sonoma County
The colour is rather purple in the rim, suggesting limited barrel ageing. On the nose there's cola and raspberry. Fresh bright 'fruit punch' flavours, with tannins showing a little on the finish. Judging by this vertical I'd say that short-term cellaring would be beneficial; drink over the next 3-5 years. 88 $26

Lytton Estate Syrah/Grenache

The Lytton Springs vineyard was first planted at the end of the 19th century. Ridge began sourcing fruit from there in 1972; 20 years later they purchased the property outright. One of the original blocks, which was planted in 1902, is a field blend that is predominantly Grenache interspersed with Zinfandel and Petite Sirah. The Lytton Springs' western vineyards were purchased in 1995 and include Grenache blocks planted in 1963 and 1991. Recent plantings include 10 acres of Syrah and an acre of Viognier.

Ridge has produced a Grenache since 1995 and a 50% Syrah, 50% Grenache blend since 2001.

2006 Syrah/Grenache, Lytton Estate, Dry Creek Valley
Bold fruity nose showing blackberry, cherry, perhaps a hint of VA?
More full bodied than the Carignane, with fairly intense fruit - blackberry and 'red vines' - finishing with nice smooth tannins. The Syrah seems dominant in the blend. 91
Not yet released, expected to be $35

2005 Syrah/Grenache, Lytton Estate, Dry Creek Valley
Strange note of blue cheese on the nose at first; this blew off revealing cranberry and raspberry aromas.
In contrast to the 2006 the Grenache appears dominant, with earthy raspberry flavours. Nicely balanced and a bit less tannic. 92

Lytton West Syrah

The Lytton West Syrah is cofermented with a small amount of Viognier. This is a practice common in Rhone, particularly the Côte-Rôtie appellation; the viognier not only adds some aromatic notes, it also assists in the extraction and stability of the colour from the Syrah.

2005 Syrah Lytton West, Dry Creek Valley
Cofermented with 6% Viognier.
Very dark colour. The nose is heavy with herbal notes and brambly fruit.
Lovely blackberry and red currant fruit, with black pepper and floral notes, and dusty tannins. 93+

2003 Syrah Lytton West, Dry Creek Valley
Cofermented with 9% Viognier.
Deep red colour. Nose is strange with notes of liqueur (tequila?), a little aldehyde and black pepper. Flavours of sweet dried cherry and orange peel, with light acidity and soft tannins. 90

Dynamite Hill Petite Sirah

When searching for new vineyards, one of Draper's first discoveries was some old-vine Petite Sirah at the York Creek vineyard on Spring Mountain. The vineyard has remained a source of fruit for 40 years. Petite Sirah is notorious for producing monolithic, tannic wines lacking in fruit, but if the tannins are properly controlled the results can be very good.

2006 Petite Sirah, Dynamite Hill, York Creek Vineyard, Spring Mountain
Smoky nose with bright acidity and blueberry notes.
Good balance, with the tannins not overpowering; nice flavours of blueberry and white pepper. Surprisingly good now. 91

2003 Petite Sirah, Dynamite Hill, York Creek Vineyard, Spring Mountain
Nose shows notes of fireplace and roast meat.
Smooth blueberry fruit, with flavours of Italian sausage and pepper. A great barbecue wine. 92

Thanks to Chris Watkins for arranging this event, and greetings to my fellow bloggers: Wes Barton , Richard Jennings, Gary Chevsky, Liren Baker, Thea Dwelle, Jason Mancebo, Jason of Jason's Wine Blog and
Fely Krewell

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Monte Bello Dinner

I got together with some friends recently for a pot-luck dinner and tasting around a dozen vintages of Ridge Monte Bello spanning a few decades.

Most of the older wines were in great shape, though as you can see the cork on the 1973 was in a terrible state and it came as no real surprise to find the wine hopelessly oxidised.
We began with a 1999 Ridge Monte Bello Chardonnay - Light mineral nose, lemon thyme and light oak. Initially showed some sulphur, but that soon dissipated. Flavours of peaches, cream, and some mineral notes. Plenty of oak on the finish. Still very youthful. 93

First Flight

1973 Ridge Monte Bello
The fill level seemed a little low and we soon found out why; the cork had totally failed and wine was bubbling up around it. DOA.

1983 Ridge Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet
The 1983 Monte Bello was declassified and all the fruit went into the Santa Cruz Mountains bottling. On the nose there's some nice black fruit, a little herbal, perhaps vegetal. There's perhaps rather too much acid for the remaining fruit; it's simple but pleasant, and not bad for a 25 year old wine from a weak vintage. 87

1984 Ridge Monte Bello
There's a lot going on here; earthy, brambly fruit and some smoky notes. On the palate it's big with loads of smooth black fruit. The tannins are almost fully resolved, and there's nice acidity. This got better with air over the next 15 minutes. 93

1986 Ridge Monte Bello
A brighter nose than the 1984, with lots of pencil box and brambles. Again there's nice rich black fruit and a bit more tannin than the 1984. However where the 1984 seemed to improve with air the 1986 seemed to decline. Perhaps tasting the 1984 after the 1983 gave it an advantage, but to me the 1986 didn't seem quite as strong. Though we didn't tally scores the group seemed to be pretty evenly split between the two. 92

Second Flight

1992 Ridge Monte Bello, served from 375s
Meaty nose, with blackcurrant and brambles. Rich smooth fruit, nicely balanced, very drinkable. Coming from a half bottle certainly helped, though there was some definite variation between the two. I was lucky and got the better of the two. 94

1996 Ridge Monte Bello
There was initially a little heat on the nose, which soon passed leaving dark berry, plum and blackcurrant notes. Stacks of rich black fruit, with a hint of mint.
There is still plenty of tannin as you'd expect, and it continued to improve in the glass. More elegant than the 97, and still evolving. 95

1997 Ridge Monte Bello
1997 was a riper year, and this shows on the palate. It's a more fruit-forward wine than the 1996 (though still very restrained by Californian standards) - layers of rich sweet fruit and a hint of smoke, with a longer finish than the 1996. For now I gave it the edge, though I think in the long term the 96 might be a better bet. 95+

1998 Ridge Monte Bello
Not declassified, but perhaps it should have been. Apparently Ridge pulled out all the stops to help the grapes ripen in this terribly wet El Nino vintage. A much lighter weight wine than any other in the flight, with cranberry and plum notes, and some green tannins. Seemed simple compared to the others, but reasonable. 88

Third Flight

Each of these had been double-decanted that morning.
2001 Ridge Monte Bello
Rather bright on the nose - cranberry, black cherry and blackcurrant on the nose and palate. I also got liquorice root. Plenty of chewy tannins backed with loads of acidity. Keep it locked away for at least a decade. 94+

2006 Ridge Monte Bello
I felt this was a slightly weaker showing than the last few times I've tasted it up at Ridge - perhaps they had it open much longer. Loads of structure, with a dark chocolate note that I didn't notice previously. I took the last quarter home and finished it a couple of days later; it didn't seem to have faded in the slightest, which bodes well for a long future. 93+

2007 Ridge Monte Bello
I didn't really take notes on the 2007; I've had it several times recently and I think it's delicious. There was some discussion as to whether it's got the same ageing potential as other vintages, but I remain confident that it's a 20+ year wine. 94+

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Barrel tasting at Stefania

Following the visit to Varner (see previous post) our group called in at Chaine d'Or. Paul poured a few barrel samples of the 2009 and 2008 vintages.

2009 Syrah, Split Rail Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains Barrel sample
Since the beginning Stefania have been looking for a local source for Syrah, and have found an excellent one in the Split Rail vineyard.
The nose is savoury, with soy, smoke and black fruit. It's rich and intense; lots of black fruit and white pepper, with a touch of liquorice on the finish. Delicious, even at this early stage.

2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, Chaine d'Or Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains Barrel sample
The Chaine d'Or vineyard is in a particularly cool microclimate; as a result the wines are very strucured and take a while to come round. The 2009 has a nose that's somewhat old world, with earthy, meaty and forest notes, with some smoke. In the mouth it's tight with black fruit and lots of tannin especially on the finish. It's going to need at least 5 years.

2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, Crimson Clover Vineyard, Santa Clara Valley Barrel sample
The Crimson Clover Vineyard will replace Uvas Creek as Stefania's source for Santa Clara Valley cabernet. The vineyard is located in the same vicinity and is farmed by Paul and Stef. The nose is elegant and dusty; on the palate there's rich blackcurrant fruit with, biscuit and herbal notes on the finish. It's a big, rich
new world wine in stark contrast to the Chaine d'Or Vineyard.

2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains Barrel Sample
This is the final blend, returned to barrel prior to being bottled. At the moment it's pretty tight; the nose was showing some earthy black fruit, but not much. There's the typical blackcurrant, eucalyptus and menthol from previous vintages, with good structure and a long finish.

If you're already on the Stefania mailing list these should be no-brainer purchases. If you aren't on the list then you should be; I don't know of anyone making better wines anywhere in California at this price point.

Monday, June 7, 2010


According to Bob Varner there are really only two ways to approach winemaking. You can begin with a budget; the wine will have a retail price of so much, which means I can spend this on grapes, that on barrels, bottles, corks, and so on. Or you can say I'm going to make the very best wine I possibly can, regardless of what it costs. That's the approach he and his twin brother Jim take to their wines.
The idea behind Varner Winery began when the brothers were at UC Davis; Jim studied oenology, Bob biology. After graduating they were introduced to Dr Kirk Neely, a local dentist who owned an idyllic property next to the Windy Hill open space preserve in Portola Valley. The area seemed perfect for a cool climate vineyard, located just below the fog line, and in 1980 the brothers planted two acres of Chardonnay by Dr Neely's house which became known as the Home block. The vines are own-rooted and the clone is unknown, but probably Cloned 4; they were simply purchased from a local nursery. Further down the hill they planted Gewürztraminer on its own roots. The following year they added the Amphitheater block, which was again own rooted, probably to Wente clone. A few years later in 1987 the Bee block was planted, this time with hybrid rootstock and grafted with cuttings from the Home Block.

Over the following years they farmed the vineyard and the fruit was sold, mainly to Thomas Fogarty and Bargetto. The brothers established a wine import business and worked at Fogarty. Then in 1996 they finally got bonded as Varner Winery and produced their first vintage. Permits to allow construction of a winery took a while longer, so the initial vintages were produced at Mount Eden and Chaine d'Or.

In 1997 they began planting Pinot Noir; the Hidden block contains Clone 115 and the Picnic block contains Clone 777. They later grafted over the 25 year old Gewürztraminer in the Picnic block to clone 777; the vines had been producing excellent fruit, but commercially were not viable.

The Varner philosophy is to be as hands-off as possible. The vines are trained in an unusual way, with two short cordons, each of which is pruned to two canes, and a single catch wire above. This results in an open canopy allowing each side to ripen evenly. All blocks except for the lowest are dry farmed. Sulfur is sprayed to control mildew, but that's all. Any imperfect fruit is dropped prior to harvest, with the result that there is little or no sorting required. The fruit is destemmed and crushed into a tank to allow any solids to settle, then pumped into barrels to ferment. No yeast or sulfur are added.

When it comes to racking, most wineries either siphon or pump the wine. Again the Varner philosophy is different - each of their barrels has a second hole in the 'head' (the flat part) stoppered with a bung, like a traditional cask, and racking is done purely by gravity. They even have a device to gently tilt the barrel when it's nearly empty. As a result of this gentle handling no fining or filtration is required. After fermentation the wines stay in barrel for around 9 months; the French oak barrels are on a three year rotation, so roughly one third are replaced each year. Each block is then blended separately.

The winery's total production is around 100 barrels, or 2500 cases annually. Visits are strictly by appointment only.

2009 Home Block Chardonnay, barrel sample
The nose was light, with cracker and lemon notes. On the palate there was creamy lemon, green apple and melon, with nice acidity. The Home block typically has lower alcohol since the own-rooted vines reach full ripeness at lower sugar levels.

2009 Amphitheater Block Chardonnay, barrel sample
Slightly lighter in weight than the Home block, with a more citrus/floral character. the finish showed interesting hoppy notes.

2009 Bee Block Chardonnay, barrel sample
The vines on Bee block are 6 years younger than Home block. Bee block is typically the most 'Californian' in style. This showed more toast, stone fruit and asian pear notes.

2009 Hidden Block Pinot Noir, barrel sample
Two samples from different new barrels. Both showed delicious cherry and raspberry fruit on the nose, with one having a smoky note and the other more woodland. The wine is light in colour (for California) with lots of rich spicy cherry fruit, pepper and rhubarb and a great long finish.

2009 Lower Picnic Block Pinot Noir, barrel sample
Nose shows strawberry and floral notes; on the palate it's earthy with rich, dark fruit and mineral notes.

2009 Upper Picnic Block Pinot Noir, barrel sample
Slight funk on the nose; this was less earthy and lighter, with cherry and berry notes, good tart acidity and nice structure. the Picnic block needs more time than the Hidden block from my experience.

Varner remains one of my absolute favourite producers (I own more of their Chardonnay than anyone else's), and a visit to the winery is highly recommended.

Jeff Emery

I heard over the weekend that Jeff Emery, owner and winemaker of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, is recovering from a biking accident. Apparently he fell off his mountain bike while out riding last Wednesday and hurt his neck, bruising his spinal cord and requiring surgery.

The good news is that he has been discharged from hospital and is at home recuperating; the signs are that he should make a full recovery.

Our thoughts and best wishes go out to him; I plan on opening a SCMV Grenache later this evening and toasting his speedy return to health

Thursday, June 3, 2010

2010 Vintners' Festival

June see the annual SCMWA vintners' festival, with most of the region's wineries open for tasting. The first weekend showcases the western side of the mountains. The cost is $30 in advance or $35 on the day, and covers all four dates. For details see the SCMWA web site

This weekend the following wineries will be open from 11AM to 5PM:

Alfaro, Bargetto, Big Basin, Burrell School, Byington, Downhill (at Byington), Equinox, Hallcrest, Heart o' the Mountain, Hunter Hill, Loma Prieta, McHenry, Nicholson, Odonata (at SCMV), Pelican Ranch, Pleasant Valley, Poetic Cellars, Roudon Smith, Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, Silver Mountain, Sones Cellars, Storrs, Trout Gulch, Vine Hill, Windy Oaks, Zayante

In addition, several other wineries will be pouring at local restaurants.
Note that the restaurant locations close at 4PM.

Ahlgren - Scopazzi's, Boulder Creek
Aptos Creek - Michael's On Main, Soquel
Bruzzone Family - Rancho Don Bosco, Santa Cruz
Clos Tita - Rancho Don Bosco, Santa Cruz
Cordon Creek - Michael's On Main, Soquel
Dancing Creek - Rancho Don Bosco, Santa Cruz
Domenico - Tyrolean Inn, Ben Lomond
Muccigrosso - Tyrolean Inn, Ben Lomond
Naumann - Michael's On Main, Soquel
P M Staiger - Michael's On Main, Soquel
River Run - Michael's On Main, Soquel
Roudon Smith - Rancho Don Bosco, Santa Cruz

Next weekend features the eastern side, and the line up includes

Black Ridge, Burrell School, Byington, Cinnabar, Clos LaChance, Cooper-Garrod, Domenico, Downhill (at Byington), Fleming Jenkins, La Honda, Loma Prieta, Muccigrosso (at Domenico), Odonata (at Domenico), Savannah-Chanelle, Testarossa, Woodside

and pouring at restaurants until 4PM:

Cordon Creek - La Fondue, Saratoga
Hallcrest - Nonno's Restaurant, Redwood Estates
Heart o' the Mountain - La Fondue, Saratoga
La Rusticana d'Orsa - La Fondue, Saratoga
Naumann - La Fondue, Saratoga
P M Staiger - Nonno's Restaurant, Redwood Estates
Poetic Cellars - La Fondue, Saratoga
Roudon Smith - La Fondue, Saratoga
Windy Oaks - Nonno's Restaurant, Redwood Estates
The Surf City Vintners group - Nonno's Restaurant, Redwood Estates

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Ridge 2009 Monte Bello final assemblage tasting

Another trip up Monte Bello Road on a beautiful spring Sunday morning, albeit unseasonably chilly thanks to some cold Alaskan air that has been visiting us recently. The vines are flowering, as are the California poppies, and the air was clear giving great views all across the valley.

But we didn't just come here to admire the views. Last weekend was the final assemblage tasting for the 2009 Monte Bello, as well as an opportunity to taste a few older vintages.

2008 Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains
Citrus, vanilla, mineral and some fig on the nose. Nice rounded mouthfeel; creamy lemon and wet stone with a toasty finish. I still say this needs 3-5 years. 91+

1990 Monte Bello
Poured from a 375ml bottle. The colour was brick red; the nose was much more mature than I'd have expected from such a strong vintage - mushrooms, leather and a little dried fruit. On the palate it had tart berry flavours, earthy leather and a hint of dill pickle. I'd consider it past its peak. 88

1992 Monte Bello
Also poured from a 375ml bottle. Quite a contrast to the 1990; the nose had plenty of smooth red berry fruit and fresh earth. On the palate everything was integrated; still some good tannins, plenty of fruit, with leather, tart cranberry and herbal notes. Drinking well, but will continue to develop. 92

1995 Monte Bello
This was poured from a 750ml bottle. Lots of black fruit and some eucalyptus on the nose. In the mouth there's loads of rich fruit and bags of tannin; it's still very youthful. Pleasant now, but some way from its zenith. 93

2009 Monte Bello, barrel sample
The final blend is 71% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot and 7% Petit Verdot.
The colour is a deep red/black. The Petit Verdot seems to dominate the nose with its floral, violet notes, and some fresh bread. Stacks of rich sweet fruit; bramble, currant, graphite, with a dry herbal finish. Lots of potential; another clear winner. 94-96

Down in the tasting room they were pouring the current releases:

2007 Santa Cruz Mountains
The nose has a nice balance of herbal and fruit notes. Good fruit - tart black cherry, brambles and blackcurrant with a herbal finish. Good value. 92+

2006 Monte Bello
I've had this a few times recently; it never disappoints. The nose is enticing with lots of smoky black fruit; on the palate it's rich and rather concentrated, with loads of blackcurrant and brambly fruit, and a good long finish. 94

We then had a picnic and opened some interesting older bottles:

1987 Geyserville
Mature nose, leather and musty. Still has good fruit; raspberry, cranberry, lots of leather. 91

1994 Lytton Estate
Tart berry and light leather notes. Rich sweet raspberry candy, tobacco and wood. 91

1986 Monte Bello
Mature vegetal, rather stinky nose. But on the palate there's sweet fruit and plenty of it, along with earth and leather. 92

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Relyea-Wood Vineyards

Noël Relyea and Bill Wood are retired biochemists who own a beautiful property off Monte Bello Road. The property is located half a mile up a narrow dirt track close to the old Montebello school. It is situated on a ridge at around 1900 feet, with an incredible view west across the whole valley. The winery is in an annex separate from the main house, replete with shiny new steel tanks and a crusher/destemmer powered by solar panels on the roof.

In 2005 they worked with with Ron Mosley, the vineyard manager at Cinnabar, to install a picturesque vineyard on a half-acre of hillside behind their home. Unlike many small vineyard owners who have wine produced by sharecrop or custom crush facilities they decided to established their own bonded winery and do everything themselves. After all, as experienced biochemists they were already familiar with the principles.

2008 they saw their first harvest which yielded just 35 cases. To augment the estate fruit they also purchased Syrah from Santa Clara Valley and Cabernet Sauvignon from the Sacramento Delta. The latter wines were released in May 2010 and almost instantly sold out. The 2008 estate Cabernet Sauvignon is scheduled to be be released next year.

The couple are also keen astronomers; the winery even has its own observatory dome. In keeping with this the screen-printed bottle designs each incorporate a diagram of a constellation - the Syrah carries Ursa Major, while the estate Cabernet Sauvignon carries Orion - accompanied by a quote from Leonardo da Vinci: The discovery of a good wine is increasingly better for mankind than the discovery of a new star.

For 2008 the total production for all three wines was less than 100 cases. For 2009 the winery purchased Cabernet Sauvignon from Mount Veeder in Napa and a neighbouring vineyard as well as the Santa Clara Valley Syrah, so the total production should be around 150-200 cases. The target production for the winery is a scant 200 cases a year; although the winery could theoretically handle more the barrel room is rather tiny, and that's as much as Noël and Bill currently feel comfortable with.

2008 "Summertime" Red Table Wine, California
100% Cabernet Sauvignon, sourced from the Tamayo Family Vineyard in Brentwood. As the name suggests it's a lighter styled wine, with a dusty, bramble jelly nose. On the palate there's plenty of smooth blackcurrant fruit with some floral notes and just a little oak. Very reasonably priced at $12. Only 32 cases made. 88

2008 Syrah, Mosley Vineyard, Santa Clara Valley
The fruit comes from vineyard manager Ron Mosley's own vineyard in Morgan Hill. Primary and malolactic fermentation took place in tanks before being pressed and transferred to the barrel room downstairs, where it rested in new French oak for 11 months. Dark in colour with plum and spice on the nose. Quite intense; concentrated sweet fruit backed by white pepper and plenty of tannin. Perhaps a little riper than I would prefer, but an excellent first effort and very well priced at $30. I plan to revisit this in 6 months or so. Only 14 cases made. 92+

2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, Camalie Vineyard, Mt. Veeder, barrel sample.
Lots of black fruit - brambles and blackcurrant, without pushing the ripeness the way the 2008 Syrah does. There's good balance; as you'd expect from a barrel sample it finishes a little weakly, but that should develop. I definitely look forward to trying the Santa Cruz Cabernets. 3 barrels made, which should yield around 75 cases. Target price is $30-$40. 92-94

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Woodside Vineyards' new home among the ... Ferraris?

In 1960 Bob Mullen produced a batch of home-made wine from some abandoned vines in Woodside. Further research revealed that those vines were all that remained of Emmett Rixford's award winning La Questa vineyard, planted in the 19th century. Soon after Bob purchased a property on Kings Mountain Road in Woodside, planted vineyards of his own and founded Woodside Vineyards. The winery established a great reputation for their excellent red wines, all produced from small vineyards all over Woodside.

Eventually Bob retired from winemaking and was succeeded by his business partner Brian Caselden. In 2008 Bob decided to sell his home, so the winery needed to find new premises. They partnered with Buff Giurlani and Dick Burns, owners of Auto Vino in Menlo Park, a company specialising in the storage of fine wines and rare cars. Now after almost half a century on Kings Mountain Road, Woodside Vineyards has finally completed their move.

The new facility is at 205 Constitution Drive, just off 84 between Marsh and Willow, close to the Dumbarton Bridge. From the outside there are no signs that it's anything other than another business unit, but drive to the rear and you'll see the tell-tale discarded barrels.

Inside there's a mixture of high-tech and history. The main showroom is home to a dozen or so pristine vehicles from former race cars to classic Ferraris. Alongside them are winery relics including a century old corker, the hand crusher that Bob used until the mid 1970s, and Duane Cronin's old basket press. At one side there's an honour bar where club members can buy wine at any time, while at the other side there's a tasting area made from old champagne riddling racks propped up on barrels. Behind that through a window you can see the wine barrels stacked 5 high. In addition to guarding these pieces of automotive history AutoVino also rents out temperature controlled wine storage lockers (a 27 case unit costs $54 per month, if you were wondering).

The new facility will allow Brian and Bob to gradually increase production from the current 2,000 cases to a target of around 3,500 cases. The Woodside Vineyards wines will continue to be made only with estate grapes from the Woodside area, but there are plans to eventually introduce a second label made with fruit sourced from elsewhere in the Santa Cruz Mountains. There is also space for future expansion including a catering option.

Brian is currently preparing for the official relaunch, on Memorial day weekend. The winery will be open from 1-5PM on May 29th, 30th and 31st as well as on Sunday June 6th. Additionally the winery will open for the Vintners Festival on June 12th and 13th from 11AM-5PM the following weekend.

Friday, May 21, 2010

HR 5034 update

I wrote recently about HR5034, a bill being discussed in Congress that would allow states to prohibit the shipping of alcohol outside of the distributors. This is a bill that could be devastating for many small wineries (as well as being terrible for consumers). It would mean that you could purchase things like guns, knives, cigarettes, prescription drugs and pornography from out of state, but not wine.

Around 100 Representatives have signed up to support the bill. The current list includes: Bobby Bright [D-AL2] Harry Mitchell [D-AZ5] Edward Pastor [D-AZ4] Bob Filner [D-CA51] Gary Miller [R-CA42] Laura Richardson [D-CA37] Vern Buchanan [R-FL13] Ted Deutch [D-FL19] Lincoln Diaz-Balart [R-FL21] Mario Diaz-Balart [R-FL25] Alcee Hastings [D-FL23] Connie Mack [R-FL14] John Mica [R-FL7] Bill Posey [R-FL15] Adam Putnam [R-FL12] Thomas Rooney [R-FL16] Clifford Stearns [R-FL6] Debbie Wasserman Schultz [D-FL20] John Barrow [D-GA12] Paul Broun [R-GA10] David Scott [D-GA13] Lynn Westmoreland [R-GA3] Bruce Braley [D-IA1] Michael Simpson [R-ID2] Danny Davis [D-IL7] Bill Foster [D-IL14] Phil Hare [D-IL17] Jesse Jackson [D-IL2] Mike Quigley [D-IL5] Bobby Rush [D-IL1] Aaron Schock [R-IL18] André Carson [D-IN7] Joe Donnelly [D-IN2] Brad Ellsworth [D-IN8] Peter Visclosky [D-IN1] Michael Capuano [D-MA8] Frank Kratovil [D-MD1] John Dingell [D-MI15] Dale Kildee [D-MI5] Thaddeus McCotter [R-MI11] Gary Peters [D-MI9] Mark Schauer [D-MI7] Timothy Walz [D-MN1] Travis Childers [D-MS1] Gene Taylor [D-MS4] Bennie Thompson [D-MS2] Dennis Rehberg [R-MT] Howard Coble [R-NC6] Walter Jones [R-NC3] Patrick McHenry [R-NC10] Heath Shuler [D-NC11] Earl Pomeroy [D-ND] Paul Hodes [D-NH2] Robert Andrews Rush Holt [D-NJ12] Frank LoBiondo [R-NJ2] Frank Pallone [D-NJ6] William Pascrell [D-NJ8] Harry Teague [D-NM2] Shelley Berkley [D-NV1] Timothy Bishop [D-NY1] Michael McMahon [D-NY13] Edolphus Towns [D-NY10] Steve Driehaus [D-OH1] Timothy Ryan [D-OH17] Zachary Space [D-OH18] Betty Sutton [D-OH13] Charles Wilson [D-OH6] Robert Brady [D-PA1] Christopher Carney [D-PA10] Chaka Fattah [D-PA2] Patrick Murphy [D-PA8] Tim Murphy [R-PA18] William Shuster [R-PA9] Glenn Thompson [R-PA5] Henry Brown [R-SC1] Addison Wilson [R-SC2] Stephanie Herseth Sandlin [D-SD] Lincoln Davis [D-TN4] Henry Cuellar [D-TX28] Charles Gonzalez [D-TX20] Raymond Green [D-TX29] Rubén Hinojosa [D-TX15] Eddie Johnson [D-TX30] Randy Neugebauer [R-TX19] Solomon Ortiz [D-TX27] Ted Poe [R-TX2] Silvestre Reyes [D-TX16] Ciro Rodriguez [D-TX23] Lamar Smith [R-TX21] William Thornberry [R-TX13] Jason Chaffetz [R-UT3] Gerald Connolly [D-VA11] Glenn Nye [D-VA2] Ronald Kind [D-WI3] Shelley Capito [R-WV2] Alan Mollohan [D-WV1] Cynthia Lummis [R-WY]

You can view them on a Google Map at

The good news is that despite all this support there is wide opposition in Congress, including from Speaker Nancy Pelosi (who herself owns a vineyard and understands very well the implications of this bill); additionally there is so far no support for it in the Senate, so overall it would appear unlikely to succeed.

However if you haven't already written to your Representative then please do so. HR5034 is bad for wineries, customers and business generally; it's only good for the wholesalers who want to protect their monopoly.

Keep up to date on the campaign at or on Facebook at

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

West Coast Wine Competition - 2010 Results

Congratulations to Sycamore Creek, who got Best Red Wine/Double Gold for the 2007 Mosaico as well as a Double Gold for their 2007 Uvas Valley Cabernet at the 2010 West Coast Wine competition. Out of 1400 wines only 14 Double Golds were awarded, so to win two of them is a remarkable achievement.

Full results are here. Other local winners include:

Clos LaChance:
Silver - 2007 Merlot, Central Coast
Silver - 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, Central Coast
Bronze - 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, Central Coast
Bronze - 2006 Syrah, Central Coast

Dancing Creek:
Silver - 2008 Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains
Bronze - 2008 Merlot, Santa Cruz Mountains

Martin Ranch:
Silver - 2006 JD Hurley Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains
Silver - 2007 Therese Vineyards Syrah, Santa Cruz Mountains
Silver - 2006 Therese Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Estate, Santa Cruz Mountains
Bronze - 2009 JD Hurley Sauvignon Blanc, Arroyo Seco
Bronze - 2007 JD Hurley Zinfandel, Santa Clara Valley
Bronze - 2006 Therese Vineyards Syrah, Santa Clara Valley

Silver - 2006 Dorcich Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Clara Valley
Silver - 2006 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains
Bronze - 2006 Syrah, Santa Clara Valley
Bronze - 2006 Merlot, Santa Clara Valley

Kings Mountain Vineyard
Bronze - 2005 Meritage, Santa Cruz Mountains

La Rusticana d'Orsa:
Bronze - 2007 Santa Cruz Mountains

Loma Prieta:
Bronze - 2008 Pinot Noir, Saveria Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains
Bronze - 2008 Pinot Noir, Estate, Santa Cruz Mountains

Pietra Santa:
Gold - 2005 Vache Red Blend, Cienega Valley
Silver - 2008 Pinot Grigio, Cienega Valley
Silver - 2008 Chardonnay, Dunne Ranch, Pacheco Pass
Silver - 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Cienega Valley
Bronze - 2007 Chardonnay Signature Collection, Cienega Valley
Bronze - 2006 Sangiovese, Cienega Valley
Bronze - 2007 zinfandel, Central Coast
Bronze - NV Sacred Stone, Central Coast

Poetic Cellars:
Silver - 2005 Petite Sirah, Livermore Valley
Bronze - 2007 Ballad, Livermore Valley

Sycamore Creek
Best Red, Double Gold - 2007 Mosaico, Santa Clara Valley
Double Gold - 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, Uvas Valley Vineyard, Santa Clara Valley
Silver - 2007 Syrah, Santa Clara Valley
Silver - 2007 Cabernet Franc, Santa Clara Valley
Silver - 2007 Malbec, Santa Clara Valley
Bronze - 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, Monterey

Vine Hill:
Gold - 2007 Cumbre Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains
Silver - 2007 Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains

Windy Oaks:
Bronze - 2007 Pinot Noir 'Diane's Block', Santa Cruz Mountains

Monday, May 17, 2010

Tourist guide part 4: Skyline Boulevard to Boulder Creek

Open Daily/Weekends: Ahlgren, Burrell School, Byington, David Bruce, Regale, Silver Mountain
Appointment/Passport: Big Basin, Downhill, Loma Prieta, Muccigrosso, Muns, PM Staiger, Sonnet, Zayante
Unknown: Forest, Forty Stump, JM Barranti, Redwood Ridge, Windhover

Skyline Boulevard is aptly named since it runs along the top of the mountains, from Highway 84 to 17. South of 17 it eventually connects to Highway 152 (Hecker Pass Road), though a significant stretch of that is dirt track for which 4 wheel drive is advisable.

East of 17 there is a cluster of wineries. Burrell School is open daily from Thursday to Sunday from 11-5PM. Right next door is Regale, whose tasting room is open weekends from Noon-5:30PM. Further down the road Loma Prieta is open on Passport days and by appointment. Muns Vineyard is open by appointment only; for Passport events they typically pour at an alternate location.

5 minutes south of Summit Road is Silver Mountain. Currently open on Passport days and by appointment, the winery recently got approval to open on Saturday afternoons. As of May 2010 that approval is currently on hold pending appeal, so call first. The winery is also home to Sonnet who also pour on passport days. Nearby, the status of Barranti Vineyards is unknown. They were a small Pinot Noir producer from 2003 onwards, but nothing has been heard in the past 2 years.

West of 17 there isn't much until you get to Bear Creek Road. There you'll find David Bruce open daily from 12-5 and 11-5 at weekends. Close by, Byington is also open daily from 11-5PM. Byington is also home to Downhill Winery, who pours there on passport events and occasionally by appointment. Muccigrosso are also located nearby, but they typically pour for SCMWA events at alternate locations.

4 miles south of Highway 35 is Zayante Vineyards. They open for passport events and by appointment.

Further west in the Boulder Creek area you'll find Ahlgren open on Saturdays from Noon-4PM. P & M Staiger are SCMWA members who typically pour at an alternate location for passport events. Big Basin is open by appointment as well as passport events and certain open days through the year.

There are a few other wineries in the area whose status is currently unclear. Forty Stump and Windhover seem to be not yet open. Redwood Ridge is a wedding facility with its own vineyard.

Your help needed: Silver Mountain Tasting Room

Update Samantha Haschert's email address was incorrect. The right address is is

Silver Mountain winery is located in a quiet part of the Santa Cruz Mountains around 10 minutes drive from Highway 17. The winery has a tasting room that's open by appointment and for SCMWA events. After years of trying at a hearing in March the Santa Cruz County Planning Commission zoning administrator granted a permit allowing the tasting room to be open Saturday afternoons.

Unfortunately the permit is currently on hold pending an appeal from some residents, who claim that being open to the public for five hours a week rather than by appointment would generate unsafe traffic and nuisance noise. If this appeal succeeds then it sets a precedent that could have a significant impact on other wineries who are applying to be open other than by appointment; it could also result in the revocation of existing permits.

There is a Planning Commission Hearing to discuss the future of Silver Mountain's Winery Tasting Room at 9AM on Wednesday May 26th in Santa Cruz. If you can attend in person the hearing is in the Supervisors chambers in the County Building on Ocean Street. But if you can't then please take a moment to contact the Santa Cruz County project planner Samantha Haschert either by phone at (831) 454 3214 or by email at

Messages of support can also be sent to the winery at

Friday, May 14, 2010

Tourist guide part 3: Los Gatos and Campbell

Open daily: Fleming Jenkins, Testarossa
Open weekends: Pinder, Black Ridge
Appointment Only: Heart's Fire, Perrucci Family, Sensorium, Stroth-Hall, Travieso

Testarossa are open daily from 11-5PM in the old Novitiate winery in Los Gatos. They also make wines under the Novitiate label. Fleming Jenkins have a tasting room nearby in downtown Los Gatos, open daily except Mondays from noon-6PM. To the south just off Highway 17 Black Ridge are open from 11-5PM on the third weekend of the month, and at other times by appointment. Sensorium Wines and Perrucci Family are also located in Los Gatos; I believe both are available by appointment but I've never visited either of them. Neither are participating SCMWA members.

In Campbell four wineries share an industrial unit close to the junction of San Tomas and Highway 17 under the banner of Campbell Winemakers' Studio.
Pinder and Travieso pour their wines every Saturday between 11AM and 4PM. Heart's Fire are open between 1-4PM on the first Sunday of each month. Stroth-Hall are only open by appointment.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Tourist guide part 2: Cupertino and Saratoga

Open daily/weekends: Cinnabar, Cooper Garrod, Mountain Winery, Picchetti, Ridge, Savannah-Chanelle
Open by appointment: Naumann, Mount Eden
Not Open: Fellom Ranch, Kathryn Kennedy, R&W Vineyards, Vidovich

If there's one winery on almost everyone's list to visit, it's Ridge. The views are as stunning as the wines, as the photo at the top of my blog demonstrates. The winery's tasting room is open every weekend from 11AM to 5PM (4PM in winter); midweek visits can be arranged by appointment. At the bottom of the hill you'll find Picchetti, which is open daily from 11-5PM.

Monte Bello Road is also home to several other wineries. Naumann Vineyards is open for SCMWA events and occasionally by appointment. Fellom Ranch is also a SCMWA member, but is being renovated and has not been open to the public for some time. Vidovich is not open to the public. Finally R&W Vineyards are a brand new, tiny winery producing just a few cases. They are about to open for the first time; I hope to be there and will report back.

Further south, Cinnabar have a tasting room in downtown Saratoga that's open daily from 11-5PM.
West of Saratoga on Highway 9 you'll find Savannah Chanelle open daily from 11-5.
There are three wineries located off Pierce Road. Cooper-Garrod is open daily from 12-5 and 11-5 at weekends. Mountain Winery is open at weekends from 12-5 (though hours may vary if there's an event on). Finally it's well worth making an appointment to visit Mount Eden.. Both Montallegro and Kathryn Kennedy are based in Saratoga, but neither are open for visitors.

It's easy to visit Cooper Garrod, Mountain Winery, Cinnabar and Savannah-Chanelle in any order. If you want to visit Ridge and Pichetti too that's possible, though you may be a little rushed with only 45 minutes at each stop. I recommend starting at Ridge, then Picchetti, then Cooper-Garrod.

If you manage to get an appointment at Mount Eden be warned that it's at least a two mile drive up a narrow dirt track to the winery. Expect to spend at least an hour or two there.

As always, try to arrange a designated driver as some of the roads are tricky at the best of times. When tasting it's a good idea to spit even if you aren't driving.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Tourist guide part 1: North

Open Daily: Barterra, Domenico, La Nebbia, Thomas Fogarty
Open by appointment: Chaine d'Or/Stefania, Great Blue Heron, La Honda, Varner
Not Open: Clos de la Tech, King's Mountain, Martella, Orchard Hills, Rhys/Alesia, Waxwing, Woodside

The northern end of the Santa Cruz Mountains is known for Emmet Rixford's winery and La Questa vineyard. It's the coolest part of the AVA and is the source of some excellent Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

If you happen to be in Half Moon Bay there are two tasting rooms close by. Barterra is located in the town centre and La Nebbia is on Highway 92 to the east. But if you aren't in the city anyway it's difficult to justify making a special trip.

On the eastern side of the mountains Domenico in Redwood City is open from 12-5PM daily.
Thomas Fogarty on Skyline (Highway 35) is open Wed-Sat 11AM-5PM and Sunday 1-5PM.
La Honda Winery is located in Redwood City and is open by appointment. They are SCMWA members and often host other wineries on passport or Vintners' Festival weekends.
Varner are open midweek, by appointment only. The Spring Ridge Vineyard is located in Portola Valley.
Great Blue Heron is a tiny winery producing a few barrels of estate Pinot Noir from the owner's garage. Tasting is by appointment at weekends.
Chaine d'Or is located close to the junction of Highways 84 and 35. It's now managed by Paul and Stef Romero of Stefania Wine and takes visitors by appointment.

Varner, GBH, Chaine d'Or and Fogarty are all located within a half hour drive of each other. My recommendation would be to try to start at Varner or GBH, then go to Chaine d'Or and Fogarty. From Fogarty you can then go to La Honda and (if there's time) Domenico's. To get from Fogarty to La Honda the quickest way is via the 84, which takes you through Woodside. You can stop off at Roberts Market - they generally have an excellent selection of local wines. Alternatively you can head south on Skyline to Page Mill Road - that drive is around 20-30 minutes longer, but it's more scenic and fun.

Other wineries in the area:
Woodside Vineyards recently moved from their home of almost 50 years to a new facility in Menlo Park. Though one of the founders of SCMWA they don't pour on passport weekends and traditionally only open for events a few times a year, but the new premises may make appointments possible. Watch this space.
Kings Mountain are located in Woodside. Though the vineyards are visible from the road, the wine is made elsewhere. They are members of SCMWA and typically pour on passport weekends at other local wineries, such as La Honda or Domenico.
Rhys are based out of an industrial unit close to Domenico. They open a couple of times a year to allow mailing list members to pick up their wines, and they also organise a few vineyard tours in the summertime which get booked up well in advance. They are building a new facility off Skyline which is expected to open later in 2010.
Clos de la Tech are also building a facility off Skyline; the opening date hasn't been announced. In the meantime the wines are made at Domenico's facility; any tastings are by personal invitation from the owners. Domenico is also home to a number of other small producers, including Waxwing who have been known to pour on rare occasions.
Michael Martella is the winemaker at Thomas Fogarty. Occasionally one or more of his wines will be available in the tasting room. Martella is a SCMWA member and normally pours for their events at an alternate location, not at Fogarty.
Orchard Hills is based out of Atherton, though the wines are actually made in Paso Robles. The vineyards are visible from the road, but the city's rules prohibit any visitors or sales. If you want to taste the wines your best bet is Vino Locale in Palo Alto.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Tourist guide introduction

I frequently get asked for advice on which wineries to visit. It's a question that's difficult to give a simple answer to, as a lot depends on what you expect to get from the visit.

If you're looking to hit a few tasting rooms and have a picnic then a good place to look is Wine Questers. Jim Preston is building a database of winery tasting rooms all over the state, with details such as whether they are kid and pet friendly. There's even an iPhone app that you can download.

But if you're looking for a more personal visit, where you get to meet the owner, vineyard manager and winemaker (quite often it's the same person) then that usually takes a little more planning. Typically you'll have to make appointments. Also it can be a long drive from one winery to another, and some mapping software doesn't take into account just how bad the roads can be; in a few places they are quite literally dirt tracks that really requite a 4X4. So I thought I'd write up a brief tourist guide to visiting the wineries. Stay tuned for part 1.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Two older Santa Clara labels

Here's a couple of interesting older labels from the Santa Clara Valley. They were opened at a recent party by Wes Barton, who has a great knack for finding interesting local wines. I didn't get the chance to take proper notes, but I managed to rescue the empty bottles and remove the labels.

Congress Springs was founded in the 1970s by Daniel Gers. He discovered a derelict vineyard in Saratoga with head pruned Zinfandel vines dating back to before prohibition. Together with his wife Robin they restored the vineyards and launched a successful winery. Around 1990 Daniel sold the winery and it became Savannah-Chanelle winery. The head-pruned Zinfandel vines are still producing today.

Congress Springs was well known for their San Ysidro Chardonnay, which often gained 90+ ratings from Spectator. The wine was still in very good shape despite its age; an amber colour and nice mature flavours.

Fortino was established in 1970 in Santa Clara's Hecker Pass, and is still going 40 years later. They make around 15,000 cases, mainly sold from the tasting rooms and local stores and restaurants.

Ruby Cabernet is a cross developed at UC Davis in the 1930s. The aim was to to produce a vine combining the quality of Cabernet Sauvignon with the heat and drought tolerance of Carignan. An acre was planted at Ridge in the 1950s, and the winery produced a series of rather good Monte Bello Ruby Cabernets from the late 1960s through the mid 1980s, but overall it wasn't a great success and is now mainly planted in the central valley, where around 6,000 acres are grown as a blending grape for bulk wines.

So a 30 year old wine made from an unremarkable grape by an unremarkable winery? It turned out to be surprisingly pleasant, still having a fair amount of fruit left as well as a little tannin. The colour was a nice red brown.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

2006 Big Dog Cabernet Sauvignon

Look east from San Jose and you'll see the barren savannah foothills of the Diablo Range. In contrast to the urban sprawl of Silicon Valley the hillsides appear largely untouched by man.

In the 19th Century the area was farmland, but in response to increasing demand for water from the growing cities much of it was purchased by the Spring Valley Water Company. Today over 150km² are owned by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. There are some cattle and horse ranches in the area, but at present there is only one winery.

2006 Big Dog Cabernet Sauvignon, San Francisco Bay AVA
There's lots of oak on the nose, which isn't surprising given that it saw 28 months of new wood - it's like someone's dropped a bottle of blackcurrant cordial in Home Depot. In the mouth there's concentrated blackcurrant, blueberry and brambly fruit that just about manages to overcome all that oak. Drink now. 88 $28

Sunday, May 2, 2010

2007 Woodside Chardonnay

Looking through my cellar I discovered a bottle of Woodside Chardonnay that I'd forgotten about. Although Woodside makes some really good reds I don't normally care for their Chardonnay and at first I wasn't sure why I'd bought it.

Then I remembered that at the last visit they were roasting chestnuts on a smoky wood fire. All I could smell and taste was the fire, not the wine, so I'd bought a bottle to try later. Turns out it wasn't anything to do with the fire after all.

2007 Woodside Chardonnay, Estate
The nose shows oak, with some pear and apple notes. On the palate there's oak. That's it, just masses of oak. No Chardonnay character whatsoever and no acidity to speak of. As far as I could tell it wasn't technically flawed (oxidised, corked etc.) so by the terms of the 100 point scale it earns 70 points, but no more.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Do you know about H.R. 5034?

If you haven't read about HR 5034, also known as the Comprehensive Alcohol Regulatory Effectiveness (CARE) Act of 2010, you should. It's a bill that would have a profound impact on consumers and wineries, leading to increased prices and winery closures. Although there is widespread opposition to the bill it's also gaining support.

I'm not a lawyer nor do I play one on TV, and I didn't sleep at a Holiday inn last night. So I urge you to get the facts and make your own minds up, but here is my understanding.

The problem goes back to the repeal of Prohibition and the passing of the 21st amendment. Unlike most legal stuff it was brief and plainly worded. It says:
  • Section 1. The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.
  • Section 2. The transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.
Following this, various states set up alcohol distribution systems that were either owned by or regulated by the states. The 3 tier system was born: producers sold to wholesalers, wholesalers sold to retailers, retailers sold to customers and everyone got to make a profit (except the customer). For a long time nobody really cared too much; there was relief that prohibition was over and most people purchased their beer, wine and spirits from their local stores. Since the distributors controlled the flow of alcohol they got to become rich and powerful, and effectively stifled competition by merging and lobbying.

The recent winery boom began to challenge this. Small wineries like to interact directly with their customers; the profit margins are higher and the customer establishes a connection that goes beyond mere brand loyalty. If there's a problem with the wine due to flaws or bad shipping the winery can deal with it personally. It's good for the winery and the customer.

But not the wholesaler. They see this as a challenge. Despite the fact that it's a tiny fraction of the overall market, it's their market and they want to keep that fraction. The problem eventually reached the Supreme Court in the case of Granholm V Heald which effectively said that the 21st amendment did not give a state the right to treat wineries within the state differently from those based in other states.

HR 5034 (which was drafted by the National Beer Wholesalers' Association, or NAMBLA) would effectively overturn the Granholm V Heald ruling, granting each state the right to regulate alcohol however they see fit, regardless of the commerce clause. It also amends the 1890 Wilson act, which states "that all fermented, distilled or other intoxicating liquors or liquids transported into any state or territory" are subject to the same rules as alcohol produced within the state. This would greatly strengthen the wholesalers' position and allow the states to prevent wineries from shipping to customers.

Laws designed to limit alcohol shipping are often claimed to have the aim of preventing minors from accessing alcohol. But how many minors buy alcohol over the internet? HR 5034 would allow states to make it illegal for wineries and retailers to ship alcohol to adults. Meanwhile firearms collectors and dealers are still allowed to ship guns. Tobacco retailers can ship cigarettes and cigars. Pharmaceutical companies can ship prescription drugs. Does that make sense? You could buy a Smith and Wesson, but not a Smith-Madrone? Viagra but not Varner? Montecristos but not Montallegro?

HR 5034 is a terrible bill that would be disastrous for small wineries such as those in the Santa Cruz Mountains, but don't just take my word for it. Rep Mike Thompson (D-CA), co-chairman of the Congressional Wine Caucus says it would "devastate California’s and other states’ wine industries, stunt economic growth, and harm consumers by allowing discriminatory law and regulation to be passed and go unchallenged."

What can you do? Write to your Representative, asking them to oppose the bill.
Free The Grapes has a Write Your Congressperson web page that lets you do this automatically.
Send a fax to the office of the House Subcommittee on Courts and Competition Policy at (202) 225-3673.
Become a fan of the STOPHR5034 page on Facebook

What's your view on HR 5034? Have you heard back from your Congressperson on whether they will oppose it? Let me know in the comments.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Mountain Winery

Paul Masson (1859-1943) is to this day one of the world's most well-known winemakers. He left his native Burgundy at the age of 19 and came to California, where he worked at the Almaden winery and vineyards, founded by Etienne Thee. In 1888 he married Charles Lefranc's daughter, and the business was retitled the Lefranc-Masson Wine Company.

Masson set out to demonstrate that his vineyards could produce a domestic Champagne that was the equal of the French. Before long his wines were winning awards, including a gold medal at the Paris Expo of 1900. With his new found fame and fortune he decided to build a new winery that he named La Cresta, on an ideal southerly slope of Table Mountain in Saratoga.

The winery's reputation was such that even with the passing of Prohibition, the Paul Masson Champagne Company was granted a limited exemption to produce champagne 'for medicinal purposes'. When Repeal eventually came Masson was in his 70s, and was eventually persuaded, cajoled or tricked (depending on who is telling the story) into selling La Cresta. It was purchased by Martin Ray who operated the winery until 1942, when it was sold to Seagrams. Ray subsequently purchased another property nearby on the same mountain and established what eventually became Mount Eden.

Under Seagrams ownership the Paul Masson brand became a mass-produced label, featuring gimmicks such as 1 litre screw-topped carafes, and famously advertised by Orson Welles. Wine production at La Cresta ceased in 1950 and though the vineyards remained they were somewhat run-down, producing less than half a ton per acre.

In the late 1950s a small ampitheater was built and the first summer concert series was held there, launching an annual tradition that continued for 30 years. Eventually the vines were dug up and what was once considered one of the greatest vineyards in the country became a car park.

In 1989 the facility was sold to a developer for $5.3M. Seagrams retained the "Paul Masson" name, so the name was changed the name to The Mountain Winery. Over the next few years the facility had a number of owners and went through bankruptcy before being purchased in 1999 by four partners including a developer, a founder of Hotmail and a former Intel exec. Together they have overseen the rebuilding and expansion of the ampitheater and the replanting of 9 acres of estate vineyards. The vineyards were installed and are managed by Jeffrey Patterson.

The winery opens for tasting most weekends, from 12-5 on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. There are two flights available, the 'Reserve' wines which are made from purchased fruit and the two 'Estate' wines. Each flight costs $10, or $18 to try both. The reserve wines are priced in the mid $20s, with the Estates priced at $39 and $45. Given those prices the tasting fees do seem somewhat excessive. All the wines are made by Jeffrey Patterson at his Mount Eden facility, which allows the Santa Cruz Mountains wines to use the Estate designation.

2007 Estate Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains
Nose shows cider, oak and peach. Rich apple and lemon flavours. Lightly oaked, with firm acidity. 90 $39

2007 Estate Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains
The nose is complex, with smoke, black cherry, raspberry and spice. On the palate it's a little austere and tannic. There's good cherry fruit and nice tannins. Needs a couple of years. 91 $45

2007 Reserve Chardonnay, Monterey County
Light lemon and lime nose, with some vanilla. Tart citrus flavours, nice acidity and minerality. Pleasant, though not particularly complex. 87 $26

2006 Reserve Merlot, Sonoma County
A big nose with smoke, black plum and brambles. Smooth and oaky with some tart black fruit. Dusty, bitter tannins on the finish 86 $22

2007 Reserve Syrah, Napa Valley
Lovely nose. Heavily floral with black fruit and soy sauce. In the mouth there's lots of good savoury fruit. Overall it lacks the structure for ageing but is very tasty now. 89 $22

2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Smoky oak hides the brambly fruit on the nose. The palate has plenty of sweet blackcurrant fruit and an oaky finish. 87 $27

Have you tried the Mountain Winery wines? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.