Author Archives: Lyle W. Norton

About Lyle W. Norton

Lyle is a freelance writer who specializes in “lifestyle” issues like wine, food, travel, music, film and memoir. He currently writes “On The Vine,” a weekly wine column for the San Francisco Examiner.

Wines from the Sta. Rita Hills appellation should be a part of any wine cellar

Growing up in the Bay Area, I can remember driving to Disneyland and stopping, with my parents, at the Anderson Split Pea Soup restaurant in Buellton. Years later while living in southern California I became familiar with the Sta. Rita Hills AVA appellation in north Santa Barbara County that essentially extends from Buellton eastward to the coastal town of Lompoc.  It is in the valleys and foothills on this stretch of land where world-class pinot noir, cool climate chardonnay and syrah is produced most vintages.

The appellation, founded in 2001, is bounded to the South by the Santa Rosa Hills, located on the North side of Point Conception that provides an east-west facing funnel, giving access to the fog and ocean breezes.  The Sta. Rita Hills AVA, along with the Anderson Valley, Russian River Valley, the Carneros and Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County, is one of the premier growing sites in California.

Terraced vineyards at Seasmoke

Living again in northern California, I must take advantage of my limited visits to acquire some familiar wines.  While open to exploring, I tend to fall back on some traditional favorites and am never disappointed.

My first stop along Highway 246 is Foley Estate for the 2016 Foley Estates Barrel Select Chardonnay, Sta. Rita Hills

($58), awarded 90-points by Wine Enthusiast magazine.  

In addition to fine pinot noir and other chardonnay releases, the “Barrel Select,” vintage to vintage offers the classic creamy texture with baked fruit flavors and lively acidity that is welcomed on my palate.

A few miles down the road lies Spear Vineyards and Winery, certified organic with new vines planted by owner Ofer Shepher in 2014.  During a past visit, young winemaker Kathleen Gaffney took me on a jeep tour of their hillside vineyards that she describes as the root(pun intended) of exceptional wine.  She prefers neutral oak and avoids anything that would diminish the impacts of the terroir. 

Spear Vineyards Winemaker Kathleen Gaffney

I selected the 2017 Spear Gnesa Vineyard Chardonnay ($45), a highly rated release from an estate vineyard planted in 1997 and the 2017 Spear Estate Pinot Noir ($45), a dry wine with a layered and diverse flavor profile.

A few miles closer to the coast is Melville, an iconic winery  founded in 1989 that produces consistently prodigious vintages of chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah. I selected three favorites starting with the 2018 Estate Chardonnay, Clone 76 Inox that stays exclusively on lees in stainless steel tanks for five months, without any oak influence.  It is a crisp food wine with a healthy acidity and floral hints.

Hillside vines at Spear Vineyards

Boasting consistent ratings in the mid-nineties, the 2015 Estate Pinot Noir Sta.Rita Hills ($36) is a neutral oak release that consists of fruit from sixteen different clones, forty percent fermented as whole cluster.  This release has savory elements that balance the fruit flavors and soft tannins.

I wouldn’t leave without a bottle of the 2016 Estate Syrah Sta.Rita Hills ($36), another highly rated, value-priced wine that combines dark fruits, spice and floral elements on the nose and palate.

In Lompoc, I stopped for a 2016 Richard Longoria Fe Ciega Vineyard, Block M ($75) and a 2013 Fiddlehead “Lollapalooza” Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills ($85) two releases from neighboring vineyards that provide clear expressions of fine pinot noir from the region.

2013 Fiddlehead Lollapalooza Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills

Terraced, high above Santa Rosa Road lies the vineyards of Seasmoke Cellars, a very discreet producer of Burgundian-style pinot noir and chardonnay.  There is no tasting room at Sea Smoke.  Their certified organic and biodynamic wines of the highest standard are accessed by applying, then joining their list when available. As a long standing member, I plan, as with previous vintages, to enjoy the 2016 Sea Smoke “Southing” Pinot Noir ($65) that always combines intricate flavor with exceptional grace  

Similarly, the 2017 Sea Smoke Chardonnay ($70) has the features of a French grand cru, aromatic with stone fruit flavors and a elite mouthfeel.

Greg Brewer and Steve Clifton have partnered to create acclaimed Burgundian-style pinot noir and chardonnay since 1995 and currently farm four “monopole” or single-vineyards with some of the finest stock in the appellation. I selected the 2016 Brewer-Clifton Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir ($40), that blends grapes from the 3D, Machado and Hapgood estate vineyards.  Whole-cluster pressed and aged in neutral oak, it is an exceptional wine at a reasonable price.  Of course, their prestigious vineyard specific releases are available by joining a list.  


The #MerlotMe campaign brings awareness and respectability back to a legend

“If anyone orders a merlot I am leaving. I am not drinking f_____g merlot!” A funny line delivered by actor Paul Giamatti in the 2004 film “Sideways” intended to add depth to his Miles Raymond character, did irreparable damage in U.S. markets to the iconic varietal.

merlot grapes

Prior to the film, merlot held fourteen percent of our wine market, more at the time than cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir. After Hollywood’s so-called “Sideways Effect,” growers started pulling out thousands of acres of merlot, replacing it, in may cases, with popular and higher priced cabernet sauvignon.

At the height of its demand, merlot vines reached nearly 60,000 acres in California.  Today, they account for almost 45,000 acres.

Not all problems with merlot were caused by the “Sideways Effect.”  High demands in the late 20th-Century prompted growers to plant more, sometime without regard to terroir and there were times when California produced merlot was simple, boring and out of balance.

Vineyards in Bordeaux

Today, thanks in part to the “MerlotMe” campaign, started in 2013, merlot is making a well-deserved comeback.  What began as a social media event, #MerlotMe has developed a following among consumers, wineries and restaurants that has resulted in the designation of October as International Merlot Month.

From the perspective of many, the quality of recent merlot releases have been extraordinary, not just from top producer like Duckhorn, Pahlmeyer and La Jota, but in many mid-price level wines.  Many of them are hosting events and special tastings and, to pay homage and assist in the campaign to increase awareness, several top winemakers have shared their six-word love stories about merlot.

“Merlot is the perfect wine, anytime” – PJ Alviso, Duckhorn

Duckhorn has produced much of California’s finest merlot for forty years.  The release of their 2014 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Three Palms Vineyard ($110), which was designated Wine Spectator’s top wine in 2017, gave the varietal a huge boost in its re-resurgence.  They have planned a special celebration, on Saturday, October 12, that features a “harvest-inspired four-course dinner” paired with their merlot releases from five appellations of the Napa Valley.

2016 Duckhorn “Three Palms Vineyard” Merlot

From what has been described as near perfect growing conditions, the 2013 Manterra Cunat Family Vineyards “Right Bank” ($50), a 99.4% merlot tribute to the great wines from St. Emilion and Pomerol in the Bordeaux region, is wonderfully structured with rich black cherry and currant flavors with soft tannins.

During the month of October, Manterra is hosting a “Meow for Merlot” special and has pledged to donate one dollar from each bottle of merlot sold to the Jameson Animal Rescue Ranch. The tasting fee is $25.00 per person, but the cause is a good way to support merlot and our four-legged friends at the same time.

“Marvelous, ethereal, rich, lovely, opulent, pleasure” – Sara Fowler, Peju

From their estate vineyards in Walla Walla and from other regions, L’Ecole No. 41 has long been recognized as one of Washington State’s top merlot producers.  In October, for those who are traveling through the Walla Walla area, they are offering, at the tasting room, special prices on their vintage 2016 releases.

Seavey, Manterra and L’Ecole

For those who will not be traveling through the Walla Walla area, L’Ecole No. 41 wines are available in wine shops throughout the Bay Area and online including the 2016 L’Ecole No. 41 Estate Grown Merlot Walla Walla Valley ($36) that expresses perfumed aromas and concentrated earthy fruit flavors with cooking spice and coffee hints on the finish.

With a 93-point rating, critic Antonio Galloni, Vinous described the 2016 Seavey Merlot Napa Valley ($65) as “powerful, dense and savory.” I found it to be one of the best Napa Valley merlot release that I tasted this year with overwhelming complexity and excellent mouthfeel.

For a $75 fee, Seavey Vineyard is offering a vertical tasting of five hand-selected vintages from their estate merlot and conducting a tour of their winemaking facilities including the historic circa-1881 barn.

Another long-standing producer of fine Napa Valley merlot, Markham Vineyards is also presenting, for a $35 fee, a vertical tasting of their 2013 through 2016 vintage estate merlot vines and a preview tasting of the yet to be releases 2019 vintage.  There is little question that participants will enjoy some top-notch merlot at Markham Vineyards.

Seavey Winery in the Napa Valley

“Making merlot for you to love.” – Don La Borde, Paraduux Vineyards

Do yourselves a favor, make an effort to enjoy a bottle of merlot in October.  We must all do what we can to make amends to this rich and luscious global legend.


Good wine is at the core of Bricoleur vineyards new California destination

Bricoleur Vineyards co-founders Mark and Elizabeth Hanson and daughter Sarah Hanson Citron are either following an aggressive business plan to turn their forty-acre estate into a hospitality retreat or willingly flying by the seat of their pants.

Elizabeth Hanson, Mark Hsnson, Sarah Hanson Citron

Bricoleur, appropriately suggested by Sarah, is a French word that refers to “one who starts building something with no clear plan, adding bits here and there, cobbling together a whole while flying by the seat of their pants.”  It sums up how the vision has evolved.

Before walking through the vineyards, we were shown numerous patio spaces with vine-covered trellises, a producing grove of olive trees and  a ten-thousand square foot refurbished tasting barn with full kitchen and adjacent deck overlooking a large pond.  There is a rose, flower and miniature fruit tree garden all adjacent to bocce ball courts and yet another picnic space surrounded by Chinese Pistache trees, readying their Fall colors.  While showing us the large vegetable garden behind the vineyards, Mark became animated and quickly began picking fresh strawberries and Sungold tomatoes for us to taste.

Tasting Barn
Bricoleur has many places on-site to relax

Available lodging ranges from an apartment above an old milking barn, a four bedroom get-a-way Vineyard House to a nine thousand square foot Estate villa that sleeps ten and has everything from sauna, steam room and eight-seat movie theater.

The property is impressive and the user opportunities are as bountiful as the gardens.  However, the sustainability of the entire effort will hinge on the success of their core mission:  to make exceptional wine.  They are well on their way.

With the purchase of the Russian River Valley estate, the Hansons inherited twenty-one acres of good pinot noir and chardonnay stock and their forty-acre Kick Vineyard in the Fountaingrove AVA of northeastern Santa Rosa is the source of sauvignon blanc, viognier and a rose’ of grenache aptly called, “Flying By The Seat Of Our Pants.” 

Bricoleur Vineyards in Windsor

In 2017, soon after establishing Bricoleur Vineyards, the Hanson’s added renowned winemaker Cary Gott and his forty years of experience to the team.  Gott is known for creating balanced, well-structured wines that often express unique character in traditional varietals.

We sat down with Mark, Sarah and Hospitality Director Chris Richard and began by tasting two wines from their Fountaingrove vineyard: the 2018 Bricoleur Kick Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc ($25) and the whole-cluster pressed 2018 Bricoleur Kick Vineyard Viognier ($30).  Viognier has a tendency to all taste the same, but the orange blossom and floral hints on the nose, the tropical fruit flavors and lingering finish made this one distinct.

A comparison of two very different Russian River Valley chardonnay releases followed, beginning with the 2017 Bricoleur Unoaked Chardonnay Russian River Valley ($30) that still had a creamy texture due to sur lie aging and the addition of five percent viognier.  At the opposite spectrum, the Bricoleur Chardonnay Russian River Valley ($35), aged in thirty-five percent new French oak with full malolactic fermentation has exceptional texture, but is balanced with complex flavors of butterscotch and baked stone fruits.

A blend of four clones from the estate vineyard, the 2017 Bricoleur Pinot Noir Russian River Valley ($45) is another high quality release from the appellation, fully aromatic with hints of white pepper, spice and cola that sells for half the price of similar wines.

We concluded with the 2017 Bricoleur Old Vine Zinfandel ($40) from an Alexander Valley vineyard that was lush and expressive without being an overpowering “fruit bomb.”

2017 Bricoleur Old Vine Zinfandel Alexander Valley

Bricoleur strives to be a lifestyle brand with a goal of ninety percent direct to consumer sales. After soft openings and a few events in the Fall, they promise a full range of activities in 2020 like yoga paired with wine tasting. Exercise, fresh organic food and good wine are all good reasons to pursue Bricoleur.


Passallacqua Winery ushers in new releases with luncheon at Valette

Jason Passalacqua and Dustin Valette are friends, their relationship often described as a “bromance.” They are both natives of Healdsburg, both love to hunt, enjoy the outdoors and food and wine are at the core of both of their lives.

Dustin makes food with the detail and finesse required of a fine chef.  I have never been disappointed nor tire of listening to him describe each dish in passionate detail.

Justin Valette and Jason Passalacqua

Jason is a fourth generation winemaker in the Dry Creek Valley. After a career in mechanical engineering, he returned to his roots in 2002 and founded Passalacqua Winery in 2004, sourcing cabernet sauvignon from the family vineyards and chardonnay, zinfandel, sauvignon blanc and pinot noir from established vineyards in Sonoma County and the Anderson Valley.

Jessica Boone developed and honed her craft in the Napa Valley, first at Edgewood Estate, then as winemaker at Armida Winery.  After a brief hiatus to start a family, she became the winemaker at Passalacqua Winery.  In describing a minimalist approach that puts the vineyard front and center, she relies on explicit attention to detail and a hands-on approach to create the balanced wines she desires.  Her skills were on display as Jason introduced the Passalacqua Winery new Fall releases at a wine pairing luncheon at Valette with special dishes created by Dustin.  

Passalacqua Winery in the Dry Creek Valley

We started with a glass of the aromatic 2018 Passalacqua “Triple Z” Sauvignon Blanc Dry Creek Valley ($35) served with charcuterie and cheese that included salume, aged on-site, pickled vegetables and orange zest olives.  Sourced from 20-year-old musque clones, the wine was round and creamy with forward stone fruit flavors.

Dustin described his first course, Seared Hawaiian AhiTakaki with Dried Kombu Emulsion and Furikake Wakame Seaweed, as featuring the flavors of the ocean.  It was appropriately paired with the well-integrated 2017 Passalacqua “Gap’s Crown” Chardonnay Sonoma Coast ($52), from an established vineyard in the “Petaluma Gap” that is influenced by ocean winds and fog and is known for grapes that are exceptionally expressive.

Seared Hawaiian Ahi Takaki with Dried Kombu Emulsion and Furikake Wakame Seaweed

The “Gap’s Crown” was dry, like a French chardonnay, yet round on the palate with clear mineral notes that provided a genuine pairing for the sea.

Passalacqua produces Russian River Valley and Anderson Valley pinot noir under his Quince label.  In the most exquisite pair of the afternoon, the 2017 Quince Pinot Noir Anderson Valley ($42) was poured with Jason Passalacqua’s Elk Loin with Huckleberry Jus, Espelette Pepper and Slow Roasted Shallots.

Quince 2013 Pinot Noir Anderson Valley

Dustin explained that Jason’s wine elevates the outdoors, meaning it transfers nuance from vineyard to glass.  The tenderness of the meat, the rich Huckleberry sauce and the shallots enhanced the pinot’s earthy texture and red fruit flavors for the highlight pairing of the luncheon.

With past vintages described as powerful and muscular, I anticipated that Dustin would challenge the 2016 Passalacqua Blocks 18 & 19 Cabernet Sauvignon Dry Creek Valley ($105) with a high powered dish.  He served Charred Wagu New York Steak with on-site barrel-aged soy, fermented garlic and a piece of smoked beef belly that added character.  The rich spice elements of the wine enhanced those in the dish and the dark fruit flavors lingered.

From a late-harvested block of grapes with higher sugar concentration, Jason selected the 2013 Passalacqua Block 23 Cabernet Sauvignon to pair with Dustin’s eclectic dessert that included Dark Chocolate Bouchon, Graham cracker, toasted meringue, perfectly arranged on a plate and topped with shaved Volo Chocolate, a local Healdsburg company.

Younger and described as the most unique planting site in the vineyard, Block 23 sits atop a hillside bench overlooking the surrounding property.  This vintage combined dark fruit flavors and a luscious mouthfeel that bonded with the diverse textures and flavors of the dessert ensemble. 

Jessica poured a small glass of her 2017 Lumia Valdiguie ($34), a wine she made after discovering some old abandoned vines in the Dry Creek area. Valdiguié is a rare red grape from the emerging Lanquedoc region of France.  It had a lighter texture, but the flavors were full.

Winemaker Jessica Boone

The luncheon provided perfect surroundings for Passalacqua to introduce their new releases.  Jason and Jessica’s wines are exceptional paired with Dustin’s food and, of course, the wines bring out the best of the chef’s creativity.  It was an true artistic endeavor.

Passalacqua is a small production winery that distributes most of their releases direct-to-consumer.  Their wine club offers four shipments annually of six or twelve bottles each. My best recommendation is to audition a bottle from the wine list, over dinner at Valette.


New releases expand the boundaries of traditional California-style chardonnay

Chardonnay is the most widely planted grape varietal in the United States and has been for more than a decade.  Most of it is planted in California who, in 2017, claimed over 93,000 acres under vine resulting in 614,000 tons of fruit.  Its dominance in California over the past fifty years has stunted the market demand for other white varietals, leaving many to survive in obscurity.

Winemaker David Ramey

While there is no debate regarding popularity, discussion of chardonnay revolves around two styles:  oaked or unoaked. Although nuance distinguishes fine chardonnay releases, those aged in stainless steel or neutral oak tend to be more acidic and crisp with citrus and stone fruit flavors while those aged in oak generally have a richer mouthfeel with toasty or buttery characteristics.

For the last several decades, California chardonnay has been identified as riper, with a high fruit flavor profile while the Old World Burgundian wines from villages like Chablis and Montrachet express minerality and more earthy qualities.

One of the pioneers of California chardonnay, David Ramey, introduced Burgundian techniques like sur lie aging, malolactic fermentation and barrel fermentation that produced a softer, richer mouthfeel and fruit-driven flavors.  Many winemakers followed his example and, by the mid-nineties, new trends in California chardonnay were set.  

Ramey Chardonnay Rochioli Vineyard Russian River Vall;ey 2015

Today, there is a shift to dial back the ripened fruit and buttery style for something more austere and balanced.  A fine example is the 2016 Ramey Chardonnay Rochioli Vineyard Russian River Valley ($65)from a neighboring Westside Road vineyard outside of Healdsburg.  Ramey has sourced chardonnay from the Rochioli Vineyard for years, but this wine is only the second vintage as a vineyard-designate release.  Whole-cluster pressed with full malolactic fermentation and sur lie (yeast lees) aging and batonnage (stirring the yeast lees), it is rich, fruit forward with a healthy acidity.

Sonoma County still produces, from vintage to vintage, some of the finest examples of California-style chardonnay.  William Selyem, in the heart of the esteemed Russian River Valley, recently released their 2017 vintage single-vineyard wines including the 2017 Lewis MacGregor Estate Vineyard Chardonnay ($65). Ripened stone fruit, citrus and floral notes drive the aromatics and flavors with a clear and lush minerality that lingers through the finish.

From the same appellation, the 2017 Raeburn Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($20), awarded ninety points from James Suckling, imparts the textural and flavorful complexity of a California chardonnay at a value price.

Gap’s Crown Vineyard

The Sonoma Coast is a very large and diverse appellation, extending vineyards from north Sonoma County coastal regions near Annapolis, through the Sebastopol Hills and Petaluma Gap to far eastern vineyards near the town of Sonoma.  Among them, the Gap’s Crown Vineyard in the Petaluma Gap area lies inland, but has significant coastal influences.  The recently released 2017 Passalacqua Gap’s Crown Vineyard Chardonnay ($52), with expressive fruit-driven flavors, is dry, but rounded on the palate.

From a well-sourced vineyard in the eastern reaches of the appellation, the Sojourn Chardonnay Sonoma Coast Durell Vineyard 2017 ($48) delivers complex fruit flavors with savory and mineral notes throughout.

Two chardonnay releases from diverse Napa Valley appellations, the Stony Hill Napa Valley Chardonnay ($54) from the high-altitude Spring Mountain District and the Failla Chardonnay Coombsville Haynes Vineyard 2017 ($58), in the southeastern portion of the valley, offer fine samples of modern California chardonnay.

Rusack, Ramey and Stony Hill

The Stony Hill, considered one of California’s early “cult wines,” combines delicate fruit and floral characters with savory notes that make it food friendly.  The Failla Coombsville release expresses creamy, ripened stone and tropical fruit that results in a extraordinary mouthfeel.

The Santa Cruz Mountain appellation has a long track record of producing fine California chardonnay.  The Thomas Fogarty Winery near Woodside often falls under the radar, but their Thomas Fogarty Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay 2016 ($35) has received accolades from all major periodicals including Jeb Dunnuck who described “orchard fruits, white flowers and subtle toasty, brioche-scented aromas and flavors.”

Sourced from the Sierra Madre and Bien Nacido Vineyards in  Santa Barbara County, the 2016 Rusack Santa Maria Valley Reserve Chardonnay ($36), with full malolactic fermentation, batonnage and barrel fermentation, expressed, at a recent tasting, classic stone fruit and citrus flavors with textural elements that lingered throughout the finish.

Bien Nacido Vineyard

With its continued popularity, there are always a plethora of diverse California chardonnay choices readily available to consumers from vineyards throughout the state.  Whether it is a crisp, dry wine aged in stainless steel or one heavily oaked and buttery, some research and tasting can help discover the one that is compatible to your palates and food choices.


The Sustainability of Bodegas LAN Rioja

There is so much to love about Spanish wines from Rioja and other regions.  Fueled by a high quality to price ratio, they have significantly expanded their presence into US markets over the past few decades.  According to the newsletter, “Spanish Wine Lover,” imports from Rioja bodegas has grown from fewer than twenty in the 1980s to over 180 today. 

Vina Lanciano Vineyard surrounded by the Ebro River

Imports from Rioja, Ribera Del Duero, Rias Baixas and sparkling cava from Penedes are readily available and many have captured the attention of consumers and restaurant sommeliers.  Spanish wines, in many ways, are produced with a completely different mindset from those in California or other states. No one seems to be in a hurry. The focus is making the best wine and not releasing it until it is ready, which could be years after it is bottled.

A relative newcomer to the Rioja region that is steeped in old traditional, Bodegas LAN, founded in 1972, consistently exports some of the finest examples of good value wine from Rioja as well as some premium releases.

Their 172-acre Viña Lanciano Vineyard sits near the natural border of the Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa sub-regions.  It is divided into twenty-two separate plots that are all surrounded by the Ebro River and LAN is deeply committed to sustainable viticulture and to co-exist with the native plants, animals and reptiles.  By practicing biodiversity, adding natural flora and fauna to the vineyards, and using much manual labor, LAN has reduced pollution and water use and eliminated the need for chemical herbicides.

2013 LAN Edicion Limitada

Tempranillo is the main grape varietal used in wines from Rioja, including those from the Bodegas LAN.  The true character of Rioja is revealed when tempranillo is combined with garnacha, mazuelo, viura and graciano, with the best examples coming for the cooler, higher-elevation regions like Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa. 

Today, the LAN brand is consumed locally and around the world. I recently joined CEO Enrique Abiega and Trinidad Villegas, LAN’s Export Director for the USA for lunch at Bellota, south of Market.  We shared  conversation, tapas and raciones while tasting the current vintages of their food friendly wines.

Bodegas LAN CEO Erique Abiega

Enjoying a rare visit to California, Abiega began our discussion by pouring Bodegas Lan Santiago Ruiz, Albarino Rias Baixas ($20), a beautifully rounded, fruit driven white with a rich mouthfeel, a departure from the varietal’s typical crisp, acidic features.  We spoke of the Sonoma County fires, drought and of the importance of LAN’s dedicated effort toward sustainable practices.  Enrique and Trinidad have been with the LAN team for many years and both strongly feel that their methods create wines that, for the price, can compete with any others.

The tapas that included a fresh, decorative heirloom tomato salad, patatas braves with chipotle salsa and Spanish omelette, were paired with the aromatic vintages 2015, 2016 LAN D12 ($18) and the LAN Vina Lanciano Reserva 2012 ($25), aged forty-two months between French and Russian oak and bottle conditioning.

The ninth and tenth vintages of the D12 both had intense bouquets, earthy qualities and the balanced, fruit-forward flavors of wines twice the cost.  The hand-selected grapes for the Vina Lanciano go through full malolactic fermentation before extensive aging that results in an earthy, food friendly wine with integrated flavors and soft tannins.

A wonderful vegetarian paella that included wild mushrooms, autumn squash, sun chokes and pomegranate along with wood-grilled, dry-aged beef were paired with vintages 2103, 2106 LAN  Edición Limitada Rioja ($50) and the vintages 2014, 2015 LAN Xtrème Ecológico Crianza ($20) , a 100% tempranillo from the organic certified Ecological Mantible parcel, named after the nearby Roman Mantible Bridge.

Roman Mantible Bridge adjacent to Vina Lanciano Vineyard

After Wine Spectator magazine raved about the LAN 2005 Edición Limitada Rioja, future vintages have been on the radar of consumers.  Low yield vines, full malolactic fermentation and aging in new French and Russian oak barrels produce concentrated aromas, fruit-driven flavors, hints of spice and a lush texture. 

2014 LAN Xtreme Ecologico Crianza

Both the growing and winemaking methods for the Xtrème Ecológico Crianza call for minimal intervention.  After initial fermentation, the juice is transferred to new oak barrels for fourteen months and sits another none months in the bottle. The color was dark and deep and, as with many of the LAN wines, the candied ripe fruit aromas were intense and the flavors, layered and complex. A tremendous value available for under twenty dollars.

I was genuinely impressed with all the Bodegas LAN releases that were served and would recommend them when exploring fine, value driven wines from Rioja and other Spanish regions.


Her River Runs Through Me

 

“Part of you, flows out of me

in these lines from time to time”

    Joni Mitchell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joni Mitchell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Borderlines were something Joni wrote of but never subscribed to.

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

and treat those two imposters just the same.”

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