Monthly Archives: July 2018

The Past, Present and Future of Rombauer


Beginning with the vintage 1980 Stag’s Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon and later, a 1982 Napa Valley Chardonnay, Rombauer Vineyards has built a reputation for fine wines and has enjoyed a loyal following for nearly forty years.  The inspiration for the Rombauer brand, its Founder Koerner Rombauer, passed away, May 10, at the age of 83.

Born and raised in Escondido, CA, Rombauer honed his flying skills in the California Air National Guard before becoming a commercial pilot for Braniff Airways in Texas  The family re-located to the Napa Valley in 1972, where he developed a passion for wine that led to

Koerner Rombauer

the establishment of the winery.


He remained active in philanthropic and community activities throughout his adult life including the establishment of the $4 million Joan Rombauer UCSF Endowed Fellowship, to honor his wife, who died in 2002. Koerner Rombauer will be missed in the wine community and remembered for much more than his famous chardonnay.


Days before his passing, we enjoyed lunch and a tasting hosted by winemaker Richie Allen, owner KR Rombauer and Duncan, his four year-old English chocolate lab. They are excited about the quality of their current releases and looking toward an exciting future with their remarkable property along the Silverado Trail.

After a welcoming glass of the round, fruit-forward 2017 Rombauer Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($24), we strolled into the cavernous caves in search of the 2014 Rombauer Napa Valley Merlot($45), sourced from the cooler Carneros region. Added cabernet sauvignon (21%) and petit verdot (2%) make it a rich, flavorful “left bank” blend from California soil.  With too much heat on the valley floor for merlot, KR explained that they are seeking vines in the cooler Coombsville district in southeast Napa to increase production.

Rombauer produces about 300,000 cases of wine per year, 200,000 in chardonnay alone. As they remain in a comfortable place, Rombauer fully grasps the concept that good is the enemy of great.  They are active in the wine community, not afraid of being inspired by what their neighbors are producing. Winemaker Richie Allen quipped that it was not uncommon to KR to show up unannounced with competitors releases for an impromptu blind tasting.

While known for their chardonnay, merlot and zinfandel, Allen curated a tasting of special select or

KR Rombauer

single-vineyard releases not well-known to those outside of the Rombauer membership family, included a best-of-the-best chardonnay. The 2016 Rombauer Proprietor Selection Chardonnay($70) is actually a blend of the best juice from three Carneros vineyards, including Sangiacomo. With hints of banana on-the-nose, the rich stone fruit flavors add some sweetness, but the wine is dry, expressing a Burgundian minerality throughout.

Sourced from the best grapes and best vineyards in the St.Helena, Stag’s Leap and Calistoga AVAs, the 2014 Rombauer Diamond Selection Cabernet Sauvignon ($100) exudes big, concentrated, but balanced flavors with an 15.1% alcohol content. Likewise, the elegant “right bank” style 2012 Rombauer Le Meilleur Du Chai Napa Valley ($115) translates to “best of the cellar,” and is aged seventeen months in 100% new French oak.

Rombauer Winemaker Richie Allen

After producing the first vintage, Rombauer was so impressed by the fruit, they purchased the Stice Lane Vineyard in St. Helena.  The barrel-fermented, 100% 2014 Rombauer Stice Lane Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($115) has dense flavors of cassis and dark berries with sleek tannins on the finish.

One take-a-way from the tasting was the 2015 Rombauer El Dorado County Zinfandel ($35), dense, rich and affordable with a 15.9% alcohol content. The complexity in the aromas and on the palate is clear throughout this wine from great El Dorado County grapes, available at cheaper costs.

After a delicious lunch featuring recipes inspired by the Joy of Cooking cookbook, co-authored by Koerner’s great-aunt, Irma Rombauer, KR and Richie unveiled the barrel-

Rombauer “Joy” late-harvest wine

fermented 2015 Joy Late Harvest Chardonnay ($55), enhanced by botrytis, as the perfect accompaniment to the cookbook’s dessert recipes.  From the scripted bottle, the color to the honey, soft fruit, nuts and spice flavors, they succeeded. Bring on the crème brûlée.

The Rombauer brand is as strong as ever and there is an excitement and attitude in the air that signals a compelling future. Koerner Rombauer would be proud.

Von Strasser Wines Diversified


Rudy Von Strasser has made his own wine in the Napa Valley since 1990, focusing exclusively on cabernet sauvignon from the Diamond Mountain AVA. In fact, he led a two-year movement that forged consensus and completed the process for a 1998 AVA designation for the district.

With over 25 years experience making cabernet sauvignon at the same site, Rudy sought change.  He wanted to diversify  his palate of wines and begin to explore regions outside of the Napa Valley.

In 2017, Von Strasser sold his Diamond Mountain facility, purchased the Lava Vine Winery in Calistoga, moved his operation and began to shoulder new challenges.  Lava Vine had focused on varietals other than cabernet sauvignon and his initial priority is to continue that format while elevating the label.

Prior to developing the familiar Von Strasser label, Rudy Von Strasser graduated from the enology program at UC Davis and became the first U.S. intern for Chateau Lafite Rothschild.  After a stint at Trefethen Winery in the valley, Rudy and his wife Rita took the bold step, in 1990, to purchase the old Roddis Estate Winery and Von Strasser Wines was born.

Now is their time to begin again, although Rudy will continue to produce his familiar single-vineyard cabernet sauvignon. He seemed

Winemaker Rudy Von Strasser

excited as we sat in his Calistoga tasting room one morning with Huckleberry, the official winery pup, to taste some of the new releases of Von Strasser 2.0.

It began with a 2016 Lava Vine Gruner Veltliner ($30) from a one-acre vineyard on Diamond Mountain.  Whole-cluster pressed and fermented in stainless steel, this is a crisp wine with pungent aromas of green apples, citrus and stone fruit flavors and a soft minerality that makes it food-friendly.

As Gruner Veltliner originates from Austria, verdelho is a popular white varietal from Portugal.  The 2016 Lava Vine Verdelho ($30) is sourced from a Suisun Valley vineyard and fermented in all stainless steel, resulting in a zesty summer wine with a healthy acidity.

Admittedly partial to grenache, the 2014 Lava Vine Napa Valley

Grenache ($45) stood out among the new varietal releases.  Aromatic baked fruit and blueberries on the nose were followed by

2016 Lava Vine Verdelho

deep, complex flavors of strawberry, spice and roasted nuts throughout the finish.

It would have been hard to leave without tasting some of Rudy’s noted cabernet sauvignon and cabernet blend releases.  He obliged with three including the 2012 Von Strasser Cabernet Sauvignon Post Vineyard ($80) from a site first planted in 1992. Malbec (10%) and petit verdot (5%) were added and the blend aged two years in 50% new oak.  These wines are all about the stock, local Diamond Mountain terroir and Von Strasser’s not so secret weapon:  his palate.

With musk and forest floor aromas followed by acute black cherry and spice flavors, “Post” is consistently one of the highest rated Von Strasser wines.

Using root stock from Martha’s Vineyard, first planted on Diamond Mountain in 1968, the 2012 Von Strasser Estate Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon ($80), also with added malbec and petit verdot delivers a rich mouthfeel, solid tannins and flavors of dark fruit and espresso.

Von Strasser Sori Bricco Vineyard Red Wine

The last wine was a unique red blend from the high elevation Sori Bricco Vineyard owned by Lindy Johnson who was described as a mid-wife from Berkeley.  An equal blend of cabernet sauvignon, malbec and petit verdot with a hint of merlot, the 2012 Von Strasser Sori Bricco Vineyard Red Wine ($80) was dominated by layered savory flavors including mushroom, black pepper, spice and coffee.  The vineyard name translates to “sunny hillside” and the site is synonymous with lush fruit.

It should be noted that Von Strasser is beginning to experiment with pinot noir and has secured partnerships in the prestigious Santa Rita Hills and Santa Lucia Highlands appellations.

I was impressed with the Von Strasser palate of wines, new and old.  The future will certainly produce exciting releases that can be enjoyed at the remodeled tasting room on the Silverado Trail near Lincoln Avenue in Calistoga. The new facility is also commercially zoned for dinners and musical events that should add to the appeal of the fine wines. 

I plan to keep an open eye on the continuing diversification of the Von Strasser Family of Wines.

Dutton-Goldfield Celebrates Twenty Years


Winemaker Dan Goldfield is all about the area.  His local neighborhood consists of some 60 non-contiguous parcels, part of 1,300 acres of the Dutton Ranch vineyards within the Green Valley of Russian River Valley AVA.

The Dutton Family has owned and farmed this land since Warren Dutton began acquiring land in 1964.  Twenty years ago, Steve

Steve Dutton and Dan Goldfield

Dutton and Goldfield merged their skills and created Dutton-Goldfield to pursue a passion for creating primarily cool-climate chardonnay and pinot noir. Over that time, they have achieved success by making the wines that they like to drink. 

As a lab chemist ardent about the outdoors, Dan Goldfield did the only logical thing, he earned an MS Degree in Enology from UC Davis and began making wine with early stints at Robert Mondavi and Schramsberg.  His love of cool-climate chardonnay and pinot noir led him to La Crema and Hartford Court before partnering with Steve to release the first Dutton-Goldfield vintage in 1998.

Goldfield’s comment that, “You shouldn’t make a wine unless it is different” is revealing of his style.  Nuance like this makes their palate of wines appealing.

As a fifth generation farmer, Steve Dutton has worked this land literally his whole life.  His father planted the family’s first chardonnay vineyard in 1967, the year Steve was born. The Green Valley soils are literally on his jeans and figuratively in his genes.

Truly pushing the envelope requires exploration outside of the neighborhood.  In addition to the Dutton Ranch vineyards, Dutton-Goldfield sources grapes from Russian River Valley, Marin County, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County and Sonoma Coast AVA’s. Dan led me through a sample of their current releases including the first wine I have tasted from Marin County vineyards.

The 2017 Chileno Valley Vineyard Riesling Marin County is sourced from 25 year-old, dry-farmed vines in northwest Marin. Dan aptly described it as a cool-climate, Austrian-style riesling; bone dry, aromatic, with a rich mouthfeel and nice long finish.

Next on our tasting menu was a flight of pinot noir releases representing three AVA’s.

Cold-soaking pinot noir is commonly done to extract flavors and color from the skins at an early stage. It gives the juice a head start in developing richer flavors and softer tannins.  From an east-facing vineyard the heart of the appellation, the 2015 Emerald Ridge Pinot Noir Green Valley of Russian River Valley, aged 16 months in French oak, 50% new, displayed those characteristics with deep berry and cherry flavors, clear spice elements and, yes, soft tannins.

Wine Enthusiast magazine awarded this vintage 94-points.

Impacted by a wet 2015 Spring, the grapes in the Freestone Vineyard were harvested early and yielded little.  As a result, aromas and flavors of the 2015 Freestone Hill Pinot Noir Russian River Valley are highly concentrated with layered dark berry, red fruit flavors and a significant spice element.

Surrounded by protected redwoods in the far north Sonoma Coast, six miles from the ocean, the 32-acre Putnam Vineyard sits above the fog line and is subject to cooler temperatures and above average rainfall, resulting in a longer growing season.  As the winery highlights the “wild character” of 2015 Redwood Ridge Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast, I found a savory, herbal component that complimented the rich berry flavors.  The complex aromas and flavors of this release confirmed my preference for Sonoma Coast wines. 

Nearly fifty years ago, much of the original stock in the Rued Vineyard turned out to be “chardonnay musque” and it has produced rich, aromatic wines since, always with a floral quality.  From a low-yield vintage, the 2015 Rued Vineyard Russian River Valley, with 100% malolactic fermentation and multiple lees stirrings, exudes intensely concentrated flavors and a rich minerality through the finish.

When asked to recommend a Sonoma County syrah, the Dutton-Goldfield Cherry Ridge Vineyard Syrah is my first thought since

Dutton-Goldfield tasting room on Highway 116

tasting its balanced complexity years ago.  The vineyard location is described as a “warm spot in a cold area,” and the 2015 vintage adds depth to the bouquet and flavors with vanilla spice, courtesy of new wood.

A little research will reveal how highly regarded Dutton-Goldfield wines are.  Their terroir driven releases are distinctive, but share the consistent high character of  carefully crafted wines. It’s not hard to imagine twenty more years of success. 

Pine Ridge Winery Turns 40


Many years ago, I purchased a 1982 vintage of Pine Ridge Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon, cellared it and drank it in 1990 at an anniversary party.  It was a time when my palate was developing and I began to be more circumspect in my wines choices.  Since then, the number of wineries and choices in the Napa Valley have grown exponentially while Pine Ridge Vineyards has continued

tosustain and evolve and is now celebrating its 40th Birthday at their Stag’s Leap District location.

The keys to their success are the same as other producers of fine wines:  good stock in the right terroir, meticulous farming practices, thoughtful enology and the best oak available.  The strategic way that Pine Ridge has grown their winery to ensure sustained quality is a story.

Pine Ridge owns and farms vineyards in five prestigious Napa Valley appellations to produce cabernet sauvignon and cool-climate chardonnay: four in Stag’s Leap, three in Carneros and one each in Rutherford, Oakville and Howell Mountain.  As the weather and the vintages vary, they will always be assured some of the best fruit in the valley.

Pine Ridge also has a veteran winemaking team that has worked together for nearly a decade.  At their recent birthday celebration,

Pine Ridge Estate Vineyards

General Manager and Winemaker Michael Beaulac introduced Vineyard Manager Gustavo Avina as someone who understands the local soils and vines as well as anyone in the valley.  Avina has been with Pine Ridge since 2003 and his team has met the challenges in working with many different microclimates and diverse soil-types including, but not limited to clay, sandy loam, volcanic, and silty clay loam.

Beaulac joined the Pine Ridge group in 2009 after years of developing his craft while working at nearby notables Murphy-Goode,

Winemaker and General Manager Michael Beaulac

Markham Vineyards and St.Supery Winery.  He enthusiastically described the current and future vintages as we entered the elaborate network of caves.  Before we barrel-tasted three future cabernet sauvignon releases, Michael spoke of his excitement about soon adding a sauvignon blanc to their palate of wines. In recent years, many established Napa Valley producers have become serious about sauvignon blanc and Beaulac believes that Pine Ridge will be among them.

My first taste of Pine Ridge cabernet sauvignon in years came from a barrel as Michael removed the “bung” and used a “thief” to transfer the juice to my glass. The 2016 and 2017 futures need and will get more time but I was impressed with the expressive flavors and balance that was already at hand.

Before leaving the depths of the underground grotto, we visited Club 47,a very private lounge with comfortable furnishings, soft lighting and a large Chihuly glass art installation. The cave room is used for special options such as Savor Pine Ridge, a VIP tastings of the five cabernet sauvignon wines paired with “small bites” dishes from the in-house chef.

As anticipated, all the cabernet sauvignon releases are stunning wines.  The Stag’s Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($140) follows past releases from the steep, hillside vineyards that surround the winery, dating back to 1978.  There is such history here that the stag supposedly took his final leap from the cliffs atop these vineyards.

Beaulac describes a love for the Howell Mountain appellation, that at 2,000 feet elevation, is different from others in the valley because of cooler temperatures and rocky, volcanic soils that produce small-cluster fruit with intense flavors. The Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon ($150) has been sourced from the estate Los Posadas Vineyard since 1986 and typically earns ratings in the mid-nineties.

The cooler Carneros appellation, exposed to foggy days, has long been the ideal terroir for chardonnay like the inaugural single-vineyard Carneros Collines Vineyard Chardonnay 2015 ($48) whose rich mouthfeel is derived from sur lee aging and full malolactic fermentation.

Michael Beaulac and Gustavo Amina in the vineyards

Equally impressive releases included the 2013 Petit Verdot ($75), from the original Stag’s Leap vineyards and the bone-dry 2016 Chenin Blanc ($38), sourced from Clarksburg in the Sacramento Delta region.

As impressive as the site and facilities are, Beaulac spoke of an expansion project designed to enhance the tasting experience for current and future members. Clearly, Pine Ridge does not plan to sit on its laurels for the next forty years.


My Whites of Summer


Rancho Santa Rosa Vineyard

For absolutely no logical reason, the warmer weather reminds me of my best-loved white wines.  The foggy mornings in Sonoma County bring to mind our world-class cool-climate chardonnay, but my list, years in the making, represents a broader range of varietals and California appellations. The current releases are designated, but my love of these wines goes far back.

Sauvignon blanc is the classic summer white that can be enjoyed with nothing but fresh air and conversation or, in its comfort zone, paired with shellfish, scallops, grilled fish and chicken.  The sauvignon blanc in my cellar always includes two releases from very different appellations that are both produced by women.

Perpetually acknowledged as one of the highest rated among the varietal, the 2016 Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc ($36), from

Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc

the Russian River Valley icon, includes sauvignon musque and is barrel-fermented with several lees stirring that accounts for the rich mouthfeel.  Complex stone fruit aromas lead to nicely restrained tropical fruit flavors and a wonderful minerality on the finish.

Sourcing grapes from the Happy Canyon appellation in the Santa Ynez Valley, winemaker Kathy Joseph has long explored the potential of sauvignon blanc with five releases including my favorite, the 2016 Fiddlehead Cellars Sauvignon Blanc “Goosebury” ($34).  A popular wine of limited production, the 2016 vintage is now hard to find.  The

Fiddlehead Cellars Sauvignon Blanc “Goosebury”

citrus and floral aromas lead to tropical fruit and savory flavors with a healthy minerality that pairs well with grilled or pan-fried


Whole-cluster pressed with no oak or malolactic fermentation, the complexity of the 2016 Carlisle Sonoma Mountain “Steiner Vineyard” Grüner Veltliner ($30) was first tasted a few years ago at their Windsor production facilities.  Expect a crisp, fragrant wine with flavors that explode on the palate.

Similar to sauvignon blanc, my favorite chardonnay releases hail from the Russian River Valley

2011 Carlisle Gruner Veltliner Steiner Vineyard

and the Santa Rita Hills appellation in Santa Barbara County. I have long appreciated the pinot noir and cool-climate chardonnay wines from the heart of the Russian River Valley including the single-vineyard 2016 William Selyem “Allen Vineyard” Chardonnay ($65).  This current vintage is excellent with stone fruit and spice on the nose and palate followed by a clear mineral nuanced finish.

As with earlier vintages, the 2015 Foley “Barrel Select” Chardonnay, Sta. Rita Hills ($50), from the Rancho Santa Rosa Vineyard, located between Buellton and Lompoc, is the perfect chardonnay for my palate.  Whole-clustered pressed, the selected barrels are aged 18 months in 100% new oak with several lees stirrings. The complex bouquet and rich flavors of stone fruit, lemon and roasted nuts play out in an exceptionally extended finish.

Indian Rock Vineyards Pinot Grigio

Paso Robles is the world’s best source of Rhone-style wines outside of Chateaunef-du-Pape. From the patriarch of California Rhone Rangers with cuttings from Chateau de Beaucastel, the 2015 Tablas Creek “Esprit de Tablas Blanc” Paso Robles ($45), a blend of roussanne, grenache and picpoul, exudes a fruity nose and rich flavors of ripened melon and enhanced spice.

Sourced from a single Paso Robles vineyard and created in her Santa Rosa production facility, the 2016 Carol Shelton Coquille Blanc ($24) is a complex, yet accessible blend of viognier, roussanne, marsanne and grenache blanc.  The welcoming fragrant  bouquet is followed by complex, layered flavors aptly described by Carol as “crisply dry, yet creamy and round.”

From a somewhat obscure Calaveras County winery near Murphys, CA, I discovered a previous vintage of the 2015 Indian Rock Vineyards Pinot Grigio ($24) a decade ago. Many of the great pinot grigio releases come from Oregon, but this one is closer to home and has complexity on the nose and palate.

Napa Valley sourced and produced, the St. Supery 2016 Napa Valley Estate Virtú ($30), a white Bordeaux-style blend of semillon

St. Supery Virtu

and sauvignon blanc, is always a “go to” wine when looking for something different.  It is initially crisp before the luscious, rich texture seems to lengthen the palate.

Years ago at a Market Street wine bar, the som recommended a 1998 Bollig-Lehnert Piesporter Goldtropfchen Riesling Spatlese ($17). It was the first time that I experienced the soft “petrol” elements of German riesling.  The Spatlese wines come from fully ripened grapes that produce balanced fruit forward flavors. The 2011 vintage,

Bollig-Lehnert Piesporter Goldtropfchen Riesling Spatlese 2012

now available, is a huge value.

Albeit unique and different, these wines all pair well with food and have the complexity to be enjoyed by themselves or with a nice Sonoma County goat cheese.  Enjoy your summer.

The Roots Of Gehricke Wines


Old Gehricke Road, near the town of Sonoma, is simply a strip of asphalt between two vineyards, but for kids like August Sebastiani, who grew up minutes away, it was a dusty, adventurous playground while growing up.

Sebastiani, now a fourth generation vintner in the iconic family, celebrates his childhood roots and continues the evolution of the

business as an negotiant through the introduction of Gehricke Wines, a new premium label that sources quality grapes closer to home.  Under his 3 Badge Beverage Corporation, August Sebastiani, son of Don and great-grandson of founder Samuele, has launched lines of premium spirits, craft beers and wines, but Gehricke is uniquely farmed and produced locally.

The sustainability of such an effort relies on expertise to manage the viticulture practices and envision the future in the vineyard through bottling.  Once vineyard partnerships were established, consulting winemaker Alex Beloz was hired to oversee the production and push the fruit to its greatest potential. Beloz brings years of experience producing wines in Sonoma County, many at MacRostie Winery.  Although all grapes are sourced within the county, he has his hands full dealing with very diverse terroir:  the cool west and warm east Russian River Valley, foggy Carneros, northeast Knight’s Valley and the varying microclimates of the Sonoma Coast appellation.

On a warm afternoon, under a tent next to Gehricke Road, surrounded by vineyards, we tasted the current releases paired with

August Sebastiani and Alex Beloz

lunch selections by Chef Ari Weiswasser, owner/chef of Glen Ellen Star, a restaurant that I frequent for their farm-to-table menu, especially the wood roasted vegetables.

Before lunch, Alex was pouring the single-vineyard, “copper label” reserve chardonnay from the known Chalk Hill Vineyard in Windsor.  Each of the diverse microclimates within the chardonnay blocks alone make the fruit desirable, especially for wines created in the Burgundian style


Paired with the 2016 Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($32), the first course was a Lebanese fattoush salad with Dungeness crab and green garlic pull-apart rolls, one of Glen Ellen Star’s signature breads.  Aged 20 months in French oak, one-third new, the wine delivers expressive fruit flavors and, in Beloz’s style, has a fresh acidity, not overly oaked.

The 2015 Los Carneros Pinot Noir ($32) and 2016 Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($35) releases were nicely paired with a wagyu beef rib eye bordelaise, spring vegetables and fava beans for our second course.  Sourced from three vineyards within the appellation, the pinot noir, with ratings in the nineties, balanced rich cherry with spice

Chalk Hill Estate Vineyard

flavors and was long on the finish.  Beloz prefers to keep a small percentage of the grapes whole cluster to augment, not dominate the character of the wine.

A first vintage, the 2016 Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is sourced from the Bavarian Lion Vineyard, north of Calistoga. The volcanic soils of the vineyard sit at a higher elevation, far enough inland not to be affected by the Pacific Ocean.  For complexity, Beloz adds malbec and a pinch of petite verdot to enhance flavor intensity and the rich mouthfeel. With 90+ratings from both Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast magazines, the Knights Valley Cab is an exceptional value. 

Pairing the 2015 Russian River Valley Zinfandel ($30) with a dessert plate of baked sourdough, toasted walnuts, blue cheese and preserves complimented its jammy fruit and spice flavors. The grapes are sourced from the Ponzo Vineyard in the warmer, northeast

Gehricke Los Corneros Pinot Noir

section of the Russian River appellation, near Healdsburg.  Beloz adds 10% petite sirah to enhance the dark fruit flavors and deepen the color.  

August Sebastiani understands the evolution of his family’s historic winery, from bulk wine to more premium labels. He also realizes that the wine industry has carefully groomed the palates of a young generation, eager for something good, new and original.  To that end, Sebastiani envisions a physical location in Sonoma for people to come and taste all of his brands.

In the short-term, he and Alex are focused on adding a petite sirah and building the Gehricke portfolio in a way the honors the memory of the land that neighbors that old road.