Friday, August 30, 2013

Cimarone 3CV Cilla's Blend 2010

An interesting red blend is a favorite type of wine for me, especially if I can name the grapes without looking.  I don't think I could have named all five grapes in Cimarone's 2010 Cilla's Blend without help, but I did enjoy waving at them as I recognized them.

This estate grown wine is made from grapes sourced in Cimarone's Three Creek Vineyard in the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVA.  The blend is 56% Syrah, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Cabernet Franc, 6% Petit Verdot and 6% Malbec.  There is more Cabernet Sauvignon and less Syrah and Cabernet Franc in the '10 than in the '09.  Fermented in barriques, then aged 10 months in new and neutral French oak, this red blend carries its wood well.

Doug Margerum, the winemaker of this vintage, exited the role of Cimarone's cellar man last year and Andrew Murray stepped in fill his shoes.  Cimarone said on Twitter, "From 2011 forward, it's an Andrew wine."

Cimarone's owner Roger Higgins showed his sentimental side when he named the blend after his wife, Priscilla.  He calls it “a wine of beauty and elegance - just like Cilla.”  Some guys really know how to make it tough for the rest of us.

The wine sold for $20 per bottle, but it's listed as sold out on the website.  The folks at Cimarone were kind enough to send me a sample to write about.

The '10 Cilla's Blend shows a fairly dark ruby color and whiffs a tad heavy on the alcohol until the 14.5% abv settles down.  Blueberry and blackberry aromas hit hard and fast, leaving room for just a hint of black pepper and anise.  Notes of cassis creep in after the glass has been sitting for awhile.  The flavors are similarly fruit-laden, with a breath of pencil shavings and licorice.  Taste it with feta cheese or, of course, steaks.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Two Faces Of Syrah: Cimarone 3CV Syrah 2010

Some people are confused by Syrah, The Two-Sided Grape.  The difference between warm-climate and cool-climate Syrah can be as marked as the difference between sweet and dry Riesling, which is another grape with a bit of an identity crisis.

Syrahs from cooler climates are typically more restrained, less ripe, lower in alcohol and higher in acidity than their cousins from the warmer vineyards.  A Syrah from a cool-climate vineyard might taste lean and peppery, while one from a warmer vineyard could be lush and smoky, showcasing extremely ripe fruit.

Is it this dichotomy that created confusion in the consumer’s mind and kept Syrah from becoming the hugely popular grape many wine experts felt it was supposed to become?  Some winemakers joke that it's easier to get rid of a social disease than a case of Syrah.  Well, I can speak to the Syrah issue - it wouldn't last too long at all around my place, and I say that without any confusion at all.

Rieslings often have a “sweetness meter” on the label somewhere, to show the consumer where the wine falls on the scale of sweet-to-dry.  Why not put something on a Syrah label to show from which type of climate the grapes hail?

Or course, there will always be exceptions to the rules.  Cimarone’s Three Creek Vineyard in the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVA brought that point home.  A sample was provided to me.

Located in the warm eastern end of Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley, Three Creek Vineyard’s Syrah grapes make the 3CV Syrah 2010 act like it’s trying to play both ends against the middle.  It certainly does not lack ripeness, but there is a lot more going on than a simple bomb of fruit can offer.

Syrah was once the majority holder of space in Three Creek Vineyard, but its share decreased when it was discovered what a good place Happy Canyon is for the grape varieties of Bordeaux.

3CV Syrah is a dark ruby color with some purple around the edge.  Lifting it to my nose, the aromas take me aback.  Expecting a ripe and lush warm-climate Syrah, I am greeted by the scent of berries trodden into the floor of a pine forest.  Black pepper and a funky herbal note are right up front in both the bouquet and the palate.  A memory of black cherry cough drops lingers on the finish.

Its alcohol content is a lofty 14.5%, but its acidity sparkles and the tannins are soft.  So, what would one put on the label?  It’s from a warm-climate vineyard, but it shows the complexity of a cool-climate wine.  It may be a crazy, mixed up kid, but at $16 the 3CV Syrah 2010 is hard to beat for value.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Monday, August 26, 2013

Sequoia Grove Napa Valley Chardonnay 2011

Sequoia Grove Winery sits on 22 acres of prime Napa Valley real estate, on what's known geologically as the Rutherford Bench.  Mineral-rich soil, warm sunshine and morning fog combine to make what most folks think of as ideal growing conditions for wine grapes.

President and Director of Winemaking Michael Trujillo has been with Sequoia Grove since its inception in the early 1980s.  Winemaker Molly Hill uses fruit sourced mainly from Sequoia Grove's original estate vineyard and their more recently purchased Tonella Estate Vineyard in Rutherford.  They also acquire grapes from other Napa Valley growers.

The Sequoia Grove Napa Valley Chardonnay 2011 is produced and bottled in Rutherford, under the sequoias on the family-owned property.  From the Sequoia Grove website, "These Chardonnay grapes come mostly from Dijon and Wente clones grown in the renowned Carneros District in Napa Valley.  We buy fruit from the Beckstoffer Vineyard, the Haire Vineyard, the Ghisletta Vineyard, and Kate’s Vineyard in Oak Knoll."

The wine sees no malolactic fermentation, so the malic acid remains in control.  It is more lean than creamy.  Still a mouthful, though, it carries a ripe 14.2% abv number.  The wine is stirred on the spent Burgundy yeast cells for eight months and the finished product sells for $28.  A sample was provided to me by Jarvis Communications.

This Chardonnay has a nice, golden hue in the glass and displays a bouquet of pineapples, apples, apricots and lovely spices.  A hint of floral notes really sets off the fruit.  The palate is marked by flavors of sweet, red apples, lemons, peaches, papaya, and a nice touch of oak.  Butter and vanilla notes testify to the barrel aging, and a very lively acidity serves as lip-smacking refreshment.  Pair this wine with rich or creamy dishes and it won't disappoint.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Friday, August 23, 2013

Wines Of El Dorado

Less than an hour northeast of Sacramento - close to Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Foothills - Northern California's El Dorado AVA has vineyards at a high elevation, microclimates and granitic soils to define their terroir.  The region's roots go back to California's Gold Rush era in the mid-19th century, but as gold fever waned, so did El Dorado’s wine trade.  What phylloxera didn’t kill, Prohibition did.  It would be 1972 before the rebirth of the area started and another decade before El Dorado would be given official status as an AVA, an American Viticultural Area..

There are now over 60 wineries in El Dorado producing wines made mainly from Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Rhône grape varieties.  Vineyards in El Dorado benefit from the cooling effect of the ocean breezes that are channeled up the Carquinez Strait.  These breezes, along with the altitude, help produce the diurnal swing that brings the warm temperatures of the afternoon down by as much as 50 degrees.

I received samples of a half dozen El Dorado wines for the purpose of this article, and all six were produced in the eastern portion of El Dorado, where the elevation is at its highest.  The western border of the AVA sits 1,200 above sea level, while the eastern boundary is around 3,500 feet high.

Mount Aukum Winery

The top line on the Mount Aukum Winery website reads, "Elevation Matters."  At 2,615 feet above California's Central Valley, they say their Zinfandel vines grow "between outcroppings of crumbling granite in a perfect world for wine grapes - a little red dirt here, a rocky drainage there - what the experts call "Holland Series", thirty-six inches deep."  Like other wineries in the Fair Play sub-region, they rely on ground water to make their grapes grow.  Michael Prod'hon turns that fruit into wine.

Mount Aukum’s 2009 El Dorado Zinfandel has a brawny 15.7% abv number, reflecting the ripeness of the grapes.  They made 542 cases and the wine retails for $26.

This medium-dark Zin carries a nose worth noting.  It's huge - plummy and laden with black cherry.  All sorts of spice aromas leap out, from clove to vanilla to allspice to sage.  A gorgeous caramel note comes out just as I drop to one knee.  This is one of those wines I could just sit and smell all evening.  The palate is just as explosive, bursting with big, ripe cherries and plums, toothy tannins and ripping acidity.  Brawny is an understatement.

There is an elegance to the wine, but that white glove goes hand in hand with one made from rough leather.  The refined essence of the Zin is carried in a rustic straw basket.  It’s a great way to experience California’s heritage grape.

Jodar Vineyards

Specializing in Bordeaux and Italian grape varieties, Jodar Vineyards also produces a Zinfandel from among the pines of the Sierra Foothills, in the sub-region of Apple Hill.  Vaughn and Joni Jodar's steep, terraced vineyard sits at an altitude of 2,400 feet, overlooking the American River canyon.

The Jodar 2009 Zinfandel is aged for 24 months, hits an alcohol number of 14.7% and sells for $24 per stylish bottle.  That 14.7% may seem high by some standards, but after sampling the Mount Aukum Zin, it comes off as positively tame.

It has slightly less perfumed aromas than the Mount Aukum, but still brings forth a potent bouquet.  Oak spice in the form of vanilla and cinnamon present a beautiful cover for the brambly cherry notes.  The palate shows a dusty, sagebrush essence and firm tannins.  The fruit flavors last a long time and turn a little towards raspberry on the finish.  This Zinfandel's rustic side is up front, so it really feels like the frontier.

Miraflores Winery

Victor and Cheryl Alvarez own the 254-acre spread, of which 40 acres are planted to grapes.  The hillside vineyards lie at elevations from 2,500 to 3,000 feet in the Pleasant Valley sub-region of the El Dorado AVA.  Winemaker Marco Capelli makes wine from these vineyards, as well as from his own.

The Miraflores 2010 Méthode Ancienne Syrah retails for $25 and brings in an alcohol content of only 13.5% - extremely low for this AVA.  The ancient method on the label refers to the foot stomping the grapes receive to free their juices.  Shades of "I Love Lucy" come to mind.

The wine colors up as a deep ruby in the glass and shows a nose of blackberry, blueberry, cherry and vanilla spice.  The palate comes forth with dark fruit - blackberry and black plum in the forefront.  Really fine tannins and a brilliant acidity make for a wonderful mouthfeel, and the flavors head toward the tart side on the finish.

Madroña Vineyards

Located in the Apple Hill sub-region, winemaker Paul Bush works the Madroña Vineyard the way his family has done since 1973.  That's virtually the stone age for the El Dorado AVA.  His father - who started the whole thing - and his brother, and all the wives, are involved with the winery as well.

Two other family vineyards - Enyé and Sumu-Kaw - are in the Pleasant Valley area.  The 3,000 foot elevation of the estate was once the highest altitude for a vineyard in California.  Altogether, 26 grape varieties are planted on the property.

Madroña's 2010 Signature Cabernet Franc has a fairly dark garnet tint in the glass and a nose full of dark fruit and spices.  Black cherry and blackberry aromas turn into the corresponding flavors on the palate.  The nose also sports a good portion of cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice, while the flavor profile features a great slice of El Dorado dirt.  At 14.5% abv, it's not the strongest quaff in El Dorado, but the grip is good, the acidity is first-rate and the tannins are steak-worthy.

Boeger Winery 

The Boeger Winery estate was a vineyard site during California's Gold Rush and eked through Prohibition by producing sacramental wine.  Most of the vines were uprooted in favor of orchards through the years, but some of today's vines date back to the 1800s.  Greg and Sue Boeger are pioneers of the El Dorado AVA’s modern era.  They set up shop in the Apple Hill region in 1972.  The winery's website says Boeger was "one of the state's first producers of a varietal Merlot when it was virtually unheard of in California.  Today he is a pioneer of innovative blends, drawing from over twenty-nine varieties of grapes grown at the estate."

The Boeger Milagro Reserve 2009 is made of 91% Graciano, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Tempranillo.  It's part of Boeger's M series, which tips the hat to old world wine regions.  Graciano and Tempranillo are both big figures in Spanish wine.  The wine clocks in at 14.5% alcohol and it retails for $25.

The Milagro is as black as ink in the glass with dark, earthy aromas and flavors and a brawny tannic structure.  Blackberry and brown sugar dominate the nose, while the palate is a riot of raspberry, blackberry and oak spice.  A peppery vanilla note rings on the finish.  This wine spent 30 months aging in barrels, and it wears that oak effect well.

Lava Cap Winery 

The Jones family - geologists by trade - liked the volcanic soil of this spot in the Apple Hill area so much, they literally put down roots on the early 1980s.   Winemaker Tom Jones went to his Granite Hill vineyard for his Petite Sirah.

Lava Cap’s 2010 Petite Sirah uses 75% Petite Sirah grapes, 19.5% Grenache, 4% Merlot and 1.5% Barbera for the old-world blend done in new world terroir.  The Lava cap Petite Sirah stands at 14.9% abv and is quite dark in the glass, an inky purple hue.  Aromas of blueberry, vanilla spice and a lovely cedar note define the nose, while the palate shows ripe berries and plums, black and white pepper and tobacco.  Fine tannins and a brilliant acidity finish off the experience nicely.  It's a really astounding wine, but be forewarned - it's big, brawny and very masculine.  Pair it with any kind of grilled meat.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Monday, August 19, 2013

Wine Country Pennsylvania - Lakeview Wine Cellars

We have visited Pennsylvania before in the Now And Zin Wine Country series.  At O'Donnell Winery, Norbert O’Donnell makes due in a cold climate quite nicely with grapes taken from slightly off the usual wine grape path.  Awhile back, O'Donnell wrote to suggest I get in touch with Sam Best of Lakeview Wine Cellars in northwestern Pennsylvania.  The pair met while taking some wine classes together and they hit it off famously.

Lakeview Wine Cellars is located in the town of North East, PA, even though the community is actually in the far northwestern corner of the Keystone State.  The name refers to its position within Erie County.

Best tells me that northwestern Pennsylvania is the largest grape growing area east of the Rockies, with some 30,000 acres under vine.  The Lake Erie appellation stretches over three states, from Buffalo, New York to Toledo, Ohio.  Best proudly notes that the Lake Erie Wine Trail is the fastest-growing wine country in the northeastern US.

Best estimates there are anywhere from 150-200 grape growers within 15 miles of his winery.  A lot are growing Concord grapes, while some grow Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay,  Gruner Veltliner and Riesling.  Best says there are three major growers in his area who sell their juice to winemakers.

Becky and Sam Best
The 5,000 cases of wine produced by Lakeview each year are currently produced with juice from these growers, but Best has plans for grapes of his own.  He actually has six acres of Concord, but he is in the process of removing those vines and replanting different varieties like Noiret.  That grape was developed by the wine department at Cornell University, an institution as indispensable to winemakers in the northeastern US as Cal Davis is to California vintners.

"Noiret is similar to Cabernet Sauvignon," says Best, "with the same type of color and tannins but a little higher in acid.  It has a peppery taste and is not as fussy as, say, Pinot Noir."  The one-acre plot could take five years to start producing, and Best is looking forward to planting more varieties, too.

Best says he specializes in dry reds and dry whites, although he sells about the same amount of sweet wine as dry.  His biggest seller at Lakeview Wine Cellars is Red Sky, a blend of Concord and Niagara grapes with a 5% mark on the residual sugar scale.  He uses only neutral Pennsylvania oak for fermentation and aging.  He also makes a wine using Steuben grapes.

Only four of Best’s 13 wines are sweet, clocking in between 3.5% and 5% residual sugar.  He makes a proprietary blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc and a Cab Franc ice wine infused with chocolate.  The grapes for his ice wine don’t come from the freezer.  They are picked frozen right off the vine.

Lakeview's Shipwreck Series of wines tips the captain's hat to the seafarers of Lake Erie.  Best claims there are more shipwrecks on Lake Erie than in the Bermuda Triangle.  He says that's due, in part, to an average depth in the Great Lake of only 58 feet.  It's the climatic effect of that relatively shallow water that keeps things temperate in the fall and spring.

I can’t wait to taste the wines made from Best’s own vineyard, although I’m sure he’s even more anxious.  Until those vines are ready, he will continue to use grapes grown by others - the best he can find - to fulfill his passion for winemaking.  If his Lakeview Wine Cellars customers can wait, so can he.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Friday, August 16, 2013

Finger Lakes Riesling: Red Tail Ridge

Red Tail Ridge Winery is the product of Mike Schnelle and Nancy Irelan, a husband and wife team still awaiting their tenth year on Seneca Lake.  Irelan is the winemaker - she has a background with what she terms "a large corporate California winery" - and Schnelle comes from construction.  He handles the wine growing and any heavy lifting that needs to be done.

They have appeared before in the Now And Zin Wine Country series, and you can see the previous articles on Red Tail Ridge and their cool-climate wines here and here.

The wines of Red Tail Ridge are largely Riesling, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but Irelan and Schelle also like to dabble in some pet projects.  On their website Irelan explains, "We have a small plot of the Italian varietal, Teroldego.  We also have a few rows of Dornfelder—a German red variety."  They will plant more small experimental plots of other obscure varieties to see how they take to the Finger Lakes terroir.

Schnelle and Irelan were kind enough to send a few samples of their Red Tail Ridge estate wines to me for the purpose of this article.

RTR Estate Vinyard Riesling, Finger Lakes 2012

This $16 Riesling is stainless steel fermented and experiences no malolactic fermentation.  852 cases were produced.  Red Tail Ridge makes about 6,000 cases of wine per year.  This entry-level Riesling is priced nicely and isn't going to scare off any novice wine lovers.  It's listed as "vegan-friendly," by the way.

The wine shows a pale tint, with a bouquet of fruit and flowers and an herbal side that caresses the sweetness.  Orange peel shows nicely.  The sweet side is lovely, pears and peaches are in front. Decent acidity makes me think it would pair well with spicy Asian food - but it sips beautifully all by itself.

RTR Vineyard Dry Riesling, Finger Lakes 2012

This effort is much drier than the previous wine.  It also is fermented in stainless steel tanks with no malolactic fermentation, so it's fairly edgy.  The retail sticker is $19.  For grape geeks, clones 90 and 110 are used and 460 cases were produced.  It is bottled under cork and has an alcohol level of only 12%.  The sweetness meter on the back label shows it just one click away from the dry end of the scale.

Very pale, the wine makes bubbles which cling to the side of the glass.  The nose displays a beautiful slate figure, with muted fruit expressed through a layer of minerals.  The palate gives a fruitier taste, but there is still a significant earthiness.  Citrus notes join a fresh acidity, and just a hint of sweetness makes it an easy choice to pair with shellfish and crustaceans.

Good Karma 2012

This is Red Tail Ridge's charity wine.  Ten percent of the profit per bottle is donated to the food bank in the state where you live.  Foodlink, in Rochester, New York, assists in redistributing funds to other food banks across the country.

840 cases were made, from 89% estate grown Riesling and 11% Seneca Lake unoaked Chardonnay.  By the numbers, the steel fermented wine has an alcohol count of only 12%, residual sugar of 1.8% and sells for $14.  I suppose that since it’s a blend that's why there is no “sweetness meter” on the back label, as on their Rieslings.  If there were, it would register somewhere in the middle ground between dry and sweet.

Pale in the glass, the wine offers a slightly floral nose with citrus and a green element present.  It smells very pretty.  On the palate, slight earthiness is joined by a touch of sweetness and flavors of pears, peaches and a hint of spice.  It's very easy to drink, with acidity taking a backseat to flavor.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Dog Day Relief From A Happy Canyon Wine

In the warm, dog days of summer, when you're hot and dog-tired, it's nice to come across a completely refreshing white wine to welcome to your panting tongue.  It doesn't hurt that it has a winery dog on the label - although the dog is in the foreground of a vineyard scene, so it's really not a critter label.  That would have us barking up the wrong vine.

Cimarone 3CV Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2012 is such a beast.  From the warm east end of the Santa Ynez Valley, in the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara County AVA, it spells relief in capital letters.  Three Creek Vineyard yields the grapes while winemaker Andrew Murray brings them home.

The Cimarone website reveals how the grapes were harvested.  "We picked at night and over a period of several weeks to eke out subtle nuances and diversity in ripeness profiles.  The riper fruit yields more tropical flavors, whilst the less ripe fruit contributes more acid with zingy citrus notes."  I love to see the use of "whilst" outside of Great Britain every now and then.

The wine is fermented in stainless steel for the most part - four percent is fermented and aged in oak.  Whole-cluster pressing of the grapes maximizes the herbal notes and the absence of malolactic fermentation maintains the crisp freshness.

It's yellow in the glass, a less intense shade of the crayon we used for coloring freshly mown grass as kids, and it smells like sweet respite is on the way.  A slight grassiness steps aside and makes way for aromas of lemons and limes a-plenty.  On the tongue, a brisk freshness bursts forth immediately, with flavors of citrus and cantaloupe.  The finish hits the mark with a zest of lemon.  Chill it, pour it, and take a load off your dogs.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Monday, August 12, 2013

Birthday Wine

Image by Lolita
Denise and I don’t really count our birthdays, but we do celebrate them for the entire month.  She gets the better of the Birthday Month concept, though, with a date that falls near the end of the month.  Mine, on the first, tends to be forgotten in the swirling miasma that is life in L.A.  Hers is a constant beacon for us, offering four weeks of fervid hoping that every little event undertaken lives up to the expectation of Birthday Month.  It’s a tough act to follow once, let alone thirty days.  It makes for a lot of fun, though.

The 2013 edition of Denise’s official birthday celebration was held at Della Terra in Los Angeles, a nice little neighborhood Italian place.  Displaced New Yorkers will feel at home here, even more so if you are a Yankee fan.  That’s what they like to watch up on the big screen.  Denise, like everyone else with that name, has roots back east, so she enjoys the atmosphere there.

It was a warm evening, and a good time was had by all, despite the repeated disregard of the “no gifts” portion of the invitation.  Or maybe it was, at least partially, because of that blatant disregard.  At dinner, we enjoyed two wonderful wines brought by friends - a Hitching Post Pinot and a French sparkler.

The Hitching Post Cork Dancer Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County 2010 is made by the restaurant team of Frank Ostini and Gray Hartley.  Winemaking began as a hobby for them in the ‘70s, turned into a sideline for the restaurants in the ‘80s and has since blossomed into a full-fledged venture of its own.  They produce their incredible wines at Terravant, a production facility in Buellton which has a pretty fine tasting bar/restaurant upstairs.

Ostini and Hartley have a stated mission to, “put a slice of Santa Barbara in every glass and a piece of their soul in each bottle.”  That may sound high-minded to some, but only to those who have never had a glass of their wine.  Their handful each of Pinot Noir cuvées and vineyard designates give reason to celebrate whenever their corks are popped.

Cork Dancer 2010 comes from grapes grown in the Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley appellations, mostly from Bien Nacido and Rio Vista vineyards, two of the more storied plots in Santa Barbara County.  The aging occurs in French and Hungarian oak, 35% of which is new.  A bottle sells for around $20.

The wine has a very floral nose and showing dark fruit and spice.  A blast of lovely, tart cherries and plums hits the palate, and there is some very nice acidity to make a food pairing seem like a natural.  A dark, fruit finish really sets off the sip.  This Pinot is more Burgundian than Californian, showing a lot of restraint in the winemaking process.

Domaine du Moulin Brut is a non-vintage sparkler from the Gaillac appellation in southwestern France.  Winemaker Nicolas Hirissou makes this delightful bubbly from Maussac, the most predominant grape of the region.  It is a hard-to-find wine, but not expensive.  Marge found hers from North Berkeley Imports.

They offer some production notes: “Wine is made according to the ‘Gaillac method,’ also called the ‘ancestral method.’  Young wines are bottled before all the residual sugar has been fermented into alcohol; the fermentation continues in the bottle, releasing carbon dioxide.  There is no dosage. “

This brut gives up some fine bubbles and has a bouquet of earthy fruit and a crust of toast.  The flavor profile is quite fruity with a mineral streak a mile wide and melon on the finish.  It’s a fairly complex experience.  The gals thought it had a beer-like quality but I didn't get so much of that.  What struck me was the lovely sweetness, rather unexpected after the dark earthiness of the first sniff.  And with no dosage - the addition of sugar before the final corking - it’s all from the grapes.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Friday, August 9, 2013

White Wines Of Santa Barbara County

It was so nice to be included in the #winechat on July 17th, 2013, the subjects of which were some amazing white wines of Santa Barbara County, wines that are perfect for helping to beat the heat of the warm weather of summer.

For the uninitiated, #winechat is a weekly gathering of wine lovers on Twitter, directed by Protocol Wine Studio.  You don’t need an invitation for this affair, simply search “#winechat” and you are seeing the live stream.  Join in if you like, or just drop in to see what people are tweeting about on Wednesday evenings at 6:00 p.m. PT.

On this particular #winechat, moderator Bill Eyer (@cuvee_corner) was joined by Morgen McLaughlin (@sbcwinelady).  She is the recently installed Executive Director of the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association.  The SBCVA was kind enough to provide me and about ten other wine writers with a battery of six white wines from Santa Barbara County for the purpose of the event.  Further disclosure: I am a huge fan of Santa Barbara County wines and love having such a great and diverse wine region in my backyard.

Santa Barbara County gets a lot of attention for its Syrah and its Pinot Noir, but there are some world class whites there, too.  All four of Santa Barbara County’s AVAs got into the act.  Represented on the #winechat were Chardonnays from the Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley, Sauvignon Blancs, Viognier and Arneis from the Santa Ynez Valley and Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVA.

Santa Barbara County Vintners Association

The SBCVA was established in 1983 and currently has over 100 wineries and more than 20 vineyards as members.  Sporting over 20,000 acres of vineyards and 65+ varieties, Santa Barbara County's wine industry has gone from next-to-nothing to a billion dollar business in less than 35 years.  As you might expect from an organization of wine people, the SBCVA has a big heart, too.  They have helped raise more than $40 million to aid folks around the world.


What makes Santa Barbara County unique among California wine regions are the transverse mountain ranges which make for distinct microclimates.  The ranges run east and west, rather than north and south, so the cool marine influence of the Pacific Ocean is channeled inland across the county.  Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah are the three top varieties in SBC, particularly in the western part of the region closest to the ocean.  In the eastern part of the county, Rhône and Bordeaux varieties do quite well.


Winemaking in Santa Barbara County began in 1782 when Father Junipero Serra brought for planting cuttings of what would come to be known as Mission grapevines from Mexico.  Sacramental wine was the impetus, but Spanish rancheros also grew grapes and made wine for less lofty purposes.

In 1884 Justinian Caire imported vines from France and planted a 150-acre vineyard on Santa Cruz Island, just off Santa Barbara's coast. He made award-winning wines there until 1918.  Prohibition ended his efforts and stymied the entire wine industry in California and the rest of the US.

After Prohibition, a couple of UC Davis viticulture professors tabbed SBC as one of the state's potentially great grape-growing areas.  It was not until the 1970s that grape-growing and winemaking really took off in SBC. Through the '80s, experimentation pinpointed which grapes did their best in which locations.

The Wines

Here is what all the fuss is about, the beautiful and varied white wines of Santa Barbara County.  This selection of six wines shows the diversity of SBC's terroir.

Brewer-Clifton Gnesa Chardonnay 2010

Greg Brewer and Steve Clifton use grapes from the Sta. Rita Hills to make their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Lompoc.  Brewer is also winemaker at Melville and has his own label, diatom.  Clifton owns Palmina Wines.

Brewer and Clifton made 288 cases of this stunning Chardonnay, which retails for $48.  Lee Gnesa (knee-sa) planted his sandy, four-acre plot in 1996.  It has been farmed by Brewer-Clifton's vineyard team since 2009.

This wine's bouquet is a beautiful example of earth and oak playing off the lemony fruit.  It appears as a lovely yellow-gold in the glass and tastes of sweet citrus, cantaloupe, herbs and spices.  The acidity is fantastic and there is a touch of chalky salinity that shows on the palate.  At 14.5% abv, it's a fairly hefty white, but the Gnesa Chardonnay does not mimic the old-line "big California Chardonnay" stereotype.  It's a lean, mean Chardonnay machine.

Summerland Chardonnay Santa Maria Valley 2012 

Part of Summerland's Single Vineyard Collection, these Chardonnay grapes come from the Sierra Madre Vineyard, one of the oldest vineyards in the AVA.  The wine turns in a 14.1% alcohol number and retails for $35.

Summerland Winery sources grapes from up and down the Central Coast AVA and produces the wine in Santa Maria.  The cute little seaside cottage tasting room is in Summerland.  Owner Nebil "Bilo" Zarif and winemaker Etienne Terlinden produce some outstanding boutique wines, some of which are popping up on Los Angeles restaurant wine lists with increasing regularity - usually the Pinor Noir.

Upon first tasting, I thought, "this Chardonnay is for those who like a good deal of oak influence in their wine."  From the golden color, to the rich and spicy nose to the buttery palate, every stave of oak seemed apparent to me.  It turns out the wine didn't really see that much oak, though - fermented and aged six months in French oak barrels, one-third new.  Malolactic fermentation was not completed and the lees were stirred every couple of weeks.

The nose is bursting with pineapple, lemon and tangerine aromas while an undercurrent of vanilla oak spice carries the sideshow along.  The palate boasts tropical fruit and citrus layered with some herbal elements and a bit of oak spice.  Putting a chill on the wine reduces the effect of the oak in both aroma and flavor.  There's also acidity a-plenty, so it is definitely a food wine.

Palmina Arneis 2011

Steve Clifton and his wife Chrystal make wine from Italian grape varieties, and the Arneis grape hails from Piemonte.  Translated variously as "whimsical," "rascally" and "a little crazy," it seems to have been named as a winemaker's grape.  Not to mention that it is sometimes ornery and difficult to grow.  This Arneis is grown in the sandy soil of Honea Vineyard, in the Los Olivos district of the Santa Ynez Valley.  Alcohol registers at 13.5% and this wine retails for $20.

The Palmina website extols some of the virtues of Arneis as: "a delightful aperitif, but also a wine with enough body and personality to hold its own with a wide range of strongly flavored food – prosciutto, pesto, grilled seafood.  Arneis is also a white wine that will continue to evolve with a few years of cellar aging."

It gives a golden straw hue in the glass and smells quite interesting.  Floral?  Yes, but it's more like the flowers and their stalks.  Citrus?  Yes, a nice spray from an orange peel.  There are scents and sensibilities of herbs and spices, too, with a mineral undercurrent.  On the palate, apricots hit me first, with a dash of green tea in tow.  Minerals are even more noticeable here, and a vibrant acidity runs through the sip just like it belongs - which it does.  It finishes with a gorgeous salinity.

Imagine Pearl Paradise Mountain Viognier 2010 

The grapes are from Paradise Road Vineyard - they call it Paradise Mountain - in the eastern end of the Santa Ynez Valley.  At a thousand feet in elevation, the vineyard gets three times the rain of the valley floor.  Winemaker Ross Jay Rankin began producing in the late 1990s at the lovely Lompoc Wine Ghetto.  He now operates in the state-of-the-art Terravant facility in Buellton.

This $24 wine blows a 14.5% abv number  and it experienced 100% malolactic fermentation, imparting a rich creaminess.  It was fermented in steel, then half was aged in new French oak for three months, the other half in steel.

The Imagine Viognier leaves little to the imagination.  Lovely golden in the glass, its sweetly floral nose is laced with the aroma of nectarines.  On the palate are peaches and melons.  The lovely smell and taste of the wine are supported by a delightful acidity that refreshes and makes for great food pairing.  I liked it with kernel corn and peas, buttered and lightly dusted with sea salt.

Baehner Fournier Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2012 

The names belong to Dr. Bob Baehner and Vickie Fournier Baehner.  Their Bordeaux grape varieties grow on 16 acres of hillside vineyards in the east side of the Santa Ynez Valley.  Oaks, chaparral and purple sage dot the countryside.  Their vineyards are named for the natural events they both see unfolding on their estate - Sunshine, Rainbow, Moonglow, Misty and Northstar.

From Happy Canyon's Vogelzang Vineyard, these Sauvignon Blanc grapes thrives in the warm eastern end of the Valley.  They say they try for more of a Loire expression than New Zealand, but I find the reverse is true.  This Sauvignon Blanc experiences two-thirds of its fermentation in steel, then finishes in oak, where it stays for six months aging on the spent yeast cells - the lees.  There is a 13.5% abv number, and a retail price of $20.

Steve Clifton - see him in two other wines here - is the consulting winemaker at Baehner Fournier, but the label lists Nick de Luca as winemaker on this white wine.

The nose gives off a lively grassy aroma, with beautiful notes of tangerine, grapefruit and melon.  On the palate, the grapefruit comes forth in mighty fashion and carries some orange peel along with it.  The acidity is very nice, but it doesn't break out the razor blades.  It's more of a lush experience imparted by the wine's time spent resting on the lees.  The wine is as fresh as can be, with a touch of creaminess that lasts into the finish.

Fontes & Phillips Sauvignon Blanc 2010 

Another husband/wife team, Alan Phillips and Rochelle Fontes-Phillips started this Santa Barbara County small-lot venture in 2008.  Their separate wine paths crossed in the Santa Cruz Mountains - he in the cellar, she in the office.  Their Sauvignon Blanc is whole cluster pressed, steel fermented and aged, with a 13.8% abv number.   They say the wine is made to emulate the Sauvignon Blanc of New Zealand, using grapes grown in the Santa Ynez Valley.  Only 112 cases were made, and it sells for $18.  The only label on the bottle is a pewter tab, hand-made in South America.

This strikes me as a California Sauvignon Blanc rather than one done in the New Zealand or Loire style.  Pale gold in the glass, aromas of peaches, pears and apricots lie under an herbal blanket without a trace of grassiness.  Fantastic acidity is right up front, while the flavors are mineral-driven fruit with a melon-like herbal sense.  Tangerine lingers on the finish, with a bit of the peel.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Wine Country: Hawaii

Hawaiian wine, as you might expect, accounts for a minuscule portion of American wine production.  Several sources cite the Symphony grape as the only grape grown in the tropical paradise, however that is not correct today.  There are some Hawai'i-grown grapes, and wines made from pineapples are quite popular, too - especially with tourists hoping to take a little Hawai'i home with them.

Ulupalakua Ranch is Maui's second largest cattle ranch, sprawling across 20,000 acres of land that begins at the ocean and rises to 6,000 feet above sea level.  It is also home to Tedeschi Vineyards and "Maui's Winery," the Valley Isle's only commercial winery.  Paula Hegele presides over the winery at Ulupalakua Ranch and its line of sparkling, pineapple, grape and dessert wines made of raspberry.  The website gives the history:

"In 1974, in collaboration with Ulupalakua Ranch, the winery began growing grapes, remaining true to the area’s agricultural heritage.  While waiting for the grapes to mature, they decided to develop a sparkling wine made from the plentiful pineapples on Maui.  A scant amount of this wine was produced, but the public response to the wine was so positive that it was decided to pursue the endeavor of making a still pineapple wine.  Three years later, Tedeschi Vineyards released a Maui Blanc pineapple wine from local fruit.  In 1984, after years of labor and development, the first grape product was released: Maui Brut Sparkling."

Tedeschi Vineyards is planted to Syrah, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Malbec and Viognier, 1,800 feet above the blue Pacific in Haleakala’s rich, volcanic soil.  Haleakala is the volcano which forms the eastern part of Maui.  The US Geological Survey considers it in a non-eruptive phase, although it has erupted three times in the last 900 years.  It's the soil that they call "the secret ingredient of successful winemaking in the tropics."  It is that wonderful dirt that help grow grapes in a place with no season of dormancy, when vines typically recharge themselves and get ready for the growing season.  Early Hawai'ians farmed sweet potatoes and taro there.  Later, potatoes, corn and sugar cane were the dominant crops.  Now, grapes flourish.


Ulupalakua Red is a $16 blend of Syrah, Merlot and Malbec.  They call it a "standup red" that works with pupu and all sorts of food, but also on its own.  The wine is extremely dark and shows aromas of dark berries, smoky spices and toasty vanilla.  The oak is quite pronounced (more on that later) and, along with the distinct minerality, upstages the fruit.  A bit of a chill works well with this wine.  It brings out the volcanic terroir and suppresses the oak effect.  Try it with macadamia nuts.

Lokelani is a sparkling rosé of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay which bears the name of Maui's official flower.  It retails for $28.  Produced in the classic Champenoise method, this non-vintage wine carries a 12.5% alcohol content.  It sits pretty and salmon pink in the glass, with a nose that shows a little bit of funk, a little bit of earth and a cruise ship full of  fruit.  Herbal-tinged strawberries and cherries adorn the bouquet and the palate, with a toasty component as well.  Fine bubbles fade to the rim quickly, but leave a slightly frizzante sensation clinging to the glass.  The acidity is razor sharp, and the wine is a complete delight.

Hula O'Maui Pineapple Sparkling Wine is all pineapple, all the time. It's made from the juice of fresh Maui pineapples and it makes no bones about it. Pale straw in color, this bubbly wine smells and tastes just like pineapple juice - and I'm OK with that. The bubbles do a pretty quick disappearing act, however, so pour and toast "Mahalo!" even quicker. This is the wine with which the winery made its name and it's still a popular commodity. Tourists can't get enough of it, but the locals like it, too. It goes nicely with Pan-Asian food, especially dishes with a spicy kick. Hula O'Maui retails for $23.
I did not taste it, but the winery also has Upcountry Gold, which blends Viognier, Muscat and Chardonnay. It's aged in stainless steel and retails for $15.  
The winery has new estate red and white releases coming up. The red will be 100% Syrah and the white will be a Chenin Blanc/Viognier blend. They are also working on a Malbec. Their Hawaiian wines are distributed in 17 US states, Washington, D.C. and four other countries.


I was fortunate enough to chat with several women instrumental in the production and sale of wine in Hawai'i.  On the conference call were Melissa Mosher, Whole Foods Market Kailua Wine Buyer, Dabney Gough, Whole Foods Market Kailua Marketing Supervisor and Tedeschi Vineyards’ President, Paula Hegele.  Hegele did most of the talking for the trio.


Since the weather in Hawaii is great all year, one might assume that it must be great for grapes, too.  Hegele says that's actually a challenge.  "Interesting weather for grapes - the weather is too good.  There is little stress for the vines and no dormancy, so the vines never get a chance to rest.  The vines don't need to work to survive.  The plants grow like crazy, but it's actually hard to get them to grow fruit!  We don't have to wait for harvest - we can prune in June and harvest in January, but we don't.  We prune in February and harvest in August."

"We decided we wanted to have just one crop instead of several per year.  The warmer weather really helps ripen the grapes, get the sugars up.  We don't have the 95 degree days at the end of the growing season like other wine regions.  We also have to take care of the grapes due to the humidity.  Yes, we have moist air, but the slopes of the volcano make for volcanic soil which gives stress to the vines.  We don't retain much water."

Hegele says the growing season is long, but the Maui vineyard is actually a cool-climate growing region.  The winery uses small yields to their advantage, with more concentrated fruit.  "We don't leave a lot of fruit on the vines," she says.


On a small island in the middle of the ocean, vineyard space is at a premium.  "But it's a 20,000-acre ranch," says Hegele, "so we have the space.  We have no vineyard neighbors, just cattle neighbors.  We're such a small operation it would be nice to have some winemaker neighbors."


Hegele says they have been lucky.  "We have our 40th anniversary next year.  Pineapple wine is what got us started, but it was never something we intended to continue with.  It was something to do while the vineyard was being developed.  We make great pineapple wines, though, from 100% Maui pineapples.  It's a product were really proud of and that's really popular.  It gave us recognition initially, and people still love the pineapple wines.  We see anywhere from 400-600 visitors a day, year-round, and the pineapple wines are a big attraction.

Everybody would probably expect a pineapple wine from Hawaii, which turns out to be another challenge.  "It's hard to be taken seriously as a winemaker when you make pineapple wines.  I hope we are doing our job and educating people as to how hard it is to make fruit wines.  It's extremely expensive to grow grapes in Hawaii, so we want people to know we are more than pineapple wine.

"But visitors like to have something with which they can remember their Hawaiian vacation.  Pineapple wines are extremely popular - so much so it's hard to keep up with demand.  It's like having Hawaii in a glass.  The pineapple wines go great with the local cuisine, too.  But we are making a name for ourselves with our grape wines.  It's great that we've been allowed to have a 40 year experiment with the vineyard."


Oak barrels are expensive, and Hegele says oak is an ongoing experiment as well.  "We tried oak barrels and we are not using them at this time.  They simply do not work for us.  Shipping is terribly expensive, so we use stainless steel tanks and add oak influence with staves and chips.  It's very sophisticated.  You get incredible choices and we have oak trials where we determine the amount of oak to be used.  We submerge the oak like a big teabag."

Whole Foods Market

WFM's Gough says "we have an extra incentive to cultivate local wines.  Cut off from mainland as we are, local products are essential.  We feel our Hawaiian Whole Foods stores have an obligation to tend to the needs of our wine lovers."

Wine education is a big part of the wine department at WFM Hawaii stores.  They pour a lot of wine tastings every weekend, and seem genuinely pleased to be able to educate their customers.  Whole Foods' three Hawaiian stores do offer a $2.99 wine, but the Gough says the wine departments try to "work people up the wine world."  

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Monday, August 5, 2013

Vouvray Chenin Blanc Wine

If you are a fan of Chenin Blanc wine, you are no doubt also a fan of Vouvray wine.  Vouvray - the French wine region east of Tours, along the northern shore of the Loire River - is virtually dedicated to one grape, the delightful Chenin Blanc.  Vouvray has been known for its masterful Chenin Blanc wines since the 16th century, when it is thought the grape appeared as an immigrant from the Anjou region.  Its naturally high acidity makes for an incredibly refreshing and food-friendly white wine.  Chenin Blanc from Vouvray is also an age-worthy white, and one which is done in several degrees of sweetness.

On a recent visit to Disneyland, Denise and I went on Daddy’s Favorite Ride - the Napa Rose restaurant in the Grand Californian Hotel, adjacent to Disney California Adventure.  There I ordered the Baron de LaDoucette Marc Brédif Chenin Blanc 2011 of Vouvray to accompany the cheese plate.  This Vouvray is in the dry style and sells for $15 by the glass at Napa Rose.  The wine retails for around $20 per bottle.  Its alcohol content is 13% abv.

The pale, green-gold color is pretty, if not spectacular.  Aromas of grapefruit and flint dominate the sniff.  There are lots of minerals and wet stones in this wine’s bouquet.  The palate shows lovely fruit - pear and citrus - edged with flinty minerals.  A great level of acidity brings the freshness and makes me glad we ordered the cheese plate, too.  The finish is crisp, with a citrus zip.  What’s amazing to me: I get all this while the wine is cold.  Let it warm up a bit and it is thoroughly invigorating.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Saturday, August 3, 2013

SLO Wine Event Seeks Beneficiary

Wine events are fun to attend - in vino festivus - but they usually have a serious side, too.  The serious side of wine realizes there are many good causes that can be helped along with a little cash now and then.  When you take in cash from a wine event - pardon my socialism - why not share the wealth?

San Luis Obispo area non-profit organizations can apply to share the charity money raised at the 23rd annual SLO Wine Country Association’s Rockin’ Harvest Celebration and Auction,  November 1-3, 2013.

The live auction portion of the event features a “fund a need” live auction lot.  All proceeds from this lot go directly to the nonprofit.  The nonprofit is invited to have a spokesperson say a few words to the crowd about their cause prior to the auctioning of the lot.  They also receive recognition in the auction brochure and in all marketing efforts prior to the event.  The charity has the option of placing items in the day’s silent auction event and benefiting from money raised there as well.

Heather Muran is the executive director of  the association, and she says, “SLO Wine Country has been honored to help support various nonprofits through the years.  It’s a fantastic way to raise awareness of local organizations with programs focused on health and human services, education and the arts.”

In years past, the Harvest Celebration has supported such nonprofits as CASA of San Luis Obispo County, Hospice of San Luis Obispo and Cal Poly.

Applications for this year’s event will be accepted through August 23, 2013.  The applicant or applicants will then be chosen as the beneficiary of this year’s “fund a need” program.  Applications may be found at

About the 23rd Rockin’ Harvest Celebration and Auction

Saturday November 2, 2013 - “Grand Tasting and Auction,” noon to 3 p.m. at the Avila Beach Golf Resort.  Attendees enjoy cuisine by some of the finest local chefs paired with wines by the artisan winemakers of SLO Wine Country.  Along with food and wine from more than 60 establishments comes an “over the top” wine and lifestyle auction, hosted by the winemakers.  Those who book rooms in Avila Beach receive $20 off Grand Tasting tickets and may use a special trolley arranged for the weekend.  Info/tickets:

Friday, November 1, 2013 - “Rockin’ Road Trip,” 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.  Guests become “roadies” for an afternoon and enjoy a “backstage” look at three SLO Wine Country wineries.  From vine to wine, attendees learn the art of winemaking.  Luncheon and tasting included.

Friday evening, November 1, 2013 - “Collaborative Winemaker Dinner,” TBA.

Sunday, November 3, 2013 - “SLO Wine on Tour.”  Attendees to Saturday’s Grand Tasting are invited to explore SLO Wine Country all day on Sunday with complimentary tastings.  Tasting rooms will offer food, wine and live entertainment along with wine discounts and special offers.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Friday, August 2, 2013

Lambrusco For A Summer Day

Every summer, I find myself drawn to a favorite restaurant that serves a calamari and scungilli salad to which I am hopelessly addicted.  The freshness of the squid and octopus is perfect starting in the spring and continuing right through the fall, and in Los Angeles that takes care of most of the year.  You don’t have to twist my arm to get me to Fabrocini’s.

I usually like to go with a rosé for that salad, maybe a Sauvignon Blanc.  This time, I saw “Lambrusco” scrawled on the whiteboard (the printed wine list literally never changes) so I opted for what may be the best Italian wine for summer.

La Battagliola uses 100% Lambrusco Grasparossa grapes from the province of Modena in the city of Castelfranco dell'Emilia, the Lambrusco grape's hometown, so to speak.  The wine is fermented and aged four months in stainless steel, so its freshness rivals that of the salad.

Not only is it good, it’s good for you.  The winery’s website offers this tidbit:

“In Lambrusco, cumarins are present "in a pharmacologically significant quantity", explains Dr. Carlo Fernandez, Director of the College of Cardiological Practice of the University of Florence.  Cumarins have anticoagulant properties and are used as an obligatory drug for myocardial infarct and in post-infarct treatment.”  

The last thing I need is trouble with my infarct, so bring on the Lambrusco!

The glass holds a wine of dark color and aromas to match.  Blackberry and raspberry smells are draped in an earthy quality.  Slightly frizzante, the wine isn’t lively enough to form bubbles on top, but there are some clinging to the sides of the glass.  Grapey dark berry and earthy notes are quite tasty, while the dry, bright acidity really feels good.

It’s probably not better than a good, dry rosé for this salad, or even a Sauvignon Blanc.  It did fit well, though, and certainly made the most of the summer feel of the day.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter