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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.


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.

The Story Arc of Wine

I love it when wine gets to be its own character in a great novel—so my hopes were high when Zinfandel made a daring appearance on page 4 of Freedom, Jonathan Franzen’s much-discussed latest book. In introducing the main female character, Franzen writes:

Behind her you could see the baby-encumbered preparations for a morning of baby-encumbered errands; ahead of her, an afternoon of public radio, the Silver Palate Cookbook, cloth diapers, drywall compound, and latex paint; and then Goodnight Moon, then zinfandel.”

Sounds innocent enough—and, to some of us, eerily familiar—right? Unfortunately things go downhill from there, and by page 15, Patty is described as “all Chardonnay Splotch.” I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to reveal that by page 162, she’s drinking cooking sherry.

Happily, wine regains its dignity by novel’s end—although it’s somewhat overshadowed by beer, martinis, and, of course, the completely absorbing and labyrinthine primary story line.

If you’re looking for other literary works in which wine gets a satisfying cameo, a little anthology called Wine Memories: Great Writers on the Pleasures of Wine (Chronicle Books, 2000) serves as an excellent source. Edited by Sara Nicklès, the book consists of 40 excerpts from novels, essays, and memoirs. A favorite, from The Sun Also Rises:

“This wine is too good for toast-drinking, my dear. You don’t want to mix emotions up with a wine like that. You lose the taste.”

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.

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.

I experienced some major lifestyle envy yesterday after reading an article about a Marin County couple—Béa and Scott Johnson of Mill Valley—and the extremely minimalist way of life they’ve recently adopted.

I’m a wannabe minimalist, and I was intrigued by many of the practices the Johnsons have established. There were the obvious things, like keeping firm limits on the volume of clothing, toys, cooking equipment, and memorabilia in the household (never mind paper products and books, which are absent altogether), but also some less obvious ones like using compostable toothbrushes and sourcing wine locally from wineries that offer refillable bottles.

This last item caught my eye in particular because of the winery mentioned: Guglielmo. The Guglielmo brothers have a long family history in the Santa Clara Valley—a region near and dear to the winemaker in this household—and I’ve written in the past about the winery’s new-ish line of value wines, Tré Cellars.  The brothers have a reputation for being good to their neighbors, and with their reusable bottle promotions they’re also good to the environment.

For Guglielmo’s next “Bottle Your Own” event, February 19 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., customers are encouraged to bring their own clean bottles (or buy them at the winery for a dollar) and then fill them with a Guglielmo red for $5 —all while Italian delicacies beckon from a “chef’s table” and accordion music fills the air.

Know another local winery that offers to fill used wine bottles? Let us know here…

California's Central Valley

A few years ago I used my old wine column to write a love letter of sorts to Lodi, California. My newfound Lodi love was based on the many good, inexpensive wines made from Lodi-grown grapes that I’d tasted at that year’s Zinfandel Advocates & Producers Festival (ZAP) in San Francisco.

That was early 2008. In the recession-plagued years since, Lodi’s low prices have started looking pretty good to consumers who may once have scoffed at Central Valley wines. At the same time, grape prices have dropped all over California—including in swankier regions like Napa and Sonoma—so good values are suddenly a lot easier to find than they used to be.

All of which made it a little confusing when I recently received a bottle of 2008 Michael David “Lust” Zinfandel from Lodi priced at $59. There’s an old rule of thumb in the wine industry that in order to break even, your per-bottle price needs to be roughly the price you paid for a ton of grapes divided by 100. This is somewhat reassuring to a consumer who’s handing over $50 for a Napa Cab (2008 average price per ton: $4,780) or $35 for a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($3171). But it’s less heartening if you’re drinking a $59 bottle of Lodi Zin, where the average price per ton in 2008 was $311.

Lust would have made one fine $3 wine, with its liquorice nose, luscious mouthfeel, strong finish, and 16.9 percent (!) alcohol, but at nearly 20 times that price, it’s a harder sell. If you already have plans to be at the 20th annual ZAP festival at the end of this month, however, you can try it for free; the three-day Zinfandel celebration runs January 27-29, with admission fees varying by event. For more information visit zinfandel.org.

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…