The Wines of the Family Winemaker Tasting

The Family Winemakers of California were once again back in Del Mar. This is the signature winemaker event for trade and consumers in the San Diego area. It is an opportunity for family-owned wine operations to present their wines, and for me, and opportunity to discover a new outstanding winery. My reviews, and pick of the day follow.

This year, the number of wineries seemed less than in the past, but there were still 88 wineries in attendance. Twenty wineries were pouring for the first time. The doors opened at 1:00pm on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Trade and media were let in an hour before the consumers. 

Prior to arriving, I had downloaded the program, which contained details on each winery: who their owners are; where they are located; what they were pouring; and how many cases they produced. While you cannot take wine out of the event, the winemakers were taking orders from the trade.

All the wineries were set up on long tables, and arranged in alphabetical order. Large signs were located above each tasting location, identifying the winery. Many wineries just had their bottles on the table, and were pouring, while others had decorated their spots with all types of wine related paraphernalia and informational brochures.

As I do every year, my focus was to find one or two standout wineries that I had never heard of. Additionally, I wanted to concentrate on central coast wineries along with the Sierra Foothills, and Lodi. That doesn’t mean I didn’t try some wines from Napa and Sonoma…of course I did.

In four hours, I met with 18 winemakers, and probably tasted around 60 to 70 different wines. I can assure you that I actually tasted, not drank, that number of wines. It is terrible to see so much wine being poured into a spit bucket, but when you have to drive away from the event, it is the only safe thing to do. Luckily there was fresh baked bread from La Brea Bakery, and cheese plates from Kerrygold set up throughout the venue. Palate cleansing was a fairly easy task.

Some highlights in the tasting:

With Greg Barr of Barr Estates
Barr Estates continues to make one of the best valued Petite Verdots’ on the market. Greg Barr, and his winemaker, Signa Zoller continue to create tasting wines that are all under the $30 mark. This Paso Robles winery is doing it right. My wife enjoyed their Rose of Malbec, and they also presented a couple blends: Dane Head and Jubilado, which were interesting.

I tried numerous Chardonnays and Viogniers, and one that stood out was from Admirable Family Vineyards. This winery is located in Malibu, and is run by a French family. The Viognier was a blend of Viognier and Chardonnay. No oak and about $45 retail. Brophy Clark Cellars, out of Santa Maria had a very nice Chardonnay, at about half the price. Both are worth seeking.

In the past, I have shied away from Temecula wines. I decided to stop by the Falkner Winery, and talked with Ray Falkner about what they are doing down there. I think the wineries are seeing that success will come with the “right” grapes being planted. Falkner had a very nice Sangiovese, and their version of a “super Tuscan” will probably last 10 to 15 years in the cellar. This is the second Sangiovese I have tried from Temecula, and both have been impressive. The other was from Baily.

From the Sierra Foothills, Frog’s Tooth Vineyards had a zesty Barbera (would be great with any tomato based dish) and an interesting Tempranillo. All their wines were reasonably priced between $15 and $40.

Ken Brown Wines had a very familiar nose and palate to them. I tried their Sauvignon Blanc and three of their Pinot Noirs. The Sauvignon Blanc came from the Vogelzang vineyard in Happy Canyon AVA. Personally, this is the way I think Sauvignon Blanc should taste. It has a unmistakable nose to it. One of my favorites is made by Dragonette Cellars, who sources their grapes from the same vineyard. The three Pinot Noirs were from different vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills. One being the Radian Vineyard (again, the same as Dragonette Cellars).

One of the few Pinot Gris’ we tried was from Manzoni EstateVineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands. This Pinot Gris had nice acidity, due to its’ cooler climate location. The nose was green apple, stone fruit and pear. The wine had more body than if you were drinking something from Italy. Much more Alsatian in style.

Benjamin Silver of Silver Wines
There were a lot of other wineries that I tasted. Some good, some very good, but there could only be one “find” of the event. That winery was Silver Wines. Benjamin Silver is basically a one man show. He is the winemaker and owner, since 1996, when he left Zaca Mesa. Silver Wines produces small bottlings of: Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Nebbiolo, and two extraordinary blends:  Saviezza & I Tre Figli. The I Tre Figli was the best wine of the day. He had both a vintage and non-vintage verson of the wine. I actually preferred the non-vintage. It was a proprietary blend of Cabernet Sauvingon, Sangiovese and Cabernet Franc. It was silky, smooth, complex and had the ability to age. Find this wine, and buy it now, as the production is only about 350 cases.

I don’t know where the Family Winemakers of California event will be next year, but you can always go to their website to learn about upcoming events. Try to attend, and maybe you will also make sme new discoveries.

See you next year at the tasting!

Wine Pairing Dinner - Valentine's Day

Okay, so I know that is has been a while since I have written. I will be able to explain soon, but for now, let’s just say I have been pretty busy on a big project.

Kumomotos on the half shell
Last weekend was Valentine’s Day, and like most of you, that involves flowers, chocolate, cards and a nice dinner. I find that most restaurants book up well in advance, and it is usually very crowded. This year, our group of friends decided we could do a very nice, gourmet dinner that hit all the key points of decadence, aphrodisiacs and fine wine. What follows is a 4-course meal and the wines I chose to pair with those courses.

Bacon wrapped dates
Our first course was an appetizer course of stuffed dates, wrapped in bacon. My “go to” for bacon is sparkling wine. I like how the bubbles cut the fat and grease, cleansing the palate. The dates add sweetness to the bacon, but I didn’t want to start our meal with a sweet wine. Instead, I went with a Blanc de Noir (made from more fruit forward red grapes). The wine of choice was from Schramsberg, in Napa Valley.

Oysters Rockefeller
Our second course was also an appetizer. We had oysters two ways: on the half shell and Oysters Rockefeller. Oysters are basically just little salt water exchangers, with a minerally taste to them. There are a number of classic pairings for oysters, but my "go to" is from the Loire region of France. In the coastal region of Nantes, the wines produced from the Muscadet grape mirror the brine and mineral of the oysters, but add the sharp acidity that is similar to a squeeze of lemon. The wine for this pairing was Chateau du Jaunay Muscadet Sevre et Maine.

Beef Wellington with Roasted Garlic Potatoes
Our main course was a traditional Beef Wellington. This classic English dish involves coating a tenderloin with pâté and finely chopped mushrooms, then wrapping everything in puff pastry. Since the English were (are) such big fans of French Bordeaux, the classic pairing would be a right bank Bordeaux (St. Emilion or Pomerol). These wines are mostly Merlot based. But, to complicate things, our side dishes consisted of roasted asparagus with garlic and Parmesan, as well as roasted garlic potatoes. First, asparagus makes wine taste sweeter, and garlic clashes with heavily oaked wines (think of how well garlic goes with vanilla or coconut – some of the notes that oak adds). For the wine choices, I did stick with a traditional pairing, with a bottle of 2005 Chateau Fonroque St. Emilion Grand Cru. I also had a bottle of 2012 DomaineSerene Pinot Noir Evenstad Reserve. I find that the Oregon wines are not as fruit forward as some of the California Pinot Noirs, and not as earthy as the French Burgundies. Of the two wines, I felt the Domaine Serene was the better pairing. Our hosts also opened a bottle of Calcareous Pinot Noir…heck two bottles with the main course just isn’t enough for eight people!

For our final course, we ended the evening with a Chocolate Ganache Cake. With sweet desserts, you always want your wine to be sweeter than the dessert. Despite popular belief, chocolate and wine are not natural pairings, but there are some that work well. If you are using milk chocolate, there is only one wine that I find works, and that is Brachetto d’Aqui from Italy. This is a semi-sparkling wine, with aromas of raspberries… a magical pairing with sweeter chocolate. In this case, I did not know if the cake was made sweet, or used bitter sweet chocolate, so I hedged my bets. I brought a bottle of Rinaldi Brachetto d’Aqui, along with a bottle Domaine de Paulilles Banyuls Rimage. This wine from the southern part of France, has aromas of cherries, raspberries and chocolate. It is a fortified wine, similar to Port, but with a bit lower alcohol level. As it turned out, the cake was made using a bittersweet chocolate, so the Banyuls was the best pairing.

The night progressed, and our hosts opened up a few more bottles of dessert wines that they had acquired on recent trips to Paso Robles.

As always, I hope these pairings will inspire you to try creating a fun meal on your own. You don’t need to wait for Valentine’s Day to entertain friends. Take these ideas, mix and match, and have fun!

A Trip to the Santa Cruz Mountains - Part 2

The first two days of our wine tasting trip to the Santa Cruz mountains, focused on the mountain wineries. The plans were made months in advance, and scheduled with a van operator. Typically, Sunday and Monday are an opportunity to explore some smaller wineries where reservations are not required. This time around, it was a little different, as one of the members in our group has a son that works for Bonny Doon.  He scheduled three tastings for us, unfortunately, Bonny Doon had a Club Member event going on that day, so only a tour of their crush facility was available.

We left our hotel in Monterey and about 45 minutes later arrived in Santa Cruz. Be careful of your speed on this drive, as the highway patrol were there, and caught one of our drivers going a little too fast. Not fun to start your wine tasting with a speeding ticket.  

Santa Cruz Mountain Winery tasting room
Our first stop was at the Santa Cruz Mountain Winery. The tasting room is located within a collective of micro-boutique wineries and breweries, as well as restaurants.  An urban renewal project turned this former warehouse space into a trendy destination. The individual wineries are in close proximity on the Westside of Santa Cruz on Ingalls Street, Swift Street, and the Old Sash Mill. The Santa Cruz Mountain tasting room is also the winery. A long table was set up, in anticipation of our arrival. The winery has two labels: Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard and Quinta Cruz Wines. Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyards has been around since 1975, and is known for their Pinot Noir, but they make numerous other whites and Reds. The Quinta Cruz label was added in 2008, with a focus on Spanish and Portuguese grape varieties. We tasted somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 different wines. I purchased the 2012 Branciforte Creek Pinot Noir and the 2008 Rabelo, which was a nice expression of an LBV style Port.

Our next stop was right next door at Equinox/Bartolo Winery. The first thing you notice, as you walk into the tasting room, is the rows of riddling racks in the warehouse area. It is not often that you see traditional sparkling wine production methods being used in a small, new world winery. But, here they were. Obviously, the focus was on their sparkling wine production, and for good reason…they make nice sparkling wine. The wines are aged “en tirage” anywhere from three to eleven years, yielding deliciously yeasty sparkling wines. I picked up a 2001 Brut, made with a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Their second label is Bartolo.  Here, the focus is on all different types of grape varieties, from obscure Fiano to Cabernet  and Grenache. One of my current favorites is Petit Verdot, and I picked up a bottle of the 2009, which also has about 13% Merlot in it.

Riddling Racks
The next stop was at the Bonny Doon production facility, which was just around the corner. By this time, it was about 2:00 in the afternoon, and many of us were starving. While some went to Bonny Doon, to check at the crush and fermentation tanks, the rest of us went to lunch at the West End Tap and Kitchen. Duck Fat popcorn, flatbreads and freshly made Calamari made for a great lunch break, along with the house sampler of craft brews.

After a quick stop at the downtown tasting room of MJA (we visited their mountain tasting room the day before), to pick up some coffee beans and balsamic, we headed back towards Monterey, and stopped in the little town of Soquel to do some tasting at Bargetto Winery.

Bargetto Tasting Room
Bargetto is one of the older wineries, dating back to 1918 (just in time for prohibition). The tasting room and gift shop is located on Soquel Creek, in a quiet neighborhood. A large bar was set up for our private tasting, but by this time, our group had dwindled down to about eight people. The tastings included Pinot Noir to Syrah, along with their La Vita blends. We had also heard about their fruit wines, and with some prompting, were able to try them too. I am not a big fan of fruit wines, but certain members of our group really enjoyed them. I ended up purchasing the 2010 La Vita (a blend of Dolcetto, Refresco, and Nebbiolo).

We rushed back to Monterey after our tastings, to make sure we made our dinner reservation in time at Andre's Bouchee, in Carmel. As we walked in the door, the power went out on the entire block. After waiting a bit, to see if it would come back on, the decision was made to find another location for dinner. We still want to go back, and try out this well rated restaurant. A couple phone calls later, we walked two blocks to Casanova’s (our favorite dinner spot from three years ago). They got a group of ten in with no problem.

Monday was a causal day, and we split from the group and chose to drive to the Carmel Mission. Junipero Serra was sainted the week before, by the Pope, so we wanted to see the spot where he was buried. This peaceful mission is located in the middle of a residential area, and is very historic, and worth the stop. We then chose to take the long way home, and drive down Highway 1, along the coast, cutting inland at Paso Robles. We hooked up with some members of our group in Edna Valley, for a quick tasting at Claiborne& Churchill. Of course, we had to pick up some of their dry Riesling and Gewurtztraminer.

My thoughts on the four days? If you plan on visiting the Santa Cruz area for wine tasting, it might be best to stay in Santa Cruz, and save yourself some time. We chose to stay in Monterey because we enjoy the restaurants in the area. I am sure that Santa Cruz has its’ share of fine dining. When visiting, plan your wine tasting stops. The wineries are spread out all over the mountains, and while they look close on a map, they can be far apart in drive time (the exception would be areas like the Ingalls Warehouse area, where you can find a bunch of wine tasting rooms in one location).

As usual, my hope is that this will inspire you to explore the area, and enjoy the food and wine of the central coast.
Bonny Doon