J Vineyards celebrates the marriage of wine and cheese

Wine and cheese have been linked together for centuries. In her book “Cheese & Wine, A Guide to Selecting, Pairing, and Enjoying,” Janet Fletcher describes cheese and wine as a time-tested marriage, consumables produced both for the future and for daily life.

After finding Fletcher’s book a decade ago, I became interested in wine and cheese pairing and still use it as a reference when I create my own. The

“Cheese & Wine: A Guide to Selecting, Pairing and Enjoying” by Janet Fletcher

basic rule of such pairings is to maintain the cheese’s role to enhance the wine, not overpower it.

Naturally, I was excited to discover that a scheduled tasting of new J Vineyards releases with head winemaker Nicole Hitchcock included local cheese pairings. Dairy farms and vineyards coexist in the North Bay and their products are destined to be paired with each other.

The added cheeses also opened the opportunity for Nicole to preview some culinary programs that will resume at the Healdsburg winery once pandemic-related distancing restrictions are lifted.

J Vineyards is a longstanding winery founded in 1986 by Judy Jordan of the Alexander Valley winemaking family to produce Sonoma County sparkling wine. She later added vineyards for pinot noir and chardonnay. The winery grew and thrived for 30 years and, in 2015, the property and the brand were purchased by the E&J Gallo Company.

J Vineyards staffers continue to do what the organization always has done, and currently maintain an impressive portfolio that includes sparkling

J Vineyards Head Winemaker Nicole Hitchcock

wines, pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot gris from six estate vineyards throughout the Russian River Valley.

Hitchcock became J Vineyard’s head winemaker in 2015. Born in Carmel, she learned about the wine business from being a server. She attended University of California, Davis and earned a degree in viticulture and enology before setting course for winemaking gigs in Italy, Australia and later, Northern California.

She loves being in Sonoma County and claims there is more diverse soil here than in all of France.

Today, the J Vineyards portfolio includes over 20 releases.

Our tasting began with the J Vineyards Cuvée Twenty ($30), the vineyards’ first non-vintage sparkler, the one mostly likely found in local stores. After initial fermentation in stainless steel and neutral oak for added creaminess,

the chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier blend spends 30 months in tirage (second fermentation in the bottle).

J Vineyards Cuvée Twenty Sparkling Wine

The effervescent nutty, fruit overtones of the Cuvée Twenty paired well with the salty notes of the popular Point Reyes Original Blue from the Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company. This cheese, and Red Hawk from Cowgirl Creamery, also in Point Reyes Station, pair well with most sparkling wines.

The aged, triple cream Mt. Tam, Cowgirl’s most popular, complements creamy textures in the J Vineyards Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2018 ($30) and the barrel-best J Vineyards RRV Strata Chardonnay 2017 ($40), both products of hand-selected grapes, new French oak, full malo-lactic fermentation and aggressive battonage. The creamy, soft mushroom hints in the cheese elevated the texture and toasty notes in both wines.

The grapes for the J Vineyards RRV Pinot Noir ($40) are sourced from six vineyards throughout various Russian River Valley neighborhoods, each

J Vineyards Russian River Valley vines

with different climates and characteristics. Aged nine months in French oak, 32% new, this pinot exudes earthy red fruit and cola flavors that paired well with the Estero Gold Reserve from the Valley Ford Cheese Company, an aged hard cheese from Sonoma County, touted to complement most red wines.

With fewer than 100 cases produced, the J Vineyards RRV Strata Pinot Noir ($55) is composed from selected barrels that present heightened aromas and concentrated flavors of candied red fruit and anise. It was paired with a guest cheese, the soft-ripened Harbison Cheese from the Jasper Hill Creamery in Vermont. The nuanced flavors of the spoon-able cheese lifted the pinot noir, but could also pair well with a sparkler.

J Vineyards has expanded on the marriage of food and wine under the leadership of executive chef Carl Shelton. The vineyards offer a cheese

Bubble Room at J Vineyards in Healdsburg

pairing option with their legacy tasting of small production reserve wines and the Bubble Room, a gastro-artistic collaboration between Nicole and Carl that includes a five- course experience, each carefully paired with select wines.

These programs will return once the new normal begins.

In the interim, the winery is hosting virtual tastings twice a week, Nicole hosts a virtual Friday Night Happy Hour and chef Carl conducts virtual food tastings on Instagram.


Three legendary Napa Valley winemakers gather to discuss trends, sample wines

It’s not everyday that one has an opportunity to sit among three legendary winemakers to discuss the past, present and future of the Napa Valley and sample of some of their selected releases.

Peter Mondavi Jr,(Charles Krug), Michael Eddy(Louis Martini) and Dan Petroski(Larkmead) oversee winemaking at iconic Napa Valley vineyards that have been producing wines for over a century. Thanks to Zoom, they came together while sheltering in place to discuss the region’s history: Surviving Prohibition, the phylloxera infestation that led to the replanting of cabernet sauvignon and two World Wars. Today, they now face the present- day challenges of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Responding to questions from Sommelier Amanda McCrossin, who

Michael Eddy, winemaker at Louis Martini

moderated the discussion, Eddy explained that to survive Prohibition, Louis Martini established the L.M. Martini Grape Products Company that supplied concentrated grape juice for home winemaking.

Dan Petroski added that while World War II presented some challenges, there were embargos on European wines that actually drove demand for California releases. Of note, vintage dating began during that period. Petroski also pointed out that the speed of economic recovery can be hard to predict. Following the 2008-2009 recession, the Napa Valley saw a spike in site visits that lasted until the current coronavirus crisis.

They all agreed that nothing can replace the experience afforded by personal contact at the winery. Even with the global Napa Valley brand and increased direct-to-consumer sales, Napa Valley’s market is still largely local with 40 percent of its product sold within a 100-mile radius.blob:https://lifebylyle.wordpress.com/d3cdd302-94b5-4661-919b-ae5ccf2cbd71

Good planning prior to our meeting allowed all participants to enjoy wines

Charles Krug owner/winemaker Peter Mondavi jr.

from each producer. Inviting guests to pour a glass of the 2019 Charles Krug Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley ($18), Peter Mondavi, Jr credited his Peter Sr’s diligent research as vital in adapting to setbacks including his preference for St. George root stock that was less susceptible to disease.

Peter Mondavi Jr, owner and winemaker at Charles Krug winery. (Courtesy photo)

The Charles Krug Winery, founded in 1861, has been owned and operated by the Mondavi family since 1943. Mondavi, Jr described the most difficult setback as the major family split with Robert Mondavi in 1976 who went on to establish his own iconic winery. Twenty years later, Charles Krug navigated a difficult portfolio reduction strategy that guides them today.

Peter, Jr described the 2019 sauvignon blanc as Napa Valley fruit grown in a New Zealand-style. From an estate vineyard with deep, rich soil, the wine is light and bright, good for springtime.

In contrast, Dan Petroski described the vintage 2014 Larkmead “Lillie” Sauvignon Blanc ($90) as a modern version of a Sancerre from the Loire Valley in France, higher in acids and richer from aging on lees and in the bottle.

With regard to climate change, the veteran winemakers agreed that it is an industry challenge that cannot be solved by individual wineries. Most wineries have adapted to sensitive and sustainable farming practices, but

Dan Petroski, winemaker at Larkmead

the real problem is the carbon footprint driven primarily by the production and shipping of bottles to the wineries and, in turn to market. It was called the “crisis of movement.”

Michael Eddy described their nucleus in crafting different styles of cabernet sauvignon by introducing the Louis Martini Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($43), then the Louis Martini Cypress Ranch Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2016 ($100), part of their Crown Cabernet Collection focused on specific vineyard sites located in the Pope Valley on the backside of Howell Mountain. The “Cypress Ranch” was an elegant wine with deeply integrated red and dark berry flavors and soft tannins.

The herbaceous style of cabernet franc was on display with the Larkmead LMV Salon Napa Valley 2012 ($180), blended with cabernet sauvignon.

The featured reds

With its expanding popularity, Dan Petroski sees a cabernet franc dominant LMV Salon release in his future. Awarding the 2012 vintage 95-points, James Suckling described the wine as “Wonderfully elegant, full-bodied, firm and velvety.”

First released in 1944, the Charles Krug Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon has remained the pinnacle of their portfolio. The 2016 Charles Krug Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($125) represents the first vintage to add Howell Mountain fruit from the Cold Springs Vineyard with that of the Voltz and Slinsen vineyards on the valley floor. The refined, integrated flavors of dark fruit and spice provided a lingering finish to our tasting.

As these legends remind us, only four percent of California’s annual harvest comes from the Napa Valley. It is a special place with special wines.


Tenuta Regaleali shares a glimpse of ancient grapes grown in the Sicilian countryside

Aside from aroma and taste, a major attraction to wine, for me, is that it makes the world smaller and more accessible. Discovering new wine regions often prompts me to look at a map and to learn more about its people and culture.

Having recently acquired some new releases of rare varietals from Sicily, I used a day of sequestering to discover more about the grapes and the

Vineyards at Tenuta Regaleali

region that produced them. Located in the Sicilian countryside, southeast of Palermo, the Tenuta Regaleali estate produces 10 different wines, including four single varietal releases of indigenous grapes that, over time, are being replaced in favor of cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and others.

Tenuta Regaleali is part of the Tasca d’ Almerita family of wines. Although they own other properties in Monreale, Mount Etna and other regions, Tenuta Regaleali is said to be the family’s spiritual and institutional home base, a place where they can experiment with new methods and focus on sustainability with indigenous grapes that are relatively unknown in US markets.

The family has been producing wine at the Regaleali Estate since the mid-

CEO Alberto Tasca d’Almerita

19th century and, over the years, has developed a deeper understanding of the environment, becoming a leader in implementing sustainable farming practices. With one-third of the planet used solely to produce food and our reliance on over 24 billion farm animals, maintaining agricultural practices that help to prevent major environmental impacts and future pandemics is essential. Today, Alberto Tasca d’Almerita is the CEO of the family business and is deeply committed to oversee all of the estates production in the most sensitive manner.

Many of the Tenuta Regaleali wines are blends, but our focus today is on perricone, nero d’Avola, grillo and catarratto, all indigenous grapes created as single varietal releases.blob:https://lifebylyle.wordpress.com/b7f219c2-9944-40f8-b005-58c5af095ca1

Perricone is a little known grape, grown exclusively in Sicily and usually blended with known varietals like nero d’Avola. With high acidity, earthy characteristics and noticeable tannins, perricone is often compared to barbera.

Rich in clay and calcareous soils, the vineyard that produced the fruit for the “Guarnaccio” Perricone Sicilia DOC 2017 ($20) were first planted in

Tenuta Regaleali estate

2011. The juice for this wine went through full malolactic fermentation in stainless steel tanks, then was aged for twelve months in French oak barrels.

Nero d’Avola (Black of Avola) is the most commonly grown grape in Sicily, named after the city of Avola where it was first planted. It is often compared to syrah with red fruit and peppery spice flavors.

First created in 2002, the Lamuri Nero d’Avola Sicilia DOC 2016 ($20), like the perricone release, has gone through full malolactic fermentation and was aged in French oak for twelve months and another three in the bottle before release. Brilliant ruby in color, the Lamuri 2016 has a complex

Tenuta Regaleali vineyards

bouquet of ripe fruit, spice and herbs. Expressive rich texture and soft tannins make it a bargain for the price and prompted high ratings from Robert Parker, James Suckling and others.

Grillo, a cross between moscato and catarratto, has been widely grown in Sicily for more than a century. The fruit for the Grillo Cavallo delle Fate Sicilia DOC 2018 ($20) are a blend of grapes picked at different harvest

periods. The estate credits those picked early for adding minerality and those later for its structure. Fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks, the 2018 vintage reveals stone and tropical fruit aromas and an expressive minerality that lasts through the finish. It is another exceptional value for the price.

Over centuries, the catarratto grape has been one of Sicily’s most common, becoming more rare with the infusion of other, more modern varietals. For me, the “Antisa” Catarratto Sicilia DOC 2018 ($22) was the best wine of

the four that I tasted. The flavors combined the tartness of grapefruit with complex stone and tropical fruits flavors and

“Antisa” Catarratto Sicilia DOC 2019

solid mineral elements.

Juice for the “Antisa” maintains contact with the skins for 18 days, giving it a golden straw color. It then was aged in stainless steel on lees for another four months. True to the meaning of its nickname, this 100 percent catarratto release is highly praiseworthy.

Aside from producing fine wines, the Tenuta Regaleali estate is a destination with first-class lodging, dining, cooking classes and all the amenities needed to enjoy the treasures of Sicily. However, with today’s travel restrictions, their wines can still be obtained through several on-line sites.


Lux Wines and Virtual Reality offer an immersion into their Italian wine portfolio

The way we discover new wines is changing and, of course, technology plays a role, front and center. At a recent gathering at Wine & Wall in San Francisco to taste Italian releases from the Lux Wines portfolio, we were treated to a 360-degree virtual reality tour of three prominent estates.

The featured wines

  Aerial views of the regions, walks through the vineyards and conversations with such notable producers as Marilisa Allegrini were part of the sensory experiences that preceded those of taste and smell.

LUX Wines, created by E&J Gallo Winery in 2014, is an importer and purveyor of fine terroir-driven selections from around the world.  Their expanding portfolio includes A-list brands from some of our most notable appellations.

One of twenty Italian regions, Friuli Venezia Giulia is the country’s most northeast location.  There, in the viridescent hills below the Dolomites is the

Jermann Dreams Delle Venezia 2017

Jermann Winery, producers of fine wines for three generations. The northerly Ruttars and, to the south, Villanova estates combine for nearly four hundred planted acres, but differ in terroir.

After the visual tour of both estates, Felix Jermann, part of that third generation, introduced us to a chardonnay sourced from fourteen different vineyards and a crisp blend of local varietals.

Describes as their best interpretation of chardonnay, the Jermann Dreams Delle Venezia 2017 ($70), aged eleven months and awarded 93-points by James Suckling, expressed floral, stone fruit and citrus aromas with integrated flavors and a crisp finish. 

Named for the wineries original owner, the Jermann Vintage Tunina 2016 ($65) is described as “a unique field blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia Istriana and the rare native variety Picolit,” a grape commonly used in dessert wines.  The penetrating aromas, an expressed minerality and layered stone fruit, tangerine and spice flavors balanced a

Great wine and a virtual tour of the vineyards

crisp acidity with a rounded mouthfeel. Critics across the board rated this wine in the mid-nineties.

Moving to the northwest, home to Italy’s great Barolo wines from the Piedmont region, we used the oculus to survey sweeping views of vineyards and the new hilltop Renato Ratti winery in Annunziata, where Pietro Ratti has overseen the production of Renato Ratti wines for the past thirty years.  On this evening, Pietro poured single-vineyard Barolo wines from each of their two sites.  

Barolo wines are produced exclusively from the Nebbiolo grape, whose

Renato Ratti Barolo Marcenasco 2014

name originates from the Italian word for “fog,” something it confronts near harvest time each vintage. We began with the Renato Ratti Barolo Marcenasco 2015, a dry wine with soft tannins.  Evidence of winemaking on this property dates back to the 12th Century and this release had an expressive, perfume bouquet and lush, savory and black licorice flavors.

From one of the oldest regions in the Barolo district, the highly rated Renato Ratti Barolo Conca 2015 ($105), comes from the small Conca Vineyard near La Morra.  Pietro explained that, due to global warming, the sub-region is getting much less rainfall annually, but it is more torrential which damages vines and complicates growth management.  The elegance of this wine begins with the balanced floral, berry and spice notes on the nose followed by austere, yet fruit-forward flavors and a balanced minerality.

On 264 acres encompassing seven unique sites in northeast Italy’s Valpolicella Classico appellation, Allegrini, led today by CEO Marilisa Allegrini, has overseen appassimento winemaking (wines made from dried grapes) in the region for six generations with vineyards that are bio-diverse and dry-farmed.  The Allegrini estates are located near Lake Garda, the largest fresh water lake in Italy.

The single vineyard, site specific Allegrini La Poja 2013 ($80-85) was classified out of the Valpolicella designation because it consists of 100% corvina Veronese, exceeding the 95% maximum permitted.  Sourced from forty year-old vines and bottled aged for four years, the La Poja expresses

Petri Ratti, Marilisa Allegrini and Felix Jermann

the depth and richness of an elegant wine with dark berry flavors that linger.

A blend of corvina, corvinone, rondinella and oseleta grapes that are dried on racks for 90-120 days prior to fermentation, the Allegrini Amarone Della Valpolicella 2014 ($85) originates from fossil-laden soil and presents itself as a rare mineral Amarone. Amid high praise from critics, it expressed, on this night, opulent baked fruit flavors and a bright acidity that carried through the finish.

Both Allegrini releases substantiate the rationale for their designation by Gambero Rosso magazine as Italy’s 2016 Winery of the Year.

These wines and others in the LUX Wines portfolio are available on-line (wine.com) and in wine shops throughout the Bay Area.

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Villon adds vibrancy to San Francisco’s mid-Market scene

Described by some as “the city’s hippest hotel,” the new Kelly Wearstler designed Hotel Proper, located at Market and McAlister Streets offers ambience and sweeping city views at Charmaine’s Rooftop Bar and exceptional cuisine and spirits from the restaurant, Villon, yielding a post-modern style menu that reflects the decor.

Villon sits in the lobby of the Hotel Proper

Villon, (pronounced Villian) sits adjacent to the artful lobby salon, carrying a similar theme along its walls to the striking, multi-level spirits library, complete with sliding ladder.

It is from that spirits library that they prepare BVHospitality’s “7X7” cocktail compendium that pays tribute to the square miles of San Francisco. With seven cocktails in each of seven categories, there are choices for every palate.

Scanning through cocktails with names like “Earthquake Proof,” “Hanky Panky” and “Ver Sales,” a satirical play on how someone from Kentucky would pronounce Versailles, I settled on “Martinez,” a flavorful and balanced mix of Old Tom Gin, Sweet Vermouth, Maraschinos and Bitters, served up.

Guests listening to Chef Mickey Adams describe his next dish

After Patty, our server, introduced us to the menu, we were joined by General Manager Jens Halbert who also served as our sommelier for the evening.

The dinner menu is composed of a diverse selection of small and large plate dishes. To begin, we selected the Yellowfin with Korean rice cake, pepper relish, tonnato and a California Kale Salad with pearl onions, manchego custard and something called hippy vinaigrette that Jens paired with a 2015 Weingut Jager Gruner Veltliner Ried Vorderseiber Wachau from Austria.

I have a preference for Gruner Veltliner, especially from the Wachau region

2015 Weingut Jager Gruner Veltliner Ried Vorderseiber Wachau

along the picturesque hills above the Danube River. The crisp Weingut Jager release had balanced expression of fruit and mineral elements along the finish.

This and other wines that were served are part of a diverse list, ranging in price, that includes very good, highly rated selections that won’t break the bank.

Next, we were encouraged to try the Nachos with Chorizo, quesillo, crema, described as

“everything in every bite” as the ingredients were spread throughout a long, thin flaxseed tostada. With this dish, Jens opened a bottle of 2015 Jones Family Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc from the Napa Valley.

This limited production sauvignon blanc is crafted by noted winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown for the Jones Family and spends three years in barrel

2015 Jones Family Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc

and bottle before release. Like the Sea Fog Sauvignon Blanc from The Grade Cellars in Calistoga, another Thomas Rivers Brown creation, the Jones Family release expressed intricate, full-bodied flavors that also paired nicely with the Cod served with King Trumpets mushrooms, bitter greens and dashi, a cooking stock used in miso soup.

The next two dishes, a Berkshire Pork Chop with fennel, apples and yogurt and Short Ribs with carrots, fava beans, spring onion and black garlic jus

Band of Vintners Consortium Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2016

were artfully paired with the highly reviewed, opulent Band of Vintners Consortium Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2016 that reveals a complex flavor profile found in wines at twice its price.

The consortium consists of Napa Valley winemaker Dan Petroski , French winemaker Stéphane Vivier and Master Sommelier Jason Helle, a powerful trio who use their contacts to secure top quality fruit for this value-priced release.

Chef Mikey Adams surprised us with a wonderful salmon and shrimp in creme sauce original dish. Chef Adams actually began his cooking career

Chef Mikey Adams

while attending college in Edinburgh, Scotland. Once Stateside he honed his skills at Shimo Modern Steak in Healdsburg and Central Kitchen in San Francisco before assuming the reins at Villon.

The pastry chef at Villon clearly defines his dessert choices. There are no chocolate-covered strawberries here. From a selection of offerings that ranged from a Chocolate Millefeuille with puff pastry, spiced chocolate mousse to Pavlova, a meringue-based cake with Blood Orange sherbet,

Meyer lemon, huckleberry and fresh thyme, we selected a Caramelized

Schwaab Dietz 2010 Brudersekt Riesling Trocken

Banana Tart with malted custard, Stout sauce and yogurt that Jens skillfully paired with a sparkling, dry Schwaab Dietz 2010 Brudersekt Riesling Trocken from Germany’s Mosel region, to balance the sweetness of the tart. It’s always nice to end with bubbles.

Villon, located in the new mid-Market area, boutique Hotel Proper, was a pleasurable discovery that, while easily accessible to local theater and other events, is well worth devoting an entire evening to experience superb service while exploring new cocktails, creative and excellently prepared food plates and a divergent list of fine wines that represent both the local region and the Old World.


Sustainability and affordability drive Rioja Bodegas LAN wines to U.S. Markets

There is so much to love about Spanish wines from Rioja and other regions. Fueled by a high quality to price ratio, they have significantly expanded their presence into US markets over the past few decades. According to the newsletter, “Spanish Wine Lover,” imports from Rioja bodegas has grown from fewer than 20 in the 1980s to over 180 today.

Imports from Rioja, Ribera Del Duero, Rias Baixas and sparkling cava from Penedes are readily available and many have captured the attention of

LAN 2016 Edition Limitada Rioja

consumers and restaurant sommeliers. Spanish wines, in many ways, are produced with a completely different mindset from those in California or other states. No one seems to be in a hurry. The focus is making the best wine and not releasing it until it is ready, which could be years after it is bottled.

A relative newcomer to the Rioja region that is steeped in old traditional, Bodegas LAN, founded in 1972, consistently exports some of the finest examples of good value wine from Rioja as well as some premium releases.

Their 172-acre Viña Lanciano Vineyard sits near the natural border of the Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa sub-regions. It is divided into 22 separate plots that are all surrounded by the Ebro River and LAN is deeply committed to sustainable viticulture and to co-exist with the native plants, animals and reptiles. By practicing biodiversity, adding natural flora and fauna to the vineyards, and using much manual labor, LAN has reduced pollution and water use and eliminated the need for chemical herbicides.

Tempranillo is the main grape varietal used in wines from Rioja, including those from the Bodegas LAN. The true character of Rioja is revealed when tempranillo is combined with garnacha, mazuelo, viura and graciano, with the best examples coming for the cooler, higher-elevation regions like Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa.

LAN CEO Enrique Abiega

Today, the LAN brand is consumed locally and around the world. I recently joined CEO Enrique Abiega and Trinidad Villegas, LAN’s Export Director for the USA for lunch at Bellota, south of Market. We shared conversation, tapas and raciones while tasting the current vintages of their food friendly wines.

Enjoying a rare visit to California, Abiega began our discussion by pouring Bodegas Lan Santiago Ruiz, Albarino Rias Baixas ($20), a beautifully rounded, fruit driven white with a rich mouthfeel, a departure from the varietal’s typical crisp, acidic features. We spoke of the Sonoma County fires, drought and of the importance of LAN’s dedicated effort toward sustainable practices. Enrique and Trinidad have been with the LAN team for many years and both strongly feel that their methods create wines that, for the price, can compete with any others.

The tapas that included a fresh, decorative heirloom tomato salad, patatas braves with chipotle salsa and Spanish omelette, were paired with the

Heirloom tomato salad

aromatic vintages20152016 LAN D12 ($18) and the LAN Vina Lanciano Reserva 2012 ($25), aged 42 months between French and Russian oak and bottle conditioning.

The ninth and tenth vintages of the D12 both had intense bouquets, earthy qualities and the balanced, fruit-forward flavors of wines twice the cost. The hand-selected grapes for the Vina Lanciano go through full malolactic fermentation before extensive aging that results in an earthy, food friendly wine with integrated flavors and soft tannins.

Vegetarian paella

A wonderful vegetarian paella that included wild mushrooms, autumn squash, sun chokes and pomegranate along with wood- grilled, dry-aged beef were paired with vintages 2103, 2106 LAN Edición Limitada Rioja ($50) and the vintages 2014, 2015 LAN Xtrème Ecológico Crianza ($20), a 100 percent tempranillo from the organic certified Ecological Mantible parcel, named after the nearby Roman Mantible Bridge.

Roman Mantible Bridge

After Wine Spectator magazine raved about the LAN 2005 Edición Limitada Rioja, future vintages have been on the radar of consumers. Low yield vines, full malolactic fermentation and aging in new French and Russian oak barrels produce concentrated aromas, fruit-driven flavors, hints of spice and a lush texture.

Both the growing and winemaking methods for the Xtrème Ecológico

LAN Xtreme Ecologico 2014 Rioja

Crianza call for minimal intervention. After initial fermentation, the juice is transferred to new oak barrels for 14 months and sits another nine months in the bottle. The color was dark and deep and, as with many of the LAN wines, the candied ripe fruit aromas were intense and the flavors, layered and complex. A tremendous value available for under $20.

I was impressed with all the Bodegas LAN releases that were served and would recommend them when exploring fine, value-driven wines from Rioja and other Spanish regions.


Cain Vineyard personifies the pioneering spirit of Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain District

Often overshadowed by those on the valley floor, the Spring Mountain District appellation sits above the town of St. Helena, overlooking most of the Napa Valley.

Early wineries on the mountain thrived in the late 19th century but due to a phylloxera infestation, the vineyards were deserted and remained fallow

Cain Winemaker Christopher Howell

and overgrown for decades. Fortunately, a renaissance began in the 1960s through the 1980s with the emergence of many iconic wineries like Smith-Madrone, Cain and later Philip Togni, who established the region and still produce fine wine today.

Back in the 1880s, Spring Mountain grew from 55 to over 200 acres, mostly planted in zinfandel. Today, it supports more than 1,000 acres, predominantly planted in cabernet sauvignon, merlot and other Bordeaux varietals. The mountain represents only a small percentage of Napa Valley vineyards, but the releases from this secluded gem are recognized worldwide.

The Cain Vineyard sits high above the town of St. Helena overlooking Napa Valley. (Courtesy/Cain Vineyard and Winery)

The Cain Vineyard (photo credit: Janis Miglavs)

Last month, I had the pleasure to taste wines from Cain Vineyard twice in one week. First at the Slow Wine Tour at Pier 27 which highlights sustainably-made wines and again at Cook’s St. Helena restaurant where we celebrated the 30th anniversary of Cain Five, their flagship Bordeaux blend.

The winery began in 1980 after Jerry and Joyce Cain purchased the land and set about to establish a mountain vineyard that focused on Bordeaux varietals like cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec. The Cain Vineyard sits along the crest of the Mayacamas mountain range, straddling the peak at elevations from 1,400 to 2,100 feet. Surrounded by forest, exposed to wind, cooler temperatures and thin soils that are common on steep slopes, the vineyard creates complexity and a distinctive personality to the fruit used for their premier blend.

Among its many attributes, the Cain Vineyard soils share a unique tarweed plant that is credited with influencing the herbal quality and spirited aromas of their wines.

Striving to showcase the complexity and individual traits of their vineyard sources, Cain winemaker Christopher Howell creates only three cabernet blends each vintage, known as Cain Cuvée, Cain Concept and Cain Five. The one outlier that we tasted was the 2017 Cain Musque, a sauvignon blanc release that features musque clones from vineyards in Monterey County.

Cain credits its success with a simple technique of partial extraction of the grapes, Their goal is “to get what we want and to leave the rest behind,” something they achieve organically through labor intensive tasks like hand picking, manual pressing and the use of native yeasts.

Tasting several vintages of Cain Five at the same time, I was taken aback on how much the expressive aromas varied year to year. The nose of the vintage 1985 was vibrant with aromas of dried mushrooms and forest floor while the 1995 was much more akin to perfumed candied fruit. A personal favorite of the vintages tasted, the dense, full-bodied 1995 Cain Five had an extraordinary mouthfeel with fine, structured tannins.

Cooler temperatures required the mix of some outside fruit in the 2000 Cain Five that led to more herbal aromas while those of the 2005 vintage revealed toasted nuts with red cherries and exotic spices that preceded balanced flavors and a lush mouthfeel.

Returning to an earthy bouquet, the 2015 Cain Five ($125), their current release blending cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec had a rich density with herbal and savory notes to compliment tannins that forecast a prosperous future.

The Cain Cuvee, sourced from the estate and other valley floor vineyards, uniquely blends two vintages. The current Cain Cuvee NV15 ($36) features grapes from 2014 and 2015, delivering deep savory and red fruit flavors with a lengthy finish.

Showcasing vineyard sites on the alluvial benchlands throughout the Napa Valley including Beckstoffer George III in Rutherford, Truchard in Carneros and Stagecoach in Atlas Peak, the Cain Concept is defined as the ripest and roundest wine in their portfolio. The current 2012 Cain Concept ($100) displayed lively aromatics and ripened fruit flavors that honored the pedigree vineyards.

Associate Winemaker Francois Bugue

Surprisingly, the Cain Five anniversary tasting ended with the PNV Lot 3 Francois’ Pick 2018 Malbec, poured by Cain’s long-standing associate winemaker, Francois Bugue. The aromas in this special release were fruity and floral with balanced, delicate flavors, a departure from the full-bodied cabernet blends.

Cain Vineyard and Winery is another top notch producer which personifies the stability and sustainability among the pioneers who, years ago, forged the renaissance in the Spring Mountain District.