Thursday, April 22, 2010

Anderson Valley, Mendocino: Brutocao Cellars

Brutocao Cellars is located in the mid-point of the Anderson Valley AVA. A second location is located just outside Hopland, Mendocino. I wish I’d had time to visit that location as well, which includes a Bocce ball court, and The Crushed Grape restaurant next to the tasting room. On the other hand, I might never have wanted to leave. You can experience this second hand by going to the well-done website and taking a virtual tour, but trust me, the reality is much better.

The Brutocao family came from Venice Italy and chose the Lion of St. Mark as the symbol for their wine label. The original graces St. Mark’s cathedral in Venice. They married into the Bliss family and were soon in the grape growing and winemaking business. Grandfather Irv Bliss purchased the Mendocino County property in 1943, but the first Brutocao wine came out in 1980.

While the whites I tried were well made, my passions include big, earthy Italian-styled wines and I was not disappointed. They also make elegantly styled Pinot Noir wines, as these are the best red wine grapes to plant in the cooler Anderson Valley region. The vineyards are located there and in the Hopland region. The 2007 Pinot Noir Anderson Valley was one of the few filtered wines, although fining was performed on other reds. The wine has an earthy, spicy nose with hints of the black cherry that show on the palate. Wispy smoke from a forest campfire was woven through the earthy mid-palate, carried on by the dark fruit. I really liked this wine.

The Zinfandel and Primitivo wines were also excellent. Since both grapes originated in Croatia, it’s always fascinating to taste the differences when both clones are treated to the same terroir. My favorite wine was the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Hopland Ranches. The majority of the grapes came from the Hopland Contento vineyard with the remaining grapes from the Feliz vineyard. The dark fruit was nicely handled by the French and American oak with only 15% new oak used. I appreciate a subtler use of oak that allows the good fruit flavors to predominate.

I sometimes use the term “dark fruit” when the taste on the palate could be blackberry, dark cherry, or plum. However, I have no term for the way the wine opened up and caressed my tongue, and went down as sinuously as a velvet cloud. Just in case I was mistaken, I bought a bottle and tried it out, appropriately enough, at an Italian trattoria. I was mistaken, it was even better with food. At $22 a bottle, this wine is a great buy, but a case makes even more sense. Salud!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Anderson Valley Mendocino: A Unique Wine Region

Mendocino’s Anderson Valley has experienced growing interest in the last few years, but is still unknown to many wine lovers. This unique AVA begins part way up highway 128 off Interstate 101 in northern California. The first part of the journey snakes through the Yorkville Highlands, but at the town of Boonville becomes the Anderson Valley grape growing region. Glimpses of the Navarro River can be seen off to the left while heading northwest. The river provides a significant influence on the valley, and the coastal winds that follow its twisting path also affect the growing season.

The major grapes grown here reflect the terroir, with Pinot Noir being the most popular red wine grape. Many white wines including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Gewürztraminer are well represented. Other red wine grapes such as Zinfandel, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot are typically sourced from the Hopland area where the longer growing season permits these grapes to mature properly. Two major sparkling wine producers are also located here; Roederer Estate and Scharffenberger Cellars.

Continuing on the highway beyond the wineries a dense and dark Redwood forest staggers enough trees in the driver’s path to make the road an endless series of sharp turns. Emerging from the woods, green meadows border the river replaced by a stony bank at the mouth of the Navarro River. High coastal cliffs bracket the mouth like silent sentinels.

Going north on highway 1 brings one to the town of Mendocino, where time slips back to the 19th century. The style of many of the homes, restaurants, and hotels give Mendocino the feel of a New England coastal town. Dining in town offers good food paired with many Mendocino wines including those of Anderson Valley.

I focus on three wineries in Anderson Valley, each unique in its offerings, with very different winemaking philosophies, but each providing good value for the wine dollar. Handley Cellars is one of the oldest wineries in this region, as is Navarro Vineyards, and Brutocao Cellars. Each offered a very special treat to the palate and all are highly recommended. Each winery is posted in a separate article.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Steaming into Hong Kong

What does steaming into Hong Kong have to do with wine? For me it has everything to do with wine, because this was my first experience with it, and the beginning of my love affair with wine. We all remember our first time, don’t we? And we are all still thinking about wine, right? In my case it began with the shimmering lights of Hong Kong harbor in the winter of 1964. This was during my first sea cruise in the US Navy, and we were heading to Vietnam just as things began heating up there.

After being on station launching planes in the South China Sea, it was time to replenish the ship’s supplies and we headed to Hong Kong. To a sailor, pulling into port means liberty, which is such an appropriate word for R&R. This was the city I most wanted to see since my aircraft carrier, the USS Hancock had steamed out of San Francisco.

Once at anchor we received word of the areas we were not allowed go. Fortunately, that left most of Hong Kong open to us, and we were free to go ashore. I’d already gotten the skinny from a mate about the two must stops; the Parisian Grill and the Dragon boat bar atop the Mandarin Hotel, now the Mandarin Oriental. My rumbling stomach dictated the Parisian Grill would be the first stop.

So with two buddies we set out for a culinary experience par excellence. Inside the grill we found rich red wallpaper and drapes, white linen table cloths, uniformed waiters wearing white gloves - before Michael Jackson made them famous - and the muted sounds of an acoustically tuned room adding credence to its understated elegance. We were all looking at each other like, “How’d we get here?”

We scanned the room and didn’t pick out any other uniforms except a captain at a booth probably thinking, “What are they doing here?” All three of us worked hard at deciphering the menu, since the French was only explained in Mandarin or Cantonese. Sigh! The one that stood out for me was Steak Diane; at least it looked like something I could eat. I didn’t realize it was done flambé style. The waiter came by with a tray laden with all his utensils and incendiary devices and treated us to a pyrotechnical display. What a way to cook a steak, I thought.

I ordered wine because I’d always seen that done in movies and I was getting tired of Tiger beer. The bottle I selected through blind luck was Paul Bouchard Charmes Chambertin Burgundy. I remember the wine; I just can’t remember the year. The filet in its rich sauce and the wine created a harmonious marriage enhancing and accenting each other with every sip. I was thinking, if this was what wine tasted like I needed a lot more of it. But now I was out of Steak Diane so I motioned the waiter and told him to hit me again with that flambé steak thing. Did I say motion? I think wild gesticulation would be more appropriate.

In any case, I was sure I was making a favorable impression because all eyes were on me and that overworked flambé cart. At least they were all smiling. The second steak went down just as easily as the first. I enjoyed that so much I went back another evening and had the very same meal. No sense messing with success, I thought. This time we also gorged ourselves on a Baked Alaska about the size of a small turkey. How did we not gain weight then, huh?

When I got back stateside, I looked for the wine at one of those big San Francisco stuffy wine shops. When a saw the price tag I think my eyes bulged out far enough to impact the glass display. Yikes! So I decided to work at duplicating that magical moment in Hong Kong no matter how much research it would take, but for less money. Since then I’ve stayed on that quest, seeking out great wines at modest cost and the foods to go with them. Who’d have thought eating at a French restaurant in Hong Kong would set that all off? Salud!