Wine Tasting in Monterey - Part 1

We left early on Friday morning, in hopes of beating the Los Angeles traffic, and headed for the central coast of California. The drive up Interstate 5 had us looking in the sky for glimpses of the Space Shuttle Endeavor (no luck seeing it along the way). The outside temperature was reaching the 80's by the time we drove through Paso Robles, and hooked up with the 101 freeway. The Salinas Valley was busy with workers picking fruit and harvesting lettuce. The grapevines on either side of the highway stretched for miles. We turned off at the town of Salinas, and the conversation turned to Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. Soon we passed the old town of Spreckels, and the view of the old C&H sugar silos. We soon arrived in Monterey, and the temperature had dropped to the mid 50's.

Best Western Beach Resort
Our hotel was located right on the water. The Best Western Plus Beach Resort is a bit dated (it was originally the Holiday Inn) but the staff was great, and the location was perfect. The room looked out over the ocean, and the seals, dolphins and otters were a welcome sight for those of us who live in the mountains.

We had planned on doing some wine tasting on the way up, but really didn't see any tasting rooms along our route. We later found out that the few wineries that had tasting rooms at their vineyard, were fairly well spread out. Since we arrived so early, we drove to Fisherman's Wharf for a bowl of clam chowder, and a bottle of Ventana Chardonnay.

Our group consisted of 23 friends, wine club members, and their guests. I had been planning the trip for about six months, and arranged a tour for the entire group on Saturday, and researched the best restaurants in the area for dinner arrangements. Reservations were made months in advance, and the first test of the trip was dinner at Montrio Bistro (a converted fire station). The service, atmosphere and food met all expectations. The only drawback was how loud the place got, and with a large group, I missed out on the conversations at the other end of the table...but not their wine! Most of us ordered local wines. The hits of the evening were the Morgan Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir, and the Bernardus "Marinus" Carmel Valley Bordeaux Blend.

Evan talking about artichokes
On Saturday morning we gathered in the lobby of our hotel, and I met Evan Oakes in front of the hotel. Evan owns a business specializing in agricultural tours, called Ag Venture Tours. We left about 10:00am and headed towards our first stop. As we drove through the Salinas Valley, Evan identified at least 25 different crops along the way. He filled us in on history, geography, geology and culture of the area. We arrived at our first stop, the Marilyn Remark Winery. We showed up a bit early, so spent some time walking around the neighboring artichoke field, and learned about the difference between perennial and annual artichokes.

Jim. Joel, Marilyn
Marilyn Remark is located at the foothills of the Santa Lucia mountains, along River Road (the main road for wine tasting in this area). The owners, Joel Burnstein and Marilyn Remark, met us in the tasting room, along with their golden retriever. Marilyn Remark specializes in Rhone varieties (unusual for this area). We tasted our way through whites, rose, and reds. These are all small lot production, with attention to the final product. If you are looking for an intimate wine tasting experience, where you can be one on one with the winemakers, this is a must.

Hahn Tasting Room
The next stop found us in the Santa Lucia Highlands (a series of alluvial fans that spread out from the Santa Lucia Mountains). He headed up the hill to Hahn Winery. The first thing you notice is the view. From the tasting room, you look across the Salinas Valley, and the Soledad Mission below. On the other side of the valley stands the Gabilan Mountains, the the Pinnacles National Monument. Hahn is the site of the Smith & Hook Horse Ranches. Now they are one of the larger wine producers in the region. The focus is on Pinot Noir, but Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon,  Pinot Gris, Viognier and Chardonnay are also in play. After a quick picnic lunch overlooking the valley below, we headed off to our next stop.

Cork tree at Paraiso
A little further up the road, we stopped at Paraiso Vineyards, also in the Santa Lucia Highlands. We all stopped at the entrance to gather around the cork tree. While the rest of the group went in to start tasting, I wondered over to the equipment yard to take a look at the mechanical picking machines that were being readied for the impending harvest. Back in the tasting room, Reisling, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were presented. What I really liked was that I could buy the Pinot Noir in half bottles...and I did just that.

Our last stop was at Ventana Vineyards, in the Arroyo Seco AVA. When we arrive, there were a number of other people in the small tasting room, but the tasting room staff handed us glasses, and started pouring...and pouring...and pouring. Unlike the previous three wineries, who specialized in certain grape varieties, I felt like Ventana was all over the place. We tried Reisling, Gewurtztraminer, Chardonnay. Orange Muscat, Sauvignon Blanc, Rose, Blends, Pinot Noir, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Tempranillo. After a group shot in front of the barrels, we headed out to the vineyard, and tasted the ripe Tempranillo, Muscat, and Chardonnay grapes.

Group shot at Ventana
We arrived back at our hotel around 5:20pm, met up with another couple for some cheese and a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. We had dinner reservations at Grasings in Carmel. Fourteen of us had a somewhat disappointing dinner. The food was good, not great (somewhat soggy abalone, and paella that was missing sausage). The problems started when we ordered wine from the wine list, and they were out of the wines we requested. Now, normally I would just pass this as a slip up by the sommelier, but....we were split into two different tables, and both tables ran into the same issue. When the wine was out of stock, the server recommended a different winery, that was "a better value" than the one we had ordered. The both tables, we were up-sold by $20 to $30 on the replacement wine. The service was so-so, and by the end of the evening, I thought our server was ready to quit. I hate to give a negative review, but this place deserves it. It was the most expensive meal of the weekend. We did have some good wines with the abalone: Talbott Chardonnay and Chalone Rose.

Friday through Saturday, we explored the foods and wines of Monterey/Carmel. Only one negative, and a bunch of positives. Check in for next weeks blog, for the adventures on Sunday and Monday, with a much smaller group. Sunday was the day for surprises.

California Central Coast

Napa Valley, and Sonoma get all the attention in California. But, did you know that the Central Coast AVA (American Viticultural Area) is the largest in the state? This massive coastal appellation stretches about 250 miles from San Francisco to Santa Barbara. The appellation was granted based on the shared cooling influence of the Pacific Ocean.  There are over 360 wineries covering more than 100,000 acres under vine. Many of these wineries rank among the smallest boutique wineries to the some of California’s biggest players.

Inside this large AVA, are a number of smaller, more specific areas. Each has its’ own special features, climate soil, and grape varieties. Some are well known, and others…not so much. I thought it would be fun to take a look at the areas that make up the Central Coast. I broke down the areas within the broader Central Coast AVA from north to south.

Concannon Winery - Livermore Valley
The San Francisco Bay AVA is a large appellation centered around the San Francisco Bay Area. The AVA was created in 1999 and encompasses over 1,500,000 acres. Urban sprawl affects most of the area, so the acreage under vine is pretty limited. The AVA includes four smaller designated areas: Livermore Valley AVA, Pacheco Pass AVA, San Ysidro District AVA, and Santa Clara Valley AVA.

The most famous of the smaller areas within the San Francisco AVA is the Livermore Valley AVA. Wine has been grown here since 1882, with the Cresta Blanca Winery. It was known for winning the Grand Prix at the 1889 Paris Exposition with its’ first vintage (a 1884 white wine). Wente Vineyards is the largest producer (about 300,000 cases) in the Livermore Valley. It was first established in the valley in 1883. The next largest producer, Concannon Vineyard, makes around 30,000 cases per year. The valley is also known for its’ original plantings of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc taken from Ch√Ęteau d'Yquem, in France.

The Santa Clara Valley AVA served an important role in the early history of California wine and was home to the pioneer winemakers Paul Masson (anyone remember the television advertisements with Orson Welles saying, “we will sell no wine before its’ time”?) and Charles Lefranc (Alamden Vineyards). The AVA boundary was defined in 1989. The AVA is home to two smaller areas,  

Pacheco Pass AVA (granted AVA status in 1984 following a petition by the Zanger family, and the only winery in the appellation, Zanger Vineyards) and San Ysidro District AVA (the coolest AVA within the Santa Clara Valley).

The small Santa Cruz Mountains AVA was established as one of the first mountain based AVAs in 1981. It includes the following sub-regions: Skyline, Saratoga/Los Gatos, Summit, the Coastal Foothills, Ben Lomond Mountain AVA, and Corralitos/Pleasant Valley.

Hahn Estate - Santa Lucia Highlands
Probably best known for Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, the Monterey AVA is located in Monterey County. It was established in 1984.  It runs roughly 100 miles from just north of the Monterey Bay, south to the border of Paso Robles. There are approximately 40,000 acres of planted wine grapes. The northern portion is a cool growing region, but one with a very long growing season. Due to the coastal influence, daytime temperatures are rarely above 75 °F in most parts of the region The exception is the southern part of the Monterey AVA where temperatures can reach 100 degrees. Wind can be a factor in many areas of the AVA. The soil is typically sandy and requires extensive irrigation, due to the low average rainfall. Over 40% of the grapes grown in the Monterey AVA are Chardonnay. In the northern area, Riesling and Pinot Noir are popular, while in the south, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are most often grown. Within the larger Monterey AVA, there are seven smaller areas: Arroyo Seco AVA, Carmel Valley AVA, Hames Valley AVA, San Antonio Valley AVA, San Bernabe AVA, San Lucas AVA, Santa Lucia Highlands AVA,

Arroyo Seco AVA has a cool climate, and is best suited for those grape varieties that benefit from the cool afternoon breeze. The area is known for its gravelly soil that absorbs heat during the day and radiates that heat in the evening. This helps keep the grapes from freezing at night. Chardonnay is the main grape here.

Carmel Valley AVA is the only wine area in Monterey that faces the ocean. Because of this the vineyards are mostly located at 1,000 feet above sea level or higher, where coastal fog and wind are less common.

Hames Valley AVA became an AVA in 1994. The soil in the valley is shale and loam, and the climate is hot versus other regions of Monterey.

The San Antonio Valley AVA was established in 2006. The area has one of the longest grape growing traditions in the United States when the mission of San Antonio de Padua was first established in 1771 with a small vineyard.

The San Bernabe AVA was created in 2004 as a result of a petition by Delicato Family Vineyards, whose 8,700 acre San Bernabe Vineyard is currently the world's largest continuous vineyard.

San Lucas AVA is rarely seen on bottles. The area was petitioned by the Almaden Vineyards, but since Almaden left the area, you just don’t see it.

The Santa Lucia Highlands AVA is located in the Santa Lucia Mountains above the Salinas Valley. Over 2,300 acres of vineyards are planted in the AVA, some as high as 1,200 feet, with about 50% planted with Pinot Noir. The region enjoys cool morning fog and breezes from Monterey Bay followed by warm afternoons thanks to direct southern exposures to the sun

Chalone AVA is an in both the Monterey and San Benito counties, located in the Gabilan Mountains (just below my old hiking grounds at Pinnacle National Monument). The 8,640 acres region is named for the nearby Chalone peaks. The region is very arid, has limestone and decomposed granite soil, and is known for wines that can age well.

Calera - Mt. Harlan
Mt. Harlan AVA is located in San Benito County. It is located in the Gabilan Mountains. At elevations up to 2,200 feet, the soil is predominately limestone. The AVA was established as the result of a petition filed by Josh Jensen and the Calera Wine Company. If you haven’t read “The Heartbreak Grape”, you should. It is the story of this fine winery.

The San Benito AVA is located in San Benito County. San Benito has a moderate climate with cooling breezes from the Pacific Ocean arriving through gaps between the Gabilan Mountains and the Santa Lucia Mountains. The region was once the principal source of grapes for Almaden Vineyards. There are three subregions within the AVA (but are rarely seen): Cienega Valley AVA, Lime Kiln Valley AVA and Paicines AVA

Cienega Valley AVA was once a major source of wine grapes for Almaden Vineyards. Approximately 1,100 feet above sea level, the soil is a mix of granite sandstone and limestone (depending which side of the valley you are on). Within the Cienega Valley AVA is the smaller Lime Kiln Valley AVA (there is only one vineyard in this AVA, and it is owned by the Enz Family. The vineyard contains some of the oldest Mourvedre plantings in the state, dating back to 1922).

The Paicines AVA is warmer than other nearby regions in San Benito. The appellation is home to the Vista Verde Vineyard, a 500 acres vineyard once owned by Almaden Vineyards.

Paso Robles AVA is the largest area within the Central Coast, at over 600,000 acres. It has approximately 26,000 acres under vine. Rather than recapping here, you can check out my previous blog on Paso Robles.

The York Mountain AVA is located on the eastern side of the Santa Lucia Mountains, west of Paso Robles AVA. Most vineyards in the region are planted at an elevation of about 1,500 feet . Just 7 miles from the Pacific Ocean, York Mountain is cooler and wetter than Paso Robles. York Mountain gained AVA status in 1984 as a result of a successful petition by the owners of the York Mountain Winery, which first opened as a commercial winery in 1882 (now owned by Epoch Vineyards)

Edna Valley AVA is south of the city of San Luis Obispo and north of the town of Arroyo Grande. The valley is surrounded on three sides by mountains, which trap the fog, and create some issues with fungal diseases. The volcanic mountains contributed to the black humus and clay-rich soils. Edna Valley has one of California’s longest growing seasons. The AVA is most well known for its Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and to a lesser extent Syrah, but I have found some great dry Reisling and Gewurtztraminer at Claiborne & Churchill. Grapes were originally planted in the AVA by Spanish missionaries in the early 19th century.

Arroyo Grande Valley AVA is a16 mile long appellation (42,880 acres) It benefits from it east-northeast orientation which allows the breeze from the Pacific Ocean to moderate the climate of the area. This is one of the coolest growing regions in California, and has gained a reputation for the old vine Zinfandel dating back to 1880, at Saucelito Canyon Winery.

Santa Maria Valley
Santa Maria Valley is approximately 7,500 acres. Grape growing in this region dates back to the Mexican Colonial period of the 1830s. In the late 1960's commercial vineyards were planted to supply wineries around the state. The Santa Maria Valley is a natural funnel-shaped valley opening west to the Pacific Ocean. The elevation of the area ranges from approximately 200 feet to 3,200 feet at Tepusquet Peak. The soils within the area range from a sandy loam to clay. Since the valley opens to the ocean, there is no stopping the sea fog. This creates a cool growing environment. The valley features a long growing season and very little rainfall. The Santa Maria Valley AVA is home to many well-regarded vineyards, including: Au Bon Climat, Byron, Cambria, Foxen, Riverbench, Rancho Sisquoc, and Lucas & Lewellen.

Grassini Vineyards - Happy Canyon
The Santa Ynez Valley AVA is located in Santa Barbara County. It contains the greatest concentration of wineries in Santa Barbara County. The valley is formed by the Purisima Hills and San Rafael Mountains to the north and the Santa Ynez Mountains to the south. There are two subregions within the AVA: Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVA and Sta. Rita Hills AVA.

Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVA is the newest appellation in the Central Coast and is located on the very east end of  Santa Ynez Valley. This new area is known for its’ warmer micro-climate and its’ minerally soil. My favorite California Sauvignon Blanc comes from vineyards in this area: Dragonette Cellars Happy Canyon.

The Sta. Rita Hills AVA was created in 2001 when it was officially known as Santa Rita Hills AVA. The name was changed after a successful protest by Vina Santa Rita (a Chilean wine producer that was concerned about the AVA name diluting its’ international brand). The name change took effect in 2006, with a year-long grace period, for producers in the AVA to change their wine labels. The wine region is exposed to fog and coastal breezes from the Pacific Ocean. The hills run east to west, which allows cool ocean breezes to enter the valley. When combined with the rocky nature of the area, the Sta. Rita Hills is best-suited for the growing Pinot Noir, which tend to do well in cool climates with rocky soil. The region is known for its’ Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah varietal wines

Fiddlestix Vineyard - Sta. Rita Hills
For those of us living in Southern California, this is our wine region. Sure we have Temecula, but for distinctive wine tasting regions, the Central Coast is the place to go. Variety reigns supreme, and the styles, terroir, and climate are all across the board. As of this writing, I am in the process of organizing a wine tasting group up to the Monterey area, and look forward to reporting back to you on the adventures along the Central Coast of California.

What are your favorites?

Certified Sustainable Wine

Lately, I have been seeing more and more wineries claiming that they are “Certified Sustainable" and it got me wondering, what is the difference between “Sustainable” and "Organic"?

Both systems value soil and water, and how it affects not only the plants, but also animal and microbes.

To be considered a certified "Sustainable" winegrower in California, growers must adhere to a set of guidelines established by the California Sustainable Winegrowers Alliance. According to their website, the program defines sustainable winegrowing as, “growing and winemaking practices that are sensitive to the environment (Environmentally Sound), responsive to the needs and interests of society-at-large (Socially Equitable), and are economically feasible to implement and maintain (Economically Feasible). The combination of these three principles is often referred to as the three "E's" of sustainability.”

For followers/believers of "terrior", sustainable winegrowing is particularly relevant. Caring for the vineyard's soil and environment is a basic necessity of terroir. In today’s health conscience society, some other benefits of sustainable winegrowing would include increased consumer interest, and a healthy place for growers and pickers to work. Participants assess their own vineyards and voluntarily contribute data to measure their adherence of sustainable practices.

"Organic" refers to the USDA's National Organic Program, which provides the official "organic" certification. Participation in this program requires verification that the required guidelines and regulations have been practiced (unlike the voluntary nature of sustainable growing). According to their website, “Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.”

The important point to remember is that “sustainable” does not mean “organic”, and “organic” does not mean “sustainable”. They can be easily confused by the average consumer, but they are not interchangeable. “Sustainable “vineyards can use man-made chemicals to control pests, but the grower is evaluating the entire environmental system, and determining how best to keep the system in balance, while minimizing the affects on the ecosystem. “Organic” vineyards are managed without the use of pesticides, man-made chemicals, or fertilizers.

While we have been reviewing what goes on in the vineyard, these same practices are carried over into the winemaking process, and can affect the final product you receive in your glass. It is important for consumers to understand all these different terms that are thrown out there. In addition to “sustainable” and “organic”, watch for “biodynamic” wines. I had briefly written about these in a previous blog about Ampelos Cellars.

So, next time you are in a winery, or even a wine shop, ask some questions about the type of farming used for the grapes, and practices the winemaker and winegrower follow. See if you can taste the difference, and experience the “terrior” of that winery.

Zindfandel with a Barbecue

In the United States, the first weekend of September is a holiday weekend. Labor Day typically is considered the end of the summer season. A 3-day weekend to spend time with friends and family, have a barbecue, and prepare for the Fall season. What is better than barbecue and wine?

Like most of you, I too spent Monday with friends, and a barbecue. But, being the wine guy that I am, I added a little twist to our gathering. You see, I had just finished reading "Zin: The History and Mystery of Zinfandel" by David Darlington. While the book talks about a number of different Zinfandel producers, the "battle" for supremacy really came down to Ridge and Ravenswood. So, I thought it might be fun to see which one people thought was better. A blind tasting of Zinfandel, while eating foods off the grill would be the perfect taste test.

I purchased a bottle of the Ridge 2009 Lytton Springs and the Ravenswood 2008 Dickerson Zinfandel, then asked each guest to bring a bottle along with a side dish. We ended up with seven different Zinfandels (and actually only one duplicate bottle). All the bottles where put into tasting bags (except one, since I only had six bags). Each bag was numbered. Even I did not know what bottle was in which bag...though I had a clue to one bottle which showed up very cold, versus the others...a dead giveaway on which one it was.

In addition to the Ravenswood and Ridge, we had 7 Deadly Zins 2009, San Marcos Creek 2009 Estate Zinfandel, Tobin James 2008 Dusi Vineyard Zinfandel, Earthquake 2010 Zinfandel, and Adelaida  2008 Zinfandel (not included in the blind tasting, but opened up afterwords).

There was no particular order to the tasting, so everyone kept track of which wines they tried, and were able to go back and forth to narrow down which was their favorite. We actually did the blind tasting before ever getting to the barbecue (I guess my friends just want to get down to business when it comes to drinking wine).

I took note of the comments made on each wine.

Number one was considered very unusual, and did not taste anything like the others. It had some smokiness to it, and a bit of mocha on the nose. For drinking on its' own, this was the least favorite of the group. However, when paired with the barbecue later, this was the second favorite food wine. It turns out that this was the only wine that also had Petite Sirah, and Carignane blended in. The wine definitely improved once opened for a while. If you are to drink this one, open it early or even decant it. It is a big wine. This was the Ridge 2009 Lytton Springs from Sonoma.

Number two in the tasting had mixed reviews. There was a certain minerality to it that some liked and others did not. After being opened for a while there was a bit of raisin aroma that presented itself. The finish was considered very short. This was the Ravenswood 2008 Dickerson from Napa Valley

Number three was the overall favorite. It was lighter than all the rest, and had a bit of finesse to it. On the nose there was a slight vegetal aroma, but not enough to detract from the palate. Lots of fruit forward notes, and the alcohol seemed more balanced than most. The surprise was that this was the least known winery of the was the San Marcos Creek 2009 Estate Zinfandel from just north of Paso Robles

Number four had a nice mix of spice and jamminess, that everyone liked. I picked up some candied fruit on the nose. The alcohol was a bit more prominent, but still fairly balanced. This was the Tobin James 2008 Dusi Vineyards from Paso Robles

Number five was very fruit forward and jammy, with just a touch of spice. The alcohol was fairly aggressive, and some didn't like the bitter finish. This was the 7 Deadly Zins 2009 from Lodi.

The last wine in the blind tasting (#6) was by far the fruitiest, most jammy of the bunch. (and by far the darkest in color). This wine had the most noticeable alcohol content, and as a sipping wine was the favorite of the group (however the San Marcos won for best with sipping and food). This was the Earthquake 2010 Zinfandel from Lodi.

Lastly, we had the Adelaida 2008 Zinfandel with dinner (as we had finished off all the other Zins, so I opened up some of my private stock). This was a well balanced wine with some spice and fruit. It was not nearly as heavy as the Earthquake Zin, but not as light as the San Marcos Creek. It went very well with the barbecue.

We ended the evening with some Ghiradelli Chocolate Brownies, so I thought a Zinfandel Port might be a good finish. As it turned out, I didn't have any in my cellar, so we settled on a St Clair Port (a unique blend of Cabernet and Muscat), from New Mexico. Presented in a 500 ml ceramic bottle and a porcelain cap, the wine worked great with the brownies, and presented a nice finish to the evening.

I must point out, that most of the tasters in this group like fruitier wines, and when it comes to Zinfandel, you can find fruity to spicy and everything in between. I tend to enjoy wines that work best with the foods I'm serving. Remember, taste and wine preference is personal, don't rely on someone else's tasting notes, unless you know that you like similar style wines.

So what is your favorite Zinfandel? Try a  blind tasting with your friends, and see how your favorite stacks up. You might be surprised.