Author Archives: Lyle W. Norton

About Lyle W. Norton

Free-lance writer specializing if wine, food, travel and jazz reviews.

Wine and the Millennials

 

Jug wine, including those that come in a box, is officially on the endangered list, thanks, in no small part, to young adults, surrounding thirty, affectionately known as “Millennials,” the offspring of maturing Baby Boomers.

pic_vyd_pisoni2A recent study by Rob McMillan, from Silicon Valley Bank wine division, predicts the unthinkable, the first decline in wine consumption per capita in 20 years, attributed, in part, to a steady decline in sales of high-volume, budget table wine.  Correspondingly, the industry has enjoyed an increase of sales in the $10-25 market and they recognize the trend toward high-end, boutique wines as they prepare to ride the wave of the Millennials, 80 million strong, for the next 30 years.

On a weekly basis I am reading of acquisitions of smaller, high-end wineries by larger corporations.  Beringer Wine Estate recently purchased the esteemed Gary Farrell Winery, a fine pinot noir producer in the Russian River Valley, E&J Gallo, our nation’s largest producer, now owns multiple boutique wineries in the Healdsburg

"Millennials

“Millennials

area, a trend expanding throughout California.

Likewise, Heineken International is now a 50% partner with the Petaluma-based Laguinitas Brewing Co., among the fastest growing boutique breweries, valued a $1 billion.

The larger corporations are not interested in inquiring new vineyards, they are investing in the high-end future, one that will be dictated by the “Millennials” discerning palates and thirst for nice things.  Technology is also connecting this new generation to European wines, with apps providing unprecedented access to research on new vintages.

So, for those “Millennials” or anyone from twenty-one to ninety, let me offer some recommendations for quality wines of character, $20 or less, that could be fine additions to any cellar. Although I list some wines by their current vintage, they are consistently good, year to year.  Prices do vary and the one listed is the lowest that I could find.

2014 Bonny Doon “Clos de Gilroy” Grenache ($20)

As a long-standing member of Bonny Doon’s Distinguished Esoteric Wine Network, I am familiar with and often recommend this wine as a great value.  It has been described by winemaker/founder Randall Grahm as “The wine

Bonny Doon "Clos de Gilroy" Grenache

Bonny Doon “Clos de Gilroy” Grenache

formerly know as Clos De Gilroy” because it now sources grapes from Monterey County and the Sacramento Delta, adding some syrah and mourvedre for extra flavor and structure.  It expresses “jammy” fruit flavors of raspberry and cherry combined with white pepper and herbs. Prepare yourself for a screw top bottle, a change that Grahm made for all his wines years ago, claiming more reliability in maintaining freshness.

Those preferring white wines will also enjoy the 2014 Bonny Doon “The Heart Has Its Rieslings” ($13), both sweet and tart with a nicely balanced acidity and a

Bonny Doon "The Heart Has Its Riesling"

Bonny Doon “The Heart Has Its Riesling”

very fun label.

2014 Seghesio Sonoma County Zinfandel ($20)

There are some good choices among value-priced zinfandel, none better than Seghesio’s Sonoma County Zinfandel.  Most of their releases fall into the $35-50 price range, but this wine, from vineyards in Sonoma’a warmest regions, is no stranger to critical acclaim. Be prepared for a food-friendly “fruit bomb” with rich, blueberry flavors, 14.8% alcohol and a nice hint of black pepper.

I recently enjoyed a glass of the 2013 vintage with grilled salmon and found the soft, perfumed bouquet with

Seghesio Sonoma County Zinfandel

Seghesio Sonoma County Zinfandel

young, but luscious flavors a suitable pair. Fairly accessible, I have seen other vintages of this wine at local outlets, wine wholesalers and online.

Yalumba Y Series Shiraz-Viognier ($13)

Yalumba Y Series Viognier ($13)

Yalumba, south Australia’s oldest family winery, produces a plethora of red and white wines that are all good values, none better than the Y Series Shiraz-Viognier with very interesting aromas, ripe, velvety cherries and the signature Aussie touch of adding a bit of viognier for taste.  The Y Series Viognier has significant citrus on the nose and palate with a soft, rich texture from

2014 Yalumba Y Series Shiraz-Viognier

2014 Yalumba Y Series Shiraz-Viognier

aging “sur lie.”

Once familiar with the Yalumba label, I have seen it in local wine outlets and high end markets.

2013 Columbia Crest “H3” Horse Heaven Hills Cabernet Sauvignon ($12-15)

Washington State’s Columbia Crest has been producing high quality, mid-priced wines for decades and their “H3” Series highlights the vineyards within the Horse Heaven Hills appellation in eastern Washington.  I have not tried this wine as yet, but it has been rated as a “Best Buy” with ratings in the 90s by Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast magazines. With full malolactic fermentation, the reviews speak of rich, layered flavors with a bit of cocoa on the finish

Columbia Crest "H3" Cabernet Sauvignon

Columbia Crest “H3” Cabernet Sauvignon

Columbia Crest wines are readily accessible at many local wine outlets, markets and membership stores.  However, their “H3” Series wines, especially one with these reviews, may require some research online.

2013 Hahn Estates Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir ($20-25)

The Santa Lucia Highlands appellation in Monterey County has become the source of much of the state’e finest pinot noir in this decade. Producers of fine pinot noir from Sonoma to Santa Barbara County are securing grapes from the “Highlands” for their consistent quality and reputation.  Hahn Winery has had a presence in the California wine industry for several years and their 2013 Hahn Estates Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir has received high accolades from all the major

Hahn Estates SLH Pinot Noir

Hahn Estates SLH Pinot Noir

reviewers, describing its floral nose, highly dense, layered flavors and a strong finish, all qualities of a nice pinot noir.

The “perfect storm” of this quality/price ratio has rendered this wine a bit rare, but I did find stock at K&L wines.

2014 Ponzi “Tavola” Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

Ponzi Winery is a staple among Oregon’s Willamette Valley, focusing primarily on

2012 Ponzi "Tavola" Pinot Noir Willamette Valley

2012 Ponzi “Tavola” Pinot Noir Willamette Valley

pinot noir and chardonnay.  Their premium pinot noir, vintage to vintage, earns high praises and commands  a lofty price tag.  However, the 2014 Ponzi “Tavola”  Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($20), their introduction to the “heartbreak” varietal, has the attention of many wine critics, named by many periodicals as one of the best values-priced pinots with grapes sourced from 11 different sustainable vineyards.  For a young wine, it is very aromatic and expresses pleasantly rich flavors.

I have seen this wine online at multiple prices.  The best price was at K&L Wines, that also has outlets in Hollywood and San Francisco.

Barrel 27 “Right Hand Man” Syrah ($20-25)

Barrel 27 “High On The Hog” White Rhone Blend ($14-18)

For good wines within the $20 or less level, I always recommend a range of varietals from Barrel 27 Winery in Paso Robles.  A highly rated vintage of their “High On The Hog” classic Rhone blend of grenache, viognier,

Barrel 27 "Right Hand Man" Central Coast Syrah

Barrel 27 “Right Hand Man” Central Coast Syrah

roussanne and marsanne first led me to Barrel 27.  Vintage to vintage, this wine has always delivered rich, creamy texture and flavors with a nice minerality on the finish.

All of Barrel 27 red wines are good values, but the “Right Hand Man” Syrah, sourced from vineyards in Paso Robles, the Arroyo Grande Valley and Santa Ynez Valley, is typically balanced with significant aromas and accessible soft, rich flavors.  These wines are both available in wine outlets and online, but the best place to acquire  them is their Paso Robles tasting room.

A very deserving quick mention Lincourt Winery in Santa Ynez Valley and Buehler Winery in Sonoma/Napa Counties as resources for consistently good value releases and the readily available Greg Norman Cabernet-Merlot ($15) is always a good option.

So all current, parents or grandparents of Millennials, start building your cellar of “good value” wines that maintain the high standards we all deserve.  Be aware, this may lead to bigger and better things.

 


Wine and Cheese Pairing, 2016

 

The idea began with our desire to support “ArtStart,” a local Santa Rosa non-profit that provides opportunities for high school student artists to create and install public art projects.  Our solution was to donate to the auction a wine and cheese pairing for 14 people.  After a successful $1,500 donation, it was now time to create a

The Wines

The Wines

memorable experience that exceeded the donors expectations.  As always, the wine selections would be easier than determining and acquiring the proper cheeses.  Even living in Sonoma County where many fine artisan wine and cheeses are produced, research to find unique pairings would require some effort.

To facilitate the outcomes to 1)discover the aromas and flavors of each wine and cheese, 2)understand their backstory and 3) promote discussion and select favorites, we distributed comments from winemakers and sommeliers that assisted us through “power of suggestion.”  Seven bottles opened, seven cheeses unwrapped, we were ready to start the global culinary journey.

 

Pairing #1:  Old World vs New World Chenin Blanc

Chenin blanc, originating from the Loire Valley in France, is one of the most versatile wines in the world,

2014 Huet Le Haut-Leiu Vovray Sec

comfortable as a dry, semi-dry, sparkling or dessert wine.  Grown extensively in South Africa, Australia and California, the grape has made a huge comeback over the past few decades. We compared the waxy richness and minerality of the 2013 Williams Selyem Chenin Blanc, grown in San Benito County and fermented in concrete eggs at the Russian River Valley winery with the rich 2014 Huet Le

Williams Selyem Chenin Blanc 2012 San Benito County

Williams Selyem Chenin Blanc 2012 San Benito County

Haut-Leiu Vouvray Sec, a classic semi-dry from France with stone fruit flavors throughout the finish.  No favorites here as the group decided that the two wines were different but equal, experiencing the diversity of the grape.

The two wines were paired with Valencay (Val-on-say), a tangy goat cheese from central France and a

Valencay

Valencay

young Mahon from the island of Minorca in Spain, both salty with an appealing creamy, nutty flavor.  Young, as opposed to aged Mahon (mah-ON), is an accessible semi-soft cheese that becomes hard with distinct salt crystals as it ages.  Surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea, locals explain that even the grass and cow’s milk from the island is salty.  My usual preference is for the young Mahon, but the citric tanginess of the of the Valencay, rare to the US, was a unique new discovery for all.

Pairing #2:  “California Chardonnay and Spanish Goat Cheese”

Sonoma County’s Kosta Browne Winery consistently creates, arguably, the best pinot noir in California, earning Wine of the Year status from Wine Spectator magazine with their 2011 Kosta Browne Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast.  The winery has recently begun producing a rich, Burgundian-style chardonnay from the Russian River Valley that epitomizes their high

2012 Kosta Browne "116" Chardonnay Russian River Valley

2012 Kosta Browne “116” Chardonnay Russian River Valley

standards.  This pairing features the 2012 Kosta Browne Chardonnay “116” RRV, named after the highway that meanders through the Sonoma Valley, that combines nice aromas of lemon, pears and toast with stone fruits and lemon curd flavors and a lingering mineral finish. To augment these flavors, we chose a pasteurized goat cheese from northeastern Spain.

Garrotxa

Garrotxa

Garrotxa (gah-ROW-cha), an area in the Catalonia region, north of Barcelona, is home to a collective of goat farmers, many of whom fled urban life to revive the local cheese making trade. The semi-aged, semi-soft cheese has a somewhat sweet, nutty flavor with hints of cooked milk.  We used the rich texture of the wine to compliment the buttery sweetness of the cheese to create a celebration on the palate.

 

Pairing #3:  “All-American Classic”

One of this country’s most awarded cheeses, Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Farms in Wisconsin won Best Of Show by the American

2013 WALT Pinot Noir "The Corners" Anderson Valley

2013 WALT Pinot Noir “The Corners” Anderson Valley

Cheese Society in 2001, 2003 and 2010, the only cheese to do so. After careful consideration of pairing this creamy, nutty, caramel flavored cow’s milk cheese with the Kosta Browne Chardonnay, we opted for the earthy 2013 WALT Pinot Noir “The Corners” Anderson Valley, knowing from experience that they would compliment each other perfectly. From the northerly Mendocino County, WALT is owned by the Napa Valley’s Hall Wines team and responsible for the production of their pinot noir releases. This 2013 vintage, awarded 92-pt by James Laube from Wine Spectator magazine, has a floral, clove bouquet with a rich, vibrant cherry-cola flavor that lingers throughout the finish.

Pleasant Ridge Reserve

Pleasant Ridge Reserve

A rare raw cow’s milk cheese in the US, the Pleasant Ridge Reserve comes from a single herd and only from the pasture season, beginning in late spring through the fall.  The evenings most creamy, well-integrated cheese with a young, but luscious pinot noir release was an instant hit with our guests and stood out as the best pairing.

 

Pairing #4: “The Island Pairing”

Geoffrey and Allison Wrigley Rusack have, for decades, produced quality wines in the Ballard Canyon area of the Santa Ynez Valley, near Solvang.  Through Allison’s family connections, they gained access to five acres on the old Rancho Escondido site on the island where they began, in 2010,

2012 Rusack Zinfandel Santa Catalina Island

2012 Rusack Zinfandel Santa Catalina Island

producing pinot noir, chardonnay and a half acre of a very special varietal.  Geoffrey received permission to excavate some cuttings from ancient vines on Santa Cruz Island, another of the Channnel Islands.  Analysis determined that they were old zinfandel vines, later transplanted to the Rancho Escondido site.

Having an opportunity to secure one bottle of each varietal annually, the scents of cranberries and old leather foreshadowed the youthful maturity of the 2013 Rusack Zinfandel Santa Catalina Island (Bottle #827), fruit-forward with a complex flavor profile strong enough to compliment aged Mahon (mah-ON),

young Mahon, aged Mahon

young Mahon, aged Mahon

a hard, textural cheese, salty with toasted nuts and caramel flavors that thoroughly coat the palate, pairing best with a rich, deep flavored wine like zinfandel.

 

Pairing #5:  “Nearly French”

Randall Grahm, founder/winemaker at Bonny Doon Vineyards, is one of the patriarchs of the California Rhone Rangers, replicating the famous blends from Chateaunef-du-pape in France’s southern Rhone Valley.  The

2010 Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant Reserve

2010 Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant Reserve

syrah/grenache dominant 2010 Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant Reserve en bonbonne, is a rich, savory red blend with deep berry and tobacco aromas followed by herbal flavors and a long, silky finish.  Awarded 92-pt by Wine Enthusiast magazine, it is uniquely aged in 5-gallon glass bottles, the same ones from yesterday’s water coolers.  The right cheese to compliment this wine was never in question.

From France’s Basque region near the Pyrenees Mountains, the semi-soft Ossau-Iraty (OH-so ear-ah-TEE), a very wine compatible sheep’s cheese, has complex brown butter, caramel flavors that seem to soften deep

Ossau-Iraty

Ossau-Iraty

flavored wines like syrah, especially one as earthy and savory as the Le Cigare Volant.

 

Pairing #6:  “Dessert!”

The last and sweet pairing of the evening featured a 2010 Longoria Syrah Port “Vino Dulce” from Santa Ynez Valley with the creamy, buttery Rogue River Blue

Rogue River Blue

Rogue River Blue

from southern Oregon’s Rogue Creamery.  The port-style wine, available in Longoria’s Los Olivos tasting room expressing cherry, vanilla and spice flavors, is often served with chocolate desserts but the Rogue River, lacking the aggressive bite of most blue’s and augmented by sage honey, was a memorable compliment to the wine and the experience.

Of course, there were no winner or losers, just some of the world’s finest cheeses carefully matched with fine wines, a culinary delight beyond reproach.  Many of these cheeses are available at various gourmet markets, often providing personalized assistance with selections.  As a

2010 Longoria Syrah "Vino Dulce" Santa Barbara County

2010 Longoria Syrah “Vino Dulce” Santa Barbara County

backup, there are many reliable websites that can offer the most rarest of cheeses.  I also often consult food columnist Janet Fletcher’s “Cheese and Wine – A Guide to Selecting, Pairing and Enjoying” and “Cheese Course” by Fiona Beckett as resources for our pairings.


The Art That Is Japan

 

Among many, my most lasting memory of Japan are the gardens.  The breathtaking palaces and temples and the most humble country dwellings all share beautiful

Gardens in Kyoto

Gardens in Kyoto

manicured gardens, some larger, some smaller, but always perfect.  These winsome gems, like so much of the traditional Japanese culture stems from a conviction to “respect” and “honor.”  It is evident in the way they revere the land, their high regard for guests or hosts and in their meticulous approach to traditional Japanese arts as the basis of their heart and culture.  Our Japan experience was not about visiting Tokyo and other major tourists sites, it evolved from a rare opportunity to attend a two-week seminar in traditional Japanese arts at the Oomoto Foundation and School in the town of Kameoka, outside of Kyoto.

Banshoden Prayer Hall, Oomoto

Banshoden Prayer Hall, Oomoto

Friend and Sonoma County artist Mario Uribe, of Mexican descent, has studied Japanese culture along with his wife, Liz for the past twenty years, both participants in past Oomoto seminars.  After years of excluding visitors from the program, Oomoto granted Mario permission to work with the school in developing an arts study seminar for 15 people themed “Sei” or “Purity.”  Weeks later, we found our impulsive selves flying over the Pacific with no real idea of what lie ahead.

Oomoto is a sect, originating from the Shinto religion, that was founded in 1892 when Deguchi Nao, an impoverished, illiterate woman had a “spirit dream” and began writing and reciting the words of the spirit Ushitora no Conjoin that formed their doctrine

Onisaburo Deguchi

Onisaburo Deguchi

. Nao’s son-in-law, Onisaburo Deguchi is recognized as the original seishi (spiritual teacher) of Oomoto and was responsible for the core belief that the practice of Japanese traditional arts together could create a deep spiritual wisdom for all.  Abandoning the traditional focus of mastering a single art, Onisaburo advocated practicing all the art forms, taking advantage of commonalities to create something holistically greater.  Today, under the 5th spiritual leader, Kurenai Deguchi, students and other followers attend the Oomoto School and Ayabe retreat center to enhance their spiritual development through traditional arts.

Afternoon arrival at the island Kansai International Airport and the ensuing bus ride to Kameoka left us with only time to check-in, have dinner, unpack and place futons on tatami floor mats, our bed for the next two weeks.   The first day was fairly relaxing at an on-site Kan’O Chakai Festival where we attended a noh drama performance and tea ceremony, foreshadowing the work ahead.

The next two weeks would be as exhausting as they were rewarding, exemplifying the phases, “Out of one’s comfort zone”

Serious students

Serious students

and “Information overload.”  Understanding is the key to studying a new culture and, only when I began to discover the values they reveal and their importance to the Japanese way of life did I begin to immerse myself into the various traditional arts, understanding my limitations.

Each day began at 5am with chanting, broadcast into our rooms, a reminder that we had an hour before our morning Shinto prayer service at Banshoden Hall.  The service, of course, is optional but we felt it enhanced the experience to attend each morning.

Entering the grounds to the prayer hall began with a bow from the waste, followed by a short walk to the temizuya, a decorative water fountain with bamboo ladles used to cleanse hands and mouth.  Shoes come off and another bow is required as we enter the prayer hall, women to the left, men to the right.  The prayer service is the same each day, participatory readings, chanting and rhythmic hand clapping designed to gain the attention of the gods.

After prayer came breakfast and later lunch, consisting of a small amount each of protein and vegetable with all the rice

temizuya

temizuya

and miso soup you can eat. The Japanese diet is seafood based with much smaller portions than we are used to.  At times, I was happy for more rice and miso soup.  In case you are wondering, we had many gourmet meals that, although different and new to the palate, were outstanding.

The morning session generally began with dressing in kimono which was a fairly complex procedure that often required assistance. It is disrespectful to even practice the sacred arts of noh drama, tea ceremony or waraku budo without men and women both wearing kimono. Mostly, practice times coincided but when they didn’t, it was a long day in the wardrobe room.  Once the practice session were over, the kimono and undergarments must be folded in a very specific, traditional method. Admittingly, as someone who is used to throwing on  jeans and a t-shirt, this process required some patience and skill.

Traditional Japanese Arts

A 16th Century poet, Yoshida Kenko wrote that, “The moon is most beautiful when seen through clouds.”  Noh Drama, said to be “the world’s oldest continuously performed tradition of theater,” is an art form that uses illusion and subtle, yet precise movements and song to tell a story.  Common to other traditional Japanese art forms, its simplicity takes a lifetime to master.  We were privileged to study, over six sessions, with Tatsumi Manjiro Sensei, Lead Character Actor of the

Noh Drama performance

Noh Drama performance

Hosho School of Noh Drama, one of the traditional schools dating back to the 16th Century.  At over six-foot tall with the voice of James Earl Jones, Manjiro Sensei was quite intimidating as we watched him effortlessly glide, not walk, across the stage.  His humor and patience with us was humbly appreciated.

Group I, Michael, Miles, me and Daniel, after extensive practice,  performed the first act (3 minutes) of the story of a poor, street sake vendor who, through living a good life and caring for others, was divinely blessed with a continuously full barrel of saké. Learning to glide, not walk, with precise, expressive movements, with a fan acting as a saké ladle, in a kimono requires more practice and muscle memory that time permitted, but we got through it.

Perceived simply as a traditional way to entertain guests, my discovery that Tea Ceremony is, in fact “moving meditation” woven into the Japanese culture, from the Zen temples of Kyoto to current day, was a major take-a-way from the seminar.  As a 40-year “steep and sip” guy, it took some time to begin to understand the formality of it all.  I have a friend who has studied Tea Ceremony twice per month for 20 years. I recently met her instructor, asking the question, “How long does it take.”  “A lifetime” was her answer.

IMG_4852

“Michiko”

Tea Ceremony has always been associated with the Zen philosophy and is truly an art form that allows a host to create a

“microcosm of paradise” for their guests. Simple, but elegant tea rooms are designed to create a pure, quiet, harmonious space. We were invited to several very special tea rooms and each space, while unique, seemed always to relax us.

A teahouse is entered without shoes and on one’s knees.  After bowing, the guest spends time respecting and admiring a scroll, some of them valuable antiques, others quite simple, but always present.  After admiring the scroll, each guest gives a brief glance to the chabana, a small, minimalistic, somewhat insignificance flower arrangement that is essential to any tea room.

We studied otemae, the art of preparing the tea, learned the intricate process of hosting or receiving the tea as a guest including the precise folding of the silk fukusa cloth, used to purify the utensils and the practice of admiring (respecting) the tea bowl before it is returned.  Local women, adorned in beautiful kimono, assisted our training with unparalleled patience and purpose. Friends, upon our return, requested that we host a tea ceremony for fun.  We declined, incapable, at this time, of honoring it properly.

tea bowl

tea bowl

In its meticulous complexity, the sacrament of tea ceremony  is inclusive to tea bowls, the essential visual jewel to the entire art form.  Raku tea bowls are cherished, collector’s covet them, museums display them and their designs spanning the 16th Century to present day, are simple, yet stunning works of art.   Unisaburo Deguchi committed the last thirty years of his creative life to making tea bowls.  While attending a ceremony in the intimate tea room of a wealthy restauranteur, our host explained that Unisaburo created the bowl I was drinking from, leaving me honored and a bit stressed, holding it carefully.

IMG_1429

Sensei at Shoraku-gama studio

Our sessions at Shoraku-gama studio to throw and trim our own tea bowls were very therapeutic and relaxing, but pride was lifted when Michiko sensei asked permission to use my bowl to present tea to the gods to begin the final ceremony.  I proudly consented, directing a quick smile in the direction of my wife, a potter for 35 years. She whispered back, “They needed one to sacrifice.” Celebrating this new art form, upon our return to the States, we traveled to LACMA in Los Angeles to view the most extensive raku tea bowl exhibit ever assembled, an astonishing visual exhibit spanning five centuries.

Moriya Michiko, Tea Master, Calligraphy Master and Flower Master of the Usugumo Gosho-Ryu, co-host and lead instructor for all three arts, became known to all of us simply as “Michiko,” always smiling and helpful.  As a Master, with the tea name, “Sochi,” she had tremendous patience and virtue to observe and teach beginning students with limited understanding of the culture.

Tea ceremony is truly the “queen of the arts,” involving landscape and architectural design, ceramics, chabana, poetry and calligraphy, or “painting of the heart,” that, as most Japanese art forms, is meant to express the inner spirit of the creator.  Unlike our fountain pens, calligraphy is done with Asian brushes that come in many sizes, held vertically to give the writer more flexibility and richness of expression. Compared to our 26-letter alphabet, about 2,000-3,000 characters are regularly used in Japan, with total characters exceeding 13,000.

Eager to express myself, the more mundane initial task was grinding the ink stick, sumi on the ink stone, suzuri to create ink the ancient way, and a meditative state before writing.  We began by writing the eight strokes of Eternity (Ei), a character than has all the basic brush strokes and soon expanded our repertoire to a dozen or more characters including my attempt at the kanji symbol for “love” as a gift for my granddaughter.   

Boats on the Hozugawa River near Kyoto

Boats on the Hozugawa River near Kyoto

We also attended workshops in regional sushi-making, taiko drums, washi(paper-making) making tea sweets, another essential component of tea ceremony, with Master Aoyama Yoko and Waraku Bodu with founder Hiramasa Maeda Sensei.  Waraku Budo, a martial art aligned with the Shinto religion, uses a wooden staff and involves spiral body movements, breathing  and chanting intended to bring energy and harmony to the body. It required full kimono and as much focus as we could generate.

The Oomoto seminar ended with a full noh drama performance before a live audience and a student hosted tea ceremony for invited local residents.  We were ready to decompress during a brief stay in Kurishiki, but the memories of “Sei” still linger, like a good film, months after being home and I am beginning to understand it more each day.

Kurishiki in the Okayama Prefecture is a city of nearly half million people that is best known for the quaint Bikan District, with its canals, shops and restaurants.  Aside from a memorable evening with friends in a very congenial sake bar, the

Koy pond in Kurishiki

Koy pond in Kurishiki

Ohara Museum of Art, with works by Modigliani, El Greco, Gauguin and various modern artists was the highlight of our two-day visit.  Our final stop was Naoshima, the “art island,” described as a nontraditional Japanese experience,

Bikan District, Kurishiki

Bikan District, Kurishiki

presenting contemporary art in a fashion, unique to the world.

Contemporary Arts 

IMG_1867

Chichu Museum on Naoshima Island

Naoshima Island lies in the Inland Sea, an old fishing village, now home to a hotel with extensive modern art works, two museums and the Art House Project all funded by billionaire Soichiro Futuake, president of the publishing company, Bennesse.  The Naoshima Art House Project invites leading artists from around the world to create installations in small, wooden houses within the old port village area.  One needs to purchase a “treasure” map to find the “art houses” because they blend with the adjacent humble dwellings and there is no signage. We found a James Turrell installation that uses darkness and light, Kadoya, where the floors are filled with water and floating, illuminated numbers and, my favorite, a house filled with sensual mist and waterfall paintings by Senju Hiroshi.  The project is dynamic and will expand as Fututake’s curators procure

"Waterfall" - Senju Hiroshi

“Waterfall” – Senju Hiroshi

additional artists and houses.

Built into an island mountain, the subterranean Chichu Museum features four artists in four unique, inspiring spaces that weep serenity and our relationship with nature.  Each of the underground galleries are illuminated by natural light

including five “Water Lily” paintings by Claude Monet, three James Turrell pieces and an amazing installation by artist Walter De Maria that places the viewer in the center of a surreal art piece.  Anyone who appreciates modern, contemporary art must put Naoshima and the Chichu Museum, on their bucket list including the

Miho Museum

Miho Museum

special evening James Turrell exhibit that requires advanced reservations.

Another extraordinary place, located in the remote Shiga Mountains, southeast of Kyoto, the Miho Museum and grounds are an art piece in themselves.  The vision of Mihoko Koyama, heiress to the Toyobo textile empire, the steel and glass structures were designed by architect I.M. Pei, who carved the location out of a mountain top that was totally restored and re-forested. The Miho houses an

Miho Museum

Miho Museum

extensive collection of Asian art and antiques including ceremonial tea art.  While the collection is impressive, the Miho, itself, is breathtaking.

The Gardens 

Serene, manicured gardens were everywhere, at small homes or large palaces, injecting beauty and aesthetic into daily lives of the people.  Kyoto, recently

Kyoto

Kyoto

named one of the world’s great cities by Travel and Leisure magazine, has the seemingly endless Imperial Palace gardens, but my favorites were in the city’s Arashiyama district.

Rather than the 15 minutes subway ride, we opted to travel from Kameoka to Arashiyama via a 10 passenger boat, maneuvered by three young men through

Karen ai Kogenji Temple, Kyoto

Karen ai Kogenji Temple, Kyoto

moderate rapids on the Hozugawa River. Dozens of natural cherry trees, numerous cranes, two monkeys and one hour later, we arrived, a bit wet, to a magnificent setting of classic Japanese landscape.  The first stop was the Kogenji Temple whose gardens were visually overwhelming and the adjacent Bamboo Forest, with trees rising 30-40 feet into the afternoon light, was a photographer’s dream.

Bamboo Forest, Kyoto

Bamboo Forest, Kyoto

Described as a “forest,” but looking more like miniature Cristo installation, Arashiyama’s Kimono Forest consists of hundreds of illuminated glass tubes, each lined with real kimono fabric. Entering at dusk, its impact was enhanced as darkness fell.

The lasting memory of serene landscapes came from an early morning walk through the grounds of Oomoto’s retreat center in Ayabe, where it all started.  It was crisp and I was alone with my thoughts amid indescribable beauty, feeling the tranquillity they were

Gardens in Ayabe

Gardens in Ayabe

meant to bestow.

I leave Japan with lasting memories and a copy of the 1st English transition of Hidemaru Deguchi’s book “In Search of Meaning.”  Deguchi(1897-1992) became part of Oomoto teachings in 1919 and the book is a compilation of his writings.  I have not

Kimono Forest

Kimono Forest

yet found true meaning, but know that when I do, it will be serene, respectful, steeped in traditional, inspiring new thoughts and perceptions like the fabric of the Japanese culture that we experienced.


Wine Spectator’s 100 Top Wines of 2015: An Overview

 

On the surface, Wine Spectator magazine’s annual list of exciting wines seems to be another coronation of the fabulous Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and the luscious 2010 releases from the Brunello Di Montalcino region of Tuscany.  However, just below the surface is a story of tremendous diversity, both with varietals and regions in

fog descends on vineyard at Peter Michael Winery

fog descends on vineyard at Peter Michael Winery

California and throughout the world.

The 18 California wines on the list represents 10 different varietals and 10 regions.  Europe’s great appellations in Italy, France and Spain are all still dominant, but world demand is creating opportunities to successfully explore new terroir.  The French wine region  listed most often is “other,” more than Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone or Champagne.  This year’s list is an eclectic blend of tradition and the swell of wines from the New World, but let us begin with the time-honored California Cabernet Sauvignon.

2015 WS Wine of the Year

2015 WS Wine of the Year

All of the five California “Cab” on the 2015 list are well-known, pedigree wines, two of which have made it before and for the fifth time in its history, a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, the Peter Michael Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville Au Paradis 2012 (96pt/$195) is the magazine’s “Wine Of The Year.”

Over the years, Peter Michael has developed a

Sir Peter Michael

Sir Peter Michael

reputation for producing marvelous chardonnay and a top-notch red Bordeaux blend, “Les Pavots” from the Knights Valley region, due north of the Napa Valley.  The “Au Paradis” originates from an Oakville district vineyard in the Napa Valley that Michael purchased a few years ago, perfectly positioned to absorb the valley heat and the cooling breezes from San Pablo Bay, the quintessential terroir for a “classically structured Napa Cabernet.”

The Napa Valley was also aptly represented by the #57 Altamura Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2012 (95pt/$90) and the #65 Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Signature 2012 (93pt/%56), one of the best values on the list whose 2006 vintage made the top ten in 2009.  Although their estate vineyards are in different parts of the valley, both are diverse in ripe characteristics, paired with perfect stock.

The northerly Alexander Valley appellation bestowed the #59 Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley Rockaway Single Vineyard 2012 (94pt/$75) and #(78 Chateau St. Jean Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley 2012 91pt/$30), each from long-standing Sonoma County producers who are also celebrating the 2012 vintage of California cabernet sauvignon.

The three California chardonnay varietals on the 2015 list, each from separate regions,

Mount Eden Vineyards Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains 2012

Mount Eden Vineyards Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains 2012

clearly exemplify its diversity and long-standing presence statewide.  The routinely present #5 Mount Eden Vineyards Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains 2012 (95pt/$60) is arguably our best, vintage to vintage, and indicative of what a California chardonnay can be. This vintage is barrel fermented sur lie in French oak for 10 months with 100% malolactic fermentation, bringing back fond memories of past vintages.

The consistently good, very accessible #35 Rombauer Chardonnay Carneros 2013 (92pt/#36) comes primarily from the Sangiacomo Vineyard that supplies grapes for many creators of fine chardonnay.  Their traditional creamy, fruity style, again, comes from French oak, malolactic fermentation and periodic stirring of the lees. The diverse value-priced #48 Calera Chardonnay Central Coast 2013 (90pt/$20) blends vineyards from Monterey to Santa Barbara counties.

Other noted California varietals in include the #12 Limerick Lane Zinfandel Russian River Valley 2012 (94pt/$32), dry-farmed from century-old vines and winemaker Randy Mason’s #40 Pomelo Sauvignon Blanc California 2014 (90pt/$12), a white wine composed of grapes sourced exclusively from Lake County vineyards, an area recently ravaged by fire.

The petite sirah grape was also highlighted among 2015 releases beginning with the soft #17 Turley Petite Sirah Howell Mountain Rattlesnake Ridge 2013 (95pt/$44) from Napa Valley and Amador’s #42 Keplinger SUMO Amador County 2013 (95pt/$70) described as “a Cote Rotie twist on Petite Sirah,” blending petite sirah (76%), syrah (20%) and viognier (4%) to create a “massive, plush wine.”

Orin Swift "Machete" California Red Wine 2013

Orin Swift “Machete” California Red Wine 2013

Having enjoyed past wines from Napa Valley’s Orin Swift Winery, I was pleased to see the #97 Orin Swift “Machete” California Red Wine 2013 (93pt/$48) on the list, another earthy blend of petite sirah, syrah and grenache boasting floral notes with concentrated berry flavors and manageable tannins.

Italy contributed 20% of the wines on the list, mostly from Tuscany, more specifically, 2010 vintages from the Brunello di Montalcino region, landing three spots within the top 20 wines.

Having had an opportunity to taste the #4 Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino 2010 (95pt/$85) at a sponsored tasting event in early 2015, I am aware that this

Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino 2010

Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino 2010

superb wine represents five generations of family ownership and over 300 acres of estate vineyards.  Following a time-honored process involving lengthy maceration on the skins and extensive aging, their history shows consistent brilliance. The #13 La Serena Brunello di Montalcino 2010 (96pt/$60) and the legendary #18 Altesino Brunello di Montalcino 2010 (98pt/$125) continue to highlight an excellent 2010 vintage for the region.

At the same 2015 event, I also tasted the outstandingly balanced #8 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Serego Alighieri Vaio Amaron 2008 (95pt/$85), from another family producer in the Veneto region of northern Italy that uses a traditional “appassimento” process of drying the grapes for 90 days before pressing, then committing to five years in the barrel, usually resulting in a memorable wine.

Throughout its tremendous growth, Washington State has proven to have the diverse

Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2012

Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2012

terroir to support many varietals.  That being said, the 2015 star is the #2 Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2012 (96pt/$140), celebrating their third top ten designation since 2006 with the annual reviews of a collector’s classic.

Placing in the top ten in 2011, the Bordeaux-style blend, #28 BAER Ursa Columbia Valley 2012 (94pt/$39) combines 40% each of merlot and cabernet franc with small amounts of cabernet sauvignon and malbec.  Experts speak of herbal aromas, layered chocolate and cherry flavors in a wine that will soon be in short supply.  The moderately priced #34 Tenet Syrah Columbia Valley “The Pundit” 2013 (92pt/$25) is yet another in a growing line of good syrah from the region.

Washington’s Walla Walla area has grown exponentially over the past decade and is the source of two wines on the 20125 list, the #22 Gramercy Syrah Walla Walla

K "The Creator" Walla Walla Valley 2102

K “The Creator” Walla Walla Valley 2102

Valley “The Deuce” 2012 (95pt/$52) and #31 K “The Creator” Walla Walla Valley 2012 (94pt/$55), a blend of cabernet sauvignon and syrah, co-fermented in stainless steel tanks.

With all the industry “buzz” regarding the vintage 2012 Oregon pinot noir, it is no surprise that the Willamette Valley provided five wines including the most talked about of all, the #3 Evening Land Pinot Noir Enola-Amity Hills Seven Springs Vineyard La Source 2012 (98pt/$70), Oregon’s highest

Evening Land Pinot Noir Enola-Amity Hills Seven Springs Vineyard La Source 2012

Evening Land Pinot Noir Enola-Amity Hills Seven Springs Vineyard La Source 2012

rated.  Having tasted past first-rate vintages of Evening Land pinot’s, obtaining a bottle of this wine, from a unique geological site within the mid-Valley Seven Springs Vineyard, remains clearly in my sites.

From the Yamhill-Carlton appellation, the #38 Solena Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Grand Cuvee’ 2012 (92pt/$25) and  the #11 Big Table Farm Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2012 (95pt/$40) are highly rated wines at very reasonable prices, the latter noted for complex, concentrated fruit and spice flavors.

From the Valley’s Ribbon Ridge appellation and possibly my favorite Oregon point noir producer, the #14 Bergstrom Pinot Noir Ribbon Ridge Le Pre’ Du Col

Willamette Valley vineyard

Willamette Valley vineyard

Vineyard 2013 (95pt/$60) is one of many single-vineyard pinot’s, all with exceptional structure and balance.  The Bergstrom tasting room experience, which includes chardonnay as well, is something not to be missed if you are in the area.  From the neighboring Chehalem Mountains appellation, the #45 Colene Clemens Pinot Noir Chehalem Mountains Margo 2012 (93pt/$36), is a fairly new player that deserves attention.

Aside from France’s acclaimed #9 Clos Fourtet St. Emilion 2012 (94pt/$72) from Bordeaux, I was intrigued with two wines from the Bandol region, having spent a week

Domaine Gros Nore Bandol 2012

Domaine Gros Nore Bandol 2012

in Cassis a few years ago.  One of the top scoring wines from the region, the #94 Domaine Gros Nore Bandol 2012 (93pt/$39) is an engaging blend of mourvedre, cinsault and grenache that sells for a reasonable price.

Provence has secured itself as, arguably, the best new producers of rose’ wines and in 2015, the Domaine Tempier Bandol Rose 2014 (92pt./$40), a mourvedre, grenache, cinsault and carignane blend, aged in concrete vats, could be the best of the best.

 

The ten Spanish wines on the list originated from a variety of regions including Ribera Del Duero that contributed the #6 Bodegas Aalto Ribera Del Duero 2012

Bodegas Aalto Ribera Del Duero 2012

Bodegas Aalto Ribera Del Duero 2012

(94pt/$54) made from 100% “tinto fino” or tempranillo grape.  Following the CUNE Rioja Imperial Grand Reserva 2004 (95pt/$63) as 2013s Wine of the Year, the tempranillo-dominant blend #56 CUNE Rioja Imperial Reserva 2010 (93pt/$44), produced near the town of Haro, lends proof of their reputation for consistent, fine wines.

The growing quality and popularity of New Zealand wines is revealed on the 2015 list through a sauvignon blanc from Marlborough, a chardonnay from Auckland and two

Escarpment Pinot Noir Martinborough Kupe Single Vineyard 2013

Escarpment Pinot Noir Martinborough Kupe Single Vineyard 2013

pinot noir from different regions including the 70% whole-clustered #7 Escarpment Pinot Noir Martinborough Kupe Single Vineyard 2013 (95pt/$69, originating from the southern tip of the northern island.  Another fine white, the complex  #21 Cloudy Day Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2014 (93pt/$28) is generally available in most wine outlets.

Each year, the list clearly illustrates the expanding global reach of the wine industry.  Today, our favorite wines have an equal chance of originating from Australia, South America or South Africa than California, France or Italy.  I applaud Wine Spectator’s effort in reviewing thousands of wines and continuing to open doors to discovering new, dynamic appellations, varietals and blends that encourage more exploration of the 2016 releases and beyond.


Pinot Noir ’12 & ’13

 

The following weather forecast appeared in my local newspaper last week:

Santa Lucia Highlands vineyard

Santa Lucia Highlands vineyard

“Russian River/Coast:  Areas of low clouds and fog, then sunshine today.  Mainly clear tonight, high 80/low 48”

Noting the 32 degree temperature swing made me smile because this forecast describes the ideal climate for pinot noir and cool-climate chardonnay and is consistent with the major regions in CA and Oregon where the best of the varietal, outside of the Burgundy region of France, originates.

Ideally, pinot noir awakens to fog, dripping moisture on its leaves, then basks in the mid-day sun, enjoying late afternoon cooling breezes and dropping evening

Rosella's Vineyard

Rosella’s Vineyard

temperatures.  This repetitive climate is one mandatory element of the terroir in all of our California and Oregon pinot noir growing regions, using the marine influence, extending from the northern Willamette Valley in Oregon to Santa Barbara County.

In California, the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, the

Russian River Valley in Sonoma County, the Carneros region of the Napa Valley, the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County and Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County produce much of the best New World pinot noir on the planet.  As consistently good as they are, experts are deliberating between vintages 2012 and 2013 as the best in a decade, most saying that 2012 wines are perfectly structured while the vintage 2013 delivers more vibrant colors and concentrated fruit

Of special note is the Santa Lucia Highlands (91-94 pts.) and Russian River Valley (90-93pts)appellations who have produced, according to Wine Spectator and others, the finest California pinot noir among the 2012-13 vintages.  This is not a huge surprise

Garys' Vineyard

Garys’ Vineyard

, both have been among the leaders for decades.  The Russian River Valley is arguably the best U.S. appellation and pinot producers throughout the state have sourced grapes for years from the “Highlands,” namely Garys’, Rosella and Pisoni Vineyards that all began with two friends Gary Franscioni and Gary Pisoni elevating the region to worldwide recognition.

I am fortunate to have access to fine single-vineyard pinot noir from Sonoma’s Wiliams Selyem and Kosta Browne wineries who both built their reputations while sourcing grapes from top vineyards in the Russian River Valley and, eventually beyond.  Ironically, my vintage 2013 selections from each, for the most part, have been sourced from these Santa Lucia Highlands vineyards. One wine is the Kosta Browne Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands Pisoni Vineyard 2013 (94-pt/$90) that Wine Spectator ranked among the top pinot noir wines using descriptive words like “depth, density and grace,” all music to my ears.

ROAR Pinot Noir

ROAR Pinot Noir

A second Franscioni-Pisoni partnership created ROAR Wines designed to introduce the distinct flavors of the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation.  Deserving of recognition among Wine Spectator’s top 2014 wines, I found the ROAR Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands Rosella’s Vineyard 2012 (93 pt/$52) to have a uniquely wonderful floral bouquet that foreshadowed a rich, luscious mouthfeel that enhanced the flavors.

From Santa Barbara County, the Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills 2012 (94pt/$40), recognized by Wine Spectator as a Top Ten 2014 release, is the

culmination of a long standing, respected partnership.  Winemaker Greg Brewer uses whole cluster fermentation methods and his signature absence of any new oak to create very fruit forward, balanced flavors.  Also serving as winemaker for another Santa Rita

Brewer-Clifton Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir 2012

Brewer-Clifton Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir 2012

Hills producer, Melville Winery, Brewer’s low-yield Melville Pinot Noir Block M Santa Rita Hills 2012(97pt/$50), with complex flavors, was one of the memorable wines that I enjoyed this year.

Although the Meiomi Pinot Noir Monterey-Sonoma-Santa Barbara Counties 2013 (92pt/$22) has been reviewed as a top value-priced pinot noir, past vintages also

Meiomi Pinot Noir

Meiomi Pinot Noir

express very complex and structured flavors for the price, representing grapes from three of the major growing regions.

Amid the early stages of California’s drought, vintage 2013, especially in the Santa Lucia Highlands and the Russian River Valley,  experienced uniform, moderate temperatures with early rains no spring frost or summer heat waves. The lack of water may have slightly stressed the vines which often results more concentrated flavors.  We will be following with interest the 2016 vintage in California that may or may not have to adjust to the rains and weather patterns caused by “El Nino.”

The word “opulent” is what has Pinot Noir aficionados everywhere excited about the vintage 2102 of Oregon releases, the best since 2008, standing well above recent inconsistent vintages.  In 2012, the Willamette Valley and surrounding regions experience nearly ideal climate, requiring no extraordinary maintenance, seamlessly

Willamette Valley vineyard

Willamette Valley vineyard

aligned to the terroir.  Wine Spectator magazine, who rated the entire 2012 Oregon pinot noir vintage with 97-points, reported that nearly 60% of the wines tasted received ratings of 90-points or higher, opposed to 32% in 2011.

To me, good vintage Oregon pinot noir has sumptuously rich flavors that are restrained by the solid structure of the wine.

I can remember tasting the Bergstrom Pinot Noir de Lancellotti Vineyard 2008 (94pt/$60.00) during a 2010 visit and feeling that I had truly experienced the best

Bergstrom Pinot Noir

Bergstrom Pinot Noir

Oregon can offer.  Bergstrom remains among Oregon’s many extraordinary pinot noir producers and recently shared the spotlight with releases from the Seven Springs Vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills appellation of the northern Willamette Valley.

The pinot noir and cool-climate chardonnay from Evening Land Vineyards has received several accolades over the past few years and, once again, their 2012 vintage, namely the Evening Land Pinot Noir Eola-Amity Hills Seven Springs Vineyard La 143793lSource 2012 remains atop pinots from Oregon or any other region.

Focusing on Oregon vintage 2012 seems to be the key and great values can be found among veteran winemakers from Ken Wright, Ponzi, Chehalem and, of course, A to Z Wineworks who have, for some time, produced very nice pinot noir for under $20.  I have tasted previous vintages of this wine and was not surprised to see the A to Z Wineworks Pinot Noir Oregon 2012 (89pt/$19)

A to Z Wineworks Oregon Pinot Noir 2013

A to Z Wineworks Oregon Pinot Noir 2013

among Wine Spectator’s top values of the vintage.

Long known for their pleasantly “grassy” sauvignon blanc and other whites, New Zealand has spent the last few decades expanding and perfecting the production of pinot noir.  Average vintage ratings have been in the low to mid-90s since the beginning of this decade, with the South Island’s Marlborough and Central Otago regions leading the way.  In a recent Wine Spectator review of all New Zealand wines, seven of the top 10 were pinot noir.  Many experts agree that the structure, thought to be lacking in the past, is where the best wines have improved and, in many instances, become more expensive.  However, as  with sauvignon blanc, New Zealand still produces some very good, accessible pinot noir at competitive prices.  While the Amisfield Pinot Noir Central Otago RKV Reserve 2010 (94pt/$100) is one of the highest rated of the varietal, they also produce the reasonably priced  Amisfield Pinot Noir Central Otago ($32), reviewed as complex, focused with good structure.

Quality, accessibility and cost are appealing features to many New Zealand pinots such as Kim Crawford Pinot Noir South Island 2013 (89pt/$19) and several others

Kim Crawford New Zealand Pinot Noir

Kim Crawford New Zealand Pinot Noir

that are often available at local outlets.

To fans of the “heartbreak grape,” be assured that the immediate future is bright.  Targeting California’s vintage 2012 & 2013, Oregon vintage 2012 and anything from New Zealand since 2010 seems to be the key in searching for your perfect pinot to pair with fresh salmon, Thanksgiving turkey or Monte Enebro, a slightly pungent, creamy-style goat’s milk cheese from Spain.


Hall Wines: A Sustainable Experience

 

Hall Wines from St. Helena in the Napa Valley is, without question, an upscale winery.  Most wines retail for well over $100.,the outdoor sculpture collection is exquisite and they offer  a variety of specialized tastings, tailored to individual preferences and pocketbooks.  This place is accessible, friendly and inviting to all guests, but for those who choose to invest in a membership, the entire estate becomes an oasis for serious wine drinkers who also

"Bunny Foo Foo" by Lawrence Argent

“Bunny Foo Foo” by

enjoy art, sculpture, stunning natural landscapes, surrounding vineyards and events that help pair extraordinary wines with culinary delights.  On a beautiful, late summer afternoon, we sought to discover the Hall experience that began with “Bunny Foo Foo,”  a 35-foot high stainless steel rabbit by artist Lawrence Argent, leading us, full stride to the old Bergfeld Winery property .

I first encountered Hall Wines in 2012, shortly after the buzz was created when Wine Spectator magazine awarded the Hall Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Kathryn Hall 2008 a 96-point rating, placing it #2 on their Top Wines of 2011 list.  Each vintage since, including the 2013 which is still in the barrel, has achieved ratings in the high 90s.  An extraordinary wine named for an extraordinary woman.

Vintner Kathryn Walt Hall, who owns Hall Wines with her husband, Craig, was first exposed to viticulture when her parents purchased a vineyard years ago, sourcing grapes to various vintners. Kathryn later managed the family vineyard and the Halls still produce wines under the WALT label

Outside of wine, Kathryn has had an esteemed personal and professional career beginning with an economics

Craig and Kathryn Hall

Craig and Kathryn Hall

degree and MBA from UC Berkeley, a JD from Hastings School of Law, stints in municipal and corporate law and, from 1997 to 2001 service as United States Ambassador to Austria under the Clinton Administration.  While working as an attorney and businesswoman in Dallas, TX, Kathryn carried on her passionate commitment to public office and community service with an extensive list of achievements.

Our first taste of “Kathryn’s Cab” since the noble vintage 2008 came in the barrel room with the 2013 HALL Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Kathryn Hall, a wine that is at least a year from release.

Although it will spend another six months in the barrel, still another six months in the bottle, this wine had the maturity of many wines already on outlet shelves.  The tannins were present but had softened considerably while young, complex flavors foreshadowed possible greatness

Described as a “hopeless entrepreneur,” Craig Hall has been forming businesses since he was a kid mowing lawns.  He

2012 HALL "Ellie's" Cabernet Sauvignon

2012 HALL “Ellie’s” Cabernet Sauvignon

parlayed an early investment in a small apartment complex into a real-estate empire and, eventually the Hall Financial Group.  Aside from their successful careers, the both Kathryn and Craig remain committed to a better community with multiple efforts and contributions recognized on a global scale.

With vision in hand, the Halls purchased the historic Bergfeld Winery (circa 1859) in 2003, intent on honoring

Historic Bergfeld Winery building

Historic Bergfeld Winery building

the land with an environmentally efficient operation, great art and architecture and, foremost, first-class wines. Through sensitivity and innovation, Hall became the first winery in California to attain a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification as a fully sustainable facility.  What is most impressive is that they have achieved it all without sacrificing design or quality in any aspect of the operation.

"Mouton Transhumandt

“Mouton Transhumant” by Francoise

Part of the Hall aesthetic is the art, both indoor and out. Carrying on the animal theme set by “Bunny Foo Foo’s entry way greeting, access to the tasting room/production facility requires passage by sculptors Francois-Xavier Lalanne’s whimsical sheep, “Mouton Transhumant” and John Baldessari’s recent, blue-eyed “Camel (Albino) Contemplating Needle,” both setting the mood to taste some exceptional wine.

Camel (Albino) Contemplating a Needle

Camel (Albino) Contemplating a Needle

 

Winemakers know that it all starts in the vineyards and at Hall, the best stock of all organic grapes sets the tone and precise viticulture delivers the result.  This was evident in the 2012 HALL “Ellie’s” Cabernet Sauvignon ($80), a Cabernet Sauvignon (79%)/Merlot (21%) blend named for Craig’s mother who was a WWII Navy veteran and navigator on a ship.  Merlot fosters softness to the young wine, with floral and herb influences that coexist with flavors of black currants, earning a 92-point rating from Wine Spectator’s James Laube.

 

The art and wine theme continues in a very unlikely fashion with the dense 2012 HALL “Jack’s Masterpiece” Cabernet Sauvignon ($125) which originates from several vineyards in the Napa Valley.

HALL Cabernet Sauvignon "Jack's Masterpiece" 2013

HALL Cabernet Sauvignon “Jack’s Masterpiece” 2013

The wine results from current HALL President Mike Reynolds’ annual honing of his winemaking skills.  With plenty of spice on the nose and palate, it delivers a creamy, chewy mouthfeel and rich flavors heavily influenced by 24 months in new French oak.  The label of this luscious, soft Cabernet adorns “Jack’s Masterpiece,” a drawing by Reynolds 18-month old son as a Father’s Day gift; a clear improvement over my plaster “hand print” wall hanging.

Taking a break from these alluring Cabernet Sauvignons, we tasted two pinot noir varietals from the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, produced under their WALT label.

Offering very forward cherry and boysenberry flavors, the 2013 WALT Pinot Noir “Blue Jay” Anderson Valley ($40) has a rich mouthfeel with hints of baking spices.  Our host, Colin, suggested that this wine surprisingly pairs well with BBQ ribs.

2013 WALT "Blue Jay" Pinot Noir Anderson Valley

2013 WALT “Blue Jay” Pinot Noir Anderson Valley

Recently awarded 92-points by Wine Spectator, extraordinary bouquet and classic flavors reward those who taste the 2013 WALT Pinot Noir “The Corners” Anderson Valley ($75).  From a vineyard near Booneville, the complexity and depth of the aromas and distinctive flavors places

2013 WALT Pinot Noir "The Corners" Anderson Valley

2013 WALT Pinot Noir “The Corners” Anderson Valley

it among the higher echelon of the varietal in California.

Hall wines, mostly Bordeaux varietals, come from over 500 acres under vine among five unique estate vineyards ranging in location from the valley floor, the Pope Valley to the northeast, Sonoma County and the nearby Vaca Mountains.

Bergfeld Vineyard

Bergfeld Vineyard

The St. Helena Valley historic Bergfeld Vineyard that surrounds the winery was first planted in 1859 by sea-captain, William Peterson who later sold it to the Bergfeld family.  The hot valley floor with surrounding mountains as a gorgeous backdrop creates the perfect terroir for Cabernet Sauvignon and a testament to our final wine.

Just days before its release, we were able to experience the premium 2012 HALL “Kathryn Hall” Cabernet Sauvignon ($150), recently rated with 97-points by Wine Advocate’s Robert

2012 HALL "Kathryn Hall" Cabernet Sauvignon

2012 HALL “Kathryn Hall” Cabernet Sauvignon

Parker.  Sourced from the Bergfeld and Sacrashe Vineyard in nearby Rutherford, this Cabernet Sauvignon (75%) and Merlot (25%) blend has complex aromas and very concentrated, rich fruit flavors with depth, texture and the soft lingering finish of a classic.

IMG_2432

“Because Nothing Has Changed” by Anya Galleccio

As we concluded our stroll through the sculpture garden among pieces like Anya Galleccio’s surrealistic apple tree entitled “Because Nothing Has Changed” and one of Patrick Dougherty’s interwoven twig houses called “Deck The Halls,” I fully appreciated being there among the spectacular natural beauty of the valley, all driven by the creation of fabulous wines and preserved in a most caring and holistic manner.  Hall Wines are not for everyone but the experience is unparalleled and clearly the result of good old American initiative and hard work.

Patrick Dougherty's "Deck The Halls"

Patrick Dougherty’s “Deck The Halls”

There are several other wineries in the immediate area and the quaint, high-end town of St. Helena, with its restaurants, art galleries and shops, should be a definite stop during your next Napa Valley excursion.


A Landing for Chenin Blanc

 

Today, I understand the French chenin blanc grape to be among the world’s most versatile varietals, comfortable as a dry, off-dry, dessert or sparkling wine, flexing its natural acidity to pair well with almost anything edible. I can remember our first

Loire Valley vineyards

Loire Valley vineyards

connection in the early seventies when Charles Krug introduced it by name to California, apparently combining demand with scarcity to force the sale of less desirable wines.  In those days, it was simply a nice, crisp “summer sipper” and easier to pronounce than sauvignon blanc.

Despite its multi-faceted qualities, chenin blanc became lost and underrated in California over the years, succumbing to the emergence of our Burgundy and Bordeaux whites like chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.  A few years ago, I began to see references to and tasting new chenin blanc releases, becoming re-aquainted with its character.  It has become more abundant in California and is comfortably grown in appellations from Santa Barbara County to the Napa Valley.

To prove my point, let me introduce you to the 2013 Williams Selyem Chenin

Williams Selyem Chenin Blanc 2012

Williams Selyem Chenin Blanc 2012

Blanc Vista Verde Vineyard ($32), produced in the Russian River Valley with grapes from limestone-laden San Benito County vineyards near the town Tres Pinos, so exclusive that one can only find it by visiting the winery, that is not readily available to the casual wine taster.  I had not known of this wines existence despite being on the wineries allocation list for nearly a decade.

True to the high quality standard from Williams Selyem, the acidity is finely balanced, crisp yet rich with notable mineral elements on the finish. One characteristic of chenin blanc is that it is more age-worthy than most white wines.  We are being patience with the two bottles in my cellar, but the end of summer is near.

Also in Sonoma County, the iconic Dry Creek Vineyards produce a chenin blanc using grapes sourced from Clarksburg in the Sacramento Delta area, a major growing region

Dry Creek Vineyards Dry Chenin Blanc Clarksburg

Dry Creek Vineyards Dry Chenin Blanc Clarksburg

.  The 2013 Dry Creek Vineyards Chenin Blanc Clarksburg ($12), a tremendous value, is described as maintaining the “Loire character of earth and crushed minerals”. Enjoying the mineral elements, I found a nicely balanced acidity that allows the fruit to be more expressive.  The 2014 vintage has been released with good ratings from Robert Parker and Wine Enthusiast magazine.

The origins of chenin blanc lie in the beautiful Loire Valley, 150 miles south of Paris, west of the Burgundy region, where it is often called Pineau de la Loire.  To most, the wines from the Vouvray appellation best represent the region with an off-dry style wine, a bit softer and textural, revealing more

Loire Valley vineyards

Loire Valley vineyards

floral characteristics then the dry wines.  The dry chenin blanc comes from the Anjou area, also known for its sweet wines.

Several vineyards in Anjou use “botrytized” grapes, infected with Botrytis Cinerea, to produce high quality sweet dessert wines. The French have turned the “noble rot” disease into a sensory art form, only truly appreciated through a glass.

Loire Valley wines can be found in most wine shops and on-line, identified by the appellation.  A quick search on K&L Wines revealed two “vouvray” wines from the region that had high ratings and reasonable prices.  The 2013 Les Chancelieres Vouvray ($12), aged in stainless steel tanks, was described as having ripe fruit, floral aromas and solid citrus, a good formula for a satisfying dry wine.

K&L used the term “impeccably balanced” when recounting the fruit, earth and mineral aspects of the off-dry 2011 Domaine du Viking “Tendre” Vouvray ($23) while others, including Wine Spectator magazine, agree that this wine is among the best from the region.

2011 Domaine du Viking "Tendre" Vouvray

2011 Domaine du Viking “Tendre” Vouvray

Although chenin blanc is native to the Loire Valley in France, much more comes from most New World wine-producing countries such as Chile, Argentina, Australia, South Africa and the “Golden State,” where it is ranked third among white varietals, behind chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, in acres planted.

The world’s largest producer of chenin blanc where it is known as Steen, South Africa

South African vineyards

South African vineyards

has over 45,000 acres under vine and continues to export a wide selection of fine, dry-style wines to US and other markets, many available under $15.

One South African wine that has appeal to reviewers, the 2014 MAN Vintners “Free

MAN Family Vintners Chenin Blanc, South Africa

MAN Family Vintners Chenin Blanc, South Africa

Run Steen” Chenin Blanc ($12), from dry-farmed vineyards in the Agter-Paarl region, is noted for strong tropical fruit and citrus flavors that tend to linger.  From the Stellenbosch region, the dry Spier 2011 Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch ($10) has been rated in the high 80s with a low price.

Another interesting wine that has been consistently rated with 90+ points, the Badenhorst Secateurs Chenin Blanc 2014 ($23) has the full rounded flavors that one finds with a Vouvray from France and will appeal to those who favor chardonnay or sauvignon blanc.

As previously mentioned, chenin blanc, due to high natural acidity, is used to create very diverse wines, each with its own flavor palate.  Floral, herb and spice notes often surface in the bouquet while depth of the flavor profile generally includes spirited berries, fruitsf59f9519537b69690b7d78ef67273dec and citrus. Most of it is produced in stainless steel tanks, some in the concrete egg and the juice is often introduced to oak during the initial aging process, enhancing the buttery, creamy elements, especially in the off-dry wines.

In California, chenin blanc expresses more stone fruit flavors like peaches, apricots and, depending on the style and oak influence, honey, mineral elements with floral aromas while South Africa’s dry-style exude more tropical fruits, namely banana, guava and pineapple.

It is equally versatile in food pairing, comfortable with salads, fish, chicken, cream sauces and my favorite, Asian food.

The grape’s healthy acidity can stand up to those spicy Thai sauces, even curry.  It is also versatile in pairing with cheeses such as asiago (cow), California’s Humboldt Fog (goat) and, of course, a creamy, pyramid-shaped Valencay (goat) from the Loire Valley.

With more grapes sourced from Clarksburg, Napa Valley’s Pine Ridge Winery produces

Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc-Viognier, Napa Valley

Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc-Viognier, Napa Valley

a single varietal chenin blanc and a unique, consistently good chenin blanc-viognier blend, the unlikely merger of varietals from the Loire and Rhone Valleys. Wilfred Wong of wine.com  described the off-dry Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc-Viognier 2014 ($15) as having “lots of fresh fruits and aromatics, a faint touch of sugar, yet crisp in the finish,” awarding it another 90-point rating.

Toward the southern end of the state, chenin blanc releases from the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria Valleys have become more available. Described as an off-dry style, supple wine, the Foxen 2013 Chenin Blanc Ernesto Wickenden Vineyard “Old Vines” ($25) is produced whole cluster, fermented in stainless steel and aged in neutral oak.  This wine is on the exploration list for my next visit to the Santa Barbara wine area.

2013 Foxen Chenin Blanc Santa Maria Valley

2013 Foxen Chenin Blanc Santa Maria Valley

With nearly 65,000 total acres under vine in an appellation spanning three counties, Sacramento, Solano and Yolo; Clarksburg, in the minds of some, has replaced the Loire Valley as the world’s best producer of chenin blanc.  Aside from loamy soil, the Sacramento Delta vineyards battle heat, fog and wind, but seem to thrive.  More of the grapes are sourced and crushed in other areas, but some are locally produced including the zesty Vinum Cellars 2014 Chenin Blanc Clarksburg ($15), whose focus is to maintain the natural acidity, resulting in intense citrus and tropical fruit flavors.

Albeit not the major player, chenin blanc maintains a respectable presence in Washington State.  One that comes to mind is the off-dry 2009 L’Ecole No 41 “Walla Voila” Chenin Blanc, Columbia Valley ($14), a tribute to the owners collection of Vouvrays that expresses deep, honeyed fruit flavors, maintaing a crisp, citrus finish

VineyardsEven with its tremendous growth and appeal worldwide, the future of chenin blanc is uncertain giving the proliferation of traditional and new whites like albarino, Gruner Ventliner and viognier emerging from New World appellations into the marketplace.  It does, however, give us an alternative as a crisp, refreshing “sipper” with diverse flavors reflecting the region of the world where it is created.  Readily available and inexpensive, it is certainly an option that may become your next preferred white wine.


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