Friday, September 25, 2009

California Wining and Dining

September 16, 2009

My latest California trip combined meeting old friends with sharing good food and wine. Since I also do restaurant reviews for the Albuquerque Arts magazine, my comments will include where I dined. As it happens, I have much good news to report. The following travelogue is a moveable feast that began with lunch, followed by a trek to two wineries just outside the town of Sonoma, and ended at dinner in Point Reyes on a fog-shrouded evening.

The day started with a trip to the town of Sonoma, which lies at the foot of two mountain ranges above San Pablo Bay. The town has charm to spare, with a number of tasting rooms and restaurants. The plaza, a wide expanse of lush green grass and trees in the heart of town, showed up easily in the arterial view of MapQuest. Although I have been led astray at times by this popular application, this time it was dead on. The plaza was to be our meeting spot.

When my wife and I arrived our friends, Ernie and Shirley Levasseur, talked us around the plaza to their location by cell phone. When we rounded the corner there was Shirley with phone to ear waving us over. Remember how challenging this was before cell phones? We also met Stan Schuler and Mila Caceres who own the bed & breakfast where we’d spend the night.

Ernie, a retired Army colonel, had recently reunited with his buddy, Stan. They had last been together in Viet Nam, and that’s a long time ago. We had lunch at The Girl & the Fig, just off the plaza. Yes, you read that name right. Who could resist dining there? The backyard patio was perfect. Our group had a cozy, vine-canopied area all to ourselves where good wines, wine flights, and excellent food pairings soon covered the table.

I had the Viognier wine flight paired with a selection of cheeses and meats. Since I’d focus on red wines later, I didn’t want to overload my palate at lunch. The wines were from France, Chile, and California, and each was a unique interpretation of this increasingly popular grape. The setting was perfect, the conversation free-flowing, and the food and wine luscious.

Departing from the restaurant, we followed the white sign posts with faded black lettering guiding us to a long winding country road that terminated at the Buena Vista winery entrance. A huge stump of a Live Oak tree arrested my attention before entering the cool interior. This is one of the oldest wineries in California, established in 1857. The tasting notes on this winery can be found here.

Our next stop was only a few miles away on another country road that climbed a rounded ridge to a beautiful chateau that fronted what was once a nudist retreat. Now the only thing lying naked in the sun is the grapes. The Bartholomew Park Winery is a boutique winery with excellent hand-crafted wines that will be covered in as future post.

After the wine tasting we took back roads to Point Reyes in Marin County. The Point Reyes National Seashore is one of the most picturesque on the California coast. Nearly cleaved from the mainland by Tomales Bay to the north and Olema creek to the south, Point Reyes forms an elongated triangle with the longest side clinging to the coast, and the southern end curving over Drakes Bay, while the shortest side forms a foot with outstretched toe testing the waters of the Pacific. Drakes Bay was named after Sir Francis Drake, privateer to some, pirate to others.

The national seashore encloses marshes, bird sanctuaries, sandy beaches, verdant grasslands, and wave-splashed rocky cliffs and ledges. We refreshed at One Mesa, Stan and Mila’s B & B in the One Mesa cottage, which was beautifully appointed with a skylight over the king-size bed, a porch overlooking the garden, deep-set tub, and full coffee self-service. The scents of flowers and eucalyptus and ocean-scented breezes made this cottage hard to leave the next morning.

We had dinner at Nick’s Cove on Tamales Bay. Great views and our own glass-enclosed alcove where quiet conversation was possible helped make this a fabulous dining experience. I had brought a bottle of a Buena Vista Pinot Noir from our earlier tasting, but found a complete wine list that I read with relish. Considering that this is a Pat Kuleto-owned restaurant, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I previously wrote about his wine here.

I began with Oysters “Nick- erfeller” with tarragon, butter, spinach, and breadcrumbs. Unlike the bacon that can overpower the Rockefeller version, this one allowed me to savor the fresh-caught oysters right from Tomales Bay. The Scottish Salmon and the Pinot didn’t quite match, but the 22 oz. Ribeye alla Fiorentina that would pair required a heavier commitment than I could muster. Next time I’ll use their wine list.

The last drive back around the bay in the gathering dusk was one of contentment after the many culinary pleasures of the day. It’s just a good thing I don’t do this every day. I’d never be able to get back on the bike. Salud!

Buena Vista: Good Views, Good Wine

September 16, 2009

The entrance to Buena Vista is preceded by the huge stump of a Live Oak that must have been awesome in its prime. Bleached almost white from the unsheltered sun, it stands as rooted to the spot as the winery itself. Buena Vista was founded in 1857 by Agoston Haraszthy. Now there’s a name that falls trippingly from the tongue. It is California’s oldest premium winery and still one of the best for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Their vineyards near San Pablo Bay in the Carneros region yield high quality fruit for these wines. The terroir permits a long growing season which combined with the stressing of the vines produce smaller, more intense grapes for making great wines. Buena Vista established these large blocks of vines in 1969, one of the first wineries to recognize the potential of what is now one of the best wine producing regions for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. They also have smaller blocks of Merlot and Syrah that benefit from the longer growing season.

Joe Trude, the knowledgeable counterman, was gracious even though I had neglected to call ahead that the Southwestern Wine Guy was coming. I’d been remiss in alerting the winery, but Joe was unstinting in the welcome we received. This always bodes well when visiting a tasting room.

The tasting included Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, representing their Carneros series and a new series featuring limited-production, clone specific wines also from Carneros. The 2006 Ramal Vineyard Chardonnay – Dijon clone definitely displayed the flavors of its native origins in Burgundy. There are actually a number of Dijon clones, numbers 75, 76, 95, 96 at my last count, which have been used in California and also with great success in Oregon where the shorter growing season produced harder, acidic wines before Dijon cuttings were tried.

This wine had the same wonderful minerality of their French cousins, or is that siblings? I never can tell about grape relationships. The Carneros terroir also contributed to the elegance of this selection. The tasting notes were interesting to read if a bit overwrought, which is often the case. The notes mentioned a bouquet that included subtle matchstick. So would that be like a match that doesn’t ignite when struck?

The 2005 Ramal Vineyard Pinot Noir, which uses the Clone-5 Pommard, was so good I bought a bottle to go. Earthy red and dark fruit and wondrously soft palate and long finish made this one irresistible. The notes mentioned that this one was ripe and explosive. I guess that means no subtle matchstick. I put the Pinot to the test later when we had dinner at Nick’s Cove on Tamales Bay, Point Reyes. I’ll have more to say about that in another blog.

The last wine I tried was a selection from the Atlas Peak Elevation Club. The club is entrée to some of the best Napa Cabs around. The one my eye locked on was the 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain. Even the copious wine notes could not do justice to this Cab. In my less knowledgeable wine life, I only thought of Howell Mountain as a good bicycle climb. But it is also where some of the best cult wines originate.

I gave Joe my most pleading look as I asked for a taste. “I knew you’d do that,” he said. What, he knows my mind better than me? Hmm, good guy to have around. Do visit them when you’re next in Sonoma, or check out the excellent website if you can’t wait that long. Salut!

Lookout Ridge Winery Looks Out for Kids

Tuesday, September 15

This article comes from the Wine/Winery-of-the-Month feature section of my newsletter, but I thought the story important enough to redo here. If you don’t currently get my newsletter, and don’t want to miss the next one, click here to enter my website.

I’m not sure what most took my breath away, the views from Lookout Ridge, the wines crafted by cult winemakers, or the Wine for Wheels program instituted by the founder, Gordon Holmes. Well, this time it wasn’t the wine as much as the wheelchair program that grabbed my attention. Gordon began it years ago after his wife was diagnosed with MS and confined to a wheelchair. Together, this story and these wines make Lookout Ridge my winery of the month.

I know a little about the feeling of helplessness when a loved one contracts a major disease and the intense desire to do something, anything, to expunge that feeling. Gordon has brought joy – and mobility -- to many people that might have otherwise been confined to bed. I’ll relate just one story that touched me greatly.

Constrained by the Bolivian government to bring in only one wheelchair, Gordon came to a hospital where fifty children were housed who had lost or amputated limbs. The decision on which child was most worthy was heartbreaking. The child that was awarded the wheelchair was asked what he would do first. “I want to go outside,” he said. Without mobility, outside was as remote to these children as it was to a prisoner in jail. Yup, that one got to me, too.

To build his business, Gordon took a different tack on wine production – he invited cult winemakers to craft wines from his quality grapes, and then marketed them as winemaker-labeled wines. You have probably heard of vineyard labeled wines, but how about winemaker labeled wines? Exactly.

The Greg La Follette 2006 Pinot Noir we tasted was rich, earthy, and more Burgundian than Californian, with spice and leather and dark fruit. After savoring this wine Gordon said, “Would you like some more?” I said, “Was that in the form of a question?” I slid my glass over for a refill.

Taking wine in hand, he led us to the cave he’d had cut into the side of the mountaintop. On the Sonoma-side of the cave, burnished copper doors framed by a fallen redwood giant provided access to the cool interior. At first I thought I was in an abandoned missile silo, as the winery equipment has not been installed yet. On the cave’s other side, huge glass doors gave way to stunning views of Napa Valley. When we exited and I went to the rail of the curved balcony that overlooked the Napa side, I was as much in awe as when the Wizard of Oz switched to color.

When we returned to the deck outside the tasting room, with its huge mahogany table and cushioned benches along the side, Gordon brought out the 2001 Gabriella Vineyards Sangiovese I’d requested. This one was also a knockout with a wonderful mouthfeel, spicy cherry and earth-laden dark fruit, and a long finish.

At $100 each, these cult-style wines are reasonably priced, particularly when you consider that each bottle purchased provides a wheelchair and blessed mobility for children, teens and adults the world over. Lookout Ridge; savor the wine and watch the wheels turn.

State Fair Wine Competition Winners

Monday, September 14

This year due to scheduling conflicts, I was unable to judge the State Fair wine competition, held by the NM Vine & Wine Society, of which I’m a member. Instead I helped set up the display of the winners in the agriculture building at the fairgrounds. It would have been more fun if the bottles used in the display weren’t all empty. Apparently, I missed that event as well. Darn!

The numerous multiple award winners included Ponderosa Valley, Luna Rossa, Black Mesa, and Southwest wines (St. Clair/DH Lescombes/San Felipe). The entire list of winners is available at the NMSU website. It was fun draping medals around the bottles and affixing ribbons to Best-of-Show winners, but now I’ll actually have to go out and buy the wines that most interested me. As Dickens once said, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times” . . . sigh!

Now is a good time to visit New Mexico’s wineries, even though grape harvesting and crushing may still be going on. In the Deming area, the St. Clair and Luna Rossa tasting rooms are “must stops”. In the Albuquerque area, Ponderosa Valley in the heart of the Jemez Mountains is a wonderful fall destination. The St. Clair Bistro near Albuquerque’s Old Town will have their medal winners on display, with tasty snacks and cheese plates to go with them.

In the Velarde/Dixon area south of Taos, Black Mesa, Vivac, and La Chiripada are all within miles of each other amid breathtaking views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. In Corrales, Corrales Winery and Milagro Vineyards continue to win my personal awards for quality NM wines.

Visit a winery, make some new friends, and take home your own “wines of enchantment”. Oops, was that a subtle plug? Maybe so. You can learn more about our fantastic New Mexico wines and wine history by ordering a copy of my book, “Wines of Enchantment”, by clicking here.

Corrales Winery Grape Harvest

Saturday, September 12

Words can hardly express the sensations and emotions that course through a wine lover when he is with his beloved grapes. I realized that afresh while picking grapes at the Corrales Winery on a warm weekend in September. This has become a yearly passion for me as I joined a large group convened to harvest the grapes, enjoy the fellowship of other wine lovers, and sample the fruits of a previous harvest.

The first step in harvesting is to remove the nets, which protect the fruit from hungry birds. The process was aided by a new bailing machine Keith Johnstone deployed on the rear of his tractor. The machine has a platform to hold the net bag, and a bailing arm through which the net is threaded. It did require him to drive backwards through each row with Michael and myself as the tall guys running interference in front. We held the net up off the vines while Clay in the rear bed played spooler. It all worked surprisingly well, and nobody was run over. What could be better?

Amidst the scents of rain-damp earth and grapes, we took our buckets and clippers down row after row. The grapes bled juices that dripped down the dusky skins, soaking the earth as they were severed from the vine branch. I worked hard at not bursting grapes in the cluster, but when tendrils insisted on wrapping around a central branch it became a tug of war. I’ll admit, sometimes I lost a few grapes.

Gradually each bucket filled with grape clusters. We first harvested the Muscat’s, which were big and golden with brown tints and freckles, each bunch heavy in my hand. The Riesling grapes that we picked last were emerald green and smaller on tight clusters, hanging close to the parent stem. The grapes I sampled had good sugar, particularly the Muscat. Who could resist popping a few and imagining what the Muscat Canelli would taste like this year?

Visualizing the finished wine from the grapes I plucked from the vine took me back to the beginning of a wine’s journey. From the time the grapes are unloaded and go through the hurtles of the de-stemming machine, give up their juice and sometimes their skin to form the must, and begin the slow conversion to wine, the process of winemaking begins and ends with the grape.

After harvesting the grapes comes the celebration with a groaning board set with, um, if you haven’t eaten in a while, you might want to jump to the next paragraph. The table was laden with twice-baked potato, sausages, corn-on-the-cob, chicken, NY strips, fixins’ and deep dish apple pie for anyone braving the real possibility of bursting from too much food. I call it a groaning board because that’s the sound the table made as each dish was added.

The wine was principally Keith and Bobbi Johnstone’s, of course, both reds and whites. I stuck with the reds, particularly since my favorites were right there. The 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon has wonderful herbal notes atop dark fruit and black pepper. The 2007 Cabernet Franc has ripe cherry and berry flavors with an under core of black pepper. Both will improve with age, but drink well now.

The feast was under a white tent set up on the green grass between the vineyards, where it sheltered several rows of tables. There sat the weary harvesters, enjoying the food and drink, the conversation, and the convivial atmosphere. It reminded me of a Renoir painting depicting a French countryside with shaded cloisters, the picnickers turned to the viewer, displaying the satisfied smiles that only come from those who cherish life. Yup, it looked just like that. Salut!