Category Archives: Food

Move over Sideways, Merlot is back!

As winter and the holidays arrive, it’s time to start thinking about hearty meals paired with spectacular red wines. While Pinot Noir, Syrah, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon are heavy hitters in this category, it’s also time to start taking a serious look at Merlot.

Yes, I’m talking about the same grape that took the blunt from the famous lines said by lead character Miles (Paul Giamatti) in the film Sideways: “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I’m not drinking any f*#@ing Merlot!”

Merlot Seminar at #NVFF2014  (Clockwise from bottom left): Winemaker Tom Rinaldi, Provenance & Hewitt Wines; Sean Quinn, Wine Program Manager of #NVFF2014; Winemaker Chris Carpenter, La Jota & Cardinale Wines; Chris Sawyer (me); Wine Writer Jim Laube, Wine Spectator; and Hailey Trefethen, Trefethen Winery.
Merlot Seminar at #NVFF2014 (Clockwise from bottom left): Winemaker Tom Rinaldi, Provenance & Hewitt Wines; Sean Quinn, Wine Program Manager of #NVFF2014; Winemaker Chris Carpenter, La Jota & Cardinale Wines; Chris Sawyer (me); Wine Writer Jim Laube, Wine Spectator; and Hailey Trefethen, Trefethen Winery.

After rising to star status in the wine industry during the 1980s and 1990s; Merlot was already going through a midlife crisis when the film was released a decade ago. Frankly, there were too many weak versions of the wine in the marketplace that were sweet, green, herbaceous, vegetative or insipid. But thanks to the sensitive message in the film, many of the vines planted in the wrong locations have been torn out and the level of quality has recently risen to its highest point in decades.

Following the 10-year anniversary screening of the Sideways at the recent Napa Valley Film Festival, the delights of these charming new wines were explored at a provocative, thought-provoking seminar aptly titled “We’re Drinking Merlot!”

Held at the Traditional Home Culinary Stage next to Barrel Room 1870 in Yountville on November 14; I joined in on tasting through the delicious wines with the allstar panel which included Jim Laube, Editor, Wine Spectator; Winemaker Tom Rinaldi, Winemaker, Provenance Vineyards; Hailey Trefethen, Trefethen Family Vineyards; Chris Carpenter, Winemaker, La Jota Vineyard Company; and panel moderated by NVFF Wine Program Manager Sean Quinn.

“I’m going to preach it, I love Merlot,” says Rinaldi, who started working with the grape variety when he became the winemaker at Duckhorn Wine Company in 1978. “It’s really versatile with a wide range of foods.”

Rinaldi says he rarely puts out wines that are 100% Merlot. Instead, he follows the Old World style by blending in small portions of Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varietals. And through the years, he says common traits of the fruit he works with are red fruits, tobacco leaf, rum raisin, and dark tea.

Laube agreed, saying that his favorite styles of Merlot are filled with delicate flavors and texture with layers of elegance and finesse. “They are wines that are far beyond “Dumber and Dumber” for adults.”

Today, many of the best selections are made with grapes grown at the terroir-driven sites sprinkled throughout the beautiful landscape of Napa Valley. Many of these vineyards are planted in the clay soils in the cool windy region of Carneros. Some are grown at high elevations in the rugged volcanic soils of Howell Mountain or surrounded by forests in the sub-AVAs of Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain and Diamond Mountain. On the valley floor, others are planted on special sites feature gravelly and alluvial-based soils, warm days, and cool nights.

According to Carpenter, the rugged growing conditions of the grapes he works with winery’s estate vineyards on Howell Mountain help add more natural tannins, burliness and wild flavors to the La Jota Merlots. The end result is deep lush flavors with hints of gritty minerals and herbal accents.

The quality has also improved considerably thanks to growing the varietal in the right conditions, newer clones, angling the rows for optimum sun exposure in the mornings and late afternoons, and ultimately picking the fruit at the optimum brix with lower sugar and higher acidity.

Although the wines are not as tannic as Cabernet Sauvignon, many of them do have the ability to age. For instance, Trefethen shared a few bottles of the 1999 vintage made with fruit from her family’s estate. The wine was silky smooth and still had deep flavors of cherry, plum and subtle spices. As a result, it’s an ideal cellar selection to share with friends and family during the holidays.

“I hope people continue to grow Merlot where it works best,” says Trefethen, representing the third generation of her family, who originally started their winery in 1973. “It’s a very expressive grape with lovely flavors, supple tannins, and worthy of being back at the top of the world-class scale for drinking and cellaring.

Thanks to the combination of soft tannins and finesse, the distinct flavors of these high-quality Merlots are also very approachable and fantastic with winter dishes. Beyond pork, poultry and Turducken, Rinaldi likes to pair his Merlots with anything grilled, especially eggplant and steaks. Trefethen says the smoky character of the style of Merlot her family makes provide flexibility that allows her to pair with pastas with tomato-based sauces. And Carpenter loves to have his style of wine with leg of lamb, rosemary, and red wine reduction sauce.

With those pairings in mind, I’m going to open another bottle of Merlot.

Happy Holidays from!


SawyerSomm: Top Napa Valley Merlot Picks for the Holidays

Trefethen 2011 Merlot, Trefethen Estate Vineyards, Oak Knoll District ($40)

Lovely blend of 77% Merlot, 15 Malbec and 11% Cabernet Sauvignon. Festive aromas of red berries, cinnamon, nutmeg, leather and tobacco. Fresh and lively flavors of cherry, raspberry, black pepper, clove, and a long, elegant finish.

Rutherford Hill 2011 Merlot, Napa Valley ($30)

From the Terlato family, this powerful new release is made with Merlot and small dollops of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah. The aromas are deep with notes of ripe fruits, cocoa, vanilla and smoke. On the palate, the wine is full-bodied with generous notes of cherry, plum, red currant, anise, and fine-grained French oak. Tasted at the NVFF Merlot Seminar with winemaker Marisa Taylor.

Freemark Abbey 2012 Merlot, Napa Valley ($34)

Legendary Napa Valley winery known for working with Merlot over the past three decades. The latest release features lovely notes of ripe red berries, dark chocolate, clove and orange peel. Rich mouthfeel, supple texture, and long finish. Solid!

Markham 2012 Merlot, Napa Valley ($20)

Crafted by star winemaker Kimberlee Nicholls and tasted by the panelists as the mystery wine at the Napa Valley Film Festival seminar, this purist expression of Merlot is young, bright and grapey. Carpenter liked the notes of blueberry and lush tannins. Trefethen liked the spicy notes. Rinaldi liked the maraschino cherry and mushroom attributes. And I liked the lively fruit flavors, spicy layers of mint, cinnamon and clove, and how the wine opened up with more time in the glass. Young, vibrant, and very food-friendly!

Provenance 2011 Merlot, Three Palms Vineyard, Napa Valley ($65)

Dense, full-bodied wine, with aromas of dark fruits, dried herbs, mineral and cedar. Ripe and juicy flavors of black cherry, blackberry, cassis, cranberry, mineral, earth, and fine-grained tannins. Overall, a fantastic Merlot with deep flavors, elegant texture, and a long, generous finish.

La Jota 2011 Merlot, Estate Grown, Howell Mountain ($75)

Planted on red volcanic and Ryholitic tufa soils at elevations above 1,700 feet; this deep, dense wine features attractive aromas of wild berries, cocoa, licorice, wild mountain sage, and cedar. On the palate, the flavors are complex with notes of black raspberry, dark cherry, milk chocolate, mineral, roasted almonds, and allspice. Overall, the wine features rich texture, chewy tannins, and velvety finish.

More tasty Napa Valley Merlots recommendations:

Silverado 2010 Merlot, Estate Grown, Mt George Vineyard, Napa Valley ($35)

Attractive aromas of wild berries, cocoa powder and spice. Deep flavors of blackberry, blueberry, red currant, milk chocolate, licorice, wild mountain herbs, and forest. Great wine with pork, poultry and gourmet burgers. Tasted at the Flavor Napa Valley “Grapes & Grills” event, #FlavorNapa.

Grgich Hills 2010 Merlot, Estate Grown, Napa Valley ($42)

Elegant Merlot with lovely aromas of ripe red fruits, licorice, cardamom, and roasted walnuts. Flavors of ripe plums, wild strawberries, mint, and layers of spice. Firm structure, chewy tannins, and a long, silky finish. Great wine with baked ham, roasted meats, and blue cheese. Tasted at HQ.

Goosecross Cellars 2010 Merlot, State Lane Estate Vineyard, Yountville ($48)

This is a hidden gem from a lovely winery off State Lane east of the downtown Yountville. Made with 100% estate fruit, the wine is big, rich, and powerful. Aromas and flavors of dark cherry, wild berry, black trumpet mushroom, firm structure, chewy tannins, and great length. Get some of this wine before it’s gone! Tasted with Goosecross proprietors Christi Coors Ficeli and David Ficeli; winemaker Bill Nancarrow; and fellow wine writer Linda Murphy.

St. Supery 2011 Merlot, Estate Vineyard, Rutherford ($50)

Dark, rich and opulent style of Merlot made with fruit grown at the St. Supery Estate Vineyard in Rutherford. The aromas and bouquet are laden with alluring notes of dark cherry, cassis, mochaccino, licorice, and pipe tobacco. On the palate, deep flavors of cherry, blackberry, cassis, plum, milk chocolate, vanilla and fine French oak. Supple tannins and velvety texture. Each sip makes you want more—it’s that good! The wine was tasted, along with a fantastic pairing of a Grass-Fed Beef Burger with Melted Gruyere, Sherry Carmelized Onions on a Brioche Bun made by Chef Adam Ross of 1313 Main Restaurant, at the Flavor Napa Valley “Grapes & Grills” event at St. Supery Winery.

Duckhorn 2011 Merlot, Napa Valley ($54)

Elegant, complex and worthy of cellaring, this new release is made with fruit from the estate and other special sites, including the Three Palms Vineyard, which makes up about 30% of the current vintage. On the nose, stimulating hints of red fruit, roasted almonds, and cedar. In the glass, the wine opens up with lavish flavors of blackberry, black raspberry, cherry and mineral; firm structure, silky smooth tannins, and opulent finish. Tasted at HQ.

SawyerSomm’s Cellar Selection: Paloma 2007 Merlot, Spring Mountain District ($54)

This magnificent cellar selection was made by Sheldon Richard with Merlot and smaller fraction of Cabernet sauvignon from his family’s high elevation estate vineyard on the Mayacamas Mountains west of St. Helena. Fragrant aromas and complex flavors of fresh tobacco, violets, blueberries, cassis, milk chocolate, forest floor, wild herbs, and a long, engaging finish. Rich, supple, graceful, and eager to please! The new 2010 is equally dynamic, but requires decanting or more aging in the cellar. Tasted at the NVFF Merlot Seminar and the fantastic Spring Mountain Tasting held at Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch.

Talking turkey in the foothills.

Yes, we can see them here in Northern California Wine Country crossing roads, displaying feathers, and sharing feed with cows in the field on a regular basis. But I am talking about the upcoming feast that leaves them gobbling in terror!

Have you ever gone to the Sierra Nevada Foothills for Thanksgiving? LRVwine12We have spent much time there, particularly along Ebbetts Pass and found it to be a great place to initiate the holiday festivities. One memorable holiday meal was spent with my mother, brother and late Grandma Joanie, at the historic Murphys Hotel. Murphys is a pleasantly social foothill town sporting oodles of Tasting Rooms: As in wine! Waddle around town after your turkey stuffing right into a glass of Zin.  Hovey, Lavender Ridge, Newsome-Harlow, Twisted Oak are just a few examples of the hospitible local flavors to sample along the main strip.

The line up at Newsome Harlow Tasting Room in Murphys.
The line up at Newsome Harlow Tasting Room in Murphys.

Among the multitude of destinations heading north from Ebbetts Pass, along the historic Highway 49, another great stop for wine is the quaint town of Nevada City.  Also with a handful of Tasting Rooms sprinkled throughout the short downtown strip (some delicious restaurants as well).  For some suggestions on the offerings visit this blog from our favorite lodging there, The Outside Inn. Wherever you decide to explore, enjoy your meal!  And be sure to confirm tasting room hours before planning your trip.

Happy Holidays!

Carneros Bistro still going strong!

Did you catch the latest restaurant review by Jeff Cox in our local beloved Press Democrat?  You can read it here if not:

Cox: A Bounty of great wines at Carneros Bistro

A fun photo shoot in the bistro days with my buddy Chef Andrew.
A fun photo shoot in the bistro days with my buddy Chef Andrew.

It is great to hear the wine program is still going strong thanks to Joshua Betts and you can pair a glass with a savory meal by Chef Andrew Wilson.

If you haven’t already experienced the ambiance and delicacies then consider a Thanksgiving outing for the entire family.  (Call soon to reserve your space!)  Or catch a free wine education class on Wednesday evenings with the knowledgeable Dan Noreen of Bean & Bottle, a specialty wine shop conveniently located inside the Lodge at Sonoma.


Take a little journey this weekend!

As I will begin my weekend tasting wines in scenic Santa Cruz (sorry, Sold Out!), would like to suggest some interesting treks to possibly engage your senses. Now pack the car and get rolling!

Fort Ross Historic Park: Harvest Festival and Fort Ross-Seaview Wine Festival: Take the windy drive up the coast to enjoy a variety of activities. Some family friendly, historical and definitely scenic endeavors!

smithSmith Vineyard Harvest & Wine Event:  If you are hankering for a trip to Gold Country then head straight for Highway 49.  Smith Vineyard is hosting an Open House with pumpkins to entertain the kids and wine to enthrall the adults.  Outside the town of Grass Valley, and a short drive to the quaint berg of Nevada City, both with oodles of historic significance to explore.

Sonoma County Art Trails:  You can stick a little closer but still have a lovely tour, just print up the Art Trails map and drop in on some Open Studios throughout the county.  An amazing opportunity to view and buy some work by local artists.

Whichever adventure you choose, have fun and enjoy some wine!

Home Crafted Wine Awards Dinner & Celebration

The winners of the 2014 Petaluma Pro-Am Homemade Wine Competition will have their wines presented in a featured pairing at a four course dinner in the 160 year old dining room on the 3rd floor of the IOOF Lodge #30 in Petaluma.


Christopher will discuss the wines professionally paired with a succulent dinner menu.  The money raised from this event will be used to benefit the Petaluma Historical Library & Museum and the Petaluma IOOF Building Renovation Fund.

There are only 80 tickets available for this unique Petaluma-themed Food & Wine pairing dinner.

BPT_buy_tickets_largePurchase your tickets today!

#EatDrinkRock 2014

Need I say more? It's the way we rolled at #FoodNetworkinConcert 2014.
Need I say more? It’s the way we rolled at #FoodNetworkinConcert 2014.

It was a magical idea that became reality. Of course, I’m talking about Food Network in Concert, the ground-breaking concept that was put in play at the legendary Ravinia Festival site near Chicago on September 20th. Put on by Food Network Magazine, this one-day event was filled with star chefs from Food Network TV and Chicagoland; talented musicians like John Maher, Philip Phillips, Zane Carney and Twin Forks; and magnificent wines from around the globe, including the special Artisan Series wines provided by Freixenet USA, Foley Family Wines and Charles Krug Winery.

Below are some of the fun pictures to drive the point home. For more information, visit and follow the Twitter stream #EatDrinkRock!

Talented young artist Zane Carney lays his heart on the line while singing a hot jazz-inspired track from his fabulous new album Amalgam.
Talented young artist Zane Carney lays his heart on the line while singing a hot jazz-inspired track from his fabulous new album Amalgam.
Fantastic Chef Lounge moments with "The Sandwich King" Jeff Mauro (pictured), Anne Burrell, Geoffrey Zakarian, Anne Guarnaschelli and many others.
Fantastic Chef Lounge moments with “The Sandwich King” Jeff Mauro (pictured), Anne Burrell, Geoffrey Zakarian, Anne Guarnaschelli and many others.
Eva Bertran, VP of FreixenetUSA, comments on the delicious sparkling wines featured in the Bubbles from Around the Globe seminar held in Martin Hall at Ravinia.
Eva Bertran, VP of FreixenetUSA, comments on the delicious sparkling wines featured in the Bubbles from Around the Globe seminar held in Martin Hall at Ravinia.
Feeling "Gravity" while listening to music headliner John Maher play his hit song live in front of 10,000 happy attendees.
Feeling “Gravity” while listening to music headliner John Mayer play his hit song live in front of 10,000 happy attendees.
Crunchy sensations via Chef Allen's Urban Pickles.
Crunchy sensations via Chef Allen’s Urban Pickles.
The fantastic lineup of wines featured in the Charles Krug seminar I did with Riana Mondavi.
The fantastic lineup of wines featured in the Charles Krug seminar I did with Riana Mondavi.


FNIC 2014

First Annual Petaluma PRO-AM Homemade Wine Competition

First Annual Petaluma PRO-AM Homemade Wine Competition will be held this Tuesday afternoon, September 30, 2014 under the auspices of “Sommelier to the Stars” Christopher Sawyer.

That evening Chris and several other noted wine experts will share their opinions with you – after you have tasted and scored the same wines. Compare your opinions with the experts!  Rare opportunity to taste Gold Medal Winning wines from the recent professional International Wine Channel TV Wine Competition by Gloria Ferrer, Kokomo Wines, St. Anne’s Crossing and Muscardini Cellars.

The Petaluma Museum Association and the Petaluma Chapter of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows invite you to a World Class tasting of Homemade Wines at:
Petaluma Historical Library & Museum
Tuesday September 30th at 6 PM.
20 4th Street, Downtown Petaluma
Limited to 72 Ticket Sales Total
Tickets $20 at the Museum Door


Summertime Sparklers

No longer limited to pricey French Champagne, it’s easy to pair summertime meals with sparkling wine. Learn more about light, delicious styles that have blossomed in Spain, Italy and the U.S.


Owned and operated by the Ferrer family in northern Spain, Freixenet boasts over 100 years of expertise in producing sparkling wine or cava as it’s called in Spanish. This commitment to quality has Freixenet-CordonNegro-Brut-210x210made Freixenet the #1 sparkling wine producer in the world. The benchmark wine from the family estate near Barcelona is the Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut ($14). Crisp, clean, and well balanced, the bubbles in the frosted black bottle are made with the rare grape varietals of Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Parellada to create an aromatic medium-bodied sparkler with bright fruity flavors of peach, apple, pear, fresh citrus, ginger and roasted almond. In the glass, it’s versatile and pairs well with most foods, especially small, spicy tapas plates. If you’re looking for a slightly sweeter taste, try the Freixenet Mia Moscato ($12). In Spanish, mia means “mine”. Crafted by Gloria Collell, the talented winemaker for the Ferrer family’s newer cava brand Segura Viudas, this young and sassy sparkler features a light golden hue, fragrant floral aroma, flavors of ripe tropical fruits, lime and a drizzle of raw honey. It’s perfect with fresh fruit or desserts made with custard, citrus, berries and light, flaky pastry crusts.


Known for its refreshing flavors, crisp acidity and tiny bubbles, Prosecco is made primarily with Glera, a native white grape widely grown on Italian hillsides and farmlands. Try the Voveti Prosecco ($19), a lovely wine with aromas of fresh citrus and spring flowers. Flavors expand with lively notes of ripe peach, apricot, tangerine and pear; serve with antipasti like prosciutto-wrapped melon, olives, toasted nuts and salumi or main dishes like Thai or Indian curry, shrimp kabobs and grilled chicken.


For those looking for a domestic alternative, try Gloria Ferrer NV Brut ($22) from Sonoma. Made with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes picked at the beginning of harvest, this sparkling gem features flavors GF-Sonoma-Brut1of Bartlett pears, Fuji apple, citrus, almonds, vanilla, and a pleasant roasty-toasty note on the finish. For pairings, enjoy it with Dungeness crab cakes, fresh oysters or sushi; aioli or other citrus-based sauces; and main courses with prawns, chicken, turkey or duck. Its counterpart is the Gloria Ferrer NV Blanc de Noirs ($22), a blend of 92 percent Pinot Noir and 8 percent Chardonnay featuring a nice balance of red cherry, raspberry, cranberry, hibiscus, earth and great acidity. With layers of power and depth, it’s an ideal complement to fresh grilled salmon, Ahi tuna, wild mushroom, risotto and richer cheeses.

FNIC 2014

Turning Water into Wine with Marc Mondavi

Like chefs, winemakers enjoy interesting hobbies away from work. Marc Mondavi’s started with a girl he dated in high school, whose father taught him how to find water underground with something called the divining rod.

Divining RodSimple and efficient, the divining rod is a set of sticks that cross due to the power of kinetic energy when water is sensed below the surface of the soil. Also called water divining, water witching or dowsing, the origins of the craft are as mysterious as the practice itself. Written records of divining can easily be traced back to 14th century Germany, but even earlier mentions have been found dating back to the 5th century B.C. But, when done correctly, it works!

Marc uses his skills to find underground water sources for other wineries and land developers in Napa Valley and other parts of Northern California. “My goal is to aim high, talk low,” he says.

In addition to overseeing the vineyards farmed for his family’s Charles Krug and CK Mondavi wine brands, Marc started his own brand a few years ago, appropriately named The Divining Rod.

The latest release is The Divining Rod 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley ($18). Made with 89% Cabernet Sauvignon and smaller amounts of Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Merlot, the wine features alluring aromas of ripe dark berries, earth, sandalwood, tobacco and spice. Flavors are generous with notes of blackberry, black cherry, plum, cola, wild sage, vanilla and cedar; silky texture; and a long, dry finish.

“Some call the divining rods voodoo science or hocus-pocus,” says Marc, who earned the nickname “Water Witch” from his friends. “I call them our way of making divine wines with character, quality and a true sense of earth and water below the surface that helps us produce healthy vines and grapes with unique qualities and flavors.”

dv bookClick the book on the left to read Marc Mondavi’s children’s book “The Witch, the Water & the Wine” and learn about Marc Mondavi growing up as a water witch in the Napa Valley!

For more information about the The Divining Rod wines, visit These wines and other brands from Charles Krug portfolio will be featured in the Artisan Series at Food Network IN Concert.

FNIC 2014