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Archive for the ‘Tasting Adventures’ Category

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.

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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.

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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.


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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.

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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.

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A bad cold kept me from attending last Saturday’s 20th annual Zinfandel Festival Grand Tasting, presented by ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers) in San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center. Luckily my overqualified envoy was happy to taste some 50 California Zins, and he’s provided this list of six that stood out:

2007 Carol Shelton Rocky Reserve Rockpile Zinfandel, $33

2007 Guglielmo Private Reserve Estate Santa Clara Valley Zinfandel, $22

2008 Gundlach Bundschu Sonoma Valley Zinfandel, $38

2008 MoniClaire Estate Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel, $23.99

2008 Ravenswood Barricia Vineyard Sonoma Valley Zinfandel, $35 

2007 Scott Harvey Vineyard 1869 Amador County Zinfandel, $45 

If you’d like to try one of these wines but aren’t sure which to choose, here’s a cheat sheet—borrowed from my 2009 article on California Zinfandel—on Zins in three of the regions represented above:

Amador County
Old vines are especially abundant in the Fiddletown AVA of Amador County—an area hotter than its surrounding regions [in the Sierra Foothills], where Zinfandel accounts for three-quarters of all grapes grown. … Sierra Foothills Zinfandels may occasionally get a bad rap for a lack of finesse—blame the high alcohol that results from the region’s blazing heat. But the best examples can actually boast deep, intoxicating aromas, clean flavors, and plenty of fruit on the palate.

Dry Creek Valley
It’s generally thought that the wines made from Zinfandel grown above the fog line in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley are the best examples of the varietal you can find—in California if not in the world. In an irony that speaks to Zinfandel’s status as a truly “populist” grape, much of that Dry Creek Zinfandel acreage was originally planted with the intent to cultivate it as bulk wine. Hot days, cool nights, and fine craftsmanship have all allowed the wine those grapes produced to escape that humble fate. … Spicy, berry-filled Zin…

Rockpile
The Rockpile AVA adjacent to Dry Creek is also making a name for itself with interesting Zins that are lush and intense.

My article didn’t mention Zinfandels from the Sonoma or Santa Clara Valleys specifically, but you can read more about the Gundlachs, Bundschus, and Guglielmos—and their families’ long histories with California winemaking—here and here.

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I’m sure we all have one: a Worst Valentine’s Day Ever. Mine involved teddy bears holding Mylar balloons, and I’m sure it’s partly to blame for the little shiver I get every time I’m sent a heart-sprinkled press release advertising a Valentine’s special. So I was relieved to see that instead of doing something schmaltzy on February 14, Napa’s Ehlers Estate winery is doing something classy on February 4.

To honor National Heart Month, winemaker Kevin Morrisey will preside over a tasting party from 6 to 8 p.m. at MO Bar in San Francisco’s Mandarin Oriental hotel. For the $30 price of admission, guests will enjoy appetizers paired with several Ehlers Estate wines, including the winery’s signature “One Twenty Over Eighty” Cab blend. Proceeds from the event will go toward a gift to the San Francisco Chapter of the American Heart Association.

This pairing between winery and cause is much more than a well-timed marketing campaign; all year long, 100 percent of the proceeds from the sale of Ehlers Estate wines goes to the Leducq Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to international cardiovascular research. For more information, visit fondationleducq.org.

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A couple of weeks ago I brought a bottle of 2008 Gramercy Cellars Columbia Valley Tempranillo to a book club meeting. I’d been curious to try the wines of this Washington state–based outfit dubbed Best New Winery, 2010, by Food and Wine magazine, and while we all liked the Tempranillo quite a bit, our comments about it were less interesting than our various opinions on how best to smell it.

Elizabeth had just been to an informational wine and cheese tasting where she’d been advised to do big swirls with her hand sealing the top of the glass and then sniff. Heather, on the other hand, brought up a notion many wine experts agree with: that little sniffs (like a dog) are better than one big snort for really getting the full bouquet.

In the week that followed that meeting, I tried out these dueling techniques on both another Gramercy wine, the 2008 Walla Walla Syrah, and on a 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend from Napa’s Melka Wines. And I discovered that little sniffs just don’t work a bit for me—I think it’s a personal thing, everybody’s different—but I did get different aromas when I sniffed a swirled-while-covered glass of the Syrah (tar!) versus an uncovered one (lots of blackberry). This technique paid off most with the Melka, however. I loved this wine in large part because of a deeply floral bouquet that my hand-covered swirl seem to release—but that made little sense, since Cabs have a distinctive aroma that’s rarely if ever floral. I was validated when Peter, who is the olfactory equivalent of a supertaster, tried the wine and gushed about it—adding, ‘Can you believe how floral it is??’

The nose knows…

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My sister lived in Bolivia for a time, and she used to rave about the Pisco Sours she enjoyed there, even if they’re more closely associated with neighboring Chile and Peru. When I went to visit I tried the cocktail, and it didn’t really take — but I gave it a second chance a couple of weeks ago, at San Francisco’s La Mar restaurant, and now I’m sold. The Pisco (Peruvian brandy), lime juice, simple syrup, bitters, and egg white froth all came together in a not-too-tart, not-too-sweet form of poetry.

I realize this makes me sound a little bit Ugly American – like the kind of person who wishes aloud that the food in China tasted more like Panda Express. But La Mar is no Panda Express. Following that pitch-perfect cocktail, my friends and I enjoyed traditional Peruvian causas and ceviches and a bottle of 2007 Kingston Cariblanco Sauvignon Blanc from Chile’s coastal Casablanca Valley — and the gushing never ceased.

With South America on the brain, a few days later, Peter and I opened a bottle of 2008 Carmenere from Casa Silva winery, located in Chile’s Colchagua Valley. Although I wouldn’t call it pitch-perfect, I thoroughly enjoyed its blackberry aroma and bold, tannic mouthfeel. Not food-friendly, but a nice, inexpensive ($12 a bottle) wine to drink on its own in the wintry months. I looked for Casa Silva’s wines in the Guía de Vinos de Chile, the country’s much-revered annual wine guide, and found that the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc actually earned a top-ten spot in the by-varietal category, as did the winery’s higher-end Gran Reserva Carmenere.

But back to that Pisco Sour. Something else was happening the night I sipped my new favorite cocktail in La Mar’s spacious bar: the San Francisco Giants were about to beat the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 4 of the National League Championship. Me then: sighing heavily, my back to the TV screen, as my companions insisted that we wait and see the final outcome instead of moving to our table when the game was tied 5-5 in the 9th inning. (Who was that woman?? Can Pisco Sours really change a person that much?) Cut to me last night: glued to the couch for the third straight night until I had to join the rest of the Bay Area in the collective screaming frenzy that came after the strike that won the Series.

Another fine argument for giving things a second chance.

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Being a (nonnative) Californian who’s never been to Yosemite National Park is a little bit like being a teenager in the ’80s who’s never seen Star Wars. Yes, I was that teenager — although I addressed the matter in college — and yes, I am that nonnative Californian. Although now there’s extra incentive to fix the Yosemite problem as well.

Ahwahnee photos by Christopher Andre.

Beginning on October 30, Yosemite’s historic Ahwahnee hotel welcomes 32 California winemakers for its annual Vintners’ Holidays event series. This program has actually been around since I was a preteen not seeing Star Wars, but what began as a small gathering of winemakers and winter hotel guests has evolved into  a requisite post-harvest event for many of the biggest names in the industry. New to the festivities this year are Ancient Peaks Winery, Carol Shelton Wines, Franciscan, Freeman Vineyard & Winery, Hidden Ridge Vineyard, Hovey Wine, and Selene Wines.

New releases and rare vintages alike will be flowing freely, as each of the eight two- or three-day sessions running from late October through early December includes a “Meet the Winemakers” reception, tasting seminars, and a five-course gourmet dinner prepared by Ahwahnee Executive Chef Percy Whatley.

For more information, visit www.yosemitepark.com/vintners.

 

 

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