Author Archives: Lyle W. Norton

About Lyle W. Norton

Free-lance writer specializing if wine, food, travel and jazz reviews.

Chilean Pinot Noir

 

Aside from Burgundy in France, we, in California, enjoy the finest pinot noir in the world, sourced from five major appellations: Russian River Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands, The Carneros, Santa Rita Hills and Anderson Valley.  Without borders, Oregon’s Willamette Valley, north to south, would be a fitting sixth.

Although imports from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have challenged the myth that all quality pinot noir must be

Casabalnca Valley Vineyard

expensive, the consistently luscious and textural releases from northern Oregon to northern Santa Barbara keep us loyal with resolved acceptance of their price points.

Another challenger, south of the Equator, may be on the horizon.  Chile, geographically, is a long, thin strip of land along the South Pacific Ocean coast and, in the past decade, there are a growing number of vineyard plantings of pinot noir in the central and northern regions, that offer similar cool-climate growing conditions as those in California and Oregon.

Regions like the San Antonio and Casablanca Valleys, west of Santiago and the Elqui Valley, 250 miles to the north, have generated some excitement with pinot noir releases that are complex, fruit forward and affordable.  

San Antonio and Casablanca are relatively small areas where vineyards are blessed with rocky soils and direct exposure to the cooling forces of the ocean. By contrast, the Elqui Valley lies at the southern end of the Atacama Desert and while enjoying maritime influences, is hotter and, in recent years, been in a drought.

San Pedro 1865 Single Vineyard Pinot Noir Elqui Valley

Known for producing pisco brandy and table grapes, the Elqui Valley vineyards are now focusing on certain varietals like the San Pedro 1865 Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015 ($17), an intense, fruit forward release that I recently tasted.

The color is lighter than most California pinots, but the bouquet was deep red fruit, earth and even had a forest-floor quality.  The flavors were acutely red fruit and earthy with clear, but balanced tannins.

I compared the 1865 with a 2014 Lemelson Vineyards “Thea’s Selection” Pinot Noir Willamette Valley, at three times the price, and found it elegant, but more restrained than the Chilean wine.

Among many Casablanca Valley releases, the Casas del Bosque Pinot Noir Gran Reserva 2016 ($18) offered typical intense aromas of red fruit, but it was more medium-bodied with refined fruit, spice and earth flavors with soft tannins.

With deep mushroom and forest floor tones in the aromas, the 

Cuvelier Atanea Pinot Noir 2015 Casablanca Valley ($15) bursts on the palate with dark fruit and a myriad of earth and savory impressions.  I would pair this wine with lamb as well as salmon.

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From an organic winery in the San Antonio Valley, the 2015 Matetic “Coralillo” Pinot Noir San Antonio Valley ($18) is a very accessible, balanced wine that most palates will enjoy. In awarding this release 90-points, critic James Suckling described it as “fruity and fun” with ample, but forgiving tannins.

 

I have not yet tasted the 2017 Apaltagua Pinot Noir Reserva San Antonio Valley ($15), but the winery has a reputation for brighter

Apaltagua Reserva Pinot Noir San Antonio Valley

fruit driven flavors and descriptions of “roasted coffee bean notes,” along with the price, has me intrigued.

For the price, I found the Ritual Casablanca Valley Pinot Noir 2015 Casablanca Valley ($20)to be an intriguing and delightful wine with pleasant floral hints on the nose, an extraordinary rich mouthfeel and some cranberry fruit on the palate. In addition to the full structure and fresh fruit, James suckling, after awarding it 93-points, aptly described a

Ritual Pinot Noir Casablanca Valley

light chocolate and berry aftertaste.

Most of the Chilean pinot noir releases are expressive and ready to drink now.  As production continues to grow and availability in wine shops and outlets increases, the wines can become an accepted, reasonably-priced alternative for those choosing to explore the alluring “Heartbreak Grape”  outside of the grand California and Oregon releases.

 

  

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Iconic Adelaida Cellars

 

I recently spent some time in Paso Robles visiting old favorites like Adelaida Cellars and Tablas Creek from the Adelaida appellation as well as TH Cellars, a new breed of Rhone producers in the nearby Willow Creek appellation. 

After inquiring about the availability of Tony Hermann, Resident Wine Educator, we started at Adelaida Cellars, with roots going back more than 50 years.  It began when Dr. Stanley Hoffman created the Hoffman Mountain Ranch Vineyard in 1964, after finding ideal

climate and limestone-laden soils to grow his beloved Burgundian and other French varietals. 

In the early 1970s, the neighboring Van Steenwyk Family followed Dr. Hoffman’s lead and began purchasing prime vineyard land like

Sunset over HMR Vineyard

the Viking Estate and, in 1994, the original Hoffman Ranch Vineyard.

Today, Adelaida is still owned by the Van Steenwyk Family and consists of 2,000 total acres, mostly natural hillsides, with 730 acres in walnuts and 180 acres of vineyards. They farm twenty different varietals, mostly Rhone and, recently have added some Portuguese grapes to the high elevation Bobcat Ranch Estate.  Their vineyards are all certified sustainable and yield 9,000 to 12,000 cases annually.

Since my last visit, Adelaida has added a very large, but elegantly appointed tasting facility that include’s member’s lounges, private tasting rooms and a space for wine dinners or wedding receptions. People can even get married on a hilltop bluff with 360-degree views.

Something that has not changed since my last visit is Tony Hermann, who is articulate and knowledgeable and makes any Adelaida tasting experience special.  He is in-demand, but request him anyway.

Winemaker Jeremy Weintraub arrived in 2012.  After receiving a political science degree in New York, he found himself making French

Jeremy Weintraub and Tony Hermann

varietals in Paso Robles, via a Master’s in Viticulture and Enology from UC Davis and some hands-on experience.

Adelaida has evolved in recent years. Their labels now pay homage to the landscape and Jeremy’s tenet to make wine that reflects the land in which it was grown  Some of their standard releases like cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and syrah remain while others are gone, and, to begin, Tony opened two new white Rhone varietals from Anna’s Vineyard: the Grenache Blanc 2016 ($35), aged ten months in neutral oak on its “chateau” yeast and the Picpoul Blanc 2016 ($35), a crisp,  flavorful release and fitting pair with shellfish.

The Adelaida Rose 2017 is also new and is as complex as any Rhone blend with 55% grenache, 14% mourvedre, 13% cinsault, 12% counoise and six percent carignane, except the grapes are picked earlier and the juice has little skin contact.

Pinot noir is extremely rare in Paso Robles, yet the 33-acre HMR Vineyard has some of the oldest low-yield vines on the Central Coast.  The Pinot Noir 2016 HMR Vineyard ($60) is partly whole-cluster fermented, spending 16 months in French oak.  It is Old World in its personality with

Adelaida HMR Pinot Noir

earthy aromas and flavors, spice hints and a nice mouthfeel.

Jeremy loves mourvedre and it is featured in his Anna’s Red 2015 Anna’s Estate Vineyard ($45), uniquely blended with cinsault, counoise, grenache and petit sirah after aging separately.  I found deep, balanced flavors of dark fruit and berry with peppery spice notes. This wine will evolve nicely, but is drinkable now.

In the Côte-Rôtie style, the Adelaida Syrah 2016 ($45), awarded 92-points from Wine Advocate, adds 10% viognier, a white varietal that surprisingly adds flavor and darkens the color of the wine. There is a forest floor quality to the aromas along with dark fruit and spice. Balanced, rich dark fruit, coffee and peppery flavors treat the palate through an extended finish.  

Shatter is something that occurs in grapes that experience some type of weather disturbance during budding, requiring the removal of damaged stock.  As a result, the yield of the Cabernet Sauvignon Adelaida District 2015($35), with added malbec and petit verdot was 50% of normal creating a concentrated wine that is drinkable now.

Adelaida Tasting Center

Most of the grapes for the Cabernet Sauvignon Barrel Select Adelaida District 2015 ($60) comes from the esteemed Viking Vineyard. Added malbec and petite verdot and 20 months aging in 50% new French oak build bold, full-bodied flavors that peak on the finish.    

Iconic in the history of Paso Robles wines, Adelaida Cellars remain on the cutting edge of the future and should not be overlooked on your next visit.


The Viader Story

 

The views are both serene and spectacular, overlooking much of the Napa Valley.  The vines below the outdoor deck seem to fall down the cliffs, quickly out of view. While it is known for producing limited amounts of fine Bordeaux-style wines, the real story behind Viader Vineyards and Winery lies within Winemother Delia Viader, Phd., her determination, persistence, sense of adventure and, of course, winemaking skills.

Armed with a PhD. in philosophy and a Master’s in Business, Delia arrived on Howell Mountain in the late 1980s determined to

Vineyards at Viader

become a farmer, something puzzling to her supportive parents.  She found this alluring, remote mountaintop property that was surrounded by steep cliffs with soil packed between rocks and boulders.

Luckily, she listened to her instincts rather than dozens of experts who told her that clearing the land and planting vineyards on the steepest, rockiest slopes in the Napa Valley was impossible.  It’s easy to say that Delia has carved out a piece of heaven, but she did it one stone at a time.

She has always had help from her son, Alan Viader, who remembers moving rocks from the future vineyards many afternoons after school.  He has worked with his mother ever since and with education and experience behind him, has become the winemaker who oversees all operations.  Delia has become the Wine Mother. She declares, “I’m the mother of the vines, the mother of the wines and the mother of the winemkaker.” 

Alan and I walked the extensive cave system where all the work is done after the grapes are harvested.  Everything at Viader is done in-house, from farming the estate vineyards through labeling the bottles.

The Viader Estate is 92 acres with 28 acres under vine. With the great Bordeaux blends in mind, they originally planted cabernet sauvignon, cabernet Franc and malbec, then later Rhone-style syrah.

Delia and Alan Viader

While the caves smelled of French oak, I noticed a variety of concrete options out near the crush pads. Delia was one of the first in the valley to introduce concrete aging and Viader has many concrete eggs, cones and large vats.  It is trend that is expanding everywhere and many winemakers are pleased with the enhancements that it provides.

I questioned who resolves disputes between Wine Mother and Winemaker.  Apparently, there are very few and those require little strategy to resolve.  Alan said they know what they want and he credits his fine palate to Delia. Both avoid making wines that punch you in the mouth, striving instead toward those that seduce you.

During the first eleven years of Viader, they made only one wine, a signature blend of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc.  Their largest production wine at a sparse 81 barrels, the 2015 Viader Signature ($175) represents the “best of the best” of the cabernet sauvignon (69%) and cabernet franc (31%), blended and aged 24 months in French oak plus another year in the bottle. The Bordeaux-style elegance is up-front, but I found potency in the aromas and rich texture throughout.  

The Bordeaux’s are superb, but it’s nice to make wines in California with the freedom to explore. Delia’s unscientific poll on the 2015 Viader Black Label ($125), with cabernet sauvignon (48%), cabernet franc (21%), malbec (10%) and syrah (21%) finds that it is preferred by the younger members of the family over the traditional Bordeaux-style releases.

Some years ago, eight acres of estate syrah were planted in a new hillside vineyard.  While Alan has led this new twist and the syrah is evident on the nose and palate, the Black Label is still elegantly structured and balanced. Only 30 barrels were produced.

Malbec is featured in the small production 2016 Viader Homenaje ($150), blended equally with cabernet sauvignon.  Homenaje is a tribute to many people as well as the Viader Argentinian roots.  Although it has not been officially released, this unique Bordeaux blend is already exuding the fine character of the other releases.

These are refined wines for discerning palates. However, those wanting to indulge themselves into a memorable Napa Valley wine experience should schedule a private tasting at the Viader’s Howell Mountain estate.  Sitting out on a deck, overlooking the vineyards with views of the valley below, tasting exquisite California wines paired with fine cheeses is where you want to be.  There may be a better way to spend an afternoon, but nothing is coming to mind.


Discover LaRue Wines

 

I wondered, as a drove to meet Katy Wilson at the secluded Emmaline Ann Vineyard in Sebastopol, what would motivate a young winemaker to join the fray of great pinot noir and cool-climate chardonnay production in Sonoma County.  Before I left the vineyard, ninety minutes later, I had my answer.

Katy Wilson, owner/winemaker of LaRue Wines, has had a strategy in place since she crafted a business plan for a small production

Katy Wilson

winery in Agricultural Business 101 at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.  Raised in farming, this could simply be a “she drove a tractor before a car” kind of story, but, a closer look reveals someone who, at a very young age, impressed her colleagues who, in turn encouraged and motivated her to make her own wines.

After stints in the Napa Valley and New Zealand, Katy settled at Flowers Vineyard and Winery on the Sonoma coast, then Kamen Estate Wines in Sonoma. Nine years ago, at age 26, Katy was offered some grapes and decided to launch LaRue Wines, vowing to limit production to 500 cases.  She named her new winery in honor of her great-grandmother, Veona LaRue Newell, who she described as inspirational and unique.

In addition to LaRue, Katy serves as a winemaker for Anaba Wine, Claypool Cellars, Reeve Wines and Smith Story Wine Cellars, all in Sonoma County.

Fine wines begin with great stock and Katy currently sources her grapes from five distinctive vineyards in the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast appellations. Today’s tasting began with her chardonnay release from a known Green Valley of Russian River Valley vineyard that has sourced grapes to Sonoma County icons like William Selyem, Kosta Browne and DeLoach since the early eighties.

The 2016 LaRue “Heintz Vineyard” Chardonnay ($60) expressed floral and mineral notes on the nose with vibrant citrus and stone fruit flavors through the finish.  Aged 17 months in French oak with 50% malolactic fermentation, Katy follows her instincts here,

Heintz Vineyard

that it’s sometimes best to leave the wine alone and let it develop peacefully.  Only 50 cases were produced.

As we tasted, Katy explained that the 2015 LaRue Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($60) had just began to open up during the last few months. Aged 20 months in French oak, 25% new, I found classic aromas of cherry and spice and a very balanced flavor profile and rich mouthfeel. At 240 cases, it represents about 40% of their total production.

With an east facing vineyard located west of Sebastopol that enjoys morning sun, the 2014 LeRue “Thornridge Vineyard” Pinot Noir ($70) used pommard and 115 clone to produce a “powerful, yet elegant” wine with dark stone fruits, berry aromas and  complex, integrated classic flavors.  Production is limited to fifty cases.

I was impressed with all of Wilson’s releases, but thought of the 2014 LaRue “Coastlands Vineyard” Pinot Noir ($80) as special and

LaRue Coastlands Vineyard Pinot Noir

unique, from dirt to drink.  It is uniquely derived from some of the county’s oldest pinot noir vines, grown at 900-1,200 feet elevations, two miles from the Pacific Ocean. It is partly whole-cluster pressed and aged for 32 months in 50% new French oak, which is very unique.

The “Coastlands” bouquet is rustic and earthy, with notes of dark fruit and spice.  The palate is very textural and classically fruit-

forward while the finish hangs on. Only a few barrels of this wine were produced.

Grown on six-acres south of Sebastopol, the grapes sourced for the 2014 LaRue Rice-Spivak Vineyard Pinot Noir ($70) come from volcanic ash soil, rare to this region. This release expressed solid spice and mineral elements along with the classic structure and pinot fruit.

In all the releases, there was a balance that made them very approachable to drink now while understanding that they will continue to mature for years.

Coastlands Vineyard

Since we were sitting in a handsome garden overlooking the vineyard, we ended the tasting with the 2014 LaRue “Emmaline Ann Vineyard” Pinot Noir.  The aromas were spiced and heavy with a forest-floor quality, yet the flavors were crisp and toasted.

My first impressions of LaRue wines were aptly described by the Prince of Pinot, William “Rusty” Gaffney M.D. when he said, “Her wines have a certain transcendent aura that reminds you why you fell in love with Pinot Noir in the first place.”

I plan to explore each vintage of Katy Wilson’s LaRue wines.


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.


Falling For Ronda

 

We had explored most of Spain during May 2012, the last few weeks in the south visiting Granada, Alhambra, Cordoba and Sevilla, but Karen had a plan for more. She said, “It will take some time, but I really want to see the white hill towns.” 

Our commitment to spend a few days exploring the hill towns of the Andalucia Mountains took us to a place far beyond our expectations.

We arrived in Ronda by train, seeking a place to sleep between our daily treks to the hill towns.  Rain required a taxicab to the hotel, but our desire to walk and see some of the town before dusk led us back out again with umbrellas and  raincoats. 

First, we stopped by the front desk for some local knowledge.  

“What can we see in the next thirty minutes”? I asked the clerk.

“Go to the plaza.  You take a left at the door and walk straight down the  street,” he said, “You can’t miss it,” 

In many regards, our image of old Spain is based on the Andalucia region.  It is the home of bullfights, flamenco, gazpacho and stunning mountain cliffs. Exiting through the hotel door, we were face-to-face with Spain’s first great bullring, dating back to the 16th Century and still hosting bullfights today.  When Ernest Hemingway wrote of Spain and bullfights, he was living in Ronda.

Puente Nuevo and “El Tajo”

At first glance, the Plaza de Espana was plain and unassuming until I stepped up to a railing. Managing to close my mouth and speak, I uttered, “My god, you’ve got to see this.”

“See what?” Karen asked as she walked toward me. 

“This,” I said, pointing off toward the distance.

As she approached the Puente Nuevo (New Bridge)circa 1751, the deep gorge they call “El Tajo” came into view.  The ravine was nearly four hundred feet deep and two hundred feet wide, dividing the newer town with the old Moorish area, La Cuidad, established around 1485.  El Tajo was spectacular enough with majestic rock formations, stunning natural landscapes and buildings perched on its cliffs,   but the view of the bridge, with huge piers reaching deep into the canyon amid wildflowers and waterfalls, translucent through the rain, was as wondrous as any I had seen.

Our short walk revealed that  Ronda was not just a place to sleep, but the largest and most spectacular hill town of them all.

Cliffs in Ronda

  Our first glance was a stunning preview and sparked my desire to rise early the next morning and hike down the canyon along the Jardines de Cuenca Park trail to view the span from below.

Pulling me from newfound inspiration back to reality, Karen said, “We can’t do it tomorrow, we’ve got a car waiting.”

“You’re kidding,” I said. My mind had latched on to those first impressions and was not letting go.

“Remember, we’re here to visit hill towns. Besides, we’ll be here for a few days.”

I had to quickly refocus.  A few hours in Ronda and I was already trying to figure out if I could live here part-time.

La Cuidad on the cliffs

Amid a steady rain, we received our rental car that seemed like the undersized love child of a Ford and a Fiat, with more dents than hub caps.  The local Hertz office closed and consolidated with the one in Malaga, eighty miles away. Our only option was a friendly, local dealer who acquired his fleet, one  by one, as funding was available.  He delivered the car and soon we were driving among olive groves, then cork forests in the Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park before the steep incline of the road reassured us that we would soon be in Grazalema, the  first white hill town of the day.

Nestled into the foothills and surrounded by spectacular

rock outcroppings, Grazalema was a cozy, little village. Whitewashed buildings, red roofs and window boxes overflowing with bright flowers lined the narrow streets that all led to a small public square that, aside from a few hikers passing through, was empty on this Sunday morning.

We stopped into s small pub to warm up with some vegetable soup, understanding and now accepting that the Spanish always add some jamon (ham) to the vegetables. I ordered a small glass of local red wine and was reminded that alcohol

Grazalema

cannot be served until 1:00 PM on Sundays.  The morning belonged to God which explained the seemingly deserted square.

Riding in the passenger seat over the steep Cadiz Mountain pass, in a rain storm, was the most “white-knuckled” journey in my recent memory.  Twisting, slick roads at high altitude with no protective barriers, in a strange car with manual transmission all shared responsibility for the increase in our heart rates.

Karen revealed what was on her mind.

“Don’t say a word about my driving,” she said.

She was the one that first proposed that the least stressful road trip option for us was her behind the wheel and me navigating.  With one slick, winding road up the mountain

and down, my role changed from navigator to comforter.

“You’re doing great”, I said. “we’re definitely not in a hurry.” 

We did find respite at the summit, stopping along the large mountainous saddle rendering views of a distant lake through the lifting fog.  The rain stopped and the sun appeared as we began our dissent down the mountain to the next hill town. 

The white buildings of Zahara seemed to spread and flow down the hills below an old fortified Moorish castle.  Once a Moorish stronghold, it played a significant role in the Reconquista in 1482.  Today, the quiet solitude reflected a much

Zahara

simpler lifestyle with friendly locals going about their Sunday afternoon, leaving the small church where the Virgin of Dolores statute sits or viewing the dramatic panorama from one of the vista points.

The forty-minute drive to our third hill town was easy, flat and dry.  The views of Arcos de la Frontera, shimmering in  the afternoon sun, made the extra drive worthwhile.  The perched old town, separated by a sheer cliff, was detached from the lower village, physically and culturally.

Hungry, we took a chance on a small restaurant near the Plaza del Cabildo and were rewarded with  fresh sea bass and a glass of local wine.  While driving home on a full stomach and a topped-off gas tank, images of Ronda and El Tajo still danced through my head. I anticipated that tomorrow would be a special day.

Our hotel in Ronda was built on the original home site of legendary bullfighter Francisco Romero, its facade seemed to stare

Arcos de la Frontera

at the bullring and long for past brilliance.Typical of many local buildings, the arena entrance lies innocently along the street while the rear exit reminded us that the entire town is perched atop cliffs with riveting vistas. The allure of the cliffs was overpowering and we soon left the bullring and began walking in thedirection of the old city.

Crossing the bridge and stealing another glance at the gorge, we entered La Cuidad, finding more narrowed streets and whitewashed buildings that, like most others, innocently faced the street. Once inside, we realized that they are built  directly on the cliffs of El Tajo.

As we entered the trail down into the canyon, the breathtaking views of clifftop buildings, waterfalls and the surrounding flora changed the deeper we descended.  Dozens of photographs later, we walked back up the trail and began to explore La Cuidad and remnants of early Arab culture.

Engulfed in history, we traversed the Moorish Quarter, moving back toward El Tajo, passed the Old Bridge, built in 1616 and

Karen in El Tajo

an aged wall to the Arab Bridge that marked the ancient entrance to Ronda.

A short distance from the bridge we found the remains of the Arab baths, whose location was not an accident.  After a long journey, the baths provided the essential place to cleanse one’s body before prayer.

The climb back up the opposite side of El Tajo to Plaza de Espana, in a light rain, left us with more memorable views and an appetite. Finding a restaurant perched on the canyon wall, we settled into a relaxing lunch with more breathtaking views. I could have enjoyed the rest of the day in my chair, with a glass of wine, stealing beauty with my eyes.

Karen spoke.  “Don’t forget, we have to be at entrance to the Pileta Cave by 4 p.m.

“Your’e kidding, I said. “Do you really want to go back out in the rain.”  “Ya know, we can’t do everything.”

“Well, I’m leaving at 3:30 and you can come if you want,” she said.

A history buff, Karen had discovered that the Pileta Cave is Spain’s best opportunity to view Neolithic and Paleolithic paintings, some dating back twenty-five thousand years. Curse you, Rick Steves.

At 3:30 p.m., we were both in the car, again passing through olives and cork on the way to the small town of Benaojan, the last benchmark on the way to the cave entrance. 

Descending into a cave is never pleasant, it’s deep, dark, damp and slippery and, as a designated lantern carrier, I shouldered the responsibility for the six people between me and the next lantern.  However, the rewards were astonishing and, at times, difficult to comprehend.  It was prehistoric finger painting that helped us visualize what their world may have looked like. 

Ronda and surroundings created many moments that jelled into one very special memory.  Exploring the Andalucia region surpassed expectations and re-energized two weary travelers to keep going and to always look forward.

 


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.