Archive for the ‘Sonoma’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.

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

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.

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11 2017