Category Archives: Travels

Take a little journey this weekend!

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

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

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

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

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

Premier Cruz tickets available now!

Join the Cabernet producers of the Santa Cruz Mountains for
PREMIER CRUZ
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 8, 2014
6 TO 9 P.M. THE TOLLHOUSE, LOS GATOS CA

PURCHASE EVENT TICKETS TODAY!

Join in for an exclusive evening of Cabernet tasting with the 14 most distinguished Cabernet producers from the Santa Cruz Mountains at the Toll House Hotel in Los Gatos, CA. Cabernet lovers will sip, sample and enjoy an array of new releases and hard to find library wines while enjoying a strolling dinner by Three Degrees Restaurant.

Bid on exclusive auction lot library wines, magnums, private winemaker tours and new releases at our silent auction. Guest will also be able to dine on a wonderful menu.

Vintners in the Santa Cruz Mountains have been producing exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon’s since as early as the mid 1800’s. The Cabernets produced from the Santa Cruz Mountains have a distinct character and style that is original to this Mountainous region. In 1976 the Judgment of Paris wine tasting event helped to catapult Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignons onto the international stage when Monte Bello also known as Ridge Vineyards beat out classified Bordeaux estates like Château Mouton Rothschild, Château Montrose, Château Haut-Brion and Château Léoville-Las Cases in a blind tasting conducted by French wine experts.

Strolling Dinner & Tasting: 6-9pm
Short Rib Sliders
Pork Tenderloin Medallion & Fig Chutney
Roasted Rack of Lamb wrapped in Bacon
Smoked Chicken Canapé
Mushroom Bouchee
Risotto & Butternut Squash Croquette

WINERIES
Beauregard Vineyards, Burrell School Vineyards, Cooper-Garrod Estate Vineyards, Fernwood Cellars, House Family Vineyards, Kathryn Kennedy Vineyards, Left Bend Winery, Lexington, McCarthy Family Estate Vineyards, Mount Eden Vineyards, Ridge Vineyards, Santa Cruz Mountains Vineyard, Silver Mountain Vineyards, Woodside Vineyards

cruz flier

 

#EatDrinkRock 2014

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

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

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

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

 

FNIC 2014

A drop in a barrel.

This past Sunday was a very emotional day in the wine country of Northern California. When the massive 6.0 earthquake centered in southern Napa County hit at 3:20 a.m., I was busy getting ready for bed after a fun night spent drinking wines in my cellar in Petaluma with friends. And although it seemed like our house shook, there was no damage to our house or the cellar. That was not the case in Napa County and a smaller segment of lower Sonoma County as well. Below are some of the pictures that will be remembered for decades to come. To help the cause, buy Napa wines to help get the wineries, the economy, and this great community back on its feet as quickly as possible.

Broken bottles fill a grape bin at Saintsbury winery in Napa after Sundays earthquake. (credit Eric Risberg)
Broken bottles fill a grape bin at Saintsbury winery in Napa after Sundays earthquake. (credit Eric Risberg)
A sad ending to some of my favorite wines I purchased when working as sommelier at The Lodge at Sonoma.
A sad ending to some of my favorite wines I purchased when working as sommelier at The Lodge at Sonoma.
David Duncan shares images of earthquake damage at Silver Oak Winery.
Toppled wine cases due to Napa earthquake at Silver Oak Winery. (credit David Duncan)
A worker removes an earthquake-damaged wine barrel from Napa Barrel Care Monday, Aug. 25, in Napa.
A worker removes an earthquake-damaged wine barrel from Napa Barrel Care Monday, Aug. 25, in Napa.

 

A barrier and caution tape block the entrances to the Ceja Vineyards tasting room and Cult Following wine and beer lounge. (credits Will Kane)
A barrier and caution tape block the entrances to the Ceja Vineyards tasting room and Cult Following wine and beer lounge. (credit Will Kane)
Wine spilled onto the floor of a Walgreen in Vallejo after the 6.0-magnitude Napa earthquake.
Wine crashed onto the floor of a Walgreen in Vallejo after the 6.0-magnitude Napa earthquake.
Many bottles and barrels were broken across the Napa Valley winemaking region after Sundays earthquake.
Many bottles and barrels were broken across the Napa Valley winemaking region after Sundays earthquake.
Workers move fallen wine barrels at Saintsbury Winery following the large earthquake in Napa. (credit Aric Crabb)
Workers move fallen wine barrels at Saintsbury Winery following the large earthquake in Napa. (credit Aric Crabb)
Marks on the concrete show how far a large fermenting tank moved during an earthquake at Saintsbury Winery. (credits Peter Fimrite)
Marks on the concrete show how far a large fermenting tank moved during an earthquake at Saintsbury Winery. (credit Peter Fimrite)
"Pretty severe tank damage & significant amount of wine loss, but we're feeling fortunate everyone is safe." (Twitter/@SebastianiWines)
“Pretty severe tank damage & significant amount of wine loss, but we’re feeling fortunate everyone is safe.” (Twitter/@SebastianiWines)

Wine tripping in Lodi: The Photo Journal

Here we are a couple weeks into the month of August, a great time to start following the exciting 2014 harvest in the great winegrowing regions of California. With that being said, it’s also time to get ready for California Wine Month, a festive myriad of activities which kick off on September 1st.

So to get you primed for what’s going to be happening around the state, below is a set of photos from my recent visit to Lodi, an important appellation that is home to the highest concentration of old vine Zinfandel plantings in the world, as well as a fantastic grouping of vineyard owners and winemakers who are committed to working with California’s legendary “sweetheart” grape and a hundred other specialized varietals.

Later this month, look for more of my other writings about this fascinating region, including a focus on the exciting Native Lodi program. In the meantime, for more information about the Lodi AVA, Zinfandel, and other festive regional events happening throughout the state, visit www.lodiwine.com, www.Zinfandel.org and www.discovercaliforniawines.com .

Exploration tour of Noma Vineyard in Victor: Wine writer Randy Caparoso; premier grower Leland Noma; me; owner/winemaker Tim Holder of @MacchiaWines; wine writer/entertainer Ziggy The Wine Gal. @Lodi_Wine #LodiNative @alltheswirl
Wine writer Randy Caparoso with one of the gnarly old Zinfandel vines at the Noma Vineyard in the Lodi appellation. @Lodi_Wine #LodiNative @alltheswirl.
At the Soucie Vineyard, sandy soils and healthy old Zinfandel vines planted by Kevin Soucie's grandfather in 1916. The fruit is now sourced by Layne Montgomery,  owner/winemaker of @m2wines. @Lodi_Wine #LodiNative @alltheswirl @TheZinfandelOrg.
At the Soucie Vineyard, sandy soils and healthy old Zinfandel vines planted by Kevin Soucie’s grandfather in 1916. The fruit is now sourced by Layne Montgomery, owner/winemaker of @m2wines. @Lodi_Wine #LodiNative @alltheswirl @TheZinfandelOrg.
Michael MacCay of @MacCayCellars with a bottle of his Carignane made with old vine fruit from the Rausch Vineyard. @Lodi_Wine @alltheswirl.
Michael MacCay of @MacCayCellars with a bottle of his Carignane made with old vine fruit from the Rausch Vineyard. @Lodi_Wine @alltheswirl.
At the Soucie Vineyard, sandy soils and healthy old Zinfandel vines planted by Kevin Soucie's grandfather in 1916. The fruit is now sourced by Layne Montgomery,  owner/winemaker of @m2wines. @Lodi_Wine #LodiNative @alltheswirl @TheZinfandelOrg.
Exploration tour of the Noma Vineyard in Victor, a small town just out the city limits of Lodi: Randy Caparoso; Noma Vineyard fruit proprietor Leland Noma; me; winemaker/proprietor Tim Holder of Macchia Wines; and wine writer/entertainer Ziggy the Wine Gal. @Lodi_Wine #LodiNative @alltheswirl @TheZinfandelOrg.
Bursting with fresh and lively aromas and flavors, the #Bokisch 2013 Albarino the Cellar Door Tasting Room in downtown Lodi. @Lodi_Wine @MarkusBokisch @LizBokisch @alltheswirl.
Bursting with fresh and lively aromas and flavors, the #Bokisch 2013 Albarino the Cellar Door Tasting Room in downtown Lodi. @Lodi_Wine @MarkusBokisch @LizBokisch @alltheswirl.
The brotherhood of #LodiNative: Winemakers & proprietors discuss the exciting Lodi Native Project, heritage vineyards and the 2012 vintage with me and Ziggy the Wine Gal. From left: Winemaker Chad Joseph and proprietor Todd Maley of Maley Brothers Wines;  winemaker Layne Montgomery of @m2wines; winemaker/proprietor Tim Holdener of @macchiawines; Stuart Spencer of @stamantwine; and proprietor Lani Holdener of Macchia Winery, which hosted the tasting. @Lodi_Wine #TheBootlegSociety @alltheswirl @RCaparoso @TheZinfandelOrg.
The brotherhood of #LodiNative: Winemakers & proprietors discuss the exciting Lodi Native Project, heritage vineyards and the 2012 vintage with me and Ziggy the Wine Gal. From left: Winemaker Chad Joseph and proprietor Todd Maley of Maley Brothers Wines; winemaker Layne Montgomery of @m2wines; winemaker/proprietor Tim Holdener of @macchiawines; Stuart Spencer of @stamantwine; and proprietor Lani Holdener of Macchia Winery, which hosted the tasting. @Lodi_Wine #TheBootlegSociety @alltheswirl @RCaparoso @TheZinfandelOrg.
Refreshing white wines by Michael David served with our luncheon at the Phillips Farms Cafe in Lodi. @MDWinery @Lodi_Wine.
Refreshing white wines by Michael David served with our luncheon at the Phillips Farms Cafe in Lodi. @MDWinery @Lodi_Wine.
At Michael David Winery in Lodi: Kevin Phillips (VP of Operations, Michael David Winery & Phillips Farms) and Adam Mettler (GM/Winemaker). @MDWinery @Lodi_Wine.
At Michael David Winery in Lodi: Kevin Phillips (VP of Operations, Michael David Winery & Phillips Farms) and Adam Mettler (GM/Winemaker). @MDWinery @Lodi_Wine.
The delectable Earthquake Petite Sirah made by Michael David Winery & Phillips Farms. @Lodi_Wine @MDWinery.
The delectable Earthquake Petite Sirah made by Michael David Winery & Phillips Farms. @Lodi_Wine @MDWinery.
The marvelous lineup of the new 2012 Lodi Native wines made from classic old #Zinfandel vineyards without the use of additives (yeast, nutrients, new oak, etc) in order to capture the purity of the fruit from these historic sites. @Lodi_Wine #LodiNative @alltheswirl @TheZinfandelOrg.
The marvelous lineup of the new 2012 Lodi Native wines made from classic old #Zinfandel vineyards without the use of additives (yeast, nutrients, new oak, etc) in order to capture the purity of the fruit from these historic sites. @Lodi_Wine #LodiNative @alltheswirl @TheZinfandelOrg.

 

The debut of the Artisan Series at Food Network in Concert

As some of you may know, I embarked on an exciting new journey earlier this year when I co-created the wine-savvy Artisan Series which will debut at the Food Network in Concert event in Highland Park, 20 minutes from Chicago, on September 20th. The show will be held at the legendary Ravinia Festival venue, the oldest outdoor music grounds in the United States. Headliners will include John Maher, Phillip Phillips, Twin Forks, Raul Midon, and many other hot acts.

FNIC 2014

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Food Network Magazine event without some celebrity chefs there, too. For starters, we’re talking about television and magazine stars like Mark Murphy, Anne Burrell, Sunny Anderson, Alex Guarnaschelli, Jose Garces, Jeff Mauro and Geoffrey Zakarian. On top of that add 70 of the top chefs in the Chicago area, and you have a serious day of #eatdrinkrock festivities in the making.

As the exclusive Artisan Series Sommelier at FNIC, my job will be to provide delectable and educational wine experiences for guests visiting the Chefs Lounge and VIP Lounge, as well as at the wine seminars led by Master Sommelier Alpana Singh and myself, and other special activities happening at the event. This will all be done with the stunning Artisan Series wines provided by Freixenet USA, Foley Family Wines and Charles Krug Winery.

Yesterday, the inaugural copy of the exciting Food Network in Concert newsletter was launched. In it you’ll find my notes on the delicious bubbles from the Freixenet portfolio paired with five summer songs by musicians featured at this year’s event: Songs & Bubbles of Summer as well as their special Summertime Sparklers.

Rest assured, I’ll be using the newsletter and other marvelous tools of social media to promote this stunning wine program, tasty bites and recipes, interviews with star chefs, fellow sommeliers, winemakers and musicians on the SawyerSomm site leading up to event.

In the meantime, don’t forget to check out “The Music Issue” inside the July-August copy of Food Network Magazine, which features fun pairings of chefs like Ina Garten, Michael Symon, Mauro and Zackarian, talking food with musicians Taylor Swift, Billy Corgan, Ja Rule and Sammy Hagar. In short, it’s a summer of fun, and a summer to #eatdrinkrock!

For tickets, visit www.foodnetwork.com/inconcert

Exploring the virtues of the 2011 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon at “A Day in the Dust”

From a sommelier’s perspective, I think what made this year’s presentation at the annual “A Day in the Dust” Tasting hosted at the legendary Ingelnook Winery by the Rutherford Dust Society last week so special was the spirit of the growers connected to the wineries and the winemakers, particularly in regards to the teamwork required to make it through the 2011 vintage and the horrid eight days of heavy rain in early October.

Winemaker Kirk Venge of Hunnicutt Wines reflects on the unique conditions of working with Rutherford fruit in 2011.
Winemaker Kirk Venge of Hunnicutt Wines reflects on the unique conditions of working with Rutherford fruit in 2011.

With that being said, most of the wines are not typical in terms of Rutherford Dust style. For starters, 2011 was a lighter year than previous vintages. But for what was lost in ripe fruit flavors and the natural mocha or chocolate notes typically associated with the term “Rutherford Dust” was made up for with more emphasis on high levels of acidity and tannin management. But, then again, these types of conditions are common for winemakers in Bordeaux to deal with multiple times in a decade.

At Quintessa Winery, for instance, winemaker Charles Thomas said 95% of the fruit was picked after the second rain and the use of optical sorting tables was critical to making sure he only worked with clean fruit. “There was a lot of talk among friends and other winemakers. To us, every day was a new harvest.”

In the end, the vintage was better than expected. As longtime winemaker Ted Edwards of Freemark Abbey put it in baseball terms, “I think we got thrown a curve ball and we hit it out of the park.”

The magnificent Flora Springs 2011 Rutherford Hillside Reserve
The magnificent Flora Springs 2011 Rutherford Hillside Reserve

Due to these factors, the bright red fruit flavors in the wines have drifted way away from the conventional pairings with beef, lamb and blue cheese; but instead lend themselves more towards working with more creative cuisine. For instance, I would have no problem pairing many of the wines with seared Ahi tuna coated on the outside with ground espresso beans and the plate decorated with drizzles of raspberry coolie. Other options would be to serve a chicken dish with savory spices, roasted pork with spicy plum sauce, or medium bodied cheeses like Laura Chenel’s new Truffle Chevre that can handle the high level of acidity in these young vibrant wines. In essence, they are wines that are drinkable now and even more intriguing when paired with a wider range of cuisine.

I would compare the 2011 vintage to a rare album. It reminds me of The In Sound From Way Out, the Beastie Boys instrumental EP that I originally purchased in Paris in the late 1999. Today, the album still doesn’t sound like Licensed to Ill, Paul’s Boutique or the other hit albums in the band’s portfolio. Instead, it has its own quirky personality much like the wines from the 2011 vintage that are a slight departure from what sommeliers, wine buyers and consumers have come to expect from the Rutherford AVA and the mythical Rutherford Dust from the region.

In my opinion, there is still a great range of 2011 Cabernet Sauvignons or Bordeaux style blends that remain authentic to the admired styles of Rutherford AVA. In terms of power and finesse, some of my favorites at the tasting were the rich and dense flavors of the Hewitt 2011 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon; the Beaulieu Vineyard 2011 George de Latour Estate Cabernet Sauvignon; and 12C 2011 Beckstoffer Vineyard George III Cabernet Sauvignon. For youthfulness and complexity, the Quintessa 2011 shined with floral aromas and deep flavors of ripe plum, cherry, blueberry and cocoa. If you like earthy wines, my picks of the vintage were the Freemark Abbey 2011 Sycamore Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and the Frank Family 2011 Winston Hill Red Wine. And on the sexier side of Cabernet Sauvignon, I was very impressed with the fragrant aromas of fresh violet and tobacco and lively flavors of raspberry, plum and cassis in the McGah 2011 Scarlett Cabernet Sauvignon and the slightly lifted bouquet and nuances of red berry, clove and chestnut in the Wm. Harrison 2011 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon.

Prices of these wines varied from $45 to $125 per bottle. See below for more details on these wines and other top picks. Also, look for clips of my views on the vintage as well as notes from my friend and fellow sommelier Jorge Tinoco in Randy Caparoso’s upcoming article in The SOMM Journal. For more information about the producers of the Rutherford AVA, visit www.rutherforddust.org.

Tasty New Releases: Germany, Austria and beyond

The German 1-0 win over Argentina on Sunday marked the first ever championship for a European team when the FIFA World Cup has been played in the New World.

But that’s soccer.

In the world of wine, Germany and the neighboring country of Austria have been making magnificent white wines with the noble grape Riesling for centuries.

This year’s new releases are no exception as proven at the recent German and Austrian Fall 2014 Tasting presented by Terry Theise Estate Selections and WineWise/The Vienna Wine Company at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco.

According to the producers I spoke with, the 2013 vintage is magnificent across the board.

“The first priority of the vintage was based on farming,” said Gunter Kunstler, winemaker/proprietor of Weingut Kunstler in the Rheingau region of Germany.

Gunter Kunstler of Weingut Kunstler celebrates a German goal in a World Cup game televised at the tasting in SF.
Gunter Kunstler of Weingut Kunstler celebrates a German goal in a World Cup game televised at the tasting in SF.

“It’s critical to be there at the right time when the fruit is ripe, the acid in balance and the skin is healthy. But when you master this process, it’s much easier to create balanced wines with layers of complexity.

Same was true for Caroline Diel, whose family owns Schlossgut Diel in Nahe. “In my opinion, 2013 was a relatively late year. But with god work in the vineyard and a little patience, the wines are fresh, beautiful and quite enjoyable when young.”

Two tasty interpretations of the 2013 vintage from Weingut Hexamer in the Nahe region.
Two tasty interpretations of the 2013 vintage from Weingut Hexamer in the Nahe region.

Wine scholar, author, philosopher and lovable bon vivant Terry Theise, who hosted the tasting, is fond of the vintage as well. “It’s a special vintage where the clusters had time on the vines to develop deep flavors of fresh fruit, acid, slate and other nuances that have resulted in classy wines that are both food friendly yet still have the ability to cellar for decades.

 

Here are some of my favorite picks from the event. Prices based on suggested retail.

Donnhoff 2013 Tronschiefer Riesling Trocken, Nahe, Germany ($30): Green apple, white plum, peach, grapefruit rind and mineral. Lively, fresh and stimulating to the senses.

Geil 2013 Geyersberg Riesling Trocken, Rheinhessen, Germany ($33): Very young, very vibrant with pretty floral aromas, flavors of pear, dried apricot and fleshy texture. Great wine to serve as an aperitif or with spicy Asian cuisine.

Kunstler 2013 Hochheimer Kirchenstuck Riesling Kabinett Trocken, Rheingau, Germany ($33): Fragrant aromas of spring flowers, fresh citrus and mineral. Medium body with lively flavors of lychee, mango, grilled pineapple, and a long finish.

Schlossgut Diel 2013 Riesling Kabinett, Nahe, Germany ($31): Young and fresh wine with notes of ripe golden delicious apple, fresh citrus, green tea, sage, mint and racy acidity.

From the Kamptal region of Austria: Peter Schleimer of Schloss Gobelsburg and Vincent Brundlmayer of Brundlmayer.
From the Kamptal region of Austria: Peter Schleimer of Schloss Gobelsburg and Vincent Brundlmayer of Brundlmayer.

Fantastic wine that makes you feel younger with each sip!

Brundlmayer 2013 Riesling ‘Kamptaler Terrassen’, Kamptal, Austria ($27): Impressive example of Riesling from the Kamptal region on the Danube River in Austria. Ripe pear, lime, hazelnut, sea salt and a nice toasty note on the finish.

 

El Dorado: Majestic wines made with pure mountain fruit

Located in the foothills between Sacramento and South Lake Tahoe in Northern California, El Dorado County is known for its high elevation, pine forests and warm daytime temperatures. Following the discovery of gold in Coloma in 1848, the county became one of the top winegrowing regions in California before the turn of last century. The secret to this success was planting Zinfandel, Mission and other intriguing grape varieties used to make still wines, dessert wines and brandy in the combination of granitic soils and rugged sloping hillsides. But after a decline in plantings and the advent of Prohibition, the history of winemaking in the region was forgotten for nearly half a century.

el dorado
Charming invite to taste El Dorado Wines at Mulvaney’s Building & Loan in downtown Sacramento.

That changed when the first phase of plantings in the modern era happened in the 1970s. In addition to Zinfandel, the new vineyard blocks included fighting varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. But it wasn’t until 2008 that the amount of vineyards surpassed the 2,100 acres planted in 1904.

After the appellation was granted by BATF on October 13, 1983, El Dorado has become one of the most intriguing winegrowing regions in California with newer plantings of Bordeaux varieties as well as a concerted effort to make signature wines with European varieties from the Rhone Valley, Italy and Spain. Over the past two decades, the diversification of grapes planted has made a big splash with consumers searching for full-bodied wines with deep flavors and layers of spice.

Today, the appellation features over 70 wineries and over 2,400 acres of vineyards. Most of the wines are made with estate grown grapes and vineyard designates. Besides the regular draw of thirsty consumers from Sacramento and the greater Bay Area; the newest visitors to the region are talented winemakers and representatives from high profile wineries who are looking to strike it big with purchases of high quality fruit at admirable prices.

el dorado2
Exclusive “Taste at a Higher Level” Panel from the El Dorado AVA: Paul Bush, Madrona Vineyards; John MacCready, Sierra Vista Winery; Greg Boeger, Boeger Winery; Jonathan Lach, Cedarville Vineyard; Chris Pittenger, Skinner Winery; Helen Keplinger, Keplinger Wines; myself; and Grayson Hartley, David Girard Vineyards.

Last week, I was honored to moderate a special wine panel featuring some of the living legends, growers, and talented winemakers who work with the fruit from the region. Held in the charming events space at Mulvaney’s Building & Loan, a hip restaurant located in downtown Sacramento, the “Taste at a Higher Level” panel discussion and walk-around tasting was organized by El Dorado Winery Association and Solterra Strategies. Below are my notes of the wines featured on the panel. Also look for more of my reviews of #ElDoradoWines in upcoming issues of the The Sommelier Files. For more information on the wineries, maps and varietals grown in the region, visit www.ElDoradoWines.org.

Madrona Vineyards 2010 Blanc de Blancs, Extra Brut ($35) / Guest panelist: Winemaker & Proprietor Paul Bush.

Paul’s parents Richard and Leslie Bush purchased 52 acres of land on the ridge of Apple Hill a few miles from the Placerville in 1972. The family immediately rolled the dice by planting 32 acres of own-rooted vines at 3,000 feet, which made it the highest vineyard at the time in California. At third leaf, the family made the first wines down the road at Boeger Winery and the other young fruit was sold to Ravenswood, David Bruce and Robert Mondavi Winery. The winery, named after the native Madrona tree planted in the middle of the estate property, was completed in 1980.

SawyerSomm notes: Fresh, elegant and lively style of sparkling wine made with 100% Chardonnay planted at high elevations. Fragrant aromas and deep flavors of ripe stone fruit, grapefruit, Meyer lemon, a squeeze of lime, roasted almonds, mineral, high acidity, and a long crisp, dry finish. At the walk-around tasting, the winery also poured its stunning 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon that still tasted young, elegant and built to please. www.madronavineyards.com.

David Girard Vineyards 2013 Rosé ($22) / Guest panelist: Winemaker Grayson Hartley.

Founded in the mid -1990s by David Girard, the focus of this vineyard and winery has always been on French varietals. Today, the vines planted are all Rhone varieties and the winery produces 5,000 cases of Rhone style blends annually.

SawyerSomm notes: Food-friendly Rhone-style Rose for summertime made with 45% Mourvedre, 41% Grenache, 14% Counoise grown on the winery’s estate vineyard. Attractive pink hue; bright aromas of ripe red fruits, rose petal and vanilla; fresh flavors of red plum, cherry, watermelon rind, subtle spices; and a refreshing burst of racy acidity on the finish. www.davidgirardvineyard.com.

Sierra Vista 2013 “Lynelle” Red Rhone Blend ($29) / Guest Panelist: Proprietor John MacCready

One of the true Rhone varietal pioneers of California, John and his family planted the first Syrah vines in El Dorado County and the Sierra Foothills in 1979. Today, John and his staff offer thirsty consumers a nice selection of crafted wines made with Rhone varietals, Zinfandel, Cabernet, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

sierra vista
The Sierra Vista Red Rock Ridge Syrah from the estate vineyard block where the first Syrah vines were planted in the Sierra Foothills in in 1979.

SawyerSomm notes: Young and perky, this new red blend made with Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah and Mourvedre hasn’t been release yet but it’s already rather tasty. With fresh aromas and vibrant flavors of ripe raspberry, dark cherry, granite, tobacco, red earth and savory spices, it reminds me of a fine medium-bodied French Rhone blend that you would drink when eating fresh caught fish from the Mediterranean. In this case, I’d be content with a glass of this wine and a nice filet of fresh Ahi tuna seared on the outside and pink in the middle. www.sierravistawinery.com.

Boeger Winery 2011 Barbera / Guest Panelist: Proprietor Greg Boeger

Known as the “Granddaddy” of modern winemaking and viticulture in the El Dorado appellation; Greg and his wife Susan purchased their original piece of property in 1972. Located a few miles north of the historic city of Placerville, the winery and estate vineyards are located on Carson Road, a well-traveled roadway which leads to “Apple Hill,” a popular agriculture destination which attracts a million visitors per year. From the 1860s to 1920s, the property was home to the Lombardo/Fosatti winery and today the original winemaking facility is a California Historic landmark. Greg planted his first Barbera vines in 1976 and today the varietal represents up to one-third of the family’s wine sales on a yearly basis.

SawyerSomm notes: Deep aromas and rich flavors of ripe blackberry, dark cherry, licorice, pepper, Mexican baking chocolate, blood orange peel, and a high level of natural acidity. Overall, a great food wine that Greg and Susan’s son Justin loves to serve on a daily basis. “It’s the wine I bring to a dinner when I don’t know what’s being served,” says Justin, who took over head winemaking duties from his dad after he graduated with a degree in fermentation science from UCD in 1998. “I think it is such a versatile and dynamic wine that can pair with so many types of cuisine that it’s great all year long. It’s an all-around wine, and a true crowd pleaser.”

Cedarville Vineyard 2012 Zinfandel ($25) / Guest Panelist: Winemaker & Proprietor Jonathan Lachs

On the southern edge of El Dorado is the Fair Play sub-appellation founded in 2001. At Cedarville Vineyards, UC Davis graduates Jonathon Lach and Susan Marks work with 25 acres of vineyards planted at 2,000 feet in the decomposed soils. And although they produce flavorful Rhone varietals, Zinfandel is the workhorse at the estate. “Everybody has a different course and direction towards gaining notoriety in the industry. In El Dorado, our course isn’t going to be like what’s already been done. Instead, it might just be based on the pure quality of fruit in this area,” says Lach, who is a loyal member of the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers organization.

SawyerSomm notes: Unlike the coastal regions in California that are cooled by maritime winds, El Dorado is more continental and above the fog line. When the sun comes up at 6 a.m., high levels of UV rays hit the vines for an entire day of maturation. In the late afternoon, the AVA is cooled by breezes that are pulled down from the Sierras towards the Central Valley to the west and the American River to the north. As a result, the Cedarville Vineyards Zinfandel is loaded with fresh flavors of wild berries, licorice, pepper, cardamom, licorice and a velvety texture that feels gentle, sexy and stimulating on the palate.

Skinner Vineyards & Winery 2012 Mourvédre ($25) / Guest Panelist: Winemaker Chris Pittenger

The Skinner family originally established its first winery in El Dorado County in 1861. But after Prohibition the tradition was lost until Mike and Carey Skinner brought the family legacy back to life when they purchased the current property a mile away from the original winery in 2006. Since then the family has gone on to establish a reputation for producing world-class Rhone-style wines with the help of talented winemaker Chris Pittenger, who previously worked with William Seylem, Maccassin and Torbeck wineries before bringing his skills to El Dorado.

SawyerSomm notes: Known for its deep, rich flavors and meaty, earthy and rustic qualities, Mourvedre is commonly used for blending with Grenache and Syrah grapes in the Rhone Valley of France and Australia or bottled alone in Spain, where the varietal is called Monastrell. In California, only 800 acres are planted of which Skinner has about 3 acres planted at its two estate vineyards. This new release features attractive aromatics and generous flavors of ripe raspberry, blueberry, wild strawberry, green olives, fresh sage, chaparral and layers of spicy herbs.

Keplinger Wines 2012 “Caldera” Red Wine ($60) / Guest Panelist: Winemaker & Proprietor Helen Keplinger

keplinger
The delectable Keplinger 2012 Caldera, a limited release red Rhone blend made with fruit from a stellar site owned and farmed by local vineyard manager Ron Mansfield.

One of the astonishing statistics from El Dorado is that the grape tonnage sold outside of El Dorado County increased 67% from 1,646 tons in 2011 to 2,741 in 2012. In addition to large-scale contracts with popular brands like Bogle and Delicato; on a smaller scale, hip indie wineries are purchasing fruit from the region, too. Long before she became the cover girl on the March 2014 issue of the Wine Spectator, Helen Keplinger developed a passion for making complex wines with the pristine fruit she purchases from the high-elevation Caldera Vineyard owned by Ron Mansfield which features a mélange of Aikens loam and ancient lava pebbles.

SawyerSomm notes: Big, dense and ethereal; this new release is a blend of Mourvedre, Grenache and Counoise. On the nose, the wine features tantalizing aromas of wild berries, thinly sliced prosciutto, leather, mineral, red earth and exotic spices. After the aromas cross over to the palate, they are further amplified with layers of core fruits, wild strawberry, black plum, blackberry and allspice; balanced structure; a generous amount of acidity to support the weight of the wine; and long dry finish. Superb, complex and worth the price. It’s also worth noting that Helen makes a delicious Rhone-style white from the region. It’s name? “El Dorado,” of course. www.keplingerwines.com.

More Wine News of Note… Congratulations to the Napa Valley Vintners for the most successful wine auction of all time last weekend! With events held at the Meadowood Resort in St. Helena, Charles Krug Winery and other special sites throughout the valley, the 34th annual Auction Napa Valley raised $18.4 million for local charities. Kudos to the fantastic wineries, chefs, sommeliers, wine collectors and avid wine lovers who participated at the record-setting weekend event. For more information on the festivities, photos and more highlights, visit www.napavalleyvintners.com.

Coming later this month: Results from the Sunset International Wine Competition and California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition (both of which I recently judged)…Tips on the exciting new food and drink culture in Sacramento…A celebration of the accomplishments at the Bacigalupi Vineyard in Russian River Valley…Hot Pinot Noir picks from the Santa Cruz Mountains and tasty Barbera notes from the Sierra Foothills…Highlights from the Lake County Wine Competition and the San Francisco International Wine Competition which I’ll be judging over the next couple weeks…a preview of the upcoming #SonomaWineCountryWeekend, August 29-31… and much more!

Cheers, Christopher

Celluloid delights and Pinot Noir dreams at the upcoming Mendocino Film Festival 2014

Lights! Camera! Action! This Thursday marks the beginning of the Mendocino Film Festival 2014, a dazzling cinematic mélange of independent films, local wines, and the flavorful cuisine Mendocino County has to offer, May 29 to June 1.

mendo film 650Last year, I was honored to play an important role at the festival by introducing the fantastic documentary SOMM at the special screenings in the charming towns of Mendocino and Philo. In addition to fielding great questions from the audience at each showing, I and fellow sommeliers Ian Coble and Sabato Sagaria (two of the co-stars featured in the film) had many opportunities to taste through a wide range of the world-class Pinot Noirs made with fruit from the premium vineyards in Anderson Valley throughout the festivities.

This weekend, film buffs attending the film festival will also have multiple chances to taste the great Pinot Noirs from the recent vintages. So as a preview, a couple weeks ago I tasted through many of the exciting new releases at the 17th Annual Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival, May 16-18. Below are five of my top picks that will be available at the Mendocino Film Festival 2014; local restaurants like the Booneville Hotel and Little River Inn; and fun winery tasting rooms along the way. In the meantime, for more information about the Mendocino Film Festival, visit www.mendocinofilmfestival.com. And for contacts to wineries mentioned in this article, visit www.avwines.com.

Husch 2010 “Knoll” Pinot Noir, Estate Grown, Anderson Valley ($40)

Located on the hillside above the Husch tasting room, the first Pinot Noir vines in Anderson Valley were planted on “The Knoll” above the tasting room on the Husch property in 1971. Today, the grapes from these old vines are still putting out dense flavors as evident in the new release from the 2011 vintage, which is highlighted by notes of fresh red cherry, pomegranate, vanilla, earthtones, forest floor, layers of spice, and rich texture. Only 13.7% alcohol and a tremendous value at under $45 per bottle!

Knez 2012 Pinot Noir, Cerise Vineyard, Anderson Valley ($42)

Located above the quaint town of Boonville, the Cerise Vineyard features 13 blocks of Pinot Noir planted on four separate ridges. The new release from Knez is a blend of the specific Pinot clones and special selections, which include 2A (Wadenswil), Pommard, Martini, David Bruce and 667. Elegant and refined, the nose is filled with hints of fresh carnations, green tea and ripe plums. The flavors (which open up with each sip) are highlighted by plum, ripe red cherry, cocoa, redwood bark, and a hint of freshly sliced prosciutto.

Domaine Anderson 2012 Pinot Noir, Estate Grown, Anderson Valley ($45)

Made with clones 4, 114, 667 and 777; this is the debut Pinot Noir release from Domaine Anderson, which is located at the site which used to be home to Jim Ball Winery. Deep aromas of red and black fruit, leather, tobacco, clove, earth and black tea. Flavors of plum, red cherry, wild strawberry, rhubarb and a long, dry finish.

Drew 2012 Pinot Noir, Morning Dew Vineyard, Anderson Valley ($55)

Crafted by talented winemaker Jason Drew, this expressive Pinot Noir is a combination of 60% Rochioli clone and 40% of the La Tache special selection planted at a cool-climate hillside vineyard owned by Burt Williams, one of the original founders of the famed Williams-Selyem brand. From the first sip, the wine teases the senses with notes of fresh red fruits, rose petals and mineral. The flavor profile echos these sensations with bright flavors of raspberry, cranberry, pomegranate, wild mushrooms and baking spices; zippy acidity; and a long rewarding finish.

Goldeneye 2011 Pinot Noir, Gowan Creek Vineyard, Anderson Valley ($80)

Located near the small town of Philo, the Gowan Vineyard is highlighted by a moderate daytime temperature influenced by the warmer segment of the valley to the south and the cooler climate influence to the north known as the “deep end” of the valley. As a result, this new release features sexy aromas of ripe blue fruits, fresh violets, pennyroyal, leather, and cigar box. On the palate, concentrated flavors of ripe blueberry, boysenberry, black cherry and dark chocolate; vibrant acidity; rich texture; and an ample nuance of toast oak and spice on the finish. Dense. Elegant. Ethereal.

For more reviews of Pinot Noirs and other gems from Anderson Valley, stay tuned for my detailed report upcoming in June.

-Cheers, Christopher

Catch some more pics from my trip at the Sawyer Sommelier Pinterest page, Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Fesitval