Discover LaRue Wines

 

I wondered, as a drove to meet Katy Wilson at the secluded Emmaline Ann Vineyard in Sebastopol, what would motivate a young winemaker to join the fray of great pinot noir and cool-climate chardonnay production in Sonoma County.  Before I left the vineyard, ninety minutes later, I had my answer.

Katy Wilson, owner/winemaker of LaRue Wines, has had a strategy in place since she crafted a business plan for a small production

Katy Wilson

winery in Agricultural Business 101 at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.  Raised in farming, this could simply be a “she drove a tractor before a car” kind of story, but, a closer look reveals someone who, at a very young age, impressed her colleagues who, in turn encouraged and motivated her to make her own wines.

After stints in the Napa Valley and New Zealand, Katy settled at Flowers Vineyard and Winery on the Sonoma coast, then Kamen Estate Wines in Sonoma. Nine years ago, at age 26, Katy was offered some grapes and decided to launch LaRue Wines, vowing to limit production to 500 cases.  She named her new winery in honor of her great-grandmother, Veona LaRue Newell, who she described as inspirational and unique.

In addition to LaRue, Katy serves as a winemaker for Anaba Wine, Claypool Cellars, Reeve Wines and Smith Story Wine Cellars, all in Sonoma County.

Fine wines begin with great stock and Katy currently sources her grapes from five distinctive vineyards in the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast appellations. Today’s tasting began with her chardonnay release from a known Green Valley of Russian River Valley vineyard that has sourced grapes to Sonoma County icons like William Selyem, Kosta Browne and DeLoach since the early eighties.

The 2016 LaRue “Heintz Vineyard” Chardonnay ($60) expressed floral and mineral notes on the nose with vibrant citrus and stone fruit flavors through the finish.  Aged 17 months in French oak with 50% malolactic fermentation, Katy follows her instincts here,

Heintz Vineyard

that it’s sometimes best to leave the wine alone and let it develop peacefully.  Only 50 cases were produced.

As we tasted, Katy explained that the 2015 LaRue Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($60) had just began to open up during the last few months. Aged 20 months in French oak, 25% new, I found classic aromas of cherry and spice and a very balanced flavor profile and rich mouthfeel. At 240 cases, it represents about 40% of their total production.

With an east facing vineyard located west of Sebastopol that enjoys morning sun, the 2014 LeRue “Thornridge Vineyard” Pinot Noir ($70) used pommard and 115 clone to produce a “powerful, yet elegant” wine with dark stone fruits, berry aromas and  complex, integrated classic flavors.  Production is limited to fifty cases.

I was impressed with all of Wilson’s releases, but thought of the 2014 LaRue “Coastlands Vineyard” Pinot Noir ($80) as special and

LaRue Coastlands Vineyard Pinot Noir

unique, from dirt to drink.  It is uniquely derived from some of the county’s oldest pinot noir vines, grown at 900-1,200 feet elevations, two miles from the Pacific Ocean. It is partly whole-cluster pressed and aged for 32 months in 50% new French oak, which is very unique.

The “Coastlands” bouquet is rustic and earthy, with notes of dark fruit and spice.  The palate is very textural and classically fruit-

forward while the finish hangs on. Only a few barrels of this wine were produced.

Grown on six-acres south of Sebastopol, the grapes sourced for the 2014 LaRue Rice-Spivak Vineyard Pinot Noir ($70) come from volcanic ash soil, rare to this region. This release expressed solid spice and mineral elements along with the classic structure and pinot fruit.

In all the releases, there was a balance that made them very approachable to drink now while understanding that they will continue to mature for years.

Coastlands Vineyard

Since we were sitting in a handsome garden overlooking the vineyard, we ended the tasting with the 2014 LaRue “Emmaline Ann Vineyard” Pinot Noir.  The aromas were spiced and heavy with a forest-floor quality, yet the flavors were crisp and toasted.

My first impressions of LaRue wines were aptly described by the Prince of Pinot, William “Rusty” Gaffney M.D. when he said, “Her wines have a certain transcendent aura that reminds you why you fell in love with Pinot Noir in the first place.”

I plan to explore each vintage of Katy Wilson’s LaRue wines.

Advertisements

The Past, Present and Future of Rombauer

 

Beginning with the vintage 1980 Stag’s Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon and later, a 1982 Napa Valley Chardonnay, Rombauer Vineyards has built a reputation for fine wines and has enjoyed a loyal following for nearly forty years.  The inspiration for the Rombauer brand, its Founder Koerner Rombauer, passed away, May 10, at the age of 83.

Born and raised in Escondido, CA, Rombauer honed his flying skills in the California Air National Guard before becoming a commercial pilot for Braniff Airways in Texas  The family re-located to the Napa Valley in 1972, where he developed a passion for wine that led to

Koerner Rombauer

the establishment of the winery.

 

He remained active in philanthropic and community activities throughout his adult life including the establishment of the $4 million Joan Rombauer UCSF Endowed Fellowship, to honor his wife, who died in 2002. Koerner Rombauer will be missed in the wine community and remembered for much more than his famous chardonnay.

 

Days before his passing, we enjoyed lunch and a tasting hosted by winemaker Richie Allen, owner KR Rombauer and Duncan, his four year-old English chocolate lab. They are excited about the quality of their current releases and looking toward an exciting future with their remarkable property along the Silverado Trail.

After a welcoming glass of the round, fruit-forward 2017 Rombauer Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($24), we strolled into the cavernous caves in search of the 2014 Rombauer Napa Valley Merlot($45), sourced from the cooler Carneros region. Added cabernet sauvignon (21%) and petit verdot (2%) make it a rich, flavorful “left bank” blend from California soil.  With too much heat on the valley floor for merlot, KR explained that they are seeking vines in the cooler Coombsville district in southeast Napa to increase production.

Rombauer produces about 300,000 cases of wine per year, 200,000 in chardonnay alone. As they remain in a comfortable place, Rombauer fully grasps the concept that good is the enemy of great.  They are active in the wine community, not afraid of being inspired by what their neighbors are producing. Winemaker Richie Allen quipped that it was not uncommon to KR to show up unannounced with competitors releases for an impromptu blind tasting.

While known for their chardonnay, merlot and zinfandel, Allen curated a tasting of special select or

KR Rombauer

single-vineyard releases not well-known to those outside of the Rombauer membership family, included a best-of-the-best chardonnay. The 2016 Rombauer Proprietor Selection Chardonnay($70) is actually a blend of the best juice from three Carneros vineyards, including Sangiacomo. With hints of banana on-the-nose, the rich stone fruit flavors add some sweetness, but the wine is dry, expressing a Burgundian minerality throughout.

Sourced from the best grapes and best vineyards in the St.Helena, Stag’s Leap and Calistoga AVAs, the 2014 Rombauer Diamond Selection Cabernet Sauvignon ($100) exudes big, concentrated, but balanced flavors with an 15.1% alcohol content. Likewise, the elegant “right bank” style 2012 Rombauer Le Meilleur Du Chai Napa Valley ($115) translates to “best of the cellar,” and is aged seventeen months in 100% new French oak.

Rombauer Winemaker Richie Allen

After producing the first vintage, Rombauer was so impressed by the fruit, they purchased the Stice Lane Vineyard in St. Helena.  The barrel-fermented, 100% 2014 Rombauer Stice Lane Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($115) has dense flavors of cassis and dark berries with sleek tannins on the finish.

One take-a-way from the tasting was the 2015 Rombauer El Dorado County Zinfandel ($35), dense, rich and affordable with a 15.9% alcohol content. The complexity in the aromas and on the palate is clear throughout this wine from great El Dorado County grapes, available at cheaper costs.

After a delicious lunch featuring recipes inspired by the Joy of Cooking cookbook, co-authored by Koerner’s great-aunt, Irma Rombauer, KR and Richie unveiled the barrel-

Rombauer “Joy” late-harvest wine

fermented 2015 Joy Late Harvest Chardonnay ($55), enhanced by botrytis, as the perfect accompaniment to the cookbook’s dessert recipes.  From the scripted bottle, the color to the honey, soft fruit, nuts and spice flavors, they succeeded. Bring on the crème brûlée.

The Rombauer brand is as strong as ever and there is an excitement and attitude in the air that signals a compelling future. Koerner Rombauer would be proud.


Falling For Ronda

 

We had explored most of Spain during May 2012, the last few weeks in the south visiting Granada, Alhambra, Cordoba and Sevilla, but Karen had a plan for more. She said, “It will take some time, but I really want to see the white hill towns.” 

Our commitment to spend a few days exploring the hill towns of the Andalucia Mountains took us to a place far beyond our expectations.

We arrived in Ronda by train, seeking a place to sleep between our daily treks to the hill towns.  Rain required a taxicab to the hotel, but our desire to walk and see some of the town before dusk led us back out again with umbrellas and  raincoats. 

First, we stopped by the front desk for some local knowledge.  

“What can we see in the next thirty minutes”? I asked the clerk.

“Go to the plaza.  You take a left at the door and walk straight down the  street,” he said, “You can’t miss it,” 

In many regards, our image of old Spain is based on the Andalucia region.  It is the home of bullfights, flamenco, gazpacho and stunning mountain cliffs. Exiting through the hotel door, we were face-to-face with Spain’s first great bullring, dating back to the 16th Century and still hosting bullfights today.  When Ernest Hemingway wrote of Spain and bullfights, he was living in Ronda.

Puente Nuevo and “El Tajo”

At first glance, the Plaza de Espana was plain and unassuming until I stepped up to a railing. Managing to close my mouth and speak, I uttered, “My god, you’ve got to see this.”

“See what?” Karen asked as she walked toward me. 

“This,” I said, pointing off toward the distance.

As she approached the Puente Nuevo (New Bridge)circa 1751, the deep gorge they call “El Tajo” came into view.  The ravine was nearly four hundred feet deep and two hundred feet wide, dividing the newer town with the old Moorish area, La Cuidad, established around 1485.  El Tajo was spectacular enough with majestic rock formations, stunning natural landscapes and buildings perched on its cliffs,   but the view of the bridge, with huge piers reaching deep into the canyon amid wildflowers and waterfalls, translucent through the rain, was as wondrous as any I had seen.

Our short walk revealed that  Ronda was not just a place to sleep, but the largest and most spectacular hill town of them all.

Cliffs in Ronda

  Our first glance was a stunning preview and sparked my desire to rise early the next morning and hike down the canyon along the Jardines de Cuenca Park trail to view the span from below.

Pulling me from newfound inspiration back to reality, Karen said, “We can’t do it tomorrow, we’ve got a car waiting.”

“You’re kidding,” I said. My mind had latched on to those first impressions and was not letting go.

“Remember, we’re here to visit hill towns. Besides, we’ll be here for a few days.”

I had to quickly refocus.  A few hours in Ronda and I was already trying to figure out if I could live here part-time.

La Cuidad on the cliffs

Amid a steady rain, we received our rental car that seemed like the undersized love child of a Ford and a Fiat, with more dents than hub caps.  The local Hertz office closed and consolidated with the one in Malaga, eighty miles away. Our only option was a friendly, local dealer who acquired his fleet, one  by one, as funding was available.  He delivered the car and soon we were driving among olive groves, then cork forests in the Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park before the steep incline of the road reassured us that we would soon be in Grazalema, the  first white hill town of the day.

Nestled into the foothills and surrounded by spectacular

rock outcroppings, Grazalema was a cozy, little village. Whitewashed buildings, red roofs and window boxes overflowing with bright flowers lined the narrow streets that all led to a small public square that, aside from a few hikers passing through, was empty on this Sunday morning.

We stopped into s small pub to warm up with some vegetable soup, understanding and now accepting that the Spanish always add some jamon (ham) to the vegetables. I ordered a small glass of local red wine and was reminded that alcohol

Grazalema

cannot be served until 1:00 PM on Sundays.  The morning belonged to God which explained the seemingly deserted square.

Riding in the passenger seat over the steep Cadiz Mountain pass, in a rain storm, was the most “white-knuckled” journey in my recent memory.  Twisting, slick roads at high altitude with no protective barriers, in a strange car with manual transmission all shared responsibility for the increase in our heart rates.

Karen revealed what was on her mind.

“Don’t say a word about my driving,” she said.

She was the one that first proposed that the least stressful road trip option for us was her behind the wheel and me navigating.  With one slick, winding road up the mountain

and down, my role changed from navigator to comforter.

“You’re doing great”, I said. “we’re definitely not in a hurry.” 

We did find respite at the summit, stopping along the large mountainous saddle rendering views of a distant lake through the lifting fog.  The rain stopped and the sun appeared as we began our dissent down the mountain to the next hill town. 

The white buildings of Zahara seemed to spread and flow down the hills below an old fortified Moorish castle.  Once a Moorish stronghold, it played a significant role in the Reconquista in 1482.  Today, the quiet solitude reflected a much

Zahara

simpler lifestyle with friendly locals going about their Sunday afternoon, leaving the small church where the Virgin of Dolores statute sits or viewing the dramatic panorama from one of the vista points.

The forty-minute drive to our third hill town was easy, flat and dry.  The views of Arcos de la Frontera, shimmering in  the afternoon sun, made the extra drive worthwhile.  The perched old town, separated by a sheer cliff, was detached from the lower village, physically and culturally.

Hungry, we took a chance on a small restaurant near the Plaza del Cabildo and were rewarded with  fresh sea bass and a glass of local wine.  While driving home on a full stomach and a topped-off gas tank, images of Ronda and El Tajo still danced through my head. I anticipated that tomorrow would be a special day.

Our hotel in Ronda was built on the original home site of legendary bullfighter Francisco Romero, its facade seemed to stare

Arcos de la Frontera

at the bullring and long for past brilliance.Typical of many local buildings, the arena entrance lies innocently along the street while the rear exit reminded us that the entire town is perched atop cliffs with riveting vistas. The allure of the cliffs was overpowering and we soon left the bullring and began walking in thedirection of the old city.

Crossing the bridge and stealing another glance at the gorge, we entered La Cuidad, finding more narrowed streets and whitewashed buildings that, like most others, innocently faced the street. Once inside, we realized that they are built  directly on the cliffs of El Tajo.

As we entered the trail down into the canyon, the breathtaking views of clifftop buildings, waterfalls and the surrounding flora changed the deeper we descended.  Dozens of photographs later, we walked back up the trail and began to explore La Cuidad and remnants of early Arab culture.

Engulfed in history, we traversed the Moorish Quarter, moving back toward El Tajo, passed the Old Bridge, built in 1616 and

Karen in El Tajo

an aged wall to the Arab Bridge that marked the ancient entrance to Ronda.

A short distance from the bridge we found the remains of the Arab baths, whose location was not an accident.  After a long journey, the baths provided the essential place to cleanse one’s body before prayer.

The climb back up the opposite side of El Tajo to Plaza de Espana, in a light rain, left us with more memorable views and an appetite. Finding a restaurant perched on the canyon wall, we settled into a relaxing lunch with more breathtaking views. I could have enjoyed the rest of the day in my chair, with a glass of wine, stealing beauty with my eyes.

Karen spoke.  “Don’t forget, we have to be at entrance to the Pileta Cave by 4 p.m.

“Your’e kidding, I said. “Do you really want to go back out in the rain.”  “Ya know, we can’t do everything.”

“Well, I’m leaving at 3:30 and you can come if you want,” she said.

A history buff, Karen had discovered that the Pileta Cave is Spain’s best opportunity to view Neolithic and Paleolithic paintings, some dating back twenty-five thousand years. Curse you, Rick Steves.

At 3:30 p.m., we were both in the car, again passing through olives and cork on the way to the small town of Benaojan, the last benchmark on the way to the cave entrance. 

Descending into a cave is never pleasant, it’s deep, dark, damp and slippery and, as a designated lantern carrier, I shouldered the responsibility for the six people between me and the next lantern.  However, the rewards were astonishing and, at times, difficult to comprehend.  It was prehistoric finger painting that helped us visualize what their world may have looked like. 

Ronda and surroundings created many moments that jelled into one very special memory.  Exploring the Andalucia region surpassed expectations and re-energized two weary travelers to keep going and to always look forward.

 


Von Strasser Wines Diversified

 

Rudy Von Strasser has made his own wine in the Napa Valley since 1990, focusing exclusively on cabernet sauvignon from the Diamond Mountain AVA. In fact, he led a two-year movement that forged consensus and completed the process for a 1998 AVA designation for the district.

With over 25 years experience making cabernet sauvignon at the same site, Rudy sought change.  He wanted to diversify  his palate of wines and begin to explore regions outside of the Napa Valley.

In 2017, Von Strasser sold his Diamond Mountain facility, purchased the Lava Vine Winery in Calistoga, moved his operation and began to shoulder new challenges.  Lava Vine had focused on varietals other than cabernet sauvignon and his initial priority is to continue that format while elevating the label.

Prior to developing the familiar Von Strasser label, Rudy Von Strasser graduated from the enology program at UC Davis and became the first U.S. intern for Chateau Lafite Rothschild.  After a stint at Trefethen Winery in the valley, Rudy and his wife Rita took the bold step, in 1990, to purchase the old Roddis Estate Winery and Von Strasser Wines was born.

Now is their time to begin again, although Rudy will continue to produce his familiar single-vineyard cabernet sauvignon. He seemed

Winemaker Rudy Von Strasser

excited as we sat in his Calistoga tasting room one morning with Huckleberry, the official winery pup, to taste some of the new releases of Von Strasser 2.0.

It began with a 2016 Lava Vine Gruner Veltliner ($30) from a one-acre vineyard on Diamond Mountain.  Whole-cluster pressed and fermented in stainless steel, this is a crisp wine with pungent aromas of green apples, citrus and stone fruit flavors and a soft minerality that makes it food-friendly.

As Gruner Veltliner originates from Austria, verdelho is a popular white varietal from Portugal.  The 2016 Lava Vine Verdelho ($30) is sourced from a Suisun Valley vineyard and fermented in all stainless steel, resulting in a zesty summer wine with a healthy acidity.

Admittedly partial to grenache, the 2014 Lava Vine Napa Valley

Grenache ($45) stood out among the new varietal releases.  Aromatic baked fruit and blueberries on the nose were followed by

2016 Lava Vine Verdelho

deep, complex flavors of strawberry, spice and roasted nuts throughout the finish.

It would have been hard to leave without tasting some of Rudy’s noted cabernet sauvignon and cabernet blend releases.  He obliged with three including the 2012 Von Strasser Cabernet Sauvignon Post Vineyard ($80) from a site first planted in 1992. Malbec (10%) and petit verdot (5%) were added and the blend aged two years in 50% new oak.  These wines are all about the stock, local Diamond Mountain terroir and Von Strasser’s not so secret weapon:  his palate.

With musk and forest floor aromas followed by acute black cherry and spice flavors, “Post” is consistently one of the highest rated Von Strasser wines.

Using root stock from Martha’s Vineyard, first planted on Diamond Mountain in 1968, the 2012 Von Strasser Estate Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon ($80), also with added malbec and petit verdot delivers a rich mouthfeel, solid tannins and flavors of dark fruit and espresso.

Von Strasser Sori Bricco Vineyard Red Wine

The last wine was a unique red blend from the high elevation Sori Bricco Vineyard owned by Lindy Johnson who was described as a mid-wife from Berkeley.  An equal blend of cabernet sauvignon, malbec and petit verdot with a hint of merlot, the 2012 Von Strasser Sori Bricco Vineyard Red Wine ($80) was dominated by layered savory flavors including mushroom, black pepper, spice and coffee.  The vineyard name translates to “sunny hillside” and the site is synonymous with lush fruit.

It should be noted that Von Strasser is beginning to experiment with pinot noir and has secured partnerships in the prestigious Santa Rita Hills and Santa Lucia Highlands appellations.

I was impressed with the Von Strasser palate of wines, new and old.  The future will certainly produce exciting releases that can be enjoyed at the remodeled tasting room on the Silverado Trail near Lincoln Avenue in Calistoga. The new facility is also commercially zoned for dinners and musical events that should add to the appeal of the fine wines. 

I plan to keep an open eye on the continuing diversification of the Von Strasser Family of Wines.


Dutton-Goldfield Celebrates Twenty Years

 

Winemaker Dan Goldfield is all about the area.  His local neighborhood consists of some 60 non-contiguous parcels, part of 1,300 acres of the Dutton Ranch vineyards within the Green Valley of Russian River Valley AVA.

The Dutton Family has owned and farmed this land since Warren Dutton began acquiring land in 1964.  Twenty years ago, Steve

Steve Dutton and Dan Goldfield

Dutton and Goldfield merged their skills and created Dutton-Goldfield to pursue a passion for creating primarily cool-climate chardonnay and pinot noir. Over that time, they have achieved success by making the wines that they like to drink. 

As a lab chemist ardent about the outdoors, Dan Goldfield did the only logical thing, he earned an MS Degree in Enology from UC Davis and began making wine with early stints at Robert Mondavi and Schramsberg.  His love of cool-climate chardonnay and pinot noir led him to La Crema and Hartford Court before partnering with Steve to release the first Dutton-Goldfield vintage in 1998.

Goldfield’s comment that, “You shouldn’t make a wine unless it is different” is revealing of his style.  Nuance like this makes their palate of wines appealing.

As a fifth generation farmer, Steve Dutton has worked this land literally his whole life.  His father planted the family’s first chardonnay vineyard in 1967, the year Steve was born. The Green Valley soils are literally on his jeans and figuratively in his genes.

Truly pushing the envelope requires exploration outside of the neighborhood.  In addition to the Dutton Ranch vineyards, Dutton-Goldfield sources grapes from Russian River Valley, Marin County, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County and Sonoma Coast AVA’s. Dan led me through a sample of their current releases including the first wine I have tasted from Marin County vineyards.

The 2017 Chileno Valley Vineyard Riesling Marin County is sourced from 25 year-old, dry-farmed vines in northwest Marin. Dan aptly described it as a cool-climate, Austrian-style riesling; bone dry, aromatic, with a rich mouthfeel and nice long finish.

Next on our tasting menu was a flight of pinot noir releases representing three AVA’s.

Cold-soaking pinot noir is commonly done to extract flavors and color from the skins at an early stage. It gives the juice a head start in developing richer flavors and softer tannins.  From an east-facing vineyard the heart of the appellation, the 2015 Emerald Ridge Pinot Noir Green Valley of Russian River Valley, aged 16 months in French oak, 50% new, displayed those characteristics with deep berry and cherry flavors, clear spice elements and, yes, soft tannins.

Wine Enthusiast magazine awarded this vintage 94-points.

Impacted by a wet 2015 Spring, the grapes in the Freestone Vineyard were harvested early and yielded little.  As a result, aromas and flavors of the 2015 Freestone Hill Pinot Noir Russian River Valley are highly concentrated with layered dark berry, red fruit flavors and a significant spice element.

Surrounded by protected redwoods in the far north Sonoma Coast, six miles from the ocean, the 32-acre Putnam Vineyard sits above the fog line and is subject to cooler temperatures and above average rainfall, resulting in a longer growing season.  As the winery highlights the “wild character” of 2015 Redwood Ridge Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast, I found a savory, herbal component that complimented the rich berry flavors.  The complex aromas and flavors of this release confirmed my preference for Sonoma Coast wines. 

Nearly fifty years ago, much of the original stock in the Rued Vineyard turned out to be “chardonnay musque” and it has produced rich, aromatic wines since, always with a floral quality.  From a low-yield vintage, the 2015 Rued Vineyard Russian River Valley, with 100% malolactic fermentation and multiple lees stirrings, exudes intensely concentrated flavors and a rich minerality through the finish.

When asked to recommend a Sonoma County syrah, the Dutton-Goldfield Cherry Ridge Vineyard Syrah is my first thought since

Dutton-Goldfield tasting room on Highway 116

tasting its balanced complexity years ago.  The vineyard location is described as a “warm spot in a cold area,” and the 2015 vintage adds depth to the bouquet and flavors with vanilla spice, courtesy of new wood.

A little research will reveal how highly regarded Dutton-Goldfield wines are.  Their terroir driven releases are distinctive, but share the consistent high character of  carefully crafted wines. It’s not hard to imagine twenty more years of success. 


Pine Ridge Winery Turns 40

 

Many years ago, I purchased a 1982 vintage of Pine Ridge Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon, cellared it and drank it in 1990 at an anniversary party.  It was a time when my palate was developing and I began to be more circumspect in my wines choices.  Since then, the number of wineries and choices in the Napa Valley have grown exponentially while Pine Ridge Vineyards has continued

tosustain and evolve and is now celebrating its 40th Birthday at their Stag’s Leap District location.

The keys to their success are the same as other producers of fine wines:  good stock in the right terroir, meticulous farming practices, thoughtful enology and the best oak available.  The strategic way that Pine Ridge has grown their winery to ensure sustained quality is a story.

Pine Ridge owns and farms vineyards in five prestigious Napa Valley appellations to produce cabernet sauvignon and cool-climate chardonnay: four in Stag’s Leap, three in Carneros and one each in Rutherford, Oakville and Howell Mountain.  As the weather and the vintages vary, they will always be assured some of the best fruit in the valley.

Pine Ridge also has a veteran winemaking team that has worked together for nearly a decade.  At their recent birthday celebration,

Pine Ridge Estate Vineyards

General Manager and Winemaker Michael Beaulac introduced Vineyard Manager Gustavo Avina as someone who understands the local soils and vines as well as anyone in the valley.  Avina has been with Pine Ridge since 2003 and his team has met the challenges in working with many different microclimates and diverse soil-types including, but not limited to clay, sandy loam, volcanic, and silty clay loam.

Beaulac joined the Pine Ridge group in 2009 after years of developing his craft while working at nearby notables Murphy-Goode,

Winemaker and General Manager Michael Beaulac

Markham Vineyards and St.Supery Winery.  He enthusiastically described the current and future vintages as we entered the elaborate network of caves.  Before we barrel-tasted three future cabernet sauvignon releases, Michael spoke of his excitement about soon adding a sauvignon blanc to their palate of wines. In recent years, many established Napa Valley producers have become serious about sauvignon blanc and Beaulac believes that Pine Ridge will be among them.

My first taste of Pine Ridge cabernet sauvignon in years came from a barrel as Michael removed the “bung” and used a “thief” to transfer the juice to my glass. The 2016 and 2017 futures need and will get more time but I was impressed with the expressive flavors and balance that was already at hand.

Before leaving the depths of the underground grotto, we visited Club 47,a very private lounge with comfortable furnishings, soft lighting and a large Chihuly glass art installation. The cave room is used for special options such as Savor Pine Ridge, a VIP tastings of the five cabernet sauvignon wines paired with “small bites” dishes from the in-house chef.

As anticipated, all the cabernet sauvignon releases are stunning wines.  The Stag’s Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($140) follows past releases from the steep, hillside vineyards that surround the winery, dating back to 1978.  There is such history here that the stag supposedly took his final leap from the cliffs atop these vineyards.

Beaulac describes a love for the Howell Mountain appellation, that at 2,000 feet elevation, is different from others in the valley because of cooler temperatures and rocky, volcanic soils that produce small-cluster fruit with intense flavors. The Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon ($150) has been sourced from the estate Los Posadas Vineyard since 1986 and typically earns ratings in the mid-nineties.

The cooler Carneros appellation, exposed to foggy days, has long been the ideal terroir for chardonnay like the inaugural single-vineyard Carneros Collines Vineyard Chardonnay 2015 ($48) whose rich mouthfeel is derived from sur lee aging and full malolactic fermentation.

Michael Beaulac and Gustavo Amina in the vineyards

Equally impressive releases included the 2013 Petit Verdot ($75), from the original Stag’s Leap vineyards and the bone-dry 2016 Chenin Blanc ($38), sourced from Clarksburg in the Sacramento Delta region.

As impressive as the site and facilities are, Beaulac spoke of an expansion project designed to enhance the tasting experience for current and future members. Clearly, Pine Ridge does not plan to sit on its laurels for the next forty years.

 


My Whites of Summer

 

Rancho Santa Rosa Vineyard

For absolutely no logical reason, the warmer weather reminds me of my best-loved white wines.  The foggy mornings in Sonoma County bring to mind our world-class cool-climate chardonnay, but my list, years in the making, represents a broader range of varietals and California appellations. The current releases are designated, but my love of these wines goes far back.

Sauvignon blanc is the classic summer white that can be enjoyed with nothing but fresh air and conversation or, in its comfort zone, paired with shellfish, scallops, grilled fish and chicken.  The sauvignon blanc in my cellar always includes two releases from very different appellations that are both produced by women.

Perpetually acknowledged as one of the highest rated among the varietal, the 2016 Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc ($36), from

Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc

the Russian River Valley icon, includes sauvignon musque and is barrel-fermented with several lees stirring that accounts for the rich mouthfeel.  Complex stone fruit aromas lead to nicely restrained tropical fruit flavors and a wonderful minerality on the finish.

Sourcing grapes from the Happy Canyon appellation in the Santa Ynez Valley, winemaker Kathy Joseph has long explored the potential of sauvignon blanc with five releases including my favorite, the 2016 Fiddlehead Cellars Sauvignon Blanc “Goosebury” ($34).  A popular wine of limited production, the 2016 vintage is now hard to find.  The

Fiddlehead Cellars Sauvignon Blanc “Goosebury”

citrus and floral aromas lead to tropical fruit and savory flavors with a healthy minerality that pairs well with grilled or pan-fried

scallops.

Whole-cluster pressed with no oak or malolactic fermentation, the complexity of the 2016 Carlisle Sonoma Mountain “Steiner Vineyard” Grüner Veltliner ($30) was first tasted a few years ago at their Windsor production facilities.  Expect a crisp, fragrant wine with flavors that explode on the palate.

Similar to sauvignon blanc, my favorite chardonnay releases hail from the Russian River Valley

2011 Carlisle Gruner Veltliner Steiner Vineyard

and the Santa Rita Hills appellation in Santa Barbara County. I have long appreciated the pinot noir and cool-climate chardonnay wines from the heart of the Russian River Valley including the single-vineyard 2016 William Selyem “Allen Vineyard” Chardonnay ($65).  This current vintage is excellent with stone fruit and spice on the nose and palate followed by a clear mineral nuanced finish.

As with earlier vintages, the 2015 Foley “Barrel Select” Chardonnay, Sta. Rita Hills ($50), from the Rancho Santa Rosa Vineyard, located between Buellton and Lompoc, is the perfect chardonnay for my palate.  Whole-clustered pressed, the selected barrels are aged 18 months in 100% new oak with several lees stirrings. The complex bouquet and rich flavors of stone fruit, lemon and roasted nuts play out in an exceptionally extended finish.

Indian Rock Vineyards Pinot Grigio

Paso Robles is the world’s best source of Rhone-style wines outside of Chateaunef-du-Pape. From the patriarch of California Rhone Rangers with cuttings from Chateau de Beaucastel, the 2015 Tablas Creek “Esprit de Tablas Blanc” Paso Robles ($45), a blend of roussanne, grenache and picpoul, exudes a fruity nose and rich flavors of ripened melon and enhanced spice.

Sourced from a single Paso Robles vineyard and created in her Santa Rosa production facility, the 2016 Carol Shelton Coquille Blanc ($24) is a complex, yet accessible blend of viognier, roussanne, marsanne and grenache blanc.  The welcoming fragrant  bouquet is followed by complex, layered flavors aptly described by Carol as “crisply dry, yet creamy and round.”

From a somewhat obscure Calaveras County winery near Murphys, CA, I discovered a previous vintage of the 2015 Indian Rock Vineyards Pinot Grigio ($24) a decade ago. Many of the great pinot grigio releases come from Oregon, but this one is closer to home and has complexity on the nose and palate.

Napa Valley sourced and produced, the St. Supery 2016 Napa Valley Estate Virtú ($30), a white Bordeaux-style blend of semillon

St. Supery Virtu

and sauvignon blanc, is always a “go to” wine when looking for something different.  It is initially crisp before the luscious, rich texture seems to lengthen the palate.

Years ago at a Market Street wine bar, the som recommended a 1998 Bollig-Lehnert Piesporter Goldtropfchen Riesling Spatlese ($17). It was the first time that I experienced the soft “petrol” elements of German riesling.  The Spatlese wines come from fully ripened grapes that produce balanced fruit forward flavors. The 2011 vintage,

Bollig-Lehnert Piesporter Goldtropfchen Riesling Spatlese 2012

now available, is a huge value.

Albeit unique and different, these wines all pair well with food and have the complexity to be enjoyed by themselves or with a nice Sonoma County goat cheese.  Enjoy your summer.