Her River Runs Through Me

 

“Part of you, flows out of me

in these lines from time to time”

    Joni Mitchell

  Metaphorically, a river is often used to represent movement, connection or coming home, like “ a river to a sea.”  In 1971, singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell wrote the song “River,” describing it, from the perspective of her upbringing in Saskatchewan, Canada, as a pathway to escape her problems and a longing for something more.  It simply began:  “It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees, putting up reindeer, singing songs of joy and peace.  Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on.”

The complete song was self-revealing in a way that was unprecedented, especially for a woman dealing with the societal ceiling of the times.  Although we have never met, I would, over the next forty years, develop an intimate relationship with Joni Mitchell through her words and her music. They became an ongoing inspiration to my soul as it revealed itself to me.  I often found solace in her words that helped me to think and write poetically.  Without trying, she often reminded me that I could be a better, more enlightened person.  She was my muse.

A few days after my twenty-fourth birthday, I returned to my apartment to find a thin, wrapped twelve-inch square package lying across the threshold of my doorstep with a note from my brother-in-law attached that read, “Happy Birthday, there’s great music in the world that isn’t jazz.”  

Kerry had recently returned from combat in the Vietnam War and was living the hippie life in the hills of Los Gatos.  Unable to expand my psychedelic horizons, he became determined to broaden me musically beyond my limiting obsession with jazz artists like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and pianist Herbie Hancock.

He had some success with my college graduation gift of the album, “On the Threshold of a Dream,” that turned me on to the innovative music of the Moody Blues and thought that Joni Michell’s latest 1972 release, “For The Roses,” would be the next logical step in his plan to open me up.  Those instincts were auspicious  and, at that time, he may have known more about my inner self than I did.

Unfortunately, Kerry fell into life-long drug addiction, the cumulative effects of which led to his death, at age sixty-five, from a heart attack.  As a few people gathered at his gravesite, I delivered some brief remarks and credited his birthday gift of “For The Roses” as life changing for me.

It is one thing to write from the heart and another to write unafraid, willing to reveal and expose your vulnerabilities. For me, Joni Mitchell did that better than anyone. 

The album, “For The Roses” included a few catchy songs like, “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio” and “Barangrill,” that used wit and alliteration to tell  young love stories.  Pulling me deeper into her expressive self, another piece, “Lesson In Survival” was a different type of love song that spoke of the complexities of relationships, isolation and the fear of incompatibility. 

She wrote: “Maybe it’s paranoia, maybe it’s sensitivity.  Your friends protect you, scrutinize me and I get so damn timid, not at all the spirit that’s inside of me.  I can’t seem to make it with you socially, there’s this reef around me.”

The song, “Lesson In Survival” set-up one of her most poignant pieces, “Woman of Heart And Mind.”    

“I am a women of heart and mind, with time on my hands, no child to raise.  You come to me like a little boy and I give you my scorn and my praise.”

In the early seventies, the roles of men and women were more defined, like the walls of a cage.  Joni’s words made me question why I couldn’t be a little boy and lean on my young wife sometimes.  Current norms only placed importance on me being a rock for her to lean on, something that seemed counterintuitive to what makes a lasting relationship. 

Women had already figured this out, judging by the new movement for equality that they were creating.  I understood the concept, but Joni’s lyrics became the voice in my head that rose up from time to time when I needed to be reminded that I could think and do better.

The song’s assault on the perceived “Mad Men” roles of men and women that existed forty-five years ago continued with lyrics from the modern female perspective.   

“After the rush when you come back down, you’re always disappointed, nothing seems to keep you high. Drive your bargains, push your papers, win your medals, fuck your strangers, don’t it leave you on the empty side?”

In the 1990s, my two young boys would giggle when they heard that verse of “Women Of Heart And Mind” playing on my home or car stereo.  Today, at ages forty and thirty-three, I consider both of them to be open and sensitive men.  Thanks, in part, to musical pioneers like Joni Mitchell, they grew up in a society where the archaic roles of men and women were more blurred and less defined. 

The song, “Woman Of Heart And Mind” concludes not like an arrow, but a dagger to the heart of early-1970s norms as Joni became introspective and personal.    “You criticize and you flatter, you imitate the best and the rest you memorize.  You know, the times you impress me the most are the times when you don’t try, when you don’t even try.”

I refused to look in a mirror for days while my young mind digested those words.

The lessons of “Woman Of Heart And Mind” were reinforced later, in 1977, with the song “Jericho,”  “I’ll try to keep myself open up to you and approve your self expression.  I need that too.  I need your confidence and the gift of your extra time, in return I’ll give you mine.  Sweet darling, it’s a rich exchange it seems to me.  It’s a warm arrangement.”

These words continually emerge as a voice in my head, usually when I am not living up to the message.

A few weeks after receiving it, I shared my excitement about “For The Roses” to a visiting friend who was familiar with Joni’s music.  When I returned from work the next day, he gifted me her three earlier albums.  I became full-on Joni Mitchell and couldn’t get enough of her music or her poetic messages.  Even though she stopped writing and recording music in 2007, her lyrics have their own drawer in the Dewey-decimal system of my mind, easily retrievable.

In her album, “Blue,” recorded one year before “For The Roses” in 1971, Joni’s lyrics were slightly less refined, but revealing of her emerging themes. In the song, “All I Want,” she wrote/sang:  “All I really want our love to do is to bring out the best in me and in you.  I wanna talk to you, I want to shampoo you, I want to renew you, again and again.”

While Joni was, most likely, referring to an personal relationship, my take-a-way was that more than being present, I needed to consciously be there, again and again.  As the superficial pressures of becoming a sensitive, white male were mounting, Joni offered a cautionary reminder:  “When you dig down deep, you lose good sleep and it makes you heavy company.”

My wife Karen shared a passion for Joni’s words that would evolve, over time, into an artistic threesome.  As we all grew and changed, her lyrics became less of a guide for our relationship and more of an appreciation of expression. 

Although passion was still present, our desire to bathe and shampoo together gave way to “I just want to soak in the tub and relax for a while.”  As a young relationship is often driven by passion, one that is maturing acknowledges growth as people, allowing more space for independent thought as well as a relaxing bath.  After all, it was Joni who reminded us of the need to approve each other’s self-expression.  

Joni’s declaration:  “…you want stimulation, nothing more, that’s what I think” became, at times, mutually acceptable.  Our deep love was engrained and with the fear of incompatibility diminishing, an appreciation for individual expression and a desire for exploration of mind and body burst forth.

  Joni was also evolving. In addition to exposing vulnerabilities, her words began to express a deep sense of independence and wanderlust that, admittedly, resulted in both peace of mind and regret.  Years earlier, in “River,” she blamed herself as she wrote/sang:  I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad.  Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby that I ever had.  I wish I had a river I could skate away on.”

Her epic 1976 release, “Hejira,” revealed a more determined independent spirit as she wrote/sang:  “In our possessive coupling, so much could not be expressed.  So now I’m returning to myself, these things that you and I suppressed. We’re only particles of change I know, orbiting around the sun.  But how can I have that point of view, when I’m always bound and tied to someone.”

Ironically, shortly after hearing those words for the first time, Karen and I, after being together for eight years, decided to make a baby.  

No worries, Joni, we would always be there for you and approve your self expression.  We needed you, too, now that our lives were about to change forever.

“No one’s going to show us everything, we all come and go unknown, each so deep and superficial, between the forceps and the stone.”

Joni Mitchell

Ryan Christopher, our first child, was born on a rainy morning in San Francisco at the close of 1977. Elvis Presley was dead, Jimmy Carter was in the White House and the skies welcomed the space shuttle and supersonic commercial flights on the Concorde. For the next few months, our lives were a dichotomy between being indulgent new parents and wanting to stay relevant in the cafes of adult conversation.

Although we loved this baby above all else, we had spent the 1970s developing a friendship circle and still yearned to remain a part of the social gatherings, dinners and discussions that would create a balance between our past and present lives.

We sought some clarity listening to Joni Mitchell, although her recent lyrics were poetically self-revealing of a lifestyle at polar opposite to ours. She was independent, exploring several relationships with little expectation.

“I met a friend of spirit, he drank and womanized and as I sat before his sanity, I was holding back from crying. He saw my complications and he mirrored me back simplified and we laughed how our perfection would always be denied. ‘Heart and humor and humility,’ he said, ‘will lighten up your heavy load.’ I left him then for the refuge of the roads.”

Joni was not my role model in understanding the new feminist perspective, but her words were the three glasses of wine that I needed to be open-minded. Her unending diary was unbolted, now telling of an independent woman, sometimes in a relationship, sometimes not, sometimes looking, sometimes not.

“Anima rising, queen of queens, wash my guilt of Eden, wash and balance me.  Anima rising, uprising in me tonight, she’s a vengeful little goddess with an ancient crown to fight.”

Through dealing with dichotomies in our lives, we found Joni’s.  As her lyrical compositions evolved, they became more lucid and seductively inviting.

In her autobiographical song, “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter,” released days before Ryan was born, she wrote/sang:  “The spirit talks in spectrums, it talks to mother earth to father sky, self-indulgence to self-denial, man to woman, scales to feathers, you and I, eagles in the sky, you and I, snakes in the grass, you and I, crawl and fly, you and I.”

Exposing herself to the world with no boundaries, she used contrasting images to describe the inner conflicts and the depth of her character.  Like Shakespeare, she drew a fuzzy line between good and evil.

By exposing herself, she spoke to the duality in all of us:  “Behind my bolt locked door, the eagle and the serpent are at war in me, the serpent fighting for blind desire, the eagle for clarity.  What strange prizes these battles bring, these hectic joys-these weary blues, puffed up and strutting when I think I win, down and shaken when I think I lose.”

She reminds that blind desire and clarity can be gateway drugs to each other. 

“Big bird dragging its tail in the dust…snake kite flying on a string.”

Joni’s inner conflicts are not black and white, left or right-brained, on or off. They are in the same soup of her soul, of our souls, there to be embraced with grace and balance.

Although we will never fully understand the motivation and intimate meanings of Joni’s lyrics, she provoked my creative imagination and helped bridge the gap between the real world and my abstract self. It was reassuring and normalizing to hear: “It seems we all live so close to that line and so far from satisfaction.”

Joni often used references of a personal relationship as a metaphor that spoke to something larger.  My perception of the simple words: “And you put me at the top of your danger list just for being so much like you are” was meant to expose the 1970s good ol’ boys network for what it was.

In those times, there were more threatened men who resisted women’s entrance into the workplace with gender-biased perceptions and role expectations.  Many men claimed exclusive seats at the boardroom table because the norms of the day dictated it.  When men heard the question, “Do you want your wife working late at the office?” they had horrific thoughts of creepy predators, changing diapers and, heaven forbid, having to cook a meal.  

In her typical fashion, Joni’s words didn’t demand inclusion, just magnified the fact that insecurity was the root of the problem.  She was never a leader of the feminist movement, but a willingness to write openly of her fears and vulnerabilities enabled us all to think introspectively, become more enlightened to re-think the barricades to change.  

When a glass ceiling breaks, some focus on what’s beyond, others cover up to avoid the shard’s falling around them. Joni’s lyrics peeled back the layers of existing norms and exposed the right side of history.

She wrote/sang:  “I come from open prairie, given some wisdom and a lot of jive.  Last night I saw the ghost of my old ideals, re-run on channel five.”

While the unpredictable winds of change were blowing hard, Joni used another relationship metaphor to caution us of the risks to intimacy. 

 “You and me are like America and Russia, we’re always keeping score.  We’re always balancing the power and that could get to be a cold, cold war.”

A lengthy solo by jazz tenor saxophone great, Wayne Shorter at the end of a new piece foreshadowed Joni’s brief collaboration with legendary composer Charles Mingus during the last few months of his life.

Putting words to the Mingus’s jazz classic, “Goodbye Pork-Pie Hat,” Joni recounts mid-century society reactions when saxophonist Lester Young married a white woman.  She ended the piece with another poignant and universal message:  “Love is never easy, it’s short of the hope we have for happiness.”

Joni also included a haunting original piece about her impressions of Mingus’s multiple personalities that, once again, spoke to some duality in all of us. “He is three, one’s in the middle unmoved, waiting to show what he sees to the other two. To the one attacking–so afraid and the one that keeps trying to love and trust and getting himself betrayed. In the plan—oh the divine plan, God must be a boogie man.” 

As she aged, Joni used an introspective style to discuss her mortality.  The song, “Sweet Bird,” began:  “Out on some borderline, some mark of in-between, I lay down golden-in time and woke up vanishing. Sweet bird, you are briefer than a falling star.”  She continued. “Behind our eyes, calendars of our lives, circled with compromise. Sweet bird of time and change you must be laughing, up on your feathers laughing.”

Another polarity of life is the nexus of an aging body and an expanding mind.  Well into middle-age, Joni, as we do, became more reflective and often cynical about both the past and present.  Now speaking to a larger audience, her current state-of-mind was revealed through a hard-edged, whimsical love song.  “If I’d only seen through the silky veils of ardor what a killing crime this love can be.  I would have locked up my heart in a golden sheath of armor and kept its crazy beating under strictest secrecy, high security.”

Sensing, early on, a nation divided, Joni began to speak to our perceived invulnerability, not by advocating changes in policy, but openly reflecting on what we all had become.  

  Years ago, in “Borderline,” she observed: “Everybody looks so ill at ease, so distrustful so displeased.

Running down the table, I see a borderline, like a barbed wire fence strung tight, strung tense, prickling with pretense, a borderline.”

Changing mine or anyone’s position was never on Joni’s agenda.  She was only there for thought-provoking insight.  

“Every notion we subscribe to is just a borderline. Good or bad, we think we know, as if thinking makes things so. All convictions grow along a borderline”.

Borderlines were something Joni wrote of but never subscribed to.

Joni’s well-timed last lyrical message came in 2007, something I relished then and now.  Imagining that it was our final conversation and I was seeking any sage advice that would sustain me, she responded with:  “If you can dream and not make dreams your master. If you can think and not make intellect your game. If you can meet with triumph and disaster

and treat those two imposters just the same.”

Like any long-term relationship, there is no real ending.  What we take from it lasts throughout our lives and maybe gets passed on to another.  Of the people who I have long admired but never met, Joni’s profound impact in my life is unmatched.  Like a martyr, revealing her own vulnerabilities conjured up introspection and balance in our lives and, perhaps, in the lives of others.

 

Advertisements

A new generation puts its stamp on Ramey Wine Cellars

 

Ramey Wine Cellars has established itself, over many years, as one of this country’s top wineries.  Founder David Ramey has been in Sonoma County for over 40 years and founded his iconic winery in 1996, focusing primarily of cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and syrah.  He is credited with using Old World methods such as sur lie aging and malolactic fermentation to create the California-style

David and Carla Ramey

chardonnay. 

The winery has recently transformed and a new family generation is working with the established team and winemaking staff to lead Ramey into the future. After graduating from college and being encouraged to pursue their own careers, David and Carla’s children, Claire (28) and Alan (26) were drawn to the family wine business. Today, Claire works with her father, Winemaker Cameron Frey and Associate Winemaker Lydia Cummins in pre-production while Alan handles marketing, trade, consumer tastings and the launch of a multi-tiered wine club. They both have earned the titles of “co-owner.”

I recently had a chance to sit down with the new winemaking team at 25 Lusk in San Francisco to taste their current releases and discuss the future of Ramey Wine Cellars. What better way to do that than to enjoy the pairings of extraordinary food and wine.

The evening opened with a glass of a Lodi-grown 100% kerner from Sidebar, Ramey’s sister label.  Lydia Cummins, who serves as the

2018 Sidebar Kerner Mokelumne River Lodi

winemaker for the sibling brand, explained that the Sidebar 2018 Kerner Mokelumne River ($25) originates from a sub-appellation in the Lodi region, the only planting in California. Its  German origins, where it is primarily blended with other grapes, are defined as a cross between riesling and trollinger, resulting in an aromatic, dry wine with spice overtones. This kerner is whole-cluster pressed, stainless steel aged and may be your best opportunity to experience what the grape has to offer. 

Lydia also spoke of what she called “a harvest spirit” that exists at Ramey, one that nurtures creativity and networking, usually over a glass of wine at the end of the day.  The camaraderie among the staff was obvious as we all enjoyed conversation and some laughs to pair with the kerner.

We assembled in the Ogden Room at 25 Lusk to enjoy dinner paired with two current Ramey chardonnay releases, a pinot noir and a syrah from the Rodgers Creek Vineyard in the Petaluma Gap.  As we were seated, it was pointed out by our server that then POTUS Barack Obama dined in this same room during his second term. 

Pairing caviar served with traditional blini, we enjoyed a 2015 Ramey Chardonnay Woolsey Vineyard ($65), from a Martinelli family owned vineyard, sourced exclusively by Ramey.  Winemaker Cameron Frey explained that sourcing the best grapes is the key to Ramey’s success. This wine is whole-cluster pressed, unfiltered with full malo-lactic fermentation and batonnage, resulting in a nice balance of richness and austerity

Not that it’s all about me, but my favorite wine of the evening was the expressive 2015 Ramey Chardonnay, Rochioli

Rochioli Vineyard

Vineyard Russian River Valley ($65), rich with a bright acidity.  Frey clarified that, although Ramey has been sourcing grapes from this known vineyard for ten years, this is their first single-vineyard release. 

Both white wines enhanced the Artic Char “with sun chokes, chiogga beets, tumeric-ginger kraut, ocean ribbon seaweed, chive sabayon”  as did the young and vibrant 2016 Ramey Pinot Noir Russian River Valley ($50), sourced primarily from the highly respected Bucher Vineyard.

The balance and mouthfeel of this pinot, according to Cameron Frey, is achieved through sur lie aging with monthly stirrings and a light fining with egg whites to soften the tannins. It deserves to be a fixture at the dinner table.

The evening concluded with a 2014 Ramey Syrah Rodgers Creek Vineyard Sonoma Coast ($65) from the cooler Petaluma Gap, co-fermented with 10% viognier and  described as “northern Rhonish” in style. 

Ramey Wines

The layered bouquet and flavors of this wine were best described last year by critic Antonio Galloni: “The Rodgers Creek offers a very appealing interplay of dense fruit and lifted aromatics, with enough structure to develop nicely in bottle for many years to come.”

On this evening, Claire, Alan, Cameron, Lydia and the current releases aptly represented David Ramey’s passion and left an impression that Ramey Wine Cellars will continue to evolve with the “harvest spirit” that founded it. 


The Sonoma Distilling Company opens its doors to the public

 

Sonoma County, home to some of California’s finest wineries, is beginning to establish itself as a leader in creating premium craft beer and spirits. Stories of new emerging breweries and distilleries now share time and space with those from the vineyards.

One such story is the Sonoma Distilling Company, located in Rohnert Park, a few blocks east of Highway 101, a place that emerged from zeal and perseverance. Founder and Whiskey maker Adam Spiegel, after getting laid off in 2008, decided to become his own boss and pursue a passion for making beer, which evolved into wine, then grappa and, eventually, craft whiskey.

As the distillery has grown from a small building to the new, self-designed Rohnert Park space that includes beautiful stills imported

from Spain and Scotland, Adam has not veered from his original focus to make the best artisan-style whiskeys in the most sustainable

Adam Spiegel with the Forsyths copper still from Scotland

manner possible.

The new and expanded distillery is now complete and the affable Spiegel is ready to re-launch on June 21-23, offering eco-friendly public tours and tastings program.

At the Sonoma Distilling Company, Spiegel produces four craft whiskeys including rye, where he started, cherrywood rye, bourbon and wheat.

Spiegel’s Sonoma Rye Whiskey, aged up to two years, is composed of 80 percent rye grains from Dixon, CA near Sacramento and parts of Canada blended with 20 percent malted rye from the United Kingdom.

Through malting, grains are softened by first soaking in water, then heating them in an attempt to slow germination. Most malted grains are purchased by distillers and Adams spoke of his role in persuading a colleague to conveniently locate his malthouse next door.

Most rye whiskeys have hints of spice. This Sonoma Rye was dry, smooth and Adam suggests flavors of vanilla, allspice white pepper, dried apricot and walnut. He also recommends rye whiskey as the most accommodating in cooking and pairing with food.

Although the Sonoma Distilling Company has an on-site grain smoker, the Sonoma Cherrywood Smoked Bourbon Whiskey contains

Sonoma Cheerywood Smoked Bourbon Whiskey

13 percent cherrywood smoked barley from Wyoming, blended with corn and rye grains.

Smokey hints were evident, but not overpowering. The label on each bottle describes a flavor profile of maraschino cherry, smoke, allspice and vanilla and suggests it as a fine pair with Thanksgiving dinner.

Blending 70 percent corn, 25 percent wheat and some of that Wyoming grown malted barley, the Sonoma Bourbon Whiskey has a leather backbone and well-balanced oak flavors. Possibly my favorite, it had toasty overtones and a finish that slid across the palate like a slow moving slough.

Defined as “Scottish style,” the low-production Sonoma Wheat Whiskey adds 20 percent rye grains for balance. Wheated whiskey must contain at least 51 percent wheat grain and is usually aged in new American oak barrels. This whiskey is aged for three years in used oak followed by an additional four months in cognac barrels.

During the tour, Spiegel was quick to point out that sustainability is a key element to their identity. The

Sonoma Rye Whiskey

distillery is completely powered by wind energy and, it recycles water and uses local, non-GMO grains.

Although the 3,000 gallon custom-made Forsyths copper pot still, the largest in the area, comes from Scotland, his tanks were built in Healdsburg, there is an on-site grain smoker and, with expanded grain plantings in Sonoma County, everything, in time, will be local.

Since 2010, production has increased from 200 gallons to the current level of 1,500 gallons per month. A 9,000 square foot barrel room is under construction across the street from the distillery that will provide aging space to accommodate production levels of up to 25,000 gallons per month.

The Sonoma Distilling Company  is the only whiskey house in California  known to have a tasting room and a plan to bring people together for tours and pours. The $15 per person tasting will include a  tour of the distillery followed by four tasting options, all including three whiskey pours and one cocktail. Each visit will

be limited to 12  people and available, by appointment, at 11 am, 2 pm and 4 pm, Friday through Sunday of each week.

Founder and Whiskey maker Adam Spiegel

Spiegel also plans to re-launch his whiskey club that will provide periodic direct shipments of new releases to members.

In addition to the production of highly regarded whiskey, the Sonoma Distilling Company in Rohnert Park will soon open its doors and provide another  opportunity to taste craft wine and spirits in Sonoma County.

`

 


Exploring the gateway to the Lodi wine region

Oak Farms Winery in Lodi

Things are often initiated through a glass of wine.  I had intended to explore the Lodi region for years but became distracted by other nearby appellations in Napa and Sonoma Counties.  Then, within a week, I tasted the dry, aromatic 2018 Sidebar Kerner Mokelumne River ($25), and the highly reviewed 2016 Oak Farms Cabernet Sauvignon ($22-25)from one of Lodi’s largest producers.

The kerner, with origins in Germany, is sourced from the Mokelumne Glen Vineyard in Lodi’s Mokelumne River sub-appellation and the cabernet sauvignon, with small hints of petit verdot and petite sirah, originates from the Oak Farm Estate Vineyard in the Mokelumne River and two other local sub-appellations.  

I recently had an opportunity to meet with Dan Panella, Oak Farms co-owner and third generation farmer for a quick lesson on the virtues of the local wine country.

The Panella family first arrived in Lodi more than eighty years ago, operating a trucking business before venturing into grape growing.  They purchased the seventy-acre historic Oak Farms in 2004, and began an aggressive re-planting program on sixty acres under vine.

Co-owner and winemaker Dan Panella

Today, Oak Farm carefully cultivates fourteen different grape varietals, taking full advantage of Lodi’s unique terroir.  

The Lodi region, which is divided into seven distinct sub-regions, was designated as an American Viticulture Area (AVA) in 1986. Of more than 500,000 acres in the AVA, 103,000 are currently under vine serving eighty bonded wineries.  

With a wine history that dates back to the 1850s, Lodi shares a Mediterranean climate similar to European appellations along the Mediterranean Sea, with warm days and cool nights. Located between San Francisco Bay and the Sierra Nevadas, it’s flat, the soils and microclimates are diverse and water is readily available.

Located in northern San Joaquin County, Lodi also has the distinction that the cost per acre of land is significantly lower than in Napa and Sonoma Counties, something that eventually affects the price of everything, from grapes to a bottle of wine.

Although the appellation is probably best known for its old vine Zinfandel, Lodi and Oak Farms also produce Old World varietals like merlot, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and others.

With over 4,000 cases produced, the Oak Farms Vineyards 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon ($25) is their most readily available wine and, with integrated flavors and soft tannins, is widely recognized as a top value-priced cabernet sauvignon.  The low-production 2016

Oak Farms “Tievoli” blend

Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon ($40) is also a good buy.

In addition to a crisp tanginess, the flavors of the Oak Farms Vineyards 2017 Sauvignon Blanc ($19), aided by some aging on lees, are balanced with softer tropical fruit, resulting in a rounder wine.  The 2018 Estate Grown Sauvignon Blanc ($26) uses a well known clone from New Zealand that, matched with the sandy loam soil and extended aging in French oak barrels, delivers a vibrant bouquet and rich, concentrated tropical fruit flavors. 

In addition to two small production releases from the nearby Hohenrieder and Mohr-Fry Vineyards, most of Oak Farms zinfandel marks a contrast between the full-bodied, but restrained 2017 Zinfandel ($25) and the aromatic, plush “fruit bomb” known as the 2017 Vapor Trail ($34), combining grapes from the Sierra Foothills with those of Lodi.

Two weirdly unique, but palate pleasing blends from Oak Farms include the 2016 Tievoli ($20-22), a blend of zinfandel, barbera and petite sirah and the syrah-dominant 2017 “Corset,” ($28) with added grenache zinfandel and malbec. Both are fun, complex wines for the price. Dan pointed out that Tievoli is “I love it” spelled backwards.

Oak Farms tasting room

The white fiano grape is native to southern Italy and Sicily but Oak Farms sources it from Clarksburg near the Sacramento Delta.  The 2017 Oak Farms Fiano ($25) won Gold at the 2018 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

Aside for their diverse assortment of wines. Oak Farms Winery offers one of the most complete tasting experiences in Lodi.  The new hosting facility, with modern features that

Oak Farms 2017 “The Corset” blend

reflect the past, is surrounded by vineyards and has a central courtyard where musicians entertain and customers picnic with a bottle of wine and offerings from local food trucks.  They present themselves “as the winery that gives you the Napa experience without the inflated prices.”

Oak Farms wines offer exceptional wines in the medium price range.  Tasting and enjoying country food at one of their weekend concerts is a good way to begin a weekend of exploring the Lodi wine region.


Hendrick’s Gin reveals exclusive cocktail for Napa Valley’s Bottlerock event

 

To preview their new cocktail, created exclusively for the Napa Valley’s Bottlerock event later this month, Hendrick’s Gin has released “Midsummer Solstice,” a limited-edition gin crafted by Master Distiller Lesley Gracie, once described as “the woman who invented your favorite gin.”

“I have always been enamored by the power of nature’s flavors and aromas at the peak of summer and for this new expression I’ve

Hendrick’s Midsummer Spritz Cocktail – Photo by Jasmine Van T Photography

hand-selected each floral essence to capture this intensity,” says Gracie. “Midsummer Solstice represents years of experimentation joining an exciting line of innovations from Hendrick’s, and I’m thrilled to not only create new liquid at the Gin Palace, but also share them with curious tasters and gin explorers all over the world.”

The recently completed Gin Palace provides a $17 million expansion to the Scotland-based distillery that features two new still houses, a walled garden, two state-of-the-art botanical greenhouses and endless opportunities for creativity.

The Gin Palace will double their capacity for production, enough to meet rapidly growing demand well into the future, but to artisan Gracie, it’s like adding colors to an already abundant palette and working with a large blank canvas. “It’s a major step forward in terms of potential for innovation,” she says.

Lesley Gracie has been with Hendrick’s since its 1999 inception and in the industry for over thirty years.  An educated chemist, her flavor infusing foray into spirits production began by trying to disguise the awful taste of arthritis medicine.  While Hendrick’s has always valued consistency, Gracie’s passion, similar to a fine

Master Distiller Lesley Gracie

winemaker, is to create a sensory experience from her innovated specialty gin releases that often use botanicals

In a recent Robb Report interview, she said, “When I’m gardening, I like to take walks and I’ll often stop to take a leaf and smell it. I’ll think, ‘Oh, that’s interesting; that might work really well.’ It’s a process that can really take over me.”

The Lesley Gracie Cocktail consists of 50 ml Hendrick’s Gin, 15 ml elderflower, soda water and three thinly sliced cucumber rounds.  However, the excitement at the preview party was the unveiling of the Midsummer Spritz that combines Hendrick’s Midsummer Solstice Gin, Lillet Rose’, Bordiga Apertivo and gooseberries.

Admittedly, sitting around a fire pit at Charmaine’s Rooftop Bar & Lounge, 1100 Market Street, looking out across the eastern skyline

Charmaine’s Rooftop Bar and Lounge-Photo by David Perper

provided a welcoming ambience, but I found the Midsummer Spritz to be an exceptionally balanced, refreshing cocktail while David, my “spirits wingman” thought that the floral qualities of the gin were extraordinary. 

“Hendrick’s is no stranger to the power of florals, thanks to the infusion of rose and cucumber in our original house style gin,” said Hendrick’s national US brand ambassador Sebastien Derbomez. “But the creation of Midsummer Solstice offers an exemplary amount of opportunity for new efflorescent cocktails. I am personally excited for the Hendrick’s Midsummer SuperBloom Punch, a bright, blossoming, and botanic punch which is easy to make at home and perfect for responsible midday consumption.”

San Franciscan Mark Stoddard, our bartender for the evening, has been spreading the gospel of Hendrick’s Gin since 2012.  As a world champion mixologist and business owner, he is described as “an

Bartender Mark Stoddard-photo by Jasmine Van T Photography

attentive student of cocktail history and lover of all that is out of the ordinary.”  

In addition to the Midsummer Spritz, Mark mixed an elegant drink called the Butterfly Effect that consists of Hendrick’s Gin, Chareau Aloe Liqueur, Jasdesca Apertivo (a wine-based aperitif), Lemon and Butterfly Blossoms and a Hendrick’s Pimm’s Cup, the number one selling cocktail for Charmaine’s techno-millennial crowd.

 

The preview event also afforded us the opportunity to sample a taste of the exceedingly small Hendrick’s production Orbium, another Lesley Gracie creation, instilled with extracts of Quinine, Wormwood and Lotus Blossom to complement the traditional cucumber and rose essences and provide a rounder mouthfeel.

 

The Midsummer Spritz and a few other Hendrick’s Gin cocktails will be available at Bottlerock Napa Valley, May 24-26, billed as the “first taste of summer,” a weekend featuring top musical performers, food, wine, brew and spirits.

Tired of crowds.  The Hendrick’s Gin website provides several cocktail recipes to be enjoyed at home.


The Vintage Port 2017 wines mark consecutive years of excellence

 

The 2016 Vintage Ports from the Douro region in northern Portugal were designated after a five year drought. Now, the 2017 Vintage, although different in style, have also been declared a Classic.

Representatives from the Fladgate Partnership, Symington Family Estates and Quinta Noval, all major producers of port from the region, gathered in the Nikko Hotel recently to present updates of the Vintage 2017.  In all, we tasted sixteen wines from eleven different port houses.

Terroir is a combination of climate, soil and human intervention that influences the wines.  The 2017 growing season in the Douro was exceptionally hot and dry, resulting in grapes that budded, ripened and were eventually harvested much earlier than normal.

Graham’s “The Stone Terraces vineyard

Old, deeply rooted vines do well in dry years.  It is these low-yield vines producing concentrated flavors that have distinguished the elegance and finesse of the 2016 Vintage from the richness and intensity of the 2017 Vintage.

From the Fladgate Partnership, the austere Taylor Fladgate 2017($100) exuded its trademark floral (violets) bouquet.  The complex flavors were rich, full and lingering.

Vineyards in the Quinta de Vargellas are century-old, north facing vines with ample hours of sun.  The Vargellas Vinha Velha 2017 ($220), described as a “Taylor Fladgate on steroids,” is a limited production blend from the oldest vines on the estate.  It is handsomely scented and there is a density to the layered flavors of dark fruit with herbal notes.

Croft, another port house under the Taylor Fladgate Partnership, presented two Vintage ports including the Croft Roeda Serikos 2017 from an estate that nearly became one of the world’s finest silk farms. Vines in the Quinta da Roeda were devastated in the 1870s by phylloxera which prompted the planting of mulberry trees. With the phylloxera problem solved, current vines were re-planted on the property around the turn of the century, and in a dry, hot year, drew from the minerals in the soil and performed exceptionally.

Croft Quinta de Roeda Serikos 2017

Estimations are that it takes four of these low yield vines to produce one bottle of port, the reason only 200 cases of the Roeda Serikos 2017 were produced.  Floral aromas open up in the glass for a delightful introduction to deep, concentrated flavors of red berry, black fruit and herbs. 

Dow’s has been among the great Port houses for over 200 years and the Symington Family for the past five generations.  Wine Spectator magazine named the Dow’s Vintage Port 2011 their wine of the year in 2014. The Dow’s Vintage Port 2017 comes from a marraige of two powerhouse quintas (vineyards)and provides lavender on the nose, deep colors and high viscosity on the palate. 

Under the Symington Family for fifty years, Graham’s was founded in the early 1800s and consists today of the Quinta

Dow’s Vintae Port 2017

dos Malvedos, one of the region’s finest vineyards and Quinta do Tua, known for its unique stone terraces.

With a dry year in normally hot climate, harvest for the Graham’s 2017 began early on August 28th and finished by September 15th.  Present floral aromas with complex flavors were described by Johnny Symington to include rose water, Turkish delight, mint and eucalyptus.

In only its fourth release, Graham’s The Stone Terraces 2017 is a micro-terroir wine from two original, north-facing vineyards.  It expressed aromas of tropical fruit and orange blossom and was flawlessly structured.

Cockburn’s, another port house under the Symington Family with south facing vineyards in the hot eastern Douro, produces the Cockburn Vintage Port 2017($80-90) that consists mostly of touriga nacional and delivers a luscious mouthfeel,

Graham’s Vintage Port 2017

velvety tannins and length.

Quinta Do Noval, located in the heart of the Douro, near the small town of Pinhão, consists of a 360-acre vineyard that is divided into several parcels.  The grapes selected for the Quinta do Noval Vintage Port($105) represent only a small portion of their total production. Powerful and balanced, this wine has a spice and floral quality with full black fruit flavors and significant tannins. 

Quinta Do Noval

The story of the Quinta Do Noval Nacional 2017 ($820) lies with a small parcel of ungrafted vines that were never impacted by phylloxera.  They are native Portuguese vines with no foreign root stock. This wine, with grapes still crushed using the laborious process foot treading in stone lagares, was remarkable in its complexity, balance and rich expression of fruit with a licorice component.

Tasting the Vintage Ports 2017 was an extraordinary experience.


Traditional sparkling wines from the shadows of the Dolomites

 

We often mistakingly define all Italian sparkling wine as prosecco.  It’s popularity is unmistakable.  Data has shown that nearly one-fifth of all global wine sales in 2017 were prosecco, a 21 percent increase from 2016.

However, prosecco is only one Italian sparkling wine, made from the glera grape and grown exclusively in the Veneto and Friuli-Venezia regions.  The name of the grape was changed from prosecco to glera in 2009 to protect the brand from outsiders.  

Terrific sparkling wines also originate from Lambrusco, Franciacorta, Asti Spumante and Trentodoc, a little known region in the Dolomites that produces sparkling wine using the same grapes and “metodo classico” (traditional method) as those from the Champagne region of France.

Trentodoc is a series of sparkling wines that actually originates from vineyards near Trento in the Trentino Alta Adige region, north of those where prosecco (glera) is grown.  The Dolomites mountain range serve as a majestic backdrop for many of the vineyards. The names of these wines, Trentodoc, is a combination of the city and the DOC ((Denominazione di origine controllata), a designation that instills strict requirements designed to protect the integrity of the region.

The Trentino region is the second largest producer of Italian sparkling wines that espouse the Champagne method (méthode champenoise) of allowing the second fermentation to occur in each bottle, when sugar and yeast is added to the wine (tirage), before the bottles are temporarily capped.  The interaction of the sugar and yeast culminates in carbon dioxide being trapped in the bottle.

Trentodoc sparkling wines are also made from many of the same grapes used in wines from Champagne.  Aside from “metodo classico,” the DOC regulations restrict the varietals to chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot meunier and pinot blanc, requiring that the vines are grown in pergola (canopy) style and that irrigation be used only in emergency situations.

All non-vintage Trentodoc wines must rest on their less for a minimum of 15 months, 24 months for vintage and 36 months to be called riserva.

Little known in the United States, Trentodoc sparkling wines have a personality that is not “bone dry” nor overly sweet.  Their bouquet is floral and somewhat delicate and the flavors are rounder and richer than most.  Another reason for the heightened awareness is their availability and cost, mostly within the $20-$35 range.

With warm daily breezes and cool evening winds, vines in the upper Cembra Valley, within shadows of the Dolomites, enjoy great terroir for the chardonnay grapes used in the 2010 Cesarini Sforza Riserva 1673 ($30).  The juice rests on its lees for a minimum of 60 months which adds to its delicate, rich texture that exceeds other sparkling wines at a similar price.

Founded in 1902, Ferrari Trento is one of the largest and oldest producers of several sparkling wine using the traditional method.  In 2017, they were awarded the title of “Sparkling Wine Producer of the Year” at the Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships

Grown at high mountain altitudes, a blend of pinot nero and chardonnay grapes, vinified as a rose’, comprised the non-vintage Ferrari Rose’ ($27), a beautiful light wine, but with deeper color than most.  Of all the Trentodoc wines that I tasted, this had the most complex and elegant nose and flavor profile with fresh hints of currants and berries

Certified organic, Maso Martis Trentodoc produces several releases including the non-vintage Maso Martis Brut Trentodoc ($40), made for chardonnay (70%) and pinot noir ($30) grapes. The aromas are floral and fruity while the flavors are full, but delicate.  I found

Maso Martis Brut Trentodoc

the wine to be food friendly, having paired it with pesto-crusted orange roughy. 

From 100% chardonnay vines high above sea level in the hills above Trento, the 2014 Altemasi Millesimato Trentodoc ($30) is a vegan, gluten free wine that goes through weekly battonage during the first fermentation, before tirage.  Battonage is the process of stirring the lees (dead yeast) into the juice, adding a softer, rich texture.  During the second fermentation, this wine is aged on its lees (not stirred) for 36 months.

The Altemasi Millesimato is dry, but fruity with well-integrated aromas and flavors of citrus and peach.  It is a perfect pair with scallops.

Trentodoc sparkling wines are the best option for those with a desire to explore beyond prosecco or simply seeking a flavorful, reasonably priced sparkler for the next occasion.