Good News for Ernest Vineyards

 

While they are partners in the development of Grand Cru Custom Crush in Windsor, Erin Brooks and Todd Gottula are also member winemakers who work closely with many of the finest Sonoma County vineyards and growers to produce pinot noir, chardonnay and other varietals under their Ernest Vineyards, Edaphos and Eugenia labels. With extensive resumes in technology and sales,  both have

Erin Brooks and Todd Gottula

married their agricultural roots on second careers in winemaking.

A small producer, Ernest has stayed focused on relationships with growers and on making the wines they like.  However, it’s always nice to be appreciated.  Last week, they received word that Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate awarded four 2015 pinot noir releases with 90+-point ratings, including 95-points to the Ernest “Cleary Ranch Vineyard” Pinot Noir 2015, aka “The Settler.”

“The Settler” is sourced from a vineyard in Freestone, located in the coastal portion of the expansive Sonoma Coast appellation.  Relentless fog and no wind to burn it off pushes temperatures lower, extending the ripening period. The result here is expressive, spicy aromatics and flavors with low alcohol (12.5%).

2015 Cleary Ranch Vineyard

I recently had an opportunity to sit down with Erin Brooks as she curated a tasting of her current releases, including a single-vineyard pinot noir with a distinct profile. To begin, she poured a 2016 Aligoté from their more experimental Edaphos label, sourced from a vineyard near my home in Bennett Valley, south of Santa Rosa.  I knew nothing of the aligoté grape other than it was a rare Burgundian varietal that produced dry wines. My interest was heightened.

Dave McIntyre, in a Washington Post article, called aligoté, “an explorer’s wine,” there only for those willingly to look past chardonnay in Burgundy.  Everyone should try an aligoté once in their lifetime and this one is nearby.

Having previously enjoyed a bottle of the Ernest Black Emerald Vineyard Chardonnay Russian River 2014, today we tasted the final vintage Ernest Green Valley Ranch Chardonnay 2015, aka “The Farmer,” and the Ernest Fallenleaf Vineyard Chardonnay 2015, aka “The Jester,”  two very different releases.

“The Farmer” is sourced from a Russian River Valley vineyard near the town of Graton.  Aged in equal parts stainless steel, neutral and new oak, the result is a crisp, more austere wine.  “The Jester” originates from a warmer inland vineyard near the town of Sonoma.  With full malolactic fermentation and aging in 60% new French oak, it expresses more stone fruit flavors with mineral notes, all soft on the palate.

The fog is a real influence on the organically farmed Rayhill Vineyard that sits 500-ft. above it in the Sebastopol Hills. I found that the Ernest Rayhill Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014, aka “The Grandfather,” was the most unique pinot noir of the four we tasted.  Herba

Ernest Pinot Noir Romanini Vineyard 2016

l and wet stone hints in the bouquet continued with a rich mouthfeel and eloquent dark fruit and white pepper flavors. Erin suggested that it was bold enough to pair with beef.

Two other single-vineyard pinot noir releases were tasted, both with 90+ scores from Robert Parker.  Green Valley is known as “the coolest, foggiest region in the Russian River Valley” and is the source of the nicely defined Ernest App Road (Bush) Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015, aka “The Artist.”  From a tiny vineyard blocks from the Sonoma Plaza, the Ernest Romanini Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015 aka “The Engineer” parlays warm days and cool nights into intense fruit flavors.

My first introduction to Ernest Vineyards came by enjoying a bottle of the Edaphos Grenache 2014 from the Steel Plow Vineyard in the Sonoma Valley.  I discovered that grapes in the vintage 2014 and the current Edaphos Grenache 2015 are carbonically fermented, exposing the uncrushed grapes to carbon dioxide before being transferred to a concrete amphora for aging. This process pushes the fruit forward and lowers the tannins. The layered flavors and rich texture of this wine defy its price.

Another fine value is the Edaphos Barbera 2015 sourced from the Madhaven Vineyard in Glen Ellen.  The winemaker feels that barbera has enough tannins, so there is no oak in this one.  It is hatched from a concrete egg and has a rich, soft texture.

Ernest Vineyards currently produces 3,000 cases per year.  Their growth depends upon building more relationships with quality vineyards and growers and they seem to be moving in the right direction.

 

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Launching BACA Wines

 

We entered Hall Wines in Saint Helena on a gorgeous May evening, looking forward to a walk through the sculpture garden as the sun set over the vineyards. However, the focus of the evening was HALL/WALT Wines announcement for the launching of their newest brand.  It had been such a secret that the attendees were asked to guess the new varietal by putting a marble in one of four glasses marked riesling, zinfandel, syrah and merlot.  I incorrectly guessed syrah.

Soon, Kathryn Hall, amid blue and orange balloons, stood by the symbolic large blue door and introduced her daughter Jennifer Brown who will be spearheading, with winemaker Alison Frichtl Hollister, the new BACA Wines brand that features zinfandel from vineyards in four prime California AVAs.  BACA, latin for “berry” honors the fruit from which it all begins.

Jennifer Brown and winemaker Alison Frichtl Hollister launch BACA

BACA will follow the WALT platform by sourcing grapes from established and proven zinfandel vineyards instead of pinot noir. The Paso Robles, Russian River Valley, Howell Mountain and Rockpile AVAs are among the finest growing regions for California zinfandel and each enhances BACA’s goal of making nuanced wines.

The origins of zinfandel are not totally clear, although the Wine Institute states that the primitivo in Italy and something called Crljenak Kastelanski from Croatia are an identical match to zinfandel in California. The grape, according to the California Department of Agriculture, is grown in 45 of our 58 counties.  American zinfandel comes from California soil and the diversity of our terroir is on display with the BACA releases.

I am very familiar with the Dante Dusi Vineyard, adjacent to Highway 101 between Templeton and Paso Robles, having enjoyed their zinfandel through several producers in the local region.  A few years ago, I had the pleasure to walk through the vineyard with the late Mr. Dusi, a WWII veteran and seasoned fsrmer.

As with other wines from this vineyard, the full-bodied BACA Zinfandel Dusi Vineyard ($50) aka

BACA Releases

“Double Dutch” is bold with concentrated fruit and spice on the palate and a classic licorice finish.  It is aged for ten months in French oak, 35% new.

The Rockpile Vineyard, in the northeast corner of Sonoma County, sits at high elevations above Lake Sonoma with soils and climate described as “wild and rugged.”  Higher heat, less fog and rocky, somewhat stressed soils are what zinfandel vines thrive on. The medium-bodied BACA Zinfandel Rockpile Vineyard 2016 ($50) aka “Cat’s Cradle” is quite complex with floral hints on the nose, a pleasant minerality that combines with the red fruit flavors and spicy finish.  It is aged for ten months in French oak, 35% new.

The historic Maffei Vineyard has produced zinfandel grapes in the flat, easterly portion of the Russian River Valley for nearly 100 years. Over the past few decades they have sourced their crop to many highly recognized wineries.  The loamy soils and foggy marine layer can stress the vines, resulting in fruit-forward wines.  The healthy tannins and acidity of the full-bodied BACA Zinfandel Maffei Vineyard 2016 ($50) aka “Tug O’War are offset by layered flavors of strawberry and blueberry. It is aged ten months in French oak, 30% new.

In a dry-farmed vineyard high above the valley floor, rich with volcanic soil, the BACA Zinfandel Howell Mountain Napa Valley

BACA Launch Party

2016 ($50) aka “I, Spy” was born. A perfume quality on the bouquet precedes softer tannins and full-bodied dark berry flavors with herbal, floral and spice hints through the finish.

The BACA zinfandels are each nicknamed after games that require agility, dexterity, mental acuity and brut strength. The assorted skills seem to be metaphors for the distinctive four releases.

Due to very limited production, BACA will distribute their wines primarily through a membership list that enables members to purchase up to a case of each, compared to a three-bottle limit for the public.  Options include shipments of two, four or six bottles twice a year.  BACA will also host a variety of events at the HALL winery site, a benefit of its own.

Among it advantages, BACA Wines offer, for zinfandel lovers, an opportunity for one-stop comparisons of the grape’s expression in different terroir. My first choice is still the Dusi Vineyard, but I can always be convinced otherwise.


A Sense of Galapagos

 

 

In 2010, as we lifted off the runway in Guayaquil, Ecuador and banked toward Baltra in the Galápagos Islands, some six hundred miles away, I still didn’t know what to expect.  I had dreamt of this moment for decades, but wondered if reality would match presumption.

Karen patted my knee.

“This is your “leg” of the journey,” she said.

She was referencing a promise made to ourselves forty years earlier, when the relationship was new.  We had spent the last eight days in the Peruvian Andes fulfilling her dream of walking in Macchu Picchu and the Sacred Valley.

“What’s on your mind?” she asked.

“Sally Lightfoot crabs,” I said.

“What?”

“That’s what was on my mind. They only exist here and I’m hoping to see some.”

“Well, good luck, honey, I’m sure you’ll manage to find one or two.”

To my surprise, the first natural vegetation we encountered, after stepping onto Galápagos soil, looked like a large grove of Saguaro

Prickly Pear

cacti.

Proceeding through customs with no lines in a building without walls and a thatch roof was a near stress-free beginning. On the bus for the two-mile trek to the ferry, I got my first glimpse of the prickly pear tree, with large, flat “prickly” pads that resemble the shape of a Saguaro cactus.  An abundant and vital part of the Galápagos landscape, the flowers of the prickly pear feed the giant saddle tortoises,

and the pads, after falling to the ground are devoured by the large land iguanas.

The first ferry ride was less than one mile, the distance between Baltra and Santa Rosa Islands.  The initial arid landscape quickly became a translucent turquoise blue bay inlet with visible sea life, surrounded by coal-black volcanic rocks.

Stepping off the second ferry to Santa Cruz Island, one of the largest in the archipelago, I watched a Sally Lightfoot crab scurry across the rocks.  We hoped to see a few of these colorful, animated creatures, but estimated that more than one hundred thousand crossed our paths.  They  were everywhere, their vibrant color pigments contrasting with the black background.  The infant Sally Lightfoot crabs are black for natural camouflage, the adolescents go through a

Sally Lightfoot Crab

red period before assuming, as adults, gleaming red legs and a dazzling yellow shell with piercing sky blue trim.

Santa Cruz Island was more tropical than the others.  It is also home to the giant domed tortoise that thrives inland from the water that bears its name.  Baie Tortuga is along the route to Puerto Isidro Ayora, where “Carmina,” our nautical home for the next five days, was “anchor down,” awaiting our arrival. An opportunity to observe these gentle giants was enough to delay the rendezvous.

A short hike off the road into a large, lush meadow led to our earliest glimpse of a huge  tortoise.  Everyone’s eyes locked on the first creature, but within seconds we were watching fifteen or so quietly grazing on the grasses.  A few withdrew into their shells as we passed by, but most continued their normal routine of ingesting without chewing, beginning a three-month digestive process.  They often measure six feet in length and their shells reach the height of a tall human adult’s waist.  It’s hard to comprehend these

Giant Domed Tortoise

stupendous creatures once being slaughtered for fresh meat on pirate ships.

The giant tortoises were mesmerizing. We could have watched all day but needed to be in port soon.  As the bus was departing down a dirt road, it suddenly stopped as Pauli, our naturalist, stood up.

“Well, my friends. It seems that one of the tortoises has decided to rest in the middle of the road,” she said.

“What happens next?” John asked.

“We wait.”

Any physical contact with the tortoises is strictly forbidden and closely observed.  We waited for fifteen minutes before Pauli stood once again.

“I need volunteers,” she said.

With limited visitations closely monitored by the Conservancy, she understood the need to remain on schedule.

“I’ll do it,” I said, my arm already raised like a fifth grader who knows the right answer.

Seconds later, six of us carefully surrounded and, with near perfect precision, lifted the giant domed tortoise and moved it several feet off the muddy road. It remained quiet and still during the process but, once on the ground, became the fastest slow-mover of the day.

Other islands are home to the saddle tortoise whose shell is arched to provide more neck reach to the prickly pear flower, food that hangs three to four feet above the ground.

Carmina

Puerto Isidro Ayora, Galapagos’s largest town with a population of thirty-thousand, is the main port for all cruise vessels. As our group of fifteen boarded two rubber Zodiacs for the half-mile journey to the small cruise ship, a discussion ensued regarding people’s diverse expectations.  Some were fulfilling lifelong dreams, others were being dragged along by their partners.  I tuned out, put aside any perceptions and immersed myself in the moment. I was sitting in a rubber raft with a motor attached, in the sea of the archipelago, at the confluence of the three oceanic currents that created this ecosystem.

Settled in on Carmina, we enjoyed a welcome toast with pina coladas and a wonderful dinner prepared by chef Raoul, our new favorite crew member.  We all went to bed early, hoping to sleep through our first night of sailing. The last sound I heard was the anchor lifting through the water as we departed for Bartolome’ Island, a volcanic rock with minimal plant or animal life.

On the Zodiacs by early morning, we left for the island and a challenging hike up four hundred steps through lava rock to the highest

Bartolome Island, Sullivan Bay, Pinnacle Rock

peak, later snorkeling a small cove in Sullivan Bay, directly below the majestic, wind-carved Pinnacle Rock.  Views from the top of the island and below the ocean’s surface were equally stunning, the latter courtesy of a huge school of yellowtail surgeonfish. We

Galapagos penguin

would see many more fish along with sea lions, marine iguanas, eels, rays and sea turtles during our daily snorkeling adventures.

After lunch on the boat, we were back on the Zodiacs, patrolling the volcanic cliffs in search of the shy Galápagos penguins, hiding among the fluorescent Sally Lightfoot crabs and a few Blue-footed Boobies.  Measuring twenty-four inches high, these rare docile penguins are the second smallest of the species that, once in the water, become quick and agile.

Day Two began with a dry landing on Puerto Egas, a lava beach on Santiago Island, and a hike where we encountered large colonies of sea lions, marine iguanas and, of course, more Sally Lightfoot crabs.  The volcanic cliffs led us to a flat plateau filled with tide pools and ledges near the surf, providing protected water access for various species.

With marine iguanas on Puerto Egas Beach

Hundreds of prehistoric looking marine iguanas appeared as we reached the ledge, lying side-by-side and on top of each other, oblivious  to our invasion.  Aside from the occasional snort, ejecting the salt acquired on their latest ocean sojourn to eat red and green algae and cool their bodies, they seemed lifeless.  Over the next hour, we observed the lethargic creatures sunning themselves until the necessity to repeat the cycle drove them to the sea.

I’ve watched the California sea lion, the Galapagos variety’s closest relative, for most of my life, but never studied their daily activities or parenting habits as well as the chauvinistic attitudes of the alpha male.  Pauli consistently identified red-billed tropic birds, brown pelicans, flightless cormorants, Galapagos hawks, lava lemons, and many of

Marine iguana

the fourteen species of finches found on the islands.

After snorkeling in a small bay abundant with sea turtles and rays, we returned to the boat for lunch as it navigated toward Rabida Island for our first deep-water snorkeling off the Zodiac.  The timing for this jaunt was perfect for observing the last lunch call for hundreds of Blue-footed Boobies, innocent-looking, lumbering birds with iridescent turquoise duck-feet that, once in the air, became missiles, diving into the surf with the force and synchronization of the Blue Angels air acrobatic team. Gathering and hovering high above for several minutes, there was a “caw” to action from the leader and suddenly they released, hitting the water like bullets from a semi-automatic rifle.  None of them went back to the cliffs hungry.

Using a backflip off the Zodiac like a scuba diver, Rod was the first in the water.  Before I entered, he reappeared, emphatically pointing to a specific location.

“Look down now,” he said.

Off the boat, after adjusting my mask, I put my face in the water in time to see two marine iguanas feeding on algae.  Watching them smoothly sway back and forth through the water as they swam to the surface was hypnotic, the spell broken only by a large sea turtle passing within arm’s reach.

The five of us who chose to join the first deep water snorkeling were rewarded well beyond our expectations.  Back to the boat to remove our wetsuits, we quickly re-boarded the Zodiac dinghies and crossed the inlet for a wet landing on Rabida Island that promised red sand beaches and large colonies of sea lions.

Beach on Rabida Island

With uniquely gorgeous beaches, the small Rabida Island revealed a landscape of low to medium shrubs and prickly pear trees that vibrantly contrasted with the red sand and soil.  It was there that we first observed the dictatorial alpha male sea lions rule their harems with an iron flipper, lashing out against other interested males or females with a wandering eye.  Thrusting out one’s chest and yelling stridently is, apparently, required to maintain their power or overcome the fear of losing it. I have heard recent rumors that the females have initiated a  #MeToo! movement that is wreaking havoc on the entire eco-system.

On the return trip to Carmina, the drivers meticulously maneuvered the Zodiacs close to the rocks of the minute Nameless Island for close observation of calmer Blue-Footed Boobies.  The docile nesting birds did not seem to match the air-acrobatic profile on

Blue-footed Boobie

display when they were hunting fish.

After dinner on the boat, we set sail to South Plaza Island, a small patch of land, that unlike Bartolome Island, promised distinctive terrain and wildlife.

The early morning rumpling of a dropping anchor signaled that we were close to land.  South Plaza Island required a wet landing because the minuscule strips of sand immediately ascended to steep rocks that were carefully crossed to reach the effervescent scarlet and yellow Sesuvium, a succulent ground cover that surrounded a dirt trail.  A short walk led us to steep, vivid cliffs that afforded close-up views of fierce blue-green surf and Elliot’s storm petrel, a long-legged bird that flies close to the rocks with uncomprehending speed and agility.

The male land iguana that resides on South Plaza Island is also unique, displaying lurid colors to attract females during  mating season. The ones we encountered were two to three feet long with bright yellow scales that resembled an ear of corn.

Quality time for land iguanas

Karen carefully photographed them from all angles and was rewarded when a female arrived for some companionship.

“Give them a minute, Karen,” said Ginny, smiling, “they probably don’t get enough quality time together.”

“They’re iguanas, Karen said,“They have nothing but time.”

Aware of this rare opportunity, she continued to shoot, mindful of the purity and dignity of the moment.

A lasting memory from this small island, thriving with  life, was watching the birth of a baby sea lion and what followed.  A large sea lion was lying on the rocks a few yards away.  Pauli pointed skyward to a large flock of frigate birds that hovered above like hawks over their prey.

“That sea lion is about to give birth,” she said, “and those frigates know it.”

Baby sea lion

Minutes later, the pup was born.  The mother immediately nudged it away from the afterbirth toward the sea, anticipating that the frigates would soon dive in numbers for the unusual meal.

The dynamics of the scene were astonishing.  The acrobatic, hungry frigates, the protective sea lion mother and the pup, trying to comprehend “womb to water,” was mind-boggling to watch.

Something else mind-boggling happened that evening on the boat during dinner.  We sat with another couple, Tom and Carol who, although we had snorkeled together in the group, we had not spoken to.

As a conversation ensued, Tom asked the question, “Where did you guys grow up?”

“I was born in Santa Monica, but I grew up in Sunnyvale,” said Karen.

Tom said, “You’re kidding, so did I.  What high school did you attend?”

On the Zodiacs

“Homestead.”

“Oh my god, so did I.  What year did you graduate?”

“1966.”

“Me too.”  “What was your maiden name?”

“Raven.”

“You’re Karen Raven, my god, I remember you as far back as junior high.  Your brother Kerry was on the high school basketball team.”

Once again, I slipped into the moment.  What were the odds?  We were sitting in the galley of a small cruising ship, somewhere in the Galápagos Islands, and Karen was talking to a new friend who happened to be very old friend.

Months later, Tom and Carol traveled down from Oregon and we attended a Homestead High School reunion together, days after the death of its most famous alumni, Steve Jobs.

Karen at Darwin’s Bay

As the sun rose, we found ourselves near unfamiliar land.  Our time on Santa Fe Island, one of the oldest, began as the Zodiacs entered

the pellucid waters of Darwin’s Bay. A wet landing was required on a beach alive with sea lion activity, which nearly caught one of our group in a compromising position between an angry alpha male and an unwelcome intruder. Amid some loud barking and a few aggressive gestures, the situation was soon peaceably resolved. It seems that the alpha male will defend his harem against outsiders of any species.

The snorkeling group

The other memories of Santa Fe Island came from below the  ocean’s surface.  After a deep-water entry off the Zodiac, we snorkeled the bay, identifying three rays—spotted eagle, diamond and sting—more sea lions, eels, multitudes of fish and graceful sea turtles methodically swimming by. Plants and sea life created a striking visual underwater panorama that has remained a vivid memory.

Chef Raoul outdid himself with a sublime farewell dinner.  Afterwards, we all enjoyed an aperitif and talked about our experiences and our expectations.  Most were met, some not. The few people that chose not to get into the water or the Zodiacs would have enjoyed a luxury cruise more.

Atypically, I mostly remained silent during our discussion, choosing to maintain the purity of my personal insights.  Although I detest the term “bucket list,” exploring the Galápagos Islands was something that I always planned to do during my lifetime and I had a sense of fulfillment.

We toasted Pauli, thanking her for carefully curating the excursion.  We joked that leading small groups through the islands for a living

Pauli leads the landing

was a dream job.  Truly, we all appreciated how hard she worked.  Her patience and knowledge enhanced the adventure more than we could have imagined.

There was a light storm during the final sail to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal Island.  Needing the help of the guide rails to get our clothes from the dresser to the suitcase, choppy waters made us wish that we had completed packing before dinner. Our bags managed to get outside the door by the 6 am deadline and soon we were on the Zodiacs for our final ride to enjoy the village before departing for the Ecuadorian coast.

At the dock, we observed several locals waiting for a water  taxi, standing while two small sea lions slept on the provided

siesta time for sea lions

benches.  It was a metaphor for the way of life on the islands where an “everything matters” viewpoint is engrained into the culture.

Few have had the opportunity to experience Galápagos and fewer are capable of grasping it the way Charles Darwin did. My resolve to stay in the moment helped me immerse myself into it and take what it was giving.  The memories, and the way it enhanced my perspective of the world, will last forever.

 

 

 


Grand Cru in Windsor

 

At its core, Grand Cru Custom Crush founded by Robert and Erin Morris and Todd and Erin Gottula, is a great idea, one that reflects modern day business and lifestyle trends.  It provides state-of-the-art technology and production equipment as well as individualized tasting rooms to be shared by small, boutique winemakers. The co-operative concept itself is clean and efficient and opens doors for producers who work under the premise that “less is better” to pursue their passion and connect with the consumer.  Grand Cruprojects t

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Co-op production facilities

hat, in 2018, 25,000 cases will be produced by a baker’s dozen local winemakers who are current members.

As we toured the production facilities, Morris and Erin Brooks(Gottula) discussed the attention to detail that would accommodate multiple winemakers and reduce common problems. By providing the best crush equipment, a variety of small fermentation tanks, barrel rooms and an on-site lab, all designed to match the needs of their “target client production,” the Grand Cru Custom Crush plan optimizes success and sustainability.

Although the exterior design was inspired by the Boradorri Garage, a 1932 historical building overlooking the ocean in Cayucos, CA, the modern-day, aesthetically pleasing interior includes several individual spaces where guests can sample specific wineries or hand-pick a variety among all member releases.

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Grand Cru Custom Crush in Windsor

Another advantage for Grand Cru Custom Crush is that they are part of the growing Windsor Beverage District that currently houses DuMol and Marcassin wineries with others on the horizon.  Participating businesses also include the Sonoma Brothers Distillery, local fire captain Aron Levin’s St. Florian’s Brewery and Tilted Shed Ciderworks, makers of local specialty ciders.  A 22,000 square foot restaurant and tasting center, currently under construction by the popular, Santa Rosa-based Russian River Brewing Company, promises to add another attraction.

Robert and Erin could not say enough about their experience in dealing with the Town of Windsor, calling them a role model for other government entities seeking to be business friendly and creating public-private partnerships. The beverage district concept, in my opinion, will flourish, building on the wine and spirits tourism that exists in the region.

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One of the many tasting rooms

The current member wineries of Grand Cru Custom Crush are Black Kite Cellars, Bruliam Wines, Bydand, Cleary Ranch Vineyard, Ernest Wines, Eric Kent, Flambeaux, Kesner Wines, Lando, Magnolia Blossom, Mila Family Vineyards, Mueller Wines and Smith and Story Wine Cellars.  Some have received accolades for pinot noir, chardonnay and rose’ while others offer rarer varietals to the region like grenache, sémillon, and cabernet sauvignon.

Reservations can be made to taste wines from any of the members or one can experience an eclectic sampling from a hand-picked menu. I had the opportunity to sit down with Erin Brooks to sample all the current releases from Ernest Wines, which she owns with

KimCarroll.com-MILA-41-e1510112881876

Mila Family Vineyards Prima Grenache

her husband Todd.  They will be featured in a future column.  However, if I returned to Grand Cru tomorrow, I would hand-select the following wines.

Produced by Ernest Wines under their Eugenia label, a little known Rhone grape is showcased in the 2017 San Lucas Vineyard Rosé of Cinsault 2017 Central Coast “The Country Wife,” providing a unique beginning.  The 2016 Smith and Story Lakota’s View Sémillon Sonoma Mountain gives us an alternative white varietal and the whole-cluster pressed Mila Family Vineyards Prima Grenache an alternative red from their 54 acre wine farm in northeast Sonoma County.

We would continue by comparing two pinot noir releases:  the 2014 Mueller “Tempi” Pinot Noir that has received good reviews and the 2014 Bruliam Pinot Noir Soberanes Vineyard from a Central Coast vineyard that has sourced grapes to many fine producers.

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2014 Bruliam Pinot Noir Soberanes Vineyard

My tasting would end with the 2014 Flambeaux Dry Creek Cabernet Sauvignon that has received consistent 90+plus ratings.  It’s not everyday that cinsault, semillon,

marcietempi

Mueller Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

grenache, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon would be together in one tasting. The quality and variety of member produced wines affords opportunities to sample new ones for many future visits.

The Grand Cru Custom Crush is an ambitious effort that seems to be a win-win situation for all aspects of the wine experience.  It promotes the expanded production of fine boutique wines and one stop shopping for the consumer.  The evolution of Grand Cru and the entire Windsor Beverage District is something to watch.

 

 


Springtime for Rose’

 

Although modern rose’ wines are designed to pair with food and be enjoyed year-round, they still come to mind when the spring air

Chateau d’ Esclans in Provence

begins to warm.  While some are “bled off” from juice destined for a red wine, a process known as the Saignee method, others are planted and field blended specifically for the rose’.

While Provence remains the world-wide leader in the production of fine rose’, I have discovered several releases from California and

the Pacific Northwest that are composed of Burgundian, Rhone and Bordeaux varietals.

I first tasted the Whispering Angel rose’ from Chateau d’ Esclans at a 2006 tasting of Cote de Provence wines.  A blend of grenache, cinsault, vermentino, syrah and tourben, the Chateau d’ Esclans Whispering Angel 2017 ($22) is clean with dense flavors and a

Chateau d’ Esclans “Rock Angel” Rose’

rich mouthfeel, the result of regular lees stirrings. Another release, the Chateau d’ Esclans Rock Angel Rose’ 2016 ($35) has an herbal/mineral character that is exceptional with food.

From Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the full whole cluster pressed 2017 Gran Moraine

2016 Gran Moraine Rose’ of Pinot Noir

Yamhill-Carlton Rose’ of Pinot Noir ($28) is crafted from designated stock in two vineyards.  Once it opened up in the glass, the floral hints in the bouquet heightened and the crisp, complex berry and melon flavors were revealed.

Grenache is among my favorite varietals, as a red wine, in a Rhone blend or as a rose’. Recent tastings of grenache rose’ from Santa Barbara, Napa and Sonoma counties showcase the grape’s adaptability and the welcoming terroir throughout California.

From the estate Colson Canyon Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley, grapes were purposely harvested early to retain the bright acidity in the 2017 Tensley Colson Canyon Grenache Rose’ ($22).  Nicely structured, it

Carol Shelton Rendezvous Rose’

expressed complex, balanced tropical fruit, melon and citrus flavors.

Sharon Kazan Harris sources the grapes for her Rarecat Rose’ 2017 ($36) from a Davis, CA vineyard with, as she describes, poor, rocky soil, perfect for the core grenache.   Aside from the soothing salmon color, the floral aromas are pronounced and pink grapefruit dominates the palate.  It has a noticeable acidity that will compliment seafood and shellfish.

I’m told that the inspiration for the 2017 Limerick Lane Rose’ ($24) came from eating mussels and drinking rose in the village of Cassis, along the French Meditteranean, something I can relate to.  The syrah (62%) and grenache (38%) grapes for this Russian River Valley blend were specifically designated and harvested. The rich citrus and strawberry flavors set up a nice, long mineral finish.

Produced from Mendocino County carignane grapes that are bled off after three long days with skins, the 2017 Carol Shelton “Rendezvous” Rose’ ($15) has a darker red color than most.  There are spice notes on the nose and rich, expressive fruit flavors that peak through the finish. It pairs well with Thai food or BBQ, but I prefer it by itself.

2017 St. Supery Napa Valley Rose’

St. Supery Winery, in the heart of the Napa Valley, has produced a variety of Bordeaux-style wines for nearly three decades.  With a darker cherry color, the St. Supery Rose’ 2015 ($29), a merlot-dominant blend, features five Bordeaux varietals that covey elegant flavors of red berries, currants and herbs.  It pairs well with seafood and rich sauces.

Bandol, in southern France, is one of the premier wine regions in Provence with soils and climate fitting for the mourvedre grape that imparts structure to wine.  All red and rose’ wines from the region must contain at least 50% mourvedre. The highly acclaimed 2016 Domaines Ott “Château Romassan” Bandol Rosé ($47), is 60% mourvedre with added cinsault, grenache and syrah  Earning reviews in the mid-nineties, the bouquet is a scented flower garden and the vibrant hints of pink grapefruit remain

2016 Dunham Cellars/MacLachlan “Pursued by Bear” Rose’

throughout the lush finish.

From Washington’s Columbia Valley region, the 2016 Dunham Cellars/MacLachlan “Pursued by Bear” Blushing Bear Columbia Valley Rosé $28

is another grenache-dominant release with strong support from cinsault and mourvedre.  “Pursued by Bear” is actor Kyle MacLachlan’s label and he, apparently, was personally involved in the development of this wine. I found it clean and balanced with a diversified and opulent flavor profile.

This list hardly scratches the surface of what is available.  Whatever suits your palate, new rose’, with all the complexities of red wine, is something that should not be overlooked.

Vineyards in Bandol

 


Calistoga Culinary Getaway

 

Not having spent time in Calistoga for years, I recently stayed a few days to discover some wines and enjoy the vibrant, emerging local restaurant scene. The following is a small taste of what we enjoyed.

Breakfast options includes Sarafornia, an old-style cafe with classic comfort food or Bella Bakery for those seeking coffee and an artisan

The Grade Cellars “Sea Fog” Sauvignon Blanc

pastry.  My favorite for atmosphere and menu was Sam’s Social Club east of town, where I enjoyed an omelette of cultivated, wild mushrooms, gruyere cheese, black truffle oil and scallions.

We had the opportunity to taste two local sauvignon blanc releases; both impressive, but very different.  The 2015 Petit Coquerel

Le Petit Coquerel Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc ($20) had shades of grapefruit on the nose and during the long finish with a dry crispness in the middle.

From the producers of fine Calistoga cabernet sauvignon, The Grade Sauvignon Blanc “Sea Fog” 2015 ($28), barrel-fermented in all neutral oak, delivers a pleasant acidity with degrees of citrus and stone fruit flavors and a soft wet stone finish.

Lovina Restaurant

Formerly Calistoga Kitchen, Lovina is a new restaurant in the old building at the corner of Cedar Street and Lincoln Ave.  The new creative ownership team identifies with being a uniquely suited, diverse group of friends. The menu is also diverse, with vegetarian friendly and gluten-free options available.  Uniquely good was the Grilled Cheese with Chestnut and Celery Root Soup and the Warm Duck Confit Spinach Salad, which we shared along with a special Chicken and Dumpling Soup.

Lovina is open Thursday through Monday for lunch/brunch and dinner.  Their wine list features a variety of North Coast selections and they celebrate “No corkage Thursdays.”

Visiting the historic Chateau Montelena Estate always reminds me of their 1973 chardonnay release that led to an Independence Day

1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay

for California wines after winning the famed 1976 Paris Tasting. The 2014 Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Chardonnay ($58), is aged ten months sur lee in oak with no malolactic fermentation. I found complex aromas, crispness and a rich finish of stone fruit and spice flavors, all welcomed by my palate.  The earthy 2014 Chateau Montelena Zinfandel ($39) also stood out with coffee bean, chocolate on the nose and jammy, ripened fruit flavors throughout.

We first discovered Brannan’s by accident, seeking a place to have lunch in town, and were

Bar at Brannan’s Restaurant

delightfully surprised by their imaginative small plate dishes.  I joined co-owner Ron Goldin at a recent event while chef Colin Curtis prepared farmhand (vegetarian-based), briny (seafood) and chow (the meats), small plate dishes that included Curried Crab Tacos, Moroccan Lamb Chops, Salt and Pepper Scallops and Wild Mushroom Risotto.  Appetizers like Smashed Avocado Toast and Ahi Poke Spoons added to the feast. In an older building on Lincoln Ave., Brannan’s has a large, historic bar, full array of cocktails and an ever-changing menu.

Over thirty years ago when Rich and Carolyn Czapleski purchased the land for their Canard Winery, they got a call from Robert Mondavi, urging them to retain some of the oldest zinfandel vines in the Napa Valley,

Canard old vine zinfandell

dating back one hundred years.  Today, the dry-farmed vineyard continues to produce the 2013 Canard Zinfandel ($45), a balance of strength and elegance.  Smokey flavors of raspberry and spice lead to a rich mouthfeel through the finish.

I tasted the Fairwinds 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Reserve ($110) deep inside the extensive cave system at Fairwinds Estate Winery. It originates from the volcanic soils of the local Kenefick Ranch Vineyard that sources Bordeaux grapes to many top producers. The fruit flavors are intense and opulent, but nicely balanced with the complex spice elements that dawdle on the finish.

Tasting in the caves at Fairwinds Estate

For another special dining experience, I recommend the highly reviewed Solbar, at the Solage Spa, east of downtown.  Fresh dishes classically prepared by chef Massimo Falsini like Tamales Bay Mussels, Petrale Sole Tacos and Steak Frites appear on Solbar’s lunch menu. Seasonal Cheeses and Seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras begin the ever-changing entrees like Sautéed Wild Steelhead with Foraged Mushrooms and Crispy Liberty Duck with Abalone-prosciutto ragu.

Aside from health and recreation, the Calistoga experience offers an array of fine wines and prodigious culinary choices at all levels.  For a get-a-way, it has it all.

 


Donum Estate Pairs Wine With Art

 

A mid-week pinot noir tasting at Donum Estate, in the heart of the Carneros, quickly turned to an experience that exceeded all my expectations. Entering the property from Ramal Road, we were greeted by Sanna, Giant Head, a huge white sculpture by Jaume Plensa that was peaceful and welcoming. Today would be about pinot noir and art, the latter in the form of magnificent sculpture gardens. As

Sanna, Giant Head by Jaume Plensa

a special treat, we had the opportunity to walk the estate with President/Winegrower Anne Moller-Radke.

Mollar-Radke first arrived on this property in 1981 after German investors purchased what was then the Buena Vista Winery.  In 2001, she sold Buena Vista and began Donum Estate with the single focus of making extraordinary pinot noir and chardonnay in the Burgundian-style.  Since the purchase by investors in 2011, Donum Estate, with Anne still at the helm, has evolved to produce highly reviewed wines from vineyards in three distinct appellations and assemble sculptures by world-class artists like Yayoi Kusama, Ai Weiwei and Louise Bourgeois.

Anne Mollar-Radke, President and Winegrower

Before tasting the pinot noir, we were welcomed with a glass of 2015 Donum Estate Carneros Chardonnay to accompany our walk through the vineyards and grounds.  The only chardonnay produced, this vintage is aged in 40% new French oak with no malolactic fermentation, but stirred on lees regularly over four months. With citrus and floral hints on the nose, the rich stone fruit flavors finish with pleasant honey notes.

Glass in hand, we walked to the “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” by Ai Weiwei, with the carved head of each symbol atop a pole in a circular ring of wild grasses and daffodils.

Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads by Ai Weiwei

Before entering the small building that solely housed Bourgeois’s haunting “Spider,” we passed by the compassionate “Care For Oneself,” a large stainless steel depiction of a strong, healthy man, holding his sick, weakened self.

“Care For Oneself” by

Inspired, we trekked up the hill to sculptor Richard Hudson’s “Love Me,” a huge stainless steel, three-dimensional heart that mirrors back alluring distorted images of the surrounding terrain. Returning to the modern, chic tasting center by way of the “Contemporary Terracotta Warriors” by Yeu Minjun, we met up with our host, Phillipe Herrarte, who would guide us through today’s pouring. The afternoon sun was warm after a light morning rain, so Phillipe opened the entire south-facing wall exposing a view of vineyards, outlaying marshlands and, in the distance, the new San Francisco skyline. I can get used to this.

All the Donum Estate pinot noir that we tasted was exceptional, but that would and should be expected from a team with this pedigree. Today was special.  At one sitting, we savored and

“Love Me” by Richard Hudson

compared flavors and nuance from three-fifths of California’s best pinot noir producing regions:  Carneros, the Russian River Valley and the Anderson Valley to the far north.

We began with two releases from the Carneros estate.  The 2014 Donum Estate Carneros Pinot Noir is blended from the best of three blocks while the earthy, single block 2014 Donum Estate Carneros West Block Pinot Noir, from arguably the best terroir in the appellation, delivered a spiced, red fruit and cherry bouquet with rich, layered flavors and a drawn-out finish.

Farmed by Anne since its inception in 1997, the Winside Vineyard is the source for the

Donum Estate pinot noir

2014 Donum Estate Russian River Reserve Pinot Noir, combining Pommard and Dijon 667 clones, aged in 71% new French oak.  Very aromatic, the red fruit flavors are acute, but nicely structured with a forest floor element through the finish.

Mendocino County’s Angels Camp Vineyard, near the Pacific Ocean, is planted with ten different clones, seven of which were used in the 2014 Donum Estate Angel Camp Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir.  Aged separately, the best barrels were selected and blended before bottling. The rich flavors were ripe and spirited with definite

Donum Estate vineyard

oak influences. I would definitely recommend all the wines, but when asked, I chose to re-visit the Russian River Valley Reserve.

Donum Estate is building a new production facility that will bring the entire operation on-site.  The experience here is rare; there is no other like it in the region.  It also brings the exclusivity that befits such a property.  Due diligence is required to decide if it’s all for you.  As for me, I want to go back soon.