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. (

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. (

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. (

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. (

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. (

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. (
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. (

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.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Memorial Day Quickie: Carnevale Wine Bar

If your Memorial Day plans include a trip to Newport on the Levee, consider snagging a glass of wine at the new Carnevale Wine Bar, the latest project from La Vigna Estate Winery in Higginsport, Ohio.

As I've mentioned on a few occasions: with few exceptions, this slice of the country isn't generally the best terroir for growing wine grapes, but it can be done with good pieces of property, some creativity, and a lot of elbow grease.

Brad Hively, owner and winemaker at La Vigna, wanted to showcase his wines -- and the wines of some of his winemaking compatriots, in a new setting. "I'm really excited about this location," said Hively, "and I think it'll be a great place to show what we can do here."

The new wine bar is right in front of Art on the Levee, straight across from the ticket booth for the Levee movie theaters. There, in the shadow of the Claire's, Hively hopes to expand his offerings quickly. "We're pouring eight of our wines right now, and I'm hopeful that some of our winemaking friends will join us. I'd like to get to about twenty wines from the region and eventually offer flights of whites and reds from the various wineries."

This weekend, both at the wine bar and at La Vigna's tasting room, they are releasing two new vintages: the Carnevale 2011 Cabernet Franc and Carnevale 2013 Petit Manseng. The Carnevale Cabernet Franc remains one of my favorite local wines, red or white -- and this vintage is no exception. I'd also recommend their Rosato, which is an excellent summer sipper. New vintages of their other wines will be making appearances over the next several weeks, and they'll be previewed at Carnevale.

The wine bar opened for the first time on Saturday, and they'll be open again on Memorial Day from noon-10pm. After this weekend, their normal hours through the summer will be Thursday 5:00-10:00pm; Friday 5:00 – 10:00pm; and Saturday 2:00-10:00pm. There's a piano in the bar area, which will be used for live classical and jazz music as the summer rolls on.

Wines are available by the bottle and by the glass, and people can walk around the Levee with their wine, from what I understand, as long as it's in a La Vigna glass. (Ask about that last part at the bar to be may just be for special events.)

In any case, a nice new addition to the Levee. Check it out.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Pas De Deux, a Wine Not Meant for Me

"The wine quickly gained an enthusiastic following, particularly with women who enjoyed its aromatic effervescence with a hint of sweetness and its year round quaffability."
OK, seriously -- what am I supposed to do with that?

Now, I'm never one to look a gift from the wine fairy in the mouth before putting it down my gullet, but it's clear that I'm not the target audience for this particular sparkler from Biltmore Estates called Pas de Deux. As I've written about in the past -- wineries market differently to women and men.

According to Leslie Sbrocco, author of "Wine for Women," women "look for the experience" in wine. "We think about who we're with, what we're eating," she said. "Women buy visually, paying attention to packaging. They look for a transition between day and night, work and play."

This is one of the few bottles of wine I've received (shoutout to Lisa Klinck-Shea at Folsom, by the way!) where the press release and shelf talkers concentrated more on the wine's packaging than on the flavor and winemaking process. Most releases generally don't discuss the "attractive floral palette" of the label and the "sophisticated foil treatments in hues of pink" that create an "overall effect that is contemporary, fun, and of high quality." 

I don't mean this as a rip on Pas de Deux. Shoppers picking out a bottle take less than a minute to decide on a wine, in general, and the label and bottle design weighs heavily on the decision for most wine drinkers. Let's just say that while I'm quite partial to pink wine, I'm not necessarily as likely to snag a ballet-themed wine, especially when the pairing recommendation is for "toasting the end of the work week or brunch with best friends -- and of course, chocolate-covered strawberries!"

The winemaker, Sharon Fenchak, was inspired to make this wine after spending some time in Prosecco country in the Veneto. She wanted to create a similar wine for Biltmore -- so, 10 years ago, she experimented with a methode champenoise-style sparkling wine using Muscat Canelli sourced from California instead of Prosecco grapes. The result was a wine called Pirouette, eventually renamed Pas de Deux

Anyhoo, what is this wine? Muscat Canelli is better known as the grape that Moscato comes from. Now, this isn't a bad thing in and of itself -- Moscato d'Asti is a favorite brunch wine of mine. But regular "Moscato" that's not sparkling is normally similar in flavor to a non-pink white zin. Needless to say, I was hoping for the former. 

Since there's a winemaker in North Carolina inspired by Prosecco, making wine from the same grape as Moscato, who carbonated the wine via a traditional French method, how'd it end up once it was chilled down? Like an amalgamation all of those things. Prosecco tends to be very dry and apple-flavored. Moscato (especially Moscato d'Asti) is somewhat sweet and peachy with a light carbonation. 

Pas de Deux reminded me of a more highly-carbonated Moscato. It's quite floral and pineappley on the nose. There are some strong peach, orange, and strawberry flavors that creamily wash over your tongue. I was reminded a little bit of a Dreamsicle. The bubbles are even and lasting. The finish is pretty sweet. 

We tried it alongside brunch, and I would have imagined it would have been good with something like fruit crepes. Honestly, it didn't do a lot for me. I'm not really into sweet wines at the moment, but if I did want something along these lines for a fruity brunch, I probably would have gone with either the original Prosecco or the Moscato d'Asti, rather than a fusion of the two.

For what it is, it's a pretty well put together wine. It's just not *my* well put together wine. Pas de Deux retails for $19.99, but I've seen it on sale recently for $13.99. 

Friday, May 16, 2014

Grenache -- Show Some Love!

I’ve been on a Grenache kick lately. This grape, grown…

…wait, come back! Where are you going? This is not a parody column! Get your noses out of the air and belly up to the bar.

I know, I know – your notion of Grenache may have been formed the same way mine was – commercials in the 80’s for Gallo White Grenache, a pinkish concoction (which I believe you can still get if you walk past the Boone’s) poured over ice. You know, something like this:

The commercials claimed “It will change the way you think about Gallo.” While I can’t speak to that, it certainly poisoned the way I think about the poor Grenache grape for quite some time!

Along similar lines, when the Sweet Partner in Crime and I were starting down our slippery wine-drinking slope, we used to go through Rosemount Estates Grenache-Shiraz – a dirt-cheap Australian red blend – by the virtual bucketful. At the time, it seemed perfectly drinkable, and it was a couple of dollars per bottle less expensive than the straight Rosemount Shiraz.

These days, if I recommend a Grenache to someone, about half the time they’ll look at me like I have a second head, because that’s the image Grenache has with many folks: cheap, uninteresting wine. What changed my outlook on this grape? As I’ve learned and consumed more, I’ve come to think of Grenache as the “red Chardonnay.”

Why? First off, it’s an incredibly ubiquitous grape. There are more acres of vineyard planted with Grenache in the world than any other red grape and the vines are generally quite high-yielding. These yields are a prime reason for Grenache’s bad name in the states, since a lot of those grapes landed in cheap jug wine. Forget the jugs, but remember the high yield. Because of this, winemakers can have plenty of raw material to work from, so even well-made Grenache tends to be less expensive compared to other grapes, so there are plenty of bargains to be had.

Secondly, like Chardonnay, Grenache-based wines are incredibly terroir driven. Grenache juice on its own, produces a light-styled wine, so the flavors derived from climate and soil can really shine. Good growers and winemakers, through smart cultivation, blending, and skill, can wrangle fascinating results from this grape. And they have all over the world, for years.

Finally, spring is turning to summer. Since Grenache is generally somewhat lighter in style, it makes a great red wine option when the heat starts cranking up, especially if you’re interested in something that has a little more oomph than, say, a Beaujolais. There’s a smoky undercurrent to most Grenache that just calls for food, especially grilled food.

A couple of weeks ago, K2, my Brother in Things Wine, invited me to do a tasting with him at the Party Source. I wanted to spread the word about my new grapey affection, so we ran down a series of Grenaches from around the world to educate folks on just how good this underappreciated grape can be. We put together an “around the world” Grenache tasting to show the breadth of what this grape can do.

We started our world tour in Spain, where Grenache is known as Garnacha. Many of the wines you’ll see from Spain’s Navarra region are blends that include a lion’s share of Garnacha. Garnacha is second only to Tempranillo among red grapes in the Rioja region, as well. Garnacha thrives in the Mistral winds, but rather than yielding a high-alcohol fruit bomb, it yields a lighter, smokier drink, like the Campo Vieja 2012 Rioja Garnacha. This is a quaffable wine with a very pretty floral and cherry nose. While light-bodied, it’s got good structure and finishes with lingering pepper and spice. Grilled pork, ribs, or ham would be great with this. ($18)

From there, we nipped over to Italy, specifically to the island of Sardinia. Here, Grenache goes by the alias Cannonau. The volcanic soils of Italy lend the traditional Italian minerality (which I think tastes a little “chalky”) to the finished product. Sardinian Cannonau, perhaps because of the particular terroir, has some of the highest levels of reservatrol of any red wine in the world. That’s the compound that makes red wine so good for your heart. For an example here, we had the Argiolas Costera 2009 Cannonau di Sardegna.($14) If you’re a fan of Italian wines, I’d put this somewhere between Chianti and Barbera on the “mineral vs. fruit” scale. Black cherry and licorice are the flavors I found most prevalent, but with minerality that would make it welcome next to a big plate of red sauced pasta.

For a change of pace, we headed down under to Australia. As I mentioned, Grenache was used in a lot of inexpensive plonk for quite some time, but in many regions, such as McLaren Vale, winemakers are exploring what this grape can do. In Australia, Grenache gains some heft on the palate and becomes much more fruit forward. A perfect example is the d’Arenberg 2009 “The Custodian” Grenache. ($13) Rather than the cherry and spice the previous wines showed, this one featured much richer blackberry and raspberry flavors, and the tannins turned much smokier. It’s quite a bold, pretty wine, in my estimation, which would be great with anything you might find sizzling on your grill.

The touchstone of Grenache, however, is in France. Grenache, along with Syrah, are the dominant grapes of the entire Rhone region. The finest (and most expensive, generally) wines in the Rhone, Chateauneuf-de-Pape, are made from as much as 80% Grenache. The less-expensive Rhone wines, usually labeled “Cotes-du-Rhone” are almost always made up of a majority of Grenache. That was no different with the wine we chose to illustrate French Grenache, the Cercius 2011 Cotes-du-Rhone, a blend of 85% Grenache and 15% Syrah. This is a rich, earthy wine that filled my nose and mouth with blackberries and a healthy dose of an earthy funkiness. It’s layered and complex with a finish that lasts and lasts. With any sort of roasted meats or vegetables, this would be a winner. ($16)

Finally, we arrived back in the States. The renaissance of Grenache in the U.S. was driven by a group of California winemakers in the 1980’s (led by Randall Graham) known colloquially as the “Rhone Rangers.” They thought certain varietals usually found in the Rhone, including Grenache, would respond well to certain California terroir. In general, California versions of these wines tend to be rounder and fruitier, and the Tablas Creek 2010 Patelin de Tablas ($19) from the Paso Robles region was no exception. This asskicker of a wine, which actually is a blend of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, and Counoise, comes on strong with a full mouth of blueberries and blackberries, but also a bit of a bacony flavor through the midpalate and onto the long, fruity finish. This was easily the biggest of the fine wines we poured and was the overall favorite of the folks who stopped by the table.

So…enough with the poor reputation of Grenache! Go get a bottle and try it out. As you can see, you’ve got many variations on the theme with which to experiment. Try them out this summer and beyond. Who’s with me? 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Naked Vine Live! Muffin & Stump's Libations for Education -- May 17th!

Save the Date! Join The Naked Vine and Christine the Pie Queen at Newberry Brothers Cafe and Bistro on May 17th from 5:00 to midnight for our "Libations for Education" guest bartending stint!

Enjoy an evening of good beverages, better pastries, and random joviality for an excellent cause. Tips and donations will help construct the new Gateway Community & Technical College Urban Metro Campus in downtown Covington. 

Help change the face of education in Northern Kentucky while you get your drink on! See you there!

Back to the Monastery -- Franciscan Cab Redux

About a year and a half ago, I had a chance to try Franciscan Estate's Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. I don't expect you to have the review memorized or anything like that, so here's a refresher to make it easy on you. Bottom line, the 2010 vintage turned out to be a really good bottle of wine, so I was pretty excited when Nicole from R/West PR had the wine fairy send me a bottle of the 2011.

In general, larger producers are generally able to create consistent results from year to year, but there's always room for variety from vintage to vintage. Comparing the tasting notes from this year to last, it looks like the folks at Franciscan changed up the blend a bit, replacing the small amount of malbec in the 2010 blend with petit verdot and cabernet franc. (Remember, a U.S. Cabernet Sauvignon has to be at least 75% cabernet sauvignon to be labeled as such. The rest of the blend is up to the winemakers.) I wondered if that change might have an effect on the overall flavor.

In short, it did. The Franciscan Estate 2011 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is somewhat different from last year's offering. This year’s nose has some of the same plum and herbal characteristics as last years, but there's also a roasted meat or bacony aroma. This year's wine feels a little alcoholically "hotter" than last year’s as well, but there's not an increase in the actual alcohol content. Regardless, it’s not too powerful a cab. I found plenty of plum and cocoa flavors bouncing around on the palate, and the finish is smoothly tannic with some lingering fruit and spice.

All in all, I think the 2011 vintage is still a good bottle of wine -- but I think it lacks some of the finesse that I enjoyed so much with last year's offering. It's still reasonably priced at $28 for a quality wine, but if you can still find the 2010 lying around, that would be my choice.