Showing posts with label Learn About Wine. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Learn About Wine. Show all posts

Friday, April 11, 2014

Bordeaux Wine: Grand Cercle Des Vins De Bordeaux

The subtitle of this tasting event was "from barrel to bottle," and it described the focus on young Bordeaux wines - actually barrel samples - of the 2013 vintage.  Most of the 2013s won't be released until 2015, so this was an opportunity to try these wines in their formative stages.  Most tables also had samples of previous vintages to pour.

The Grand Cercle des Vins de Bordeaux is founder Alain Raynaud's effort to bring together the wines of the  Left and Right Banks of Bordeaux.  What is meant by Left and Right Banks?  Bordeaux is divided into two main areas by the Gironde Estuary, which is formed by the convergence of the Dordogne (Right Bank) and Garonne (Left Bank.)  The area in between those rivers is called Entre-Deux-Mers, "between two seas."  Left Bank wines are predominately Cabernet Sauvignon-based, while the Right Bank wines are typically centered around the Merlot grape.

This traveling road show shows the high quality of Bordeaux wines in general.  Courtesy of Ian Blackburn's Learn About Wine, I attended the trade and media tasting event this week, held in Santa Monica's Casa del Mar hotel.  It was an awfully hot day in L.A., so the chance to get about 15 degrees cooler at the beach was welcome.  And, since I don't generally drink a lot of Bordeaux, it was a great opportunity for me to expand my palate a bit.  Here are some highlights of my trip around the ballroom.

Château Dalem, AOC Fronsac - The 2013 vintage shows the deep, rich texture of Merlot while the 10% splash of Cabernet Franc gives a spicy tartness to the finish.  The 2010 vintage is an 85/15 split of those grapes, with an alcohol content of 15%, quite high.  Blackberry, anise and plum adorns this wine, which displays terrific tannic structure.

Château Croix Cardinale, AOC Saint-Emilion  Grand Cru - The 2011 Croix Cardinale - 80% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon - is floral and fresh on the nose with big, dark fruit flavors, great acidity and a long finish.  The 2011 Château Fleur Cardinale has 70% Merlot, 15% Cab Franc and 15% Cab Sauvignon.  It has a more savory appeal.

Château Godeau, AOC Saint-Emilion Grand Cru - The nose of the 2013 is very dark, and there is a nice, tart edge to the fruit on the palate.  This wine is nearly all Merlot, with just a five percent dollop of Cabernet Franc.

Château Pindefleurs, AOC Saint-Emilion Grand Cru - Merlot-heavy with ten percent Cabernet Franc, this wine has a surprisingly funky nose, both in the 2013 and 2010 vintages.  The '10 is a little smokier, with wonderful acidity and big tannins.  A standout.

Château Faizeau, AOC Montagne Saint-Emilion - Also leaning heavily on Merlot, the savory tartness of the 2013 is lovely, while the 2010 shows coffee and blackberry.  Delicious.

Château Ramafort, AOC Medoc - This wine is only half Merlot with the other half Cabernet Sauvignon.  Minerals lead the way here in the 2010, with big fruit and tannins to match.  The 2013 is youthful and vibrant with a bit of smoke on the finish.

Château Malescasse, AOC Haut-Medoc - The 2011 has slight smoke and coffee on the nose, with beautiful cherry flavors and acidity.  It's made from 50% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon and a five percent splash each of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.  The 2012 has no Cab Franc and a bit more Petit Verdot, showing an even more savory angle.  The Château has no 2013 vintage, as they elected to sell the grapes instead.

Château Haut-Bacalan, AOC Pessac-Leognan - 55% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon and five percent Petit Verdot, this 2013 is still fresh, beautiful, fruity fun.  The 2010 is silky smooth and well integrated.  The aging is showing extremely well in this standout wine.

Château de Myrat, Sauternes - This white dessert wine is just unbelievable.  The 2013 is fresh and herbal, with a slight grassiness on the nose that belies the sweet, floral palate.  The 2011 vintage is displaying its oak influence, with a smokey nose and a caramel sweetness on the palate. 88% Sémillon, eight percent Sauvignon and four percent Muscadelle.  Another standout.

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Monday, January 28, 2013

STARS Of Santa Barbara Wine Luncheon 2013

The tenth annual STARS of Santa Barbara event brought the Santa Barbara wine country to Beverly Hills for a show I was pleased to cover.  Look for my notes on all the wines I tasted at the event, coming Friday on Now And Zin Wine.

As a prelude to the event - staged by Ian Blackburn's Learn About Wine organization - I had the good fortune of an invitation to a luncheon which featured eight wines produced by wineries represented at the meal.

The Guests

Mr. Blackburn hosted the affair at the Peninsula Hotel.  I was honored to be at the table with some notable wine industry folks and media people.  Karen Steinwachs (Buttonwood Winery,) Clarissa Nagy (Riverbench Winery,) Kenneth Volk (Kenneth Volk Winery) and Tim Snider (Fess Parker Winery) were there from the production end.  Sommeliers Dana Farner (CUT) and Jeffrey Stivers (N-Naka) joined Bottlerock co-owner Fred Hakim from the retail end.  The press side of the table was filled by Corie Brown (,) Eve Bushman (,) Arianna Armstrong (,) Barbara Hansen (,) Tom Leykis (The Tasting Room with Tom Leykis,) Gary Zabransky (Tom’s producer,) Jonathan Cristaldi (,) and myself. Michelle McCue (McCue Communications) was the sole public relations specialist.

The Menu

Simple and delicious:

Mixed baby lettuces with toasted walnut goat cheese and sweet red onion vinaigrette.
Chicken breast with mascarpone polenta, tomatoes, sweet corn and chicken jus.
Beef tenderloin with potato purée, Bloomsdale spinach, asparagus and red wine.
Assorted breads with sweet butter.
Cheese plate.

The Conversation

Dana Farner commented that she oversees the wine at a steakhouse in Beverly Hills, but it was still surprising that she sells 93% red and only 7% white wines.  She related the story of a male customer - at a table of men - who asked her, “Would you still respect is if we started with white wine?"  The consensus answer around our table was, "probably more."

Jeffrey Stivers of N-Naka said his experience is almost the opposite of Farner's - he moves mostly white wines, due to the restaurant’s Japanese cuisine.

Buttonwood winemaker Karen Steinwachs (right, with Kenneth Volk) got a discussion started on politics.  She observed that “the US government does nothing to help people who make alcoholic beverages, while other governments around the world help their winemakers.”  The wine industry folks were in favor of a little help from Washington, if only to make it easier to put a label on a bottle.  She figures, “"If we all drank more wine, we'd have world peace."  Couldn’t like it more.

Steinwachs also commented that “80% of grapes grown in Santa Barbara County go to wineries not located in Santa Barbara County.”  The fruit, she notes, is of such high quality that everyone wants to use it.  And, seemingly, they do.

Kenneth Volk held court for several topics, but he naturally elaborated at length on the grapes he loves.  Volk is a very well-educated man - Cal Poly SLO - and if you ever want to learn something about wine, find him and stand next to him for a while.  He’s a walking class credit in oenology.  He pointed out that someone once said “Ken never met a grape he didn’t like,” then admitted that he likes some grapes better than others.  He did five delightful minutes on what constitutes a heritage variety before someone grabbed the wheel and drove the show onward.

The Wines

The luncheon featured an eight-sample tasting of wines by producers who were present at at the meal.  Prices given are suggested retail.

1)  Buttonwood Zingy 2012 Sauvignon Blanc  $20
Steinwachs told us this one was bottled just two days before.  It’s actually Sauvignon Musquée, and just under 300 cases were made.  "We're probably known more for our peaches than our wine," she said, with an aside about the Buttonwood "Peach Nazi" who oversees their stone fruit.  Seems nobody can get a sample from him.  The wine is very aromatic, with peaches and chewing gum on the nose.  Stivers pinned it down, calling it a Juicy Fruit note, and I'll be darned if he wasn't right.  There’s a green edge to the tropical fruit on the palate. Great acidity made it a natural pairing with the salad.

2)  Epiphany Grenache Blanc 2011  $25
Tim Snider (left) said the Epiphany brand was started as an outlet for (Fess Parker winemaker) Eli Parker's desire to do artisanal wines.  Fermented in 80% steel and 20% old French oak, from gravelly loam, the wine displays an aromatic nose - savory and nutty with a hint of band aid.  Light in the mouth, savory fruit and minerals are joined by a nice acidity.  Bright and fresh.

3)  Kenneth Volk Albariño 2011  $24
Albariño grapes from the Riverbench Vineyard were the first of that variety grown in the Santa Maria Valley, according to Volk.  The nose is very aromatic with fruity flowers, while the palate shows a beautiful acidity and savory, nutty fruit.  Volk is drawn to unconventional grape varieties like a moth to a porch light.  He revealed that he is making a Touriga Nacional, dry, among a boatload of other "forgotten grapes."

4)  Riverbench Chardonnay 2010   $26
Fermented in the barrel, with 11 months of oak aging, This Chardonnay is made from clones 4 and 15, if you're scoring at home.  The nose is full and sweet, and there’s plenty of oak on the palate, too. Flavors of baked apples ride on a nice acidity, but it’s still creamy in the mouth.

5)  Kenneth Volk Pinot Noir 2009  $30.
A blend of grapes from three vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley, this one has a beautiful floral nose with minerals and cola poking forward, and fabulous acidity.  Commenting on the notion of whole-cluster pressing, Volk said, "I don't like stemminess."

6)  Riverbench Pinot Noir Mesa 2010  $48.
This wine is darker on nose and palate than the Volk Pinot.  Winemaker Clarissa Nagy said "I think it's the clay, but it may be the age of the vines."  Lovely black velvet on the palate, great with feta cheese.

7)  Buttonwood Cabernet Franc 2009  $26.
Steinwachs calls Cabernet Franc "The Pinot Noir of the Bordeaux family.  It's the fussiest, most finicky grape to grow, and once it's in the winery, it's even more demanding."  Blackburn cited the old-world style of this Santa Ynez Valley wine,  showing a floral, cherry candy nose and black cherry’s dark side on the palate.  Nice acidity.

8)  Epiphany Revelation 2009  $40
A Rhone blend drawn from Santa Barbara County vineyards, Snider says this is Epiphany’s most popular wine.  The Grenache/Syrah mix spent nearly two years in oak.  The nose has big black cherry fruit with a brambly feel.  In the mouth, fabulous acid and great, big flavors of cherry, black tea and minerals.  With all that at work, it still has a creamy mouthfeel.

Snider talked about the resurgence of Syrah.  When he said "Syrah is growing in the northeast," all the media types went for their notebooks.  Eve Bushman (right) went for the social media.  Snider quickly clarified that it was Fess Parker’s sales of Syrah that are growing in the northeast.  Relief all around.

After the luncheon, we headed into the banquet room to taste more of Santa Barbara’s bounty.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Taste The Great Wine Of Santa Barbara

For those of us who like to attend wine tasting events in Southern California, January can be an action-packed month.  There’s a lot of sniffing, swirling and sipping going on around Los Angeles.  The year can’t get off to a much better start than with the one provided by the STARS of Santa Barbara wine tasting.

The STARS series is staged by Ian Blackburn’s wine education outfit, Learn About Wine.  Blackburn is a wine educator who offers a Nebuchadnezzar full of palate-expanding classes and wine tasting events in Southern California all year.  His events are typically dressy affairs held in elegant surroundings and offering a huge array of top-quality wines for sampling.  He puts a lot into each of his events, so it's likely you'll get a lot out of them.

The 10th Annual STARS of Santa Barbara event is set for Wednesday, January 23, 2013 from 7:00 to 9:30 p.m.  The event is once again slated for the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills.  Tickets start at $59 for general admission, $95 VIP ticket that includes early admission.  Those prices may rise as the event fills up to its capacity of 150 attendees.

If you are familiar with the Santa Barbara County wine scene, you’ll no doubt recognize many of the names on the list of participants:

STARS of Santa Barbara 2013 Participating Wineries:

Alma Rosa
Andrew Murray
Clos Pepe
Flying Goat
Grassini Family
Hillard Bruce
Jaffurs Wine
La Fenetre
Liquid Farm
Refugio Ranch
Reeves Ranch
Sanford Winery
Santa Barbara Winery
Silver Wines
Star Lane Estate
Zaca Mesa

Sunday, January 29, 2012


STARS of Santa Barbara wine tasting glasses

The amazing California wines of Santa Barbara County were showcased at the Peninsula Hotel's Verandah Room in Beverly Hills on January 26, 2012.  What brought wine country to the hills of Beverlee was the STARS of Santa Barbara tasting event, from Los Angeles wine educator Ian Blackburn and his Learn About Wine outfit.

The yearly event always offers a great overview of the Santa Barbara wine scene, and attracts some of the best winemakers in California to pour for the eager masses.

As usual, the event had a great turnout.  At the afternoon trade and media session, I had the opportunity to sample some great wines - some which were simply stunning - and get in a little conversation with the winemakers and other presenters.

Dan Fredman represents Los Alamos producer Martian Vineyard, and he poured their biodynamically-farmed wines while announcing that their Demeter certification will be official this year.  He also sang the praises of new winemaker Mike Roth, a New Jersey native who has been making wine in the Santa Ynez Valley for close to a decade.  Martian Vineyard's2009 Grenache is a standout, showing dusty berries and cherries on the nose and a very earthy minerality on the palate.  At $24, it's well worth the price.

Larry Shaffer, Tercero WinesLarry Shaffer (right) said he made this year's Tercero Wines "atAndrew Murray's place," meaning Murray's winery in Los Olivos.  "Next year? I have no clue.  But I still have six months to figure it out."  From one of his famous flasks, Shaffer poured his 2007 Grenache sourced from the Watch Hill Vineyard in Los Alamos.  The wine was 25% whole cluster pressed, giving a great herbal edge to an already complex wine.  I love the acidity in this one.

Toretti Family Vineyard is a five acre plot which sits on the bluff overlooking the Santa Maria Valley.  Robert Torres talked about his operation dealing with seeing their grape production fall from 15 tons to 11 tons to 8 tons in three successive vintages.  The bright side is the concentrated flavor in the smaller berries, although I couldn't help but get the feeling he'd have been satisfied with more wine to sell.  Toretti's 2009 Inocencio Pinot Noir shows perfume and earth on the sniff, and tastes very dark for such a lightly tinted wine.

At the Westerly Wines table, I was enjoying a conversation with company president Vito Gambini.  He was extolling the capabilities of his winemaker, Kirby Anderson when a gentleman walked up and said to Vito, "Hi! How's Kirby?"  Vito replied, "He's great.  He's my winemaker!"  The gentleman then said, "I know.  He's my winemaker too!"  It goes to show the wine community is a very small town, even in a big county like Santa Barbara.  Westerly's 2009 Chardonnay puts a fascinating smoky edge on the fruit.  I couldn't believe it when I was told it a $19 wine.  Vito also poured a dessert wine called Apres - a sweet Viognier in which the grapes are put on racks to dry naturally before vinifying.  It's sweet, not cloying, and has a great acidity with a full-on peach cobbler flavor.  Westerly Wines was purchased earlier this month and the inventory is now available through TTT Vineyards.  

Joshua Klapper, La Fenetre WineJoshua Klapper (left, Doctor Klapper in the event's program) poured his La Fenêtre and À Côté wines while riffing on them, and his descriptions of them - "Nice, huh?  The way I can condense three years of work into one sentence!"  His 2008 La Fenêtre Syrah comes from the Alisos Vineyard above Los Alamos.  Like all the vineyards from which he draws, it's a cool climate growing area.  Klapper says it's "more black olive than blackberry."   This savory wine has big tannins, all the better to go with a big steak.

Riverbench Vineyard and Winery's new winemaker Clarissa Nagy was at the event, pouring the 2008 Estate Pinot Noirwith a smokey load of minerals.

The Zaca Mesa table was handled by Jessica Simmons.  She was excited to pour their2007 Roussanne - the current release.  The Santa Ynez Valley wine showed nice acidity and a nutty salinity.

Others pointed me in the direction of the Dragonette Cellars table, where Brandon Sparks-Gillis poured their massively floral 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, Santa Ynez Valley.  Grapes from the Vogelzang, Grassini and Refugio Ranch Vineyards give amazing tropical flavors and acidity.

Dan Reeves represented his Reeves Ranch Vineyard well with the 2008 Syrah.  The fruit comes from his estate vineyard in the hills overlooking Los Olivos as well as Black Oak Vineyard in Los Alamos.  It's a dark and meaty joy.

An urban winery in Santa Barbara, Silver Wines is the creation of winemaker Benjamin Silver, former winemaker at Zaca Mesa.  He honed his craft there under the tutelage ofDaniel Gehrs.  Silver's 2007 Four Barrel Especial Syrah from White Hawk Vineyard offers up a sweet and smoky nose with a gigantic display of earth on the palate.

From the east side of the Santa Maria Valley, Byron's 2009 Pinot Blanc shows plenty of that SMV minerality and a nice layer of salinity, not to mention the floral aspect.  WinemakerJonathan Nagy has created a very nice white wine to sit beside his notable Pinot Noirs.

Cambria Estate Winery in the Santa Maria Valley produces some respected Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah under winemaker Denise Shurtleff.  The Cambria 2007 Bench Break Pinot Noir has especially dark and smoky aromas and is dark, but delicate, on the palate.  The small berries from this vintage really pack some punch.

Michael Bonaccorsi was a Master Sommelier, the somm at Spago in Beverly Hills and a winemaker until his untimely death in 2004.  The 2008 Bonaccorsi  Pinot Noir uses fruit from the Fiddlestix, Cargasacchi and Melville vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills.  Smoke and cherry on the nose make way for a palate featuring great minerality and a pleasingly tart edge on the finish.

Learn About Wine signageAt the D'Alfonso-Curran table, I had a taste of Kris Curran's2007 Curren Tempranillo.  A campfire nose meets a cherry and raspberry palate.

Fontes & Phillips Wines were represented by the company namesakes, Rochelle and Alan, respectively.  Their rosé, the2009 Panky, is made from Grenache, Cinsault and Syrah from the Santa Ynez Valley's Camp 4 Vineyard.  I sipped and listened to other tasters comment on Panky's resemblence to a rosé from Tavel.   

Brophy Clark Cellars has a winner with their 2009 GSM Santa Ynez Valley.  Bright cherry flavor and a wonderful acidity arise from the Estelle Vineyard Grenache, Camp 4 Vineyard Syrah and Mourvèdre from the 100-year-old vines of the Del Barbra Vineyard.

Sanguis makes wine in a converted warehouse in downtown Santa Barbara.  I was not familiar with them, but they're on my radar now after tasting their 2008 Endangered Species Proprietary Red Wine.  One of the more eye-opening efforts I tasted, the earthy, smoke-filled nose leads to some amazing minerality and eucalyptus on the palate.  It's heavy on the Syrah with splashes of Roussanne and Viognier, and spent 32 months in oak.  Sanguis is Latin for "blood," and the pronunciation is "sahn' gwiss."  

Friday, December 30, 2011


wine tasting glasses

If you attend wine tasting events in Southern California, you are no doubt acquainted with Ian Blackburn's Learn About Wine offerings.  If you are not, you should be.  Blackburn stages hundreds of events each year, from small to large, at which you can broaden your palate and, as the name implies, learn about wine.

The STARS series of events are some of the large scale tastings hosted by Blackburn.  The STARS of Santa Barbara event makes a lot of folks look forward to January.  

The 2012 edition of the STARS of Santa Barbara event will be staged at the Peninsula Hotel, 9882 S. Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills.  The January 26th date features a trade tasting session from 2:00 - 5:00 p.m. and the grand public event from 7:00 - 9:30 p.m.

Some of the Santa Barbara County wineries and vineyards participating in the 2012 event include Alma Rosa, Bien Nacido, Bonaccorsi, Buttonwood, Brewer-Clifton, Brophy Clark, Byron, Cambria, Coquelicot, D'Alfonso-Curran, Fontes & Phillips, Foxen, Gioia, La Fenetre, Martian Ranch, Palmina, Reeves Ranch, Riverbench, Tercero, Thorne, William James and Zaca Mesa.

If you want to learn more about Santa Barbara County wines, or just revel in what you already know about them, the STARS of Santa Barbara event is an event you should have on your tasting calendar.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Stars of Cabernet

The Stars of Cabernet tasting event had me expecting lots of ripe-to-bursting fruit and a pencil factory's worth of graphite.  I was surprised, but not disappointed.

The event was held November 16, 2011 at the Peninsula Hotelin Beverly Hills, staged by Ian Blackburn's Learn About Wine.  Instead of the usual Napa Valley supects - not that that's a bad thing - the room was populated by mostly small producers and a number of family-operated vineyards.

I wasn't the only one struck by how many "lean and mean" wines were poured.  Instead of the usual aromas and flavors that normally dominate a Cabernet Sauvignon event, there were quite a few wines showing a green, herbal quality which I found most attractive.  Old-world styles seem to pop up regularly.  Big, ripe fruit was certainly represented, too, and the tannins were uniformly firm.  I found myself remarking on the minerality and acidity at a number of tables.

Many of the wines were of the 2008 vintage, which was affected by a scarcity of rain and lots of late frost in Napa Valley, resulting in lower yields and smaller berries.  The quality was very high, though, and it showed in many of the wines poured at this event.

The quality of the wines was so uniformly high, it would be a disservice to leave out any that I tasted simply to save space.  I have plenty of space, so here's what I tasted:

This Napa producer poured their rich and elegant Estate Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, the old-world Right Bank and Eloge, a Cabernet Franc blend.

Lede's wines from the Stags Leap District have garnered high praise.  His Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District 2008 - 75% Cabernet Sauvignon blended with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec - has a beautiful, dark feel and the Poetry 2008 - same varieties with 78% Cabernet Sauvignon - shows dark fruit and great acidity.

The name means "the moment when lightning strikes," a moment you'd like to keep forever.  It's a beautiful description of a Napa Valley wine that fits the bill.  Their 2009 Cuvée blend is 85% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Franc, and it has a great herbal note on the currant fruit flavor.

Napa Cab with a splash of Cab Franc makes up their Bon Passe Vineyard 2008.  It has a beautiful blueberry flavor and is smooth with firm tannins.  The Linda's Hillside 2007 shows cassis and even firmer tannins.  $25 of each bottle sold goes to the Ovarian Cancer Research fund in memory of Linda Bump, who lost a fight with that disease in 2007.

The Decoy 2009 Napa Valley Cab includes 18% Merlot and offers smoke on the nose with good structure.  The Duckhorn 2008 Napa Valley Cab blends in Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot and shows blackberry and earth.  The 2008 Monitor Ledge Vineyard Cab is augmented with a splash of Petit Verdot and shows an invigorating minerality.  The 2008 Howell Mountain Cab steps that feeling up a notch.

The 2008 Napa Cab has Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc in the mix.  It's dark and rich with great tannic structure.  The 2009 Rutherford Reserve Cab adds a touch of graphite to the black cherry flavor.

Gentleman Farmer
The 2009 Cab has a peppery touch to the dark fruit, with great tannins.  The 2009 Napa Valley Red Wine is a Right Bank blend of 51% Cab, 46% Merlot and 3% Cabernet Franc.  The Cab Franc really shines in this one, with great red fruit displaying smoke and spice.

Located in the Happy Canyon AVA of Santa Barbara County, the Grassini's sustainably-farmed vineyards are near Dierberg Vineyards in the warm eastern part of the Santa Ynez Valley.  Their Estate Cab 2008 was one of the more intriguing wines of the event.   Terroir-driven, bright red fruit has a minty edge and superlative acidity.  It's no doubt a versatile wine for a complex holiday meal.  (That's Mandy Grassini in the image)

The 2007 Napa Valley Cab is rich and dense, while the 2006 Yountville Cab is beautiful, showing plenty of dark fruit and notes of coffee.

Transformation, Jaffe's 2008 blend of 60% Cab and 40% Merlot from St. Helena, is opulent.  Spices adorn smoke and candy.  The 2007 Metamorphosis St. Helena Cab goes deeper and darker, with an 85%/15% angle to the grapes.

One of the few non-Napa producers at this event, Kathryn Kennedy Winery is in the Santa Cruz Mountains, on the inland side.  The Small Lot Cab 2007 is produced utilizing sourced grapes from the AVA and shows a lovely herbal quality.  I also tried the 2002 Estate Cab, also displaying some herbal notes - mint and anise.

From Knights Valley, in the Mayacamas Mountains, comes the most delicious wine I tasted at this event.  The Knights Valley Cab 2008 is loaded with fruit, has a touch of graphite and is smooth as silk.  $110.

Lail's Blueprint Napa Valley Cab 2009 is elegant and strong at once, with great dark fruit and tannic structure.  Their J. Daniel Cuvée Napa Cab 2008 shows a minty, herbal note.

Producing in Sonoma County's Dry Creek Valley, Clay Mauritson's pet project is a series of wines that show the different soil types available on the estate.  Each wine in the LOAM series bears the names of a soil type - just like the winemaker - and the '08 Suther, Positas and Clough ane a fascinating exploration of terroir when tasted side-by-side.  Rather than "single vineyard" wines, they are "single soil" efforts.

The 2008 Stagecoach Vineyards Cab is quite distinctive with a nice light touch, both possibly due to the inclusion of 8% Malbec.

Some exceptional Napa Cabs come from this family outfit. The Yountville Grigsby Vineyard 2008 has an herbal flair with very nice tannins, while the Collinetta Vineyard 2007 Cab is even more old-world with stunning acidity.

Their 2007 Estate Cab is made from 80% Cab, 12% Merlot and 8% Cabernet Franc from their vineyards east of Silverado Trail.  It bears a peppery, spicy flavor profile which put me in mind of the approaching holidays.  Their 2007 Padrone Napa Valley Cab has a little more Cab and a little less Merlot.  It's dense and dark with great tannins.

They are the only non-California winery I happed across at the event, located in Walla Walla, Washington.  Their 2008 Estate has Cab at 88% and also employs Petit Verdot, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  A little challenged in the nose, it's great tasting, very smooth and has nice minerality.

Both ZD's '09 Napa valley Cab and their '08 Reserve are full, rich and smooth with spices and great tannic structure.

Sunday, October 23, 2011


Stars Of Cabernet

The big daddy of the wine world is Cabernet Sauvignon.  The intense - and often expensive - red wine which helped catapult California wine to worldwide prominence.  If you had a dollar for every Napa Valley winery producing world-class Cab, you might be able to buy one bottle of the good stuff.

Stars Of Cabernet is a tasting event which will showcase great Cabernet Sauvigon in the elegant setting of Beverly Hills' Peninsula Hotel.  The third annual event is set for Wednesday November 16, 2011 from 7:00 to 9:30 p.m.  Tickets are valued at $250 per person, and advance ducats are reduced to $175, with further price reductions for members of Learn About Wine's Vintage Club.

Learn About Wine was founded in 1995 by wine educator Ian Blackburn, who has made it his business to offer palate-expanding classes and wine tasting events in Southern California.  His events are typically dressy affairs held in elegant surroundings and offering a huge array of top-quality wines for sampling.  He puts a lot into each of his events, so it's likely you'll get a lot out of them.

This year's Stars Of Cabernet will offer an expanded food selection - and it was pretty good to start with.  Only 100 tickets are available, so you won't find yourself fighting a crowd at every table.  Great Cab producers like Grigich Hills, Heitz, Jaffe, Kathryn Kennedy and ZD Wines - plus many others - will be there, and this year marks the first appearance for David Arthur Vineyards and Justin Vineyards.  You'll find a full listing of wineries on the Learn About Wine website.

Sunday, June 26, 2011


back patio at the Wilshire Restaurant

California has a bounty of culinary delights to offer.  The STARS of California wine event, presented by Ian Blackburn’s Learn About Wine on Thursday June 23, 2011, showed off the wealth of California food and wine in a controlled environment - only 200 tickets were made available to the public event at the Broad Stage venue in Santa Monica, so a "no crowds" atmosphere was expected.  I attended the trade session during the afternoon, which was held in the garden setting of Santa Monica's Wilshire Restaurant.

The Golden State also has a bounty of traffic snarls.  I wonder how the road construction crews always seem to know where I'll be going, so they can block a lane or two on my route.  The 10 mile trek from mid-Wilshire to the Wilshire Restaurant took an hour, and about the same for the return trip.  It was Carmageddon!  Even with the aggravation of traffic, the event made it worthwhile.

The wines were presented as "future stars" of the California wine scene - and many of the wineries in attendance do fly a little under the radar - but the "future star" status is definitely deserved for the likes of Flying Goat Cellars, Palmina, Presqu'ile and Inception Wines.  There was plenty more to rave about, too.

Norm Yost, Flying Goast CellarsNorm Yost's Flying Goat Cellars of Santa Barbara always draws a crowd at Southern California tasting events.  Norm (pictured at right) tasted me through a trio of his Pinot Noirs, each of which shows earthy minerality and wonderful acidity.  My favorite is the 2008 Rancho Santa Rosa Pinot from the Santa Rita Hills.  This 667 clone has a smokey nose and great black cherry flavor, with a mocha note that comes through into the finish.

Randy Hazard of wine broker Vin 17 poured some delightful Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Arroyo Grande's Center Of Effort.  I was really taken with another wine he poured, the '09 Fossil Point Edna Valley Chardonnay.  Nice tropical fruit and banana on the nose with great acidity and a zesty streak citrus on the palate bowled me over.

Palmina Wines features Italian varieties grown in Santa Barbara County.  Honea Vineyard is the only vineyard in California planted exclusively to Italian grapes, and Steve Clifton buys their entire crop every year.  I love the earthy minerality of their Arneis, the briny herbal palate of their Tocai Friulano and the wonderfully dry Rosato di Palmina.  Palmina's '07 Nebbiolo of Santa Barbara County is a three-vineyard mix with earth, smoke and spices bursting forth.

Ryan Skinner, of Skinner Vineyards in the Sierra Foothills region, loves to pour his 2009Grenache, which winemaker Chris Pittenger produced like a Pinot.  It's 100% Grenache, very dry, with a brilliant cherry nose and rich palate.  I really liked their very dark and moody '07 Estate Syrah, too.

Santa Maria Valley winery Presqu'ile has been making some noise recently.  Or, more accurately, those who try their wines have been making some noise; a lot of tweeting, especially.  South African Winemaker Dieter Cronje has crafted some wonderful wines.  Presqu'ile's 2009Chardonnay is clean and crisp.  I'm told Cronje utilized 10% new oak in this wine out of necessity - just so he could have some neutral oak next year.  The real stunner is the '09 Pinot Noirfashioned from a half-and-half mix of Solomon Hills and estate fruit.  Delicious, flirty raspberry and a long finish.

George PitsironisBased in Los Angeles, making Central Coast wines, is Inception.  Owner George Pitsironis (left) says they are on the wine lists at a majority of fine dining places in Southern California.  Their '09 Santa Barbara County Chardonnay is lush and creamy, but limited use of new French oak leaves the minerals in the front seat.  Inception'sPinot Noirs had the best aromas I found at this event.  A Central Coast effort and a Santa Barbara County Pinot both followed up with rich flavor.  It was a soon-to-be-released '09 Santa Rita Hills Pinot from La Encantada Vineyard that really wowed.  It should be available in mid-July 2011.

It was with great expectations that I stopped at the table of Lang and Reed, from the Napa Valley town of St. Helena.  They do all Cabernet Franc, all the time.  All their wines are based on Cab Franc, and John Skupny can do an impromptu dissertation on the grape and its clones anytime you like.  With a shrug, he said "Somebody's gotta do it," when I admired his obsession.  Lang and Reed's Two-Fourteen is made from the CF clone 214, which originated in the Loire Valley.  It's a single-vineyard work with a beautiful vegetal edge and notes of coffee in its complex palate.

Arman Pahlavan's Starlite Vineyards poured an exceptional Viognier and Zinfandel.  Winemaker Julia Iantosca - who took over from Merry Edwards in 2007 - worked wonders with the '09Viognier, a weighty, barrel-fermented white with great acidity and a floral honey nose that's irresistable.  The '06 Zinfandel was crafted for the person "who doesn't like Zinfandel."  I can't imagine who that could be, but this Alexander Valley beauty shows bright cherry, coffee, chocolate and spice, with plenty of acidity.  It's made from a Primitivo clone.  Starlite's Cabernet Sauvignon sports 15% Napa Valley Tempranillo and shows intense red fruit.  I'm told many tasters mistake it for Bordeaux.

Mauritson Wines of Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County scored with their Petite Sirah, indigo with concentrated fruit and great grip.  I finished the session - appropriately enough - with Mauritson's Port-style dessert wine.  Five Portuguese grape varieties are used for this blend.  The sweetness bears an earthy counterpoint which makes me think it's not just for dessert.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Stars Of Paso Robles

When Paso Robles shows up to pour wine, count me in.  The Stars Of Paso Robles event - staged by Southern California's premier wine event outfit, Ian Blackburn's Learn About Wine - featured one great taste after another.  I attended the Beverly Hills trade event at McCormick & Schmick's on the afternoon of May 13, 2011.  Friday the 13th was never so good.

A roomful of Paso Robles wines meant a roomful of big aromas, big flavors, great acidity and meaty minerals to taste.  It also meant a roomful of high alcohol, but that's how it goes in Paso.  Every vintage seems to be described as a "spike year."

As I made my way from table to table, it was amazing how many superlative wines were poured.  There were plenty of great reds on hand, but in Paso they know how to do whites, too.  Every table offered at least two wines which were worthy of mention.  I narrowed it down to just those I marked with stars, in the interest of keeping this post from getting out of hand.

Here are my favorites from the Stars Of Paso Robles event:

Adelaida Cellars showed their 2009 Pavanne, a blend of Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Viognier with great acidity, green apples and minerals.

Alta Colina's Maggie Tillman poured her family's efforts.  The reds showed big tannins as a rule, and they rocked.  I was most taken with the 2009 12 O'Clock High, a white blend of estate-grown Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne and Grenache Blanc.  Stone fruit and tropical notes are met with honey and minerals and a racy acidity that plays big on the finish.

Bianchi Winery showed a Zinfandel which is lightly tinted and highly expressive on the nose with big black tea aromas and a nice brambly taste.  It has an alcohol level of 15.4%, but it doesn't drink like it.

Flying Nymph boxCass Vineyard and Winery had a table full of great wines to pour, but partner Ted Plemons was fixated on the big box of Flying Nymph Syrah/Mourvèdre/Grenache which he says is becoming very popular with bars and restaurants due to the high profit margin it offers.  That's an 18-liter box inside the display cabinet he had made for it.  The fruity wine is tasty, but I liked everything else on the table better.

The Cinquain Cellars table was highlighted by the '07 Syrah which won a gold medal at the San Francisco International Wine Competition a couple of years ago.  Coffee and Coke on the nose with spicy dark fruit on the palate bowled me over.

Dubost Ranch winemaker and vineyard manager Zachary Raines had an astounding '07 Zinfandel from the Cushman Vineyard.  40-year-old vines are dry-farmed and tobacco shows up on the nose right through to the amazing port-like finish.  When I raised an eyebrow at the 17.2% alcohol number, I was told with a shrug, "It was a hot year."  It's still a hot year.

Hammersky Vineyards had some interesting offerings, notably the Cab/Merlot blend with firm tannins and smooth mouthfeel.  Table spokesman Brandon described it as the wine "for filet mignon, not T-bone."  Their 100% Merlot was a big blast of fruit and smoke.

Joel Peterson of Hope Family Wines poured both his Austin Hope line as well as the Treana label.  The Austin Hope Grenache - tons of minerality - and Treana White blend of Marsanne and Viognier - huge tropical - were both excellent.  I was really drawn to the new Westside Red Troublemaker, a multi-year vintage with a dark, funky nose and palate and gigantic minerals - all for $20.

JK Wine Company winemaker Justin Kahler poured his '09 Katin Viognier.  The grapes are from Paso Robles' Templeton Gap and the 100% varietal wine shows tremendous aromas of honeysuckle and a tempting, flinty salinity from the minerals Paso is famous for.

Niner Wine Estates poured one of my favorites at the event - their 2008 Sangiovese.  It's a brand new release with an extremely lush nose featuring flowers, cherries and smoke.  The palate shows sour cherry and a fabulous minerality.  There's 5% Barbera in the mix.

Roxo Port Cellars is one of my favorite tables at events featuring Paso Robles wines.  The chocolatey Cabernet Franc Port and the candy-like Cab/Syrah Port both are astounding, but theTraditional blend of Portuguese varieties moved me.  Souzau leads the way instead of Touriga Nacional in the '07 vintage.

Villa Creek Cellars poured their '08 Mas de Maha, a blend of Tempranillo, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Carignan.  This wine puts the Paso spin on the Spanish grape, with red fruit on the nose and lots of minerals on the palate.  There's a nice herbal profile from the whole-cluster fermentation employed.

Saturday, April 30, 2011


Charlie Palmer at South Coast Plaza

The second annual Stars Of Paso Robles event will be staged twice in Southern California, so wine lovers in Los Angeles and Orange counties will both have access to the pleasures of Paso.

Thursday May 12, 2011 is the date for the Costa Mesa version, while the Beverly Hills soirée is set for the following night, Friday May 13, 2011.

The Costa Mesa event will be held at Charlie Palmer at Bloomingdale's South Coast Plaza.  This is fitting, in that the restaurant is themed around wine.  The floor is even made from reclaimed wine barrels.

In Beverly Hills, the event will be held outdoors on the cobblestones of the Via Rodeo shopping street at Two Rodeo Drive.

Both wine tasting events will run from 7:00 to 9:30 p.m. on their respective nights and tickets are available for $80 in advance, $150 at the door.

Two Rodeo DriveOver two dozen wineries of the Paso Robles AVA are expected to turn out.  Names like Cass, Terry Hoage, Hope Family Wines, Turley, Niner and Villa Creek will be joined by hidden gems Roxo Port, Lone Madrone, Alta Colina and Bodegas Paso Robles.

Both events are presented by Learn About Wine, a group dedicated to the appreciation of fine wine and headed up by Ian Blackburn.  LAW's Taste and Vintage members receive a discount on tickets.

If you have yet to enjoy an Ian Blackburn wine tasting event, there's no point in waiting any longer. Blackburn is one of Southern California's leading wine educators.  He puts winemakers and wine lovers together in an upscale environment and lets the wine do the rest.  Always dressed impress, he'll be on hand - as usual - if you'd like to stop and share your thoughts on the wines you are tasting.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


Stars of Santa Barbara

California’s Santa Barbara County is loaded with vineyards, wineries, winemakers and wine lovers.  The winemakers and wine lovers turned out in big numbers for Learn About Wine’s Stars Of Santa Barbara event January 19, 2011 at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills.

Last year, Stars Of Santa Barbara proved to be one of my favorite tasting events of the year.  This year’s event held to Ian Blackburn’s usual high standards and attracted about 40 wineries from the SBC - from Alma Rosa to Zotovich - pouring over 100 different wines.

With limited time, there was no way for me to stop at all the tables on my list, and my apologies go to those to whom I did not get a chance to speak.  I attended the trade tasting session in the afternoon.

My Five Favorites
Alma Rosa El Jabali Vineyard Chardonnay 2007 - Santa Barbara winemaking legend Richard Sanford poured this masterpiece and said, "Our other Chardonnay is more like Chablis.  This one's like Meursault.  It's our reaction to big, over-the-top Chardonnays."  He allowed only 17% malolactic fermentation, so the fruit is the highlight.  The finish is looooooooooooong.

Curtis Winery Heritage 2007 - Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah and Cinsault blend with lavender-meets-cherry on the nose and palate; huge flavor and lip-smacking acidity.

Epiphany Cellars Hampton Vineyard Syrah 2007 - All Syrah and very dark, in every way.  Great minerals and acidity in this anti-fruit-bomb done in old world style.

Foxen Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009 - Just released, this wine is a brilliant purple in the glass with a lovely floral nose and a green herbal aspect on the palate which is quite intriguing.

Tantara Winery Bien Nacido Vineyard Pinot Noir 2008 - Dark with an extremely smokey flavor profile.  Delicious.

Richard Sanford, Alma RosaAlma Rosa winemaker Richard Sanford showed his pride in each of the wines he poured.  His '09 Pinot Gris shows a delicate floral nose and lots of minerals with a bright acidity.  The '07 Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir is all about plums with a floral nose and an earthy palate while the '07 La Encantada Vineyard shows the darker side of Pinot.  The El Jabali and La Encantada vineyards are organically certified by the California Certified Organic Farmers.

Buttonwood Farm Winery had winemaker Karen Steinwachsbehind the table.  Her 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, called Zingy, is appropriately named.  Its big, grassy nose leads to a tropical grapefruit taste, which leads to a long finish.  By comparison, the'09 Sauvignon Blanc has 12% Semillon grapes blended into it.  Barrel aging softens the steel-fermented wine and gives it some creamy, vanilla notes.  The '07 Merlot is 100% Merlot and has a dark and smokey texture.  Buttonwood's '07 Cabernet Francthrows a blanket of spices over the dark fruit, a result of a couple of years in French oak.  It finishes very dry.  The '07 Cabernet Sauvignon actually has 40% Cabernet Franc in it.  It's deliciously creamy with vanilla notes on the fruit.  I didn't pay too much attention to retail prices of the wines I tasted, but I'm told this one goes for $14, which makes it a steal.

Julia Cargasacchi poured the Point Concepción 2009 Chardonnay, which has a bright acidity and tropical flavors as its calling card.  The '09 Pinot Grigio is full of minerals on the nose and floral fruit on tha palate.  The Cargasacchi '05 Cuvée comes across dark and earthy, reminding me of bricks, while their '07 Pinot Noir also shows very dark traits. 

Ernst Storm, Curtis WineryThe Curtis Winery table was hosted by Ernst Storm, Assistant Winemaker at Curtis.  He poured the Rock Hollow Sauvignon Blanc Santa Barbara County 2009.  Rock Hollow is the Curtis second label for Bordeaux varietals.  This crisp white has one-third neutral oak and is made from a majority of estate fruit. It shows tropical guava on the nose and an abundance of rocky minerals on the palate.  Storm says, "It tastes like a Santa Ynez Valley wine."  The Curtis Heritage Blanc, Santa Barbara County 2009 is Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne.  Apples and salinity dominate.  Their'07 Grenache has a splash of Syrah in it.  It's lean and full of red fruit.  Storm notified me that Curtis is trimming its offerings: only one major Syrah is in future production plans.

Dragonette's winemaker Brandon Sparks-Gillis poured his 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, with fruit from Happy Canyon and Refugio Ranch.  The Refugio Ranch Vineyard is outside the AVA, else it would have been designated a Happy Canyon wine.  Fermented in half steel and half neutral oak, there's a mild nose and a crisp acidity.  The '09 Sauvignon Blanc that is all Happy Canyon is all neutral oak, too.  It has a very interesting nose and fabulous acidity.  The '09 Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills, offers a very spicy nose and great fruit flavor.  The'08 Syrah is a three vineyard blend of fruit from Paso Robles and Santa Maria.  There's great minerality in this old world-styled effort.

At the Epiphany Cellars table, Hector Osuna extolled the virtues of this Fess Parker brand.
Epiphany's '09 Grenache Blanc sports a salty, mineral nose and has great acid underlying the floral, tropical, rock garden flavors.  The Grenache Blanc hails from the Camp Four Vineyard.
The 2007 Gypsy - a blend of Grenache, Counoise, Cinsault, Mourvèdre and Syrah - gives an earthy slant to the flowers on the nose.  Revelation, also a 2007 vintage, mixes Syrah, Grenache and Petite Sirah.  It's dark and jammy with a nice grip.  22 months in oak.

Foxen Vineyard was represented by co-owner Dick Doré and Jenny Williamson-Doré.  Their crisp, clean '09 Chardonnay is sourced from Bien Nacido Vineyard.  Foxen's '07 CabernetSauvignon, Santa Ynez Valley, has a nose like a Pinot and firm tannins.  There's a very old-world feel on both their Pinot Noir and their Cab.

Loring Wine Company's Kimberly Loring had four '09 Pinot Noirs to pour.  Rosella's Vineyard has a pretty nose with a bright cherry flavor.  Gary's Vineyard shows a darker version of those attributes.  Cargasacchi Vineyard is light and delicate, while Clos Pepe Vineyard adds rocks to the nose and plums to flavor profile.  All four were shown to have 90+ scores from Wine Spectator magazine.

Matt Dugan at the Palmina station poured some wines made from Italian grape varieties which probably didn't show up anywhere else in the room.  Palmina's 2009 Arneis is minerals, minerals, minerals.  The '09 Tocai Friulano throws in a tropical angle and a tart finish.  Great acidity.  The Palmina '09 Dolcetto reminds me of cherry sweet tarts.  Their '06 Nebbiolo, from the Rancho Sisquoc and Stolpman vineyards, shows very nice acidity, a bright and explosive fruit presence and a loooong finish.

Sweeny Canyon's Chris Marks poured for me.  He's known as the vineyard manager for Sweeny Canyon.  To hear him tell it, "My wife is the winemaker.  I just drive the tractor."  He also has some stories to go along with the wine.  Sageflower Chardonnay is listed as non-vintage, but it's actually a 2001 unoaked chardonnay.  Marks says the wine was relabeled when it didn't move.  Now it sells better, maybe because of some intriguing effects of the bottle aging it has received.  Sweeny Canyon's '06 Chardonnay is mellow with 15 months in oak.  Their 2008 Chardonnay is big and creamy.  Three Pinot Noirs - '06, '07 and '08 - are quite nice, with the '08 being the creamiest of the trio.

Tantara Winery's Melissa Vandegrift poured Tantara's Chablis-like '08 Chardonnay. The 2008 Pinot Noir, Solomon Hills, shows delicious black cherry, while the '08 Dierberg Pinot offers plums and a great acidity.

William James Cellars had winemaker Robin Bogue on hand with her '06 Syrah showing off a nose of candy and a very dark taste and lean structure.  The '07 Grenache has earthy cherry notes and the 2005 PortScandalous, is sourced from Lodi with Portuguese varieties Souzao and Tinta Cao blended.  It smells of anise and has tons of dark flavor.  All their wines are very dry.

From Zaca MesaCeleste Bernard shared an '08 Chardonnay which is lean and spare like a Grenache Blanc, a fresh and floral '09 Viognier, an '07 Roussanne which may be the most palate-cleansing wine I've ever had and the '07 Z Cuvée.  The Z is a blend of Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah from the Santa Rita Hills, and it is bold and dark.

Ryan Zotovich and Brit Tanquary, Zotovich CellarsThe Zotovich station was staffed by winemaker Ryan Zotovichand his future wife Brit Tanquary.  The wedding is in July, and - I'm sorry - I neglected to get the registry information.  I interrupted their pre-nuptial bliss, but they were happy to pour the '07 Pinot Noir - all dark and earthy - and the '08 Santa Rita Hills Syrah - bold, fruity and strong on tannins.  Both of them spoke lovingly of making wine in what is known as the Lompoc Wine Ghetto.  They both agreed there's a camaraderie among the winemakers there that is comforting.