Friday, September 19, 2014

Naked Vine One-Hitter – Up on the Rúfina



Good ol’ Chianti. You’ve got $15 in your pocket and you’re looking for a good table wine to go with a nice dinner you’re planning – and you know you can amble through la sezione italiana and come up with a decent bottle. If you’ve got a little more scratch to spend, though -- Chianti doesn’t stop with plain old table wine.

Thanks to Juliana at Colangelo PR, the wine fairy dropped off a bottle of Frescobaldi Nipozzano Vecchie Viti 2011 Chianti Rúfina, which was just released in the U.S. and is one of my first experiences in the deeper end of the Tuscan wine pool.

As I’ve covered before, Chianti is not a grape. Italian wines are usually named for the region from which the grapes are grown. Chianti is a large region in central Tuscany which encompasses parts of several Tuscan sub-provinces. A wine simply labeled “Chianti” can be made from grapes harvested anywhere in this region. Speaking of those grapes, at least 70% of the wine must be made from Sangiovese to fall into the Chianti category. The balance of the wine is usually a blend of other Italian indigenous varietals, along with the occasional addition of Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Chianti tend to be relatively lighter-bodied, full of cherry and raspberry fruit flavors, and with a mineral character that feels a little “chalky” to me.

You might see “Chianti Classico” on a bottle if you’re looking. “Classico” has nothing to do with being a “classic” wine. The term refers to the area in the heart of the Chianti region bordered by Florence on the north and Siena on the south. This was the “original” area of Chianti which produces arguably some of the best wine. Chianti Classico must be a minimum of 80% Sangiovese. The complement of Chianti Classico is “Chianti Superiore,” which is wine made from grapes sourced from anywhere in Chianti other than the Classico region. 

Chianti. Know it. Love it. Live it.


However, there are a few areas outside the Classico region known for making excellent Chianti. In some cases, some of the best. One of those areas is Rúfina – a small area that juts north from Classico into the province surrounding Florence. Rúfina, home to some of the highest-altitude vineyards in Tuscany, is one of the eight sub-zones of the Chianti region which is, like Classico, allowed to affix its name to a wine label as a quality designation.

Because of its altitude, Rúfina has a cooler climate than much of the surrounding area. In my experience, cool climate wines have more complexity and are less fruit-forward than wines made in higher temperature growing regions. If you’ve been keeping up with my recent travels, you know I’m a big fan of cooler weather wines – but most of my knowledge in that area comes from domestically produced grapes. I was curious how this translated to Italian wines.

I can report with confidence that I’m a fan of Rúfina’s cool-climate Chianti. The Nipozzano Vecchie Viti I sampled is made from the oldest vineyards surrounding the Nipozzano Castle in the heart of the Chianti Rufina wine-growing areas. These vineyards are around 1000 feet above sea level, where most vineyards in Chianti average around 600 feet.

Chianti’s never struck me as a particularly fragrant wine, but the Vecchie Viti displayed a difference almost immediately. Although light, the nose smells like strawberry ice cream if it could sprout blossoms. It’s quite pretty. The flavor is medium-bodied with some of the typical Chianti flavors – cherry, cola, coffee, and chalk – and they’re exceptionally well integrated. This harmony continues through the finish, rather than the mouth-puckering acidity and chalky aftertaste of many Chianti. I’ve never considered Chianti a wine that I’d just open and drink on its own – it usually needs food to shine – but this one was very pleasant.

Just the same, Chianti is best known as a food wine. While any night can be a special occasion, the quality and subtlety of this wine would be best with a meal into which you’re trying to introduce some atmosphere. The Sweet Partner in Crime and I decided to try this wine alongside one of her famous homemade pizzas (roasted tomatoes, roast chicken, capers, garlic). Just as an experiment, we also opened a bottle of perfectly decent table wine –the Zonin 2012 Montepulciano d’Abbruzzo – which retails for $12 for a 1.5 liter. The difference in flavors, as the SPinC put it so eloquently, was “like the difference between a Vera Wang gown and a Nordstrom’s knockoff.”

That said, it was the end of a long week – and we were enjoying this pizza while spawled on the couch. While the Rúfina was excellent, the setting really didn’t do the best job of highlighting how good the wine actually was.

I’d recommend opening it for a sit down meal you’ve constructed to engage your senses. I see low light, some music in the background, a little romance in the air, and an Italian meal that’s got red sauce in it somewhere. This is a wine for a “special occasion” alongside someone you’re trying to impress – whether you’ve been with the person for weeks or decades. It’s going to improve whatever you might have on the table. Whether you end up on the table with your intended is an exercise left to the reader.

The Nipozzano Vecchie Viti retails for right around $30, along the lines of what you’d pay for a really good pinot noir. If you’re thinking in those terms, it’s a good value. Spend the few extra shekels to give this one a try.

Monday, September 08, 2014

The Bodega Bay Bookend and another Sonoma Snowball

You might remember the Naked Vine’s May trip to California, where the Sweet Partner in Crime and I plopped ourselves down in the town of Sonoma, tooled around a bunch, and tried some delicious wine thanks to the Naked Vine Snowball Technique, which I described thusly:

How does this work? Start at the place where you’re staying. These people live there. They know things. Say something like, “We’re looking for a good place to start. We want somewhere fun, laid back, and not overly pricey.” Replace those descriptors with whatever you want…expensive wines, pinot noir specialists, great gift shop -- whatever floats your cork. You’ll end up with at least a couple of recommendations. Pop in to one of them and do a tasting. Chat. Enjoy. If you feel like you make a connection, then repeat your question to the good folks behind the bar. These people live there. They know things. They’ll mention a couple of other places. Those places will mention other places. Patterns form in the recommendations. You now have your guide. Go forth and enjoy.

We decided to head back out west again just before school started – this time using the Sonoma Coast as our base of operations, since we’d not done much exploration of that area of this wonderful wine region. The evening drive through the fog from SFO to the town of Bodega Bay was a bit harrowing, but all's well that ends well! We got checked in to the Bodega Bay Lodge (which I recommend once you get used to the foghorn in the bay going off every 30 seconds) and got ready for our new tour of the county.
 
(c) the San Francisco Chronicle

The Sonoma Coast AVA (AVA = “American Viticultural Area” – the designation for a subregion within a growing areas), as you can see, is a fairly large portion of Sonoma County. Most of the vineyards in this AVA are at much higher altitude than the rest of the county You might remember, during my writeup of the last Sonoma trip, that I discovered a preference for “mountain fruit” vs. “valley fruit” wines. Mountain fruit grapes from the generally cooler, breezier climates like the Sonoma coastal region create wines that are less fruit-forward and more subtle in flavor. 

These areas favor cool weather grapes such as pinot noir, rather than the Cabernet and Zin that you’d find just a few miles inland as the crow flies. The climate also gives an interesting twist to the Chardonnay and Syrah some growers are producing. The region also produces some absolutely fabulous rosé.   Many of these wines also tend to be somewhat more expensive, as the grapes are more difficult to grow and harvest. It’s easy to burn through a lot of coin ordering stuff if you’re not careful.

 

We started the snowball in Bodega Bay at a wine and gift shop called Gourmet Au Bay. Their trademark is their “wine surfing” samples, in which you get three pours on a surfboart. After a couple of tastes and a discussion about what we liked, we talked to the manager, Sissy, to see what she might recommend. Out came the highlighter and the map of Sonoma County, and we were off. 
Just getting under way. Two down, one to go.
(Snowball forming on map...)

With the narrow, twisty roads of this part of Sonoma County, we didn’t hit as many wineries as we could have – but I was pleased with our finds. Here were some of our favorites:

Iron Horse Vineyards – The gorgeousness that is the Iron Horse property is right on the border of the Sonoma Coast and Russian River AVA’s, so I’m including it. If you remember, Iron Horse was the tasting experience which started The Naked Vine down its path of oenological debauchery. Nine years had passed since we were last there, and they seem to have done pretty well for themselves in the interim. Unlike nine years ago, when they were crafting incredible cabernets (one of which, “Benchmark,” was the celebratory bottle when the Sweet Partner in Crime made full professor), they only make wine from estate fruit now. This means that they grow only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – much of which goes into the sparkling wines for which they’re well known. We were fans of the Ocean Reserve Blanc de Blancs ($45), a sparkling wine that has an attachment to the National Geographic Ocean Initiative. Their pinot noirs were exceptional, but quite pricey. The $70 pricetag on the Russian River Pinot Noir was steep, but it’s a great wine. (http://www.ironhorsevineyards.com/)

Our return to the scene of the crime...Iron Horse.
Lynmar Estate – I’ve talked before about my notion of “wood theory” – in that there’s generally an inverse relationship between the amount of burnished wood in a tasting room and the quality of the wine. Lynmar is an exception to the theory, as their tasting room and surrounding gardens (which include a rosemary shrub taller than I am!) are lovely places to linger. The wine, as well, is lovely to linger over. Their focus is pinot noir and chardonnay, although they’ve begun cranking out some cool-climate Syrah. We really enjoyed their spread. I thought their Russian River pinot noir at $40 was exceptional, especially for the price. Lynmar also was where we discovered that a lot of these wineries are producing some pinot noir for the express purpose of creating rosé, like the good folks in Provence. Lynmar’s rosé was top notch. Their Quail Hill chardonnay, while hardly a bargain at $55, is simply luscious. (http://www.lynmarestate.com/)

Red Car Wine – Red Car won the “most interesting tasting room” prize from us on this trip, with its funky collection of memorabilia and a vibe that stops on the playful side of hipster. Red Car focuses almost exclusively on production from high-altitude, cold-climate vineyards, which produces very bright, clean, flavorful wine at relatively low alcohol levels. For instance, I don’t see a lot of Syrah under 13.5% alcohol, and Red Car’s Estate ($50) clocked in at 13.3% with gorgeous layers of plum, earth, and chocolate. Their Chardonnay ($35) could have fooled me into thinking it was a white Burgundy along the lines of the clean but oaky Meursault. Their pinots, which start around $40, also have a bit of that lean Burgundian earth and smokiness – and fruits that are very clean and striking. Highly recommended. (http://www.redcarwine.com/)
Red Car's tasting room. Good fun.


Taft Street Wines – “Garagistes since 1979” is their proud announcement. Garagistes were winemakers inBordeaux who operated outside the strict French guidelines for wine production, often making their wines in garages rather than on chateaux. The American iteration, which moved from a garage in Berkeley to an old apple processing plant in Sebastapol, was the best overall value of any of our stops. Their estate pinot is under $35, and I took a shine to their Alexander Valley Merlot, which at $20 was the best QPR I found on the trip. Fruity and lush with a really nice cocoa backbone, it’s worth stocking up on. They also produced some of the few sauvignon blancs we tried on the trip -- a steal at $18. (http://www.taftstreetwinery.com/)

Joseph Phelps Freestone Vineyards – Joseph Phelps is a very accomplished Napa winemaker. He’s produced three cabernets -- his “Insignia” label -- that earned 100 points from Robert Parker, including his 2002, which was named Wine of the Year by Wine Spectator. In 2007, Phelps opened a winery in the Sonoma Coast region for the grapes grown in his new Freestone Vineyards in the Sonoma Coast AVA. The $55 Freestone Vineyards pinot noir was a delicate, wonderfully balanced offering – full of fruit and smoke. We also discovered Phelps’ “second label” wine – Fog Dog – which were perfectly decent pinot noir and chardonnay, although at the price point, there were better wines in the county. We also had the opportunity to try the 2006 vintage of the “Insignia” which would retail for $240 – making it the second-most expensive wine I’ve ever tried. Needless to say, it was a pretty damned good wine. (http://www.josephphelps.com/)  I’ll be writing more about Phelps in the future, so stay tuned.

Fort Ross Vineyard – Fort Ross was the one Sonoma Coast tasting room we visited that was actually on the coast – about a 35 minute drive from Bodega Bay up the windy Pacific Coast Highway up through Jenner (where you absolutely must stop and get a sandwich and a beverage at Café Aquatica) and then up into the mountain fog to the beautiful tasting room, where you can watch the sun burn away the clouds as you sip on some excellent pinot noir and chardonnay. My favorite selection of theirs, however, was a grape I’d not seen anywhere else in the region: Pinotage, the national grape of South Africa – the native country of owners Lester and Linda Schwartz. I like South African pinotage just fine, but it’s usually a rough wine that calls for a big slab of meat from the braai. Planted in these coastal altitudes, the Fort Ross pinotage ($48) yields a rounder, smoother – yet still muscular – glass that features blackberry flavors and a really nice earthiness. Their pinot noir ($42-70) and rosé ($24) were also top notch. (http://www.fortrossvineyard.com/)


Fort Ross Vineyard -- Nice view, eh?

Fog Crest Vineyard – Our last stop was a lovely one, here at one of Sonoma’s newest tasting rooms. It’s so new (it just opened this year) that it’s not on the touring maps – and we only learned about it from our friends at Gourmet Au Bay. We were very glad that we made the turn up the driveway and planted ourselves on their lovely terrace overlooking the vineyard for our final tasting of the trip as we headed out of town. The view was a little reminiscent of Iron Horse – so yet another bookend. We really enjoyed the Estate Chardonnay ($39), chock full of crème brulee and spice and their full-flavored Estate pinot noir ($55) with its smoky layers that would be good to stash for a couple of years. The wine that made the biggest impression on me, however, was their Rosé ($21), Rich and fruity for a dry rosé, it’s clearly lovingly crafted. I pulled the trigger on a case for home, since one can never have too much good dry rosé around. (http://www.fogcrestvineyard.com/)

Saying farewells to Sonoma at Fog Crest.
If you’re over in that neck of the woods, I'd also recommend driving around Bayshore Drive in Bodega to get some oysters at Fisherman’s Cove (http://www.bodegabayoysters.com/), get dinner at Terrapin Creek Café (http://www.terrapincreekcafe.com/); and snag brunch at Willow Wood Café in Graton (http://www.willowwoodgraton.com/).

Cheers!



Monday, September 01, 2014

Naked Vine Triple Italian -- Three for September's Start

Pinot grigio usually isn’t my speed.

While I’ve come to enjoy Italian whites more and more (I feel pretty safe with almost any varietal starting with “V”) – the light white workhorse grape of Italy doesn’t usually catch my fancy. Simply put, most of the Italian versions I try lean towards the flavor of lemon water. It’s not that these are bad wines, they’re usually just uninteresting, especially at the inexpensive end of the wine pool. That said, if you’re going to be sitting by a pool or relaxing outside on a warm day, they’re usually thirst-quenching critters.

When I got the offer from Dana at Wagstaff of three Italian “whites to beat the heat,” I accepted, of course, but I went into this tasting experience wine with, shall we say, no delusions of grandeur. I had three bottles in the shipment – two pinot grigio and one white blend. Here’s how they stacked up.



Stemmari (NV) Pinot Grigio – This Sicilian offering turned out not to be half-bad. It’s not a complex wine by any stretch, mind you. It’s not going to make you think much, but you’ll be pretty comfortable while you’re thinking of other things. It’s certainly light, but some depth develops there after a couple of sips. Happily, there wasn’t the typical watery finish here – I found it to be rather crisp and tart. The flavors run to the lime and peach. It’s also a pretty good food wine. I made seared scallops and didn’t feel like making a Chablis run that day, so I popped this instead. It worked better than I expected. For around $10 in the summertime, it’s a solid sipper.


Cliffhanger Vineyards 2013 Trentino Pinot Grigio – Traveling back to the Italian mainland, Trentino is the province in the Dolomite mountains where this wine hails from. The wine’s name is drawn because, well, the grapes are largely grown on the faces of the steep granite hills of the region. The bouquet reminded me of lemon cake. It tastes initially like it has some residual sugar, although there’s nothing about that in the wine notes. The body is fuller than I expected, almost chardonnay-ish in weight. The flavor is largely citrus fruit, more of that lemon-cakey flavor, and peaches. The finish, at least at the first few sips, tasted more astringent than crisp. It doesn’t really have that pinot grigio “snap” and almost tastes like there’s a little oak there. It wasn’t at the top of my list for this sort of sipper. Retails for about $13.




Stemmari 2012 “Dalila” White Wine – Back to Sicily for the execution of an interesting idea. The backbone of this wine is 80% Grillo, an autochthonal grape from Sicily. Grillo is a white grape that thrives in the Sicilian heat. It yields a high-alcohol white that is rarely used as a single varietal, since the wines tend to be even less flavorful than pinot grigio. Most Grillo actually ends up in the production of Marsala, the Italian fortified wine. So, someone at Stemmari got the idea to blend in about 20% Viognier for bulk and bouquet. At first try, the added Viognier contributes its characteristic peach blossom scent, but the body is much more reminiscent in style to a pinot grigio. The flavor is primarily citrus, with some honey and vanilla adding a little bit of interest. The finish is quite crisp and fairly abrupt, with just a little flavor of orange peel at the very end. It’s refreshing enough for a hot day, and I liked it more than a generic pinot grigio. Still, at $14, I could probably find an adequate summer sipper for a few dollars less, like the initial pinot grigio from this set.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Flank Steak, Salty Chemistry, and some South African Wine

I love flank steak. Love it.

It’s perhaps my favorite cut of meat. Think about it. You walk into a grocery store with a $20. You grab a beautiful two-pound wad of cow from which you can serve generous portions of tender, juicy, yummy steak to your nearest and dearest and…you still have money left over to buy the makings for sides. Glorious.

I recently discovered a fantastic technique for tenderizing flank steak which I just used to grill up one of the best I can remember. I’ll share it with you:

·         Get yourself a flank steak. Go on. I’ll wait.
·         Now, coat each side of the steak in kosher salt. Probably 1-2 T. per side. Trust me on this. If you like, you can also sprinkle on some garlic powder, herbs, what have you – but the salt is the key.
·         Let it sit like this at room temperature for at least an hour. (“Dear God, man! Are you trying to kill us all?” I hear you. I was skeptical, too. Hang in, compadre…)
·         Get the grill hot. Hot. HOT. (Or heat up a broiler, if that’s your thing.)
·         Rinse the salt and such off that lovely piece of beef. Pat it dry, then oil it lovingly.
·         Toss it on the HOT grill (or under the broiler, sigh). Leave it alone. Five minutes is all I ask. Then flip. Five more. Remove from the grill, tent it with foil, and just let it sit there – difficult as that will be to do – for ten minutes, maybe 15 if you can stand it.
·         Slice into juicy nirvana.

Oh, yes.
There is a biochemistry to this. Many grill folks will warn you against salting a cut of meat before you throw it on the grill, as it pulls out water. True…at first. Water emerges from the steak. The salt on the surface dissolves in the water, creating a saline solution. If you remember high school chemistry, all solutions naturally find a balance – an “isotonic solution.”

Given enough time, the salty solution is then drawn back into the steak as it mingles with the non-salty water in the meat. If you’ve mixed herbs or spices with your salt, those flavors go right along. Additionally, the salt causes the fibers in the meat to relax, tenderizing it beautifully.

“But what about bacteria?” you might ask? Saline solutions prevent bacterial growth, so you’ve got no worries there. Trust me, give it a try and you’ll never look at a steak the same way again.

A holiday we can all get behind.
Why do I bring this up? Well, the wine fairy (with help from Jennifer at Colangelo) recently gifted me a pair of South African wines from the well-known Mulderbosch Winery. In summertime (or anytime really) South Africans do their traditional version of grilling called braai. South Africa even has a “National Braai Day,” of which Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a patron, celebrated next month on September 24 – which is also Heritage Day in the Rainbow Nation.

Since I had these wines, I thought I’d do a little braii-ing of my own with this flank steak preparation and the red – the Mulderbosch 2012 “Faithful Hound” Red Blend.

The Hound, bottle adorned with a lovable looking redbone coonhound, is a traditional Bordeaux blend – about 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, with the rest made up of Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. I expected a big, highly tannic red – but was pleasantly surprised to find a more restrained, balanced flavor. Many South African reds can be on the rough side, but this was balanced enough to drink on its own. Good berry and fruit flavors and a really interesting vanilla bouquet. Grippy tannins at the end, but nothing too bitter. I liked it. With the steak (which was monstrously good, by the way), it was as lovely an accompaniment as I could ask for on a weekday evening. It retails for around $19, and I’d say that’s priced just about right.



The other bottle I received was the Mulderbosch 2011 Chenin Blanc Steen Op Hout – a consistent performer for several years on the Vine’s tasting table. I tried the 2011 about a year ago just after its release. I was curious to see what had changed. Here’s what I said back then:

“Steen op Hout” translates from Afrikaans as “Stone on Wood,” which is a decent descriptor for this particular white. Word to the wise, this is a wine that needs a little time for its natural funk to blow off before. My recommendation would be to crack it and allow at least 10 minutes before you dive in. Once you do, you’ll run into a firm floral nose with a strong lemony tone. The flavor, as promised, has a really nice mineral character alongside a solid backbone of grapefruit. The finish is very flinty with a little bit of a bitter, lemon rind-y aftertaste and just a hint of oak.

In the year that’s passed, this wine has developed some unexpected depth. There are more tropical fruit flavors like mango and pear bouncing around in this wine. Where I would have really recommended it with shellfish before, now, I’d probably lean more towards light meats with fruit salsas and sauces. To go back to my little salting technique, it works just as well on chicken or pork as well, so you can safely experiment along those lines.



The Steen op Hout – retailing for $14 -- is apparently in its 2013 release, since they sent me the tasting notes for that vintage instead of the 2011. That said, this particular wine, as constructed, safely lasted for those a couple of years. I would guess you might see some of the 2011 vintage on your local wine store’s clearance rack to make room for the new bottles. So, if you see some of the 2011 on closeout, snap it up.


And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a date with some scrumptious wraps made from leftover flank steak. Yum.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Who ya got? -- Pinot Noir Smackdown! Bota Box vs. Black Box.

You drink box wine. I know you do. We’re all friends here. I won’t tell. You close all the blinds and make sure the neighbors aren’t watching before you open the kitchen cupboard to sneak a little splash of merlot from that little plastic spout, or you move aside the Tupperware of leftover potato salad from the office potluck to get a glug of pinot grigio when no one’s looking.

I drink it too, you see. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it. For the sake of full disclosure, I often have a box of red and a box of white floating around the house. I don’t keep it because it’s necessarily great wine. I keep it because I don’t always want to open up great wine.

Box wine serves a particular niche. Box wine is wine for drinking, not thinking. Sometimes, wine just needs to be good enough. When I flop on the couch after a long day at work or at the end of an evening, I don’t really want to dig in the cellar and pull out something special.

Box wine has come a long way since the huge cardboard containers of Vella and Franzia which often look like building material for the back walls of wine stores. I’ve written about box wines before, and I’ve come to the conclusion that while box wines aren’t generally going to blow you away, better mass-production techniques and greatly improved storage systems have improved the quality to a point where you can knock the stuff back without feeling like you should be drinking out of a brown paper bag.

For a long time, especially with the reds, I’d only seen Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, and Merlot. A few years ago, Zinfandel came on the scene, followed by Malbec. Those two are now more common. Over the last couple of months, I’ve seen Pinot Noir releases from arguably the two most well-known manufacturers of box wine -- and when titans of the bulk wine industry go head to head, The Naked Vine is there with a scorecard. Imagine Michael Buffer, if you will:

·         In this corner, hailing from the Valle Central and Casablanca regions of Chile, weighing in at 13.5% alcohol, comprised of grape blends unknown, retailing for $22 – Bota Box Pinot Noir.
·         And in this corner, from across the many hills and valleys of California, weighing in at 13.2% alcohol, comprised of 78% Pinot Noir, 21% Syrah, and 1% “Dry Red,” retailing for $24 – Black Box Pinot Noir.

Ladies and gentlemen…let’s get ready to rummmmmble! (DING!)
Round One – Head to Head

How are these wines side-by-side? Despite the color scheme of the two wines’ packaging, the Bota Box actually pours a little bit darker. Since they’re both wines made in the “style” of pinot noir, both have cherry and strawberry flavors, and both have gentler tannins than, say, Cabernets or a Malbecs you might find in a box. The Bota is the richer of the two, with more cherry and cola flavors, and a lot more tannin on the finish. It certainly tastes closer to what I’d expect from a pinot noir than the Black Box, which showed as a little more acidic, had a lighter body, and really didn’t go anywhere on the finish. Head to head as a first glass: Winner: Bota Box.

Round 2 – Flying Solo (Cup)

Did you know that the second ring on a standard red Solo cup is a five ounce pour of wine? See? All sorts of useful information here. (Also, the first ring is 1.5 oz – a shot of liquor. The top ring is 12 oz – a standard beer.) The next test for our battling boxes was to see how they hold up after a couple of consecutive glasses. At a party or other social occasion, a box of wine on the table doesn’t exactly say, “Just have one glass.” Also, odds are, there’s no fine stemware service.

On separate days, I had three small glasses over a stretch of time to see how the wines progressed. The Black Box’s more-nondescript nature actually played to its favor here. By the third glass, it settled into a “hey, I’m having some wine” groove. The Bota’s extra tannin was drying out my mouth by the third splash. For session purposes: Winner: Black Box.

Round 3 – The Finisher

The SPinC generally goes to bed earlier than I do. The pups generally join her, so I have some quiet time to myself before I call it a night. I’ll occasionally allow myself a nightcap as I kick back, so these wines made appearances in that relaxing space over the course of a couple of evenings. By that point in the evening, neither wine really contributed much other than something to sip on as the hour made things get foggy around the edges. Being that it’s August, I’d probably give this round to Black Box on points, but not by any huge margin. In the wintertime, I’d probably swing the other way.

Round 4 – The Big Shift

As I mentioned, we’ll swing over to box wines after we’ve already killed off a “good” bottle earlier in the evening. That transition can be, shall we say, “abrupt” – especially if the previous wine was particularly good. We got on a bit of a cooking roll this week and hit a series of really nice cellared wines. As one might expect, the wine with a little more structure buffered the inevitable “yep, this wine’s not nearly as good” transition a little more successfully. Winner: Bota Box.

Round 5 – The Unfair Comparison

The last of those wines from the cellar was a 2007 1er Nuits-Saint-Georges Burgundy. I cracked that to go with a couple of duck breasts with a sweet cherry sauce. The wine was musical and the meal was magical. We had a little bit of the Burgundy left at the end – and, for science, I gave each of these boxes a chance to take a run at the champ. I’ll save you the trouble of trying it at home. Don’t. Just don’t. In comparison, the Black Box tasted like a pop tart and the Bota had a finish of charcoal. There are no winners here. Draw.


Overall – Bota Box is the better overall wine, but the Black Box serves its purpose. Either way, you’re getting four bottles of wine you can consume without cringing for a sawbuck. Drink up.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Naked Vine Luxury Double Barrel -- Euclid Wines

Opus One. Heard of it?

Maybe you only know it as a Jay-Z lyric, but Opus One helped put Napa Valley’s Cabernet Sauvignon on the world wine map. First created in 1979 as a joint venture of California’s Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild, owner of Chateau Mouton Rothschild – producers of the first-growth Bordeaux of the same name. Opus One was, at the time, the most expensive wine produced in California – retailing for $50. Opus One now retails for $235 per bottle.

Alas, the Opus One folks did not send along samples. But Opus One’s former cellarmaster, Mike Farmer, did. (Thanks, also, to Susan at WineGlass Marketing.) When Mike retired from his position, he and his son Lucas created Euclid Wines – drawing on his 30-plus years of experience in the wine business.

For those unfamiliar with what a “cellarmaster” does (and this included me until writing this review!) – this individual is the person who’s in charge of all aspects of production at a winery from when the containers of grapes come rolling in the door to when the cases of bottled wine go rolling out. A winemaker draws up the strategy to create a wine. The cellarmaster executes that strategy.

This father-son duo said they wanted to make a Cabernet Sauvignon as their signature wine. They currently produce a premium Cabernet (which is 97% Cabernet with 3% Syrah to round out the blend) and a 100% Syrah, both produced from grapes grown on Howell Mountain in Napa County. The geometrical-sounding name of the winery is Mike Farmer’s middle name, passed down from his grandfather, Euclid Doucette. Farmer describes his grandfather as “a man of intensity, integrity, and true to his word,” and he tried to model his wines after the emotions stemming from that familial respect.
Lucas and Mike Farmer

There are fewer more direct examples of the market’s invisible hand than wine price points. High-end wine demands high-end prices because people are willing to shell out the cash. As any marketing student will tell you, there are plenty of ways to make wine more desirable aside from actually making a superior product. Fancy packaging, slick marketing, using adult film stars to garner positive reviews, and other tricks of the trade.

The Euclid 2010 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon retails for $85, and this is one of the few wines I’ve tried where I thought, “You know, this really tastes like an $85 bottle of wine.” This cabernet is exceptionally well crafted and offers some of the most interesting aromatics I’ve sniffed. My notes say “peaches, cotton candy, crème brulee perfumed sweetness.” Needless to say, these aren’t words that pop up in my reviews of reds very often. The flavor is exceptionally well-balanced, full of vanilla, dark fruit, and super-balanced tannin. The finish was lasting, gorgeous lushness. I grilled a couple of good steaks, which I put next to some grilled beets with goat cheese and dill and it was transcendently good.

The Euclid Cab is a fabulous wine and it’s a shame it goes so quickly. I had the last half-glass in the quiet of the Man Cave while mellowing out after the Sweet Partner in Crime had retired for the evening. The wine tasted like Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away” sounds at the end of a hard day.

The Euclid 2010 Sierra Foothills Syrah is not quite as pricey as its sister Cab. The retail on this bottle is $40. Syrah is generally a couple of orders of magnitude fruitier and deeper than Cabernet Sauvignon, so I didn’t expect the same sort of subtlety we’d experienced. Even with that notion…wow, what a contrast in style between these wines.

Returning to the previous metaphor, if the Cabernet is a mellow 70’s tune, the Syrah is A Tribe Called Quest’s “Low End Theory.” Good lawrd, I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced anything quite like this wine. The nose is typical Syrah – plums, violets, and spice – although it’s really well balanced and quite pretty. The mouthfeel is rich, thick, and fruity…and then the bottom absolutely drops out of this inky, tannic monster. Imagine the warming feel of a good bourbon or scotch and convert that sensation to the fullness and depth of tannin and you’ve got this Syrah’s finish. I could feel blackness filling my chest as I drank this down. While it’s not the drying, mouth puckering tannin that it could be, it feels like a dark depth charge. Boom.

I decided to do some lamb chops as a pairing with this – and about halfway through the meal, the Sweet Partner in Crime says, “I just can’t do it. It’s too big.” Caught between the richness of the wine, the marbling of the chops and the savory nature of the fennel and caper relish I’d done as a side, the SPinC overloaded. (My Uncle Alan, in contrast, would have been in absolute heaven.) I got through my glass and, upon seeing myself in the bathroom mirror later, noticed that a single glass of the Euclid was sufficient to blacken my teeth.

We didn’t get through the whole bottle. I put a VacuVin on it and sampled it over the next couple of days. After a day, it hadn’t opened up much. After two days, some of the lighter, more vanilla aspects of the nose started to come through – even though the body was still enormous. I think it still needs more time. Make sure you decant it for at least a couple of hours before you drink it. My half-hour wasn’t enough. If you like wines this powerful, snag a couple of bottles to hold for a few years.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Back in the Sattler Again

Hello, folks! It’s your favorite itinerant wine writer, finally firing up the ol’ keyboard again. Since we’ve last shared a few moments, I’ve been on a couple of vacation trips, written a longer feature about the good folks at Flat Rock Spirits which will appear in the Dayton City Paper in a few weeks (and in this space not long after), and given my tired brain a rest from grad skool writing. In short, I’ve been a bit amiss with my Vine-ly duties, so I’m going to try to get the goody train back on track.

Our last week's gorgeously cool but bizarre weather is yielding to more heat and humidity – and there’s a direct correlation between the heat index and the amount of rosé that gallops past my lips. You folks know I’m always looking for new ones. A recent amble through the “pink aisle” yielded an interesting new bottle from, of all places, Austria – Sattler 2013 Zweigelt Burgenland Rosé.

Austria? Yep. Austria.

Austria is best known for Grüner Veltliner, a white wine that I described as an “umlaut-speckled, mineral-slathered bottle of deliciousness.” A couple of years ago, I put together a primer on the much-less common Austrian reds, which I where I introduced many of you to their lighter-styled and funkily-named grapes. One of those red grapes, Zweigelt (pronounced ZVEI-gelt) didn’t turn out to be one of my favorites. I thought the red was underflavored and had an odd consistency.

Still, I’d not seen pink Austrian wine and wanted to give it a fair shake. I can happily report that, at least for my palate, the Zweigelt grape makes a much happier rosé than it does a red. I guess something about the saignée process used to make this wine aids in this process. Saignée, which is French for “bleeding,” is a process by which a certain percentage of wine is drawn off at an early stage of fermentation. This juice, pink from its contact with the skins, is then vinified like a white wine. The remaining “must” (WineSpeak for “wine in the process of fermenting”) is more concentrated as a result – yielding a red that ostensibly has stronger, more fruit-forward flavor.

In Zweigelt’s case, the red ends up with a heavier – almost glycerine – mouthfeel, but the flavors themselves aren't strong enough to match.The rosé, however, ends up a brighter, crisper wine driven by the inherent minerality of Austrian soil, similar to that in Alsace in France. The Sattler has some lovely cherry and raspberry flavors and a crisp, pleasant finish. It’s not as light as, say, a rosé from Provence – but it reminded me of several Spanish rosado I’ve had, and that’s a compliment in my book.

The Sattler retails for around $15, which is a good price for rosé with some structure. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Naked Vine One-Hitter – Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

A chance to explore the “other half” of my favorite wine double-entendre? Sign me up!

What the heck am I talking about? I’m just talkin’ ‘bout Montepulciano…

Jennifer at Colangelo offered me the opportunity to wrap my taste buds around a bottle of Avignonesi 2011 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. I didn’t hesitate. Many bottles labeled “Montepulciano” get consumed around Vine HQ. It’s one of our favorite basic table wines. But that has little to do with the aforementioned selection from Avignonesi.

Montepulciano is one of those wines that gets tied up in the European naming conventions and can be somewhat confusing. To avoid getting addled – and to avoid ending up with a wine that isn’t what you intended, you need to distinguish between the Montepulciano grape and the Montepulciano region.

The Montepulciano grape is largely cultivated in the province of Abruzzi. Abruzzi is on the east coast of Italy -- across the country from Tuscany, which is where you’ll find the Montepulciano region. Wines from Abruzzi are usually made from at least 85% of the Montepulciano varietal and are aged for a minimum of five months. Predictably, these wines are labeled "Montepulciano d'Abruzzo" ("The Montepulciano of Abruzzi"). These wines tend to be relatively inexpensive. I’ve seen bottles of Montepulciano for as little as $5 in my local stores. They’re straightforward, uncomplicated table wines.

The Montepulciano region is just to the northwest of Chianti in Tuscany. Most wines made in the Montepulciano, just like those made in Chianti, are blends made from around 70% Sangiovese. The best wines from the Montepulciano region are designated "Vino Nobile di Montepulciano” (“The Noble Wine of Montepulciano”). They are aged for a minimum of 24 months, 18 of which must be spent in oak, before being released. Like most Sangiovese-based wine, Vino Nobile de Montepulciano is high in acidity, which allows it to go well alongside meats and big sauces. They’re known for having much more aging potential than many Tuscan wines. They’re also more expensive – you won’t run into many of these for less than $25, so they fall into the “nice dinner” wines category for me.

The Avignonesi is, itself, somewhat unusual for Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Going against tradition, the winemaker, Virginie Saverys, made her wine out of 100% Sangiovese rather than doing a blend. Few other wines in Tuscany are single varietal – the best known of which is Brunello di Montalcino.

The aforementioned nice dinner was my intended use for the Avignonesi. I prepared chicken thighs braised in an herbed porcini mushroom and tomato sauce, served with a side of gnocchi. Before I plated it up, we tried the wine on its own. I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t generally prefer Italian wine on its own. Something about the minerality just makes my palate crave it with food. This wine, however, had no issues with flying solo.

I found some strong and lush cherry and dark fruit flavors riding alongside some tannins that gave the flavor some great depth. I don’t run into many wines with that level of fruit intensity that don’t taste “thick.” The mouthfeel was ample, but not too full. Lovely aromas, and a silky, smoky lasting finish. It’s just a pretty wine.

It shined with the meal, as well. There was enough acidity to cut through what evolved into a very rich sauce, but enough strength of flavor not to be overwhelmed. I couldn’t have imagined a much better pairing than this one became. We sat out on the patio on a perfect temperature of a Sunday evening, laughing, eating slowly, and going through the bottle over the course of…well, I don’t know how long. When a wine lends itself to losing one’s sense of time, I have to recommend it.

If you’re into Brunello di Montalcino, you should check out the Avignonesi. I think you’ll find it compares favorably. Since, generally, you can’t find Brunello for less than $50 a pop, and the Avignonesi clocks in at around $30, I think you’ll be pleased.


Friday, June 06, 2014

Naked Vine Triple Play – Malbec! Malbec! Malbec!

If you want to peek all the way back to the Naked Vine’s germination, you’ll find a Malbec among the first set of wines I ever wrote about. Since then, Malbec has remained a go-to grape for many occasions, most of them involving grilled or roasted meat of some sort.

Over the years, I’ve tried to turn a lot of folks on to Malbec. It yields a big, flexible, food-friendly wine that’s consistently one of the best values out there. It’s a perfect wine to pair with almost anything in line to be dragged across fire. While I can’t take all the credit for the increased availability of this happy, dark grape, I’m glad to see dozens more Malbec varieties in the South American section of wine stores. (The fact that there *are* South American sections is a nice bonus, too…)

Here’s a quick refresher on Malbec. Malbec was initially most widely cultivated in France, where it was one of the six grapes allowed in the blend of red Bordeaux. (The others being Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Carmenere.) Malbec yields inky, tannic wines on its own – so it was usually blended into the Cabernet and Merlot to add depth and structure. The amount of Malbec grown in France has steadily declined over the years, due to vine health issues and an improvement in winemaking  technology. (One province in France, Cahors, still makes the bulk of its wine primarily from Malbec – although the grape is known there as Côt.)  

In the mid-19th century, not long before the phylloxera outbreak that nearly wiped out all European wine, a French agronomist named Miguel Pouget brought Malbec cuttings from France to Argentina for propagation. In the Argentinean soil, something magical happened. The wine made from this Malbec took on an entirely different characteristic. The wine was still inky and dark, but it lacked much of the powerful (some would say overwhelming) tannins. Instead, it yielded a plummy, smoky wine with a much smoother texture.

The bulk of Argentinean Malbec is grown in the Mendoza province – with the most renowned wines grown in the high-altitude regions in the foothills of the Andes like the Uco Valley. Altitude agrees with the Malbec grape, and the higher-altitude vineyards are the most prized.


Tara at Balzac recently sent me three bottles from Bodegas Salentein, a modern Uco Valley winery. I’ve written a number of reviews of Malbec as pieces and parts of other columns, but I haven’t had the opportunity to do a true Malbec comparison. These three bottles from three different Salentein labels lent themselves to this little project:

Salentein 2012 Uco Valley Reserve Malbec ($20)
Killka 2013 Uco Valley Malbec ($15)
Portillo 2013 Uco Valley Malbec ($10)

The first thing I hope you notice is that the relative price of these wines. Malbec’s increase in popularity hasn’t popped the prices out of reasonable range. This is a good thing – especially with grilling season getting into high gear. You’ll never have to hunt too hard to find a reasonably priced Malbec.

We started with the Killka and the Portillo. I thought they’d make an interesting contrast – since they’re made, obviously, from the same grape, same vintage, and the same set of vineyards. The two also have the same alcohol content, acidity, and residual sugar content The real difference was in the winemaking process. The Portillo begins its process from grape to wine at low temperatures and is not fermented in wood. The Killka underwent a much more traditional process, and was aged with the addition of oak staves for eight months. Thus, the Portillo gets more of its tannin from the grape skins alone, while the Killka adds tannin and oak flavors from the wood.

The Portillo was a big, plummy, straightforward wine. The mouthfeel is full and round, yielding a very easy-to-drink quaff. Basically, it reminds me of a solid, table wine. Nothing too complex. The Killka, on the other hand, was softened by the touch of wood. It’s still a big wine, but it’s softer and smokier with some vanilla on the finish from the oak. I thought it was the more pleasant of the two wines to drink on its own. With some grilled pork chops and red potatoes, the Portillo was the better of the two – probably because the complexity wasn’t lost. We killed off the Portillo and saved the Killka to go alongside the Reserve.

The Salentein Reserve had a bit of a flavor of both winemaking techniques. It started off with the similar cold maceration process before full fermentation, and the wine was aged for a year in oak barrels. It also included grapes from an additional vineyard at even higher altitudes. The results were easy to see. The wine ends up big, but it’s a very well-integrated wine, especially for twenty bucks. The flavor balance was excellent. My note reads, “About as delicate a Malbec as I can remember.” There’s a floral/herbal characteristic to the nose which is quite pretty and a nice amount of smoke to go along with the firm tannic finish.

Side-by-side, the Reserve and the Killka taste somewhat similar, but I thought the Reserve was just “better.” Even when we forgot which wine was in which glass momentarily, it was clear which was the Reserve. With food – a grilled flank steak this time – there wasn’t a great deal of difference between the two. Either worked just fine. The steak, with its richer flavor, was better than the pork with Malbec in general, as well.

In general, Malbec will serve any needs for reasonably big red wine. Once you find a flavor profile you like, ask your friendly neighborhood wine store person for recommendations of similar styled ones. You’ll be happily busy for awhile. Fire up the grill and get to it!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Sonoma and the Snowball

The Sweet Partner in Crime and I made our first trip to Sonoma County in 2005. Our first stop upon entering the county, before even checking in and unpacking, was at Iron Horse Winery, where we cobbled together a lovely picnic amongst rows of Cabernet Sauvignon vines. We hit a couple of other wineries before making it to our B&B, where we went to a happy hour down in their “speakeasy” of a tasting room. In just half a day, we had learned quickly that we were surrounded by so many good wines…zins, cabs, syrahs, merlots…and I wanted…no, I needed…to try them all. In three days. I saw the light. My mission was clear.

I went a little crazy.

The Origin of Madness
I had some recommendations from my more knowledgeable friends of several wineries to hit and we kept adding to the list as we tried new wines. We zoomed though the valleys, bouncing from tasting room to tasting room like a meth-addled census taker. I thought a dozen tasting rooms a day seemed perfectly logical, starting at the first one to open and running the gamut until they closed up shop. Sure, we covered a lot of ground, but needless to say, this isn’t the most relaxing way to spend a vacation.

To the great benefit of my palate, my liver, and the SPinC’s willingness to keep me around, my strategy has changed a bit in the ensuing years. I have no more illusions about trying to drain the contents of entire valleys. So, on our recent return to Sonoma, rather than trying to run down a bunch of wineries someone else thought would be good, we took matters into our own hands based on our own conversations and connections once we arrived. The Naked Vine Snowball Technique was born.

The Snowball’s central idea comes from a research method called snowball sampling -- a recruitment technique in which participants are asked to assist researchers in identifying other potential subjects. In short, after someone takes a survey, the researcher asks, “Do you know other folks who might be interested in participating?” Those referrals leads to other referrals, growing in number as the virtual snowball rolls down the hypothetical hill.

How does this work with tasting rooms? Start at the place where you’re staying. They live there. They know things. Say something like, “We’re looking for a good place to start. We want somewhere fun, laid back, and not overly pricey.” Replace those descriptors with whatever you want…expensive wines, pinot noir specialists, great gift shop -- whatever floats your cork. You’ll end up with at least a couple of recommendations. Pop in to one of them and do a tasting. Chat. Enjoy. If you feel like you make a connection, then repeat your question to the good folks behind the bar. They live there. They know things. They’ll mention a couple of other places. Those places will mention other places. Patterns form in the recommendations. You now have your guide. Go forth and enjoy.

We wanted a different experience this time around, so we parked it in the actual city of Sonoma, which is in the southern portion of Sonoma County. Our previous trips were to the northern end of the county near Healdsburg, and the surrounding valleys. Sonoma has 26 tasting rooms in and around its city square. (In the past, I might have tried to hit them all.) We found a distinct contrast with those tasting rooms. Most places we’d been, the tasting rooms were basically outlet stores for well-established wineries with very recognizable names. In Sonoma, however, the tasting rooms were generally run by smaller operations at which many didn’t own vineyards themselves. Many of these winemakers bought grapes from vineyards they liked that fit their needs, producing excellent wine. I like that notion. Egalitarian.

We got to town, dropped our bags at the Inn at Sonoma (highly recommended), made a couple of inquiries to get us started, and off we went. Did we hit all 26? Nope. Not even half of them, truth be told. We had a lovely, relaxing time and made some wonderful discoveries along the way. Heck, we barely had to move our car! Here are our top experiences from the trip:


Two Amigos Winery – We remarked that we’ve had good luck with “tastresses” when we’ve started our little treks. Our first trip to Sonoma was kicked off by a woman named Annalise. This time, Michelle was the one to get our trip off on the correct foot. She was there along with Bob, one of the aforementioned “amigos.” The other amigo is an actor named Squire Riddell, whom you’ll recognize if you watched any TV in the 80’s…



He also played Ronald McDonald after Willard Scott headed to the Today show, so plenty of McDonald’s and clown-themed memorabilia adorn the tasting room.

They had plenty of decent wines. Their 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon was fascinating for a wine that young. I’ll be curious how it develops. The other highlights were their Viognier, a port made from Syrah, and a Syrah from GlenLyon – which is Riddell’s other winemaking venture. Needless to say, McDonald’s must have been a pretty good gig. Michelle and Bob gave us the initial seed for the snowball, leading us to a couple of the following tasting rooms. (http://twoamigoswines.com/)


Bump Wine Cellars – We missed throwing our annual Derby Day party because of our Sonoma trip, but we felt right at home walking into Bump’s tasting room to find a beautiful horse-themed art exhibition by an artist named Tej Greenhill. Bump’s tasting room was far and away our favorite, with warm, contemporary décor and comfortable places to relax and sip. Sip we did. Bump was the best value we found in Sonoma. The winemaker, Geordie Carr, specializes in fermenting wines at cooler temperatures to preserve the aromatics. He sources his grapes from all over Sonoma County through friendly partnerships he’s developed in his travels. Their chardonnay was delicate and nuanced with just a kiss of oak. I don’t classify many zinfandels as “delicate,” but Carr’s technique of slightly early picking and cool fermentation yielded a beautifully aromatic wine that drinks like a good pinot – even at 15.2% alcohol. With nothing (currently) in their portfolio over $28, it’s a good time to stock up. (http://www.bumpwine.com/)


R2 Wine Company – Since we’re on a survey research kick, the SPinC, also sometimes known as the Queen of All Regressions, was so very excited to see a winery called R2. The r-square statistic, also known as the measure of “explained variance,” is a key measure of many of her multivariate analyses. While the name of the winery has nothing to do with statistics (it’s named after co-founders Richard and Roger Roessler), the notion of “Sonoma wine variance” shone through here. In tasting through the R2 portfolio, we noticed a distinct difference between wines made from Sonoma “mountain fruit” vs. “valley fruit.” The mountain fruit wines in general had earthier, deeper flavors with a mineral character, while the valley fruit wines had bigger fruit flavors and stronger tannins. We enjoyed their Black Pine pinot noir ($26), which was a delicious general California pinot noir. Their Hein Vineyard Pinot Noir ($48) was “smoketacular!” according to my notes. Their “1331” Cabernet ($54) was a quintessential example of a mountain fruit wine, and it was hedonistically complex. (http://www.r2winecompany.com/)


Bryter Estates – Oh, where to begin with Bryter? If you forced me to pick a favorite from this trip, the top prize would go to Bryter with its collection of nuanced, happy wines. Bryter is one of the few wineries we encountered with female winemakers. Terin Ignozzi, the winemaker and co-owner with her husband Bryan (“Bryter” is a fusion of their names), has crafted a portfolio with great range and exceptional quality. All of their wines -- red, white, and rosé – are exceptionally harmonious and clean. The Sweet Partner in Crime remarked, when we tried their rosé after getting back home, that it “tasted like what our walk in Yosemite felt like – sunshine and fresh air.”

We heard in at least three different tasting rooms that we needed to try Bryter “for their bubbles.” No lie. The “Le Stelle” brut sparkler ($38) is excellent, with a nutty, green apple flavor and a creamy mouthfeel. That would have been worth the stop alone, but as we went down the line, we found more surprises. The “Vivant” sauvignon blanc ($34) is crisp and melony – pleasant, pleasant!. Their “Jubilee” rosé of pinot noir ($32) gets a double plus for the lingering fruit and the touch of oak beneath the clean flavor. Our favorite was their “Cadeau” Pinot Noir ($50). “Cadeau” translates as “gift” and was, simply, the best bottle we had on our trip. My note says, “So subtle, so beautiful.” This wine edged its way in with my faves among the Oregon pinots. A must-not-miss. (http://www.bryter.com/)


Walt Wines – Walt sources grapes from all over the west coast, and they do an interesting array of wines. The highlight of our visit with Liz and Terry, our pourers, was their “850 Mile Road Trip” where they showed pinots from the Shea Vineyard in Willamette Valley, Oregon, “The Corners” in Anderson Valley in Mendocino, and Rita’s Crown Vineyard in Santa Rita Hills. (All $65) The pinot flavors ranged “from brambles to boom!” across these three wines, and the tasting was a wonderful exploration of terroir. They also release a wine each year called “Pinpoint Extreme,” which is an anagram for “pinot experiment.” Last year, they added roasted stems to the fermentation. This year, they flash-heated some of the grapes until they exploded. Fun to try new stuff. (http://www.waltwines.com/)


Hawkes Wine – Memorable wine-wise for a really fantastic licorice-and-dark fruit flavored merlot ($35) sourced from vines planted on a seam of clay in one of the vineyards where nothing else would grow; some very well-balanced cabernets; and an estate-pressed extra-virgin olive oil (proceeds to a local kids charity) that blew us away. Before we went to Hawkes, though, I realized that I hadn’t packed very well, and I needed another t-shirt. Hawkes has a neat logo, so I picked one up to wear on our flight home. On the way to the Sacramento airport from Yosemite -- which followed Sonoma on our itinerary -- we stopped for lunch at a restaurant in Lodi called the Dancing Fox. The waitstaff was mostly male and powerfully metrosexual. At least three of them stopped by my table to ask, “Is that Hawkes Winery?” Lodi is about two hours from their tasting room, so I guess it’s the winery of choice for expensive-yet-casually dressed men. (http://www.hawkeswine.com)
Kamen Estate Wines – Kamen is the child of Robert Kamen, whose name you might not recognize, but you’d know his work. He’s the screenwriter for “Taps,” "The Karate Kid," “The Fifth Element,” “The Transporter,” “A Walk in the Clouds,” “Taken,” and various other films. He bought a property in the mountains with the paycheck from his first screenplay, not realizing that he was sitting on a goldmine. His wines were some of the best we tried on the trip, and they’re certainly not inexpensive. His top-of-the-line, “Kashmir,” runs $100+ per bottle. The Syrah ($75) and Cabernet ($80) are also top notch with layer upon layer of flavor. “Opulent” is as good a descriptor as any. “Darned awesome” would also fit. It’s worth a swing through their tasting room – both to try these wines and to hear Robert’s story, which stands in contrast, and made a very interesting bookend, to that of Two Amigos’ Squire Ridell. Needless to say, a commercial actor and a screenwriter have very different views on how wine should be made and how life lands you in various circumstances. While we were there, we were lucky enough to meet Robert himself, who popped into the tasting room briefly. He struck me as an affably sarcastic M.O.T. -- much the same way I hope people think of me. His "Sin while you can -- otherwise Jesus died for nothing" shirt will live forever in my memory. (http://kamenwines.com/)

In addition to all of the wines that you can sample, the town of Sonoma is home to any number of fabulous restaurants, and we worked our way through several. Try the Red Grape for lunch. La Salette is a Portuguese restaurant with fabulous variety and flavor. The Girl and the Fig is a local favorite – contemporary French. The El Dorado Kitchen does some neat takes on American classic cuisine. One of our favorite dining experiences, however, was the Tuesday night we were there – which coincided with the first Sonoma community farmer’s market of the year. The farmer’s market turns into a big community picnic, so we joined right in with a bottle of Bump rosé. Once things started winding down, many locals head over to Murphy’s Irish Pub for an oyster roast and multiple beers. After a few days of wine tasting, beer made for a great way to close a wonderful stretch of vacation.