Sunday, November 29, 2009

Menage a Trois 2007

I love autumn.  I live in Southern California, so that's not exactly the same sentiment you get when someone from, say, Vermont claims to like autumn.  They get a real autumn in Vermont, complete with changing colors and the onset of cold weather.  Here in Southern California we get fire season.

I actually like the low humidity a lot - as long as it doesn't mean raging brush fires - and when that first cool snap finally comes, I wish there were some brightly colored fallen leaves to run through.  The closest we get to that is a palm frond or two blown down in the gusty winds.  As I write this it's a chilly 57 degrees outside!  (Pause for laughter from everywhere else.)

One way I can celebrate autumn - even without the foliage - is with a nice red wine.  I'm so drawn to whites and roses all summer that my shift into reds serves as my foliage change.  You'll be seeing a lot more reds in this space in the coming months.  If they all taste as good as this one, I'll consider Autumn 2009 a success.

Despite the French monicker, Menage a Trois is a California blend of Zinfandel, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.  The wine pours up a very deep red.  It has quite a fragrant nose, due partially to the grapes and partially to the French and American oak used in the barrels.  The dark fruit comes across strong and rich as I sniff it, and there's a trace of smokiness.  They say the Zin is for jamminess, the Merlot is for mellow and the Cabernet is for backbone.  That's pretty much the way it comes across on the palate.  Fruit is huge - blackberries mostly - and there is some smoke flavor along with a trace of pencil lead.  A spicy, peppery taste also comes forth.  It's a little bit rough at first, but let it sit a half hour or so and it should be nice and mellow.  It's priced quite well, $10 at Cost Plus World Market.  At 13.5% abv, the alcohol doesn't knock you over like some Zins do these days.

Winemaker:  Folie A Deux Winery

Varietal:  Zinfandel, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon

Appelation:  California > Napa Valley

Vintage:  2007

Alcohol Level:  13.5%

Price:  $10

Acquisition disclaimer:  This wine was purchased by the author; $10

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Infinity Central Coast White Blend 2008

As I may have mentioned before, I'm a sucker for blends.  I love finding out what winemakers can do with a couple of beakers and a graduated cylinder.  I was in K&L in Hollywood and could not remember having ever tasted a Grenache Blanc/Viognier blend.  I like both varietals a lot, and was immediately curious to find out what would happen when the grapes met.

My curiosity was further piqued to find that Infinity is a Central Coast wine. I thoroughly believe in exploring wines produced near me.  This takes me back time and time again to the Central Coast, to enjoy its wines and beauty.

Infinity is a blend of 60% Grenache Blanc and 40% Viognier.  It pours up a very pale golden color in the glass, with just a hint of color.  It looks very pure.  The nose is alive with wet driveway and grapefruit peel, even when fully chilled.  Tropical notes on the palate get a knife-edge assist from an assertive mineral streak and that citrus that stays in play.  The acidity seems nice enough at first but it drops off rather quickly; I'd like to see a little more acidity before speculating on the food pairing possibilities.  It's a great sipper, and may serve well in non-demanding food situations.  The finish sports a medium-long, last taste of the stones and citrus that dominate the wine's flavor profile.  My only quibble is the acidity, but with aromas and tastes like the ones offered here, I'd feel ashamed to complain too loudly. 

Winemaker:  La Fenetre

Varietal:  Grenache Blanc, Viognier

Appelation:  California > Central Coast > Santa Maria

Vintage:  2008

Alcohol Level:  13.5%

Price:  $10

Acquisition disclaimer:  I bought this wine myself.

Pourtal December 2009 Events

Pourtal, Santa Monica

Santa Monica's recent entry into the wine bar scene in Southern California is Pourtal, at 104 Santa Monica Boulevard.  "Steps from the beach," as the apartment ads say - only this place really is.

Pourtal not only has plenty of wine, they also have the gadgetry to compete.  The state-of-the-art, self-serve Enomatic sampling system offers 40 different wines along with 20 others by the glass. The wines are all available for purchase, either for drink-in or takehome.
December is an exciting month for Pourtal, as they are throwing the Klieg light on wines from what they are calling The Cradle of Wine, although it could be considered the cradle of nearly everything.  Wines from Hungary, Israel, Croatia, Montenegro, Lebanon and the Republic of Georgia will be featured in tasting events throughout December.  Six months of research turned up some old-world, traditional wines that are not commonly found.

The Cradle of Wine series begins Tuesday December 1st, when the importers of all the month's featured wines will be on hand to pour and answer questions from 7 to 10 p.m.

Each event during the month will be led by an importer, and will feature a discussion and hand poured tasting of small production wines not typically available in Los Angeles.  Featured wines from The Cradle of Wine will be dispensed from the Enomatic machine throughout December.

A menu of wine-friendly foods that pair well with the wines in the series will also be offered.  Selections will include mixed olives and dolmas, hummus, muhammara, spanakopita and lamb kofta, plus a selection of 20 or so artisinal cheeses.

The Cradle of Wine Hosted Events Schedule*

December 1, 7-10pm

The Cradle of Wine Program Launch with representatives from Israeli Wines Direct, Terrell Wines, Blue Danube Wine Company, Epic Wines, and Wine Warehouse showcasing wines from Hungary, Montenegro, Israel, Croatia, Lebanon and Republic of Georgia.  A Choice of 5 tastes for $10 (In addition to our featured 8 wines from the Enomatic Tasting Tour)

December 7, 7-9pm

Grower Champagne Tasting hosted by Adam Zuckert from Terry Theise Selections

$30 for Flight of 3 Champagnes - Chartogne-Taillet, Henri Goutorbe, Vilmart

December 8, 7-9pm.

Ramos Port Tasting hosted by Dirk Smits, from Maisons, Marques and Domaines

December 9, 7-9pm

Exclusive Central-Eastern European Wines from Blue Danube Wine Company hosted by Stetson Robbins

$10 for Flight of 5 Wines

December 10, 7-9pm

Chateau Musar from Lebanon hosted by Rebecca Mamoud

$10 for Flight of 3 Wines

December 14, 7-9pm

Republic of Georgia Tasting hosted by Gregory Alonzo of Terrell Wines

$10 for Flight of 3 Wines

December 17, 7-9pm

Israeli Tasting hosted by Bill Mendel, California Regional Manager, Yarden Wines

$10 for Flight of 4 Wines

December 22, 7-8:30pm

‘Bubbles’ hosted by Helena Centerwall

$20 for Flight of 3 Wines with Food Pairings

* Check back on Pourtal's website as additional events will be added.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Holiday Wines

Holiday WinesAsk twenty people which wine to serve with Thanksgiving dinner, and you'll probably get about a hundred different answers.  Some swear by the Dynamic Duo, Riesling and Gewurztraminer.  Some say you can't go wrong with Pinot Noir.  Others are touting their bubbles, Merlots and Zins, oh my!  Personally, I have about a hundred different opinions myself.

The right wine can really make a holiday meal come alive.  Personal preference plays a big part in choosing what to drink for the holidays.  My first rule of wine pairing is, "There are no rules."  As you do the rest of the year, you should drink what you like and like what you drink.  If you would feel more confident in your holiday entertaining with some guidelines to follow, allow me to steer you in some good directions.

Wines for ThanksgivingFor starters, a big feast like a Thanksgiving or Christmas spread features so many different types of food and diverse taste elements, it is nearly impossible to choose just one wine to go with everything on the table.  You can match a Pinot Noir with the turkey, but what about the sweet potatoes with marshmallow topping?  The Riesling that goes so nicely with your holiday ham may be a bit overwhelmed by a standing rib roast.

If you really want all the food paired perfectly, you can turn your holiday meal into a tasting session - an interesting idea, admittedly not for everyone.  A dry white wine may serve reasonably well if there's no heavy beef on the table.  A good sparkling wine is cited by a number of wine pairing experts as the best way to go if you only want one wine on the table.  A dry sparkler can fit in well with nearly everything, even beef.  And how festive, anyway!  And even a nice dry rose should be tucked away somewhere, if only to serve as a great accompaniment to the inevitable turkey or ham sandwich the next day.

Here is a short list of wines I think would serve anyone well over the holidays.  You can use the varietal as a starting point and pick your favorites from there, or you can choose from my selections.  I am taking the liberty of keeping the price level of my suggestions mostly in the $20-and-under range.  Feel free to splurge on a $100 Cabernet to go with that Christmas roast if your wallet can take it.  If the holidays have your budget stretched thin, look here for some very nice wines that will add a little extra cheer to the season in affordable fashion.  I'm suggesting primarily California wines here, but feel free to make an international affair of it.  Champagne, after all, is the king of sparkling wines; nobody does Riesling like the Germans; and if you took the Zinfandel from the menu and replaced it with a nice Primitivo or Barbera, who really could argue the decision?

Champagne BottleIncluded on this list are a variety of wines that fall into one or more of the following categories which I feel address the holiday spirit:

  • Rich flavors

  • Full-bodied

  • Pairs well with roast, turkey or ham

  • Dessert wines

  • Bubbles

Chardonnay - It's the holidays.  Let's skip the pristine, austere beauty of the stainless steel Chardonnays.  Lay in a supply of rich, buttery Chards with seasonal flavors bursting forth from them.  Try -

Wente Vineyards Riva Ranch Chardonnay 2008 ($19) -  Described as having "aromas and flavors of honey, graham cracker, cinnamon and light floral notes," it is blended with small amounts of Pinot Blanc and Gewurztraminer.

Cambria "Katherine's Vineyard" Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay 2006 ($19) -  Cambria says the nose is "deeply aromatic with apples, peaches, lime blossoms and vanilla," while the palate is "intense and powerful, yet surprisingly elegant and nuanced."

Cakebread Chardonnay Reserve, Carneros, Napa Valley 2006 ($55) - This is a splurge.  It's a rich and luscious Chardonnay that spent 15 months in French oak to bring holiday aromas like spiced apple.  It's a big, creamy wine with peach, apple and melon on the palate, along with toasty oak notes.

Holiday FeastRiesling - This is one of the more versatile white wines, owing in part to the fact that there are different styles of Riesling that taste very different from one another.  You can run the gamut from sweet to quite dry with Riesling.  All are food-friendly wines with a relatively low alcohol level.  Rieslings pair well with cheese, ham, seafood, vegetables, spicy food and even fruit plates.  Riesling purists prefer German.  Washington state and New York's Finger Lakes region also make good ones.  Try -

Trefethen Estate Napa Dry Riesling 2008 ($22) - This one is on the dry end of the spectrum.  Trefethen says the 2008 vintage has more tropical notes than usual, with aromas of "delicate jasmine flower, coupled with pineapple, guava, tarragon, and lemongrass."  The palate shows "cantaloupe, lemon, fennel, and especially white peaches playing off each other in delightful balance. A little bit of slate minerality rounds out the finish."

For a slightly sweeter take on the grape, Fess Parker's Santa Barbara County Riesling 2008 ($14) offers crsip acidity in an off-dry setting.

Wine BottlePinot Noir - Despite its reputation for being a finicky wine to make, Pinot Noir is a fairly affable wine on the holiday spread.  Pairing well with cheese and crackers - try Brie, Swiss or a nice Chevre - Pinot Noir also gets comfy with stuffed mushrooms, ham, turkey and duck.  Often featuring a cinnamon or clove flavor profile, Pinot Noir can be a hit with foods of a similar makeup.  Try -

Bogle Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2006 ($13) - Wine Spectator calls it "pure and complex, with ripe, vivid wild berry, raspberry and blackberry fruit...ending with a dillish oak edge."  Sounds tailor made for the Thanksgiving table.

Edna Valley Vineyards Paragon Pinot Noir ($22) - Their description makes me salivate: "Hints of rose petal, caramel and forest floor weave through the jammy fruit core. The mid-palate is pleasant and smooth with fine tannins. Subtle cola and perfume nuances alight the finish for lingering enjoyment of this pretty red wine. Enjoy with gamey flavors such as duck, venison or wild mushroom pasta."

Syrah - The dark fruit and peppery spiciness are a match made for smoked meats.  Big, fruity Syrahs will pair well with roast, ham or smoked turkey.  Try -

Stolpman Vineyards Estate Santa Ynez Syrah 2006 ($27) - International Wine Cellar says: "...perfumed bouquet of dark berries, Christmas spices, violet and and dark berry flavors stain the palate...long, juicy finish."

Mandolin Syrah Central Coast 2007 ($14) - Dark fruit and layers of spice and rich vanilla hit the holiday notes.  They run in tandem with a dense molasses, leather and plum profile.  Firm tannins make it ideal for for a roast or steaks.

Wine BottleZinfandel - Black cherry and blackberry often dominate the flavor profile of Zin to the point of jamminess.  It's can be a big wine that calls for big food.  Find a Zin with lighter profiles and bright fruit flavors to be more flexible in pairing it with lighter fare.  Try -

Cline Ancient Vines California Zinfandel 2007 ($18) - Cline says this one has "flavors of dark berries, coffee and chocolate with great vanilla oak character and a long lingering finish."  Some say it has a sweet, port-like side.  It also has the tannins to handle steaks, roast - or that barbecued turkey you've always wanted to serve.

Bogle "The Phantom" Red Blend 2006 ($15) - This is actually even parts Zin and Petite Sirah with a splash of Mourvedre.  It's luscious, with anise and figs on the nose and clove and vanilla peeking around the fruit on the palate.

Cabernet Sauvignon - Cabs find themselves at home before, during and after dinner.  Pair the big reds with blue cheese on the appetizer plate, heavy beef or smoked meats on the dinner table and even dark chocolate desserts.  Try -

Rutherford Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 ($18) - They describe their Cab as having "lush fruit aromas of raspberry and Bing cherry, hints of cedar box, bright mint and spicy cinnamon."  It's a full-bodied wine with silky tannins. Serve with blue cheese, marinated steaks or dark chocolate after dinner.

Francis Coppola Diamond Series Claret 2007 ($14) - Not a true Cab, it's a Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec.  Aromas of plum, anise, dark chocolate and sweet spices will make it a hit for the holidays. Rich flavors of blackberry, currant and strawberry are festive and exciting, just like the season.

Trefethen HaLo 2004 ($175) - With bay leaf on the nose and clove and nutmeg in the flavor profile, this wine had me thinking of Christmas at first sniff.  I think this would pair fabulously with turkey - but at $175 a bottle, this may be better as one of the gifts under the tree.

Merlot - Complex and accessible at once, Merlot got such a bad rap pinned on it in the film Sideways that sales actually fell.  Hopefully, saner heads will prevail during the holiday season.  Different Merlots offer different pairing opportunities, so depending on whether the wine is full- or medium-bodied you can match with everything from roast to salmon.  A fictional character's ranting is no way to make decision on what wine to drink.  Try -

Silverado Napa Merlot 2004 ($25) - A medium-bodied wine that's abetted by 11% Cabernet Sauvignon, there's a nutty spiciness that duels with a sweet cherry flavor to produce a complex and enjoyable drink.

Robert Mondavi Napa Merlot 2006 ($17) - Wine Spectator says this Merlot "offers an appealing blend of structure and plushness, with currant and espresso aromas and black cherry and anise flavors."

Dessert Wines - Depending on your tolerance for sweets, dessert wines can complement an after dinner treat or stand alone and be the treat.  Late harvest varietals, muscat, Port and sherry all make for a delicious way to finish a feast.  The French do a particularly fine job with wines from Sauternais and Banyuls.  Try -

Bridlewood Syrah Port 2006 ($20) -  If the words "Syrah Port" don't do it for you, listen to these descriptive words from the the winemaker: "heady aromatics of blackberry, cassis and licorice...dark jammy fruit framed with spicy oak and vanilla accents...notes of strong dark chocolate with hints of pecan, tangerine peel and earth...soft chewy tannins and a sweet vanilla oak backdrop...luscious licorice finish."  Now, if my football teams don't win on Thanksgiving, I'll hardly care.

Mer Soleil Late 2004 ($34) - The Viognier grapes came down with a case of Botrytis, and that's good news all around.  This dessert wine is the result, a rich shade of gold with honey, apricot nectar and orange zest in the flavor profile.

Sparkling Wines - Champagne can get expensive, and for some it's that or nothing.  There are, however, plenty of good sparkling wines from places other than France.  A nice Italian Prosecco, a Spanich Cava or a California sparkler can make a festive showing, too.  Sparkling styles range from Extra Brut (the dryest), Brut, Extra Sec, Sec, Demi-Sec and Doux (the sweetest.)  Try -

Roederer Estate Anderson Valley Brut ($19) - The American arm of Louis Roederer produces this great-tasting, affordable sparkler with notes of cinnamon, creme brulee and baked apple.  They also make a pink bubbly with a touch of Pinot Noir for color.

Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs Sparkling Wine 2006 - This producer made America's first sparkling wine, back in 1965.  It's thought by many to be America's best sparkler, coming as close to real Champagne as it gets in the States.  An apple cobbler note on the palate should sit well with autumn celebrations.

Rhone-style white blends - These wines typically match up well with autumnal foods like squash, apples and chestnuts.  Look for blends involving Grenache Blanc, Roussanne or Marsanne.  Try -

Lone Madrone La Mezcla 2008 ($17) - An interesting Paso Robles blend of Grenache Blanc and Albarino!  Not only will it fit, it's a conversation starter.

Big House White 2008 ($8) - This white blend features Malvasia Bianca, Muscat Canelli, Viognier and Roussanne.  Aromas of lemon meringue and wintermint grace the nose, while the palate enjoys tropical fruit and toast.  A wildly popular wine, it was listed atop Wine Enthusiast's "Top 100 Best Buys of 2009."

Rhone-style red blends - Look to Rhone-style reds for full-bodied, spicy wines that usually dip a bit more into the earthy, dark side of the flavor line.  They make an excellent partner to roast beef.  Try -

Tablas Creek "Cotes de Tablas" Red 2003 ($20) - Cherry liqueur, white pepper, leather and sage highlight this blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Counoise.

Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant 2005 ($32) - From the Bonny Doon website: "Aromas of spiced meat, kirsch, mushrooms, a soupçon of truffle and dark chocolate make for a richly perfumed red wine." This blend is mainly Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah, with some Carignane and Cinsault in the mix.

Suggested holiday meal:

  • Before the meal - Sparkling wine will set a celebratory mood.

  • With your cheese plate - Chardonnay or a bubbly with Brie; Riesling or dessert wine with blue cheese; Cab, Merlot or Zinfandel with cheddar; Riesling or a Rhone-style white with Swiss; Pinot Noir or Port with cream cheese.

  • For roast turkey breast - Viognier or Chardonnay are good.  Dark meat likes a Pinot Noir.

  • With the baked ham - Pinot Noir or Riesling.  A Beaujolais Nouveaux will work, and it is the season for it.

  • Beef roast or steaks - Call for Cabernet Sauvignon.

  • Goose or game - Pinot Noir.  A rich Chardonnay, Zinfandel or Merlot could fit, too.

  • Cornbread stuffing - Pinot Noir.  If it's made with sausage, break out a Syrah or Rhone-style Red.

  • Pumpkin & Pecan Pie - An aged cream sherry or tawny Port will bring out the brown spices in the pie; a white dessert wine like a late harvest Riesling, Viognier or Chardonnay will also provide a lip-smacking accompaniment to the holiday pie.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Opolo Sangiovese 2005

It was a tough day in the salt mines.  Quittin' time took forever and my steps were quick to leave.  I picked up my wife and we headed home in the darkness.  A few shared stories of the horrors of the day and an affirmation of how much we dislike the salt mines set me to thinking about what I would open at home.  I currently have a bountiful assortment of exciting prospects which overflow the confines of the small "wine cellar" that sits next to the bar.  I began to think of the Opolo Sangiovese I had picked up over the weekend and the drive home immediately became a little easier.  The horrors of the day seemed a little more distant.  The salt mines were just places to get...salt.  Enough salt.  Let's get home and have some good wine. 

Grown on a chalky hillside in western Paso Robles, these grapes had to struggle through hot days, temperature swings and lack of water.  (That sounds a lot like the salt mines.)  The wine was aged 18 months in American Oak.  I'm a sucker for Italian varietals, and I'm also a sucker for wines from Paso Robles.  I have very high hopes.

Opolo's Cal-Italia effort pours up as a beautiful purple, light showing through it very easily.  On the nose, cherries are abundant, even cherry cola.  There's a spicy element, too, like a peppery cinnamon.  The oak's influence can be felt.  The taste is quite fruity - black cherry - but with an earthy tone that is quite appealing.  As a matter of fact, it's such a hearty drink it seems to be trying to escape its varietal shackles.  It's a very Zin-like Sangiovese.  Not so appealing is the high alcohol content.  If consumed upon opening, it takes over on the palate to an unpleasant degree. The effect of the alcohol does diminish after about 45 minutes, so decant this wine or let it sit in the glass a while.  It's worth the wait.

Winemaker:  Opolo Vineyards

Varietal:  100% Sangiovese

Appellation:  California > Central Coast > Paso Robles

Vineyard:  Opolo

Vintage:  2005

Alcohol Level:  14.8%

Price:  $16

Acquisition:  Bought it myself

Wine For Rockers

Woodstock ChardonnayDark Side of the Moon CabernetWine-drinking rock fans can now enjoy wines that come labeled with iconic rock'n'roll imagery. Wines That Rock has launched three new wines - Forty Licks Merlot, Woodstock Chardonnay and The Dark Side of the Moon Cabernet Sauvignon. Each wine comes decked out in a label taken from the album covers by the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and the soundtrack to Woodstock.

Wines That Rock is a partnership between rock business management firm RZO and the Mendocino Wine Company. Not only do the wines appeal to classic rock fans' musical taste, they also strike a chord with their social consciousness. The wines feature what the company calls eco-friendly packaging and carbon neutrality in addition to the Menocino Wine Company's sustainable farming practices and use of green power from both solar and wind.

The wines sell for about $17 per bottle, $50 for a three-pack and discounts for six-packs and cases. Presently, the wines are available through the Wines That Rock website, but retail distribution should start in 2010. Additional classic pairings of wines and legendary rock albums and artwork will be available in the comings months.

This is not the first attempt to marry wine and rock'n'roll.

Forty Licks MerlotThe Mendocino Wine Company also features wines which echo rock imagery - Big Yellow Cab, Tusk'N Red and Zig Zag Zin. There is also a Lodi Zinfandel marketed under the name Deep Puple, with a label that evokes the psychedelic concert posters of the late 1960s.

This line of wines follows the lead of other wine producers marketing wines with labeling that features very familiar imagery which they hope consumers will recognize and be drawn to purchase.

I have not tasted the wines yet, nor have I read any critical reviews of them.  It would seem a sure bet, though, that - whether they are swill or swell - from the rock'n'roll connection alone Wines That Rock will find a ready-made audience.

Don't bogart that Cab, my friend.  Just pass it to me.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Beaujolais Nouveau 2009

Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrive!

Thursday November 19, 2009 is Beaujolais Nouveau day, the day when France's wine laws allow the vin de primeur to be rushed out to the waiting masses.

The wine of the Gamay grape barely has a chance get a cork put in it before being hurled out of the wineries at the stroke of midnight on the third Thursday of November.  There is only time for six weeks of fermentation, so if you've ever related to the Steve Martin line from The Jerk - "Bring us some fresh wine." - this may be for you.  Beloved by many as an unpretentious and easy-to-drink wine, it is also frowned upon by some as an immature, not-ready-for-prime-time player.

I spoke with wine expert Nicolas Soufflet to get a real Frenchman's perspective.

RF:  First, is this a wine we should be looking forward to at all?

NS:  "Due to the nature of Beaujolais Nouveau, it is obviously a very simple wine.  This does not necessary mean that it's a bad wine.  The marketing of it these past few years has brought a lot of pretty insipid juice to the forefront, your typical hangover wine if you ask me.  There are still a few who make pleasurable Beaujolais Nouveau, among them a small producer, Pierre-Marie Chermette Domaine du Vissoux.  He's one of those guys people have started relying on for a decent bottle."

RF:  What about a mature Beaujolais?  What do you like?

NS:  "I personally like the Beaujolais Crus.  My favorites are from the Morgon appellation, possibly the darkest of them. They are evidence that when treated and aged properly, Gamay can be an elegant grape and deliver good complexity and personality.  The number of Beaujolais Crus are up to ten now, with Régnié having been promoted from its previous Beaujolais-Villages status in 1988."

RF:  How important an event is Beaujolais Nouveau in France?  Is it really a big deal?

NS:  "In France, the Beaujolais Nouveau Day is a pretty big thing.  Mostly, it provides the French people with exactly what they want - an excuse to go to the cafe or bistro around the corner and mingle while enjoying a glass of wine.  Or two.  Or five.  I think the tradition goes back to the 1950's.  The style became very popular in the 1960s and in 1985 the third Thursday of November was established by the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine as the national release date.  The funny thing is, out of my own experience, the last time I did it I started with a glass of Beaujolais Nouveau and spent the rest of the evening drinking something else - to spare my stomach and my head, mainly.  You see, when a wine is as young as a Beaujolais Nouveau - even when it is good - it is usually very acidic.  You tend to feel it in the morning. "

Beaujolais Nouveau is obviously a tradition in France, but there are a few opportunities for Southern California Gamay lovers to get their grape on.

WineVineandDine and Victors Square Restaurant have a Beaujolais Nouveau dinner planned for November 19th at 7 p.m. with food prepared by chef Luis Pimienta.  Five different Beaujolais Nouveau wines will be served, along with a six-course dinner.  The price is $80 per person, which includes food, wine, tax and tip.  Victors Square Restaurant is located at 1917 N. Bronson Avenue, north of Franklin.  Call to make reservations - they are a must.  818.429.6770.

Beaujolais Nouveau will be paired with some crepes or escargots at one of four Creme de la Crepe locations in the South Bay.  It's November 19th from 6 to 9 p.m., and costs $25.

Rosso Wine Shop in Glendale has a November 19th celebration featuring Louis Tete's 2009 offering and some Franco-inspired food.  It's a $10 party and runs from 5 p.m. until closing.

Beaujolais Passions will be at the Petersen Automotive Museum this year.  The 7 p.m. - midnight event will feature tastes of the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau along with other wines and food.  Dancing, fun and networking are promised, along with the displays of the museum.  Admission is $20 advance, $30 at the door, and that includes one glass of the 2009 release.  Additional wine and culinary treats will be available for purchase.

Francophone Fest uses the day as a good excuse to bring together the French, French speakers or France lovers in an event that is presented "under the auspices of the consuls of France, Belgium, Lebanon and Quebec."  It may sound like you need consulate license plates on your car to get in, but it's actually open to all who have $20, $30 at the door.  Franophone Fest will be at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel November 19th from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m.  Entertainment by French Tuesdays.

Fancifull Gift Baskets will bring an old-school celebration to Los Angeles.  November 20th (a day after the actual celebration day) from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Fancifull will pour a handcrafted wine from a small producer as well as other wines from their winter list.   They will also share samples from L'Artisan du Chocolat truffles, Maya Olive Oil, Soledad Goat Cheese, Nutland Nuts and John Kelly Chocolates.  All this for $10 in Los Angeles means you get the crowd without the papparrazi.  Reservations are a must. Visit Fancifull Gift Baskets to do so.

If you will be in Las Vegas for Beaujolais Nouveau day, or that weekend, Paris Las Vegas has plans to celebrate at their various restaurants through Sunday, November 22nd.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Domaine de Valmoissine 2007

My wife and I were out and about, flitting from one Sunday chore to another.  A lot of people find it tedious to spend a Sunday shopping - at the grocery.  We manage to get endless enjoyment from the simple things we do.  I got a great deal on a California Zinfandel in the wine department, and was sending out a message about it on Twitter (@randyfuller1, in case you're interested.)  My wife found me and asked what I was doing.  "Tweeting about this Ravenswood," I answered.  She rolled her eyes and began searching for the perfect pineapple.

Later we drove to the Westside and stopped into a discount wine place that is actually located in a storage facility.  Yeah, they've got a roll-up front door.  They also have some great prices.  And no, not everything my wife and I do has to do with wine.  She bought plenty of non-wine things at Ralph's.

Anyway, by the sheer fluke of timing we ran into a couple we know.  They were also wine shopping at this little place, and we enjoyed our brief visit at the checkout stand.  Nicolas is very knowledgeable about wine, and we made dinner plans and talked about the purchases he was making.  They left, and we went in, me asking my wife what she thought we should buy.  "Get that French wine Nicolas was buying."  To cut a long story off at the point probably just after you doze off, we did.  To no one's surprise, it was a good choice.

The Bottle:  A classic Burgundy bottle contains a Pinot Noir from the Vin de Pays des Côteaux de Verdun appellation.  After tasting it, I feel this is under billed as a "red table wine."  13.5% abv.  I purchased this at a Los Angeles discount shop for the pittance of $10.  A steal.

The Nose:  There's a lovely purple color with a red tint at the edges.  A sniff of the glass reveals a dark and earthy nose.  Quite a wonderful cherry fragrance.  My wife and I collaborated on the nose and decided it was cherries and blackberries on the forest floor, trod upon, with some wet stones thrown in for substance.

The Taste:  Soft tannins and a very well-rounded feel in the mouth make this wine feel right at home on the palate.  The fruit is right up front and loaded with ripe flavors of cherry and berries.  It's a very smooth wine.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Dessert Wines of Monterey County

The holidays always call for special wines.  You can bring out all the heavy-hitting Cabernets, big Bordeaux blends and dry-as-a-bone Rieslings you want.  The wines that create the biggest stir and the ones that make the biggest impression on your guests are dessert wines.  Sweet and delectable, dessert wines fit in with the holiday mood almost as well as cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.  As a matter of fact, they fit right in with the cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.  The Monterey County Vintners & Growers Association supplied me with a small treasure chest of these sweet delights and asked me to pass along my impressions.  The following wines were provided to me at no cost for the purpose of review.  All of them are in 375ml bottles - except the Potbelly Port, which is in a 500ml bottle - and the prices were provided by the MCVGA.

J Lohr Vineyards Late-Harvest White Riesling ($25) -  The 2006 vintage was the first White Riesling crop since 1995 for J Lohr's Bay Mist vineyard in the Arroyo Seco region of Monterey County.  It's a 100% varietal wine with 12.3% abv and a luscious 10.3% residual sugar.  Don't write this one off by sniffing "sweetie" and moving along.  The sugar belies a wonderful acidity that makes this wine great for pairing with desserts.  You may like it with an apple tart and vanilla bean ice cream.  You may also like it all by itself.  There's a nose of honeyed fruit and, on the palate, that wonderful "bitter with the sweet" sensation one hopes for in a Riesling.  A beautiful, rich golden color looks great in the glass, too.

Joyce Vineyards Pudding Wine 2007 ($28) - The Johannesburg Riesling grapes for this wine came from the Franscioni Vineyard.  Luscious to look at - it's a deep, rich golden color - the aromas and the flavor remind me of a very fine sherry.  It should go very nicely with a pumpkin or pecan pie.  If your sweet tooth isn't shouting for attention, you may find that it makes a fine dessert on its own.  12.5% abv may be a tad high for some, in a dessert wine, but you could minimize the effect of the alcohol by doing as the Monterey wine people recommend - have a pear poached in Pudding Wine.

Paraiso, Souzao Port, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County NV ($25) - Listed as a "tasting room only" wine on their website, this 18.5% abv port-style wine is made from the Souzao grape, which is a Portuguese varietal but now becoming more common in California.  The Paraiso Estate features only about three acres of Souzao, but they managed nearly 600 cases of production.  The wine is aged in French and American oak for two years before bottling.  Quite viscous and very full in the mouth, it's got a rich nose full of candy cherry aromas and an explosive taste that reminds me of raisins and chocolate-covered cherries at the same time. It's a bit rough and over-the-top, so don't expect too much subtlety.  Serve this with chocolate and score big with sweet-toothed guests. 

Graff Family Vineyards, Chalone, July Muscat 2007 ($16) - Billed as a sweet table wine, this is made from grapes grown in the Chalone appellation.  It's 100% July Muscat, quite a rare grape variety developed in the '50s at UC Davis.  Its 10% residual sugar and 11.3% abv level gives a soft and aromatic wine with strong floral notes.  It's an amazing accompaniment to an apricot or pear tart.

Ventana Vineyards Orange Muscat 2008 ($18) -  Tropical fruit and vanilla greet the nose, while the flavors of peaches dominate on the palate.  The alcohol level is 15% - quite a bit higher than most Muscats - and residual sugar is 7.2%.  You can serve this chilled as an apertif, or alongside a biscotti.

Mer Soleil LATE Late-Harvest Viognier 2004 ($36) - Botrytis-influenced Viognier gives a warm, golden color in the glass and the aromas are as sweet as honey.  The taste is sweet, too, but with a good level of acidity that sports a nice hint of orange peel.  Expect a lush and long finish.  Pair this with Foie Gras or with warm blue cheese-stuffed Mission Figs for a delightful dessert.

Pessagno Late-Harvest Sauvignon Blanc 2006 ($25) -  Fully Botrytised grapes from the Arroyo Seco appellation clock in at 13.8% abv and 18.4% residual sugar and spent five months in wood, making this a dessert wine lover's dessert wine.  This Sauterne-style wine is dessert all by itself, but you can drizzle it over fruit or let it make a Creme Brulee memorable.

Kendall-Jackson Late-Harvest Chardonnay 2006 ($25) - Floral and cinnamon aromas lead to candied fruit flavors in this lush drink.  The winemaker calls it "the nectar of the gods."  He may be biased, but he does know what he's talking about.  This sweet Chard really dresses up a plate of butter cookies.

Mission Trail, Potbelly Port ($36) - Maybe the unflattering name arises from the fact that this wine is jammed full of grapes.  There are six Portuguese grapes here - Touriga Nacional, Tinto Cao, Tinta Roriz, Souzao, Tinta Madeira and Tempranillo.  Brandy was added halfway through the fermentation.  The result is a Port that is jammy and rich, with flavors of chocolate-covered cherries, black pepper, anise, tobacco and clove.  Top off your feast with this portly port and a chocolate bread pudding for a dessert as memorable as the holiday.


Monday, November 9, 2009

"They Got This Recession On" Wines, Part 3

Tres Pinos Tierra Blanca is a San Luis Obispo County wine, but that's just where the grapes come from. The winery which makes it, San Antonio Winery, is actually in downtown Los Angeles. It's something of a historical landmark. This wine was bottled specifically to be marketed at Trader Joe's as a bottom-shelf $5 wine. That's the history lesson, now let's see how good this recession-busting tastes today.

The Bottle: Tres Pinos is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Viognier and Chardonnay. The alcohol level is relatively low at 13.5% abv. The label promises "bright and crisp with aromas of citrus and wildflowers."

The Nose: If they say it's citrus and wildflowers I'm smelling, so be it. I detect a floral presence along with a tropical note - perhaps guava. But there is something else in there that I cannot quite pin down. Not an unpleasant nose, but nothing to go out of your way for.

The Taste: At $5, you may ask, "what did you expect?" Well, not much, to be truthful. Frankly I think I got my money's worth. That, considering the price, is both good and bad. I detect the Sauvignon Blanc and the Viognier, but the Gewurz and the Chard are pretty much lost on me. It's actually not terrible, and I might sit on the porch and down a couple of glasses without realizing it. There's not much acidity, so we'll skip the food pairing portion of the program. There's also a medium-length finish that you may wish wasn't so lengthy. If I haven't mentioned it already, serve this wine chilled. No, refrigerated. You really don't want it warming up as you drink it.

I don't write too many unfavorable tasting notes, and it doesn't sit well with me when I do. I like wine, and I enjoy liking it. This one simply does not hit me in the right place. If all you have is $5, and you need to spend it on white wine, I suppose it would be considered a value play for you, if it weren't for the fact that Clay Station's Viognier is about the same price at TJ's and it's actually good. I wish I had opened that wine today. Maybe I will in the coming weeks.

Disclaimer: I paid for the wine I wrote about.

Opening a Wine Bottle With a Shoe

Have you ever seen someone open a bottle of wine with a shoe?  Neither had I.  I'm curious enough to want to try this, but I'm going to wait until I'm someplace I don't have to clean in case the worst happens.

Healdsburg Holidays

Holiday Reindeer

Sonoma County's little town of Healdsburg is just about as cute as little town's get.  Throw in some Christmas decorations and a good excuse for strolling around the town square, and you've got one fine holiday getaway on your hands.

Get Healdsburg's holiday season officially underway with Healdsburg's Downtown Holiday Party, Friday November 27, 2009 from 5:00 to 9:00 p.m.  This traditional celebration at the town square will offer a brass quintet, jazz, horse-drawn carriage rides and plenty of holiday refreshments and shopping.

Healdsburg's Wine Country Christmas Strolling Dine-Around is an excellent opportunity to have a holiday taste of Healdsburg.  It happens twice, both times in the middle of the week.  The two Wednesday-Thursday combos are on December 9th and 10th and December16th and 17th at a cost of $85 per person, tax & gratuities included.

What's in store for you are a pair of three-hour dining experiences featuring the many restaurants around Healdsburg's charming town square.  You'll be able to sample everything from provincial French to rustic Italian to Japanese to pub grub.  There's organic vegan food, California cuisine and plenty of farm-to-table locovores on hand, too.  Naturally, the tasting rooms around the square will also throw their doors open for the event

Since it's the time of year for giving, please notice that a portion of the proceeds benefit Healdsburg Shared Ministries Food Pantry.  For more information and a list of the participating restaurants, go to

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Temecula Valley's Fall Party

Temecula Limo

Hart Winery in its rustic glory


The Temecula Valley Harvest Celebration and Barrel Tasting got underway today.  From the fun everyone seemed to be having, it would be a great way to liven up your Sunday, too.  Sunday November 8th is the second and final installment of the wandering festival that celebrates the harvest in Temecula's wine country.

Today we got a bit of a late start and lingered some at each location.  After all, why rush?  Still we managed to squeeze in visits to four wineries along Rancho California Road:  Callaway, Hart, Thornton and South Coast.

The tickets were waiting for us at Callaway, so we began there.  They had turned their barrel room into a buffet area, serving the little pork belly samples and caper relish.  That was a delicious start.  At the wine table, they were pouring Chardonnay, Merlot and a barrel sample of a Cabernet Sauvignon.  I tried the 100% Merlot and was quite impressed with its dark complexity and smoky character.  The Cab had only been in the barrel 12 months and had another 6 to 12 months to go, so it was a bit young.  Even with the "Cabernet Nouveau" taste, it was nice and fruity and hopefully will be wonderful when finished in 2010.

Next was a short backtrack to Hart.  This little, rustic winery is one of the oldest in the Temecula Valley.  And one of the best, I think.  Through the facility and out to a back area, the Hart folks were serving Italian sausages with a spicy marinara sauce.  To go along with that little plate, some really wonderful Cal-Italia wines.  The Sangiovese and the Barbera were both excellent and paired quite well with the food.  I wandered in to the tasting room hoping to find their wonderful Rhone-style blend, "Three."  Alas, the blend has changed and no longer features Mourvedre.  A loss for me, but a gain for Tempranillo fans, as the latest version contains that grape along with Grenache and Syrah.

Back on the road.  At this point, it may be wise to point out that on this Temecula Valley winery tour - or any winery-to-winery, day-long excursion - one should either have a designated driver or do a lot of spitting.  If you can't stand to spit out good wine, the DD is a requirement.  A lot of people utilize limousine services to haul them and their parties around.  There were a lot of long, black stretch limos on the roads.  Whatever your solution, figure it out before you start.

Thornton rolls out the welcome mat

Thornton was our next stop.  In the tasting room, we were greeted with a rather sweet sparkling wine which my wife fell in love with and a NV Brut that had a fantastic nose.  They were serving a delicious apple bread pudding and a pulled pork and risotto dish.   Their Viognier was full of aroma and flavor and a barrel sample of Syrah showed it was nearly ready for bottling.  We had planned on a late lunch at their Cafe Champagne restaurant, but things were a little busy there and we opted to keep moving and shoot for lunch in Old Town Temecula.
South Coast Winery

First though, our final winery stop at South Coast.  This resort/spa/winery is huge and probably the biggest showcase in the Temecula Valley.  In 2008 they became the first Southern California Winery ever to win the coveted Golden Bear Award at the California State Fair as "Best Winery in California."  This summer, they won it again.  As I wandered around the beautiful grounds, I couldn't help but notice the staff was set up for a wedding! As if they didn't have enough going on.  The crowds certainly gathered around their serving table, with the smoke from an open grill full of rubbed beef providing the bait.  A fairly delicious slice of meat was served with a Tempranillo sauce.  Over at the pouring station, there was ample space to enjoy a sampling of a nice Grenache Rose and and an even nicer Tempranillo.

On your travels through the Temecula Valley you can expect to encounter wines that feature aromas and flavors of sage, eucalyptus and chapparal.  It's said they have especially flavorful Chardonnays and Merlots.  I can't speak for the Cards, but the Merlots I have tasted are full of depth and very tasty.  The Dolcetto and Malbec wines come highly recommended and I found some lush Tempranillos and Sangioveses.

You won't find too many of these wines in stores, so you will want to plan on picking up a bottle - or twelve - of your favorites from the wineries.

The Celebration is a great excuse - if you need one - to get over to Temecula and enjoy a beautiful day and a burgeoning wine area that is primed to break out and claim its share of attention.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Tasting Event: Stars of Cabernet

Here are my tasting notes from the Stars of Cabernet event held on November 5, 2009.

This tasting event was almost NBC - Nothin' But Cab. I did see a stray bottle of Chardonnay, but I'm not telling who brought that interloper into the house. This was a showing of big, bad, brawny red wines which wear their tannins on their sleeves, and wear them quite well, too.

There were 39 tables in the Peninsula Hotel's Verandah Room in Beverly Hills, each one sporting from one to four different wines the representatives were pouring. I did not have the time to visit with each winery, as I would have liked, but I was quite happy to talk with the representatives of the ones with which I could get some face time. Here are the wines I was able to sample, and my thoughts on each:

Fisher Vineyards - Great-grandpa Fisher was the guy who started the company which made GM's car bodies for generations. "Body by Fisher" was him. The carriage body business is remembered in the "Coach Insignia" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa 2005. Blended with Cabernet Franc and Merlot, the wine is rich in nose and palate. It's a complex taste that embodies dark berries, chocolate and a spiciness underlying. Great finish. Fisher's Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma, Mountain Vineyard 2005 is much fruitier, with a fresh berry taste. As the name implies, the vineyard is on a steep hillside. The grapes seem to love the fact that it faces west and gets a lot of sun. The Wedding Vineyard 2005 is all Cab. This vineyard features four different soil types. The wine features Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc as a blend. Flavor is abundant in this one, from olives to graphite to a sweet element that tries to hide but can't.

Santa Barbara County's Longoria was pouring only one, "Evidence," their Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec. A medium mouthfeel is joined by a brilliant flavor package of fresh, spicy berries. It didn't hit me like a full-blown Cab because the Cab Franc is an equal player in the mix while the Merlot comes in not far behind. The Malbec is a 4% partner. The lighter touch gives it a lot of versatility with pairing. The finish is fantastic. I had to stop myself from continuing to the next table while it subsided.

Miner Family Vineyards were represented well enough by their great "The Oracle." The 2005 vintage is branded "Napa Valley Red" due to the blend consisting of 56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Cab Franc, 14% Merlot, 7% Malbec and 6% Petit Verdot. Blackberries are up front, but there's a host of other flavors - coffee, spices, some black cherry and a cedar quality that is irresistable.

Peju brought only one wine, and it was a brand new one - I'm sure that Lisa Peju told me it hasn't been released yet. A blend with Merlot and Petit Verdot, the wine is quite smooth and really shows its 18 months in French and American oak. Spices come through on the nose and palate and the taste is plummy with a hint of hot chocolate.

Pine Ridge Vineyards was pouring three Cabs. Their Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 blends Petit Verdot and Merlot. The nose is full of cherry, smoke and chocolate while the palate shows an almost spicy cassis side. It's a very distinctive and seductive wine. I'd like to have some for the holidays.

The guys from Poem Cellars were eager to show off their two Cabs, "Marriage" from 2006 and "Tastevin" from 2005. Both seemed influenced by their 22 months in French oak more than most wines on display here. Not that it's a bad thing, mind you. They both displayed a dark earthiness I found very appealing. "Tastevin" had a particularly expressive nose.

Silverado Vineyards brought a trio with them. The Napa 2005 Cab is 87% Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc. It had a dark side - black cherries, blackberries, earth - that hit me in the right spot. The "SOLO" Stags Leap District 2005 is all Cabernet Sauvignon and very dark itself, with a layer of anise to go with the cassis and chocolate. Their Limited Reserve 2005 brought out the big tannins. Grab a steak and have at it. The Cabernet Sauvignon is joined by equal small parts Merlot, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot.

Star Lane Vineyard is in that little place in Happy Canyon where a hot-weather grape like Cabernet Sauvignon can thrive while it's all Chardonnay and Pinot Noir around it. The 2005 "Astral" has a dark and earthy smell to it, and the taste follows that lead, with a flavor I can only think of as tobacco leaf that really jumps out at me. It's a creamy wine that's silky smooth on the toungue.

Trefethen Family Vineyards' Estate Cab 2005 smells of cherry cola and tastes of a chocolatey jam. What really knocked my socks off was their HaLo 2004. With bay leaf on the nose and clove and nutmeg in the flavor profile, this wine had me thinking of Christmas even though I knew it was about 80 degrees right outside the door. Well, in Beverly Hills it probably will be 80 degrees on Christmas Day, but you know what I mean. This is a great choice for Christmas dinner - I think it would pair fabulously with turkey - but at $175 a bottle, this may be better as one of the gifts under the tree.

T-Vine Cellars showed one that I just had to taste before leaving. Their Napa Red "T" Blend 2006 is 85% Cab, 15% Primitivo. I'm a sucker for anything utilizing an Italian-style varietal. This one is rich with the flavor of Italian wine and could be a new favorite of mine.

This event was put on by, who sponsor a series of luxury tastings of this nature. In fact, you may want to know about their next one, the 7th annual Stars of Santa Barbara on January 27th, 2010 at the Peninsula Beverly Hills.

Disclaimer: I was admitted to the tasting at no charge as a member of the media.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Winemaker dinner series at Paso Robles Inn starts with Ancient PeaksWinery


Wine lovers lucky enough to be in the Paso Robles area should make note of a new series of winemaker dinners coming to the Paso Robles Inn.  The series kicks off Thursday November 19, 2009.  Seating starts at 6:00 p.m. and dinner begins a half hour later.  It costs $50 per person, all inclusive.  You do need to make reservations, and seating is limited.  Call the Paso Robles Inn at 805.238.2660.  The Inn is located in downtown Paso, 1103 Spring Street.

This autumnal special will feature a four-course dinner paired with wines from Ancient Peaks Winery.

Ancient Peaks co-owner Karl Wittstrom will introduce each wine with each course, and will also share stories and thoughts about the recent 2009 harvest.  Ancient Peaks is a family-owned winery whose wines hail from the estate Margarita Vineyard, the southernmost vineyard in the Paso Robles appellation near Santa Margarita.  It is the only vineyard in the vicinity, nestled into the rugged Santa Lucia Mountain range just 14 miles from the Pacific Ocean.

The menu is prepared by Executive Chef Kelly Wangard and Sous Chef Karrie Hills.  The card will include:

*Grilled autumn vegetable terrine paired with the Ancient Peaks new release 2007 Syrah
*Roasted parsnip soup with pumpkin seed oil and parsley chip paired with the 2006 Oyster Ridge red blend
*Merlot-braised short ribs with orzo, butternut squash and cranberry orange gremolata paired with the 2006 Merlot
*White chocolate cherry bread pudding paired with the new release 2007 Zinfandel.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Buellton Comes Alive

Everyone who has ever driven along California's State Route 101, north of Santa Barbara and up into the Central Coast wine country, knows Buellton.  You most assuredly have stopped there, even if you didn't know where you were at the time.  "Pea Soup Andersen's" is a roadside marker better than any you'll find on a map.  But to most people who pass through the junction of Highways 101 and 246, that's about all there is.  Even to wine lovers, it was mainly a place get off the freeway on the way to Solvang or the Santa Rita Hills.

Recently I thought that on our next trip to that area my wife and I would pop in and see what was going on at a place called Terravant.  This winemaking facility has been down at the end of a cul-de-sac called "Industrial Way" for several years.  The street is actually a little more picturesque than the name might lead one to believe, but nobody's driving down there expecting to find wine heaven.  What's there is pretty close to that, though.

All the way down that unfortunately-named thoroughfare is Terravant's tasting room, Avant Tapas and Wine.  The building is plainspoken and presentable, but it seems a little large for a tasting room.  That's because it's a lot more than that.

TerravantLogoThere's an interesting piece of art on the face of it, an almost-abstract wire representation of a wine bottle.  Inside is a small lower lobby with stairs and elevator.  Once on the second floor, I completely forgot I was a stone's throw from Andersen's Pea Soup.

Laid out before my eyes was a rather large space of mahogany and burgundy, spanking new and decorated in as beautiful a version of wine country moderne as I had ever seen.  The bright windows along the left wall looked out to the Santa Rita Hills.  The interior windows down at the far right looked into the vast wine production area, a huge tank room.  I walked immediately to the window that overlooked the tanks and saw, a hundred-fifty feet away, a man with a baby riding in a seat that he carried on his back.  The man held a wine glass up to a spigot, drew some wine from the tank, swirled and sampled it.  After he evaluated it, he held it up where the child could reach it and allowed the tot to dip a few tiny fingers into it.  It was another generation being introduced into the world of winemaking.


I later learned from Nick Morello that it's not unusual to find local winemakers roaming the facility.  In fact, the tasting room has become something of a hangout for the 32 vintners who have wine in the works at Terravant.  "They come in to socialize with each other, or to do some work on the laptop while gazing out at the Santa Rita Hills," Nick said.  "It's also quite common for vintners to come in and pour their wines for patrons while talking about their winemaking philosophies."

All these were wonderful discoveries, but wait - there's more.  Avant has a kitchen that turns out some really tasty tapas, too.  The food is so good that many winemakers do food and wine pairing events here.  For more on the culinary aspect, I refer you to my wife Denise's Middle Crescent Kitchen.


By the way, Avant's tasting facility is a wall-long automatic wine dispenser which can handle around three dozen different wines.  You access the wines - by pour, half-glass or glass - with a plastic card which records all your purchases.  You pay for them when you are ready to leave.  Naturally, all the wines featured in the dispenser are wines that are produced by the vintners who utilize Terravant's facility.  All the wines are available by the bottle, too.  This is good news, because many of them are rather hard to find.  For serious tasters, there didn't seem to be a spit bucket, although I'm sure one can be scrounged up when needed.  The tasting bar is huge, so having some elbow room shouldn't be a problem even when it's crowded.

I don't remember when I've been so surprised to find something unexpectedly.  Avant Tapas and Wine goes beyond being simply another wine country tasting room.  This is an immediate strong link in the Santa Rita Hills wine community.  Not only that, but it turns Buellton into a genuine destination.  People go to Pea Soup Andersen's because they are in Buellton.  People will come to Buellton specifically to go to Avant.


Here are the wines I sampled at Avant:

Alere Vinyard RVG 2006 Santa Barbara County - This Rhone-style blend of 55% Roussanne, 30% Viognier and 15% Grenache Blanc is full of minerals with a light fruitiness that probably goes well with nearly everything they serve.  I know it goes with the shrimp.

Daniel Gehrs Gewurztraminer 2008 - Monterey County grapes form a floral and sweet wine that is extremely fuity and quite enjoyable.

Hitching Post Generation Red 2006 -Bordeaux, Rhone and Northern Italy meet and become friends in this blend:  36% Cabernet Franc, 33% Merlot, 23% Syrah and 8% Refosco.  It's bursting with cherries on the nose and palate.

Summerland Syrah Bien Nacido 2007 - Muscular, but easy to get along with.  Great finish.

Westerly Merlot Santa Ynez 2006 - Lots of minerals come through here for a very earthy taste.  Spicy with a good finish.

Avant has an always-changing tasting menu which features wine and tapas.  During our visit the menu offered five wines to be paired with tastes of tapas:

Daniel Gehrs Chenin Blanc 2008 - Try this with the grilled shrimp

Alma Rosa Chardonnay, Santa Barbara County 2008 - Taste this with the prosciutto

Hitching Post Pinot Noir Cargasacchi 2006 - Match it with the duck confit

Ovene Cabernet Sauvignon, San Antonio Valley 2006 - Manchego, anyone?

Sort This Out Cellars, Vino Nostra, Secret Blend 2006 - Give this a go with the pizza