Archive for the ‘California’Category

Sonoma Cider stands out in heart of wine country

The 20 or so downtown wine-tasting rooms in Healdsburg are almost an embarrassment of riches. Sometimes there’s just too much of a good thing. That’s what the folks at Sonoma Cider thought when they opened Taproom (44F Mill Street, Healdsburg, 707-723-7018, sonomacider.com) in a former warehouse about a block south of the plaza last October.

There’s a no-nonsense air to the building that houses several 3,000-gallon and 6,000-gallon fermentation tanks, a bar with a giant screen TV, and a casual restaurant. Father/son duo David and Robert Cordtz launched Sonoma Cider in 2013. They take their cider seriously, but Taproom is free of pretense.

Cider on tap at Sonoma Cider Taproom“This is less upscale than wine-tasting,” says Taproom manager Kole Christen. “People can try something crisp and fresh. This is a place where people can cut loose. And,” he adds with a smile, “we’re open later than wine-tasting rooms.”

Many customers opt for a six-cider flight (shown at top of post) from the multitude of choices. Sonoma Cider’s basic hard cider starts with a blend of five apples grown organically in Washington State. Simply fermented, it’s called The Hatchet. It’s clean, refreshing, and apple-y. The same juice is blended with bourbon flavoring and fermented in bourbon barrels to produce The Anvil. It can also be sweetened with eucalyptus honey and fermented in whiskey barrels for six months to produce The Imperial. (At 10.3 percent alcohol, The Imperial could be classified as apple wine or apple mead.) The cider makers also blend the fermented juice with selected flavors (like blackberry juice) to create flavored ciders.

Delving into nuances


Cider glass at Sonoma Cider taproomHard cider is traditionally made from a blend of apples, but the folks at Sonoma Cider have been exploring the possibilities of single-varietal ciders. Their Gravenstein is tart and fresh, their Winter Banana light and spicy, and their Dry Golden Delicious bone dry and a little tart. With such distinct characters, they offer real potential for food pairings.

The single varietals are often made with Sonoma County apples. One of our favorites of this group was an old-fashioned orchard blend called Westcider. The orchard sits on Westside Road, southwest of Healdsburg. Fermented from a mix of Pink Permain, Winter Banana, Macintosh, Mystery, Crispin, and Baldwin Striped Gentlemen, Westcider has a balance of sweetness, fruitiness, and slightly ashen bitterness characteristic of good French ciders.

In addition to the taps of standard ciders, reserve ciders, and micro-releases, Taproom also crafts cocktails, many of them using Sonoma Cidery Apple Brandy. This 85 proof barrel-aged spirit is distilled from the same base blend of apples used in The Hatchet. Since the production facility had just received a fresh batch of juice, we did a taste test of juice, hard cider, and brandy—sort of vertical tasting of rising alcohol levels. The flavor is remarkably consistent in all three. It makes a good base spirit for cocktails, but it’s also smooth enough to drink neat or on ice. Unlike “applejack,” it has no added neutral spirit so the apple flavor is very pronounced.

Cider with food


Chef Josh Schauert at Sonoma Cider TaproomExecutive chef Josh Schauert has devised a menu to complement the ciders. “When I’m designing dishes, I keep the ciders in mind,” he says. “But this is not your typical bar food.”

He points out that pairing cider with meals is new territory in the restaurant industry, but relishes the challenge. Compared to wine, he says, “cider has a broader flavor structure.” That opens the door for more pairing options beyond the usual “red meat calls for red wine” mindset. Moreover, there are fewer preconceptions about what might be appropriate.

Schauert also finds lots of opportunity to cook with cider. “Cider has a very similar flavor profile to vinaigrette,” he says. “That makes it easier to cook with.”

His menu during our visit was Exhibit A. The seafood ceviche of shrimp, octopus, and salmon was marinated in Crowbar cider, which is flavored with habañero peppers and organic limes. The green beans accompanying baby back ribs are sauteed in garlic butter and deglazed with Apple Cider Brandy.

The brandy is also a key component in Schauert’s take on French Onion Soup. He caramelizes the onions in butter, then deglazes the pan with brandy before adding a housemade bone-broth beef stock. The sweetness of the onions and the fruity richness of the brandy make this winter warmer an surprisingly elegant soup for a casual tavern. By substituting large croutons for the conventional toasted baguette slice on top, he makes the soup much easier to eat. Schauert generously shared the recipe.

SONOMA CIDER FRENCH ONION SOUP


Makes 1 gallon
Prep and cooking time 1 hour

Ingredients


1/4 cup butter
3 lb yellow onions, sliced
4 cloves garlic, peeled/chopped
2 bay leaves
1 quart Sonoma Cider Apple Brandy
1 bunch fresh thyme
2 teaspoons dried oregano
3 teaspoons Worcestershire Sauce
2 quarts fresh beef stock
2 quarts water
salt/pepper to taste
croutons, toasted light brown in 425°F oven
2 cups mixed shredded Gruyère, cheddar, and jack cheese

Directions


Melt butter in stock pot. Add sliced onions and cook down to caramelize (about 15 minutes). Add garlic and bay leaf, cook until aromatic.

Deglaze pot with Sonoma Cider Apple Brandy, scraping fond (black bits) off of bottom of pot. Add herbs and cook until aromatic. Add Worcestershire sauce, beef stock, and water. Bring to low boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 30-45 minutes until reduced about 20 percent.

Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with toasted croutons topped with mixed cheeses. Enjoy!

10

12 2017

Comstock embodies Sonoma wine country living

Merlot vineyards at Comstock Wines

The success of the 2004 film Sideways made California Merlot unpopular for a while. But the dip in that red’s reputation might have made helped clear the way for the winery and tasting room at Comstock Wines (1290 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, 707-723-3011, comstockwines.com, tastings $20-$50). The photo above looks out the back of Comstock’s tasting room to old Merlot vineyards. (That’s a blue heron flying over the vines.) Many more vines were sacrificed to clear ground to build the winery, tasting room facility, and wine club residence. But not too many. Founded in 2012 using much older vineyards, Comstock still makes an outstanding Merlot that shows the restraint of the cooler Dry Creek Valley climate but bursts with black currant and violets.

pouring tasting at Comstock WinesCurrently producing about 6,000 cases per year, Comstock sells all but a few cases at the winery or to the 500 members of its wine club. (A small allotment goes to a few area restaurants.) By the way, all proceeds from the sale of the remaining stock of Comstock’s excellent 2012 Zinfandel ($42) go to aid the victims of the Sonoma wildfires.

Comstock offers a lot of tasting options. On the first Sunday of each month, visitors can opt for the Sunday Brunch White Flight ($40). Sips of Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir are paired with your seasonal brunch bites. We caught the Wine and Pizza Pairing, offered the second Saturday of May and July-October or by appointment ($50, or $40 for wine club members.)

Pairing wine and pizza


We had always thought that pairing wine and pizza was our own little secret, not to be divulged in the polite company of wine folk. But Comstock is full-on Sonoma casual—and Healdsburg-based pizza oven company Mugnaini (mugnaini.com) has elevated the simple pie to high culinary art. The cooks at Comstock have come up with some inventive toppings that help bring out the characteristics of the wines.

pear pizza at Comstock WinesOur favorite combination was the 2015 Russian River Valley Viognier with a restrained pizza brushed lightly with peach-bourbon sauce and slices of ginger-soaked pears and topped with crumbled chevre. The Viognier shows orange blossoms and candied peach on the nose, and the slight tartness of the wine cut through any sweetness of the toppings.

Another outstanding pairing brought together a red pepper and prosciutto pizza with a glass of 2013 Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley. The salty notes of the prosciutto were an especially good complement to the dark bramble fruit that dominates this Zin. The sweet red peppers accentuated the coriander, clove, and toasted spice notes of the mid-palate.

That’s definitely our idea of a pizza party! Visitors electing the pizza pairing, by the way, are invited to play on the winery’s bocce court after lunch.

Buy top foodstuffs at SHED, or sit and be served

exterior of SHED in Healdsburg

“This is a chef’s dream,” Perry Hoffman said as he surveyed the busy scene in SHED (25 North Street, Healdsburg, 707-431-7433, healdsburgshed.com), the self-described “market, cafe, and community gathering space” that opened in Healdsburg in 2013.

Perry Hoffman of SHED in HealdsburgHoffman knows what he’s talking about. His grandparents founded The French Laundry restaurant in Yountville. Hoffman grew up working beside his grandparents and parents in the family business. After Thomas Keller purchased the restaurant in 1994, Hoffman worked in several other kitchens until he became chef at étoile restaurant at Domaine Chandon in Yountville in 2007. Three years later, he was awarded his first Michelin star. When étoile closed in 2014, SHED was just gathering steam. Hoffman jumped at the chance to embrace the more casual side of California cuisine.

That same year, the James Beard Foundation honored SHED with an award for restaurant design. Much has been made of the architect’s use of steel and glass to create the dramatic, light-filled space and of the clever use of denim as insulation. But design is only a starting point. Within those glass walls, SHED celebrates all things edible and the power of food to bring people together.

DIY or chef-made food


Coffee bar at SHED in Healdsburg It’s safe to say that a foodie can find everything he or she could need or want at SHED. There’s a coffee and juice bar (right), produce from 20 farms, a pantry with products from about 600 makers, a small flour mill, a bakery, a housewares department, and a larder with cheeses, smoked fish, charcuterie, and housemade pickles. Cooking classes and other events take place on the second floor.

We weren’t able to sign up for a cooking class, but we got plenty of new ideas simply by grabbing a table in the cafe and ordering lunch. Food is prepared in a big open kitchen with a wood-fired oven. The menu changes daily and always emphasizes the best of the season. In mid-November, that meant such dishes as Brussel Sprout Gratin with pickled cauliflower; Golden Acorn Squash Salad with cranberries, bee pollen and honey; and Petrale Sole with shiitake mushrooms, eggplant and greens.

“This is different from fine dining,” Hoffman acknowledged, “but we can do good food.” That’s an understatement.

Hoffman kindly shared the recipe for one of our favorite dishes, Wood Oven Roasted San Marzano Tomatoes with goat cheese, rosemary, and roasted oranges. (The recipe calls for tangerines, but a thin-skinned sweet orange like Cara Cara also works.) Now we have to find an acceptable substitute for the dense, crusty olive bread that was served on the side. You can order the olive powder—a favorite vegan umami punch—from SHED Pantry. Or you can make your own by dehydrating well-drained Kalamata or Niçoise olives on a baking sheet in a 250°F oven. It takes three hours or a little more for the olives to become dry, crispy, and ready for pulverizing.

roasted San Marzano tomatoes at SHED in Healdsburg

ROASTED SAN MARZANO TOMATOES
WITH TANGERINES AND DRIED OLIVES


Serves 6

Ingredients


2 lbs fresh San Marzano tomatoes, each cut into 3 rounds
4 tangerines, seeded and sliced into half moons retaining skin
10 cloves garlic, sliced thin
2 cups of chopped yellow onions
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary
4 bay leaves
1 cup olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup of goat cheese
1 tablespoon olive powder (from SHED Pantry or homemade)
sweet alyssum and fennel flowers to garnish

Directions


Set oven to 450°F.

In an ovenproof dish (SHED uses ceramic cazuelas), add tomatoes, tangerines, garlic, onions, rosemary, bay leaves, and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.

Bake 40 minutes.

Remove from oven and sprinkle with goat cheese, Return to oven and bake for another 5 minutes.

Remove from oven and garnish with olive powder, sweet alyssum, and fennel flowers and serve with toasted bread!

06

12 2017

Aptly named Bella fashions lovely Zinfandels

Bella's caves sit under Lily Hill vineyard

Coming up the driveway to Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves (9711 West Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, 866-572-3552, bellawinery.com, tastings $15), two things are immediately evident. The wine caves tunnel into the side of the hill, and the vines planted above them in the Lily Hill vineyard are squat and gnarled and twisted. Like so many vineyards in Dry Creek Valley, they represent old-growth Zinfandel. In fact, much of the vineyard was first planted in 1915. Although Bella has a few plots of other grapes, mostly for blending purposes, the winery focuses on handcrafted small-batch Zinfandel. It also purchases some grapes from equally obsessive growers.

[Barrels in caves of BellaBella’s Zinfandels often earn mid-90s scores from Robert Parker, and it’s easy to see why. These opulent wines are undeniably powerful but they are also exquisitely balanced and nuanced. Bella ages them in a mix of French and American oak, but the cooper’s hand is light on these wines. Only about 20 percent of the barrels are new. As a result, the wood and wine marry well during bottle aging before the wines are released.

A standard tasting at Bella samples six wines for $15. We tasted two wines each from 2013 and 2014, then a 2015 and a 2016. Every one of them was excellent, but three stood out for their strong expression of their individual vineyards.

2013 Maple Annie’s Zinfandel

Although 2013 was a great year for Zinfandel in the Dry Creek Valley, viticulturalists had some challenges. The end of the growing season turned very hot, and dry-farmed Zinfandel vines shut down. Bella supplemented its Zin grapes with Petite Sirah and Carignane in some of its wines that year, as both varietals develop intense ripeness in the heat. But this small bottling relied entirely on Zinfandel berries from a special block in the Tom and Tina Maple’s vineyards on the Dry Creek Valley bench. The Maples hand-tended the block, removing more foliage than usual to get intense ripening before the extreme heat hit. The wine is spectacular. It bursts with a bouquet of black cherry and blueberries. It is full and juicy in the mouth. Eucalyptus and sweet red cherry linger on the palate. It sells for $48.

2014 Big River Ranch Zinfandel

The Big River Ranch vineyard is an Alexander Valley benchland property overlooking the Russian River—a warmer district than the Dry Creek Valley. The Zinfandel vines here were planted in 1906, making them some of the oldest surviving Zin vines in the Alexander Valley. (The region grows such great Cabernet Sauvignon that many growers have ripped out the old Zinfandel vines.) The concentration in 2014 was so intense that the wine is almost opaque. The spicy nose (root beer and anise!) gives way to big round fruit without tasting jammy. Tannins are soft and silky. The wine is priced at $45.

New plantings on Bella's Lily Hill vineyard

2015 Lily Hill Estate Zinfandel

The Lily Hill vineyard, much of which arches above Bella’s wine caves, was first planted in 1915. Some blocks (as shown in the photo immediately above) are more recent, dating from 2001. A few of the blocks within the vineyard also have old Syrah and Petite Sirah vines. In 2015, Bella incorporated 2 percent each of these grapes with 96 percent Zinfandel in a field blend before fermentation. The resulting wine has the herbal and dark fruit nose of old-vine Zin. It comes on with a mouthful of black cherry and bramble fruit and finishes with a smoky taste of toasted coriander. At $45 it’s steal for lovers of powerful, balanced Zinfandel.

04

12 2017

Kokomo Winery lets grapes do their thing

Kokomo tasting room
The small red industrial building on the Timber Crest Farms property that houses Kokomo Winery (4791 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, 707-433-0205, kokomowines.com, tastings $10-$25) is deceptively modest. The winery was founded by Erik Miller in 2004, who named it for his Indiana hometown. The vineyards date much, much farther back. Some Zinfandel plantings on the estate are more than 150 years old. Partner Randy Peters, a fourth-generation grape grower, has tended other vineyards here since 1974. He grows about 70 percent of Kokomo’s fruit in all three Healdsburg appellations: Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley, and Dry Creek Valley.

We say the building is modest because the wines are anything but. Miller’s philosophy of winemaking is terroir-driven. “The special thing about wine is that it showcases a particular piece of land showing the nuances of the soil, climate, elevation, and, above all, a sense of place,” he says. He parses the wines by varietal and vineyard, which results in small runs of exquisite wines with distinct personalities. The total production of about 8,900 cases sells almost entirely to the winery’s wine club and at the tasting room. In other words, to taste these outstanding wines, you need to visit.

Sampling a bit of Kokomo


Kokomo sparklingWe started with a hello glass of sparkling 2013 Blanc de Blancs—a pure Chardonnay from the Peters vineyard. Crisp and full-bodied with nice toasty notes on the nose, it was an exemplar of California sparkling. We weren’t surprised at the quality. It’s a consistent medal winner and scores in the 90s from the various wine publications.

With limited time, we sampled some still wines that demonstrated Kokomo’s range. The 2016 Sauvignon Blanc from the Timber Crest Vineyard confirms the wisdom of letting great fruit do its own thing. The grapes were picked at different ripeness levels to capture both acidity and tropical fruit. The wine was fermented and aged partly in acacia wood, which affords the micro-oxidation of oak without imparting the flavor of wood. It is a great sipping wine and very complementary to a local brie we nibbled alongside it. Retail is $22.

Friendly reds


Erik Miller’s wife Kimia calls the 2015 Pinot Noir from three different vineyards her “five o’clock wine.” Very soft and delicate, it has rose notes on the nose and a touch of black pepper in the mouth. It finishes with a full, food-friendly acidity. Retail is $44.

Kokomo erik millerZinfandel is so variable in the Healdsburg region that Kokomo produces four different variations. (The photo at right, courtesy of the winery, shows Erik with a bottle of Zin.) We tasted the 2015 Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley. Made from a blend of grapes from two vineyards, it showed the intense concentration of fruit grown in the third straight year of record drought. The nose is full of black fruit and cocoa. The tannins are exceptionally smooth, making this full-bodied red a great food wine. Retail is $36.

Cabernet also has several local expressions, and we were delighted with the 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon from Ruth’s Vineyard in the Alexander Valley. This version is silky and elegant. The nose shows pronounced notes of eucalyptus and those giant blackberries that Californians call boysenberries. The new French oak comes through in the mouth but full Cabernet fruit dominates, evoking hints of black currant. Spectacular!

02

12 2017

Honor Mansion delights as wine-touring base

Honor Mansion exterior
We arrived at Honor Mansion (891 Grove St., Healdsburg, 707-433-4277, honormansion.com) in the late afternoon. After an early morning flight from Boston and a drive from San Francisco to Healdsburg, we must have looked as tired as we felt. But assistant concierge Ruth Brambila knew just what we needed. Even before we checked in, she offered us fresh-baked peanut butter chocolate chip cookies and told us to pour a couple of glasses of wine from the bottles of red and white sitting on the buffet in the breakfast room. “In an hour, we’ll be laying out cheese and crackers and appetizers,” she told us. Some evenings, local winemakers even join guests for informal tastings.

Honor Mansion Vineyard Suite 1Less than a mile from Healdsburg’s main square, Honor Mansion is a quiet retreat after a day of travel—or a day of wine tasting and sightseeing. Innkeepers Steve and Cathi Fowler purchased the property in 1994 and opened their hostelry with a couple of guest rooms in the late 19th century mansion at its heart. In addition to five rooms in the mansion, the property now includes seven suites and a private cottage on four acres of grounds. The photo above right shows one corner of a spacious Vineyard Suite, set next to some Zinfandel vines.

Most important meal of the day


Honor Mansion Santa Fe Bake on plateFirst thing in the morning, all guests find their way to the mansion’s breakfast room for a buffet breakfast that gets the day off to a good start. There’s a different hot dish every day, along with fruit, scones, and other baked goods including an incredible cinnamon walnut bread from Costeaux French Bakery (see upcoming post). We were especially fond of the fluffy baked-egg dish called Santa Fe Bake. The inn served it with sun-dried tomato sauce, applewood smoked bacon, and cheddar green chile scones. Many of the guests’ favorite recipes are compiled in the Honor Mansion Cookbook. Ruth graciously agreed to let us share the recipe for Santa Fe Bake, which is on the plate in the photo at right.

SANTA FE BAKE


Serves 6 to 8

Ingredients


8 eggs
2 cups heavy cream
1/2 chopped onion
1/4 cup (half of 3-ounce can) diced green chiles
3 tablespoons chopped sun-dried tomatoes preserved in oil
1 1/4 cups shredded cheddar and jack cheeses, mixed

Directions


Set oven to 350°F,
Place ingredients (except for cheese) into blender jar. Process briefly to mix.
Spray an 8×8 pan with pam and pour mixture into the pan.
Sprinkle cheese over the top.
Bake at 350°F for 1 hour.

SUNDRIED TOMATO SAUCE

Ingredients


15 ounce can tomato sauce
2 tablespoons chopped sun-dried tomatoes preserved in oil
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sour cream
2 teaspoons sugar
1 rounded tablespoon pesto

Directions


Combine ingredients in pot and heat.

Cut Santa Fe Bake into squares and arrange on a platter. Serve with Sun Dried Tomato Sauce on the side.

30

11 2017

Wine country wildfires skipped Healdsburg

Vineyards and olive near Healdsburg

We had planned to visit Healdsburg in California’s Sonoma County long before the terrible wine country wildfires broke out in early October. We settled on the town because it sits at the junction of the Russian River Valley, the Alexander Valley, and the Dry Creek Valley wine regions. Among them, they produce some of California’s leading Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc. The Russian River Valley subregion of Chalk Hill is also famed for its Chardonnay. And where there’s good wine, there’s also good food.

After seeing the dramatic news coverage of the wildfires, we considered canceling. But prevailing winds spared most of the area around Healdsburg while scorching other parts of Sonoma and Napa. Healdsburg pitched in by housing and feeding the firefighters who finally got the blazes under control. Lodgings also gave temporary shelter to some of the people who lost their homes.

The vast majority of Northern California wineries received little or no damage. The photo at the top of this post shows some post-harvest vineyards and a pre-harvest olive tree. (That’s morning fog hovering over the Dry Creek Valley—not smoke.) Around Healdsburg, nearly 98 percent of the grapes were picked before the fires began.

We decided to go, and saw only a little fire damage on hilltops during the 70-mile ride north from San Francisco airport. As we explored the countryside around the town, we encountered one lush vineyard after another with big healthy leaves changing colors. The spectacle gives our New England fall foliage a run for its money. The vineyards, by the way, helped save the region from even worse damage by acting as firebreaks.

Wine posters at Sonoma Wine Library in Healdsburg

Healdsburg is wine central


Centered around a green town square with a cute gazebo, the town of Healdsburg makes a rich base to explore wine country. As the vintage posters at the Sonoma County Wine Library (139 Piper St., Healdsburg, 707-433-3772, ext 0416) above indicate, California has long been the “Wine Land of America.” But the posters also hark back to an era of generic blended wines—long before the California specialization in high-grade varietal wines. And they certainly predate the marketing of Sonoma County wines with their specific geographic areas noted on the bottle.

wine tasting room in HealdsburgBecause it lies at the convergence of so many different wine terroirs, Healdsburg is practically an open-air enoteca of Northern California wine. If your principal interest is a quick education in the potential of the Russian River, Alexander, and Dry Creek AVAs (American Viticultural Areas), you can park your car at one of the inns, B&Bs, or hotels and explore on foot. There are more than 20 winery tasting rooms in the blocks immediately surrounding the town square. Branch out a little and you’ll find another dozen or so within walking distance.

We sampled some of the wineries in the surrounding countryside and had some great meals in town. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be reporting on Healdsburg as a wine tourism destination. Stay tuned.

For details on attractions and lodging in the town, visit www.Healdsburg.com.

28

11 2017

Tasting Mondavi whites with New England seafood

Order counter at Abbott's Lobster in the Rough in Noank, Connecticut

In our next lives we want to come back as Mondavis. Every American branch of the clan seems to have a purple thumb ever since Cesare and his sons Robert and Peter took over the Charles Krug winery in 1943. As one of two winemakers at the Michael Mondavi Family Estate (michaelmondavifamilyestate.com), Rob Mondavi Jr. has developed quite a reputation for his quality Napa Cabernets. So we wondered: What about the whites?

Abbott's Lobster in the Rough signIn New England, where we live, summer means seafood. While we might sip a red with bluefish, we really need white wines for the kings of ocean: oysters and lobster. So we tossed a bottle each of 2015 Emblem Chardonnay Carneros and 2015 Animo Napa Valley Heritage Sauvignon Blanc into a cooler, placed a bag of ice on top, and paid a visit to Abbott’s Lobster in the Rough (abbottslobster.com).

We had a method to that madness. This Noank, Connecticut, seafood shack on the west side of the Mystic River is famous for the buttery hot lobster roll, a specialty of the Connecticut shore. Moreover, Abbott’s does not fry anything. All the seafood is raw, steamed, or grilled. No breading, no grease—just pure fish and shellfish. (For a view on wine with a lobster salad roll, see our post on rosé.)

Heritage Sauvignon Blanc with Connecticut bluepoint oysters

2015 Heritage Sauvignon Blanc with oysters


Mondavi’s Heritage Sauvignon Blanc represents an unusual French lineage. Back in the 1880s, the head of California’s State Viticultural Commission brought Sauvignon Blanc cuttings from Château de Yquem in Bordeaux back to the Golden State. The Mondavis got cuttings from the descendants of those vines and planted a new vineyard in 2006. In deference to the historic plant genetics, they even used the same 19th century root stock and trellising.

Talk about boutique wine! The vineyard is so small that the Mondavis were able to make exactly six barrels in 2015. The juice was fermented in French oak barrels and cellared in the fermentation vessels for nine months before bottling.

Connecticut bluepoint oystersThere’s no discounting the California terroir. The Animo vineyards are high on the slopes of Atlas Peak, where they stick up above the usual Napa cloud cover. This Sauvignon Blanc has a stony backbone reminiscent of good Sancerre with a more pronounced white peach and lime zest fruitiness. From the 11 different oysters available on the half shell at Abbott’s, we selected Connecticut Blue Points for their mild neutrality. They emphasized the mineral qualities of the wine, which was also fine for sipping without food in the salt air. It is a wine with multiple subtle layers. As it warms, some of the more floral flavors come forward, especially chamomile, bramble blossoms, and dandelions. Hints of mango and other petrol notes are held in check by the bright acidity. Retail ranges $57-$65.

Emblem Chardonnay with lobster roll

2015 Emblem Chardonnay with lobster


Michael Mondavi Family Estate grows the grapes for its Emblem Chardonnay in the southern part of the Los Carneros appellation, where fog from San Francisco Bay moderates the vineyard climate. There wasn’t much rain in 2015, but all that fog kept the grapes hydrated. Cold fall nights preserved a significant acidity, while a long hang time allowed for the typical Napa monster sugar development. (The dry wine runs close to 15% alcohol.)

The fruit in this wine is luscious and full-bodied. Alas, we caught the wine at an awkward phase in its development. (Think a teenager’s growth spurt.) The technical notes say the wine was aged 10 months in new French oak. Right now, it tastes more like a year in new American oak. The vanillin and other oak aromatics overwhelm the otherwise powerful fruit. We suspect it will improve a lot by next summer.

Even now, the 2015 Emblem Chardonnay works really well with buttered lobster. You’ve heard wine geeks babble about buttery Chardonnay, right? This one needed butter added. The salt of the lobster and the slight oiliness of the butter on lobster and bun alike showed the 2015 at its best. Next time you encounter an oaky Chardonnay, order a hot buttered lobster roll. You’ll be glad you did. Retail price varies $30-$35.

04

08 2017

Paso Robles wine comes into its own

tasting at a Paso Robles winery
Paso Robles has a frontier spirit. Located about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the Central Coast community lends its name to California’s fastest growing wine region.

wine signpost Paso Robles Known since Native American times for its thermal hot springs, Paso (as locals call it) had only 35 wineries in the late 1990s. But this district of limestone bedrock and huge day-night temperature differential has caught the eye of winemakers large and small. Located in the foothills of the Santa Lucia mountain range about a half-hour drive from the Pacific Ocean, the region boasts more than 250 wineries and 26,000 acres planted in more than 40 wine grape varietals. The power of Paso Robles goes well beyond the numbers. The palpable air of experimentation and possibility is so infectious that even short-term visitors get a lift.

Upscale boutiques, Western-style clothiers, restaurants, cafes, and more than 20 wine tasting rooms give a bustling air to the tidy downtown around City Park. While downtown is the best place to taste across the whole region, many vineyards are nearby. On Highway 46 alone, 25 tasting rooms dot the roadside within a five-mile stretch.

Coy and Sarah Barnes founded the first wine tour company in Paso. Their Wine Wrangler (the winewrangler.com) offers both half- and full-day tours.

“Wine has been grown here for as long as in Napa,” says Coy, “but the area is not as well known. There are only about one-third as many vines as there are planted in Napa. But it is an area that is young, growing, full of people who like to experiment.” Even a short tour gives a sense of the proud history and dynamic growth that give the region its unique character.

J Dusi shows Zin is no sin


Janelle Dusi of J Dusi Wines in Paso Robles Janelle Dusi is the fourth generation of a grape-growing family. She grew up on 100 acres planted in old-vine Zinfandel. “We’re farmers. My great grandfather began growing Zinfandel in the 1920s,” she says. “It’s Paso’s heritage grape and the vineyards are still intact and family-owned.”

Her grandfather taught her the basics of winemaking and she is now both winemaker and proprietor of J Dusi Wines (1401 CA-46, Paso Robles; 805-226-2034; jdusiwines.com). True to her family roots, Janelle makes a medium-body Zinfandel.

“I restrain the jam and alcohol. I’m not embarrassed to do a more restrained style with a little more finesse,” she says. “I don’t need to come out of the gates with a chewy meal in a glass. My wine is more food friendly.”

While she is proud of her Zinfandel, Janelle has become increasingly interested in some of the most full-bodied Rhone grapes. She produces single-varietal bottlings of Grenache, Syrah, and the Rhone-like Petite Sirah.

SummerWood strikes a French pose


Shayne Kline of SummerWood in Paso Robles Shayne Kline, general manager at SummerWood Winery, agrees that Rhone grapes are a good fit for Paso Robles. “This area is known as the ‘Rhone zone,’” he says. He points out that the weather and the soils in the two regions are comparable, while noting that the night-time cooling is the most important aspect of the climate.

SummerWood (2175 Arbor Road, Paso Robles; 805-227-1365; summerwoodwine.com) is known for its limited-production American Rhone and Bordeaux wines and for Cabernet Sauvignon, a favorite of winemaker Mauricio Marchant.

“I’m originally from Chile, and I love Cabernet,” Marchant says, He spent time working in Napa Valley where “it’s Cab and Chard all day long. Here we’re still learning, trying to figure out what will work. Trying new things all the time. I love Syrah—powerful, inky black, manly man wine.” He also makes a huge, intense Rhone-style Mourvèdre.

Villicana shows a spirit of its own


Alex and Monica Villicana of Villicana Winery & Vineyard (2725 Adelaida Road, Paso Robles; 805-239-9456; villicanawinery.com) share that sense of adventure.

Alex and Monica Villicana of Villicana Winery & Vineyard in Paso Robles “We were the 17th winery in the area in 1993,” says Alex. The couple has planted their 13 acres in Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot from Bordeaux, and Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Syrah from the Rhone. “It’s Bordeaux meets Rhone,” Villicana says. He could add Puglia as a footnote, since Villicana also grows a lot of Zinfandel.

As winemaker, Alex stems the grapes and removes 30 to 40 percent of the free-run juice. “We change the ratio of juice to skins to get richer red wines,” he notes. In the process, “we stumbled on the fact that you can make vodka out of grapes” in place of the more traditional potatoes or grains. In fact, the Villicanas opened Re:FIND (refinddistillery.com), the area’s first craft distillery.

During the harvest, Alex saves their own free-run juice and buys this “saignée” from other winemakers. He makes vodka and gin by fermenting the juice and triple distilling the product.

“Twenty years of winemaking helped me in distilling.” Alex says. “I use the same sense of smell and taste to decide what to keep and what to get rid of.” He considers the venture to be “the ultimate in spirit-making sustainability.”

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07 2016

Ocean meets wine country in Pismo Beach

sunset and the pier at Pismo Beach
California beach country is often also wine country. On the Central Coast, wineries nestle in the foothills of the Santa Lucia mountain range only about five miles from the ocean. The San Luis Obispo wine country comprises about thirty wineries squeezed into the hills between Arroyo Grande in the south and San Luis Obispo in the north.

Pelican preens on Pismo Beach pier Over the hills in Pismo Beach, Lissa Hallberg of the Tastes of the Valleys wine tasting bar and bottle shop was eager to introduce me to their products. The coastal village just over the mountains from Arroyo Grande boasts a long strand of soft sand. The town resists modernization, preferring to embody the classic, low-key beach getaway. In the morning, fishermen cast for Spanish mackerel off the 1,200-foot pier where seagulls and pelicans also perch. A gentle surf usually accommodates boarders and everyone can find enough sand to spread out a blanket. Dog walkers and joggers follow the shore south to wander among the undulating dunes. Shorebirds touch down in little lagoons, taking turns flap-flap-flapping to shake out their wings once they land.

Waiting for the sun to go down


Lissa Hallberg of the Tastes of the Valleys purs a sample in Pismo Beach As befits a beach vacation, Pismo Beach boasts plenty of arcades, salt water taffy pullers, ice cream parlors, and retro souvenir shops. But when the sun sinks low in the sky, all eyes turn to the pier. Local custom dictates buying a bottle of wine, pouring some into a Solo cup, and strolling down to the pier before sunset. I selected a bottle of Laetitia Vineyard and Winery Estate Chardonnay. Hallberg grimaced a bit at the thought of the plastic party cup adulterating the honeyed, mineral-driven taste of the wine from the Arroyo Grande Valley. (The region resembles Champagne in its soils and growing conditions, and the best wines are simple and unoaked.) Hallberg needn’t have worried. Watching the sun set, the taste of terroir came through fine without a crystal glass. I could get used to the ritual.

Tastes of the Valleys is at 911 Price Street, Pismo Beach; 805-773-8466; www.pismowineshop.com.

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07 2016