Wine Tasting in California's Shenandoah Valley

It has been almost 20 years since I lived in the East Bay of San Francisco. We used to drive through the little farming town of Lodi on the way to go backpacking in the Sierra Nevada mountain. I never really thought much of the area, and never explored it.

Now it is home to somewhere around 90 wineries. Restaurants and hotels are abundant, and the tasting rooms are crowded with wine enthusiasts that don’t want to deal with the high prices, and “upturned noses” in Napa Valley.

Michael David Tasting
I brought our wine club back to Lodi, since we had such a great experience three years ago (seethat blog here). Once again, we started our weekend off with a visit to Michael David Winery. Things have changed over three years. They have expanded their wine tasting and entertainment grounds, with a beautiful new tasting building. We were hosted by Joseph Phillips (his father is the "David", in Michael David - we met years ago at a wine pairing dinner). He poured a number of wines for our group, and based on the number of bottles and boxes leaving the property, there was no doubt the wines impressed. What is most impressive is that a winery of this size has been able to scale up, and maintain the consistent quality of their product. If you are in Lodi, this is a “don’t miss” tasting stop.

Outdoor seating at Pietro's
Since our drive from Southern California was about seven hours, it didn’t leave time for any other tastings on a Friday afternoon. We checked into the Hampton Suites Hotel. The rooms are well appointed, and priced very well. Why not spend your money on wine, rather than a hotel room?
We were able to get our entire group together for a family-style dinner at Pietro’s Ristorante. The homemade gnocchi and ravioli were a treat, and we left completely full.

Saturday, we gathered for the complimentary breakfast, at our hotel, then loaded into the limo bus I had chartered for the day. We used Nuemann Limo services, out of Sacramento. The 24 person bus would have been crowded if we used all the seats, but the 18 of us easily fit. I’d suggest 20 would have been the maximum.

The California Shenandoah Valley
Months before our outing, I had made arrangements to visit four wineries in the California Shenandoah Valley AVA. This tiny wine region is located in an oblong valley, just outside of Plymouth, CA. There are only about 27 wineries in the valley, but 42 in all of Amador County. It is rich with gold rush history, as are most areas along the Sierra Foothills. I had previously written about this area in a blog back. Check it out here. The area is known for their Zinfandel and numerous Italian grape varieties…and that is where our focus was for this trip.

The first stop was at the far northeast corner of the valley, at the oldest continuously operating winery in California, Sobon Estates. While Sobon has been around since 1989, the winery has been in operation since 1856, when D’Agostini Winery became bonded winery #2459, and is now an historical landmark. This corner of the valley is at the highest elevation, so cooler micro-climates. The tastings are free, unless you do the reserve tasting, which is $5, and you get to keep the glass. They have a very nice gift shop, friendly staff, and an old winemaking museum, that is free to tour. The wines are all well done, and priced very reasonably. The most expensive wine on the list is $28, with most less than that. We arrived at 10:00am, when they open. They are the first to open in the valley, so head here first to get things going. For many in our group, this was their favorite winery of the day. The quality and value of the wines made for many purchases. A few whites, but a lot of Zinfandel, Syrah, Petit Sirah, Barbera, and even a pleasant Rose.

Alicante Bouschet grape tasting
The next stop was only five minutes away at Cooper Vineyard. I had visited Cooper a few years prior, and loved their Barbera wines, so wanted to bring the group for a tasting. Our host was the grand daughter of Dick Cooper. She ran us through a tasting of about six wines, then took us out to the vineyard to taste Barbera, Alicante Bouschet and table grapes on the vine.

As we drove down Shenandoah School Rd, and headed back to the main road, to get to our next stop, we noticed a large Gourd and Fine Arts Festival that was going on at the Amador Flower Farm. Something to keep in mind for another visit to the area.

Vino Noceto Tasting Pavilion
Our next stop was at Vino Noceto, where I had arranged to have our box lunches delivered by the Amador Vintage Market. Everything had been delivered, and kept refrigerated for our arrival, and we have tables set up for us in the Pavilion area. After an enjoyable lunch, surrounded by vineyards (with beware of snake signs), we were introduced to Rhys Tappero, who is the local sommelier and wine educator for Vino Noceto. He took us through the history of the area, and the specific vineyards of Vino Noceto. We did tastings of Sangiovese from multiple different vineyards. It was interesting to see the differences in Sangiovese clones and vineyards. The stories of how the vine clippings made it to the 40 acres of vineyard were also interceding.

Scott Harvey - tasting in the barrel room
Our last stop of the day was just next door at Scott HarveyWinery. Scott was one of the founders of ZAP, the Zinfandel Advocates & Producers festival. So, as you can imagine, the winery offers a variety of Zinfandel, Primitivo, Syrah and Barbera. They also make a sparkling wine, in the typical Champagne method. Some of you may be familiar with Scott Harvey, but didn’t know it…he was the creator of “Menage a Trios” wines.

We boarded our wine limo, and headed back to the hotel in Lodi, arriving around 5:45. Our group purchase a lot of wine, and that took about 15 minutes to unload the limo and organize everyone’s purchases into individual piles along the side walk. My purchase for both Friday and Saturday included 26 bottles of wine, from 5 different wineries. The breakdown was: Zinfandel (5 btls); Sangiovese (6 btls); Barbera (4 btls); Rose (3 btls); Red Blends (2 btls); Port (2 btls); Alicante Bouschet (1 btl); Petit Verdot (1 btl); Sauvignon Blanc (1 btl); Moscato (4 cans)…..yes you read that last one correctly….four one-glass cans of sparkling Moscato.

The Shenandoah Valley is a great place to visit, and go wine tasting. Most places do not require appointments (unless you are in a large group) and tasting fees range from no fee, up to $10. The pours are generous, and the people are friendly. Most are farmers, and enjoy talking to you about what they do. This is was Napa Valley was like 25 years ago, or Paso Robles just 10 years ago. I encourage you to visit the area. It is much more that the typical Zinfandel that is grown in the Sierra Foothills.

Catch our follow up day in Lodi on my next blog entry.

Four More Days in Paso Robles (Days 1 and 2)

September is typically harvest time for grape growers in California. This year, we looked forward to visiting Paso Robles, in the Central Coast, and experience the flurry of activity that is grape harvest. Plans had been made back in March, to experience our eleventh season of wine tasting as the Arrowhead Wine Enthusiasts Club. Group reservations were made for a hotel, restaurants were arranged, and a list of wineries was put together for Saturday.

We left Southern California early on Friday morning, and headed up Highway 5 to the Highway 46 exit. As we approached Paso Robles, the temperature began rising. By the time we got to the center of town, and met up with a portion of our group for lunch, it was 100 degrees. The weekend promised to be on the warm (or should I say “hot”) side. We grabbed a not-so-quick bite at Good Ol’ Burgers, and then headed to The Oaks Hotel.

Our group of 22 people were all to meet at 3:00, at a pre-scheduled winery. We had a bit of time before meeting up, so we headed to Broken Earth Winery, located on the east side, just off Hwy 46. The tasting room is located in a large leased building. They produce estate grown wines, but their vineyard is on the far northeast side of Paso Robles. The tasting room offers cheese and chocolate pairings with their wines (at an additional cost). There is also a café located on the property. This all may change in the future, as we learned they will be moving to the Tin City area with a new tasting room. Maury was pouring wines for us, and was a wealth of knowledge; not only about the wines he was serving, but about local wineries we needed to visit. The tasting included numerous varieties and styles. In general, I found the wines as good, but nothing really outstanding. I did purchase two of their limited release wines: 2012 Petit Sirah and 2015 Grenache.

Our arranged tasting was at Barr Estates. I had met Greg and Tealy Barr years before, and have kept in touch over the years. There was some concern about a large group coming in during harvest, but as it turned out, most of the harvest had been delayed two to three weeks, due to the excessive heat. Above 98 degrees, the vines shut down, and ripening comes to a halt. So, only some white wine grapes had been harvested, and the staff had plenty of time to spend with us in the vineyard and the winery.

Barr Estates is a family-owned and operated vineyard, located on about 60 acres. They grow seven different grape varieties, produce well-crafted wines. From a crisp, aromatic Albarino, to the dark and spicy Primitivo, to the smooth and sexy Petit Verdot…you can’t go wrong with wine purchases at Barr. We coaxed a couple extra tastings of Petit Verdot and Sangiovese when the group thinned out a bit. All wines are priced under $30, and are great values. I walked out with a mixed case of Albarino, Jubilado, Petit Verdot, Cabernet, and Primitivo. Great wine, and even nicer people. Check out Barr Estates.

It was now late afternoon, and all 22 of our group had safely arrived in Paso Robles. We broke up into groups for the dinners. Some headed off to Firestone Brewery for dinner, and my group of eight headed to Cello Ristorante, located in the Ayres Allegretto Vineyard Resort. This is a gorgeous hotel restaurant. The atmosphere was Mediterranean. A guitarist was strumming and singing songs at the entrance. The dinner menu met all the requirements of our group, from vegetarians to meat lovers. The wine list included wines by the glass, and bottle from both the Old World, and a nice selection of local wines. The only common complaint from the group was that the food was over seasoned. I’d still recommend checking them out.

Saturday morning came, and many of us met for the included breakfast, at the hotel restaurant. By 9:45 our tour bus from Breakaway Tours met us in front of the hotel, and we were loaded in, and headed to our 10:00 appointment at Alta Colina Winery.

Alta Colina is located along Adelaida Road, and is only a short drive from the hotel. The wines are all produced from estate grown vineyards. Of the 130 acres owned, only 31 are planted with vines.  The vineyards above the winery (out of site), on steep slopes. So steep, that they could only be hand-harvested. The Tillman family grows 8 Rhone grape varieties (4 white and 4 red). Production is small: less than 5,000 cases. The red wines are full bodied, and luscious. I picked up their Grenache and GSM.

Grafting vines at Tablas Creek
The next stop was at Tablas Creek Vineyards. I am always a little wary of the large wineries. Sometimes I find larger producers lose focus. So, I was pleasantly surprised at Tablas Creek. Not only did we get a wonderful tour of the winery and vineyards, we were educated on grafting, and the historical role that Tablas Creek had on the entire Rhone movement in Paso Robles. Many of the “mother vines” from the original vine cuttings from France are visible in the pots around the tasting room. The wines were extraordinary examples of Rhone style wines. Wine lovers can taste traditional blends, or individual varieties, including such unusual grapes as Counoise, Picardan, Picpoul, and Terret Noir. I had been hearing about their Tannat wine, but unfortunately they were out. 

We had lunch on their open patio, outfitted with tables, chairs and umbrellas. The winery offers reusable canteens of chilled water for those visiting the property.

Wine tasting at Brecon
Our next stop was at a small winery run by a Welsh man, and Australian: Brecon Estate. Our group met out on the lawn area, a bit away from the tasting room. While many in our group didn’t feel they were given much attention, I had long conversations with Amanda, learning about her and her husband; their caving passion, and love for wine. The Albarino was crisp and aromatic, and the Rhone white was heavier and more complex. The Red were big, bold and age worthy. One unusual blend was Zinfandel with Tannat. A nice blend.

Our last stop for the day was at Four Lanterns. For those of you who have been tasting in Paso Robles for a while, you will recognize their tasting room as the old location for Lone Madrone and Kenneth Volk. Here again, we were at a family run winery. The specialty at Four Lanterns is both Rhone and Bordeaux style wines. After a day of heavier wines, the wines here were lighter in style. The Grenache was lighter with a bit more acidity than other wineries of the day. We also encountered our first dessert wine of the day: a late harvest Viognier. The owner, Jackie Gleason was pouring for our group, and two other groups that followed us in.

We arrived back at the hotel around 5:00, and dinner reservations were for ten people at 6:30. So, we had a little time to spend after getting all our wine purchase back to the room. The hotel offers wine and olive oil tastings in the lobby on Friday and Saturday afternoons. This evening, the owner of Four Sisters winery was pouring her wines. While I didn’t do a full tasting of her wines, I did try the Tempranillo, Zinfandel, and Cabernet Blend. She was unable to sell wines directly, but they were available at the hotel bar, and the winery.

Dinner was in downtown Paso Robles at the Fish Gaucho. This is where the younger crowd hangs out. We were seated next to bridesmaid party, and the entire restaurant was hopping with activity. The fresh seafood was excellent and served quickly…maybe too quickly, as we felt they were trying move everyone along. Beware that this Mexican style restaurant doesn’t include chips and salsa when you sit down, and be prepared – a side of guacamole will cost you. It is noisy too. Very good seafood, but I’d recommend sitting on the outside porch is noisy, crowded restaurants aren’t your thing.

Check back for the continuation to days three and four, as we discover some outstanding new wineries in the Paso Robles area.

Arizona Wine

Over six years ago, I wrote about wine tasting in the desert of southeast Arizona. At that time, the Arizona wine world was pretty limited and located mainly in the Wilcox area of south eastern Arizona. Since those first tastes, I have been following the progression of the industry in Arizona. Certain wineries had come to the forefront: Caduceus, Page Springs, Arizona Stronghold, and Pillsbury. These four were getting some press, and were about the only wines you could find in California. Even then, it took some searching.

Following the movie, “Blood into Wine” with Maynard James Keenan (Tool, A Perfect Circle), interest in Arizona wines garnered more attention. When I first tried his wines, the grapes were still coming from California. Now, his Caduceus wines are true Arizona wines. Keenan’s presence and celebrity brought life to the Arizona desert, and its’ wine scene. For this reason, I had to visit the Verde Valley, and see for myself what was going on there.

Main Street (Hwy 89A), Jerome, AZ
From Phoenix, it is about a two hour drive to Verde Valley wine country. While most of the grapes are still grown in the Wilcox area, there are more tasting rooms in Verde Valley. With the proximity to Sedona, I think the Verde Valley attracts more wine aficionados than the southeast corner of Arizona.
By my count, there are about 25 wineries in the towns of Jerome, Cottonwood, Clarkdale and Page Springs. The Verde River runs through the valley, and the red rocks to the north make for a gorgeous setting. This is the desert, but it is set at about 3,500 feet above sea level, so was about 15 degrees cooler than when we left Scottsdale.

We had a limited amount of time, so my goal was to get to Jerome first, and check out the Caduceus Cellars tasting room. Jerome is an old mining town, perched on the side of a hill at about 5,200 feet. My first advice is to get here early, to find a parking spot. The main street is Hwy 89A, and makes a loop through town. Park and walk. The town dates back to the mid 1800’s, and many of the old buildings are still intact. There are four wine tasting rooms in Jerome: Caduceus, Cellar 433, Passion Cellars, and Echo Canyon.

Caduceus Tasting Room
Caduceus is located at the end of town. Even if you park at the bottom of the loop, it is only a ten minute walk to the tasting room. The tasting room is well appointed with gourmet food items, gadgets and clothing. There is a long tasting bar on the west side. Tasting flights are not inexpensive. There were three flight choices, and since there were three of us, we each ordered a different flight and shared. The flights included a mix of whites, roses, and reds. Varieties had an emphasis on Italian and Spanish grapes. Caduceus has the only vineyard in the Jerome area, and it is a small hillside vineyard.

Cellar 433
After wandering around town, we decided to stop at Cellar 433. The views from the large back windows are spectacular, overlooking the Verde Valley below. Here, a tasting was $10 for any five wines on the menu. All the grapes are grown in the Wilcox area. There were a few unusual grape varieties on the menu, so that alone was worth the $10. On the “unusual” side were grapes such as Symphony, Blaufrankisch and Marselan. Along with these, were a mix of Rhone, Bordeaux, and Italian varieties.

I find that some of the most interesting wine tastings are where the wine tasting staff are engaging. They spend time talking about the vineyards, the process, and the history of their winery. The first two tasting rooms never spent the time to connect. Where they failed, the remaining two made up.

Arizona Stronghold
We drove back down the hill to the town of Cottonwood, and their quaint downtown main street. The first stop was at Arizona Stronghold. Of the Arizona wines, this was probably the first one I had tasted years ago. The tasting room is located right in the center of downtown. You can stand at the tasting bar, or sit in the chairs located throughout the shop or the back patio. They offered three different flights of tastings, and since there were three of us, we once again bought one flight each and shared. Since many of these wines are available in retail outlets, the staff made us aware of what was at retail, and what was available only at the tasting room, or for club members. The wines included a range of white, rose and mostly red. Many single varieties but also blends. The red grapes are mostly Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc) but also include Rhone, Italian and Spanish. I really enjoyed their wines, and walked away with a few bottles for my cellar.

Main Street - Cottonwood, AZ
We next walked down the street to the Merkin Vineyards &Osteria. This is a “farm to table” restaurant and wine bar. It seemed a bit out of place in the old main street of Cottonwood. It was modern and upscale, with fresh bread and pasta, made on site, with locally sourced ingredients. While we were hungry, the wait was longer than we had time for…so maybe next time.

Verde Valley Olive Oil Traders
Across the street is the Verde Valley Olive Oil Traders. They have one of the larger olive oil and balsamic vinegar tasting rooms I’ve seen. They source from all over the world, and offer samples of every one of their items, including chocolate.

I always ask the tasting room staff where we should go next to taste. The wine industry is good about sharing the news of up and coming wineries. We had seen Chateau Tumbleweed on the way to Jerome, earlier in the day. We thought, “that’s a cute name”, but drove on by. I am glad the guys at Arizona Stronghold told us to go back and check them out.

Chateau Tumbleweed is located in a newer building on the edge of Clarkdale. When we got to the tasting room (and winery) there were only two other people in the place (when we left, it was packed). One happened to work for Babcock Winery in the Sta. Rita Hills of California. Ends up we knew a lot of similar people. We ordered a bento box of cheese, nuts, fruit and crackers. Again, three tasting flight were offered, and we bought all three. 

Kris Pothier and Joe Bechard of ChateauTumbleweed
Chateau Tumbleweed is owned by two couples. All four of them have spent time in the wine business with other wineries inside and outside of Arizona.  Kris and her husband Joe were working at the winery this day, and Kris spent about an hour pouring wine for us, and telling us about each bottle. After hearing her stories of working at wineries in Oregon, and at Caduceus, and then on to the Four Eight Wine Works, it became clear where the Tumbleweed name came from, as they seemed to blow around until they came to rest at their current location. 

Chateau Tumbleweed doesn’t own any vineyards, but they are able to source choice blocks within the vineyard, obtaining good juice to work with. Of the wines we tried, all the grapes were source from the Wilcox area, in southeast Arizona, except the Seyval Blanc, which was grown locally. They only produce about 2400 cases a year, and have been in business since 2011. Their wines include a mix of whites, roses and reds. Some of the standouts were the Carlson Creek Malbec, the Juan Villa Mourvedre and the 2015 Graciano. Here is the good news for wine buyers...the wines are very good, and the prices are reasonable!

There usually is one great “find” on these wine trips, and Chateau Tumbleweed was the surprise of this trip. I highly recommend stopping by and tasting their wines.

We will definitely plan on revisiting this area, and so should you. The surface was only scratched in the short time we had. Next visit will need to include Page Springs Cellars, Pillsbury and Four Eight Wineworks, and of course, check in on our new friends at Chateau Tumbleweed.