Category Archives: Holidays

Port wines with a Petaluma Twist

Looking for a wine gift to give someone special—or yourself for that matter? Then a great option is to get your hands on fine ports that can match up with a wide range of cheeses and desserts; sip gracefully when you are relaxing by the fire in the winter months; or hosting festive gatherings with friends and family all year long!

Twenty years ago, Portmaker Bill Reading took these thoughts to mind when he and his wife Caryn started developing DECO, a special port-style beverage infused with dark chocolate. Today, Bill makes a wide range of drinkable delights at Sonoma Portworks in Petaluma, California. In addition to DECO and DUET (an after-dinner Sherry with essence of natural hazelnut), the portworks offers a wide selection that include newest releases of flavorful ports, grappa, sherry and the Sonomic Red and Sonomic Gold (sweet and tart vinegars with a kick). See below for my recent reviews of the Aris Petite Sirah Port, Aris Petit Verdot Port and the fabulous new Norton Port, the deep and complex Reserve Port, as well as the sultry Maduro Reserve Tawny Port.

These delicious products can be purchased online at www.portworks.com. Or, better yet, you can visit Sonoma Portworks, which is located next to the bustling Aqus Café, just a few blocks from downtown Petaluma. During the holiday season, the Portworks tasting room is open Noon to 5 pm daily, except on Christmas and New Year.

Sonoma Portworks
613 2nd Street, Petaluma, CA 94952
707.769.5203

Sonoma Portworks Norton Port, Clarksburg / $38 (375ml)
Newsbreak: Norton Port makes its debut in California! Known for its ability to produce rich, full-bodied red wines with deep colors, complex flavors and bright acidity, Norton is a classic American grape varietal named after pioneer grape grower Daniel N. Norton of Richmond, Virginia in the early 1820s. After a successful wave of early plantings in the eastern and midwestern segments of United States before the turn of last century, the majority of the vines were ripped out between prohibition and the modern era. But thanks to a renewed interest in this intriguing dark-colored grape, newer plantings are now on the rise in important winegrowing areas stretching from Virginia to Missouri, and the West Coast.

To commemorate the resurgence of this historic grape, portmaker/proprietor Bill Reading of Sonoma Portworks and his wife Caryn, recently launched the first ever port made with Norton grapes grown California. Crafted with grapes harvested in 2012 and 2014 from premium vines planted in the Clarksburg appellation near Sacramento. This wine offers alluring scents of ripe red fruits, wild berries, caramel-coated popcorn, anise, and integrated layers of earth and spice. Deep and dark with a rich, lavish texture, the flavor profile is packed to the brim with gracious notes of ripe plum, black raspberry, wild herbs, tangerine zest and lingering notes of fresh Mud Pie, a midwestern dessert classic made with chocolate, butter, cream, and fresh-made pastry crust. With a round mouthfeel, balanced tannins and long finish; the end result is a stately port that is generous, delicious and rewarding.

Suggested pairings: Earthy cheeses with dried fruits; nut-based tarts; Candy Capped Mushrooms; fresh S’mores; or an ample slice of German Chocolate Cake.
Score: 91

Sonoma Portworks 2012 Aris Petite Sirah Port, Clarksburg / $38 (375ml)
Recognized for its dark hue and rich, concentrated flavors of red and black fruits, fresh herbs and spice; Petite Sirah has been planted in California since the 1890s. While it’s true that most of the grapes are used to make full-bodied red wines and complex proprietary blends; there are also a number of impressive Petite Sirah-style ports in the market as well.

One of these recent standouts is the Aris 2012 Petite Sirah Port. Crafted by winemaker Bill Reading and the team at Sonoma Portworks with pristine grapes grown in the historic appellation of Clarksburg near Sacramento. The wine was aged for 5 years in small neutral oak barrels and fortified with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes distilled in a single-batch Armagnac still.

Opulent, intense and engaging, the wine opens up with fragrant aromas of dried rose petals, dark red fruits, fresh dates, tangerine peel, pipe tobacco, leather, cinnamon, vanilla and roasted nuts. On the palate, the robust flavors of dark cherry, cola, huckleberry jam and ripe fig are interlaced with nuances of candied fruits, clove and fresh maple syrup. And unlike other vintage ports that sometimes taste over-ripe, coarse or too hot on the finish; the texture of this wine is soft, smooth and luxurious. The end result is a fortified gem that offers a perfect mixture of power, elegance, and finesse in every sip

Suggested pairings: Blue cheeses like Maytag Blue or Point Reyes Bay Blue; Chocolate Truffles; Flourless Chocolate Cake drizzled with Raspberry Coulis; or simply match with fine cigars, a toasty fire, and great conversations to finish the evening in style.
Score: 93

Sonoma Portworks 2014 Aris Petit Verdot Port, Clarksburg / $34 (375ml)
Although it’s one of the five main grapes used to make the famous red wine blends in the Bordeaux region of France, Petit Verdot has been a mystery to most American consumers. But thanks to the recent series of new domestic plantings in the United States, the popularity of the grape has reached an all-time high over the past decade.

In Northern California, one of the big fans of the grape variety is portmaker Bill Reading of the Petaluma, California-based Sonoma Portworks, who makes his Aris Petit Verdot Port with high-quality, sustainably-framed grapes from the historic wine region of Clarksburg, an hour east of the San Francisco Bay Area.

From the highly-touted 2014 vintage, this new release immediately commands attention with a dark inky hue and tantalizing aromas of dark fruits, wild berries, ripe figs, tobacco and roasted chestnut. On the palate, the texture is rich and smooth, with concentrated flavors of dark cherry, ripe blackberry, cassis, pomegranate, blood orange peel, dark chocolate nibs, savory spices and earthy undertones leading to a lingering finish. Together, this gentle interplay of full-bodied flavors, grippy tannins, structure and a burst of vibrant acidity on the mid-palate, help keep the wine fresh, lively and delicious. Thus, instead of being one-dimensional, too sweet or cloying, it’s a fantastic wine that is distinctive, flavorful, and extremely satisfying from the first sip to the last.

Suggested pairings: Ripe, tangy and creamy cheeses like Gorgonzola and Rogue River Blue; roasted figs wrapped in prosciutto; pan-seared Foie Gras drizzled with black cherry sauce; hickory-smoked almonds; and rich chocolate desserts.
Score: 92

Sonoma Portworks Maduro Reserve Tawny Port, Batch 2, Clarksburg / $48 (375ml)
Unlike the classic styles of “vintage,” “late bottled vintage” and “ruby” ports that are based around capturing the ripe, fruit-forward flavors of the grapes and softening them out with more time in the bottle; tawny ports are matured for an extended amount of time in wooden barrels or casks to slowly build layers of complex flavors, smooth texture, and personality that make them user-friendly and approachable upon release.

In Petaluma, California, specialized portmaker Bill Reading of Sonoma Portworks kept these thoughts in mind when he began developing his family’s signature style of Maduro Reserve Tawny Port, a limited release wine sold under the family label that he and his wife Caryn started two decades ago.

Made exclusively with ultra-premium Petit Sirah grapes. The new release of Batch 2 of the Maduro Reserve is aged in neutral oak barrels for 11 years and topped off with younger vintages annually to add more complex flavors as the wine matures in wood. The wine was fortified with a spirit made with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes that were distilled in a copper Armagnac still, and aged in oak for up to 36 months.

With a brilliant amber hue, this new release of the Maduro Reserve opens up with seductive aromas of ripe red and black fruits, fresh marmalade, buttered toffee, wild mushrooms and candied pecans. On the palate, the deep, rich and concentrated flavors of ripe plum, roasted figs and caramel-dipped red apple are further enhanced with lively hints of fresh quince, citrus zest, cinnamon and nutmeg; a silky texture; and a memorable finish that is long, luscious and smooth. Graceful, lengthy and a pleasure to sip, this elegant and sophisticated style of port can give well-known producers from the Old World a run for their money. Lip-smacking good, true tawny craftsmanship at its finest.

Suggested pairings: Hard and salty cheeses like Aged Gouda or Spanish Manchego served with spiced nuts and fresh honey; Crème Brulée; Pear Frangipane; Pecan Pie; Caramelized Onion Tart.
Score: 94

Sonoma Portworks Reserve Late Release Port, Clarksburg / $44 (375ml)
No matter if you are working with high-quality grapes grown on the steep terraces running along the rugged mountains ranges overlooking of the famous Douro Valley of Portugal or a special vineyard site in the New World, crafting a reserve style port requires patience, focus, and attention to detail. The latest case in point is the Reserve Late Release Port by Sonoma Portworks, a magnificent blend of premium Petite Sirah and Petit Verdot grapes from the 2006 and 2009 vintages, and slowly aged in wooden casks before being melded together in the final blend assembled in 2016.

With a lovely dark crimson hue, this complex wine features heady aromas of rich red fruits, fresh dates, ginger snaps, vanilla, sherry, roasted chestnuts, forest floor and cigar box. In the glass, the sweet core notes of ripe plum, cooked cherry, red currant and apple jacks are accented with spicy nuances of sassafras, cardamom, black pepper, mineral and seasoned oak. As the wine opens up, these concentrated flavors are kept in balanced with a harmonious mixture of bright acidity, soft tannins, firm structure, and a lingering finish that is sweet, spicy and persistent. The end result is a sophisticated wine that is classy, complex, and a true sensory experience to share with friends and family throughout the year.
Score:  93

Valentine Delights: Pairing sexy food and wine with Chef Domenica Catelli

When it comes to fine cuisine, the love of food goes deeper than most people think. That’s especially true around Valentine’s Day when the subject of aphrodisiac ingredients takes center stage.

Traced back to the Greek goddess Aphrodite, an expert in the fields of sexuality and love, the term “aphrodisiac” refers to edible bites that can stimulate the heart, brain and body, seduce the senses, and inspire lovers to have intimate encounters—particularly if they use the right ingredients.

While expensive delights like oysters, caviar and wild mushrooms fall into this category, most of the basic items are things we eat quite often, including: arugula, fennel, onions, radishes, carrots, figs, lemon and other citrus, olives, pine nuts, coconut, coffee, cocoa, and chocolate.

Studies have also found that complex wines made with pinot noir and other red grapes typically contain resveratrol, an antioxidant that helps boost blood flow and improves circulation before and during physical intimacy.

The topic of aphrodisiacs is also a great subject to bring up with star chefs, many of whom have a fun time crafting a mixture of sexy bites around the Valentine’s Day theme.

With these thoughts in mind, earlier this week I teamed up with my longtime friend Chef Domenica Catelli of Catelli’s Restaurant in Geyserville to test some of these love-inspiring ingredients on a special group of eager diners, my fellow wine judges from the East Meets West Wine Challenge 2017, which was held at the Santa Rosa Fairground earlier that day.

A native of Sonoma County, the roots of Domenica’s love for food started when her grandparents, Italian immigrants Santi and Virginia Catelli, founded the original Catelli’s restaurant in the historic downtown district of Geyserville in 1936. Thus, Domenica’s early years in Sonoma County were filled with memories of fresh, seasonal foods.

As a result, after creating a series of magnificent menus at several restaurants in Laguna Beach and the Stanford Inn on the Mendocino Coast in the 1990s, she began working on her first cookbook, Mom-a-licious: Fresh, Fast Family Food for the Hot Mama in You!, which hit bookstores in September 2007.

Thanks to ongoing success of the book, coupled with her unique style of working with healthy products in the kitchen and her cool appearances on Iron Chef America, CBS News, and Oprah and Friends on XM radio, Domenica became the national spokesperson for the Organic Trade Association and brand ambassador for Safeway’s O Organic line. Before and after she reopened the family restaurant with her brother Nicholas in 2010, celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Nelson Mandela, Julia Roberts, John Travola and Lady Gaga have enjoyed her food.

From a sommelier’s standpoint, having watched Domenica become one of the star chefs of Sonoma County, it was a joy to once again work with her on this special aphrodisiac-themed dinner and the fun romantic movie-themed names we gave to each course. Here is a summary of the ingredients and wine pairings we worked with that evening:

Appetizer: Love Bites

Domenica’s Romantic Delight: Artichoke Hearts & Burrata with Crispy Prosciutto. For starters, artichoke hearts are naturally high in vitamins and antioxidants, which helps increase blood flow to enliven the senses. However, the rich texture and earthy flavors of this spiny and bulbous vegetable is often quite hard to pair with wines. Thus, Domenica took this factor to heart by softening the texture and adding additional layers of creamy Burrata cheese and salty sensations provided by the prosciutto. These components were presented beautifully at the end of the artichoke skin to resemble the naturally smooth slurping process used to consume a raw oyster on the half-shell.

SawyerSomm Sexy Wine Pairing: To compliment these flavors, I served the new release of the Gloria Ferrer 2007 Royal Cuvee Brut, Carneros. Highlighted with elegant flavors of crisp apple, lemon, roasted almonds, vibrant acidity, and a long dry finish; this special vintage style of sparkling wine worked wonders with the rich texture, salty components and earthy nature of the appetizer. A fabulous way to start the evening off in style! www.gloriaferrer.com.

(As a fun side note: The Gloria Ferrer Royal Cuvee would go on to win the Best of Class for all Sparkling Wines from the West Coast and eventually beat the Trump Sparkling Wine by a landslide to win the prestigious honor of the Best Sparkling Wine of the entire competition. For complete results from the East Meets West Wine Challenge, watch for my upcoming SawyerSomm post!

Salad: Eat Drink Man Woman

Domenica’s Romantic Touch: Organic Kale, Blood Orange, Honey Glazed Walnuts. Much like arugula, kale is leafty, minerally, and high in antioxidants—the latter of which helps promote good health and prevents diseases. In the dressing, the blood orange added amino acids to compliment the rich and fatty compounds in the Dry Creek Olive Oil, which is commonly known to help stimulate hormonal activity. For toppings, the natural sweet flavors of the honey provides Vitamin B, estrogen, and helps boost strength, endurance and regenerates sexual energy; while the walnuts (sourced from Lou Preston’s organically farmed orchard in Dry Creek Valley), provided a burst of extra protein to give the sex drive a boost. Granted, while we have no idea what happened amongst the guests later that evening, we can say the complex flavors in this salad stimulated plenty of fun conversations around the two large wooden tables we dined at in the private dining room!

SawyerSomm Sexy Wine Pairing: To further enhance the experience, my colleague Debra del Fiorentino and I served a wide array of the Best of Class white wines that we judged earlier in the day. My favorite pairing was the Oak Farm Vineyard 2016 Albarino from Lodi, which featured lively flavors of ripe melon, peach, lime and racy acidity that isolated and elevated the dynamic flavors of the kale, citrus, honey and walnuts that made this romantic salad so memorable. www.oakfarmvineyards.com

Entrée: Lady & the Tramp

Domenica’s Romantic Touch: House-made egg Tagliatelli, Domenica’s Organic Tomato Sauce and Catelli’s famous Mini Meatballs  Known for her tasty and healthy approach to cooking, this gorgeous dish was the epitome of Domenica’s style. For starters, the flavors of the mini meatballs, made with free-range beef and house-made pork sausage, were amplified with the natural richness of the sauce. In addition to organic tomatoes and virgin olive oil, other special ingredients included fresh basil, which naturally arouses the senses and boosts blood circulation; garlic, a strongly scented delight that provide the body with a bolt of allicin, which is known to increase blood to the organs, stamina and sexual energy; and celery, a powerful food source of Vitamin E, zinc, potassium, magnesium, and a natural stimulant to the volume of semen. In keeping with the theme, Domenica made the pasta with eggs that provide more protein and sexual energy. In addition to shaved parmesan, the dish was also topped with fresh arugula, an ancient source of Vitamins A and C. Brilliant flavors from first bite to last.

SawyerSomm Sexy Wine Pairing: In staying with the Italian theme, I chose one of my favorite regional wines from Alexander Valley, the LaStoria 2012 Cuvee 32 Red Wine from Trentadue Winery in Geyserville. Crafted by my fellow wine judge, winemaker Miro Tcholakov, this dazzling, food-friendly Super Tuscan-style blend was made with 54% Sangiovese, 29% Merlot, 8% Malbec, 5% Cabernet Franc and 4% Montepulciano. Layered with lively flavors of ripe blue fruits, wild strawberry, cherry, pomegranate and spicy notes of cinnamon, cocoa and allspice; the wine quickly seduced the senses and helped amplify the fresh and spirited flavors of this fabulous pasta dish. www.trentadue.com.

Dessert: Like Water for Chocolate

Domenica’s Romantic Touch: Chili and Cinnamon Spiced Chocolate Bodino, Maldon Salted Caramel, Banana Mousse  Chocolate. Need we say more? Besides a natural burst of sugar and energy, tasty bites of chocolate have more antioxidants than red wine. Studies also show that women who eat chocolate have sex more often than those that don’t. To make this dessert even more interesting, Domenica added cinnamon, which helps balance blood flow and increase sexual appetite; red chilies, which provide a boost of endorphin, a natural “feel good” stimuli for the brain and libido; and bananas, an easy source of Vitamin B, potassium, and testosterone. Plus, the texture of the caramel and mousse increased the sexy factor tenfold.

SawyerSomm Sexy Wine Pairing: To finish off the experience, we stimulated the palate with the Wilson 2013 Buzz Reserve Zinfandel, Buzz Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley. The ripe and juicy flavors of wild berries, black pepper and clove from this special selection of classic vines planted in 1976 added fresh, fruity and spicy elements to the dessert. A few judges were also enamored by how the Gloria Ferrer Royal Cuvee Brut matched up with the flavors of chocolate, caramel, banana and spice. www.wilsonwinery.com.

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While it’s true that Domenica is in a league of her own, the ultimate intent of this pre-Valentine’s Day menu was to show that putting extra focus on working with aphrodisiac ingredients and wines pairings is an easy way to amplify your love for your soul mate—not only around Valentine’s Day, but all year long.

“Try it, you might like it,” says Domenica, with a smile. “After all, you never know where a natural bounty of flavors might get you!”

Located at 21407 Geyserville Avenue in Geyserville, Calif; Catelli’s is open 7-days a week. For reservations, call 707.857.3471 or visit www.mycatellis.com. For special events, call 707.857.7142 or catellisevents@gmail.com. Moms can also purchase Domenica’s book at local bookstores or on amazon.com.

For further information about eating something sexy and pairing it with wine, read my Valentine’s Day article in the new issue of Valley of the Moon Magazine at www.vommag.com.  And for more stimulating ideas, check out Romancing the Stove: the unabridged guide to aphrodisiac foods, the new book by culinary author Amy Reiley, which is available at www.lifeofreiley.com.

Sawyer-Casale Wine Education Series 2016: Elite Champagnes

While it’s true that millions of bottles of bubbly from the famous Champagne region of France are popped, sabered and consumed to celebrate New Year, truth is that the flavors of these sparkling gems can easily be celebrated all year long!  However, it helps to have a perspective of what to expect, especially when it comes to the higher-priced Champagnes.

With these points in mind, the Sawyer-Casale Wine Education Series invited a group of talented sparkling winemakers, sommeliers, and other wine professionals to taste through some high-end Champagnes and one special selection from Northern California we slipped in for fun! The price of the Champagnes and sparkling gems featured in this blind tasting range from $99 to $199 per bottle.

The special guests participating on the panel included winemakers Steve Urberg of Gloria Ferrer Wine Caves, James Hall of Patz & Hall Winery and Mike Cox of Schug Winery; sommeliers, wine buyers and wine consultants Michele Fano (Cole’s Chop House), Tammi Herron (Court of Master Sommeliers/GuildSomm) and myself (SawyerSomm.com); and wine pros Anne Moses (Patz & Hall), Jennifer Brown (Wilson Daniels), my colleague Keith Casale (3 Badges), and our gracious host Don Sebastiani.

Happy New Year and a hearty CHEERS!

All the wines were tasted blind and ranked on a 1-6 scale. #1 being the highest ranked of the bunch, #6 being the lowest. The five imports from Champagne were purchased from K & L Wine Merchants in San Francisco, www.klwines.com; while the ringer, a high-end domestic sparkling wine from the North Coast appellation, was provided by Jennifer and the good people at Wilson Daniels in St. Helena, www.wilsondaniels.com.

Here are summaries, rankings and notes for each wine in the order we tasted them blind

Bollinger 2005 La Grande Année Brut, Champagne, France
Group Ranking: #4 of 6 / Price: $109

 Details: Established in 1829, Bollinger was formed from the de Villermont family’s holdings in the charming village of Ay near Rheims in Champagne. After Jacques Bollinger married the de Villermont daughter Louise Charlotte, he became an official French citizen in 1837. Then, after the house started to ship low dosage Champagne to Britain in 1865, Bollinger became the Official Purveyor of Champagne to Queen Victoria in 1884. As the official Champagne of the Parliament, the special sparklers from the brand are preferred by James Bond as well.
The 2005 vintage was complicated by a rather hot summer and rain in the early part September which resulted in some botrytis. Thus, the fruit for this vintage was picked between September 15-27. The Pinot Noir portion of the blend (70%) is from around the winery in Ay and the winery’s holdings in Verzenay and the Chardonnay (30%) is from Avize, Chouilly and Le Mesnil.
Panel descriptors:  Warm toasty nose with aromatic notes of fresh framboise, stone fruits, dried flowers, honey, vanilla, roasted hazelnuts, mineral, a slight mustiness, and fino sherry tones. On the palate, hip descriptors included wild berry compote, baked peach, apple pie filling, crème brulée, gingerbread, candied fruit, kaffir lime, dried mango, orange peel, flint, and exotic spices.

Group discussion: From the sommelier’s angle, Herron enjoyed the wine’s medium to medium-plus concentration, round and creamy texture, and balanced acidity. While Sebastiani was more intrigued by the musty character of the wine and liked the long, crisp finish.

Other panelists were disappointed by its lack of effervescence and mousse. Hall, Cox and Casale felt that the wine was oxidative and a little reductive. For those reasons, Hall compared the oxidation to an older “English Style” wine with notes of almonds, toast, honey, and wet towel. And although he felt the wine was resolved, round, smooth and layered; he also felt it was tasting a little too old and oxidized for his taste.

On the flipside, Fano was quick to point out that the oxidation wasn’t offensive to her. Instead, as this wine started to warm up, she felt she got to taste what this wine is all about. Urberg concurred. “When I stuck my nose in the glass, the first thing I got was pickle juice. But that’s not an uncommon character for some of the styles of Champagne,” he said. “From there, it took me a while to get to the pleasant black fruit characteristics that opened up with more air. But along the way, it became quite clear that the flavor profile was really driven by the toasty characteristics that went almost all the way to smoky. In my opinion it doesn’t taste too old, but exactly the way they producer wants it to taste.”

In the end, the panel agreed that this was a wine for people with a much more developed palate instead of those who simply buy a bottle of Veuve-Cliquot Yellow Label on a sale rack for the holidays.

Dom Perignon 2006 Vintage Brut, Champagne, France
Group Ranking: #3 of 6 / Price: $169

Details: In 1668 Dom Pierre Perignon became the official treasurer/cellar master at the Abbey of Hautvillers, where he would spend the next 47 years developing practical techniques of farming red and white grapes, making still wines, and through a variety of trials and tribulations created the secondary fermentation process which would eventually become a foundation for the methode champenoise process that is now used to make popular styles of Champagne and sparkling wines around the world. This classic vintage brut from Dom Perignon is a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay Panel descriptors: As a rule, Dom Perignon is relatively reduced and tight when it’s first poured. The 2006 vintage is no exception. For that reason, the aromas were rather funky at first with hints of raw yeast, unbaked sourdough bread, candied fruit, petrol and smoke. But as it opened up, the more attractive sniffs of fresh picked flowers, anise, roasted coffee and sea foam started to emerge. On the palate, the flavors were complex and engaging with dazzling flavors of green apple, yellow pear, smoked nectarine, citrus, candied fruits, dark chocolate, and toasted nuts. Silky smooth, weighty and complex, the flavors are further enhanced with roasty, toasty and smoky notes; tangy acidity; and slight briny taste leading to a long elegant finish.

Group discussion: At first, I thought the wine was a little skunky on the nose, but enjoyed it so much more as the concentrated flavors of ripe fruits, wild mushrooms, lemon meringue, sea smoke, and briny character began to emerge. Cox agreed. He too thought the wine was a bit too much at the beginning, but liked the way it opened up. “On the first few sniffs, it was yeasty, smoky and wild,” he said. “In the end, what saved it was the mouthfeel.”

A devoted Champagne lover and producer of a limited release of sparkling wine under the Patz & Hall label, Hall thought it was Dom Perignon from the beginning. “For the first couple smells, it’s always has that smell of burnt rubber,” he said. “But as it opens, it was cool how the classic reductive character changed to more complex flavors lifted by a relatively high level of dosage. As a contrast, while Moses enjoyed the smoky, lessy and floral accents at the beginning, she felt the smoke killed the purity of the wine.

Louis Roederer 2009 Cristal Brut Millesime, Champagne, France
Group Ranking: #1 of 6 / Price: $199

Details:  Since the house of Louis Roederer began crafting the first vintage of Cristal for Russian Tsar Alexander II in 1876, this elite Champagne has been made exclusively with estate fruit from old vines grown on limestone soils. For that reason, this famous wine has always been known for conveying a true sense place. Made with 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay, the 2009 Cristal is no exception. Panel descriptors:  From the very first sniffs and sips, this wine was fresh, fruity, young and eager to please. Invigorating aromas of honeysuckle, apple, quince, lemon peel, honey and wet stone. On the palate, the dynamic flavors of ripe raspberry, plum, yellow apple, apricot and grapefruit are combined with charming nuances of fresh ginger, marzipan, and roasted hazelnuts. In comparison to the more full-bodied offerings at the table, the wine is relatively lean and delicate but holds its own with layers of complex flavors, fine mousse, and a smooth texture leading to an extended tart, tangy and dry finish. Elegance in motion from start to finish.

Group discussion: The panel was impressed by the way this wine opened up. For starters, it was more fruit-driven than many of the other wines on the table. Steven loved the nose and the balance of the wine. “To me, it suggests that it is higher in acidic to start with or simply has a lower dosage,” he said.

For Moses and I, what set this wine apart was the structure, balance, and the unique burst of natural minerality towards the end. On top of that, we loved the acid-driven flavors and subtle nuances of red fruits, crisp apple, Meyer lemon peel, ginger, almond paste, and elegant toasty notes on the tart and cleansing finish. Michelle also enjoyed the Chardonnay-based flavors enhanced with supple notes of lime zest, chalk, toasted brioche, smoke, and the sour tart note leading to the long cleansing finish. Youthful, very pronounced, dry and dazzling on all levels. Drink now or age for 20 years.

The delectable bubbly line up.

Billecart-Salmon 1999 “Cuvée Nicolas Francois Billecart” Brut, Champagne, France
Group Ranking: #2 of 6 / Price: $99

Details: Although Billecart-Salmon is best known for producing one of the world’s finest versions of Brut Rosé, they also accel at crafting more dynamic, refined and ageworthy cuvée styles of brut. This latest offering from the 1999 vintage is 60% Pinot Noir from montage de Reims and 40% Chardonnay from the Cote des Blancs. Panel descriptors:  Lovely floral-citrus aromas with inviting notes ripe peach, fresh lychee, honey, forest, and flan custard characteristics. Bright, clean and crisp Pinot Noir flavors of wild strawberry, plum, blueberry, red apple skin, ruby grapefruit and spice; coupled with classic Chardonnay notes of stone fruits, poached pear, dried apricot, Hand of Buddha and honey; and creamy texture with fine-grained mousse and active layers of tiny bubbles. Rich, round, stimulating and rewarding.

Group discussion: Although this was the oldest and most inexpensive wine on the table ($99), the elegant, complex and refined traits of this wine made it one of the panel’s favorite picks in this blind tasting.

Despite the slight oxidation from the age of the wine, the group loved the way the flavors popped open up in the glass. For example, I was fascinated by the way the ripe red fruits were lifted by the racy acidity and texture. Cox agreed, and noted that the fruit tannins caused by the Pinot Noir added a new layer of power and sophistication that separated this wine from the others samples we tasted. Sebastiani also liked the delicate toast, pleasant flavors and creamy mouthfeel. And we all agreed that the crisp, clean, tart and expressive flavors made it a contender to pair with a complex surf and turf dish served on New Year’s Eve.

Schramsberg 2007 Reserve Brut, North Coast, California
Group Ranking: #5 of 6 / Price: $119

Details:  As the secret brown-bag special for this round, Jennifer Brown of Wilson Daniels was nice enough to supply this lovely gem from St.Helena-based Schramsberg Vineyards. The complex blend for the 2007 vintage features 76% Pinot Noir which comes from specialty vineyards that includes Staltonstall (Petaluma Gap/Sonoma Coast), Stevens (Marin County) and Juster (Mendocino). Whereas, most of the 24% Chardonnay comes from the Carneros District of Napa Valley. The finished wine is produced in the historic caves at Schramsberg on Diamond Mountain. Panel descriptors: With a more pronounced style that suggests new world, the wine starts with perfumed aromas of mixed fruits, raw honey, fig, Meyer lemon, orange peel, vanilla, lanolin and toasty brioche. On the palate, bright flavors of fresh berry compote, peach, exotic melon, tangerine and roasted nuts are further enhanced with hints of toffee, caramel and crystalized ginger.

Group discussion: Although Casale thought it started off tasting oxidated, smoky and leesy; he loved the full-bodied flavors of the wine as it opened up. Whereas, Brown was fascinated by the classic brut nose and the flavors of red berries, lemon chiffon, the tart “Sour Patch Kids” burst and stony notes that lead to a lingering dry finish.

Favo and Moses liked the mixture of ripe fruit flavors mixed with notes of orange peel, Grand Marnier, smoky notes and the touch of sweetness on the finish. “It was very showy,” said Moses.  “I liked how the fruit character came across in so many different ways as the wine opened up in the glass.” And I enjoyed the balance of the wine, the way it filled the entire mouth and the subtle hint of white truffle as the wine opened up.

The winemakers enjoyed the wine too. For example, Urberg immediately detected the more mature character of this 2007 vintage, as well as the concentrated flavors, moderate acidity and soft texture. James was fascinated by the balance of the acid and the brilliant level of dosage.  For that reason, he thought it was the freshest wine of the day. “Order another bottle and let’s go!”

Krug NV Grand Cuvée Brut, Champagne, France
Group Ranking: #6 of 6 / Price: $149

Details:  One of the classic brands of Rheims, this winery was founded by German-born winemaker Johann Joseph Krug in 1843. Unlike the other Champagne producers featured in our tasting, which tend to put more emphasis on crafting vintage wines; Krug is much better known prestige cuvees, including their flagship Grand Cuvée, and using barrel fermentation of a percentage of the base wines to create complex flavors with subtle nuances of oak. Panel descriptors:  Fragrant aromas of dried flowers, lemon oil, mustard seed, pastry, hay, fennel, yeast, and a hint of smoke. Bright acidity opens up the palate to flavors of pear, green apple, wild berry, bergamot, and toasted almonds. Full-bodied with big tannic structure, rich texture, creamy mousse, a lively mineral burst at the midpalate, and warm and toasty accents leading to a long finish.

Group discussion: Straight forward and pleasant, but nothing too jumps out like the y did in the other samples we tasted. And while the flavors were tart and crisp, the texture was rather one-dimensional. On the more extreme end, Casale didn’t like this wine and compared the profile to the classic Rombauer Chardonnay style with notes of vanilla and buttered popcorn. As a group, we agreed that the wine would be best if served with food.

Gosset NV Grand Blanc de Blancs, Champagne, France
Not Ranked / Price: $100

Details:  To prepare our palates for this special tasting of high-end Bruts, we also sampled a special offering of the Grand Blanc de Blancs from Gosset, the first wine house in the Champagne region, founded by Pierre Gosset near Ay in 1584. The winery has gone on to be family-owned for 17 generations. And the recent release is made with 100% Chardonnay grapes grown in Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards in Avize, Chouilly, Cramant, Villers-Marmery and Trépail.

Panel descriptors:  Lofty aromas of fresh citrus blossom, green tea, ginger ale and fresh squeezed lemon. Anchored around moderate weight and a silky mouthfeel, the palate is lifted with fresh notes of crisp apple, kiwi, grapefruit, chalk, mineral and subtle spices. All this is helped along with a nice balanced attack of vibrant acidity, creamy texture, and a generous finish. Group discussion: Overall, the panel liked the acid-driven flavors, particularly the crisp apple and tart lemon notes. And all agreed that the warmer it got, the rounder it became. In the end, this process really helped the complex flavors shine. Brown also liked the clean flavors and how the wines was still light on its feet instead of being cloying. For sommelier pairings, I suggested fresh oysters and crab cakes; while Favo favored a creamy Emmental or Petite Basque cheese. However, she was also quick to point out that the bitter flavors of the wine made her shy away from suggesting goat cheese.

Panel Conclusion

In the end, the panel was impressed when they found out the #1 and #2 ranked wines, the Louis Roederer Cristal and Billecart-Salmon, were the highest and lowest priced wines in the tasting. It was also nice to see that each wine had its own merits and what really set them apart from one another was a difference in style.

While it’s true that everyone has their own personal preference for how they like their Champagne served, here are some helpful hints to consider:

While ice cold temperatures can hide flaws in wines, the judges prefer to have their elite Champagnes served between 49-54 degrees (9-12 Celsius). This slightly warmer temperature gives more room for the flavors to expand as the temperature rises in the glass.

To open up the aromas, many of the judges like to drink high-end Champagne and classy sparkling wines in more elegant styles of Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc-shaped glasses with wider rims instead of flutes, which generally are more closed at the top and harder to sniff.

As a cool trick, Hall says he likes to have only half the regular amount poured in his glass. That way he can have more control over the temperature and the exposure of more oxidative wines.

Here are some more sommelier food pairings ideas:

For the leaner or medium-bodied styles of high-end Champagnes, great options include raw oysters on the half shell, sushi, crab, prawns, goat cheese, caviar, dainty salads, delicate soups, grilled fish, chicken, pork stew.

For Chardonnay-based medium to full-bodied styles; medium cheeses, roasted chestnuts, creamy soups, pasta with white sauce, seafood medley, pan-seared scallops, lobster, halibut, roasted chicken with fresh herbs, slow roasted pork.

For Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier-based bruts; oysters with red onion mignonette, medium bodied cheeses with nuts and dried berries, tangy soups, tuna tartare, spicy sushi, crab cioppino, salmon, trout, artichokes, roasted vegetables, eggplant parmesan, spicy sausage, gamey meats, duck breast, pomegranate chicken, grilled pork chops, lamb sliders, beef stroganoff, prime rib.

For richer, more complex styles of bruts; full-bodied cheeses, mussels, crab cakes with tangy aioli, charcuterie, heavier soups and stews, richer fish dishes with beurre blanc sauces, pasta with truffles, extravagant Indian and Asian cuisine, pork roast, beef bourguignon, juicy steaks, rack of lamb.

Finally, as a little extra insight on high-end Champagne, sommelier Michele Fano says its’s always important to remember that every guest (or, in our case, wine judges) have slightly different palates. For that reason, she compared our blind tasting to ordering ice cream for dessert. “Do you like vanilla? Butter pecan? Chocolate? Or rainbow swirl? The ones you don’t choose aren’t bad. But instead it’s a matter of taste. For that reason, just as ice cream is always fabulous, so is fine Champagne—especially when it’s served to friends, family, and paired with delicious dishes that make your encounter that much more special,” said Fano, with a smile. I couldn’t agree more!

Happy New Year to all the fans of Champagne, SawyerSomm.com and the Sawyer-Casale Wine Education Series. Look forward to providing you with more fun wine programs in 2017! -CS

Tasty Treat from Trombetta Family Wines

Trombetta Family Wines at the recent #PetalumaGap “Wind to Wine” event (R to L): Rickey Trombetta Stancliff, Erica Stancliff and winemaker Patrick Sullivan.

Figs & Prosciutto!  How can two such succulent flavors not be fabulous together?  Here is a recipe from Trombetta Family Wines to share at those upcoming holiday events.  Your guests will thank you for it!  Pair, of course, with some fabulous wines.

Figs & Prosciutto

  • Wash figs and pat dry
  • Cut in halves from the stem to the bottom
  • Rub 2-3 drops of Balsamic vinegar on the exposed inside of the fig
  • Cut prosciutto into long thin strips, 1/2 inch wide by about 3 inches long
  • Wrap the prosciutto around the middle of the fig
  • Cut Fontina cheese into small 1/4 inch thick by 1/2 inch long pieces
  • Place the cheese on top of the fig
  • Place figs on cookie sheet and place under the broiler until the cheese melts (a couple of minutes)
  • Serve warm or at room temperature

Enjoy!

Catch Cirque de Bohème thru Dec 18th!

Another winter delight at Cornerstone in Sonoma (23570 Arnold Drive)! Cirque de Bohème has returned and continues weekends in December: Shows DAILY at 3pm + 5pm (except December 3, shows will be 11am + 1pm).

cirquedeboheme2016Created in Paris during “les Années Folles” this is an old style circus based on the French tradition of the 1920’s filled with the promise of enchantment, thrill and wonder, under the charming original French circus tent.

 

TICKETS ARE ON SALE NOW!
Visit www.cirquedeboheme2016.brownpapertickets.com

Adults $30 | Kids (15 years and younger) $22

Lighting of the Snowmen @Cornerstone, Dec 3rd

lightingofsnowmenPrecipitation or not, it is that time of year when the snowmen arrive in Sonoma!  This Saturday December 3rd at 4pm the Festival begins at Cornerstone including many family friendly activities:

-Holiday decorations, lights + music
-Kids activities including face painting and felt ornament making
-Jolly Old Saint Nick handing out candy canes
-S’more Making with Sunset Magazine
-The Fig Rig
-Hot soups
-Beer, wine + champagne
-Sweet Scoops Ice Cream Cart
-Hot coffee and hot chocolate
-KZST Radio broadcasting live from Cornerstone

Bundle up and join in the wintery fun!

Valley of the Moon Thanksgiving Wine Picks!

Last year the Presidential Turkey served at the White House was the Nicholas White Turkey, a distinctive fluffy white breed with a bright red head that was developed in Sonoma Valley by George Nicholas at the Nicholas Turkey Breeding Farms in the 1950s.

Nov. 25, 2015: The President and his daughters Sasha and Malia participate in the annual National Thanksgiving Turkey pardon ceremony in the Rose Garden with National Turkey Federation Chairman Jihad Douglas. Read more at http://www.businessinsider.my/white-houses-photos-pete-souza-2015-12/52/#q2TlPXhQlmJdjF3p.99
Nov. 25, 2015: The President and his daughters Sasha and Malia participate in the annual National Thanksgiving Turkey pardon ceremony in the Rose Garden with National Turkey Federation Chairman Jihad Douglas.
Read more at http://www.businessinsider.my/white-houses-photos-pete-souza-2015-12/52/#q2TlPXhQlmJdjF3p.99

For that occasion, I was honored to be asked to do a special set of Sonoma-based wine pairings with this culinary gem for President Barack Obama and his family, in association with the National Turkey Federation and Foster Farms, which raised this one-of-a-kind bird for the White House to celebrate the company’s 75th anniversary.

As is the case with all holiday gatherings, the golden rule for pairings is to choose wines that complement the flavors of the turkey and other tasty dishes being served, instead of overwhelming them.

This year, published in the Valley of the Moon Magazine, are my Holiday Picks for 2016.

May all these wines bring you joy and holiday comfort!

Gloria Ferrer 2013 Blanc de Blancs Brut, Carneros:
Start the festivities off in style with this elegant chardonnay-based sparkling wine with alluring aromas and dazzling flavors of ripe pear, crisp apple, Meyer lemon, roasted nuts, baking spices, and a creamy texture that works wonders with fresh oysters, appetizers, starting courses, and saltier dishes served with turkey. $47

Gundlach Bundschu 2015 Dry Gewurztraminer, Sonoma Coast:
From the oldest family-owned winery in California, this classic Thanksgiving wine features tangy flavors of fresh melon, peach, grapefruit, white pepper, nutmeg and a crisp dry finish. Beyond the turkey, the perky acidity of this wine pairs extremely well with soups, salads, yams and sweet potatoes as well. $25

Westwood 2014 Estate Pinot Noir, Annadel Gap Vineyard, Sonoma County:
Crafted with pristine fruit grown on the northern edge of Sonoma Valley, this expressive new pinot noir is layered with elegant notes of ripe berries, cherry cola, vanilla, cinnamon, and silky texture. Try this pinot noir with fine cheeses, cranberries, wild mushrooms and all the fixings on the dinner table or delicious sandwiches the day after. $44

Ravenswood 2013 Red Blend, Pickberry Vineyards, Sonoma Mountain:
Celebrating their 40-year anniversary, winemaker emeritus Joel Peterson and the team at Ravenswood Winery have earned an international reputation as elite producers of zinfandel-based wines. But at the winery on Gericke Road in Sonoma, you can try other special releases, like the Pickberry Vineyards Red Blend, an intermingling of merlot and cabernet sauvignon, highlighted by generous flavors of ripe berries, dark plum, currants, wild herbs, and layers of spice. Rich, smooth and supple, the texture of this wine is a great complement to grilled vegetables, turkey, ham, and richer dishes served during the holidays. $50

Little Vineyards 2013 Syrah, Estate Grown, Sonoma Valley:
Syrah can provide that touch of spice to each course served during the holidays. A Gold winner at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair
in September, the Little Vineyards 2013 syrah features deep and rich notes of boysenberry, blackberry, lavender, licorice, vanilla, allspice, toasty oak and a persistent finish. Try this nicely balanced wine with tangy sauces, fresh herbs and savory dishes served with the turkey or red meats. $38

Giving a Local Edge to Holiday Cheer!

As the sixth largest economy in the world, it is safe to assume California residents are already going local.  This vintage article in the New York Times Eat Local; Drink European reminded us of how far we have come in doing just that,  supporting the amazing assortment wineries in of our great state.

shopsmallWhile this isn’t possible everywhere in the nation there are alternatives to wine when the aim is to support the local community.  Maybe a side dish at Thanksgiving?  Holiday shopping on Small Business Saturday?  Dishing out Christmas dinner at the local shelter?  Whatever you can contribute not only strengthens the local economy, but can give a well deserved warm fuzzy to liven up your personal celebrations!

Cheers & Happy Holidays from the Sawyer Family!