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

Flashback 2008! Pinot pleasures from Sonoma Coast’s Petaluma Gap

Given the recent news of Petaluma Gap finally being formally recognized as the 18th appellation of Sonoma County,  a little reminiscence seems appropriate.  Please enjoy my article previously published by The Tasting Panel in 2008, with the addition of some relevant and fun photos taken over the years and from the recent celebration.

Introducing: The Petaluma Gap

In the cool-climate regions of California, the delicate grape variety pinot noir continues to capture the hearts of passionate winemakers and producers committed to releasing their own signature styles of classy, elegant and sophisticated red wines on an annual basis. Recently, a blossoming area to lure such attention is a distinctive winegrowing region known as the Petaluma Gap.  Located at the lower end of the Sonoma Coast appellation in southern Sonoma County: A Blossoming area.

Grenache vines at McEvoy Ranch.
Grenache vines at McEvoy Ranch.

Distinguished by its close proximity to the Pacific Ocean, this unique area is influenced by misty fog in the mornings, warm afternoons and chilly maritime winds in the evenings. Together, this mixture of intriguing climatic conditions, diverse soils and unique geographic locations make this area near the historic city of Petaluma an ideal spot to grow delicious thin-skinned grapes.

In 2005 and 2006, the impact of this intriguing natural phenomenon allowed fruit to hang on the vines for an extended period of time. The end result is a magnificent stream of elegant new releases which feature sensational flavors of mixed berries, ripe plums, red currants, dark cherries, fresh ruby grapefruit, pomegranate, zesty spices, and lingering hints of smoke and earth.

As an extra bonus, not only do these beautiful wines coat the palate with complex flavors, balanced tannins and crisp acidity, but they are also quite ageworthy. In short, they are the kind of wines that you want to get your hands on before they are gone!

Keller Estate

One of the pioneers of this delicious new movement is Keller Estate, a state-of-the-art winery nestled in the rolling hills off Lakeville Highway, southeast of downtown Petaluma. Founded by automotive interior designer Arturo and Deborah Keller in the mid 1980s, the premiere blocks of the La Cruz and El Coro vineyards on this estate are now home to 42 acres of pinot noir clones and special varietal selections that are planted on diverse clay and volcanic-based soils.

Celebrating the new appellation on December 7th, 2017: Ana Keller, Doug Cover, Liz Thach and me!

To insure the quality of the fruit, winemaker Michael McNeill closely monitors how each block is maturing leading up to harvest. Once picked, he captures the flavors and personality of these vines by keeping the clones from each block separate until the final batch is blended.

“Realistically, there is no such thing as a magic silver bullet. There are no steroids that enhance the strength and no secret potions to add to the allure of a finished wine,” says McNeill.  Instead, the beauty of a fine pinot noir comes from the generosity of flavors, complexity and true elegance that you get from a mixture of the clones picked before they get overripe.”

“Overall, our goal is to master the art of embracing and magnifying the pure hedonistic flavors in each bottle we produce!”

Cult following

Although they produce 11,000 cases of pinot noir, syrah, chardonnay and pinot gris each year, Keller Estate also sells a portion of its estate fruit to a number of top producers. One of them is Testarossa, a Saratoga, Calif-based winery known for making hand-crafted vineyard designate pinots with fruit from legendary sites in the Central Coast. But according to Rob Jensen, the owner of the winery, getting their hands on high-quality grapes from the breezy Petaluma Gap region is just as exciting.

“Much like the Pisoni and Gary’s vineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands or Bien Nacido in Santa Maria, I truly believe that the La Cruz Vineyard and other locations in the cool-climate Petaluma area will be on that same tier very soon,” said Jensen. “It’s definitely a region for winemakers, sommeliers, wine buyers and collectors to get to know as quickly as possible!”

Some choice selections from the celebration!

Another maverick vintner that sees great promise for this unique growing region is Adam Lee, winemaker and proprietor of Siduri Winery, which released two delicious wines from the Sonaterra and Terra de Promissio vineyards in Petaluma last year. Needless to say, the recent releases of both of these hand-crafted wines sold out immediately.

“With low yields and long hang time, working with pinot noir grapes from Petaluma can definitely test the patience of a winemaker,” said Lee. “But there is always enough sun to lift the fruit and support the tannins needed to make rich, powerful and elegant styles of wines that make it well worth the wait.”

Like Testarossa and Siduri, many other well-known wineries such as Cobb Wines, Kosta Browne, Ceja, Cline, Culler, CL Wines, De La Montanya, Flowers, Hart’s Desire, Landmark, Longfellow, Mayo Family, Pax, and Roessler, either own or work closely with growers in the Petaluma Gap district. Special vineyard designate names to look for on wine labels include: Gap’s Crown, Griffin’s Lair, Armagh Vineyard, Devil’s Gulch,  and Rockin’ H Ranch.

Boutique Wineries

In addition to Keller Estate and Adobe Road (a medium-sized winery owned by renowned sports car racer and entrepreneur Kevin Buckler and his wife Debra), there are a growing number of boutique Petaluma-based wineries that specialize in working with pinot noir.

Hanging on the porch with Hoot of Kastania Vineyards!

One of them is the Kastania Vineyard, which is located off Highway 101, south of Petaluma. After planting pinot noir grapes in 1998, Hoot and Linda Smith sold the fruit from the first few vintages to Landmark Winery. But after hiring talented winemaker Leslie Sisneros in 2005, the family introduced its dazzling new releases under the Kastania label last year.

Today, the winery produces 700 to 800 cases and is open for tasting on weekends. “We like to think of our location off Highway 101 as a tasty gateway to all the great Pinot Noirs of the Petaluma Gap region and the rest of Sonoma County!” said Smith.

Another outstanding brand is Ridgeway Family Vineyards from the Two Pisces Vineyard. Owned by Michael and Teela Ridgeway, this 10-acre vineyard features five clones, Pommard, 115, 667, 777 and 828, that are planted on the rounded ridges of southwest-facing hillsides. Crafted by long-time Sonoma County winemaker Dan Goldfield, the latest release from the 2005 vintage is generous, elegant and refined with flavors of fresh tobacco, vanilla, blueberry, ripe plum, and a burst of fresh acidity on the long, engaging finish. “It’s all about the vines,” said Michael Ridgeway, with a smile.

Paul Clary at the appellation celebration.

Other up-and-coming boutique producers from the Petaluma Gap region include: Azari, Bush-Field, Clary Ranch, Corda, Pey-Marin Vineyards, Stubbs, and Sutton Cellars.

In terms of food pairings, these elegant and expressive styles of pinot noir work extremely well with starter course featuring wild mushrooms or young, tangy cheeses, and with entrées featuring fresh Ahi tuna, salmon, pork or lamb. More importantly, whether they are served at a restaurant or in the comforts of your own home, don’t be surprised if these tasty wines stimulate conversation and leave a priceless impression on the palate for many years to come!

For more information about pinot noir and other cool-climate grape varieties grown in the Petaluma area, visit the Petaluma Gap Grape and Wine Alliance at, www.petalumagap.com.

from my seminar at Petaluma Gap's "Wind to Wine" event in 2016.
From my seminar at Petaluma Gap’s “Wind to Wine” event in 2016.

For The Love of Napa concert raises spirits and funds for fire relief!

There are so many incredible people coming together in support of those affected by the recent fires.  For The Love of Napa featured an amazing concert with Michael Franti and Spearhead and Vintage Trouble.  With so many affected, this is a chance for locals to show their resilience as a community and lift their spirits through the healing power of music. One-hundred percent of ticket sales went to victims of the region’s recent wildfires through the Napa Valley Community Foundation.

It all took place at Robert Mondavi Winery, in conjunction with BottleRock Presents, and raised in excess of $90K for fire relief.

THANK YOU to all that contributed time, money, music and wine!

 #NapaStrong #WineCountryStrong
#CAWineStrong #FeastItForward