Aperture Cellars opens new Estate near Healdsburg

Young veteran winemaker Jesse Katz, producer of Sonoma County Bordeaux-style wines under his Aperture Cellars brand since 2009, is about to take a huge step into his future.  He recently acquired the old Ponzo vineyard site on Old Redwood Highway in Healdsburg and is molding it into the new Aperture Estate.

Winemaker/owner Jesse Katz

The seeds for Jesse’s passion for wine were planted at an early age as he traveled through eighty countries with his father, photographer Andy Katz, including many wine regions in France and Italy.  Over the past 17 harvests, he has honed his skills in Bordeaux, Argentina and at noted Napa Valley wineries like Screaming Eagle and Robert Foley.

Nearly a decade ago, Jesse’s appointment as head winemaker at Lancaster Estate made him the country’s youngest.  Maturity came quickly as one of his releases was included among the Wine Spectator magazine Top 100 Wines of 2013.

Known as a winemaker to the stars, Katz has consulted with celebrities like Justin Timberlake, professional skateboarder Tony Hawk and NFL star Von Miller.  Of note, he and film agent Shep Gordon collaborated to create 2015 The Setting Wines Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine that sold for $350,000 at a charity auction.

Architectural rendering of new hospitality center

The new forty acre Aperture Estate consists of a new state-of-the-art production facility, thirty-two acres under vine and, in May 2020, it will add a modern and well-appointed hospitality center designed to enhance the experience that culminates in the glass. With 3,500 square feet of indoor space that expands to 6,500 square feet when opened up to the patio, guests will be exposed to the surrounding vineyards and choose between several appointment-only options such as private group tastings or a VIP experience with food pairings.

The new buildings were designed by Signum Architecture who, among others, created the designs for Odette, Cade and Hall wineries.  The production facility has an impressive contemporary exterior design that compliments the landscape.  The interior, with rusted galvanized steel paneling is equally imposing, but, for Jesse, it’s about form following function.

New vineyards at Aperture

There, he has all the best toys for success including a crush pad, a Weco optimal sorter, a cold room, four barrel rooms and  27 fully automated fermentation tanks. Future lab work will be done in-house and, beginning with the 2019 harvest, all Aperture wine production will happen under this roof.

The new estate came with ten acres of old-vine zinfandel and, on the remaining property, Jesse has planted merlot clones from Château Pétrus and semillon clones from d’Yquem, noted producer of “botrytized” wines from Sauternes.  Clearly, Bordeaux has a presence in nearly all Aperture releases.

Outside of the estate property, Aperture controls 140 acres, spread over seven separate vineyards in Sonoma, Napa and Yolo counties.  The three single-vineyard cabernet sauvignon as well as the Bordeaux blend are sourced from the Alexander Valley, a region where rich soils, in Jesse’s opinion, produce “new world fruit and old world elegance.”

The root of all this activity and excitement is the wine and we began a tasting with the 2018 Aperture Barrel-fermented Chenin Blanc ($30), sourced from old vines in Clarksburg, near the Delta, fifteen miles south of Sacramento.  Declared “America’s best dry chenin blanc” by Wilfred Wong (wine.com), it is non-filtered with no new oak and has a distinctively rich mouthfeel with flavors of ripe pear and the stone fruits.

2018 Aperture Barrel-fermented Chenin Blanc

From Sonoma County’s newest appellation (AVA), the 2018 Aperture Barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc $40, with two-percent semillon, is sourced from the Dry Stack Vineyard in Bennett Valley near Santa Rosa.  Jesse admitted that he returned from Bordeaux with a greater appreciation of the whites and this release deserves ours.

From the clay loam soils in the Alexander Valley, the 2016 Aperture Bordeaux Red Blend ($55), a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec and cabernet franc, is aged for 18 months in 50% new French oak.  Although cabernet sauvignon dominates the flavor, the floral and spice hints come from the cabernet franc.

2015 Devil Proof Rockpile Ridge Malbec

There are three single vineyard releases from the Oliver Ranch, SJ and Del Rio vineyards, each representing unique terroir within the Alexander Valley.  However, I was most intrigued by the 2017 Devil Proof Rockpile Ridge Malbec ($150) from south facing vines above Lake Sonoma. Heat spikes during 2017 created challenges, but the result was the  highly concentrated flavors that led Robert Parker, Jr, the Wine Advocate to state, “This may be the finest Malbec I have ever tasted from California.”

Dignified wines from Jesse and extraordinary label photos from Andy, a world-class pairing that is about to enrich the Sonoma County wine experience.  Check them out.


Twenty Years of Le Serre Nuove dell 'Ornellaia, the little wine that could

Le Serre Nuove dell ‘Ornellaia 2017

Twenty years has passed since the famed Tenuta dell ‘Ornellaia introduced Le Serre Nuove dell’Ornellaia, the first true “second vin” of any major Italian estate.  Then and now, the term “second vin” refers to a wine made from grapes overlooked for the top flagship release.  Beginning as a product of their younger vines, Le Serre Nuove dell’Ornellaia was introduced as a more accessible and affordable alternative to the classic grand vin, simply known as Ornellaia and considered one of Italy’s leading Bordeaux-style or Super Tuscan red wines from the Bolgheri DOC.

Differing from other parts of Tuscany where sangiovese is used to produce Chianti Classico, the unique terroir of the Bolgheri region, near the coast, allows Bordeaux varietals like merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and others to thrive.  Following years of obscurity with a reputation for ordinary white wines and rose’, Bolgheri gained international recognition in 1974 (two years before the 1976 Paris Tasting unleashed California wines to the world) when a six-year-old wine from Sassicaia, a sub-region of Bolgheri, was selected, in a blind tasting over several releases from Bordeaux.

Vineyards in Bolgheri

In 2018, fifty years from the first vintage, the Tenuta San Guido Bolgheri-Sassicaia Sassicaia 2015 was named Wine Spectator magazine’s Wine of the Year and is now compared, vintage to vintage, with the top releases from Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Napa Valley.  As a result, the sub-region is being upgraded to Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin (DOCG), the highest designation of quality among all Italian wines.  All wines from Sassicaia now require a minimum of 26 months aging before release.

Tenuta San Guido Bolgheri-Sassicaia 2015

Maturing vines, better technology with the use of equipment like optical sorters and, in the later years, the touch of a woman, has enabled Le Serre Nuove to flourish on its own merits and develop, in the words of current oenologist Olga Fusari, “The distinct flavor profile of its older sibling.”

Another industry transformation since the first Le Serre Nuove release is that women have received more respect and opportunities to assume a larger presence among winemakers, CEO’s and sommeliers.  One such person is Olga Fusari

Fusari is only thirty-six years old and has been with Tenuta dell’Ornellaia since an internship in 2005. She studied Viticulture and Oenology at the University of Florence and, through various experimental research projects, has helped to initiate a long-term collaboration between the university and the estate.

Olga is known as someone who enjoys experimentation which pairs well with the entire Bolgheri risk-reward wine making philosophy that originally embraced the Super Tuscan movement. Since 2012, she had been an official taster for the Chamber of Commerce, charged with evaluating regional wines for the Denominations of Origin(DOC) designation.

Oenologist Olga Fusari

Fusari joined the Ornellaia staff permanently in 2008 as Assistant Oenologist before assuming the position of Oenologist in 2016.  She doesn’t hesitate in boasting about the mature character of the 20th Anniversary Le Serre Nuove dell ‘Ornellaia 2017 [$82), a blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and petit verdot, noting that it “expresses itself with outstanding elegance, combining great ageing potential with immediate enjoyability.”

The results were gratifying, but the 2017 vintage was a challenge.  A recent study compiled by the World Meteorological Organization defined the years 2015-2019 as the planet’s hottest on record. The 2017 growing season in the Bolgheri region was the hottest and driest ever, causing the vines to bud weeks before the normal cycle.  Then, a late April frost caused damage throughout the Tuscany region, but proximity to the ocean kept temperatures above freezing in Bolgheri vineyards, granting a reprieve.  This resulted in a harvest that began with merlot in August and ended with the other varietals in late September, cooled by autumn rains.

Tenuta dell ‘Ornellaia Estate

The varietals used in Le Serre Nuove are vinified separately, then assembled after twelve months, reintroduced to the barrel for three months and finally aged another six months in the bottle.  I found an expressive spice element with fresh berries on the nose, well-integrated flavors and a notably luscious mouthfeel that was soft on the palate.  Finally, the finish, as purported, was long and lingering.


The Valpolicella region yields good options for selecting Italian wines

Enoteca Oreste del Zovo wine shop in Verona

Verona, in northeast Italy, is a romantic city, steeped with history and beautiful vistas along the Adige River.  In the old city, one can cross the ancient Ponte Pietra bridge, visit a Roman arena and Casa de Giulietta (House of Juliet), the setting for Shakespeare’s classic love story or the Enoteca Oreste Dal Zovo, a wine shop that looks like something from an old novel.  It is there that the local wines from Soave and Valpolicella can be found.

In the hills surrounding Verona to the north, near the marble quarry region, lie the vineyards of Veneto, spread over many appellations, but known for the notable wines from Soave and Valpolicella. At times overshadowed, Valpolicella ranks just below Chianti in total production.

Valpolicella is most identified for the use of unique grape varietals and the distinct styles to their wines.  Grapes like Corvina Veronese, Rondinella, Croatina and Oseleta, relatively unsung  outside of Italy, comprise the red blends from the region.

Vineyards in Valpolicella

Most wines from Valpolicella are light and fruity, but offer many styles, including the richer Amarone made from dried grapes, Valpolicella Classico from the original sector, aged Valpolicella Superiore and Recioto, a dessert wine.

For decades, many of the highly rated releases from Valpolicella have come from Tenuta Sant’Antonio, an estate started by the four Castagnedi brothers:  Armando, Tiziano, Paolo and Massimo.  Beginning with their father’s vineyards and later adding the Monte Garbi property, Tenuta Sant’Antonio has produced some of the best wines from the region.  Wine and Spirits magazine recently named their 2013 Amarone della Valpolicella Campo dei Gigli (94pt/$70) and the 2015 Amarone della Valpolicella Selezi (92pt/$45) among the year’s best releases from the region. 

It is from the Monte Garbi property that Tenuta Sant’Antonio produces Valpolicella Ripasso Superiore DOC Monti Garbi 2017($20), made from re-fermented Amarone skins and aged 12 months in oak casks. Ripasso is the name given for wines made from previously fermented grapes skins.

Wines from Tenuta Sant’ Antonio

A blend from corvina, rondinella, croatina and oseleta grapes, the expressive bouquet of this wine was fruity with doses of cherry and spice. The flavors were light, soft on the palate and savory, pairing well with a flavorful hard cheese.  A good value.

Also from the Monti Garbi District, the grapes for the Amarone Della Valpolicella DOCG Antonio Castagnedi 2015 ($40-50) are dried out for three months prior to fermentation.  With natural malolactic fermentation and batonnage with regular stirrings, the juice sits in new French oaks casks for two years before bottling.

Deep colors and rich texture highlight this wine with heavy spice elements and licorice on the nose, balanced flavors and a luscious mouthfeel.

Castagnedi Brothers, Massimo, Paolo, Armando, Tiziano

Fermented and aged in all stainless steel, the Valpolicella Superiore DOC Nanfre’($15) blends corvina and rondinella grapes from vineyards in the villages of Colognola ai Colli and Illasi, near Verona.  The aromas and flavors are present and expressive throughout, making it an attractive option for an everyday wine.

Scaia is a brand of value-priced wines from the Castagnedi Family that includes, among the reds, a traditional Valpolicella blend and two single-varietal releases:  corvina and cabernet sauvignon. 

However, it was the pale wine releases that captured my attention.

Made from 100% rondinella grapes the Scaia Rosato 2018 ($15) is fermented and aged in stainless steel resulting in a lovely light salmon color, floral hints in the aromas and tangy fruit flavors that lingered throughout the soft finish.

Garganeda grapes

Common in the nearby Soave, the garganeda grape, the sixth most planted white in Italy, is native to the Valpolicella region and, with tight clusters, is often used for recioto dessert wines. The crisp Scaia Garganeda-Chardonnay ($15) has a steely bouquet of wet stone and citrus while the flavors are dominated by tangerine and almonds with a surprisingly long finish. 

Wines from the Valpolicella region are available on-line and in most retail and wholesale outlets.  A little research may reveal some new discoveries of fine Italian wines priced much lower than those from Tuscany or Piedmont.

Better yet, the best way to unearth Valpolicella and Soave wines is to travel to Verona, rent a room in the shadow of the Roman Arena and, at the same time, discover Titian’s “Assumption of the Virgin” in the Verona Cathedral or the sweeping sunset views from the Torre dei Lamberti (Lamberti Tower).


Sparkling Cremant d’ Alsace wines offer diversity and value

With the arrival of summer, rose’ and sparkling wines naturally come to mind.  The choices are numerous under the headings of Champagne, prosecco, cava, German sekt or North American sparkling wines. For something different, readily available and reasonably priced, Cremant d’ Alsace wines are worth exploring for summer entertaining.

The Alsace region lies in northeastern France and borders both Germany and Switzerland.  The Cremant d’ Alsace Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC)is one of three earmarked in the region and was designated in 1976 for the production of sparkling wines. 

The French term “Crémant” is used to define sparkling wines made in the traditional method, but outside of Champagne.  The méthode Champenoise or traditional method requires that the second fermentation, which creates the bubbles, must occur in the bottle.  This is followed by a minimum nine months aging on lees, bringing about a richer mouthfeel.

While Champagne is restricted to using only Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, the crisp and dry Crémant d’Alsace wines are mostly from Pinot Blanc, produced as a single-varietal or blended with auxerrois blanc, pinot gris, riesling, chardonnay and pinot noir.  Auxerrois blanc is grown extensively in the Alsace region and is described as a “full sibling” of chardonnay. 

The Crémant d’Alsace Rosé must use 100% pinot noir, grapes, inviting comparisons with a recent surge in production of rose’ of pinot noir in California. 

I recently tasted some sparkling wines and rose’ from Crémant d’Alsace that illustrated a variety of styles, from classic blanc de blancs, featuring pinot blanc, to vibrant rose’ of pinot noir and bold, dry 

zero-dosage releases.

The Lorentz family, for over 160 years, has been producing some of the most widely distributed wine from the region, available in over fifty countries. Comprised exclusively from pinot noir grapes, the Gustave Lorentz Crémant d’Alsace Brut Rose’ ($25), after dosage and aging on lees, is fresh, crisp and offers variety of subtle fruit nuances to the palate. Other Gustave Lorentz wines are readily available in local outlets and online.

Gustave Lorentz Cremant d’Alsace Brut Rose’

Domaine Alfred Mann, guided by biodynamic farming with best organic practices, has a reputation for maintaining low yield grapes that result in a maturity and richness to their wines. The Alfred Mann Crémant d’Alsace Extra Dry Brut 2016 ($24), a blend of pinot blanc, auxerrois blanc and pinot noir from mature vines is bone dry and acidic while exuding conspicuous fruit aromas and flavors within a rich texture.

Centuries old, the Domaine Valentin Zusslin is now run by two generations of the family and converted in 1996 to bio-dynamic viticulture.  The Zusslin Crémant d’Alsace Brut Zero Sans Souffre ($25) is produced without sulphur or any added sweetness through dosage.

Zusslin Cremant d’Alsace Brut Zero Sans Souffre

I found a unique bouquet of citrus and toast followed by a vibrant acidity with soft citrus notes. It would pair well and enhance shellfish and seafood dishes.

A well-reviewed sparkling rose’ that is priced below $20, the Allimant Laugner Cremant d’Alsace Rosé ($18) offered the most expressive aromas and intense fruit flavors of any of the wines.  Tart with strong strawberry hints, critic Jancis Robinson, in describing the wine, said it was “Not remotely complex but there is so much delicious fruit in there that who cares?”

Another bone dry wine with no added dosage, the 

Dirler-Cadé 2015 Brut Nature Sparkling Crémant d’Alsace ($22), a blend of pinot noir, pinot gris and auxerrois, offers more balance of acidity and richness and would serve as a delightful aperitif.

With reviews in the mid-nineties, the Lucien Albrecht Cremant d’Alsace Brut Rose ($24) expressed ripe apple notes on the nose and palate and delivered both a crispy and creamy mouthfeel. The producers feel it could continue to develop for another decade.

Another good value is the brightly salmon-colored Pierre Sparr Cremant d’Alsace Brut Rose NV ($20) with complex aromas and flavors of citrus, strawberry and spice.  It also delivers a nice minerality on the finish.

Pierrs Sparr Cremant d’Alsace Brut Rose’ NV

Besides Crémant d’Alsace sparkling wines, there also are Crémant de Loire (Loire Valley) that feature chenin blanc grapes, Crémant de Bourgogne (Burgundy) with chardonnay and pinot noir and even Crémant de Bordeaux, based from cabernet franc and other local varietals.  However, there is enough diversity of style within Crémant d’Alsace releases that make them very competitive based on quality, accessibility and affordability comparisons.


The iconic Bordeaux wine region is coping with climate change

Bordeaux, in southern France, is one of, if not the world’s most famous wine region, steeped in long-standing excellence and tradition through closely controlled grape varietals and farming techniques for each appellation that have been in place for over eighty years. 

Bordeaux vineyards

As far as I can remember, the iconic Bordeaux red blends have been either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot dominant, supported by Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carménère.

Two experimental plots named VitAdap and GreffAdapt, have been established to study the impacts of climate change on proposed and current varietals including the effects of water stress.

Malbec has been the grape most challenged by climate change and its use in the region has diminished significantly while Petit Verdot is experiencing a resurgence and plantings have increased nearly two-hundred percent

Two-thirds of the red vines planted in Bordeaux are merlot that for centuries has benefited from the local climate to reach peak ripeness.  Although still the premier Bordeaux red varietal, merlot is being scrutinized as a potential future victim of rising temperatures.

Touriga Nacional, a popular red grape from the Douro Valley in Portugal

The current white varietals are dominated by Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc with support from lesser known grapes like Sauvignon Gris, Muscadelle, Colombard, Ugni Blanc, Merlot Blanc and Mauzac.

In the past months, Bordeaux has garnered worldwide attention from a recent report outlining a series of actions taken to adapt to the growing impacts of climate change.  Since research on the impacts of climatology was first conducted in 2003 by the Bordeaux Wine Council (CIVB), it has  been a major focus in future planning, specifically the changes in climate, its impact to oneology and the use of plant material(varietal selection).  The Council has spent nearly €2 million over the past decade on environmental research.

Recently the Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Supérieur winemakers approved new “grape varieties of interest” as part of a continuing plan to adapt to the impacts of climate.  The list includes varietals new to the region as well as some nearly forgotten and now making a comeback.  The new experimental “grapes of interest” are mostly late-ripening to better assimilate with the established harvest framework, less susceptible to rot and intended to satisfy aromatic losses due to hotter weather. 

Among the red varietals to be approved for planting include Arinarnoa, a cross between Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon and Touriga Nacional, a popular red grape from the Douro Valley in Portugal, used in their fine ports and still wine blends.  Also included are Marselan, a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache (sounds delicious)and the long-forgotten Bordeaux varietal, Castets, both known for their resistance to rot and suitability for aging.

Arinarnoa, a cross between Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon

The newly approved white “grapes of interest” include Alvarinho, another Portuguese varietal that has gained popularity in the United States, Liliorita, a cross between baroque and chardonnay and the late-ripening Petit Manseng, all highly aromatic.

These changes are subject to approval by the Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité (INAO),a French organization charged with regulating agricultural products, and come with conditions.  The “grapes of interest” must be listed as secondary and be limited to five percent of the planted vineyard area. They cannot exceed ten percent of the final blend and their use is only authorized for a ten year period subject to one renewal.

In addition to their research on climate change and sustainability, the Bordeaux wine industry set out for the first time, a decade ago, to assess its carbon footprint that was determined to be 840,000 tons CO2 equivalent, stemming mostly from materials and products, freight and energy.  As a result, they committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the development of the Climate Plan 2020, a roadmap that was shared with the entire wine industry.  The plan set goals of twenty percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, twenty percent reduction in energy use, a twenty percent increase in renewable energy and a twenty percent decrease in water use.

Vineyards in St. Emilion

A follow-up assessment in 2013 revealed a nine percent decrease in the wine trade’s carbon footprint within five years.

The real story here is that climate change represents multiple challenges for the agricultural industry and when a premier wine growing region begins to reassess engrained traditional practices, people pay attention.  Clearly, Bordeaux’s long-term plan will be implemented methodically with strategies designed to maintain their position as an elder statesman and global giant.  However, they must be credited for providing the insight and leadership that will benefit everyone.


What to pair with crocodile and other African cuisine

A few years back, we purchased a South African photo safari at a fundraising auction and decided, this August, to schedule the trip and add three days at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.  Upon arrival at the Zulu Nyala Game Preserve in South Africa’s northeastern Zulu province, we discovered that all guests purchased their excursion by supporting a non-profit.  It’s part of their business model and something rewarding to be a part of.

Crocodile Frickadelle at the Palm Restaurant at the Ilala Hotel in Victoria Falls

The food was quite good, but commonly included such dishes as crocodile meatballs, ostrich filets and grilled Eland, Africa’s largest antelope.  Seeking a wine to pair with this new cuisine, I was delightfully surprised with a Diemersdal Pinotage 2017, from an historic winery in the Durbanville Valley region near Capetown, and began to rely upon their brand for the remainder of our African adventure.

Pinotage is a signature grape in South Africa, created in 1925 by Abraham Izak Perold, the first Professor of Viticulture at Stellenbosch University. It is a marraige of pinot noir and cinsault, a popular varietal used in southern Rhone-style blends and known in its homeland as hermitage.  The Pinotage 2017 and other red and white varietals from the Diemersdal Estate became a familiar name among many unfamiliar choices.

Wines have been produced at the Estate for over three centuries and six generations of the Louws family have artistically and meticulously farmed the land for over 130 years.

The Diemersdal Estate covers 840 acres, of which nearly 450 is planted under vine with pinotage, merlot, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and others.  Of note, many of the remaining acres are used for grazing and the preservation of Renosterveld, a threatened vegetation type in southernmost Africa’s Cape Floristic Region. The hillside vineyards at the Estate welcome cool, misty afternoon breezes that permit dry-farming, culminating in fully ripened fruit.

To accompany fresh-caught grilled bream and crocodile frikadelle at the Palm Restaurant in the Ilala Hotel at Victoria Falls, we fortunately chose the definitively styled Diemersdal Sauvignon Blanc 2018 with layered tropical fruit on the nose and palate and a vibrant minerality on the finish. The reasonable price made this wine even more appealing.  

For the record, crocodile does taste like chicken and we had served as a meatball, then grilled and diced, potentially popular in the States when served in a taco. Crocodile tacos, an idea before its time?

Diemersdal also produces a high-end sauvignon blanc reserve and the Diemersdal Winter Ferment 2019, described as a “new world style of sauvignon blanc” with tropical flavors, a hint of grapefruit and a rich, vibrant acidity throughout.

Days later, seeking a white wine that we could pair with a buffet featuring an array of fish, meat and game dishes as well as fresh sushi, we selected the elegantly aromatic Diemersdal Chardonnay Unwooded 2017.  The rich, creamy texture of the wine is balanced with melon and citrus flavors that linger. I now can forever brag to my “foodie” friends of eating sushi in Zimbabwe.

In addition to the red pinotage, we selected a bottle of Diemersdal Merlot 2017 for dinner one evening at the game preserve. Aged twelve months in 30% new French oak, this wine is still young but delivered very evident spice overtones throughout the nose and palate.

Once again relying on Diemersdal for our last dinner in Johannesburg, we reached out for a bold, nicely structured Diemersdal Shiraz 2017, a complex wine with strong spice overtones and a full palate of flavors that paired well with everything from a venison stew to a cheese plate.

Wines from the Diemersdal Estate carried us through South Africa and Zimbabwe, but a search upon our return found them available on numerous on-line wine sites but very limited access in local outlets.

Diemersdal Estate

However, for those seeking to explore the pinotage varietal, your options are wide open.  K&L Wines in San Francisco and Redwood City offers a 2015 Beaumont Pinotage Bot River South Africa ($28), awarded 92-points from James Suckling describing flavors of “blueberry, violets, orange peel and citrus.”

For a local option, wine.com sells a Fort Ross Vineyard Pinotage Sonoma Coast ($37) from northwest Sonoma County, boasting ratings in the nineties and, most appropriate for our recent adventure, the Graham Beck Game Reserve Pinotage 2015 ($16) from beautiful South Africa.


Mi Sueno Winery: An Immigrant’s Dream

The theme that is woven through Rolando Herrera’s inspiring story is one of hard work and persistence.  Rolando, who with his wife, Lorena, founded Mi Sueño Winery in Napa Valley, was born in Mexico but migrated, at age eight, with his parents to the St. Helena area, where his father worked in the vineyards.

Mi Sueno Founder and Winemaker Rolando Herrara

The family moved back to Mexico, but Rolando, with fond memories of Napa, returned, at age fifteen to finish high school while working at as a busboy at Auberge du Soleil.  One day, he was hired to help build a garden wall for Stags Leap Cellars founder Warren Winiarski, who recognized his work ethic and the rest is history.

Rolando spent several years working in various wine cellars before becoming, in 1995, the Assistant Winemaker at Chateau Potelle in St. Helena.  A few years later, after purchasing four tons of grapes from Lorena’s father, he made 200 cases his of chardonnay and Mi Sueño Winery, in 1997, was born.

In 2006, Mi Sueño moved into its current facility that houses the winemaking, barrel rooms and tasting lounge and in 2007, they purchased the industrial park building as their permanent home, including cozy indoor and outdoor tasting areas.

After starting Mi Sueño Winery, Rolando still pursued other opportunities and served as Winemaker at Vine Cliff and Director of Winemaking at Paul Hobbs in Sonoma County while launching Herrera Vineyard Management in 2003.

Mi Sueno Winery has had the privilege of having its wines served at the White House on three separate occasions:  the 1999 Mi Sueño Los Carneros Chardonnay in 2001, the 2006 Mi Sueño Russian River Pinot Noir in 2008 and, in 2010, the 2006 Herrera Rebecca Cabernet Sauvignon, a label of small production, premium wines named after their children.

Although Mi Sueño Winery produces 10,000 cases annually, Rolando still sees himself more as a farmer than a winemaker and enjoys it the most.  He says that seventy-percent of a winemaker’s job is done before the grapes are harvested at precisely the right time, something he does by taste. His winemaking and marketing philosophies remain simple:  respect Mother Nature and let the wines speak for themselves.

The wines did speak for themselves, beginning with the 2016 Sonoma Mountain Chardonnay ($55), complex with a floral nose, crisp acidity and vivid flavors. Aged in 65% new French oak, this wine is nicely balanced with expressions of tropical fruit on the palate.

Another release, the Burgundian-Style 2016 Los Carneros Chardonnay ($42), from a cooler appellation, consists of Dijon and Wente clones, chosen because they both ripen early.  The grapes are co-fermented, whole-cluster pressed with full malolactic fermentation and aged eighteen months with regular batonnage stirrings.

Tropical and stone fruit flavors are revealed through a bright acidity with discernible mineral elements on the finish.

Similar to a symphony, with wine, we expect certain elements to be constant, but are open-minded to someone’s interpretation.  Deep, layered aromas of dark fruit, spice with herbal and floral notes precede a similar flavor profile of the 2016 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($55), sourced from a single vineyard in the Sonoma County appellation.

I have a preference for good pinot noir and I found the traditional aromas and flavors of this release to be bold and expressive, but balanced with soft tannins.  This is a wine I could nurture.

The La Chole archeological site sits in the village of La Soledad de Maciel near Zihuatanejo.  Myth has it that the ancient site was once known as the town of fear, a place where people went when they were running from something.

The 1st vintage 2016 Mi Sueño “La Chole” Red Wine Napa Valley, a blend mostly of malbec with syrah, cabernet sauvignon and petite verdot, serves as a tribute to the Mexican roots of the Herrera family.  Currently under a test distribution in southern California only, it is doing well and we may see more in the future.

With a blend of cabernet sauvignon, syrah, malbec and a pinch of petit verdot that is available to club members only, the 2015 El Llano Red Wine Blend ($49) pays homage to Rolando’s grandparents and his birthplace of El Llano, Michoacán, Mexico.

The Herrera Family

A poised and polished 2105 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($75), sourced from four vineyards and aged in 65% new French oak, completed out tasting stylishly.

Rolando’s wines are as compelling as his story, born from hard work, a passion for the land, his family and a love for the Napa Valley.