Monthly Archives: June 2011

L.A. Italian Wine Gala

Italian wines generate huge profits in the U.S., partly due to our fascination with their food and the quality of their wine. There are times when one has to travel to Italy to find their great wines, other times they come to you.

February always brings the L.A. Italian Wine Gala, targeting mainly clientele from the restaurant industry and affording wine writers an opportunity to be in on the front end of trends in waiting, experiencing wines that will end up on tables in fine Italian eateries.  Aside from tasting new, typically bold Italian red wines, my major takeaways evolved from the discovery of new grapes like negroamaro, cannonau, and prosecco, the odds on favorite to become part of the trendy L.A. lifestyle.

Held annually at Valentino’s Ristorante, Santa Monica’s icon of Italian cuisine, the 2011 Italian Gala featured fewer wineries and guests, a sign that the economy worldwide is still struggling.  Non-sparkling white wines, for my tastes, were also struggling, leaving the more obscure Italian reds to peak my interest.  Keep in mind; the exceptional Tuscan blends that have standing reservations on the major periodical “Top 100” lists are not always featured here. These are mid-priced wines from other regions of the country, vying to be included on restaurant wine lists.

One such wine, Sella & Mosca, Cannonau di Sardegna, DOC 2007, offers a unique story of a famous grape that re-defined itself in the soils of the island of Sardenia.  Origins have the Grenache grape arriving on the island with the Spanish dominance during the 14th Century. A few centuries later, the Grenache grape continues to express versatility and uniqueness when grown in the Pioret region of Spain, the Rhone Valley of France or California’s central coast.  Illustrating the influence of terrior, the cannonau expressed an earthiness, rare to other Grenache that I have tasted.  Jammy on the nose, the finish was long, retaining the earthy flavors throughout.  The wine retails for $18 and probably would appear on a restaurant wine list under $30.

Little known Negroamaro is a deep ruby, red grape grown mainly in Salento, the heel of the boot that is Italy. Blended with primotivo, an Italian clone of zinfandel, the Marco Maci, Infinito Rosso Negroamaro, Primitivo, Salento IGT 20005 was the most fruit-forward of the red wines tasted.  Surprising fruit and chocolate on the nose was proceeded by a rich, creamy texture with another burst of fruit on the finish. Marco Maci wines appear on many wine lists, a trend that will, without doubt, certainly continue.

Roasts and other red meats are the best food pairing for the Castello di Querceto, Il Picchio, Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG 2007, a Tuscan wine consisting of a hint of canalolo added to the traditional Sangiovese, awarded 90 pts by Wine Spectator magazine.   Although very earthy, the wine is well-balanced with a good flavor profile.

Another notable red from the event was the Castello di Fonterutoli, Badiola Toscana IGT 2008, originating from a historic property in the Chianti region of Tuscany.  The Mazzei family has produced wines in this area for well over 500 years, yet blending 25% merlot to sangiovese is relatively new, mitigating the traditional earthiness and adding balance.  Once again, there were hints of chocolate aromas followed by soft fruit.  Surprisingly, I have found their Castello di Fonterutoli Chianto Classico 2005 in a local wine outlet.

The unique Rocca delle Macie, Sasyr Toscana 2007 offers an odd blend from the Tuscan region, pairing Syrah, a southern Rhone French varietal, with Sangiovese, the traditional grape of the classic Chianti.  The bouquet of the blend was non-existent, the earthy flavors much bolder.

For those who enjoy a glass of sparkling wine, northeastern Italy may offer a new choice. Prosecco is to Italy what Champagne is to France  Grown in appellations in the Veneto region of the country, the prosecco or “qlera” grape, long used to produce the famed “asti spumante”, has been given more respect by producers who have shaped it into a crisp, dry sparkling wine with complex flavors. These improvements and moderate pricing has significantly increased global sales in the past decade.

Tasting prosecco is different from tasting a variety of still wines. As a sparkling wine, the tastes are subtler, almost indistinguishable from each other. Exploring prosecco through three winemakers in the Veneto region was delightfully educational and enabled me to understand appreciate the flavors more.

Well-known winemaker Piera Martellozzo released her Perle di Piera line of moderately priced wines in 2010, the reason they were anxious to introduce them to the Los Angeles market.  Her Piera Martellozzo Perle di Piera “Blue Pearl” Proscecco 2010 revealed pears on the nose and very fruit-forward taste.  Its smooth accessibility seemed appealing to those looking to augment their wine cellars. My sense is that it will appear in many in the near future.

Producing dry sparkling wines sine the late 1980’s, the Astoria Prosecco Valdobbiadene DOCG Spumante Millesimato 2010 was very well-balanced with tremendous aromas, soft yet full-bodied.  Like many from the region, Astoria and other Italian wines carry a DOCG or DOC designation, a quality assurance description tailored after the French AOC.  The Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) designation verifies that the wine was produced in a specified region, using defined methods to assure a quality standard.  The Denominazione di Origine Cntrollata e Garanita (DOCG) takes the standards process to another level, including government analysis and tasting. Wines carrying these designations are identified by a seal at the neck of bottles holding five litres or less.  Always look for the seal and the “black rooster,” denoting quality Chianti Classico from the Tuscan region.

Another sparkling wine producer in the northeast Valdobbiadene region, Belussi was highlighting their Belussi Prosecco DOC, a sweeter wine that is food friendly or can be served as an apéritif. However, the most impressive sparkling wine that I tasted was the Belussi Belcanto Rose’ Cuvee Brut, based from Pinot Noir grapes, expressing great balance with a burst of sweet fruit on the finish.  All the prosecco we tasted were clean and refreshing, but the prospect of a sparkling wine effectively utilizing the “heartbreak” grape was irresistible.

There is an abundance of good quality, good value Prosecco available in the Antelope Valley.  One outlet carried nearly 15 different sparkling Italian wines, all from Valdobbiadene, including the Nino Franco “Rustica” Prosecco Superior, awarded 90 pt. from wine expert, Robert Parker.

I also found one of their familiar, regularly featured wines locally, fostering a fortunate follow-up connection with the gala.  Having just tasted the 2008 vintage at the event, one outlet is offering the Castello di Querceto Chianti Classico, DOCG 2004($24).  My notes of the 2008 speak of a typically earthy wine with mineral hints on the nose, followed by a soft finish of bursting fruit.  This sounds inviting if I say so myself.

Italy remains the largest source of wines imported into the United States, fending off strong competition from South America, Australia and a declining France, whose historic blends are too expensive and are brilliantly replicated in California.  Our continuing love affair with Italian cuisine and the growth in popularity of prosecco has increased our appetites and helped to spur the growth of wine production in many diverse regions.

The L.A. Wine Gala 2001 featured wines from Veneto in the northeast, Salento in the deep south, the islands of Sicily and Sardenia as well as Tuscany.  It is an event that continues to foster old partnerships and forge new ones, as the Italian wine production continues to expand. One such collaboration involves my wife and Valentino’s cappuccino, annually described as the best she has ever tasted.

The Tasting Experience

A few weeks ago, while returning from a Shane Colvin concert in the San Fernando Valley, a conversation regarding all passenger’s sinus/allergy issues ensued leading to the question,  “do we really need them?”   Are sinuses, similar to appendix or tonsils, remnants of our past and can generations in the deep future avoid our irritation?

Curiosity led to a search that revealed the following functions of sinus cavities:  1.Making our voices more piercing, 2. Decreasing the weight of our head, 3. Absorbing blows to the face and 4. Moisturizing incoming air to increase the sense of smell.   As for sinuses impact on our voice, I am reminded that cats do not have sinuses.  There certainly are other, mostly psychological, methods to reduce head size and absorbing fists looses its appeal, as we get older.   Their clear value of moisturizing incoming air is important to our sense of smell, vital to appreciate both the bouquet and flavor of a fine glass of wine.

Those who wonder if a nice fruit or floral bouquet influences the taste or vice versa should understand that they are one in the same.  The wonderful aroma of a spicy tomato bisque soup is not present when we have a cold.  However, once the stuffy head passes, we often initially analyze the same tomato bisque by first smelling it.  Analyzing a glass of wine begins with our eyes, exploring it’s color and clarity, then the bouquet or “nose” using the “ol sniffer” followed by the flavor, which involves the combination of our nose and mouth, the nose actually more dominant.

Jancis Robinson, in her book, “How To Taste,” analyzes flavor e-mails to the brain to describe “what is tangible, the liquid or solid that comes into contact with our tongue and the inside of our mouth, and what is vaporized, the invisible gas that is given off by the substance.”  Go figure.  Although drinking wine may not cure our sinus problems, it certainly will exercise what is good about them.  Sinus sympathies have evolved into, “just suck it up.”

Hopefully it is now clear that the reasoning to “nose” wine before tasting is based on the fact that vapors solely on the nose differ from those combined with the tongue.  This leads to the need for wine glasses large enough to cover the entire nose.  Did you think you could capture the full essence of vapors from a southern San Luis Obispo County Syrah by simply placing a portion of the glass under your nostrils? One either thrives to totally enhance the vapor experience or ‘wimps out” by proceeding directly to the oral analysis.

Experience with “nosing” wine and learning to identify aromas naturally extend in to other things.  For example, I buy natural, loose Asian tea from “Bird Picks” a shop in Old Town Pasadena.  The wonderful flavor of their Royal Jasmine Quya Green still cannot match the extraordinary bouquet initially enjoyed in the store.   The “Bird Picks” tea shop is actually a perfect laboratory to practice identifying distinct aromas before evolving into the subtle distinctions in wine.

Although “terrior” can strongly influence regional distinctions in bouquet, reliable aromas are common to each varietal.   A California Riesling from Navarro Vineyards in Anderson Valley evokes memories of the smell of orchard fruits, jasmine and roses in Santa Clara Valley, aptly illustrated by John Steinbeck in the opening of Call Of The Wild and a good Pinot Noir, the cherry orchards of the Leona Valley.

Once on the palate, the tongue assists us to identify wines as sweet, dry, tannic, acidic, hopefully evolving into terms like well-balanced and full-bodied.  The fermentation process basically involves the transformation of sugar from the grapes into alcohol.  The amount of residual sugar left over determines the eventual sweetness or dryness of the wine.  With white wines, high sweetness levels found in muscato grapes or late harvest wines can drastically change with dry (non-sweet) Chardonnay or champagne.  Varietals such as Viognier, Riesling and the re-emergence of Chenin Blanc have, in recent years, grown in popularity by providing a well-balanced alternative to overly sweet or dry varietals.  Late harvest wines are unique because they add sweetness to traditionally medium dry grapes such as Zinfandel or Pinot Noir by leaving them on the vines nearly to the point they could fall to the ground naturally.  The late harvest Zinfandel, “Liquid Love” from Tobin James Cellars in Paso Robles and the 2001 Bonny Doon Viognier Port are both fine examples of dessert wines often described as “off-dry” rather than sweet.

About 85% of all red wines are identified as dry.  Yet, it is not difficult to distinguish many medium dry California varietals from the extremes of the great wines from Italian regions such as Chianti Classico and Bruenello di Montalcino.  Some of the most highly rated wines from these regions tend to be too dry and earthy for many Californian palates.

Many fans of reds fear descriptive terms such as acidic or tannic, but both are contributors to well-balanced wines, either in the short or long-term.  Acidity offsets sweetness while tannins help preserve wines as the flavors merge over time.  Many of us have experienced strong tannins in coffee or tea, especially when its been in the pot or steeped too long.  Experts often project long-term greatness from wines based on young, overly tannic symptoms, requiring patience and fiscal resources from the consumers.

Most of us prefer well-balanced wines that are readily drinkable with aromas and flavors that are distinct and pair favorable with food.  The following are suggested comparison exercises that can assist in identifying individual aromas and flavors and, hence, what varietals and specific styles best fit your preferences.

#1 The Fiddlehead Cellars Sauvignon Blanc Trio

Kathy Joseph, owner/winemaker of Fiddlehead Cellars in Lompoc, also obsessed with the search for the perfect Pinot Noir, has developed three separate Sauvignon Blanc wines, each pushed in different directions.  A few years ago, I had the opportunity to sit with her while we compared “Hunneysuckle”, “Goosebury” and “Happy Canyon,” three Sauvignon Blanc varietals from various vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley, each providing uniqueness in the tasting experience.  The warm region Happy Canyon grapes are permitted to ripen more fully and, with minimal oak influences, to create a more tropical, rather than citric fruit flavors.  The slightly acidic “Goosebury,” combining orchard and tropical fruit flavors with little oak influences, pairs best with food, specifically seafood.  The “Hunnysucke,” aged in French oak, provides more complex flavors and can stand alone without the influences of food.  Another comparison is that of a California Sauvignon Blanc against one from the Marlborough region of New Zealand, both readily available from local outlets.

Sauvignon Blanc ranges from light, fruity to medium- bodied oak influences, with melon, vanilla on the nose and palate and best served with seafood or mussels.


#2 The California Pinot Noir comparison


Pinot Noir grapes in California are generally found in Santa Barbara, Monterey, Sonoma and Mendocino Counties.  All similar due to their proximity to coastal influences, distinctions lie, for the most part, in the soil and micro-climates that enhance minerality and certain flavors.  A comparison among appellations would be fun, especially including our local Leona Valley Winery, who’s Pinot Noir has less coastal influence than most.

Pinot Noir mostly provides elegant black cherry and berry flavors that range from lighter colored, spice enhancements to darker full-bodied a bit more jammy and riper.  Pairs well with pork, salmon and any dish using loads of mushrooms.


#3 French verses California Chardonnay


Arguments over the merits of oak-driven California Chardonnay and French White Burgundy have brewed continuously since 1976 with many of our wineries adopting the French method, preferring stainless steel over, ironically, our traditional French oak.  For serious tasters, I recommend comparing two Santa Rita Hills wineries near Lompoc.  Located next to each other along Highway 246, the Melville Winery Clone 76 “Inox” (French for stainless steel) and the Foley Estate “Barrel Select” Chardonnay, both tremendous wines offer as much distinction that can be found.    The former is crisp, acidic with citric blossom on the nose and tropical flavors and the latter has a balanced acidity enhanced by nuances of orchard fruit, vanilla and brown sugar.  Another option is a comparison of a locally available Chardonnay such as the Merryvale “Starmount” with a French White Burgundy from the Loire Valley.

Chardonnay is a popular dry wine with aromas and flavors of orchard (pear, apple) and tropical/citric (orange, pineapple, grapefruit) fruits ranging in texture from light and crisp to creamy vanilla.  It pairs well with seafood like scallops, salmon, avocado and cheeses.

#4 California Syrah verses Australian Shiraz verses Rhone Syrah verses South African Shiraz.

There is no difference between the Shiraz and Syrah grape, its origin traced back to Persia.  French Syrah from the northern Rhone Valley is typically spicy and fruity with plenty of tannins, slow to age while California Syrah generates plenty of spice in the cooler climates and more raspberry, cherry in warmer regions.   Due to climate and winemaking techniques, the Shiraz from Australia and South Africa are much bolder.  “Coolthink” blog (2-15-2007) compares the two as beret to cowboy hat,  Formula One to NASCAR, Sunset Blvd to Avenue Q and “Free Wheelin Bob Dylan” to ‘Blood On The Tracks.”   A close comparison would probably require a reminder that they are the same grape.

Syrah is grown in many California regions from Santa Barbara to Mendocino Counties with aromas and flavors of white pepper, clove and berry jam ranging from medium-bodied (mostly blended) to full-bodied and tannic, generally served with lamb, sausage and, in the most decadent scenario, chocolate.


Wine, known for volatile vapors and subtle, but abundant flavor distinctions requires our full attention and the use of most of our senses.  Look at it, smell it, touch it and taste it.  Your sinuses will be the better for it.

Right-Bank Bordeaux Wines


Last month, we participated in a tasting sponsored by Le Cercle Rive Droite grand Vins de Bordeaux (The Right Bank Circle of Great Bordeaux Wines) featuring appellations east of the Gironde River such as Pomeral, Saint Emillion, Fronsac, and Castillion.  Founded in 2002 to further assure quality and market new vintages, the organization represents 139 chateaux, 31 of which were present at the tasting held at Camponile Restaurant near La Brea and Wilshire Blvd.

Arguably the world’s most famous wines come from Brodeaux in western France, along the Gironde River as it navigates toward the Bay of Biscay.  The river plays an important role in defining Bordeaux wines.

The French were leaders in establishing strict standards to their wine regions, regulating varietals, farming techniques and appellation identification.  All Bordeaux wines are blends of, primarily, dominant Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot with support from Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot and Malbec. This is where the Gironde River plays an important role in defining the “leader of the pack” on the regional wines.

Wines produced in vineyards west (Left Bank) of the river use Cabernet Sauvignon as the dominant grape and those on the eastside (Right Bank), merlot.  A typical blend from the Right Bank might include 45% merlot, 25% cabernet sauvignon, 15% cabernet franc, 10% petite verdot and 5% malbec. Reverse the merlot and cabernet sauvignon and you have a Left Bank Brodeaux wine.

The Le Cercle Rive Droite Grand Vins de Bordeaux event introduced us to vintages 2008 through 2010 of those Right Bank, merlot-based blends.  Comparisons can be fun but it soon became apparent that vintages 2008 and 2009 were set up to showcase their prized vintage 2010.  Many of those pouring wine recommended that we start with the newest vintage.


My tasting began with the Chateau de Laussac Castillon/Cotes de Bordeaux, Vintages 2008-2010, produced from very old vines and traditional vinification methods. The 75% merlot-25% cabernet blend goes through the malolactic fermentation process in thirsty new oak barrels, a method that helps insure a more accessible flavor and balance to the wine.  Although vintage 2010 had minimal bouquets related to the others, the flavors were very forward and concentrated with hints of vanilla and well-balanced acidity presenting the option of drinking now or later. I am beginning to understand why Bordeaux is quite anxious to showcase the vintage 2010, a source of pride to the region.  It will be interesting to discover if this trend persists in other wines.

From the Fronsac appellation, the 16th Century Chateau de la Dauphine now produce merlot and cabernet franc on the same vines in heavy limestone soil. One would expect an 80% merlot blend to be soft and accessible, but the Chateau de la Dauphine Fronsac Vintages 2008, 2010 delivered more concentrated fruit than anticipated with vintage 2010 bringing a soft minerality throughout a very long finish.

Another local estate, Chateau Fontenil Fronsac ($40-55) creates a heavily merlot-dominant blend amid the limestone that, in past years, has received consistent ratings in the low 90 pt. range. Vintage 2008 had very expressive fruit on the nose and soft tannins.  Resolved that it needs more time on the bottle, vintage 2010 still conveyed nice spicy herb bouquet and highly concentrated fruit.  If you can find a bottle, decant it.  Some research revealed that K&L Wines ( is selling futures for vintage 2009, with delivery anticipated in late 2012.

The malolactic fermentation process, through the introduction of lactic acid eating bacteria to the barrel, is designed to balance the acid in the wine, exposing more concentrated fruit flavors.  One result of the process, the Chateau le Bon Pasteur 2010, from the Pomerol appellation, was, without question, the most balanced and flavorful wine at the event.  One should expect a burst of fruit and spice on the nose followed nice earthy mushroom flavors.

Also from Pomerol, the dark, inky colored Merlot-blend, the Clos L’ Eglise Pomerol 2010 offers very accessible, well-balanced flavors at a moderate price. We next tasted a flight of three vintages, 2008-2010, of the Chateau Fayat Pomerol, each with strong berry flavors and a long finish.  The vintage 2009 stood out with a nice rose petal nose.

My favorite wine of the entire tasting was a wonderful Merlot-dominant Chateau Barde-Haut Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2008 which had everything one could expect from a Bordeaux blend, very dark color, hints of lavender aromas, mild tannins, and abundant berry flavors that linger well after spitting.  The representative explained that it was occasionally available at K&L Wines in Hollywood, something to watch for.

French winemakers in all the regions hold the utmost respect for the soil. Whether it consists of river rock, limestone, red sandstone or clay, recognizable impacts from the soil are evident in all flavor profiles.  With only 10% Cabernet Franc, the Chateau Rol Valentin Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2008 combines grapes grown in both sandy and clay soils. The result is a very fruit-forward wine that maintains complex flavors through the finish.

The vintage 2010 Chateau Siaurac Lalande de Pomerol, a medium-bodied blend, was very smooth and accessible with dominant black cherry flavors in comparison to the very earthy vintage 2008, my choice, with flavors of fresh herbs and mushrooms.

Our afternoon concluded by sampling vintage 2008 and 2010 of the Chateau Vray Croix de Gay ($60), a red blend that is consistently rated in the low to mid-nineties.  Both wines produced very concentrated fruit and were well-balanced.  The vintage 2010 emerged for me as a very masculine wine, preceded by nice perfumed aromas.  A momentous ending to a very informative event.

Purchasing Bordeaux wines can be a bit tricky.  Since demand often results in investment by U.S. consumers in “futures” to ensure access to the wines. A recent story in Wine Spectator magazines chronicled the quality of vintages 2008 and 2009 as both rich, powerful, yet with very accessible flavors.  Reviews of twenty-three top 2008 red Bordeaux illustrated ratings ranging from 92-94 pts with costs from $45 to $3,000 per bottle.  Another article entitled “Values Across Bordeaux,” is a good starting point in researching Bordeaux wines.  Bottles of interest can be cross-referenced with lists and inventories in wholesale outlets throughout southern California.

Ironically, before this article goes to print, I will have had an opportunity to visit wineries in the Cotes de Rhone, the other great French wine region with appellations from Chateaunef-du-Pape, Girondas, and Vaqueyvas.  These blends consist of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre, among the 13 grapes, licensed by the AOC seal of quality assurance and permitted to be grown in the region.  My experience is another future story, but I was able to purchase a bottle for under 20 euros.

The moderate prices of local Rhone-blends are indicative of how much it costs to get it to U.S. shelves.  This was a nice change; given one Euro is valued at nearly one and one half times our dollar.  As a friend said, “Remember, that 10 euro salad is really $14”.  So, the secret of French wines is to taste, purchase and consume them in France, preferably in a beautiful place like Provence, with salami, numerous cheeses, fresh radishes, local olives and bread.

Cooking with Chef Moreno


The village of Varenna, along the shores of Lake Como in northern Italy, is possibly the most peaceful and authentically beautiful place I have ever seen.  The huge lake, at the base of the Swiss Alps, was glass-like except for the occasional wake of a water taxi taking passengers to Bellagio, the stunning gardens of Villa Carlotta and other points north. Another lasting memory of this area was the opportunity to make gnocchi, risotto and other dishes with chef Moreno Maglia, owner of Il Caminetto Ristorante, in the rugged hills above the village.

The success of Il Caminetto Ristorante is based upon reputation, not walk-in traffic.  In fact, the only way that you can, or would want to get to it is to be transported and returned to the village in a van or taxi. The narrow, winding road up to the site would not be something that anyone but locals could manage; two-way traffic on a one-way road that requires the sound of a horn to warn potential on-coming automobiles of your presence.  My advice is to close your eyes, think about great food and pray that you’ll make it, both up the hill and down.

“Please speak slowly, my English is like my pasta, homemade” cautioned the chef after a barrage of questions about his cooking philosophy.  He finally offered, “few rules, more passion” which was the first indication that we needed a sharp pencil, plenty of paper and enough power for the video camera.  We arrived within minutes, greeted by a cappuccino, biscotti and the menu for today’s class:  Pancetta-wrapped Pork Sirloin, Gnocchi with Gorgonzola Sauce and Risotto with Strawberries and Balsamic.  What follows are not recipes, but my best recollection of the class to, hopefully, stimulate your improvisational cooking skills.

Proclaiming “everything in moderation,” Chef Moreno trimmed some and left some fat on a gorgeous pork sirloin.  After seasoning with Kosher salt and ground black pepper, he cut several two-inch deep slices that were filled with fresh rosemary twigs before preparing a fresh rub, consisting of finely chopped lemon zest, rosemary, thyme and marjoram.  The herb mixture was then spread on the sirloin, pressing it in for complete and even coverage.

Warning us not to be “skimpy,” he then wrapped the entire upper sirloin with 1.5 lbs. of pancetta, which is Italian bacon that is cured, seasoned and dried for several months.  His pancetta was thicker than most commercially found in stores. True “foodies” can have it cut thicker at butcher shops.  After the rub and pancetta wrap, the sirloin was wound tightly, 8-10 times with string and set aside while the bed of vegetables was prepared.

The vegetables, consisting of leeks (tops only), cut in ½ inch pieces, sliced carrots, onions and celery are mixed with good extra-virgin olive oil and, for those inclined, some of the trimmed fat from the meat. Then the pancetta wrapped pork is laid atop the vegetables and trimmed fat.   After adding 2-3 large glasses of dry white wine to the pan, it is roasted on all sides for an hour and a half at 375 degrees, turning two times, finishing with the pancetta on the top.  When the wine reduces, Chef suggests adding 3-4 glasses of beef or veal stock and, if it begins to dry out, covering with foil.  With the sirloin comfortably in the oven, protocol requires a glass of Rosso di Vatellino Vendemmia Nebbiolo 2006 or other suitable Italian red wine before moving to the gnocchi.  We all agreed that it was 5pm somewhere.

Adding 4 tbsp. white flour, 1.5 litre cold water, a pinch of salt and black pepper to the vegetable mixture, then skimming with a level wooden spoon before straining can make a simple pork loin sauce.  As Chef Moreno tossed out the vegetables for chicken feed, we thought it smelled good enough to eat.

Gnocchi (“noki”) is a dumpling-like, potato based pasta served in most fine Italian restaurants. Our next task was to prepare fresh gnocchi from scratch by first boiling 2.5 lbs. potatoes, with skins, until there is some resistance with the knife, then gingerly peeling them (NO FOOD PROCESSORS ALLOWED) while they are still hot enough to burn your fingers.  Where’s the sous chef?  Oh, I guess that would be me.  Once peeled, the potatoes are shredded through a “potato ricer”, available at gourmet kitchen shops.  I found mine at Williams-Sonoma in Pasadena for $32. Chef Moreno warned that if the ricer is not put into cold water immediately after use, it might be the last time it is usable. Apparently, hot water can actually cook the residue into the device. A generous portion of freshly grated parmesan or other “grana” cheese and 3 oz. of flour is added to the potatoes before the kneading process begins.  Hopefully, the potatoes have cooled off a little.

The next step is to knead together the potatoes, flour and cheese into a big ball.  Once the dough is ready, it is separated into 1-½ inch balls that are set-aside for a few minutes.  After spreading durum flour on the cutting board to help shape the dough, the gnocchi balls are gently rolled inside out, using spread fingers, into sticks approximately 18 inches long.  Impressed with my “gnocchi rolling” skills, Chef asked if I was an engineer, stating they usually perform well during this stage of the process. After answering in the negative, I became more determined to out do any engineer, past, present or future.

Once the sticks are cut into one inch pieces, they begin to look, with one exception, like the gnocchi you see in restaurants.  The exception is the trademark serrated edge that is the most delicate, yet difficult part of the entire process. Each little gnocchi piece is held with two fingers and softly, but quickly slid along a fork to make the serrated edge.  In teaching this step to students, Chef encourages them to say “shut up” as they snap the little gnocchi ball across the fork.  I guessed that it was some type of rhythm thing, but it seemed to work.

Using a large spatula, the gnocchi is then moved onto trays for inspection before putting them into boiling water for the brief cooking time.  If they are too dense, you have used too much flour.  The little balls are then cooked in boiling water until they rise to the surface, ready to eat.  They’re best eaten right away or the same day. If you must make the gnocchi the day before serving, put them into a plastic bag with a little olive oil and refrigerate.  The next day, re-boil in salt water until they rise to the surface.  Since we generally don’t eat pasta without sauce, there is one more caloric step in the process.

The sauce for the gnocchi combines sliced leeks (white stems only), Gorgonzola cheese (3 tbsp for 4 portions), extra-virgin olive oil and one cup heavy cream.  Cook the leeks over medium heat until they become translucent; add cream, black pepper, then the cheese.  The reduced sauce is ready when it coats the spoon.  Pour the sauce over an individual bowl of gnocchi and enjoy, preferably with another glass of wine.

Although, it would be too heavy to add risotto to a meal of pancetta-covered pork sirloin and gnocchi, the rice mixture can be paired with a fresh salad for an exceptional Italian meal. Cooking risotto, for most amateur chefs, falls into the category of “easier said then done.” My attempts usually become too soft and sticky or too crunchy. Hopefully, Chef Moreno can help me to improve and impress my friends with Risotto with Strawberries and Balsamic.  He said that a good start would be to use Carnaroli or another quality brand of rice.

To prepare this dish for four portions, Chef recommends 11 oz. rice, 3 oz. unsalted butter, 4-5 strawberries, 4 tbsp. balsamic vinegar, 2.5 litres of vegetable stock and 2 oz parmigiano-reggiano cheese.  Start by melting one tbsp. butter in a shallow pot, then add the rice, pushing down with a wooden spoon and toasting until shiny.  Secondly, add the vinegar and reduce, then add already hot stock. Next, add the strawberries, cook for 18-19 minutes, adding more stock as the mixture gets dry. Finally, add 2 tbsp. butter, the cheese and black pepper.

Chef Moreno’s risotto was not too dry, not too “mushy” with balanced flavors, none over-powering the other.  With his lead and some practice, we can, eventually master the art.  However, like a good wine, we will need time.

This was one of our most memorable days in Italy.  Chef Moreno is both knowledgeable and charming and his family’s history with the stone building restaurant and inn (circa 1785) is almost beyond comprehension.  The next time you are in Varenna, contact him at +39-0341-815-225 or for a culinary experience and a ride up and down the hill that you soon won’t forget.

The following evening, just beginning to think about food again, we found a great menu in the restaurant at the Hotel Villa Cipressi, overlooking the lake.  Who knew that, after traveling through Rome and Verona, our top culinary experiences would be in Varenna, midway up the shores of beautiful Lake Como. If this is not paradise, it’s close enough for my taste.

San Diego Wine and Food Festival

The wine community is not immune from the effects of the global recession.  The International Organization for Vine and Wine recently projected that production this year will fall to an eight year low.   This trend was not evident as the annual San Diego Wine and Food Festival attracted nearly 60 wineries to a reserve tasting event following a week of intriguing “fork and cork” programs.  Marketed as the largest festival of its kind in Southern California, the participation of 170 wineries and breweries, 70 restaurants and several celebrity chefs were apparent throughout the five-day affair.

Food plays an equal role to wine at this festival, whether learning to cook California-style French food, South American cuisine or indulging in creative chocolate making through classes from one of the celebrity chef’s on-site or the fabulous small plates from San Diego’s finest restaurants.  Recently returning from the continent, we chose to attend “A Taste of South America,” with Billy Strynkowski, Executive Chef for “Cooking Light “ magazine.   Strynkowski’s east coast casual style provided energy and laughter as he guided us through mango mojitos’s and a menu of arepas, pan-grilled halibut with Chimichuri, maduros (sautéed sweet plantains) and enchilado de camerones (deviled shrimp).   The chef, aside from stressing proper knife cutting techniques, shared tips like “never buy an avocado with the stem missing,” “never crowd fish when cooking” and that “400 degrees is the new 350.”  Of course, our menu was paired with a solid Chardonnay and an excellent Tempranillo, both from Paso Robles’ WCP Cellars, an up and coming winery from a region that is the current “buzz” in California.

A few days after Wine Spectator magazine announced Justin Smith’s Saxum Winery  “James Berry Vineyard” Rhone blend its “2010 Wine Of The Year,” proof that Paso Robles winemakers have positioned themselves as a powerhouse was clear throughout the San Diego fête.

WCP Cellars was only the first of many fresh, new Paso wineries that we encountered.  Another occurred when co-founder Sherman Smoot, a former fighter pilot, was pouring wines at the Reserve Tasting from his boutique Bella Luna Winery, producing less than 2,000 cases.   Although they source varietals from other vineyards, the flagship wines, 2008 Bella Luna Estate Sangiovese and 2006 Estate Riserva, a Sangiovese-Cabernet Sauvignon blend, originate from their five-acre estate vineyard in the Templeton Gap, south of town.  Both wines stood up to other exceptional local Sangiovese in texture, balance and taste.

Clautiere Vineyard, a small east Paso winery with an interesting history, was pouring their unique blends and a 100% Mourvedre, an earthy grape noted for softening Rhone blends.  Aside from being well balanced and textured, their Clautiere Vineyard Estate “Mon Beau Rouge,” a classic Rhone-blend with Syrah, Counoise, Grenache and Mourvedre and Estate “Mon Rouge,” a Syah-Cabernet blend both delivered great taste and a notably long finish.

Curiosity of the varietal drew me to the 2006 Derby Wine Estate Petite Sirah, a young Paso Robles producer whose distinctive wines, including a 100% 2007 Counoise, are attracting attention. Counoise, another Rhone varietal, contributes spice and some good acidity to the ensemble, overcoming negligible depth of color.   The 2007 Derby Vineyard “Fifteen 10” red Rhone-blend and the unique 2006 “Mocab” (Mourvedre 60%-Cabernet Sauvignon 40%) blend are both wines I would suggest.  The “Fifteen 10 white Rhone, not available in San Diego, has also received good reviews.  Exploring the many new, gifted wine producers from Paso Robles promises to be both fun and informative in coming years.

The Reserve and New Release Tasting event, held aboard the elegant Hornblower Inspiration yacht, is a great opportunity for wine enthusiasts; winemakers and restaurateurs to network through new release wines and great food.  Among the wineries represented, my most significant take away was a Chardonnay from a small Sonoma County winery in Healdsburg.

With no prior knowledge that it had amassed accolades including best of varietal at the 2010 San Diego International Wine Competition, the 2008 Dutcher Crossing “Stuhlmuller Vineyard” Chardonnay instantaneously became my favorite new discovery of the event.  Expressive, creamy texture, the result of 100% malolactic fermentation, leads us through soft fruit flavors followed by those of nuts and butterscotch on the finish.  The high-end $34 price tag is justified for those drawn to Chardonnay multi-layered with flavor and texture.  This wine will remain on my radar.

Few are aware that nearly 20% of California’s total wine production originates from Lodi, exceeding Napa and Sonoma combined. While Zinfandel put the region on the map, Lodi is also a leader in the production of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

Last month I mentioned that Michael and David Winery’s “Earthquake Zin,” from Lodi, was a good locally available wine.  “MDW” has recently expanded its accreditation, primarily through the release of their full-bodied “Seven Deadly Zins” wine.  The festival affords enthusiasts occasion to be on the front end of something good. At the reserve tasting, I had the pleasure to try the Michael and David Winery 2007 “Sloth,” “Lust,” and “Gluttony,” all part of the new “Sin series,” all living up to the hype.  Each of the wines hails from a specific vineyard, offering a unique blend with the Zinfandel grape.  All three posses a smooth, creamy texture with “Lust,” certainly no coincidence, adding hints of caramel and chocolate on the finish.

Lodi and nearby Calaveras County also produce much of the state’s Petite Sirah, an ink colored wine that usually delivers strong bouquets and well-balanced dark fruit favors, often under $20.  Once such wine is the 2008 Van Ruiten Family Vineyards Petite Sirah, drinkable now, priced at $19.99.

Vintage 2007 was good for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.  The region placed five wines in the first twenty of Wine Spectator magazine’s top 100 of 2010 including the 2007 Altamura Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, listed as #4 with 97 pts. A part of that success resides in a small area, southeast of downtown Napa, known as the Tulcay-Coombsville District.

Bruce Ahnfeldt first planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in Coombsville during the mid-eighties, providing grapes to other wineries, including Altamura.  Since the inception of his label in 2002, Ahnfeldt wines have consistently been rated in the nineties by major periodicals.  The 2005 Ahnfeldt Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley was a nice relief from the rain and wind that impacted the Saturday Grand Tasting Event, staged on the green near Seaport Village.  The boldness of this wine is not overbearing, softened by impeccable balance and a smooth, creamy texture.  The Coombsville area has several family owned wineries, waiting to be included in future explorations of Napa Valley.

For those who love food, wine and this city, the San Diego Wine and Food Festival, held annually in November, is a great way to welcome in the winter.  We came away with some great recipes and cooking tips, sampled food from the areas finest restaurants and, of course, discovered several new wine releases, all of high quality.

Although the festival lasts only five days, the experience continues as we try to perfect new dishes and pursue the best values from the world’s finest wine regions.  There is also plenty of opportunity to hang out in the Gaslamp District or at the beach.

Santa Rita Hills, 2011

New establishments like Palate Food and Wine generate much of the excitement surrounding the South Brand district in Glendale.  Self-proclaimed as “a restaurant with a wine shop/wine shop with a restaurant”, they also host specialty wine pairing dinners and weekly events like “Tuesday Night Jazz N’ Juice featuring wines from a specific world region followed by nice, local jazz.  We were invited, last month, to a mid-week “Santa Rita Hills, 2011” tasting event for their new releases that led to some out of the ordinary discoveries.  The Santa Rita Hills appellation has earned the prestige that comes with creating consistently great wines.  The status that has experts comparing each vintage, looking for the “one of a lifetime.”

In describing the Santa Rita Hills region to California natives, I begin with its between the Anderson Split Pea Soup restaurant in Buellton and the beach in Lompoc.”  I also add that it is the north side of Point Conception, the only east-west coastal mountain range in California.  The vineyards use heat, wind, fog, and soil to produce Pinot Noir and cool-climate Chardonnay and compete with any region in the world.  Many of the top winemakers were present, but there were enough new unearthings to make it fun and unique.

The Santa Rita Hills appellation is mostly known through its vineyards whose grapes are outsourced to wineries up through the central coast.  Ken Brown Cellars, since 2003, has earned a reputation for producing small lot Pinot Noir from top SRH vineyards like Clos Pepe, Sanford and Benedict and Rio Vista.  The Ken Brown Cellars Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir 2007 ($38), from multiple vineyards had soft fruits flavors with nice hints of vanilla while the single-vineyard Ken Brown Cellars Clos Pepe Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007 ($50) had much more depth with a nice spice on the finish.

The Richard Longoria “Fe Ciega Vineyard” Pinot Noir is, vintage to vintage, one of the finest from the appellation.  However, the first pour was the 2007 Richard Longoria “Lovely Rita” Pinot Noir ($32), a soft, fruit-forward wine from the Fe Ciega and Rancho Santa Rosa vineyards.  Awarded 90 points by Wine Spectator, “Lovely Rita” is an affordable, very accessible wine that can stand on its own, but lacks the age of their flagship release.  The 2007 Richard Longoria “Fe Ciega Vineyard” Pinot Noir ($50) is a classically elegant, medium-bodied wine with an herbal spice interacting with the dried cherries and vanilla flavor throughout.  Influenced by 35% new French oak, the $50 price tag of the 2007 is softened by its 93-point rating.

My “bolt from the blue” of the tasting was the 2006 Richard Longoria “Clover Creek Vineyard” Tempranillo ($36), the Spanish grape that thrives in the Roija region, between Barcelona and Bilbao.  Atypical to this area, Longoria has found the warmer Santa Ynez Valley as a near ideal terrior for his Tempranillo vines.  His wine is rich in texture, bouquet and flavors with a soft earthiness throughout.  Aside from fine restaurants in the area, all Longoria wines are available at their Los Olivos village tasting room.

About a mile and a half from the 101, west along Highway 246, is the Hitching Post Restaurant, made famous by the film, “Sideways”.  They are known for fine food and a fantastic wine list, but few are aware that they produce their own line of wines.  Chef/owner Frank Ostini and friend Gray Hartley turned a hobby, some thirty years ago, into an annual search for high-end Pinot Noir from some of the celebrated vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills appellation.  This day, they were pouring single-vineyard Pinot’s from the Cargasacchi and Fiddlestix Vineyards, both well represented throughout the event.

The Cargassachi Vineyard is more westerly than any other in the appellation, designating it “the coolest of the cool.”  The Hitching Post “Cargassachi Vineyard” Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir 2006 ($42) expressed well-balanced flavors with hints of raspberry, benefiting from the softness of the wine.  Fiddlestix Vineyard, along Santa Rosa road near the Fe Ciega Vineyard supplied the grapes for the Hitching Post “Fiddlestix Vineyard” Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir 2006 ($42), influenced by new oak, a rich, full-bodied Pinot that can even get better in time.

New discoveries are always the best “takeaways” from tasting events, especially taking note of a specific wine like the 2007 Demetria Estate “Eighteen” Chardonnay Santa Rita Hills ($45).  Barrel-aged for 22 months in primarily new French oak, another nine months in the bottle, the “Eighteen” delivers complex bouquets and flavors, floral hints throughout in a rich, creamy package that delights the palate.  It is no wonder that most of my favorite California chardonnay hails from this appellation.

With a deep garnet color and bouquet like a bowl of fresh berries, the 2007 Demetria Estate Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills ($40) adds hints of vanilla and significant oak influence to an intricate flavor profile.  Demetria Estate also produces white and red Rhone-style blends, mainly in the Santa Ynez Valley.  They re worthy of inclusion in any wine enthusiasts “tickler” file.

Kathy Joseph, owner/winemaker of Fiddlehead Cellars, is one of my favorite people from this region and her Fiddlehead “Goosebury” Sauvignon Blanc is, hands down, my favorite of the varietal.  The three Santa Ynez Valley Sauvignon Blancs were left at her tasting room, but at least she was present with three consistently high-end Pinot Noir, two from the Santa Rita Hills and one from Oregon.

The Fiddlehead Cellars “728” Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills 2007 ($42), named after the mile marker at the entrance to Fiddlestix Vineyard, is Kathy’s first Pinot, full of black cherry, plum flavors and a bit of black pepper.  Once the wines are aged for 18 months, the most elegant barrels, silky and rich, are selected for the Fiddlehead Cellars “Lalapalooza” Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills ($75), her premium wine.  A soft minerality accompanies rich dark cherry and berry to form an elegant structure.  My familiarity with this wine never interferes with my anticipation of great flavors.

Unique among winemakers in this region, Kathy produces an  Oregon Pinot, the Fiddlehead Cellars “Oldsville” Pinot Noir ($50), although the grapes are shipped in refrigerated trucks to her Lompoc facility for processing.  While the  Oregon vintage 2008 is getting all the “buzz,” she passed along that vintage 2007 is “opening up.”

The owners of two esteemed vineyards, Cargasacchi and Clos Pepe, were in attendance, pitching their own Pinot Noir releases.  Both vineyards can “sell” a bottle of wine, so logic tells us that the terrior will continue to influence their own wines.  Cargasacchi poured vintages ’07 and ’08 of the Cargasacchi Vineyards Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills, both fruit forward with long finishes.  In my opinion, the ’08 had more depth and a wonderful bouquet.  I would recommend this wine to someone who wants to discover the varietal.

Clos Pepe Vineyards creates Pinot Noir that shows restraint, believing that too much emphasis is placed on the highly concentrated, jammy wines.  That being said, the vintage ’07 and ’09 Clos Pepe Vineyards Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills both walk the fine line between elegance and masculinity, expressing nice traditional bouquet and flavor.

Years ago, Pinot Noir was intended for consumption within a year of release.  Today, California’s bold Pinot’s are more tannic and can improve over years.  Proving this point, the winemaker opened a 2001 Cargasacchi Vineyards Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills, expressing exceptional balance and integrated flavors, surprising for a decade old release.

My last stop resulted in an interesting conversation with Deborah Hall, owner/winemaker at Gypsy Canyon Vineyards and Winery whose wines have been highly recognized by many periodicals.  Generating under 350 total cases, her Pinot Noir is big, bold and ripe for aging while her other release, a dessert wine is steeped in California history.

Deborah’s Pinot Noir, in the opinion of many, is “not for everyone.”  She is said to create very individual wines, usually bold, tannic, clearly developing with time.  However, consensus is that her 2008 Gypsy Canyon “Trois” SRH Pinot Noir ($95) has reached a new plateau in complex flavors, balance and texture.  The traditional plum, dark berry flavors are smokey and earthy, yet perfumed.  Be prepared to give it some time.

Originally planted by the Franciscans as they established  California missions, the fortified dessert wine, Gypsy Canyon Ancient Vines “Angelica” ($135) is a pure re-creation of the original, using Mission grapes from the same vineyard, overgrown and hidden for a century.  Expensive, but a must for those interested in California history, wine and good taste.  More like port than dessert wine, the sweetness is offset by a rich, creamy caramel flavor.  There is a great story woven into the fabric of this winery, one that would invite further exploration.

Events such as the Palate Food and Wine tasting opens new doors and is a reminder that world-class wines are produced less than an hour north of Santa Barbara.  Vineyards and charming villages like Los Olivos expose another side of the region.  With a plethora of good restaurants, wineries and inns, it’s your next weekend get-a-way waiting to happen.  Here are a few recommendations among a multitude of options.

Restaurants:  Los Olivos Cafe, Patrick’s Side Street Cafe, The Ballard Inn Restaurant, The Hitching Post.

Inns:  Fess Parker Wine Country Inn, The Ballard Inn, Hadsten House (Solvang)

Wineries:  Lincourt, Fiddlehead Cellars, Ampelos Winery, Richard Longoria, Melville, Foley Estate

Wine Spectator’s Annual Review


Wine Spectator magazine’s release of its “Top 100 wines of 2010” is much more than a list of those with the highest ratings. It would be simplistic and one-dimensional to list great wines that we, most likely, could not find or afford. By adding criteria of value, availability and intangibles to quality, the magazine annually offers us a “snapshot” of recent trends in the world’s wine community. Described as the magazines view of the most exciting wines, the 2010 list, as past lists, provides enthusiasts with a concise summary of the present and insight into the future.

for those who have monitored the progression of the Paso Robles region, especially the recent foray in Rhone blends, have known it was only a matter of time for the area’s star to shine on a larger stage. Well, that time is now as Justin Smith’s Saxum James Berry Vineyard Paso Robles 2007 ($67/98 points), a creative blend of grenache, mourvedre and syrah was named 2010 Wine of the Year.” this is not a complete surprise to those knowledgable of the region, given that the Saxum Broken Stones Paso Robles 2006 and the Tablas Creek Espirit de Beaucastel Paso Robles placed No. 12 and No. 50 respectively on WS’ 2009 list. It is, nonetheless, a significant achievement for Saxum and the entire region.

Eastern Paso Robles is hot enough during the summer months for the grapes, especially zinfandel, to fully ripen, exposing momentous flavors. However, the breezes off the Pacific Ocean, apparently adding more depth and balance to the flavor, cool the heat in the western valleys. Smith has roots in the area and the foresight to include the grenache varietal, popular among local Rhone Rangers, in 20% of his vineyard portfolio. the 2007 “James Berry Vineyard” blend is dominated by grenache (41%), aligned with new post-harvest techniques that reportedly result in vibrant, yet subtle flavors and near perfect balance. Smith’s friend colleague, Matt Trevisan from Linne Calodo, introduced me to the practice of aging these blends in large wooden puncheons, reducing the influences of smaller oak barrels. This seems to be a trend among the new Paso winemakers, resulting in a more subtle, well-textured wine. those choosing to discern future blends from the region will be rewarded with the best California has to offer.

Although all Saxum wines are nearly impossible to acquire, there are numerous Rhone-style blends available to please your palate. One is the Tablas Creek Espirit de Beaucastel Paso Robles 2007 ($50/94 points) which joins Saxum on the 2010 list at No. 33. The Tablas Creek winery, through a long-term relationship with Chateau de Beaucastel in France, has been a pioneer in the areas’ shift toward Paso Robles blends that resemble Rhone-style blends.

California is the big winner in 2010, contributing 24% of the releases on the list.  Much of the credit goes to the successful 2007 vintage for Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon with seven among the top 30, averaging 97 points and, of course, $1112 per bottle.  The Revana Cabernet Sauvignon St. Helena 2007 ($125/97 points) and the Altamura Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2007 ($85/96 points) landed in the No. 4 and No. 5 spots respectively.  However, the huge story comes from Schrader Cellars, releasing six cabernets, two rated a perfect 100 points and one each at 99, 98 and 96 points.  The Schrader Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley CCS Beckstoffer to Kalon Vineyard 2007 ($150/100 points) from the renowned Napa Valley vineyard placed 15th on the 2010 list, cited for mesmeric richness, complexity and balance.

Included in the San Diego Wine and Food Festival Reserve Tasting event, the reasonably priced Hall Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2006 ($40/94 points) featuring three  geographically divergent vineyards is the best cabernet value on the list, ranked at No. 18.  We had the opportunity to visit the Hall Winery on New Year’s Day and picked up a few bottles for the cellar.  Significant oak influences, spice, fruit and some chocolate on the finish highlights this vintage that is rapidly disappearing due to recent accolades.

France contributed 19 wines, though surprisingly only one from the Bordeaux region.  Ironically, the highest rated Bordeaux-blend, the Coho Headwaters Napa Valley 2007 ($40/95 points), originates from the Coobsville district in the  southeast Napa Valley.  Also surprising, Chateaunef-du-Pape, a region famous for French Rhone Classic Cru, contributed the Clos deds Papea Chateaunef-du-Pape White 2009 ($100/95 points), the most expensive white wine encountered.  We are resigned to “drool” over the wonderful description of a grenache blanc, roussane, picpoul and bourboulenc blend, crisp and fresh from steel tanks and no malolactic fermentation.

the highest ranked California white wines, the Mount Eden Vineyards Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains 2006 ($48/96 points) and the Ridge Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains Monte Bello 2006 ($60/95 points) hailed from the mountains near my hometown of San Jose, each vineyard historically producing tremendous wines.

The Santa Cruz Mountains region has produced very fine chardonnay, pinot noir and other varietals for years.  With some research, one can find highly respected mountain vineyards north of Santa Cruz to Woodside, above Stanford University.

In both good and bad years, Sonoma’s Kosta Brownes winery provides assurance that the pinot noir varietal will be annually represented.  At No. 12 was the multi-vineyard Kosta Browne Russian River Valley 2008 ($52/94 points), two bottles of which are contentedly spending time in my cellar.  From arguably the world’s best appellation, the Paul Hobbs Pinot Noir Russian River Valley ($45/94 points) secured the No. 6 spot, another top ten honor.

My instincts are telling me that the 2008 vintage Oregon pinot noir is noteworthy.  The representatives, Roco Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2008 ($30/92 points) at No. 71 and A to Z Wineworks Pinot Noir 2008 ($20/90 points) at No 75, certainly benefited by their high value/rating ratio.

Washington State placed six wines to the list, equaling the Rhone Valley and Australia.  The diversity of the varietals contributed were surprising an acknowledgement of the area as a premier wine-producing region.  Syrah, merlot and cabernet sauvignon are created as single varietals or blended in such releases as the Goose Ridge “Vireo” Columbia Valley 2006 ($25/93 points) and the Tamarack Cellars Firehouse Red Columbia Valley 2008 ($16/90 points) Nos. 41 and 49 on the list,  respectively.

In another 2010 story, Portugal has burst on the scene with three wines within the top 25, blends with lesser known grapes like Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Amarela and Sousao in the Douro appellation in northern Portugal.  The CARM (Casa Agricola Roboredo Madiera) Douro Reserva 2007 ($27/94 points) seems to be a good value at No. 9.  It is typical for the country’s port to be acclaimed worldwide.  However, the Dow Vintage Port 2007 ($80/100 points), also from the Douro region, was one of two wines on the list awarded 100 points.

One would hardly anticipate that Hungary would place the same number of wines on the list as the mighty Bordeaux region.  The Royal Toakaji Wine Co., located north of Budapest, has placed a wine on the Wine Spectator list two years running.  At No. 28, the Toakaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos Red Label 2006 ($39/94 points) blends furmint, harselvelu and muscat de lunel grapes to create the wine only in exceptional years.  Known for its sweet wines, the Red Label uses aszu, dried grapes affected by “noble rot” for sweetening.  Five puttonyos is equal to 120 to 160 grams of sugar per litre.

The list includes 14 countries, four U.S. states and numerous regions.  The United States asserted itself by supplying 35 wines to the list, mostly from California.  We, once again, have proven to the world that we have the diversity of terrior to match up with appellations throughout the world  From Santa Barbara to Mendocino, from Monterey to Lodi, California continues to push the envelope toward becoming the “melting pot” of future wine exploration.

The Real Rhones

by: Lyle W. Norton

Although our trademark is single varietal releases, we still describe California wines in terms of French regions. Our Bordeaux-style blends are called Meritage and come mostly from the Napa Valley, our Burgundian wines from Sonoma, Santa Barbara and the Anderson Valley and, lately we have all discovered and hailed the great Rhone-style blends from Paso Robles. Last month, I got a taste of authenticity and some very good wine as we toured the Vacqueyras, Gigondas and the Chateaunef-du-Pape appellations in the Rhone Valley in southeast France. As a bit of perspective of the history of winemaking in this region, we tasted a red blend that the family called “1717” in honor of their first vintage, nearly 70 years before our Constitutional Congress.

Heavily regulated by the “Appellation d’ origine controlee” (AOC), serving to support a high quality standard, the region permits the planting of only 13 varietals, regulates blend percentages in certain appellations and even the soil type in which each grape can be planted. The character of the Rhone Valley, steeped in centuries of fine wine making tradition, has not only passive charm; it’s the authentic passively charming place that we try hard to replicate in the U.S. wine regions. Although, everyone understands that the “mistral winds” are ever-present to provide some healthy stress to the tranquility.

The blends differ from appellation to appellation in the Rhone Valley, but none step beyond the boundary of the permitted grapes that include mainly reds like Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Cinsault, while Viognier, Marsanne, Rousanne and Grenache Blanc mostly represent the white varietals. The cooler northern Rhone sub-region produces only Syrah exclusively as a red wine and mostly Viognier as a single-varietal white. Experiencing a more Mediterranean climate, southern Rhone creates the famous blends, specifically regulated in each appellation.

As for our experience, facing time constraints, my wife’s ongoing wish to visit Roman ruins and the need to explore as much as possible, an investment in some time efficiency was in order and we arranged for a small tour with a local company,, promoting a very personalized experience in three appellations: Vacqueyras, Gigondas and the king, or more appropriately, the Pope of all areas, Chateaunef-du-Pape “New Castle of the Pope.” History tells us that in 1308, the papacy was relocated to Avignon and the Popes soon fell in love with the local wines. One, John XXII, became specially enamoured with the area a was responsible for building the famous castle seen in photographs.

Our chauffeur and local wine expert, Emily Molins, met us at the downtown Avignon Tourist Office, a few steps from our apartment and our adventure began with some history of the city before picking up Travis and Marion from Mercer Island, outside of Seattle and Greg and Trish, visiting from Melbourne. The small group had a healthy knowledge and appreciation of wine, all anticipating new discoveries as we left the Medieval-walled city and followed the mighty Rhone River up to Vacqueryras and our first estate.


The Vacqueyras appellation, overshadowed by Chateaunef-du-Pape and even Gigondas, is known for powerful wines; the bulk of which are red blends featuring grenache, syrah, mourvedre, cinsault, muscardin and counoise. The area boasts 1,300 hectares (hectare=10,000 square metres) and a history beyond comprehension. Our first stop was the Vieux Clocher estate, operated by the Arnoux and Fils family and our first wine was a rare white blend of primarily grenache blanc and clairette. The French use stainless steel and not oak in the production of white wines. The result is a balanced citrus flavors following a nice bouquet of wild flowers on the nose.

The flight of red blends began with the 2009 Vieux Clocher “Recolte”, a grenche/syrah/mourvedre blend that serves as their most accessible wine in both price and taste. This “collection” of certified Rhone grapes had an impressive nose and soft flavors soon to be overshadowed with escalated richness as we proceed up the flight to their premium wines. Old vines generally produce smaller yield and more concentrated, rich flavors, the reason we often see it promoted on many labels. The Vieux Clocher Vacqueyras Seigneur de Lauris 2005, awarded 90 points from Robert Parker, proved to be the steal of the day, expressing deep, rich flavors for about $20. Consistently compared to those produced by their neighbors, Gigondas and Chateaunef-du-Pape, I found, in this 70%grenache/30%syrah blend all the depth, balance, structure and flavor expected from wines twice the price. Although this wine can stand up to rack of lamb and other meats, we paired my bottle, later in the apartment, with an assortment of cheeses, meats, eggplant ragout, bread and some fine jazz piano.

The tasting concluded with the very soft, complex Veiux Clocher Jean Marie Arnoux 2009 and the before mentioned “1717”, their top wine whose 3,500 annual bottles first spend 26 months in thirsty oak barrels. The “1717” was a classic Cotes de Rhone Cru, born from grenache, a personal favorite of all French grapes; bold but balanced. In the end, I could not pass up great quality at a value price and purchased a bottle of the “Seigneur de Lauris”. Believe me, if I could have determined a conveniently plan to transport it back to the States, I would have bought more. As the glasses were distributed, Emily commented on how rare it is for each guest to grasp it properly, by the stem. This is a group that knows what they’re doing and is ready to move deeper into the Rhone.


The Gigondas appellation consists of 1,030 hectares and is unique in that no white grapes are permitted to be grown and the red blends, known for their boldness, all consist of 80% grenache, 15% syrah and 5% mourvedre. It was charming French countryside encased in vineyards and establishments such as Caveau des Gormets Restaurant Vignerum, who hosted hors’douves and some tastes of local vintages. The flight of wines, all very good; all very bold, were poured into black glasses, a tradition in blind tastings to disguise the age of the wine, lightening in color with time. Enjoying the atmosphere, we could have spent the afternoon on the patio. However, anticipation of visiting Chateaunef-du-Pape, the patriarch of all southern Rhone appellations, was overpowering and we were soon heading to our final destination.


While the heritage of this wine region is entwined in 12th Century papal history, its winemakers uphold tradition while continuely evolve to meet the demands of global markets. Although the cultivation of all 13 grapes, is permitted, there is a definite trend to concentrate on the red blends that feature the multi-dimensional “terrior” of the appellation. A tasting at Ogier Depuis, founded in 1859, highlighted the impact of soil in creating distinctive wines.

The soil has always been credited as a key component in the development of good Rhone blends. Ogier Depuis serves as an indoor, outdoor classroom allowing one to sensually experience it firsthand. The four distinct soils of the region were on full display in a small demonstration garden on the property, mostly “river rock” (60%) retaining the heat that allows Grenache to flourish. Poor draining “limestone” (20%), clay-based “sol” (15%) and red sandstone (5%) complete the “terrior” palate. Our flight of red blends to taste were specifically selected to feature the attributes of the dirt. But first, as I have learned from California Rhone-style winemakers, before focusing exclusively of reds, we must start with a white blend.

Earning a 91 pt. rating from Robert Parker, the Clos de l’Oratoire des Papea Chateaunef-du-Pape Blanc, from river rock soil, had multiple concentrated flavors of flowers, orchard fruit and melon, clearly of well-ripened stock. This wine would stand up well to chicken or fish. Our flight of vintage 2007 red blends from various “terrior” within the appellation opened the door to experiencing the “true” Rhone blend, beginning with the 2007 Galets Roules Caves du Pape.

Representing the “river rock” soil type, the Terrior Galets Roules’ Caves du Pape was a soft, accessible wine, expressing very full nose and flavors. From the limestone soil “terrior,” the 2007 Terrior Eclats Calcaires Chateaunef-du-Pape, a very good wine, was fully ripened and jammy, benefitting from some daily heat. So highly concentrated, the 2007 Terrior Safres Chateaunef-du-Pape displayed a liquer-type intensity and richness to its flavors. By comparing differences, it was easy to celebrate the similarities in these wines: full flavor and nose, balance and richness. As always, there was one wine that caught my attention.

My personal favorite of the Ogier Depuis tasting was the 2007 Ogier Caves des Papes Terrior Gres Rouges Chateaunef-du-Pape. After a very perfumed bouquet, expressed hints of smokey flavors blended with those of dark berry and fig. Well-rounded and highly concentrated, the velvety texture motivated my palate to “flag it” as the one.

With many grapes to blend and many terrior to select from, a good question about their winemaking technique is “when to blend?” The answer is immediately prior to the aging process. They let them grow old together. Having recently acquired a bottle of a single-varietal 2009 Bonny Doon Cinsault, a consistently good Rhone blending partner, I inquired about its value. Apparently, it is very fragrant, dry with concentrated juice and usually pocesses a long soft finish. One can overlook the insignificant color and the lack of tannins for a long, soft finish.

The qualities of our last wine, the 2007 Clos del Oratoire de Pape, has received attention of Robert Parker and Wine Spectator magazine who awarded it 91 points. Grenache-based with hints of Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault, this vintage was earthy and very fruit forward, concluding our tasting on a terrific note. A quick ride to the remains of the 14th Century castle gave us all, especially my wife, a historical perspective of the region, not to mention a panoramic view. As the sun faded, we were reminded, once again, that the “mistral winds” have a daily presence and impact to each vintage.

Although we barely scratched the surface of all the great Rhone blends, the tour provided opportunities to view barrel rooms, visit with the winemakers and enjoy the fruits of their labor. Our guide, Emily and her assistant,Erick, were very knowledgable, not only of the local area, but with fine wines of the world. Those interested can register at the Avignon Tourist Office or phone them direct at +33(0)4 90 29 76 05.

With my new-found information, I intend to research availability of wines from the Rhone Valley at local wine outlets. Expect to pay in the $30-35 range for a good one and, of course, comparisons with those new blends from the central coast is also in order