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 MacMurray 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.

Monday, November 9, 2015

New Essay Up On The Inertia - From Starved to Stoked: How Surfing Saved My Life

If you're not interested in surfing, you may not have heard of the website The Inertia. A lot of surfing media sites are full of editing errors, terrible "reporting" and lame listicles. In addition to amazing videos and pictures, The Inertia publishes a lot of solid writing as well. So I'm honored to have a new essay up on the site today called "From Starved to Stoked: How Surfing Saved My Life." In the piece, I tell the story of how my love for surfing brought me back from the brink.

The piece can be found here. I hope you enjoy it. Cheers!

Sunday, November 8, 2015

2001 Rioja - Strong, Beautiful Wines With Many Years Left

I recently attended a 2001 Rioja tasting, a vintage widely heralded as “historic.” Grapes struggled through early problems with an April frost, lots of summertime heat and the lingering effects of a drought. However, the resulting wines are beautiful – a bunch of rich and concentrated wines packed with life and power for the cellar. Most of these wines will be better with four or five years or a whole lot of air, as many of them showed best at the end of the night after starting off hesitantly. Yet, at 14 years in, lots of these wines showed elegance and complexity.

Pale ruby color. I get a nice mix of wild red berries, dusty earth, wet leaves. Fresh acidity on the palate, this has a tart approach (complemented by tangy red berry fruit), but the wine shows plenty of dusty tannins. An interesting blend of earth, tobacco and pickling spices, a crisp and refreshing finish. Expressive, refreshing, showing nicely but some cellar potential for sure. (88 points)

2001 R. López de Heredia Rioja Reserva Viña Tondonia - Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
Deep nose of rich plums and earth, with time all sorts of spicy tobacco and floral notes come out with a real sense of elegance. On the palate the tannins are firm and the acid is ravenous. Almost abrasive at first but settles down and shows all sorts of elegance. Fleshy red cherries, plums, some currant jam notes, full of dusty earth, tobacco and spiced coffee complexity. Opens up with air and develops all sorts of nuanced spice and deep floral tones. Plenty of time to go in the cellar, so I’ll hold onto my sole bottle for four or five years. (92 points)

2001 La Rioja Alta Rioja Viña Ardanza Reserva Especial - Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
Smooth and ripe on the nose, rich, velvety waves of cherries, rose petals and vanilla. Juicy with smooth yet structured tannins, the bing cherry, red apple and tangerine fruit maintains a fresh vibe. I get lots of peppercorns and tobacco and an earthy-vanilla finish. More “hedonistic” than the first two wines, but this is, at heart, a bright and vibrant wine. (91 points)

2001 La Rioja Alta Rioja Gran Reserva 904 - Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
Smells of red apples, jammy cherries along with some sweet violets, vanilla and earth. Tart acid bounces off firm tannins, this was closed at first but evolves significantly. Lots of tobacco, campsite, wet leaves, oak shavings, vanilla, dried flowers and baking spices. Complex waves of red fruit flow in. Despite the boldness the elegance underneath comes out with air. No rush at all on this one. (91 points)

Initially this wine and the Imperial were quite shut down and it was difficult to tell them apart. But this opens to show a bit more red fruit, but still lots of dark earth and violets. Fleshy berries on the palate with tangy acid and some real firmness to the palate. Complex earthy and smoky elements come out, but this wine needs a whole lot of air and/or cellar time to really show its stuff. (90 points)

Takes more time to open up, but by the end of the night this was in stellar shape. Deep aromas of plums, currants, earth, roses and violets, smoky earth. Bright acidity, great structure, compact at first but smooths out and opens up beautifully. Juicy red currants and red apple fruit is laced with tobacco, olive, earth, roasted coffee, vanilla and violets. Really starts rocking after a few hours and some heavy swirling. I’d love to taste this again in eight or ten years. (93 points)

2001 Faustino Rioja I Gran Reserva - Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Beautifully fruity aromas (juicy black and red cherries) along with tobacco and white pepper. Refined but structured tannins, medium acid, the wine is quite velvety and silky despite the firmness. Juicy raspberry and cherry fruit, which tastes pure and bright, with an impressive complexity of smoke, cedar, potting soil, dried rose and spice potpourri elements. A rich style but so much besides instant gratification going on here. (92 points)

2001 Marqués de Riscal Rioja Baron de Chirel Reserva - Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alavesa, Rioja
Much darker color. Initially a bit musty on the nose (“like dune sand and library dust” – I’m not sure either but that’s what I have written down). Shifts to a rich, dark fruit profile with lots of bay leaf and chewing tobacco. Firm grip on the palate, medium acid, the currant and dark plum fruit is rich and smoky. I was pulling out all sorts of interesting but quirky elements of tree bark, anise, animal hide and campsite. Finishes firm and sooty. This wine has a significant percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon, which really makes it stand out against the other wines in the tasting and offered an interesting comparison. One to revisit in five or six years. (90 points)

Friday, November 6, 2015

Pictures from a Recent Trip to Napa & Sonoma

The Napa River is an interesting place, a narrow, relatively shallow waterway dotted with vacation homes, locals fishing for bass, precariously flood-prone vineyards and all sorts of birds. It's a unique ecosystem that will hopefully be preserved for generations to come.
In the town of Napa, one can purchase meats. These are good meats to eat.

With old vines, dusty red soil, gorgeous hills, lots of sunshine, a sense of rich earthiness pervades the Monte Rosso Vineyard and its wines.

French oak barrel-maker Seguin-Moreau is an important element in the Napa wine trade. This French-owned company (which makes barrels for Remy Martin) also provides cooperage for many prominent local wineries. These heavily toasted ones are destined for Bourbon.
Louis Martini crafts some beautiful Cabernets, especially from the gnarly old vines in the Monte Rosso Vineyard. Owned by the Gallo Family, a California wine industry behemoth, Martini produces a wide range of Napa and Sonoma wines at all price points.
The Monte Rosso Vineyard dates back to the 1880s. It's a real gem of Sonoma Valley winemaking history.
In late October, the harvest is complete, the juice is fermenting, and the sun sets on the cool southwest side of the Mayacamas.

The Bubble Room at Sonoma's J Vineyards provides a fascinating and thrilling culinary experience. Chef Erik Johnson uses hyper-local ingredients to craft stunning plates; the execution, presentation and service are top-notch. If you like food, wine, Sonoma and memories, you must visit.
When you enter the MacMurray Ranch, time seems to stand still. The place is alive with a hypnotic and living history.
The dinner at MacMurray Ranch was the food highlight of the trip, and Chef Gia Passalalacqua's grilled California squid may be the best I've ever tasted. On the left, Kate MacMurray may be the most gracious person I've had the pleasure of meeting on a wine trip.
The MacMurray Ranch, purchased by actor Fred MaMurray in 1941, is an ethereal spot. This sprawling estate in Sonoma's Russian River is composed of many different slopes, soils and microclimates, and its home to some delicious Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, among others.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

On "Tempranillo Day" Remeber One Word: Rioja

Apparently every wine needs its own day. Grenache (a.k.a. Garnacha) Day was a lot of fun. I was too busy surfing to take part in any Champagne Day festivities. But, hey, here comes Tempranillo Day. 

Producers and trade groups have christened November 12
Tempranillo Day, a time to raise a glass to this unique grape.

Tempranillo is grown all over Spain (not to mention Portugal, California, etc.) but it is perhaps best known for its role in the famous wines of Rioja. In this famous region, Tempranillo is crafted into a wide array of styles, from the long-lasting, profound and expensive wines to the fun, daily-drinking, inexpensive bottles. 

I recently tasted through three Tempranillos from Rioja, all reasonably priced and all quite good for the money. Any of these would be a solid choice for Tempranillo Day, or any day for that matter.

2012 Artadi Rioja Vineyard Selection - Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alavesa, Rioja
Sweet darker fruit (black cherries, blackberries, some summer plums) on the nose, with mocha, some charcoal and pencil shaving notes. Full-bodied, rich but velvety tannic structure, medium-low acid, an almost chewy texture with sweet black cherries and plums, matched with a blend of tree bark, coffee, vanilla, some underlying hints of clove and earth. Seductive and delicious, good structure but a wine to drink in the next few years it seems. 14% alcohol, 100% Tempranillo. (87+ points)
2012 Ontañón Rioja - Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Lots of spicy notes on the nose (pepper, cedar shavings, clove) along with sweet darker fruit and roasted coffee. Medium bodied, medium-light strength tannins, moderate acid, showing some freshness and rustic earthiness in its approach. Plenty of black cherry, plums, some tart blueberries. Lots of smoke, cedar, vanilla bean and pine sap as well. Plenty ready to drink but it opens a lot with air so might be a good one to try and cellar for two years or so. 13.5% alcohol. (87 points) 

2005 Bodegas Ramon Bilbao Rioja Gran Reserva - Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
Deep ruby-auburn color. Smooth and complex aromas, full of rich and saucy black and red berry fruits, along with tobacco, cherry wood, dusty earth and clove notes. The aromas get more and more open with air. Full-bodied, the tannins are woven in well, providing structure but smoothness, while moderate acid carries it forward and keep it fresh. Juicy black cherries, plums and currants play off of complex dusty soil, sweet pipe tobacco, tar and fallen leave elements. Very expressive yet smooth, lots of complexity comes out with air. Ready to drink now but will improve a lot over the next five or six years. 14% alcohol, 90% Tempranillo and 5% apiece Mazuelo and Graciano. (90 points)

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Sonoma Cider: Apple Outfit Thrives in Wine Country

Robert (left) and his father David (right). Photo: Sonoma Cider.
Sonoma is full of beautifully diverse wine country. Whenever I’m there, I pack my days with wine tasting (although I always try to start the day with some Sonoma Coast surfing). But if your palate is a little fatigued from tasting all those delicious Russian River Pinots, why not sip some local cider? After two days of sampling a bunch of rich Napa Cabernets, I came over the mountain into Sonoma to taste the crisp, dry, refreshing offerings from Sonoma Cider. I have to say: this stuff hit the goddamn spot.

Sonoma Cider is the father-son operation of David and Robert Cordtz. David worked as a winemaker for 20 years before kicking off the cidery. Robert brings an educated palate and an explorative attitude to the venture and, like a craft brewer, he spices things up with a selection of clever and unique ingredients. Sonoma Cider kegged their first releases in November of 2013, and they now host a small tasting room at the cidery, which is located in a former auto parts store. Their apple-dominated lineup is now available in 28 states.

For years, David wanted to explore the rich orchard fruit in Sonoma County under his own label, but languishing cider sales discouraged him. In 2012, he said, things started changing quickly. The cider boom had arrived. “I watched it come to life after 25 years of single-digit growth,” he told me at a tasting in late October. David credits thirsty millenials with the rise in demand for craft cider. Today,
California boasts 55 cider producers.

I’m not a huge cider nerd by any means. When I do drink cider, I tend toward the high-acid, funky, Basque Country style, and I steer well clear of anything with much residual sugar. If you think all domestic cider is sugary stuff, you may be surprised by Sonoma’s fresh take on a classic beverage.

Sonoma County has long been home to many apple orchards, and Sonoma Cider is taking advantage of this local bounty (in addition to sourcing apples from Washington State). All the fruit that goes into Sonoma Cider is organically certified, and David maintains this contributes to a more expressive flavor profile. And for the purists: Sonoma’s juice contains no added sulfites, concentrates or preservatives.

David is always on the lookout for local organic fruit to press, and he said he’s planning an old-fashioned flyer-posting campaign around the county to ask farmers for good fruit.

I tasted through their range of ciders on draft, which changes every now and then. 

Dry Barrel-Aged Cider
Floral and yellow apple aromas. Creamy body but tangy acid, so dry and fresh with crisp apple flavors and hints of caramel.

Local Gravenstein
Dry, bright, clean, a floral and peachy aspect. Hints of honey but a bright, steely finish. Very pure and crunchy. 

Golden Delicious Barrel-Aged
More sour fruit on the nose, like limes, lemons and crunchy apples. A bright and clean approach on the palate with juicy yellow apple flavors. Reminds me a bit of a sour white ale with its tang and interesting earthy aspects. Intriguing stuff but so easy to glug, too.

Pulley (Absinthe Style)
Lovely spicy nose of white pepper and anise. Earthy on the palate with flavors of rhubarb, fennel and anise. Still so fresh and vibrant though. This cider is fermented with juiced fennel. One of the most unique ciders I’ve tasted. Don’t go near this if you are one of those freaks who hate anise and fennel.

Smells like pepper spray and citrus juices. What a kick on the palate, this is a tangy but spicy cider with notes of sliced jalapenos, white pepper and lime juices. Fresh apple flavors blend well with this warm spice on the finish. Made with habanero and lime, this begs for some fresh fish tacos. Made from Fuji and Granny Smith apples grown in Washington’s Yakima valley.

Imperial Bourbon Barrel Aged
Wow, what a crazy-unique cider. Smells like brown sugar, apple pies and coffee cake. The palate shows tangy acid against a lovely sweetness of caramel apple, coconut shavings, pumpkin pulp and sweet corn. Really delicious stuff that stays fresh despite the rich 12% alcohol. 

Washboard Sarsaparilla
Vanilla bean and root beer aromas. Creamy body with a smooth texture to the cider. Baked apple flavors mix with vanilla bean, root beer, clove and light roast coffee. Richer flavor profile but still so easy to drink with crisp acid. Made from Yakima Valley Fuji and Granny Smiths with sarsaparilla from India. They should get an award for thinking up this crazy-ass concoction.