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As I sit down to write this post, the pressure’s on to make it a good one—given that it comes after a month-long blogging hiatus and will be one of my last, at least for a while…. Luckily I’ve got some good material to work with: notes on over a dozen Chardonnays, which we uncorked and tasted blind over the weekend.

Peter did a preliminary tasting of all the wines, proclaiming 10 to be worth a second pass. The thing that I found most notable about our results was that we both picked the same wine as our favorite. And, in a sea of Chards ranging in price from $13 to $48, it was the least expensive.

The winner: the 2009 L de Lyeth Sonoma County Chardonnay (the Sonoma County designation just means that the wine was made from grapes grown in different areas of the county, rather than just the Russian River Valley, say, or just the Sonoma Coast). It was more vegetal than fruity on the nose, with notes of straw and caramel. This unusual wine was delicately prickly on the palate and had a long and pleasant finish.

Runner-ups in the 2009 vintage included Kendall-Jackson’s Avant California Chardonnay ($14, medium-bodied and smooth, with a nice aroma of tropical fruit) and Clos du Bois’ Russian River Chardonnay ($18, lemon on the nose, lots more citrus on the palate, and great balance). In the 2008 vintage we liked Kendall-Jackson’s Grand Reserve Monterey/Santa Barbara Chardonnay ($20, a figgy aroma and notable residual sugar), Cambria Estate Winery’s Katherine’s Vineyard Chardonnay ($22, nicely balanced, with a bouquet of straw and a rough-silk mouthfeel); Mantanzas Creek’s Sonoma Chardonnay ($29, banana on the nose, light and smooth); and Waterstone’s Carneros Chardonnay ($18, grapefruit aroma, light and creamy).

Kendall-Jackson Grand Reserve has moved on to the 2009 vintage, but given its impressive 2008 showing, the new vintage is well worth a try. And if you do try it, consider drinking a toast to Jess Jackson, the California wine industry giant who passed away on April 21st.

Believing in the mystical significance of the number 47 was practically a graduation requirement at the college I attended. So when I brought a bottle of 2008 47 Friends Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($18) to share with some college friends on a recent Saturday night, I was pretty sure the label alone would favorably predispose them to the wine.

Yet another college friend had tipped me off to the 47 Friends label—she had seen them on Facebook and knew instantly that there had to be a connection. Sure enough, 47 Friends is the “little sister” winery—read less-expensive wines and a Millennial-friendly Web presence—to Ancient Oak Cellars, a Santa Rosa winery owned by Pomona grads Melissa and Ken Moholt-Siebert.

But back to Saturday. We all enjoyed the 2008 Pinot; not terribly Pinot-y and the aroma was somewhat muted, but it had nice red fruit on the palate and made for extremely smooth drinking. And Peter—who never says this—said it seemed worth the price.

Still, our favorite 47 Friends so far are the blends — simple red and white table wines that sell for $10 a piece. On Tuesday we opened the red, which Peter guessed was bulk Merlot. It’s actually a Cabernet Sauvignon blend with some Zinfandel and Syrah in the mix—all of which make for a ripe wine brimming with blackberry and other dark fruits.

Remember that I spent four years of writing a column about $10-and-under wines, and based on that experience, cheap California reds make me nervous. That’s why this one was such a pleasant surprise: mellow, moderate alcohol content (13.8 percent), and versatile enough to pair with a wide variety of foods.

Thursday we opened the white blend, and Peter was redeemed when he immediately pegged it as Sauvignon Blanc (it’s got a bit of un-oaked Chardonnay as well). It had a strong, really nice aroma of melon and freshly cut grass, and it was light, tingly, and delicate on the palate.

Pairs perfectly with an early spring heat wave.

Spring finally seemed to have sprung today, but after enduring the wettest winter ever, I’m not counting my chickens. So while I did put a bottle of red in the fridge (gasp!) late this afternoon, around the time that our house began to sweat, I’m still not quite ready to start drinking white.

The solution? What this between-seasons moment calls for is really a lovely “medium red”—a Pinot, maybe a red blend or Merlot—anything that satisfies without feeling too much like a warm blanket. Here’s a roundup of some we’ve recently enjoyed, listed from north to south, inland to coastal, U.S. to Italy. Salute!

2007 Waterstone Napa Valley Merlot, $18. The pungent berry bouquet and tannic mouthfeel of this Merlot screamed Napa to me—in a good way. We also liked its not-very-Napa price tag.

2009 La Crema Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, $24. Lots going on in this offering from the land of lusted-after Pinots: an aroma of dense dark fruit, sweet smoke and spice, and a bit of cedar. It tasted of black cherry, with gamey notes and a little Chinese spice.

2009 La Crema Monterey Pinot Noir, $24. We wondered briefly if La Crema’s winemaker felt that these two 2009 Pinots were rushed to market a bit early. . . . Great potential was the dominant takeaway with this one, but we liked its dark fruit aroma, rough-silk mouthfeel, and pleasant finish. Not particularly Pinot-y.

2007 Intelligent Design Central Coast Cuvee, $38. I got lots of earth and oak on the nose of this Rhône-grape blend from Wesley Ashley Wines—and must admit that I missed some of what captivated Thomas of The Blog Wine Cellar last summer. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed his review and agree that it’s a wine worth trying. Velvety on the palate, with a long strong finish

2007 Lucente Tuscan Red Blend, $30. This simple blend of Sangiovese, Merlot, and Cab earned its Super Tuscan stripes with a jammy aroma, smooth mouthfeel, and very nice, long finish. Our favorite wine merchant calls it “nicely made”—and he doesn’t dish out the compliments easily.

If you, like me, raised a glass when Susan Sarandon showed up last week on “30 Rock,” you’ll be happy to hear that she’s about to make another cameo appearance—this time in the heart of wine country. On Saturday, April 9th, Sarandon will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 14th Annual Sonoma International Film Festival, which runs April 6–10 in downtown Sonoma. The festival’s six screening venues—including its primary venue, the Sebastiani Theatre, located on the Sonoma Square—will offer 90 films including features, documentaries, world cinema, shorts, and animation.

Of course, given its location, the festival just has to showcase wine as well as film, and sure enough the event boasts its own sommelier, and complimentary food and wine pairings will be offered before each screening. Throughout the festival, more than a dozen Sonoma Valley wineries—including Sebastiani, Gundlach Bundschu, Muscardini Cellars, and Gloria Ferrer—will be pouring in the Backlot, a tent on the north side of Sonoma’s City Hall, and Saturday night’s Festival Gala will take place at Sebastiani Winery.

For tickets and more information about the Sonoma International Film Festival, please visit sonomafilmfest.org.


Pisco Party

We were recently sent a sample of a new pisco brand, Pisco Portón — and last Friday some friends with a flair for mixology were nice enough to come by and create a couple of cocktails with it.

The first was a classic Pisco Sour, made with pisco, lime juice, sugar, bitters, and egg whites, and we all gushed over its greatness. There’s just something about how the creaminess of the egg whites offsets the tartness of the lime that makes a Pisco Sour go down easily — while still seeming like a “real” drink. Plus, it’s pretty!

The second pisco cocktail of the night was a festive concoction called Que Lastima. It’s the creation of tiki consultant (yes, really!) Blair Reynolds and has been immortalized on the Mixoloseum blog as the winner of an original pisco cocktail contest held back in 2009.

Que Lastima

  • 2 oz Barsol Quebranta pisco
  • 3/4oz lime juice
  • 1/2oz cinnamon syrup
  • 1/4oz falernum
  • 1 dash Fee’s Old Fashioned bitters
  • 1 dash pimento dram

Shake briefly with crushed ice and spent lime half. Pour into an old fashioned glass.

Our team subbed in Pisco Portón for the recommended Barsol Quebranta brand and we were pleased with the results — but the cinnamon flavor, along with the strong clove notes in the falernum, established this drink for us as one best served at holiday time.

Pisco Portón is made in the Hacienda la Caravedo distillery in Ica, Peru. The brand was officially launched in California this month and runs between $40 and $50 retail for a 750ML bottle.

Get Cheesy

Last summer while visiting family back east, I got a little push-back from my nearest and dearest when I mentioned having recently interviewed a famous cheese writer. Apparently famous, cheese, and writer just aren’t words you hear right in a row like that—at least not in any state outside of California and, possibly, Wisconsin.

But here in the Bay Area, we actually have so many famous cheese writers that there’s now a hugely popular annual festival showcasing their talents. Theirs, along with the talents of those who inspire them: local cheesemakers, chefs, and winemakers.

The 5th annual California’s Artisan Cheese Festival runs Friday, March 25, through Monday, March 28, at the Sheraton Sonoma County in Petaluma. It once again features seminars, cheesemaking workshops, chef demonstrations, and samples of new cheeses, wines, and brews under the Sunday Marketplace tent. And yes, that famous cheese writer I interviewed last summer, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Janet Fletcher, will be there—although sadly Fletcher’s seminar, “You Be the Judge: Learning to Evaluate Cheese Like a Pro,” is already sold out.

There are still opportunities to educate yourself on other cheesy topics, however; these range from how to become a cheesemaker and discovering California’s hidden cheeses to the use of mold in cheesemaking and the art of cheese and wine pairing.

Saturday night’s main event is a dinner featuring cheesemakers, chefs, and vintners called “Curds, Cooks, and Cuvees.” Wineries in attendance will include Fortress Vineyards, Handley Cellars, Keller Estate WineryKokomo Winery, Paul Matthew Vineyards, and Sonoma Portworks.

To buy tickets and view a full schedule of the weekend’s events, visit www.artisancheesefestival.com.

Last Saturday we enjoyed a lovely Rhône red at Le Garage in Sausalito. A crowd pleaser for sure, but selecting the 2007 Vacqueyras Clefs des Murailles Rhône was no easy task—what with 10 of us around the table, ordering entrées that ranged from lamb daube and rainbow trout to New York strip steak and mushroom risotto.

Peter did the picking; here are the key points he kept in mind as he perused Le Garage’s extensive wine list.

Price. Bottles on the list ranged from $24 to $155, so at $42, the Clefs des Murailles was a relative bargain. One of our favorite wine merchants is selling it for $17.99.

Versatile varietal. Pinot Noir is a popular group dinner choice, but a southern Rhône red often does the job just as well: medium-bodied, full of fruit, not-too-high alcohol, easy to drink. The dominant grapes in southern Rhône red blends are usually Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre. The rules governing the Vacqueyras appellation (see next tip) dictate that at least half the grapes in this region’s red wine are Grenache.

Controlled appellation. Many countries, including the U.S., Italy, Portugal, and Spain, have a labeling system based on France’s appellation contrôlée. France’s system, however, is by far the most, well, controlling. A governing body in Paris dictates everything about a particular region’s oenological output, from percentage of grape varieties used to exact winemaking techniques.

Critics charge that these constraints limit creativity and innovation in winemaking, but they do help take the guesswork out of picking a wine from a list of unfamiliars. If you know and trust wines from a French region listed, you can usually consider them a safe bet. The same holds true for Spanish and Portuguese wines, while Italy’s DOC system has not been perceived as a good indicator of quality. And there isn’t even a pretense that our own, distinctly American AVA system has anything to do with quality—it’s mainly concerned with truth in advertising regarding where the grapes in a particular wine are grown.

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