Category Archives: History

Brunello di Montalcino: A Blast from the Past!

It is always a pleasure for me to review previous stories I have contributed to Industry Magazines over the years.  Indeed, I learn a lot when writing them, but also have distinctive memories of the trips or tastings involved.  Here is an article from a decade ago!  Published in The Tasting Panel Magazine, which I still am working with after all this time.  Enjoy this read!

Brunello di Montalcino: Fine Tuning History Inside The Bottle

brundimont

Sawyer-Casale Wine Education Series 2016: Margaux Report

The following is a summary from the first wine education event organized by myself and Keith Casale.  Please enjoy!

Margaux is known for its producing wines with deep colors, concentrated flavors, firm tannins, and the ability to age in the cellar for decades; Cabernet Sauvignon has become one of the most noble grape varieties grown in many of the top wine regions around the globe.

Until twenty years ago, the origin of this grape was a mystery. That changed in 1997 when a DNA study conducted by Dr. Carole Meridith and her PhD student John Bower at University of California Davis found that the grape was the offspring of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. As it turns out, Merlot is also a progeny of Cabernet Franc. From there a true kinship between these three grape varieties became the building block of the famous red wine blends made in the Bordeaux region in southwest France.

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The origins of the grape can be traced back to the late 18th century, when the first recorded vines were planted around the new chateaux being developed in the historic Medoc region located between the Gironde Estuary and the Atlantic Ocean and north of the city of Bordeaux The two patriarchs behind this movement were Baron Hector de Brane and his neighbor Armand d’Armailhacq in Paulliac. After selling Chateau Mouton in 1830, Brane went on to plant new vines at the Chateau Brane-Cantenac property located in the nearby commune of Margaux.

Over the next two decades, the success of the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes grown around Margaux would lead to the highest concentration of vineyards to be named as classified growths in 1855. Among the celebrated sites was Chateau Marguax, which became one of the first four vineyards to receive the prestigious first growths status in Medoc.

As a result, Cabernet Sauvignon is often the highest percentage used to make the red blends in Margaux. As a general rule, the flavor profiles commonly include a mixture of black and red berries, currants, chocolate, and French herbs. Smaller portions of Cabernet Franc and Merlot are then used to add more complex flavors, round and supple texture, and smooth the tannins. Depending on the producers, smaller amounts of Petite Verdot, Malbec and Carmenere are sometimes used to add spice, structure and color to the finished blends as well. Over time, these graceful blends have earned a reputation for being more silky and sensual than the more full-bodied style wines made in the neighboring regions of Paulliac, St-Juilen and St-Estephe to the north.

Tasting is Believing

To study these profiles in more detail, the Sawyer-Casale Wine Education Series recently invited a group of winemakers from Sonoma County and Napa Valley to a special tasting focused on current releases from the 2009-2012 vintages of Margaux, as well as a few older vintages provided by the host Don Sebastiani of Sonoma.

The special guest participating on the panel included winemakers Bart Hansen of Dane Cellars/Lasseter Family Wines, David Jelinek of The Prisoner Wine Co., Mike Cox of Schug Winery, Scott Covington of Trione Winery, David Marchesi of Madrone Vineyards Estate, Michael Scorsone of Emmitt Scorsone Wines, Kieran Robinson of Kieran Robinson Wines, and Alex Beloz of Tricycle Wine Co.; Wine Business Monthly editor Cyril Penn; Don Sebastiani; my colleague Keith Casale and myself.

20160630_142615All the wines were tasted blind and ranked on a 1-5 scale. #1 being the highest ranked of the bunch, #5 being the lowest. Here are summaries and rankings of the wines organized in the order we tasted the wines blind:

Chateau Brane-Cantenac 2009 Grand Cru Classé Margaux

Details: In 1855, the Brane-Cantenac estate vineyard became one of the special sites to receive second growth grand cru classe status. Today, the 75 acres of vineyards are divided into 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 4.5% Cabernet Franc and .5% Carmenere. These grapes are grown on a combination of sand and clay with a deep concentration of gravel. The 2009 vintage is a blend of 53% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot and 7% Cabernet Franc made exclusively with the best grapes on the property.

Panel descriptors: In the glass, the attractive color of dark brick with a hint of blue lead to vivid aromas of dark fruits, red candied fruits, tobacco, old leather, cocoa, vanilla, anise, smoked meats and sweet oak. On the palate, the flavors expand with deep notes of dark cherry, black currant, cola, soy, graphite, dark chocolate nibs, dried herbs, and more woody character towards the end. Overall, a well-crafted, medium-bodied wine with bright acidity, chalky tannins, and a long dry finish.

Group discussion: Hansen liked the way the wine opened up with time in the glass and the distinct flavors that set it apart from the rest; Jelinek liked the chewy tannins and generous finish; and both were intrigued by the Asian accents of soy and ponzu sauce that added more tertiary layers of flavor to the wine. Marchesi liked the entry and the way the wine was lean, tight and leafy. And while Cox thought the wine was a little too dry and astringent at first, he liked the way the flavors and texture became smoother with each sip.
Group Ranking: #3 of 5

Chateau Dauzac 1982 Grand Cru Classé Margaux

Details: With a rich heritage dating back to grapes planted on the property in the 12th century, Chateau Dauzac is one of the oldest estates in Margaux. After receiving its Cinquieme Grand Cru Classé status in 1855, the winery has become known for producing complex blends typically made with two-thirds Cabernet Sauvignon and one-third Merlot. This cellar selection from the 1982 vintage was snuck into the mix by Don Sebastiani, who was also nice enough to share bottles of the 2000 vintage from Chateau Brane-Cantenac and Chateau Labegorce at the lunch that followed the tasting.

Panel descriptors: Light red hue with slight browning around the edge. Musty Old World aromas of dark fruits, wild mushrooms, herbs, pencil lead, celery salt, sherry, mineral, earth, cedar and a slight medicinal quality. As the wine opens up, the flavors emerge with lively notes of plum, anise, spearmint, ash and a dusty character; soft tannins; and a long engaging finish.

Group discussion: While all the panelists thought the wine was an older vintage from the very beginning, Cox liked the weight of the wine and the combination of silky tannins, floral aromas as it opened up, and the smoky notes on the finish. Personally, I thought the wine was fairly lean, but the flavors were extremely concentrated and tasty. Hansen enjoyed the varietal characteristics with bottle age and the long finish. Covington thought it was the most interesting wine of the flight and loved the way it blossomed as it opened up. In the end, the group concluded the finish will only get drier with more time in the bottle. Thus, it needs to be consumed sooner rather than later. But an amazing wine that has aged gracefully over time.
Group Ranking: #2 of 5

Chateau Lascombes

Details: Chateau Lascombes was another special winery that became classified as a second growth in 1855. After making it through WW II, Alexis Lichine sold the winery to a British brewer in 1971. Today the winery is once again hitting its stride after going through a lull until the mid-1980s. As a departure from the rest of the Cab-based blends in the flight, this offering from the 2010 vintage is 55% Merlot, 45% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Petit Verdot.

Panel descriptors: Deep and dark red hue with fragrant scents of ripe red and black fruits, bay laurel, orange peel, clove, fresh brioche and fine-grained oak. Concentrated flavors of dark cherry, ripe plum, cassis, blackberry pie, mineral, chocolate bark and layers of spice; fine-grained tannins; silky texture; long earthy finish

Group discussion: At first, Hansen thought the wine was young and closed, but felt it expressed itself much better once it got more air. As a team, we felt it was youthful, lively and rewarding. Overall, a nice example from the region with complex flavors, soft tannins, and spicy nuances.
Group Ranking: #4 of 5

Chateau Brane-Cantenac 2012 Grand Cru Classé Margaux

Details: When Baron Brane purchased the estate in 1833, the winery was called Brane-Mouton. In 1838 he changed the name to Brane-Cantenac after the small commune that surrounds the property. The 2012 vintage was made with 68% Cabernet Sauvignon and smaller portions of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The wine was aged for 18 months in 60% new French oak barrels.

Panel descriptors: Brilliant dark purple hue with seductive aromas of ripe fruits, fresh violets, toffee, black tea, vanilla, peppercorns and fine French oak. Luxurious flavors of ripe tree fruits, plum, dark cherry, blueberry, chocolate malt, espresso and cedar. Fantastic balance of silky tannins, bright acidity, firm structure, and lingering finish. A true gem that keeps getting better with more time in the glass.

Group discussion: Jelinek liked the full-body flavor of the wine and the extra character the Cabernet Franc added to the finished blend. On a similar note, Scorsone liked the elegant and refined character of the wine, the soft tannins, and how seamless it tasted from start to finish. Penn felt the flavor profile was enhanced with notes of fresh herbs, cocoa, oak, and how a refreshing burst of vibrant acidity lingered in his mouth after each sip. And Covington simply referred to the wine as the “mind’s eye of Bordeaux.” I couldn’t agree more.
Group Ranking: #1 of 5

Chateau Rauzan Ségla 2011 Grand Cru Classé Margaux

Details: The history of this winery can be traced back to 1661, when Pierre Desmezures de Rauzan purchased the Noble House of Gassies in Margaux. At the time, Rauzan was the manager of Chateau Margaux. While building his own family brand, he would later go on to work for Chateau Latour and purchase properties in Paulliac that eventually became the well-known estates of Pichon Lalande and Pichon Baron. The 2011 vintage contains 62% Cabernet Sauvignon, 36% Merlot and 2% Petit Verdot grapes primarily planted on gravel and a small portion of clay.

Panel descriptors: Dark red hue. Taste-tempting aromas of ripe black fruits, red berries, roasted coffee, toasted rye, baking spice, leather, earth and cigar box.  Deep flavors of blackberry tarts, fresh currants, black raspberry, wild herbs, bittersweet chocolate truffle, roasted almonds, and layers of spice, earth, and oak. From that point forward, the sweet and salty characteristics of the wine is further enhanced with firm tannins, integrated oak, and a warm spicy finish.

Group discussion: This was by far the most controversial wine on the table. Marchesi liked the firm entry and the expressive flavors of ripe blackberry, black olive, earth, and dried tannins. Cox enjoyed the balance of the sweet fruit, slight astringency, woody character, and the depth of the wine. On the flipside, I felt the fruit was a little too ripe, restrained, and hidden by oak. Scorsone agreed. To him, the wine was too squeaky clean and reductive, with not enough personality and too hot on the finish. And while Robinson liked the ripe dark fruit flavors and chalky tannins, he thought the finish was short and simple. In the end, the panel concluded that the wine was more of an international style instead of focusing on capturing the unique flavors Margaux has to offer.
Group Ranking: #5 of 5

Conclusion: The group was very impressed with the lineup of the wines. The ones that stood out the most had deep flavors, balanced tannins, and structure that allow them to age naturally for more than 20 years in the bottle.

Next up: A winemaker’s focus on wines from northern section of the Cotes de Nuit of Burgundy.  Stay tuned for more reports from the Sawyer-Casale Wine Education Series in 2016!

Virginia Dare wine brand rekindled by Coppola

We’ve all seen the billboard driving north on Hwy 101, right?  Well Virginia Dare has returned thanks to the direction of Francis Ford Coppola Winery.  You can read my brief article about it in Napa Sonoma Magazine, published February of this year.

Classic Virginia Dare white wine label.
Classic Virginia Dare white wine label.

Virginia Dare Winery
22281 Chianti Road, Geyserville
(707) 735-3500
virginiadarewinery.com

40 Years Later: Judgement of Paris

This recent Examiner article recounts the details of my special wine class at Flavor! Napa Valley last week.  Here is your chance to catch up if you missed the event!

Bottle Shock rocked Judgement of Paris:
40 Years Later at Flavor Napa Valley

Loved the complex flavor profiles of the two vintage Chardonnays and the special Cabernet Sauvignon we tasted from #ChateauMontelena at the "Tastes of Time" seminar at the Silverado Restort. #JOP40 #ChateauMontelena #FlavorNapaValley
Loved the complex flavor profiles of the two vintage Chardonnays and the special Cabernet Sauvignon we tasted from #ChateauMontelena at the “Tastes of Time” seminar at the Silverado Restort. #JOP40 #ChateauMontelena #FlavorNapaValley
Fabulous tasting of vintage wines from the S.L.V. Collection from #StagsLeapWineCellars at the "Tastes of Time" seminar I moderated at the Silverado Restort. #JOP40 #StagsLeapCask23
Fabulous tasting of vintage wines from the S.L.V. Collection from #StagsLeapWineCellars at the “Tastes of Time” seminar I moderated at the Silverado Restort. #JOP40 #StagsLeapCask23
Selfie Deluxe with winemakers Marcus Notaro of #StagsLeapCask23 and Matt Crafton of #ChateauMontelena for our epic #FlavorNapaValley seminar celebrating the 40-year Anniversary of the Judgment of Paris at Silverado Resort, #NapaValley. #wine #JOP40 #siphistory #ChMontelena #StagsLeapWineCellars
Selfie Deluxe with winemakers Marcus Notaro of #StagsLeapCask23 and Matt Crafton of #ChateauMontelena for our epic #FlavorNapaValley seminar celebrating the 40-year Anniversary of the Judgment of Paris at Silverado Resort, #NapaValley. #wine #JOP40 #siphistory #ChMontelena #StagsLeapWineCellars

Exploring the beauties of aphrodisiac cuisine all year long

Feeling blue because Valentine’s week is over? Well no worries! For every day can have a romantic twist if you master the skills of working with aphrodisiac cuisine or simply surprise your loved one with meals that follow this romantic theme.

The root of the word “aphrodisiac” is from the Greek goddess Aphrodite, an expert in the fields of sensuality and love. In contemporary times, an aphrodisiac can provide an internal stimulus based on sensory experiences.

For starters, many of these specialty ingredients are things we eat (or want to eat) on a daily basis, including : oysters, garlic, sweet basil, fennel, hearts of palm, radish, carrot, blood orange, pineapple, sweet potato, artichoke, olive, pine nuts, wild mushrooms, truffle, coffee, cocoa, and chocolate.

the callingFor wine lovers, there is always the health-conscious aspect to consider. Wines made with pinot noir and other red grapes naturally contain resveratrol, an antioxidant that helps boost blood flow and improves circulation before and during physical intimacy:  So that’s a positive on many different angles!

Like other forms of classy cuisine, aphrodisiac-style dishes can be even more elegant, sophisticated and complex when the dishes are matched up with superb wines.

With these factors in mind, a few weeks ago my colleague Ziggy the Wine Gal gathered together a great group of food and wine pros to taste through flavorful dishes with distinctive attributes designed by gifted chef Daniel Kedan of Backyard restaurant in Forestville, CA. Other special guests who joined in this special tasting including myself were wine writer Virginie Boone, wine and spirits pro Tim McDonald, and chef and author Michele Anna Jordan.

bourbanIn addition to a specialty sangria and Redemption High Rye Bourbon served at the beginning and the end of this provocative culinary experience, the main courses were paired with the new releases of The Calling, a high-quality brand started by Emmy Award-winning sportscaster Jim Nancy and Peter Deutsch of Deutsch Family Wines.

Here are the pairings, notes and special ingredients used in this sexy dining experience:

Aphrodisiac Inspiration & Deutsch Family Wine

Passed Appetizers
Citrus & Ceviche
Bodega Bay Rock Cod, Winter Citrus, Beet Chips
Sips: Eppa Superfruita Organic Red Sangria
Notes: This lively and expressive fruit-driven sangria helped open up the palate with perky sensations of fresh berries and pomegranate, which complemented the tangy and slightly salty flavors of the fresh seafood and citrus. Taste-tempting, crisp, fruity, and refreshing!

First Course
Point Reyes Oysters with Blood Orange Granita, Lemon Cream Lobster Bisque with Butter Poached Lobster, Chives
Sips: The Calling 2013 Dutton Ranch Vineyards Chardonnay, Russian River Valley ($32)
Notes: This power duo of raw oysters and lobster bisque matched perfectly with the attractive aromas, bright acidity, creamy texture and engaging flavors of melon, citrus and roasted nuts this wine offers in each sip.

Second Course
Roasted Maitake Mushroom
Sour Cherry & Fennel Pan Perdue, Poached Cherries
Sips: The Calling 2013 Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Notes: When done right, the pairing of exotic mushrooms and Pinot Noir can be a match made in heaven. This course was no exception. Made with fruit from selected vineyards in the Russian River Valley, the combination of wild berries, ripe cherry, dried cranberries, earth, smooth tannins, and long engaging finish helped bring out the deep flavors in this magnificent combination of cherries and mushroom that shined in this dish.

Third Course
The Calling Cabernet Sauvignon
Cocoa & Cayenne Crusted Ribeye
Wild Arugula, Pickled Pearl Onions, King Trumpet Mushrooms
Sips: The Calling 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley ($37)
Notes: One of the trademarks of a fine cabernet Sauvignon from Alexander Valley is the combination of deep flavors and smooth tannins. On top of these classic characteristics, this new release was layered with notes of espresso beans, briary blackberry, ripe plum, blueberry, chocolate nibs, and roasted black walnuts. Our group felt this special profile worked wonders with the deep flavors and spicy tones that resonate in the Ribeye steak from the 5 Dot Ranch, the sautéed mushrooms, and even the slight bitterness of the arugula.

Fourth Course
“Cupid’s Arrow” Redemption High Rye Bourbon Profiteroles Candy Cap Ice Cream, Salted Caramel
Sips: “Cupid’s Arrow” Redemption High Rye Bourbon
Notes: Who says cocktails always have to be served at the beginning of the meal? Ziggy’s special cocktail helped reinvigorated the palate at the end of a long enjoyable luncheon. And the delectable combination of bourbon, fresh egg whites, simple syrup, ginger, citrus, and a touch of bitterness on the finish helped bring out the sweet and salty flavors in the dessert. Sexy and ohhhh so stimulating! For a recipe for this cocktail, visit www.ziggythewinegal.com.

Win Tickets! Behind The Cellar Door, share your Amador Wine story. . .

What are your plans the weekend of March 5 & 6? If you are lucky, the answer is Behind The Cellar Door to taste amazing Amador County wines with unique food pairings.

Let me share a special memory with you about Amador wines. Thirteen years ago my wife and I decided to elope and were married in the amazing Black Chasm Cavern, near the small town of Volcano.  I had recently done a story on Renwood Winery, who generously shared a case of delicous Zinfandel for our small wedding party to enjoy that wonderful evening!

bcd-footerSo here is my proposal!  Share your Amador Wine Story in the comments below. . . my favorite post will win two free weekend passes which includes commemorative wine glasses to do some barrel tasting, with scrumptious eats at 43 family-owned Amador wineries, along with a cornucopia of themed tastings, seminars and demonstration! (Deadline to post is Feb 28th.)

If you don’t have something to share yet, perhaps you can create a memory at the weekend event.  I look forward to hearing all your adventures!  Purchase tickets HERE.

50 Years of Success with Richard Arrowood

Writing my retrospective of the year reminded me to share these published articles from 2015! As written, some of my favorite memories from the past year were based on the accomplishments of gifted winemakers and family owned wineries. One of those was a celebration of a number of fun days spent with Sonoma County winemaker Richard Arrowood of Amapola Creek.

arrowood1Last spring marked the monumental kickoff to Arrowood’s 50th vintage and a series of retrospective tastings featuring over 60 wines from the iconic winemaker’s private collection. My great mentor Master Sommelier Fred Dame and I were on hand to help with each of these tastings. I must say it was a pleasure to taste through this vast collection of gems. Highlights include: a rare series of vineyard designate wines made with Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Riesling and Chardonnay grapes from legendary sites like the Laurel Glen, Wildwood and Glen Ellen (now Moon Mountain Vineyard) that were part of the Chateau St. Jean collection from 1974 to 1988; to a series of elegant and ageworthy wines from Arrowood Vineyards; and an impressive grouping of the more powerful styles made under the Amapola Creek label from 2005 to the present. You can read my stories on this experience in these two articles published by Napa Sonoma Magazine, Notes Worth Savoring: Richard Arrowood celebrates five decades of making fine wine, and The Tasting Panel, Celebrating 50 Years of Success with Richard Arrowood.

And now some special wine reviews —Into the Cellar: Six memorable Cabernet Sauvignon selections by Richard Arrowood

Here are six of my favorite cellar selections of Cabernet Sauvignon made by one of the great masters of the craft, Richard Arrowood. From a sommelier’s standpoint, it’s a wonder to taste these vintage wines over time. File under #Priceless! -CS

Chateau St. Jean 1975 Cabernet Sauvignon, Wildwood Vineyards, Sonoma Valley: Big, ripe and juicy flavors of wild berries, chocolate, black olive, mineral, and an ample amount of structure for a wine that is pushing 40-years since the grapes were picked. A true ethereal experience made with fruit from one of the most historic Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards in America. 97 pts

Chateau St. Jean 1977 Cabernet Sauvignon, Laurel Glen Vineyards, Sonoma Valley: Attractive aromas of leather, tobacco and seared meats; flavorful notes of wild mushrooms, soy and ripe berries; soft elegant texture; followed by a long, engaging finish. 98 pts

Chateau St. Jean 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon, Glen Ellen Vineyards, Sonoma Valley: Deep flavors of briary blackberries, blueberry, wild sage and mountain herbs, earthy tones, and a lingering finish. 96 pts

Arrowood 1993 Cabernet Sauvignon, Réserve Spéciale, Sonoma County: Sophisticated wine with aromas of dark fruits, bay leaf, tobacco and cedar leading to complex flavors of dark cherry, dried herbs, earth, rich texture, and a generous finish. 98 pts

Arrowood 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon, Monte Rosso Vineyard, Sonoma Valley: Magnificent Cabernet that still tastes young. Lively notes of ripe berries, tobacco, summer sausage, chocolate nibs, rich texture, and an impressive blast of vibrant acidity towards the end. 96 pts

Arrowood 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, Réserve Spéciale, Sonoma Valley: Extremely concentrated wine with layers of dark cherries, plums, wild berries and dark chocolate enhanced with nuances of fresh mountain herbs, clove, cardamom, and chewy tannins. 97 pts

Make your special trip to Amapola Creek this year. Hours and tastings by appointment only.  392 London Way, Sonoma, CA                (707) 938-3783

Enjoy & Happy New Year to you all!!!!

My Reflections on 2015

If we only live once, then 2015 was a benchmark in my life so far. For starters, it almost makes me blush when I think of all the projects I worked on with so many great wine associations, winemakers, star chefs, actors, musicians, corporate groups, economic analysts, and even President Obama.

In the wine industry, 2015 will certainly be remembered as the year of the drought. And while the lack of rain hurt the yields, the quality was there in the grapes that were picked. The year also marked the 50-year anniversary of the planting of the first Pinot Noir grapes in Willamette Valley. And closer to home, some of the most notable news stories were focused on the devastating Valley Fire in Lake County; the departure of Sunset Magazine from its historic headquarters in Menlo Park to new offices in Oakland and Sonoma; and the heist of $300,000 in wine from the French Laundry in Yountville.

Below is a list of my favorite accomplishments in 2015. Alas, I also have plenty of fond memories catching up with old friends; enjoying delicious lunches and dinners or attending lavish parties with winemakers, proprietors, marketing gurus and other pals in the wine industry; travels with the family; winning the Bohemian magazine’s Top Sommelier of Sonoma County award for the second straight year; and watching the Warriors win the NBA Championship.

On a more personal level, the year also marked the passing of my mom, Linda Sawyer, at the age of 67. It was a hard loss for our family, but we were happy that she died peacefully after a long battle with cancer. Recently my mentor, Master Sommelier Bob Bath, sent me a very nice note about my mom, in which he wrote: “She will always be proud of you…I sure am.” That really touched my heart and made me realize how lucky I am to have support from such an amazing group of friends, colleagues, and family.

With that in mind, I’m looking forward to a very exciting 2016. As a preview, the year will kick-off quickly with me judging three major wine competitions between now and mid-February. At the same time, I’ll be starting more new projects with Feast It Forward, Allvino, ZigSaw Production, and ramping up my activities with the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone as the official Wine Director for the Flavor! Napa Valley Festival, March 16-20.

In a nutshell, I can’t wait to start sharing more cool, fun, and educational stories about wine, food, travel and philanthropy with you in 2016. In the meantime, thanks so much for following SawyerSomm.com and best wishes for a Happy New Years to all! –CS

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“Sommelier to the Stars” Christopher Sawyer’s Top Picks of 2015

1. Wine Writers Symposium: Held annually at the Meadowood Napa Valley Resort & Spa near St. Helena, this exclusive gathering of professional writers was a true learning experience for me and all those in attendance. Guest speakers included marquee writer Jancis Robinson MW, Evan Goldstein MS, Andrea Emmer Robinson MS, Karen McNeill, Wall Street Journal Wine Columnist Will Lyons, and Poet Laureate Billy Collins. Great discussions, education, opportunities, fabulous tastings, fine cuisine and bright ideas resonated throughout this superb three-day event!

2. Speaking Engagements: 2015 was a monumental year for me at major speaking engagements for an assortment of wine consumers, collectors, private parties, media, sommeliers, winemakers, winery proprietors, and bigger wine associations. Here are some of the highlights:

– Santa Barbara Vintners Seminar. As a special part of the Santa Barbara Spring Weekend, I was honored to moderate a fabulous seminar with gifted winemakers Jim Clendenan of Au Bon Climat, Bob Lindquist of Qupe, Ken Brown of Ken Brown Wines and Eric Mohseni of Zaca Mesa, whose careers were all influenced by stints at Zaca Mesa Winery and the development of the Santa Ynez Valley, which became an official appellation on April 15, 1983. Other highlights included a magnificent Winemaker Dinner at Mattei’s in Los Olivos; a fun Sauvignon Blanc-inspired lunch with winemaker Fred Brander and MW Patrick Farrell; the Festival Grand Tasting at Grand View Park’ a few late night shenanigans; and some great time spent with Chad Melville and his staff during my stay at Melville Winery. For tickets to the 2016 Spring Weekend April 21-24, visit www.sbvintnersweekend.com.

– Banfi’s Cru Artisan College 2015.
Highlighted by a colorful cast of some of the world’s leading winemakers and me as the “Head Master” at the San Francisco stop on this exciting multi-city tour; this unique wine education platform explored the different ways that terroir, plant material, sustainable farming practices, new technology and the winemaker’s touch can add more personality to the flavor profiles of some of the finest wines of Italy, Chile, and Washington State. In 2016, the Cru Artisan College Campus Tours will be happening in new metropolitan markets across America. For information on these comprehensive seminars and intimate wine tastings and pairings, visit www.cruartisancollege.com.

– Mt. Veeder Media Lunch and Q & A Session To celebrate the 25-year anniversary of the Mount Veeder appellation in Napa Valley, this year’s panel featured Chris Carpenter of Loyoka Winery, Steve Lagier and Carol Meredith of Lagier-Meredith Vineyard, and me as the moderator. Kudos to Sam Peters for organizing this great discussion, luncheon, and public tasting at the Golden Gate Club in San Francisco! www.mtveederwines.com.

– “A Winemakers Perspective on the Petaluma Gap AVA” Seminar
As the VIP and Media kickoff to the “Wind to Wine” Festival put on by the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance, I was happy to do this interactive seminar with talented winemakers James MacPhail of MacPhail Family Wines and Ryan Pritchard of Three Sticks Wines at the Sheraton Hotel in Petaluma. Overall, the festival was a smashing success and a great sign of things to come in wines made with fruit grown in this cool climate area in southern Sonoma County, which is currently under review to become its own appellation. For breaking news in 2016, check out www.petalumagap.com.

– Taste of Sonoma “The Glass makes a Difference” Seminar For the second year in a row, the two special seminars I taught at the historic MacMurray Estate in Russian River Valley were focused on showing how Stolzle Stemware brings out the unique flavors in special wines made in Sonoma County. Tasty delights for the seminar were provided by Bennett Valley Cellars, Matanzas Creek, St. Francis, Stryker Sonoma, and Dutcher Crossing wineries. Other highlights of Sonoma Wine Country Weekend included attending special dinners and lunches, working with the Somm Stars team, and once again being the private sommelier for the top table at the Sonoma Harvest Wine Auction which raising $4.5 million for local charities. Job well done by everyone involved! www.sonomawinecountryweekend.com.

– “Sip & Discover: Livermore Valley Wine Stories” In the luxurious Grand Hall at the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco, this brilliant seminar explored how the unique growing conditions, rich history, specially selected grape varietals, farming techniques, and a modern approaches to winemaking make the wines from Livermore Valley so special. After my intro, I passed the microphone to the passionate “storytellers” of the region: Karl Wente of Wente Vineyard; John Concannon of Concannon Vineyard; Steven Kent Mirrasou of The Steven Kent Winery; Collin Cranor of Vasco Urbano Wine Company; Bob Bossi of Dante Robere; Steve Burman of 3 Steves Wines; and John Kinney of Occasio Winery. For more information about this unique appellation, visit www.lvwine.org.

– Single Varietal Tasting Series at Napa Valley Wine Academy. Organized by Jolene Patterson of Discover Napa Valley Wine & Discover Sonoma County Wine, this magnificent series of in-depth tastings was designed to educate members of the media, sommeliers, wine buyers, vintners, winemakers and other wine professionals from the Bay Area. As the official moderator of the series, I got to work with a fascinating group of winemakers who are also grape varietal experts: John Skumpky of Lang & Reed Winery (Cabernet Franc); Ehren Jordan of Failla Wines (Syrah); Michael Scholz of St. Supery (Sauvignon Blanc); Chris Pettinger of Skinner Vineyards (Grenache); and Tegan Passalacqua of Turley Wine Cellars (Petite Sirah). Stay tuned for the continuation of the series in 2016!

3. Epic Wine Cruise on the Mediterranean: In July, I spent eight amazing days sailing from Rome to Venice on the Oceania “Riveria” with Chris Silva, the president & CEO of St. Francis Winery, and Steve, Lawrence and Emily Lohr from J. Lohr Vineyards & Wine. Organized by Brian Murphy of Expedia Cruise Ship Centers in Petaluma, the “Isles & Empires Wine Cruise” included stops in Sorrento/Capri in Italy; Taormina, Sicily (with a magnificent side trip to Benanti Winery near Mt. Etna); Argostoli, Greece; Kotor, Montenegro; Zadar, Croatia; Koper, Croatia; and a memorable day in Venice at the end. The food was fantastic and Chris, Lawrence, and I hosted informative wine education classes along the way. Can’t wait to go on my next trip with Oceania Cruises!

4. Napa Valley Film Festival
It’s back! This year marked the 5-year anniversary of the Napa Valley Film Festival, a magnificent experience which fused together film, wine, talented actors, star chefs, sommeliers, mixologists, and other colorful characters in mid-November. Highlights of this year’s event included the cinematic debt of SOMM Into the Bottle, an extremely entertaining exploration of some of the greatest wines of the world through the view of the sommeliers, winemakers, and world-reknown experts; a set of unique Celebrity Tributes honoring John Travolta, Bruce Dern, Keegan–Michael Key and other talented actors; lively parties and culinary events; and a continuous flow of remarkable features and documentary that make this annual event so special! www.nvff.org.

5. Memorable Tastings
While there were plenty of special tastings of international wines in the Bay Area in 2015, some of my favorite memories were based on the accomplishments of gifted winemaker and family owned wineries in Napa Valley and Sonoma County.

– Celebrating the 50 years of Winemaking with Winemaker Richard Arrowood. To kickoff his monumental 50th vintage, Sonoma County icon Richard Arrowood hosted a series of retrospective tastings featuring over 60 wines from his private collection. My great mentor Master Sommelier Fred Dame and I were there to help with each of these tastings. I must say it was a pleasure to taste through this vast collection of gems. Highlights include: a rare series of vineyard designate wines made with Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Riesling and Chardonnay grapes from legendary sites like the Laurel Glen, Wildwood and Glen Ellen (now Moon Mountain Vineyard) that were part of the Chateau St. Jean collection from 1974 to 1988; to a series of elegant and ageworthy wines from Arrowood Vineyards; and finishing with an impressive grouping of the more powerful styles made under the Amapola Creek label from 2005to the present. My stories on this experience appeared in Tasting Panel and Napa Sonoma Magazine in 2015 as well.

– The 40th Harvest Luncheon at Jordan Winery. This special gathering honored winemaker Rob Davis and his dedication to the craft, the winery and his family. Other special guests included SF Giants coach Bruce Bochy and radio announcers Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper; winemaker Jean-Claude Berrouet of Chateau Petrus, Dr. Ann Noble of UC Davis, and the dazzling meal was prepared by Executive Chef Todd Knoll and his fabulous staff. A winning combination!

– The 25th Anniversary of Robert Biale Winery: Hosted by co-founders Robert Biale and Dave Pramuk, this magnificent tasting of single-vineyard designates wines made with pristine fruit from old Zinfandel and Petite Sirah vines was a complete joy to the senses. Through the years, the winery has done a great job of protecting these old vines and it showed in the lively flavors in each of the wines we tasted. For that reason, I’m looking forward to Robert Biale being part of the Preservation Society Seminar I’m moderating at CIA Greystone as part of Flavor! Napa Valley on March 18. For more info, visit www.flavornapavalley.com.

6. Wine Writing: This year included a wide range of writing assignments, as well as reviewing wines for Vivino and other wine, food, and travel projects.

– At the top of my list is the article I wrote about chefs Duskie Estes and John Stewart of ZaZu Restaurant in Sebastopol for the inaugural release of The Clever Root, a new cutting-edge culinary magazine created by the publishers of The SOMM Journal and The Tasting Panel. The next issue will feature my article on Chef Trevor Kunk of Press Restaurant and the Rudd Farms in Napa Valley. Can’t wait to work with Editor Meridith May and the team in 2016!

– For Diablo Publications, I wrote a series of articles focused on wine, food and travel in Napa Sonoma Magazine. In addition to the story on Richard Arrowood’s 50th vintage and another I did on hip wine caves; one of my favs was the “Power Duos” article focused on intriguing teamwork between family-based winemakers and proprietors featuring Heidi and Bo Barrett, Joel Peterson and Morgan Twain Peterson, Mike and Violet Grgich, Jamie and Lisa Whetstone, Susan Lueker and Chef Ralph Tingle, and Jesse Katz and star photographer Andy Katz. In the fall, my story on Urban Tasting Rooms highlighted Cornerstone Cellars in Yountville, Starmont Winery in Napa, Ramey Wines in Healdsburg, MacPhail Family Wine Salon in Sebastopol, Corner 103 Wines in Sonoma, and Ancient Oaks in Santa Rosa. Versions of the article were published in both Napa Sonoma and Diablo magazines. Coming soon is my article on the new Virginia Dare brand started by Francis Ford Coppola at the old Geyer Peak facility in Geyserville.

– With Vineyard & Winery Management Magazine, I did a special article on the 50-year anniversary of the planting of the first Pinot Noir vines in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and two dynamic Q & A articles focused on Jean Arnold Sessions of the Jean Arnold Group and Chris Indelicato of Delicato Vineyards. In November, I also served as the official spokesperson for VWM Media at the 25th Anniversary of the Grand Harvest Wine Competition.

– As a side note, it was also nice to have my sister-in-law, Alexander Russell, write a fantastic profile piece on me in North Bay Biz Magazine. Thanks, Alex!

7. Thanksgiving Wine Pairings for President Obama:
Finally, I must say that it was a pleasure to be asked to do a special set of Thanksgiving pairings with Sonoma County wines for President Obama. The premise behind the pairings was the fact that the two birds the president pardoned, Mac & Cheese, were from a unique breed developed at the Nichols Ranch in Sonoma County. Articles with my pairings ran throughout the United States, including a great story written by Diane Peterson for the Press Democrat. Featured wineries included Gloria Ferrer, Gundlach Bundschu, Balletto Vineyards, Cline Cellars, St. Francis Winery and Dry Creek Vineyard. Special thanks to the President Obama, Foster Farms and Fineman PR for getting me involved in such a unique project.

Holiday Cheers to the 50 year Anniversary of Schramsberg Vineyards

Pop! Pop! Pop! For wine fans across the nation, popping corks and sharing bottles of domestic sparkling wines has become a tradition during the holidays. One of the great wineries to thank for this tasty trend is Schramsberg Vineyards in Napa Valley.

schram4Located on Diamond Mountain near Calistoga, the Schramsberg brand was originally developed by Jacob Schram, who purchased the property in 1862. Following his family’s German tradition of winemaking, Schram established a reputation for making award-winning wines with Riesling, Golden Chesslas, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah grapes grown on the first hillside vineyard in Napa Valley.

Following Schram’s death, his son Herman ran the winery until he sold the estate just before Prohibition. Over the next few decades, the property changed hands numerous times before Jack and Jamie Davies purchased it in 1965 with the intent of making sparkling wines that could rival the finest offerings from Champagne.

While renovating the abandon winery, caves, and bringing the Schramsberg brand back to life, the Davies launched their inaugural release, the 1965 Blanc de Blancs, a combination of Chardonnay and a smaller percentage of Pinot Blanc, in 1967. A few vintages later, the name of the brand exploded when President Nixon took bottles of the Blanc de Blancs to the “Toast to Peace” in China in 1972.

Over the first couple decades, most of the fruit for these early wines came from Diamond Mountain, Spring Mountain and the Oak Knoll District in Napa Valley. But that started to shift in the early 1980s, when the family began working with more ultra-premium Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes from the cooler climate regions of Carneros, Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley, and Marin County.

schram5Fifteen years ago, the focus on making the world-class sparkling wines was passed on to Jack and Jamie’s son Hugh, who was born the same year his parents purchased the property in 1965. Before joining the team, Hugh earned his masters in Enology at University of California Davis and worked harvests at Moet Chandon and Remy Cognac to hone his skills.

Today, Davies and the winemaking team works with 200 separate lots of fruit picked from 120 different vineyard blocks grown at different elevations and unique soils. Consequently, this diverse mixture of vineyard sources and special sites has resulted in an increase of concentrated flavors, complexity, and natural acidity in all the new Schramsberg releases.

These dynamic flavors shine in the new 2012 Blanc de Blancs (100% Chardonnay, $39), which features elegant notes of spring flowers, brioche, crisp green apple, lemon/lime, grapefruit peel, roasted almond, and spice. Same is true for the 2011 Blanc de Noirs (89% Pinot Noir/11% Chardonnay, $41), which features vibrant flavors of baked red apples, ripe cherry, wild strawberry, raspberry compote, citrus peel, caramel, cinnamon toast, and a long lingering finish.

For the more limited releases wines like the J. Schram, J. Schram Rosé and Schramsberg Reserve, the team has started to ferment the hand-selected lots in a combination of stainless steel and a smaller amount of neutral oak barrels to add more nuances, structure, depth, and rich texture to the finished blend. (Check out the retrospective tasting notes below to see how well these wines age over time).

Other admirable sparklers to look for in the marketplace include:
Schramsberg Brut Rosé, Cremant Demi-sec, Mirabelle Brut and Mirabelle Rosé. Before putting the master blends into individual bottles with dollops of sugar and yeast to start secondary fermentation (the classic methode champenoise process which creates the bubbles); the wines are sterile filtered to insure freshness.

In the bottle, these sparkling gems are aged in the expansive estate caves which were hand-dug by Chinese laborers in the 1880s. According to Hugh, patience is the key. “You can’t make apple pie if you start with apple sauce. Instead, you must let the tart flavors develop over time.”

Beyond bubbles, the winery began making the J. Davies Estate Cabernet Sauvignon in 2001 and more recently launched a special series of limited production Pinot Noirs made with fruit from Anderson Valley and higher elevation vineyards on the Sonoma Coast.

“My parents set us on a track to move forward with our own vision and access to the best possible fruit by developing deep relationships with some of the finest growers on the West Coast,” says Hugh, who lives on the estate with his wife Monique and their three son Emrys, Nelson and Hugh.

“For that reason, we are not afraid to try new things with the intent of making world-class sparklers and still wines that offer complex flavors, subtle nuances, texture and other unique characteristics that are engaging and satisfying from the minute the cork is popped or how well the wines age in the bottle over time.”

Schramsberg Vineyards is open by appointment. For more information, visit www.schramsberg.com. Also, look for Hugh Davies and Schramsberg Vineyards at the upcoming Flavor Napa Valley events, March 16-20.www.flavornapavalley.com.

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History in the bottles: A 50-year Retrospective Tasting with Schramsberg Vineyards

This fall, to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of Schramsberg Vineyards, Schramsberg President & CEO Hugh Davies and Winemaker Sean Thompson hosted the Golden Bouchon, a special series of exclusive Sparkling Wine Library Tastings at the historic mansion built by Jacob Schram in 1875 at the Schramsberg Estate. Here are my notes from the special sparkling wines and still wines we tasted at this memorable event. -CS

schram9

Schramsberg Vineyards Pinot Noir Brut Sparkling
Wine Library Tasting

The Schramsberg Reserve wines are typically made with 70 separate vineyard lots. A percentage of the blend is aged in barrels to create more complex flavors and aromas. It’s also worth noting that there were no reserves from 1987-1993, an important period when the Davies family developed relationships with growers who specialize in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay plantings in the cooler coastal regions of Carneros, Anderson Valley, Sonoma Coast, and Mendocino and Marin Counties. Today, the average retail price of the Schramsberg Reserve is $120; whereas the library selections are priceless.

Schramsberg 2007 Reserve: Lovely aromas and flavors of poached pear, wild strawberry, lemon curd, roasted almonds, truffle, ginger spice, and a long, vibrant finish. Content: 76% Pinot Noir, 24% Chardonnay.
Vineyards: Saltonstall (Sonoma Coast/Petaluma Gap), Stevens (Marin), Juster (Anderson Valley).

Schramsberg 2004 Reserve: Very impressive sparkler with lively flavors of ripe tree fruits, baked apple, wild berries, almond paste, mint, and graham cracker crust. Content: 84% Pinot Noir, 16% Chardonnay.
Vineyards: Corby, Juster (Anderson Valley), Saltonstall (Sonoma Coast/Petaluma Gap), Hyde (Napa Carneros) Stevens (Marin).

Schramsberg 1999 Reserve: Stately sparkling wine that is still so lively and vibrant. Notes of peach, pear, white cherry, fresh ginger, cinnamon toast, creamy texture, and lingering finish. Ripe, zesty, and elegant.
Content: 73% Pinot Noir, 27% Chardonnay. Vineyards: Corby, Husch, Rose, Vidmar (Anderson Valley), Lund (Napa Carneros).

Schramsberg 1994 Reserve
: Rich and complex, with flavors of poached pear, peach, citrus, and nutmeg. Graceful and ethereal. Content: 73% Pinot Noir, 27% Chardonnay. Vineyards: Trefethen, Schramsberg (Napa); Cordoniu (Napa Carneros); Ricci (Sonoma Carneros).

Schramsberg 1986 Reserve: Rich, lively and precise. Aromas and flavors of peach, apple, toffee and smoke. Content: 78% Pinot Noir, 22% Chardonnay. Vineyards: 100% from the Schramsberg Estate on Diamond Mountain (Napa).

Schramsberg 1977 Reserve: Sweet core fruit, layered with accents of coconut, vanilla and white chocolate, apple, truffle, caramel, and earth. Content: 78% Pinot Noir, 22% Chardonnay. Vineyards: 100% from the Schramsberg Estate on Diamond Mountain (Napa).

Schramsberg Vineyards Chardonnay Brut Sparkling
Wine Library Tasting

Made with selective grapes from coastal vineyards, the emphasis of the J. Schrams master blend is Chardonnay with smaller amounts of Pinot Noir. 60-65% is aged in stainless steel barrels; while the other 35-40% is aged in neutral French oak barrels. It’s also interesting to see how the percentage grapes from Sonoma and Marin counties increased 15 years ago. This forward thinking really shows in the 2001, 2003 and 2007 vintages. Retail price of the 2007 J. Schram is $120.

Schramsberg 2007 J. Schram: Lovely floral aromas with hints of fresh citrus, ginger and brioche. Complex flavors of ripe peach, cherry, ripe pineapple, lemon custard, roasted hazelnut; and plenty of backbone for aging in the bottle. Content: 86% Chardonnay. Vineyards, 14% Pinot Noir.
Vineyards: Hyde, Jones, Tognetti, Schwarze (Napa Carneros); Horseshow Bend, Keefer (Sonoma Coast); Stevens (Marin). 12.8% alc.

Schramsberg 2003 J. Schram: Lofty aromas of ripe tree fruits, anise and butterscotch. lead to distinctive flavors of pear, apple, peach, dried honey, mineral and peanut brittle. Lively, vibrant, and inviting.
Content: 85% Chardonnay, 15% Pinot Noir. Vineyards: Hyde, Jones, Tognetti, (Napa Carneros); Sangiacomo Vella, Ricci (Sonoma Carneros); Stevens (Marin). 12.5% alc.

Schramsberg 2001 J. Schram: Soft, luxurious, and sophisticated, this sparkling gem is highlighted with notes of ripe Golden Delicious apple, pineapple, fresh lime, Meyer lemon, exotic melon, white pepper, and creamy texture. Content: 77% Chardonnay, 23% Pinot Noir. Vineyards:
Jones, Tognetti (Napa Carneros); Sangiacomo Vella (Sonoma Carneros); Stevens (Marin). 12.6% alc.

Schramsberg 1999 J. Schram: Due to the long, steady ripening period, the wine spent more time in bottle before being released, so it falls into the Late Disgorged category. The end result is a very complex wine with lovely aromas of spring flowers, white fruits, orange marmalade and fennel; captivating flavors of white peach, apple, lemon zest, ginger; and a long, dry finish. Content: 74% Chardonnay, 26% Pinot Noir.
Vineyards: Tognetti, Schwarze, Hyde, Jones (Napa Carneros); Sangiacomo Donnell (Sonoma Carneros). 12.6% alc.

Schramsberg 1993 J. Schram: Intriguing wine with notes of poached pear, wild mushroom, honey, forest floor, earth, and rustic spices. A great wine to pair with creamy cheeses or mushroom bisque. Content: 82% Chardonnay, 18% Pinot Noir. Vineyards: Hill (Napa Carneros); Schramsberg, Trefethen, Elliot (Napa). 12.5% alc.

Schramsberg 1987 J. Schram
: Made with 100% fruit from Napa Valley, this was the first vintage of J. Schram. Today, the wine features notes of apple, pear, almond paste, egg flower soup, and creamy texture. Content:
85% Chardonnay, 13% Pinot Noir, 2% Pinot Noir. Vineyards: Schramsberg, Trefethen, Elliot, Yountville (Napa). 12.9% alc.

International Grenache Day (G-Day) – September 18th!

G-DAY is the chance to go out and enjoy some great Grenache wherever you are – anything, anywhere, any budget, with anyone. Get started with this animated video that I narrated for a lesson on the Origin of Garnacha:

This year, G-Day is on Friday, September 18th.  Wherever you are, make sure to include some Grenache-based wines in your day or week and share your adventures via social media where you will find me circulating.  Twitter handles to follow are @Grenache_Global and #GRENACHEDAY.

Cheers! Christopher