Sunday, November 22, 2015

Russian River Bliss: Exploring MacMurray Ranch

MacMurray Ranch is an ethereal place. Nestled in a quiet enclave of Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, as you enter the estate, the clock dials back a few decades. Massive, gnarly oak trees scrape the sky. Rows of vines rise up from the forest and stretch to the hills — it’s conducive to a sense of awe and admiration.

On a recent trip to Napa and Sonoma, I spent the afternoon and evening touring the property and dining at the ranch house. The MacMurray Ranch is home to the annual Taste of Sonoma event, which brings together thousands of wine lovers with hundreds of local wineries and food vendors. I’ve never attended, but after spending time at the ranch, I realized it is a perfect spot it is to throw a huge party.

The ranch is massive, comprising 1,500 acres, and has been farmed since the 1850s. The American actor Fred MaMurray purchased the property in 1941, and began farming crops, raising cattle and raising a family. 

Kate MacMurray, Fred's daughter, grew up here, and she was my gracious host for an afternoon and evening at the ranch. She's a genuine, wise soul, exuding a rich sense of historical perspective. As we toured the property, she told nostalgic stories about the ranch and spoke about "Daddy and Mom" with a tone of reverence. 

Fred MacMurray passed away in 1991, and it wasn’t until five years later that the first grape vines took root in MacMurray Ranch soil. 

While grapes are a relative newcomer to this historic site, it’s a beautiful spot for viticulture. This estate is sprawling and diverse, with different slopes and soils. 

Kate MacMurray at home on the ranch. 
These hills are home to some delicious Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, among other varieties. 400 acres are planted to vines, 280 to Pinot Noir. 

"We're Pinot here," said Winemaker Boyd Morrison, a tall, pensive guy with a passion for site-specific nuances in the Pinot Noir Grape. "That's mostly where our passion is." 

After touring the vineyards with Boyd and Kate, we gathered at the highest point of the ranch to taste some barrel samples of 2014 Pinot Noirs. The wines came from four different estate vineyards (three in the Russian River and one much further south in the Santa Lucia Highlands). The three Russian River Vineyards (along with MacMurray Ranch) are usually blended together in one of three appellation bottlings, the Russian River, Russian River Reserve and the Winemaker’s Block, while the Santa Lucia wine is bottled separately.  

Below are my notes on the four different Pinot Noirs.

2014 Pinot Noir Two Rock Vineyard
Russian River Valley - 223 acres of Pinot Noir
Gorgeous nose of bright strawberries, raspberries, rose hips. Fresh and vibrant palate with tangy acid to zest up a bold texture. Bright raspberries and juicy cherries mix with notes of pepper and clove. I could see this wine adding a whole lot of aromatics and spice to a blend.

2014 Pinot Noir Del Rio Vineyard
Russian River Valley - 44 acres of Pinot Noir
Darker cherries on the nose, more savory spices as well. Full and chewy on the palate, a deep but smooth texture. Plummy, jammy cherries and raspberries. I get sweet tobacco, loam, clay, violets. A deep and somewhat compact wine that could add a whole lot of structure to a blend.

2014 Pinot Noir Laguna Ranch
Russian River Valley - 21 acres of Pinot Noir
More aromatically compact but does show some deper red currant and cherries along with some clove and pepper. Bright acid on the palate but a rich and chewy presence. Rich but tangy cherries along with roses, black tea, tobacco. A long, warm finish. Bold but shows lots of finesse.

2014 Pinot Noir Olson Ranch
Santa Lucia Highlands - 390 acres of Pinot Noir
Bright red cherries on the nose, sweet strawberries and raspberry jam. Chewy texture, medium-low acid, this shows jammy raspberries and black cherry fruit. I get notes of lavender, cedar, cola, sweet herbaceous elements as well.

California wine giant Gallo Family bought MacMurray Ranch about 16 years ago. Kate told me the family sold to Gallo with a few conditions. They wanted to sell to a family company that would respect the unique history and aesthetic of the place. Also, the purchases couldn’t disturb an old fence on the property that was built by Chinese laborers in the 1800s. Lastly, the land had to stay agricultural. Considering the site was prime Pinot Noir territory, Gallo fit the bill and bought MacMurray Ranch. The money from the sale was used to create a non-profit foundation in the name of Kate's parents.

After dark, a group of other wine writers and I gathered around a table in the old ranch house for an amazing meal. The food, served by renowned local chef Gia Passalacqua, was absurdly delicious. "Meals were very important here," Kate told me as we dined. "That's what this ranch is all about, bringing people together in a joyful setting."

My notes on the wines tasted with dinner are posted below.

2014 MacMurray Ranch Pinot Gris Russian River Valley - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
SRP: $20
Smells of creamy yellow apples, nectarines and rich yellow flowers. Bright acid on the palate keeps this lively while the creamy fruit rolls in (pears, nectarines, yellow apples). I get notes of honeycomb and floral perfume. A very pretty Pinot Gris with lots of life. The fruit comes from MacMurray Ranch and Two Rock Vineyard. Very good for the price. (87 points)

2014 MacMurray Ranch Chardonnay Russian River Valley - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
SRP: $20
Great aromatic vivacity: green and yellow pears and apples, honeysuckle, almond and some flinty notes. Crisp but buttery, the balance is wonderful. Tastes of the ripest pears, sliced green apples, with notes of honeycomb, cinnamon, yet some mineral tinge throughout. Love the balance of freshness and richness in this Chard. From Laguna Ranch, Del Rio and Two Rock Vineyards. So good for the price. (88 points)

2013 MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir Reserve Russian River Valley - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
SRP: $37
Nose of juicy black and red cherries, raspberry jam, along with tobacco, roses and wet earth. A full and velvety approach on the palate, bold, almost aggressive, but some moderate acid for balance. The fruit tends toward the jammy red currants and raspberries, but the fruit is tinted with notes of rhubarb, red clay, caramel and coffee. Long, rich, warm, even exotic. A richer style but very pretty – this will improve for quite some time. From Laguna Ranch, Del Rio and MacMurray Ranch Vineyards. Aged 10 months in 1/3 new French oak. (90 points)

SRP: $60
A wonderfully complex nose of black cherries, raspberries, red licorice, sage, clove, roses, tilled soil. So silky and refined on the palate but the richness is evident. The red fruit is tangy and fresh and complemented by rhubarb pie and tobacco flavors. An underlying mineral essence as well, with hints of savory elements that will come out with time. A much more refined Pinot than the Russian River Reserve, and one of my favorite wines of the trip. From Del Rio, Laguna Ranch and MacMurray Ranch Vineyards. (92 points)

2007 Gallo Family Vineyards Sémillon Late Harvest Style - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
Rich aromas of peach nectar, candied orange peel and clover honey. Smooth and rich on the palate with apricot jam, pineapple cake, orange marmalade, also some candied ginger and caramelized sugar. Medium acid helps balance the richness. Very delicious. (87 points)

The MacMurray Ranch has a lot of different slopes, angles and soils, allowing the Pinot grapes to gain significant complexity.

And here's some GoPro footage from my time at MacMurray Ranch: 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Special Occasion Wines Worth the Price ($30 or more)

I’d rather buy one $30 bottle than three $10 bottles. Bargain wines can be a lot of fun, and I love tracking down good ones in the $15 range, but to truly understand the wines of a given region, yup, you have to spend some money.

The $60 suggested retail for the 2010 Cenyth Proprietary Red Wine is actually very reasonable given the stunning quality of this Sonoma County red blend. (You can find it for about $50 at some retailers). I’ve been tasting through a bunch of Napa and Sonoma Cabernets and Bordeaux blends lately, and this bottle had the best quality-to-price ratio of the bunch. And it’s perfect to pop open and decant with good friends and family during one of these cold, autumn evenings.

Click here for more recommendations from the full article on Snooth.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Sipping Banshee Wines in Healdsburg

If you’re a winelover with a few hours to burn, Healdsburg is heaven. I found myself in this exact position a few weeks ago, after spending the morning touring and tasting I had a few hours before dinner at nearby MacMurray Ranch. The day had worn me down, but there was no way I was going to waste the afternoon napping. Healdsburg is such a walkable, friendly and downright charming town, I just had to get out.

There are no shortage of tasting rooms, wine bars, restaurants, shops – you could easily (and happily) drop plenty of money in a few hours. But considering the quality of the local Sonoma wines, it should be money well spent.

I stopped into
Banshee’s tasting room because I’d heard good things about their wines and they comfy-looking tasting room was quiet and calm – a good place for me to sip some wines and contemplate things. I took the basic tasting of five wines, and my notes are posted below.

2014 Banshee Chardonnay - California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
Aromas of rich yellow apples, glazed pears but also some brightness and chalky notes. Plump but stays fresh, with juicy nectarine, yellow pears. Bold hazelnut, almond, honeycomb and buttercream flavors but a vibrant sense of chalk and minerals as well. I think this would appeal to all kinds of Chards lovers, and it’s a solid deal for $25 a bottle. Aged 11 months in 40% new French oak. (87 points)

2013 Banshee Pinot Noir - California, Sonoma County
Juicy red cherries, wild strawberries and raspberries on the nose along with some rose, leather and bay leaf notes. Bright and zesty approach on the palate but full of juicy raspberries and red apples. A lighter style, smooth but not weak. Notes of subtle spice, leather, wet leaves and cola. A great buy at $28 a bottle. (88 points)

2014 Banshee Pinot Noir El Pino - California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
A funky kick on the nose, and some rhubarb accents the dark cherries and plums. Fuller-bodied, medium acid, a chewy texture. Deep plum fruit, black cherries, a good amount of tobacco, mushroom and smoky elements with a long, warm finish. (89 points)

2013 Banshee Mordecai - California
Nose of jammy blackberries, black cherries, rich caramel and blueberry pancake topping. Quite chewy, lower acid, full of jammy blackberries and blueberries, and I get notes of cola, mocha, cedar and vanilla bean. Forward and fun but enough structure to be interesting. A wide-ranging blend of 27% Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa, Sonoma), 24% Syrah (Sonoma), 24% Zinfandel (Dry Creek, Russian River), 5% Cabernet Franc (Sonoma), 5% Grenache (Sonoma), 5% Petite Sirah (Dry Creek), 4% Petit Verdot (Napa), 3% Merlot (Alexander Valley), and 3% Barbera (Sonoma). (86 points)

2013 Banshee Cabernet Sauvignon - California, Napa Valley
Dark and concentrated aromas: blackberry, dark plums, roasted figs, loam, cedar, sweet vanilla. Quite tight but shows hints of underlying silkiness. Tart but rich black currants mixed with charred cedar, mocha and scorched earth notes. Nice stuff, but time needed to let it settle. $40 isn't cheap, but for a Napa Cabernet, it delivers a lot for this price point. (88 points)

Sunday, November 15, 2015

In $15-$25 Range, Douro Reds Rule

This post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist. 

In the $15-$25 range, does it get any better than Douro reds? Sure you can spend a lot more than that on some incredible red blends from this region. But if you’re looking for bang-for-your-buck wines, the quality of dry reds coming out of Portugal’s Douro region is consistently impressive.

These three wines were received as trade samples and tastes sighted:
Bright and juicy with tangy red berries, some tobacco and pepper. Juicy and fresh on the palate with some nice grip from the tannins and tartness from the acid. Cherries and red currants, with some darker berry fruit, backed up by clove, pepper and a nice kick of minerals. Showing well now but could probably unwrap some more complexity over the next few years. (88 points)

2011 Quinta de la Rosa Douro - Portugal, Douro
SRP: $20
Deep purple color. Smells of black cherries, blackberry and raspberry jam, lots of earthy-charcoal notes along with some tobacco and roasted coffee. Full-bodied, tart acid, the fig, blackberry and blueberry fruit tastes crunchy but slightly roasted, like it was tossed on a charcoal pit for a minute. The fruit stays tart and fresh though despite the richness, and there’s a pleasant sense of pine forest and wet earth underneath. Quite good for the price, a solid autumnal bargain for sure. A cold weather sipper by itself or with rich stews. 40% Touriga Nacional, 30% Tinta Roriz and 30% Touriga Franca. (87 points)

SRP: $25
Deep purple color. Rich plums, tart black cherries on the nose, rich violets and coffee grounds. Medium-bodied, I like the tartness of the wine, balancing with fine yet firm tannins. Juicy black cherries, plums, tart blackberries, blend in some pencil shavings, loamy soil, mixed with deep floral tones. Dusty, some nice sweet herbal notes and roasted coffee. Full and bold, it gets so much livelier with air but can easily develop and calm down in the cellar. Mostly Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca. (88 points)

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

J Vineyards' Bubble Room - An Exciting Wine & Food Experience in Sonoma

If you’re traveling through Sonoma and looking for a memorable wine and culinary experience, you must check out the Bubble Room at J Vineyards.

One of the most well-known sparkling wine producers in Sonoma, J Vineyards & Winery is located off Old Redwood Highway near Healdsburg. They also produce some still Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, a delicious Russian River appellation Pinot Noir and a few exciting single-vineyard Pinots from selected spots in the Russian River.
The winery and tasting room offer up your basic wine tasting scenario, as well as a tour-tasting combo. But if you want the best possible experience, plan ahead and reserve a spot at the Bubble Room.  (Open Thursday-Sunday, 11 am-3 pm)

Chef Erik serves some fresh, local olive oil to
J Vineyards' new winemaker Nicole Hitchcock
Here, in a glass-enclosed area abutting the main tasting room, chef Erik Johnson works his magic. The Bubble Room offers a five-course lunch paired with J's wines for a tremendously reasonable $75 (considering the quality of the food, wine and venue). It's a simple concept: pairing local food with estate wines. But the food and the wines are anything but simple.

Using hyper-local ingredients, Chef Erik Johnson crafts complex but suave dishes to pair with the wines. The menu changed every six weeks in order to incorporate the seasonal harvests. During my meal, I asked him which ingredient came from farthest away, and where it came from. He thought a few seconds before saying, “Um, Petaluma?”

The winery itself is sleek, steely and ultra-modern, and I got the impression that no expenses were spared in the construction. The food preparation and presentation is precise and superbly executed, making it a perfect match for the overall aesthetic of the winery itself.

My notes on the wines are detailed below.
2008 J Vineyards & Winery Brut Rosé - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
Biscuity nose with yellow apples, almonds, red apples and minerals. Crisp, clean and quite complex, as the orange, red and yellow apple peels play well off the complex almond and toasted biscuit flavors. The five years aging on the lees has imbued this with a deep sense of fresh baked bread. Quite long and persistent with a bright, mineral-crusted finish. (88 points)

SRP: $17
Floral and full of tropical fruit (guava, pineapple) aromas with some honey as well. Plump texture, the richness of that Central Valley fruit (yellow plums, pineapple, guava paste) mixes with some brightness and lighter floral tones, ends up being relatively clean and fresh. Simple, but well done. (85 points)

My lunch theme was "An Ode to Squash" and this soup with roasted vegetables was delicious.
2013 J Vineyards & Winery Chardonnay Estate - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
SRP: $28
Smells of baked pears, rich yellow apples, hints of sea salt mix with a sweet vanilla note. Creamy on the body with lovely richness yet bright acid for balance keeps the wine together. Lovely pears and baked apple, dusted with nougat, honeycomb, almond and vanilla. Smooth and silky finish. A richer style but stays bright and offers a good dose of complexity. (90 points)

2013 J Vineyards & Winery Pinot Noir Bow Tie Vineyard Russian River Valley - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
SRP: $65
So lovely on the nose: deep flowers, juicy raspberries and cherries, some cola, clove and dusty earth. Bright acid combines with a rich texture on the palate, making this wine pure and vibrant. Tangy red cherries, silky red plums, strawberry jam, the fruit is mixed with complex earth and savory aspects. Some cedar and chestnut woven in quite nicely. Aged 13 months in 30% new French oak. (91 points)

N.V. J Vineyards & Winery Cuvée 20 - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
SRP: $28
Smells of sweet pears and oranges along with pie crust and buttered biscuits. Ripe and slightly sweet with juicy pears and peach fruit, helped by some clean acid. I get hints of minerals and sea breeze as well. A reliable bubbly that would please many a palate. If you see any J wine in a store, it will likely be this bottle, which is their best seller (and for good reason). (87 points)

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Magic of Monte Rosso - Exploring a Storied Sonoma Vineyard

As I rode through the Monte Rosso vineyard in the back of an open-air Jeep, clouds of copper-red dust rose up around me. The soil was so fine it coated everyone in the vehicle, and it became impossible not to breathe it in and taste it. After sipping some Monte Rosso wines earlier in the day, the flavor of lingering red dust felt familiar.

The sky was clear and bright as I took in the views of rolling hills and gnarled old vines. From an outlook near the top of the vineyard, which sits on the southwest side of the Mayacamas Range but falls under the Sonoma Valley appellation, I could see the San Francisco skyline in the distance. I was in a special place. 

“The specialness of the place and the specialness of the wine coincide,” winemaker Michael Eddy told me. Eddy joined the Gallo Family group in 2005 and now oversees and mentors winemakers across the North Coast. I picked his brain about the Monte Rosso vineyard and its wines over a delicious meal in the Louis M. Martini cellar. Today, Monte Rosso is the jewel in large crown of the Gallo Family, the entity that owns Martini and sponsored this trip.

First planted in 1880, the vineyard survived through prohibition while founder Emmanuel Goldstein sent grapes to home winemakers in San Francisco. Louis Martini purchased the property in 1938 and named it Monte Rosso. The moniker makes sense considering the Martini family’s Italian heritage, the vineyards elevation of 700-1,200 feet, and the bright red loam soil. 

The Monte Rosso Vineyard comprises 575 acres, of which 230 are planted to about a dozen varieties. The vineyard is most famous for its Cabernet and Zinfandel, but it’s also home to other Bordeaux varieties and some oddities like Folle Blanche (the grape of Cognac). The most heralded plots are the gnarly old vines: 65-year-old Cabernet, 110-year-old Zinfandel and Semillon. In addition to bottling their own line of wines from this vineyard, Louis Martini has sold fruit to producers like Carlisle, Ravenswood, Rosenblum, and Sbragia Family, among others. 

Morgan Twain-Peterson, who crafts Zinfandel from Monte Rosso under his Bedrock label,
says of Monte Rosso Vineyard: “the terroir here is so strong that I have often mistaken a Monte Rosso Cabernet for Zinfandel — the wines smell and taste like Monte Rosso, far less like the given varietal.” 

If I had to come up with a theme for the wines from this storied vineyard, something consistent across vintage and variety, I’d say they have bountiful earthiness, higher than average acidity, and they maintain a sense of elegance despite the density of fruit. Also, they’re all damn good. 

My notes on the Monte Rosso wines are tasted are below the fold.

 2013 Louis M. Martini Malbec Monte Rosso - California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley
SRP: $60
Vibrant purple color. Deep aromas of blackberries and dark plums along with loam, charcoal, iron and violet petals. Impressive structure on the palate, firm texture but chewy with medium acid. Plums and blackberry compote mixed with cedar, vanilla and rich earth flavors. Long and silky, saucy and velvety, a beautiful Malbec that could definitely use a few years in the cellar to blossom. 100% Malbec, this is a tasting room only selection with about 250 cases made. (89 points)

2012 Louis M. Martini Zinfandel Gnarly Vine Monte Rosso Vineyard - California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley
SRP: $40
Juicy purple color in the glass. Smells of jammy red berries and plush black cherries, some violets, roses, dusty earth and pepper thrown in as well. Lovely mouthfeel on this wine, it’s smooth and plush yet full of chewiness, and some medium acid keeps the wine moving freshly forward. Bold cherries, plums and raspberries along with complex notes of caramel, pepper and tobacco. Immediately pleasurable but complex and worth of time in the cellar. 100% Zin from some gorgeous, gnarly old vines, aged 16 months in mostly French oak. (91 points)

2012 Louis M. Martini Mountain Red Monte Rosso - California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley
SRP: $65
Smells of juicy red cherries and some darker plum elements, along with deep notes of soil, clay, caramel and spiced coffee. Firm but forward with fleshy tannins and a mouthfilling presence, yet some brightness from the acid that helps it stay balanced. The juicy black cherries, raspberries and blackberries are delicious and harmonious, and I get notes of cola, spice, tobacco and pepper that are woven in wonderfully. Long, silky finish. Blend of 37% Zin, 32% Syrah and 31% Petite Sirah. Aged 20 months in ¾ new French oak. (90 points)

2011 Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Monte Rosso Vineyard - California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley
SRP: $85
Smells of tart red currants, vibrant plums and a whole lot of roses and violets. Shows the tart and fresh aspects of the vintage with crunchier red fruit, balanced out by an impressively firm tannic backbone and a sense of underlying strength. The plums, blackberry and dark currant fruit is juicy and tart, accented by complex elements of bell pepper, tobacco, eucalyptus, coffee and vanilla. Long, silky, refreshing finish with notes of floral perfume. An impressive effort in a difficult vintage. (90 points)

2010 Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Monte Rosso Vineyard - California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley
SRP: $85
Tangy red fruits on the nose, along with violets, tobacco and slight pepper. Fresh acid rocks while the wine maintains a dusty tannic structure with persistent grip. Fleshy raspberries and black cherries are dusted with notes of anise, cedar, tobacco and some savory spices. I love the tanginess of this wine, which lingers long on the finish. Showing very well now but worth holding to see those savory and earthy characteristics evolve. 100% Cabernet aged 27 months in 80% new French oak. (91 points)

2005 Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Monte Rosso Vineyard - California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley
More savory elements on the nose, lots of sage, earth and tobacco but still plenty of fresh cherry and red currant fruit. Still lots of structure, the tannins have a fine dusty edge, the cherry fruit is silky and refined and laced with notes of violets, cedar, tobacco, sage and clay soil. A lovely sense of dusty earth pervades the wine. Refined now but plenty of guts to go further – I’d like to re-taste it in five years. (91 points)

Here's a quick video edit that consists of scenes from around Monte Rosso Vineyard.