Category Archives: Wine

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

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.


The “Stars Under The Stars” Film Festival is back at St. Francis Winery!

For the 5th year in a row, St. Francis Winery in Sonoma Valley and yours truly will be hosting the amazing “Stars Under the Stars” Film St Francis 2Festival each Thursday night throughout the month of July.

This year’s sizzling lineup includes BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (1961) on July 10; A FISH CALLED WANDA (1988) on July 17; THE PRINCESS BRIDE (1987) on July 24; and FARGO (1996) on July 31. I’ll be pairing each film with the magnificent wines from the St. Francis Artisan Collection.

These special boutique production wines will be sold by the glass and tangy delectables from Sonoma Valley’s favorite Taco Truck, Londera Emely, will be available onsite, too. As an extra bonus, the fantastic opening bands will kick the festivities off in style at 7 pm each night.

St Francis 1For more information:

Hope to be seeing you under the stars in July too!

Pairing sparkling wine with the ultimate Ice Cream Flag Cake

Cake 4th July photo 1The minute I first saw it, I knew it was only a matter of time until someone I knew would make it happen over #4thofJuly Weekend. Of course, I’m talking about making the ultimate Ice Cream Flag Cake featured in the July/August issue of Food Network Magazine. Imagine a dazzling red, white and blue cake made with raspberry sorbet, vanilla ice cream, 28 drops of blue gel food coloring, unsweetened cocoa powder, confectioner’s sugar, and plenty of other goodies. It’s a recipe for a holiday cake that makes you want to cut it out and eat it.

So it wasn’t a surprise that my great friend Ilene Rapkin, President of I Openers in NYC, and her family completed the honorable task of making this magnificent culinary gem during their 4th of July Weekend activities in upstate New York.

So when Ilene sent me photos of the cake, she asked me what I would recommend for a wine pairing. My first instinct was to break open a bottle of the Gloria Ferrer NV Va de Vi Sparkling Wine, Sonoma County.

SawyerSomm notes: As a departure from the magnificently dry styles of elegant sparkling wines made at Gloria Ferrer Caves and Vineyards near Sonoma, California since 1982; the Va de Vi is young, perky style of bubbly with a hint of sweetness on the finish. Composed of 89% Pinot Noir, 8% Chardonnay and 3% Muscat, the wine features lively flavors of Bing cherries, fresh berries, Meyer lemon, vanilla and creamy texture. In essence, it’s a melting pot of deliciousness.

July 4th photo 2BIn addition to pairing extremely well with the ingredients used in the Ice Cream Flag Cake and more semi-sweet desserts; this sparkling gem can also easy be served as a fresh aperitif or as a compliment to spicy Indian or Thai cuisine.

Later this month, Va di Vi will be one of the featured sparkling wines paired with flavorful domestic interpretations of Spanish tapas at the 22nd Annual Catalan Festival at Gloria Ferrer Caves and Vineyards, July 19-20. For more information, visit

This fall, the Va de Vi and other sensational sparklers and still wines from Gloria Ferrer will also be featured at the Food Network in Concert at the Ravinia theater in Highland Park near Chicago on September 20th, including at the spicy “Hot, Hot, Hot” luncheon hosted by star chefs and wine seminars hosted by yours truly before the headliner John Maher takes the stage in the evening. In short, the Va de Vi is a fun and stimulating sparkling wine that’s definitely worth getting to know in 2014!

Cheers, Christopher

American Tradition Part 4: Barbeque and wine four ways for the Fourth

SawyerSomm Savory Suggestion: Lamb Sliders with Syrah

As an alternative to hamburgers, one of my favorite options is to make Lamb Sliders topped with melted Vermont white cheddar, spicy aioli, arugula and grilled peppers served on a sweet baguette. But if you don’t have enough time to gather all these ingredients, I love the tasty style that Chef Giada de Laurentiis, star of Food Network’s Giada at Home, made on the episode Backyard Campout.

As a rule, lamb works extremely well with Syrah. Granted, there are plenty of young, vibrant styles of wine out in the marketplace. But for a celebration holiday like July 4th, it’s a good excuse to break open one of the a more limited release, reserve-style bottles of Syrah modeled after the famous wines made in the northern Rhone Valley region of France. A magnificent domestic version is the Chalk Hill 2009 Syrah, Estate Grown, Chalk Hill ($60). Made with fruit grown on the cooler-climate western side of the Estate Vineyard east of Windsor, the wine features inviting aromas of dark fruit, black olives, smoked meats, layers of spice and cedar. The flavors are deep and rich, with notes of ripe blackberry, red currant, roasted fig, black pepper, sea salt, dark chocolate, and a long, rewarding finish. Rich, focused, and oh so rewarding!

American tradition Part 3: Barbeque and wine four ways for the Fourth

SawyerSomm Savory Suggestion: BBQ Pork Spareribs with Zinfandel

Let’s face it, all barbeque sauces are not created equal. Some are sweet and tangy, while others can be much more bold and spicy. To celebrate July 4th, a classic American tradition to follow is Patrick and Gina Neely’s recipe for Pork Ribs, which melds together the sweet and tangy flavors of brown sugar, molasses and apple cider vinegar with spicy notes of cayenne pepper and smoked paprika to create a tasty sensation with a lingering finish. Typically, these ribs are easy to serve with baked beans and coleslaw.

To match up with this wide range of flavors, I tend to lean towards serving a balanced Zinfandel with ripe fruity flavors, layers of spice, balance, and a restrained level of alcohol. Among the flavorful new releases to meet my criteria is the DeLoach Vineyards 2012 Zinfandel, Russian River Valley ($20).

Known as California’s “sweetheart grape,” Zinfandel has been grown in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley since the early 1880s. While many of the older vineyards are “field blends” interplanted with Petite Sirah, Carignane, Mourvedre (Mataro) other red grape varieties, the new DeLoach wine is more focused on purity and the fresh fruit flavors from younger vines planted at the Becnel and Slusser vineyards in northern Russian River Valley and a smaller portion of more concentrated fruit from old vine Zinfandel planted closer to the Deloach Estate Vineyards western of Santa Rosa. As a result, the wine features lively aromas of ripe blue fruits, violets, cinnamon and clove; concentrated flavors of boysenberry, blueberry, black raspberry, dark plum, fresh cracked pepper, layers of savory spice; a sexy rustic texture; and a long, lingering finish without too much heat or alcohol.

As an extra July 4th tip, I would recommend pairing the BBQ Pork Spareribs and DeLoach Zinfandel with the movie Top Gun starring Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis, Tim Robbins and Val Kilmer. Ironically, several scenes from the movie were filmed at the Kansas City Barbeque, a bar and restaurant located in the harbor district of San Diego, which opened to the public in 1983, the same year Russian River Valley became recognized as an American Viticultural Area. On its own merits, that patriotic fact of American wine history takes my breath away!

American tradition Pt 2: Barbeque and wine four ways for the Fourth

SawyerSomm Savory Suggestion: Grilled Prawns with Dry Pink Wines

Beyond the American flag, if you add red plus white, the outcome isn’t blue. Instead it’s usually a distinctive pink hue. But for many wine consumers the thought of pink wine immediately sparks childhood memories of grandma’s passion for the sweet Portuguese brands like Mateus and Lancers in the 1970s or the white zinfandels and other styles of domestic blush wines that were served in households across America in the 1980s and 1990s. Thus, when you add all these factors together, it is easy to see why pink wines are often pooh-poohed, ridiculed, and vastly misunderstood through the years.

But over the past decade a quiet rosé revolution has been taking place as a growing number of well-respected wineries have started producing sexy European-style pink wines featuring complex aromas, rich fruity mouthfeel, zippy acidity and a lingering bone-dry finishes.

I bring this subject up because the Fourth of July is an all-day affair highlighted by picnics, barbeques, tailgate parties, parades, and other culinary events leading up to the fireworks finale at night. For that reason, eating a lot but eating lite is a great option. So instead of relying solely on meats and poultry, another healthy and refreshing option is to serve grilled prawns with a nice dry style of pink wine.

One of my favorite starters is Barefoot Contessa Ina Garten’s Roasted Shrimp Cocktail. a dazzling appetizer with smoky flavors and a tangy dipping sauce made with ketchup, chili spice, horseradish, Worcestershire sauce and a squeeze of lemon. As an alternative to roasting on the Fourth, the prawns can easily be done on the barbeque by wiping the grill with an oiled paper towel to create a nonstick surface.

As a classy compliment to the dish, try the Etude 2013 Rosé of Pinot Noir, Estate Grown, Grace Benoit Ranch, Carneros ($26-$28). Served chilled, this perky young wine features a lovely salmon-colored hue and fragrant aromas of red berries, rose petals, nectarine fuzz and citrus peels. On the palate, the flavors explode with notes of Bing cherry, raspberry, tart cranberry, and hints of the small Watmaugh strawberries grown down the road from the Grace Benoit Ranch near Sonoma. With vibrant acidity and a crisp, dry and thirst quenching finish, it’s a lip smackin’ wine that stimulates the senses and works wonders with the tangy, zesty and charred flavors of Ina’s appetizer.

P.S. Don’t forget to check out the fun musical intervention of Taylor Swift cooking with Ina in the new July/August issue of Food Network Magazine and the upcoming Food Network in Concert at Ravinia in Highland Park near Chicago on September 20, 2014.

American tradition: Barbeque and wine four ways for the Fourth

Pairing wines with food is a noble duty. This is particularly true on the Fourth of July, a classic American holiday when fireworks and barbequed foods reign supreme and the choice of tasty wine can enhance the meal that much more.

To many, it’s as simple as serving hamburgers and hot dogs with their favorite bottles of Chardonnay or Merlot. But for those of you looking for a little more adventure, there are plenty of new ways of matching tasty comfort foods with bright, playful and expressive wines. For that reason, I thought it would be fun to update the holiday article I wrote a few years ago for Rebel Mom .  So here is the first of my four picks leading up to Independence Day 2014…

Grilled Chicken and Vegetables with Edna Valley Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc

july4Known for its fresh aromatics, fruity flavors, zippy acidity and crisp finish, white wines made with Sauvignon Blanc grapes can offer a refreshing alternative to the buttery styles of Chardonnay in the summertime. A great example of this style is the Edna Valley Vineyard 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, Central Coast ($15). This bright new release features fragrant aromas of citrus blossom, grapefruit and fresh cut grass; bright flavors of ripe melon, papaya, lime and gooseberry; and a crisp, refreshing finish.

Besides pairing nicely with grilled chicken marinated in white wine, herbs and citrus, the vibrant acidity of the wine also works great with grilled asparagus, squash, onions and other veggies that are often difficult to pair with, as well as handling the heat in spicy dishes as well. For a fun July 4th pairing with the Edna Valley Vineyards 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, check out Chef Mark Murphy’s fantastic recipe for Grilled Corn on the Cob with Chili-Lime Butter and Cojita Cheese.  Yummy, easy to make, and a perfect pairing with a fresh wine poured from a screwcap bottle. Oh, behave!