Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Bella Vista Winery: Good Views and Good Wine

It was mid-April this year when I drove from Capistrano Beach to the Temecula wine region. I only had a few wineries I really wanted to visit and the first stop was a complete delight. Bella Vista Winery is well named, resting on a hill that overlooks much of Temecula. There I had the privilege of meeting the owner, Imre Cziraki, and a more fascinating man would be hard to find.

The Dream of Imre Cziraki

Generous, affable and with a firm passion for his wines, he regaled my wife and I with stories of his escape from Hungary during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. One of his friends told Imre that his name was high on a list of those considered enemies of the state. That was all the motivation he needed to make his way, eventually, to the US.
Knowing only a few words of English he’d learned from his grandfather, also a winemaker, he managed to make his way to California. He purchased La Cresta in 1982, Bella Vista Vineyards in 1998 and the former Cilurzo Winery in 2004. The few words he’d picked up from his grandfather he later learned were all curse words. One can imagine the confusion his new American friends must have experienced when he used them.
A self-made man, one would think he’d take his own path to wine-making and that proved to be correct. The tasting room is expansive and could accommodate multiple tour bus crowds. The grounds are large, with plenty of areas to stroll and enjoy the views while sampling the wines. The website offers photos of some of the many events that take place here, and everyone seemed to be having as good a time as my wife and I.

Bella Vista Wines

Many of Bella Vista’s wines are unique and well-priced. The list is a long one, so I’ll focus on a few of my favorites. We had to try the 2007 White Cabernet Sauvignon. Many years ago, my wife Barbara was dining at an up-scale Chicago restaurant and asked the waiter for a Cabernet Sauvignon. The waiter replied, “Did you want the white or the red?” “Oh, I’ve never had the white, why don’t you bring it,” she said, rather disingenuously.  After a while the server returned, red-faced, and said, “I’m sorry, we’re all out of the white.”
Well now, we could finally try a White Cab. Actually the wine has a darker Rosé cast to it, fruit-forward with hardly a hint of tannins. Tart cherry and spice make this a very drinkable wine, perfect for those that are tannic-challenged. The 2007 Petite Sirah Rosé is a wine with greater depth than one would assume from a Rosé. Layers of red fruit hovering around cherry and a satisfying mouthfeel will make this a summertime favorite.

The 2005 Grenache weaves of complex tapestry of earthy dark fruit and ripe red fruits and is one of the best domestic interpretations of this Rhone grape I’ve ever tried. Not so heavy that it would overpower the bird, I’d try this one on Thanksgiving. In fact, I will try this one on turkey day. The 2004 Petite Sirah Reserve was another favorite of mine. Taken from some of the oldest plantings in Temecula, it shows maturity and youth in each sip. Earth and spice and rich fruit, this wine should continue to evolve for years, but hard to resist now.

This should be your first stop in Temecula, and if you do try all the wines, probably your only stop. Not to worry, there is plenty of beauty around you here, and numerous spots to sit and contemplate how our lives are enriched by good wine. The Cziraki family lives the American dream so many of our youth these days have lost sight of. Take some inspiration from Imre and by all means take some of his wine and make your own dreams. Salut!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

House Family Winery of Saratoga

I recently went to a wine tasting event at the home of Dave House. I’ve reported previously about the technology Dave employed to grow outstanding grapes for his wines here. The tasting took place on a grassy hill top near shade trees with breathtaking views of the vineyard and countryside. Dave also gave a talk on his grape growing methodology and a tour of the vines.

We went with our good friends Ken and Debbie McKenzie. Dave was one of the movers and shakers at Intel and many of the attendees are past employees of a fraternity that likes to celebrate reunions with wine. I’m all for that!

House Family Winery wines included Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot based wines. The 2009 Chardonnay is already sold out and the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon is nearly all gone. The small case production of fewer than 200 cases per wine is partly responsible and so are the wonderful flavors and balance of all the wines. The best way to secure them is to join the wine club, or go to their website and purchase online.

The 2008 Merlot is 75% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon. A rich blend with layers of red and dark fruit and spices. The tannins are soft and well integrated. If you’ve been bored with typical California Merlot this one will wake up your taste buds again.

The 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon has 75% Cab, 13% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Franc and 3% Petite Verdot. Almost the classic Meritage blend, very complex with black currant, plum and cocoa and a mouth-feel that is lush.

The winemaker is Jeffrey Patterson of the well-regarded Mount Eden Vineyards. Jeffrey works with all the varietals mentioned as well as Pinot Noir, which will be in the future for House Family Winery. This is one boutique winery well worth checking out. Salut!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Bold Commentaries: Fall Food Favorites from Sept 20, 2011 show

This Bold Foods with Bold Wines show had two of Jane Butel’s great recipes for pork and trout. You can check out the how-to of these recipes on Enter Jane Butel or Bold Foods with Bold Wines into the search field. The On Demand column lists past shows. Click on show all to find the date in question; 9/20/11 in this case.

Chorizo Stuffed, Jalapeno Glazed Pork Loin Roast
Pork loin is one of the most versatile cuts of meat, and inexpensive, too. This one is so flavorful and over the top, we need a wine that can keep up. Whites will be a little lost here with all the spices and potent flavors and since it is the Fall, red wines to warm us up also make more sense.

Sangiovese just about tops my list, but so does a Dolcetto. Most Piedmont Barbera are a bit too soft for this dish although the Central Coast and Shenandoah Valley of California have versions that are sturdier. New Mexico Dolcetto wines often have a spicy edge and Nebbiolo-based wines work with their earthy, rich texture. Montepulciano is another grape beginning to gain momentum here. My favorite domestic Sangiovese is by Vino Noceto in the above mentioned Shenandoah Valley using the Brunello di Montalcino clone.

Some Pinot Noir wines will also work here, including one I just tried the other night. It’s the Llai Llai 2009 Pinot Noir from the Bio Bio Valley of Chile $7.99 at Jubilation wine shop. Master wine sommelier Tom Molitor turned me on to this one. It begins as dried cherry and tea leaf, but opens into a richer cherry and spice after ½ hour. It tastes like a much more expensive Pinot.

Grilled Stuffed Trout with Lime-Pecan-Green Chile Stuffing.
Trout & green chile will work best with a good solid white. Albarino and Torrontés have the staying power and a good price. Try Chilean Sauvignon Blanc for a good well-balanced wine that is also tasty standalone or New Zealand if you live for razor sharp acidity in a wine. Riesling also works wonders; La Chiripada Special Reserve Riesling in the blue bottle is great or try a Ponderosa Valley Riesling. Winemaker Henry Street crafts sweet and dry versions. Corrales Winery also handles this grape well in an off-dry style. Other whites include Pinot Grigio/Gris or Muscadet from the Loire Valley. This was my go-to wine in France for seafood.

How do these compare to your choices? Agree, disagree? Tell me!

St. Supery Winery: Distinctive Wines & Great Touring

St. Supery Winery and vineyards have an impressive presence along highway 29, the main road through Napa wine country. Owned by the famed Skalli family, the Napa holdings get the same attention to detail and innovation as their Languedoc vineyards. I met Lesley Keffer Russell, the VP of Direct Marketing & Sales at reception and we immediately began talking wine. Her enthusiasm for the winery was quickly evident as we toured the facility before entering the Divine tasting room, which, in fact was divine.

The Tour
The tour took us past the huge fermentation tanks to sample the Sauvignon Blanc, redolent of rich grapefruit infused juice. This as I later discovered was a key flavor component of their Sauvignon Blanc wines. Still developing, but already showing promise. The next area we entered was where the red wine grapes, primarily Cabernet Sauvignon were being hand sorted. We were briefly met by Emma Swain CEO of St. Supery, and GG, her white Lab. Oh to have a nose as sensitive as a dog’s. I wonder what that would be like?

Coming off a conveyer, the de-stemmed grapes went along another conveyer belt that vibrated to separate the grapes for the hand sorting where seven attendants rejected ones that were not up to St. Supery’s high standards. This is the attention to detail one might find in a high-end boutique winery.

Barrel Tasting
Lesley and assistant winemaker Brooke Langelius, directed us to a barrique topped with four half bottles filled with juice from the aging red wines. This was barrel tasting at its best; big tasting glasses and no spills from a wine thief, which usually makes this process messy. Instead we had elegance. (A wine thief is not someone lurking behind a barrel, but a device to draw off wine from a barrel.)

Divine Tasting Room
When Lesley finally brought us up to the tasting room I was ready sample the finished product. Each place had a tasting mat with Welcome Hammond Party in the center and each glass enclosed in a circle with a wine’s year and grape name. I’ve seen this setup before but not with this bounty of wines to try; four whites and five reds. Near it was a platter of cheese, fruits, nuts and meats, which I resisted until I’d made my first pass of the wines. Since I hadn’t had breakfast yet I call this dedication.

All of the Sauvignon Blanc wines were excellent, in keeping with St. Supery’s reputation with this grape. My favorite, however, was the 2010 Virtú with 51% Semillon and 49% Sauvignon Blanc. A good Semillon is hard to find in California, but if this wine is any guide, I’ll be trying their Semillon next. I also tasted an oak-free Chardonnay (shades of New Zealand Chards!) that would be a good food wine; bright tropical and citrus fruit flavors.

The reds were where I really found a home, however. I drink a lot more reds than whites and the St. Supery Cabs justified their reputation with this grape. I started with the 2007 Rutherford Merlot which reminded me of my favorite Napa versions with dark and red fruit and spices that’ll awaken anyone’s palate.

Cabernet Sauvignon is St. Supery’s other principal grape and the remaining reds all displayed the results of all that hand-sorting and care, not to mention the Napa appellations. The 2006 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon had just 1% Cab Franc, while the 2007 Rutherford Cab sported 16% Merlot. The 2007 Dollarhide Cab was 100% Cab and clearly didn’t need any help to achieve its balance, structure and rich fruit with essences of chocolate and coffee from the 30 months aging.

I only saw a wall-sized picture of the Dollarhide vineyards, but they are huge; 1500 acres with 500 acres under cultivation. The unique microclimate of Dollarhide and the Rutherford location of the winery and its vineyards assures a wide range of choices in grape characteristics for blending wines.

The 2007 Élu is a nearly classic Meritage blend, with a higher percentage of Merlot (22%) than typically used. Having met that Merlot earlier in the tasting, I could understand its inclusion. Darker fruit here, berry and plum and earthy notes of leather and plush tannins.

Check out their well done website for the very extensive listing of wines. Older vintages as old as 2000 are available for purchase, proof of the aging potential of the reds. St. Supery is a must stop on your Napa tour. You’ll find people with a passion for wine and wines that reflect that passion.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Key West Wine Cruises

A wine cruise, particularly a sunset wine cruise is a great way to enjoy wine, make new friends and watch the sun paint the clouds red, yellow and orange. I recently took such a cruise with Danger Charters on a 65 foot two-masted schooner out of Key West. The choice of wines looked interesting and we boarded the vessel only steps from our timeshare; the Hyatt Sunset Harbor. How can you not do a sunset cruise from there?

The winds were light that evening so the cruising part consisted of moving a few leagues, while gently rolling on the waves. The wines were all excellent as was the crew, which is highly rated and deservedly so. We sat on the forward cabin overhead with people from both of our home states on either side of us. What are the odds of that? Camaraderie is easier after a few tastes of wine, but a sense of sharing a common adventure began with the first white, a sparkling cava from Spain. This was a Marcel Martin Brut, a crisp wine with citrus and melon expanding on the palate.

The Hess 2009 Sauvignon Blanc following it was also excellent. I’m more familiar with their Cabs, which are uniformly good. This grape came from the same Allomi vineyard, which sits at the base of Howell Mountain in Napa. The tropical flavors of passion fruit and citrus notes added to the lemongrass evident in the nose. I had to have a second taste of this one, and will add it to my must-have Sauvignon Blanc list.

The hors d’oeuvres were standard fare but with a few interesting twists, fresh and plentiful. Best of all, they complimented the wines. The Bianchi Chardonnay was lightly oaked and fruit-forward, not the heavy California style. The Chateau Grande Cassagne Rose was dry which is typical of most European Rose, with a delicate nose, bright fruit flavors and none of the heaviness of typical blush wines.

By now I was already impressed with the choices, which were inspired and selected as though they had me in mind. They really didn’t know the Southwestern Wine Guy was aboard, did they? Nah! The first red was a light-bodied French red, La Font du Vent Cotes du Rhone.

I became a fan of this wine back in the early 90s when my then fiancé and I toured much of France. It was always inexpensive, plentiful and consistently delightful on the palate. Nowadays they are not as consistent and certainly not as inexpensive so finding a good one requires more effort. But then, we’re not in France either.

This wine and its more well-known neighbor Chateauneuf du Pape come from the southern Rhone region; both feature Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre grapes. This one is mostly Grenache and has a good spread of red fruits; red currants, muted raspberry and nice peppery accents. The tannins are fine and the finish velvety.

The remaining reds included a Peter Lehmann Australian Shiraz that was well balanced and not over-extracted as some of these wines tend to be. The Shiraz showed black fruits, plum and blackberry with restrained oak and fine tannins. Ba

The Errazuriz Cabernet Sauvignon comes from the Aconcagua Valley in Chile, where Pacific breezes and cool rainy winters and hot dry summers help shape the wonderful fruit of this wine. The bite of tart cherry is moderated by the black currant, fine tannins and good acidity.

The Ergo Tempranillo is from the Rioja region of Spain, where this grape shines like few other areas. The rich berry and dark fruit came with earthy notes and spice. If only they had Spanish paella to go with it. I apologize for not having all the vintage years. I guess I was just enjoying myself too much.

All the wines were ably presented by Sunshine – I’m not making that up – and the name is appropriate because she sure brightened our cruise. She did admit to a bit of nervousness since I was on board, but she had nothing to worry about. When sunset finally arrived we were toasting a wonderful time with the last of our wine. This is a must cruise if you love sailing, sunsets and creative wine choices.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Introducing the Wine Guerilla

The Wine Guerilla is not the big hairy beast you might be imagining, but a relatively new winemaking concern in Sonoma with a passion for Zinfandel (among others), particularly old vine Zins. California’s love affair with this grape goes back to late gold rush days. As the gold fever subsided, planting of this grape with origins in Croatia has been steady and rising beginning in the 1980s. Guerrilla actually refers to revolutionaries and Bruce Patch is certainly working his own revolution in Zinfandel wine making with a big focus in Sonoma County, home to many of California’s best Zins.

Old vine Zinfandel is just that, aged vines that take on complex flavors even as the production per vine drops. Mass produced Zinfandel seldom gets the chance to show this character as older vines are yanked for newer, higher-yield vines. Not so for those winemakers that love the grape, and that certainly includes Bruce.

The first Zinfandel wines I fell in love with were in the Santa Cruz Mountains, including Zins made with 80-year old vines at Congress Springs. I even had taken cuttings of these vines and planted them at my home in Los Altos. After many years of touring and tasting wines in Sonoma, I developed a passion for Russian River and Dry Creek Valley Zins. I still remember swatting at fruit flies while tasting Zins at Lytton Springs Winery, which is now owned by Ridge Winery.

Fast forward to now and I’m sampling the Wine Guerilla 2009 Clopton Vineyard Zinfandel, which is in the Russian River Valley appellation. This is mostly Zinfandel fruit with a bit of Alicante Bouschet added, probably for added depth and color. The nose is redolent of old vine with forest floor (yeah, but who’s forest?), mushroom, spice with an undercurrent of red and black fruit, which predominate on the palate. The fine tannins help shape the mouthfeel at mid-palate and the finish trails some of the earthen flavors on the nose. The 14.7% alcohol is fully integrated into the wine, which is well balanced.

I recently attended a wine dinner at La Casa Sena in Santa Fe, which featured five of Mr. Patch’s wines. This wine was paired with Achiote grilled Prawns and complemented Chef Garrity’s dish perfectly. You’ll find a wealth of different Zinfandel wines; single vineyard and blends that will have you in a revolutionary spirit as well. Check them out here.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Hiking the Santa Cruz Mountain Wine Trails

The first wine region I came to know and love was only footsteps from my homes in Los Gatos and later Los Altos. I’ve explored most of it on bicycle, tracking 50 to 90 miles rides along its slopes and craggy mountain escarpments. The defined boundaries for the Santa Cruz Mountain AVA begin at the crest of Mt. Madonna in the south to the sparkling waters of Half Moon Bay in the north. Within that area are over 70 wineries and 200 small vineyards.

The varied and enriched soil types and the coastal influence of the Pacific Ocean to the west and San Francisco Bay to the east have created five different subregions. These are varied enough that defined Pinot Noir wines from each subregion bear a unique signature or terroir as the French would have it. I know this from sampling the many excellent wines at a variety of wineries. I’ll discuss a few of these in this and subsequent articles.

Santa Cruz Pinots are among the best in California, but as mentioned above each subregion places its own stamp on the color and flavor of the wines. Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are also wonderful here, but my focus on this article is Pinot Noir.

Muns Vineyard: Touching the Sky
The highest vineyard in these mountains is Muns Vineyard at 2600 feet. From this vineyard, Muns makes their own Pinot Noir and Syrah as well as providing grapes to Sonnet Winecellars, Soquel Vineyards, Silver Mountain and Savannah-Channel. Tony Craig, the winemaker at the latter also crafts Muns’ wines at the Silver Mountain facility.

I and a friend, Jack Faraone, were there to view the vineyards at this unique location and sample some of the wines with Mary Lindsay, part owner and well-regarded publicist for the Santa Cruz appellation. Through the low-flung clouds we could see Monterrey Bay in the distance, a view unobstructed by trees or other mountaintops. The vines hugged the slopes, meandering up hill and down dale in a graceful dance of vines, and trellis-held canes.

We set up behind the main house and Mary brought out a 2007 Muns Vineyard Pinot Noir and three glasses, which she preceded to generously fill. Now this is my idea of a wine tasting! We indulged in amiable company and a relaxing afternoon enjoying a wonderful Pinot. I soon discovered why other leading Santa Cruz wineries were buying their fruit.

The distinctive cherry notes are wrapped around plum with spices and subtle vanilla from the Hungarian oak. The mouthfeel was sensuous and silky and the finish long and lingering. If I could only have one winery’s Pinot, this would be my choice.

Then we were treated to the 2008 Muns Vineyard Syrah. I decided then and there I had to have Jack join me in any Santa Cruz wine tasting. Mary also provided me with a seminal work she is doing on the Santa Cruz Mountain subregions.

Even though the winds still chilled, the warmth of those wines stayed with me on the long drive down the mountain. Just a word of warning; these Pinots are done in modest lots of around 160 cases except the 2006, so don’t wait too long to purchase, you’ll be missing something very special. Salud!

Monday, May 9, 2011

A Russian River Junket

February 26, 2011
I took a tour of Sonoma and Napa counties during a weeklong stay in the town of Napa at the end of February. With our good friends Debbie and Ken McKenzie joining us, we took a trip into the past. The past for us was our previous excursions together along the Russian River beginning in the late 1980’s and reacquainting ourselves with wineries we’d enjoyed then along with exploring newer ones now. That began with trying to remember which back roads we were supposed to take.

The late winter in Sonoma still brought a chill to the air, but sampling some wonderful wines along the Russian River and Dry Creek regions warmed us up considerably. Our first stop was Arista Winery, the newest winery on Westside Road. Westside Road and Eastside Road are on opposite sides of the Russian River, which ends at the Sonoma Coast and meanders east and west and then north and south as it wends its way through some of the most fertile soil in the whole county.

Many years ago the Westside Wineries, as they’re known, sponsored “An Evening at the Westside Wineries”, which began after the normal serving hours. I believe there were up to ten participating wineries at one time and each offered two or three wines paired with dishes prepared at each winery. A movable feast indeed, but as word got around and the numbers increased, liability became an issue and the program was discontinued. That evening each year held some of my best memories of touring Sonoma, and now I was reliving them, albeit in broad daylight.

Arista Winery
We began at Arista for some Pinot Noir tasting. I’d previously purchased a half case of their 2008 Sonoma County Pinot Noir and was eager to try more. Pinot Noir is Arista’s main passion, although they also make excellent Syrah, Zinfandel and Pinot Gris. Artisa specializes in single region and single vineyard Pinot Noir wines from Sonoma, Mendocino and the Monterrey Peninsula.

The winery is located on Westside Road, an area I’ve traveled more times on bike than car. Davis Bynum, one of the early pioneers of Russian River Pinot Noir had a winery here at one time. My love of this area’s Pinot began there and continued with Rochioli just down the road. This is also home for Gary Farrell and Williams Selyem, all iconic producers of premium Pinot Noir.

To my great satisfaction, Arista continues that heritage with exceptional Pinot Noir. Due to the popularity of their wines, one has to join their “A” list to insure access to all the enticing varieties of this grape they offer, which topped ten unique Pinots at my last count. That’s what I mean about a passion for Pinot.

Arista Winery is a family affair with multiple generations of the McWilliams clan getting into the act. The photo above is by Al McWilliams. Ben McWilliams, the tasting room manager, gave us good background on the winery and poured us increasingly wonderful Pinots and other choice wines. It appeared that my 2008 Pinot was only the tip of the iceberg of what Arista produces. This may become my go-to winery for Russian River Pinots, the wines are that good.

I did grab a bottle of their Smoky Ridge Vineyard Zinfandel, sourced from the Dry Creek Valley, which was also excellent. The winery and its grounds are a great place to decamp, sample the wines, bring a picnic and open a bottle looking over the vineyards and distant mountains. The Japanese gardens and waterfall are inviting and make it hard to leave. It will have you saying,” Maybe just one more glass.”

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Touring the St. Clair Winery in Deming

March 29, 2011
I recently had the privilege of touring the St. Clair winery with Farid Himeur, who handles national sales for Southwest Wines. He had written a very nice review of my wine book; Wines of Enchantment, but we had never met in person. That includes his tour at Gruet before joining Southwest Wines. I found him to be as amiable and knowledgeable a guide as I could have wished for. Before long it seemed we were just two wine dudes exploring the newest wines of Southwest Wines.

First off this facility is huge and expanding even as I write this. Several smaller wineries could fit inside St. Clair with room to spare. We began by tank tasting some of the whites. In tank tasting, one sidles up to a towering stainless steel tank with glass in hand, and draws off some of the liquid from a spigot. All four whites were very good, being well on their way to ready.

Many of the whites were a bit on the sweet side, but had good acidity and fruit, making them food-friendly. I particularly liked the Muscat of Alexandria, which could well be the wine Cleopatra, used to entice Marc Antony to her bed. You don’t think she did that just with her looks, do you? Liz Taylor, she wasn’t.

After tasting the whites we went into a storage room and barrel tasted the reds, beginning with a St. Clair 2010 Pinot Noir. This is not a classic grape for New Mexico as most of the great ones come from coastal areas, but this is a very impressive effort. The wine is varietally correct, which is not often the case in New Mexico, and I’ll be anxious to try it after a few months in the bottle. The 2009 Syrah was chewy, rich and loaded with dark fruit.

The 2009 Cabernet Franc was a real eye-opener, however. Echoing the flavors that made the 2007 Limited release a red sweepstake winner at the SF Chronicle wine competition, this will be a wine to queue up for. Knowing that future releases were doing well, we went into the tasting room to try some of the current releases. A cheery and enthusiastic Terri behind the counter kept us well fortified.

The one wine I’ll mention here is the DH Lescombes 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon. I’d reviewed this wine here on my blog site. I enjoyed a bottle almost a year ago, and thought it had definitely earned its gold medal. Now that it has had a year in the bottle, Farid suggested I should try it again. How right he was! I could not believe how much better it was now. The fruit seemed richer, there was definitely a lot more complexity including scents of forest floor and spice and a lush mouthfeel that made me ask for a second taste.

At $24, I’d match this against Sonoma and Napa Cabs costing twice as much, it is that good. If you’re wondering why I waited almost a month to tell you dear reader, it’s because I wanted to make sure I got my case first. Salud!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Spin through Alexander Valley

March 2, 2011

OK, I admit it, I’m writing under the influence. But that’s not a bad thing for a wine writer. I just opened a bottle of Field Stone 2008 Syrah from Alexander Valley in Sonoma. The grapes come from an estate vineyard called Marion’s Block named after Field Stone’s co-founder Marion Johnson. The first word that popped into my head after tasting this luscious Syrah was opulent. I don’t typically use words like that, because they seem overused and not always accurately. Trust me, this wine you can call opulent and it is eminently justified.

Fieldstone has been a presence in the Alexander Valley of Sonoma for many years. Their wines have always been enticing so tasting the latest releases of the Syrah and Petite Sirah (different grapes, just like different spelling) was one of anticipation rewarded. That also goes for the Cabernet Sauvignon and the entire line.

As an aside, I had compared notes with their assistant winemaker, Scott Sabbadini, years ago about cooperage. No this is not esoteric rambling, but a key element of winemaking. To wit, what kind of oak to use, what toasting level and for how long. These are all elemental to winemaking because of the accents and tasting notes imparted by oak. At that time they were evaluating the choices of Hungarian, Rumanian, Polish and America oak on their current release of Syrah. French cooperage is around $1,000 per barrique (barrel) and adds to the cost of the wine versus American ($400-$500) and other European oaks. You can read about that trip here.

I was invited to barrel taste the wines, which all began as the same juice before aging. I was amazed at how different each wine tasted! No surprise to winemakers, but I was relatively new to the technology of wine then and always appreciated the initiation provided by Field Stone.

Fast forward 3 years and I’m tasting the results of the oak choice they made back them. A great choice that has yielded a wine of amazing grace. Rich, dark, seductive red berries and violets such as a good Pinot possesses on the nose, a hint of bacon without the fat, typical of some California Syrah, but admirably understated here which winds into dark fruit, plum-like and dense with peppery tannins on the palate.

One sip invites another in an endless procession that will only end when the bottle is empty. And I haven’t even opened the Petite Sirah yet, but I’ll have to save that for another time. I’m only good for one bottle pre review. Salud!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Any Port in a Storm as Long as it's Prager

Anyone who loves port wine knows how challenging it can be to find a domestic one that is consistently good and also available every year. Most winemakers will only make port wine serendipitously; that is, when the grapes are right for making port. Alternately, if they have an excess of grapes one year they might decide to make port. What is needed is a winery whose main focus is crafting port wines. Enter Prager Winery and Port Works in Napa.

The Prager family has been making port wines since 1979, and the knowledge of three generations of winemakers attests to their commitment and passion. Many California ports are made with Zinfandel grapes, but I’ve found ports made with Petite Sirah grapes superior. Prager uses Petite Sirah, Chardonnay and a trio of Portuguese grapes for a more authentic port. Prager makes tawny, ruby, traditional and vintage ports and two white ports. All Prager ports are in 750ml bottles, most other domestic producers use the 375ml size so don’t be misled by the higher prices of Prager ports. Just divide by two.

Some folks may think port is reserved for special occasions, but I’d reply you can make a special occasion by including port. Valentine’s Day chocolate and port, most definitely, a way to get through that chocolate Easter Bunny, why not? How about a round of Stilton cheese with a hole gouged into the center into which port is dribbled for a more esoteric choice? Perhaps you can see the possibilities.

Prager also makes two very good wines. Sampling the robust 2005 Petite Syrah provides insights into the reason their red ports are so good. The nose of cedar, cigar box and cherry leads to a dark cherry and spicy palate, mellowed with 2-1/2 years aging in American and French oak. The 2007 Sweet Claire of 100% late harvest Riesling is nicely balanced and the apple, apricot and spiciness of this not-too-sweet dessert wine work with any fruit-based desserts and Asian fusion dishes. They also make premium vinegars and a Port Chocolate Drizzle that is seduction itself.

The tasting room is also fun. The walls and ceiling are layered with currency from around the world. Imagine the myriad of visitors that wished to leave their mark on this house of port before they went home. And then there’s the special spider window, but I’ll leave that for you to discover.

Chocolate and port wine always pair well, but Prager ports have a lock on the symbiosis of port and chocolate. In fact they even have jellied port in their truffle-styled chocolates. Did I mention this place might not be good if you’re on a diet? Oh, what the heck, live a little! Salud!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Sampling Raymond Cabernet Sauvignon in Baccarat Crystal

Raymond Vineyards in St. Helena has a sweeping set of low-slung buildings amid, incongruously, a front yard sporting a set of empty picture frames slung across a wire line. Add cast white armed chairs set around them and be prepared for something out of the ordinary. And this was before we even entered the place.

The tasting room is large, spacious and clean. A wall-sized picture depicting a scene from the past is a celebration of the end to prohibition. Three cheers for that. I met Bill Farmer there who looked the part of a wine host and guide in his perfectly trimmed beard. We began with a very good 2009 Napa Valley Chardonnay, a reserve selection that reinforced my opinion of Raymond Chards in the past. Crisp with a good acidic bite, this wine is not bludgeoned with oak and lets the good fruit shine.

There are signs everywhere on the property that this is a place to spend a leisurely afternoon, which is not typical of Napa. But if you’re into Bocce ball, there are courts here to test your skill. Looking for a seat under a sheltering shade tree? You’ll find it here. The tour took us through the winemaking area with a forest of stainless steel fermentation tanks gleaming in the subdued light.

Turning a corner we entered an area with racks of barriques climbing to the high ceiling, separated by a long, long table that ended at the Baccarat display. It looked like it could handle a seating of 50, but the far end was set for three. That would be for us. Backlit and red light seemed to suffuse the casks racked against both sides as if hinting at the contents.

Every shade of red radiated and reflected off glass and crystal, and if the lighting had not been dimmed I might have thought we’d entered an amusement park. A gaily costumed mannequin hanging from a trapeze certainly suggested that possibility.

That is until we were fully into the room and the display cases of Baccarat crystal dazzled the eye. For once my powers of description failed me, which is why a picture of this room is included. But even the picture does not do it justice. And that was before we sat down to taste the flight of wines reserved for us. That’s a heck of a prelude.

Bill Farmer as our guide/host was superb; he’s engaging, knowledgeable and passionate about Raymond. As an added bonus it appears we are both fans of the Addams Family, John Astin and the movie Wheeler Dealers. What are the odds of that happening?

The focal point of the tasting were three 2006 Appellation Collection Napa Cabernet Sauvignon wines that had been poured into heart-shaped baccarat crystal carafes. Each sourced their fruit from a different region within Napa; St. Helena, Oakville and Rutherford. Not surprisingly each had a different flavor profile even though the processing and aging were similar. Each showed the impact of terroir on the finished wines and all three were outstanding.

These are all classic Napa Cabs, and since I couldn’t decide which one I loved best I bought all three. By the way, if your last name is Raymond, do they have a deal for you. In fact, I’m almost thinking of changing mine to Raymond. Jim Raymond, it has a nice authoritative sound to it; don’t you think?