Category Archives: Travel

Calistoga Culinary Getaway

 

Not having spent time in Calistoga for years, I recently stayed a few days to discover some wines and enjoy the vibrant, emerging local restaurant scene. The following is a small taste of what we enjoyed.

Breakfast options includes Sarafornia, an old-style cafe with classic comfort food or Bella Bakery for those seeking coffee and an artisan

The Grade Cellars “Sea Fog” Sauvignon Blanc

pastry.  My favorite for atmosphere and menu was Sam’s Social Club east of town, where I enjoyed an omelette of cultivated, wild mushrooms, gruyere cheese, black truffle oil and scallions.

We had the opportunity to taste two local sauvignon blanc releases; both impressive, but very different.  The 2015 Petit Coquerel

Le Petit Coquerel Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc ($20) had shades of grapefruit on the nose and during the long finish with a dry crispness in the middle.

From the producers of fine Calistoga cabernet sauvignon, The Grade Sauvignon Blanc “Sea Fog” 2015 ($28), barrel-fermented in all neutral oak, delivers a pleasant acidity with degrees of citrus and stone fruit flavors and a soft wet stone finish.

Lovina Restaurant

Formerly Calistoga Kitchen, Lovina is a new restaurant in the old building at the corner of Cedar Street and Lincoln Ave.  The new creative ownership team identifies with being a uniquely suited, diverse group of friends. The menu is also diverse, with vegetarian friendly and gluten-free options available.  Uniquely good was the Grilled Cheese with Chestnut and Celery Root Soup and the Warm Duck Confit Spinach Salad, which we shared along with a special Chicken and Dumpling Soup.

Lovina is open Thursday through Monday for lunch/brunch and dinner.  Their wine list features a variety of North Coast selections and they celebrate “No corkage Thursdays.”

Visiting the historic Chateau Montelena Estate always reminds me of their 1973 chardonnay release that led to an Independence Day

1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay

for California wines after winning the famed 1976 Paris Tasting. The 2014 Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Chardonnay ($58), is aged ten months sur lee in oak with no malolactic fermentation. I found complex aromas, crispness and a rich finish of stone fruit and spice flavors, all welcomed by my palate.  The earthy 2014 Chateau Montelena Zinfandel ($39) also stood out with coffee bean, chocolate on the nose and jammy, ripened fruit flavors throughout.

We first discovered Brannan’s by accident, seeking a place to have lunch in town, and were

Bar at Brannan’s Restaurant

delightfully surprised by their imaginative small plate dishes.  I joined co-owner Ron Goldin at a recent event while chef Colin Curtis prepared farmhand (vegetarian-based), briny (seafood) and chow (the meats), small plate dishes that included Curried Crab Tacos, Moroccan Lamb Chops, Salt and Pepper Scallops and Wild Mushroom Risotto.  Appetizers like Smashed Avocado Toast and Ahi Poke Spoons added to the feast. In an older building on Lincoln Ave., Brannan’s has a large, historic bar, full array of cocktails and an ever-changing menu.

Over thirty years ago when Rich and Carolyn Czapleski purchased the land for their Canard Winery, they got a call from Robert Mondavi, urging them to retain some of the oldest zinfandel vines in the Napa Valley,

Canard old vine zinfandell

dating back one hundred years.  Today, the dry-farmed vineyard continues to produce the 2013 Canard Zinfandel ($45), a balance of strength and elegance.  Smokey flavors of raspberry and spice lead to a rich mouthfeel through the finish.

I tasted the Fairwinds 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Reserve ($110) deep inside the extensive cave system at Fairwinds Estate Winery. It originates from the volcanic soils of the local Kenefick Ranch Vineyard that sources Bordeaux grapes to many top producers. The fruit flavors are intense and opulent, but nicely balanced with the complex spice elements that dawdle on the finish.

Tasting in the caves at Fairwinds Estate

For another special dining experience, I recommend the highly reviewed Solbar, at the Solage Spa, east of downtown.  Fresh dishes classically prepared by chef Massimo Falsini like Tamales Bay Mussels, Petrale Sole Tacos and Steak Frites appear on Solbar’s lunch menu. Seasonal Cheeses and Seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras begin the ever-changing entrees like Sautéed Wild Steelhead with Foraged Mushrooms and Crispy Liberty Duck with Abalone-prosciutto ragu.

Aside from health and recreation, the Calistoga experience offers an array of fine wines and prodigious culinary choices at all levels.  For a get-a-way, it has it all.

 

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Charbono!

 

Calistoga in north Napa Valley is a distinctive place to visit with surrounding mountain vistas, a quaint downtown, specialty shops and increasingly fine dining, geysers, mud baths, petrified forests and, of course, world-class wine.  Fine cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc are still on top but local winemakers have experimented with other varietals since the early 1900s, including charbono, grown almost exclusively in the Calistoga area.  A vast majority of the sixty-five California acres planted in charbono are

Calistoga

minutes from town.

Introduced to California as charbonneau and also known globally as douce noir, corbeau or bonarda, the origin of charbono is Savoie, part of the French Alps near the Swiss border where it was harvested as a food friendly red varietal used to soften blends.  Late-ripening California charbono is generally simple in structure, fruit-forward and soft on the palate.

Charbono began as an Italian varietal in the Savoie region before it shifted to France in 1860. Today, it is behind only Malbec as the second most abundantly planted grape in Argentina where it is known as bonarda.  Several winemakers in Calistoga have adopted the grape and seem determined to keep it alive including Larry Summers who calls it “the Rodney Dangerfield of wine,” noting that few people know of its existence.

The old Inglenook winery imported barbera to the region, only to discover later that it was charbono, first bottling it in 1941. They remained the largest producer of charbono in the 1970s when vines also began to appear in Mendocino County

2012 Shypoke Calistoga Napa Valley Charbono

Pizza and charbono were on the menu at an event hosted by T-Vine Winery tasting room in Calistoga.  It began with a rare and earthy 1985 Inglenook Charbono.  The dark color and the deep, rich forest floor and tobacco leaf flavors were proof that the varietal benefits from aging.  Surprisingly, I have found this vintage on-line and at a local San Francisco outlet.

Winemaker Peter Heitz, great-grandson of immigrants who originally planted the vineyard in 1904, combined grapes with one planted in 1984 to produce nine barrels of the 2014 Shypoke Charbono Napa Valley Calistoga ($35) Herbal on the nose, the rich, tart fruit flavors exercise the palate.

Summers Winery, where I tasted my first Calistoga charbono years ago, was pouring two wines including the Summers Rose’ of Charbono 2014 ($30) that had a refreshing sweet and savory quality with hints of strawberries throughout.  It’s easy to recommend this unique wine.

Summers Rose’ of Charbono

Volcanic soil is prevalent throughout the Calistoga appellation including the estate Villa Andriana Vineyard that produced the nicely structured Summers Charbono 2014($34) with nutty aromas and restrained, complex flavors.  Some of these vines were affected by the recent Tubbs Fire that could impact future releases.

Dry-farmed and organic, the Tofanelli Family Vineyards in Calistoga has produced estate wines on this land since 1929. Their 2014 Tofanelli Estate Charbono ($43) blends 15% petite sirah for a richly textured wine that delivers a floral bouquet, ripened blueberry flavors and a slate finish.

A Calistoga boutique winery, August Briggs produces small lot wines in a prolific way.  Today, they have fifteen different releases with various varietals, all produced in

Tofanelli Vineyards Napa Valley Charbono

small amounts.  From two local vineyards, the August Briggs Calistoga Napa Valley Charbono 2014($38) was self-described as their best vintage.  It is an impressive 100% charbono and at the top of those tasted.  Rich texture, concentrated blueberry flavors and soft tannins bring an intricacy to the wine.

After tasting the August Briggs Calistoga Napa Valley Charbono 2006, I may differ with their assessment of the vintage 2014 as the best ever. The deep color and lush mouthfeel were beyond compare.  Enjoying the integrated, complex flavors, doughy tannins and long finish outweighed any need to dissect it.  I can only imagine tasting the vintage 2014 in 2026.

Whether you choose Calistoga for the natural beauty, exercise and health opportunities, fine dining or the wine, be reminded that it is the only place in the United States where we can spend a day exploring the charbono grape and the expressive wines it produces.

August Briggs Tasting Room in Calistoga

Charbono deserves our respect and wine lovers everywhere have a self-serving obligation to keep it alive and thriving.


Tasting “Sonoma Strong”

 

Sonoma County has experienced tragedy from the recent fires.  There was loss of life and property and we all see areas of scorched earth where beauty once prevailed. The land will recover and the community has begun the healing process with an outpouring of community support.

Staff at Merry Edwards Winery

Thanks to the efforts of firefighters and other public service personnel, most of the landscape remains unchanged, including our famous vineyards.  Sonoma County is open for business and the experience of great wine, food and natural beauty is very much intact. The following recommendations are intended to deliver it all for a memorable day-trip.

The first stop is a late morning reserved tasting at Limerick Lane Cellars, named for their street of origin, on property south of Healdsburg.  Since the Limerick Lane

Limerick Lane Winery

Zinfandel Russian River Valley 2012 (94-pt) placed #12 on Wine Spectator’s 2015 Top 100 list, their wines have become recognizable and highly rated. Currently, visitors can enjoy the 2015 Russian River Valley Zinfandel, the 2015 1910 Block Zinfandel (94-pt),a specialty field blend and the wonderful 2015 Syrah Grenache, a Rhone blend with a pinch of petite sirah added.

There are a plethora of good lunch opportunities in trendy Healdsburg, a few blocks north of Limerick Lane  Two of my favorites are The Shed, offering a delightful farm to table menu and Barndiva, with aesthetic patio dining.

Leaving town and traveling west, Healdsburg Road, passing over  Highway 101, soon intersects with the iconic Westside Road that weaves through the heart of the Russian River Valley.  Not all estates along Westside Road are open to the public,

Patio tasting at Gary Farrell

but MacRostie Vineyards, Gary Farrell and Thomas George Estates offer special tasting experiences that focus on cool climate chardonnay and pinot noir.  All of their single-vineyard releases feature noted local vineyards like Olivet, Durrell and Wildcat Mountain

They all offer a broad menu of tasting experiences, held in modish settings, that are

Gary Farrell Chardonnay Durrell Vineyard 2013

both exceptional and pricey.  Indulge yourselves while enjoying fine wines like the 2014 Gary Farrell Durrell Vineyard Chardonnay Sonoma Valley (94-pt). Reservations are required at each.

The continuing drive along Westside Road is a virtual feast for the eyes, passing through gorgeous redwoods, oaks and vineyards like Allen, Bacigalupi and Bucher that source grapes to many of the valley’s producers.  As with previous vintages, the medium-bodied 2015 Williams Selyem Westside Road Neighbors Pinot Noir, sourced from these and other nearby vineyards, has a rich mouthfeel with berry and spice flavors that pair well with my palate.

Hacienda Bridge

Driving south along Westside Road requires crossing the one-way Hacienda Bridge that affords splendid views of the Russian River. Soon, Westside becomes Wohler Road moving south to River Road, toward the Highway 116 wineries.  This is a good time set your GPS for Merry Edwards Winery on Gravenstein Highway North (116) near Sebastopol.

With consistent great releases from an iconic winemaker, poured in a private setting,

Merry Edwards Winery is unsurpassed. The free tasting treats you to more highly-rated single vineyard pinot noir, chardonnay and something more.  The 2016 Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley, as well as previous vintages, is arguably the best sauvignon blanc in California. Stable ratings in the mid-nineties and multiple appearances on Wine Spectator magazines Top 100 Wines List substantiates it’s reputation. Several lees-stirrings and the addition of sauvignon musque adds richness to the complex flavor profile of stone and tropical fruits with expressive mineral notes on the finish.  The golden color and floral aromas alone earned a reserved place in my small cellar.

Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc

Another nearby option is Dutton-Goldfield, serving more chardonnay, pinot noir and the rich, balanced 2014 Dutton-Goldfield Cherry Ridge Vineyard Syrah, using forty-percent whole cluster grapes from a warmer vineyard to create a soft, velvety texture.

Zasu at the Barlow, featuring pork dishes, Jamaican food at Revibe or seafood at Handline provide options for an early dinner in Sebastopol.

Sonoma wineries are surely open for business and many are dedicating profits to help fire victims.  Come enjoy some of the finest wines on the planet and help Sonoma County rebuild itself.  Your taste buds will thank you.

 


Precious and Fragile

 

October 7, 2017 was not an ordinary Saturday. We joined friends on a fancy tour bus for the ninety minute ride from Santa Rosa to Middletown, then up the mountain to the hydro-thermal power compound known as “The Geysers.”   Returning in the afternoon from Calistoga, the bus drove through the pass that became Mark Springs Road because it was the fastest and most accessible route.

Passing by the entrance to Safari West, an African animal preserve prompted discussion on who had been there

“We were there last month,” I said

Weeks before, in late August, out-of-town guests enthusiastically requested Safari West, a four-hundred-acre African preserve and breeding center, as a top priority during their short visit.  I either never knew or had forgotten that such a place existed northeast of Santa Rosa.  However, I was game and loved being around it.

On a warm morning, we arrived and soon met our guide and jeep driver, Cindy.  With dusty Levi’s, a khaki workshirt and the baked skin of someone who spends their days in our local Serengeti Plain, she was surely a seasoned veteran, comforting to our group.

Cindy explained that we would soon board what looked like a worn World War II surplus jeep retrofitted with a second level of seating for four people above the cab and a long gear shift protruding from the floor to the right of the driver. She  referred to the old jeep as her partner and I had full confidence in both.

First on our day’s agenda, before boarding the jeep, was some intense bird-watching, then viewing primates and predator cats that, for obvious reasons are prohibited from roaming freely among the appreciative prey on the preserve.

I have seen flamingos before, but never heard them make a sound.  We came upon a crowded colony of various shades of pink that, at times, sounded like an entire section of Type-A violinists who played and argued with each other simultaneously.  The crescendo came in waves.  One flamingo would annoy another, others, who I called shamers, would join in to escalate the volume and ferocity of the screeches, lowering their heads and projecting their necks forward like a weapon.  The colony moved from tranquil fluidity to chaotic dysfunction and back again within seconds. Watching their behavior made me think of the parallels between us and them.

After carefully cleaning the bottoms of our shoes, we entered the large aviary.  In trees and on the ground, we were surrounded by scarlet ibis, Argus pheasants, crown cranes,  Stanley cranes and a unique demoiselle crane named Kovu, who literally had no clue that she was a bird.  Some abandoned crane eggs were hatched in an incubator, producing Kovu,

Kovu

who was then hand feed by humans.  During both her formation and formative years, Kovu bonded with people, not cranes or birds at all.

She soon joined our group and participated in the walking tour. She stopped and started walking with us and seemed to enjoy observing these engaging winged creatures that surrounded us.  Cindy pointed out that she has, in the past, taken a particular liking to a specific person, prompting her to raise and spread her wings, strutting around ceremoniously in circles.

Moments later, I stepped back and accidentally nudged Kovu. I apologized.  She stared at me for a instant and then the “love dance” began. I became the one.   She pulled her wings back and, in full display, began to dance in circles just for me. I was embarrassed and flattered at the same time. At my age, it’s nice to have appeal, even by a demoiselle crane who thinks more like a girlfriend than being a bird.

Kovu

“Stand back Kovu.” Cindy delivered the disappointing news to our young friend, who had expectations of leaving the aviary and joining us for the rest of the tour.

After viewing the caged cats and before boarding the jeep, we observed several Black and White Colobus monkeys swinging from branches and moving quickly on the ground. Each one of these gorgeous creatures had a distinct black body with a white cape-like streak down it’s back and a ring of white fur that surrounded their entire face.

Colobus is the Greek word for “mutilate” and unlike any  other primates, these beautiful creatures, genetically, have no thumbs. They are also herbivores with a digestive system that enables the consumption of a variety of leaves, flowers and twigs.  Their sloppy eating habits and digestive systems are said to be vital to seed distribution.  It’s difficult to be neat without thumbs.

“Who wants to sit up top first?” asked Cindy as we boarded the jeep.  A young family of four jumped at the chance and were doubly pleased when we offered them our turn.

Buckled in, we started up the bumpy road.  Entering each section of the preserve required that Cindy stop and exit the jeep, unlock and open a gate, re-enter, start up the vehicle and move a few feet forward, stop and exit once again to lock the gate behind us.  She did this several times during the tour.  After all, this is old school Safari West, not Jurassic Park.

The first series of corrals belonged to five or six large giraffes with enough acreage to roam freely.

Cindy spoke.  “Thirty-six giraffes have been born here and we believe that Jamala, who is celebrating her twentieth birthday today, may be pregnant.”   She definitely was. When she turned, we were all surprised to see parts of two hoofed legs protruding from her.

Cindy quickly grabbed her radio.  “This is Cindy. Are you aware that Jamala is giving birth.”

A voice was transmitted.  “Yes, we’ve been monitoring her the last hour.”

“Does she need help?”

“We’re going to give her some time.”

“I knew that young Rico was up to no good.” Cindy smiled.

“Yeah, he was pretty active in the short time he was here.”

Rico was a nine-year-old male giraffe that was brought into the preserve to stimulate some growth to the herd.  Apparently, his activity level was so high that his stay was shortened.

Not knowing how long the birth process would take, Cindy suggested that we proceed with our tour but quickly return after any updates.

In the next minutes we encountered ostriches, water buffalo, varieties of antelopes and an interesting zebra dynamic.  We came upon three female zebras, standing side by side, intently observing a young male eating.

Admiring giraffes

“They shunned and were downright  mean to him when he first arrived,” said Cindy, “but after awhile, they all warmed up.”

The expressions of the tirelessly observant females seemed to say, “Isn’t he handsome when he eats?”

“Oh yes, such confidence!”

After listening to a scratchy voice over the radio, Cindy said, “It’s time to get back to Jamala.”

Handsome guy

We returned to the sight of two young women pulling on rope lines that had been secured around the calf’s hoofs, now below a dangling head and neck. This tug-of-war continued for several minutes before reinforcement arrived in the form of two more young women.

The giraffe corrals looked like one large square corral, divided into four equal parts. Although Jamala was separated, a six-foot fence could not keep the others giraffes from surrounding her with comfort and support.  They did not interfere, they were just there for her. One last tug by the young quartet and the new miracle of  life slid from the mother

Helping Jamala

and fell six feet to the ground.

The calf looked dazed for a moment and then began, in vain, to stand up.  Due to predators, standing is a top priority for baby giraffes.  After many wobbly, futile attempts, the twenty-minute-old calf finally stood up and a minute later was nursing.

Jamala tended to her new offspring, cleaned her up and, within  the forty minutes, we observed a new six-foot-tall baby giraffe walking steadily, looking a month, not an hour old.

She shared her wonderful birthday present with a small, fortunate group of people and supportive giraffes. The four interns were exhausted, but running high on

Jamala’s Birthday Gift

adrenaline.  We all shared a moment and a lifelong memory together, but theirs were up close and personal.

My story was convincing.  All on the bus agreed that we would go soon, together.

In the late hours of Sunday October 8, the Tubbs Fire ravaged through the same pass that we had traveled a day before and burned parts of Safari West.  After directing the staff to evacuate, owner Peter Lang, stayed behind and strung together ten garden hoses to hold it at bay. N one of the living creatures at the preserve were harmed.  The same could not be said for Lang’s home and a fleet of old, worn surplus jeeps with special seating above the cab.

Heroically, Peter Lang not only saved these beautiful creatures, but future

Mother and calf

opportunities for us to observe all facets of their complex lives, including the miracle of birth.

Safari West can be life changing.  At a minimum, it reminds us of what we have known all along and may have forgotten. We are part of a balance that is both precious and fragile. Although humans have benefitted from being able to walk and use our hands simultaneously, we still share an eco-system and a an obligation to nourish and protect it.

On October 19, our family welcomed Drew Sofia Norton, into the world. Her parents

Drew Sofia Norton

and Jamala experienced the miracle of birth months apart. I hope that this beautiful baby, precious forever and fragile for the short-term, will embrace and celebrate all living things in our world. Visiting Safari West in a few years may give her a head start.


The Wines of Saratoga

 

Growing up in Silicon Valley, I am familiar with the Santa Cruz Mountains.  Many times, I have driven the back roads that connect Saratoga with Santa Cruz, through towns like Ben Lomond, Boulder Creek and Felton.  Today, the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is a large wine appellation that extends through San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz

Montebello Vineyard

counties. It has many diverse micro-climates that are all, in some way, influenced by the Pacific Ocean, the mountains and San Francisco Bay.  The region is often overlooked, but produces well-rated wines, vintage to vintage.

The Santa Cruz Mountain appellation is forever steeped in wine lore. The Ridge Montebello Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 1971, from the hills above Cupertino and the Apple campus, was rated fifth among ten cabernet sauvignon wines, five French and five California, competing in the original 1976 Paris Tasting that put us on the world stage.

Ridge Montebello Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon

In a 2006 reprise blind tasting of the original aged red vintages, the 1971 Montebello Vineyard was ranked at the top.  Current releases are priced near $150 per bottle and still sought after by wine collector’s.

The original destiny of the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation was supposed to be pinot noir.  The coastal influences and cool evenings were thought to offer the perfect terroir.  Although there is still plenty of pinot noir grown here, the grape struggles to reach full expression in many of the micro-climates.  Winemakers like Merry Edwards, left for the Russian River Valley, where she produces excellent pinot noir and sauvignon blanc.  Others, like Randall Grahm from Bonny Doon Cellars, stayed and changed his business model to Rhone blends, becoming an original Rhone Ranger. In a region that has been described as too hot for pinot noir and too cool for cabernet sauvignon, the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation wineries are comfortable in their own skins and celebrate their size and diverse micro-climates with many varietals.

On the far west end of the Silicon Valley, at the base of the Santa Cruz Mountains, is the quaint, upscale village of Saratoga, in the middle of the appellation.  It is the last stop

the village of Saratoga

before entering the remote backwoods that take you through the giant redwoods of Big Basin State Park and, eventually, to the beach at Santa Cruz.  More vineyards are appearing in the hills outside of town and exploring their wines and other local attractions makes for a fun weekend mini-vacation.

The flagship Saratoga winery, Mount Eden Vineyards, is also one of the oldest and finest producers in the United States, growing pinot noir, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon for over seventy years, under the leadership of proprietor Martin Ray for the first thirty years. For me, there is no better white wine, vintage to vintage, in California than the Mount Eden RESERVE Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains ($75). It is consistently named

2013 Mount Eden Vineyards Estate Bottled Chardonnay

to Wine Spectator magazine’s annual Top 100 list.  Ratings are generally in the mid-nineties and the 2012 vintage was named to the No. 5 slot among 2015 releases.

The RESERVE consists of the same chardonnay grapes used for the Mount Eden Estate Bottled Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains ($64) release, planted in half of the wineries forty acres. The difference is a viticulture practice that ages the wine in French barrels for ten months, then transfers it, with “gross lees,” to stainless steel tanks for several months of additional aging.

The lees consist of dead yeast that remain, like some soap cake, on the sides and bottom of the barrel.  Under a process known as racking, the wine is temporarily transferred to another barrel and dead yeast is removed.  Another process, sur lee, mixes the build up

Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains

into the wine, creating a rich, silky texture.  The result is a Burgundian Grand Cru- style chardonnay with an earthiness and mineral nuances to enhance the rich fruit and finish.  There are many great chardonnay releases out there, but my palate puts Mount Eden RESERVE and the Foley Estate “Barrel-Select Chardonnay ($55) at the top of the list.

Different from most white wines, the Mount Eden chardonnay releases can continue to mature in the bottle for several years, a tribute to the vine stock, terroir and wine-making practices that have evolved over decades.

One that does not display heavy fruit influences, the Mount Eden Estate-bottled Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains ($62) is a medium-bodied Burgundian-style wine, austere, balanced and elegant.

Their current release, the 2012 Mount Eden Estate Bottled Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains ($70) adds merlot (22%) and cabernet franc (3%) in a typical Bordeaux blend from cuttings originally obtained from Chateau Margaux in France by viticulturist Emmett Rixford.

Mount Eden Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2012

There is no doubt that these hillside vineyards are cooler, with more coastal influences than cabernet sauvignon is used to, preferring warmer days.  Expect more acidity, but not soon.  the winery declares that “fine integrated tannins buttress characteristic flavors of red currant, blackberry and earth, adding, “Recommend cellaring is ten to fifteen years.”  After all, it is Chateau Margaux stock.

There is a non-tasting, historical tour of the wine cellar, available by reservation only and a mailing list that allows for early notifications of new releases.  Mount Eden is an iconic California winery, yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Saratoga’s Savannah-Chanelle Vineyards, three miles from town, was founded in 1996 by Mike and Kellie Ballard, but the land was serving as a functioning winery well before Prohibition.  They produce pinot noir but, for me, the attraction is three unique releases.

Admittedly, my knowledge of port is limited.  I am always interested in the reviews of those from Portugal and a few California releases that get away with using the word,

2004 Savannah-Chanelle Tawny Port

“port” on the label. The 2004 Savannah-Chanelle Syrah, Tawny Port ($99) is from the same wine as the earlier released 2004 Ruby Port, but aged another nine years. A characteristic of aged port is the enhanced aromas that must be enjoyed for the complete experience.  A special wine for port aficionados.

Cabernet franc is a major component of France’s famous Bordeaux blends, partnering with cabernet sauvignon, merlot and others. Lighter than cabernet sauvignon, it adds spice and herbal flavors to the mix and is a respected member of the team.

California winemakers are obsessed with single-varietal releases and I have tasted many pure cabernet franc wines, some from the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Savannah-Chanelle claims to have the oldest cabernet franc vines in the state, dating back to 1923.  An end result from these old vines, The 2013 Savannah-Chanelle Cabernet Franc Estate ($65), has crisp cranberry flavors with definite herbal influences, almost like menthol.

2013 Savannah-Chanelle Monmartre blend

Lastly, and probably their most unusual wine is the 2013 Savannah-Chanelle “Montmartre” ($60), an eclectic blend of cabernet franc (45%) zinfandel (32%), carignane (9%), and syrah (14%) that displays an array of berry flavors, courtesy of the two dominant grapes. Some extra aging has resulted in a nice, rich mouthfeel.

A WWII pilot in Europe and, later, chief research test pilot at NASA, George Cooper founded Cooper-Garrod Estate Vineyards in 1973 and spent the rest of his life making wine.  Cooper died in 2016 at the age of ninety-nine, but his legacy continues at

2010 Cooper-Garrod “Test Pilot” Red Wine Blend

the winery today.  They offer a full palate of wines including the highly rated 2010

2010 Cooper-Garrod Cabernet Sauvignon George’s Vineyard

Cooper-Garrod Georges Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($41) and several blends named after famous fighter planes.  Their tasting room is always open, making it a must stop.

Of Spanish origin, “Ser” means “expressing identity.”  Ser is also an “artisanal” winery, the identity of Nicole Walsh.  She has an array of experience, including local Bonny Doon Cellars  and as far away as Marlborough, New Zealand.  She now specializes in creative old world-style wines from vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Distinctive wines from Ser that caught my attention were the dry, creamy 2015 Ser

Nicole Walsh of Ser

Sparkling Rose’ of Nebbiolo ($34), an Italian varietal, the 2016 Ser Rose’ of Cabernet Franc ($22) and the rare 2014 Ser Cabernet Pfeffer ($45) from the Enz vineyard in San Benito County.  Ser shares an accessible tasting room with


Ser

Silvertip Vineyards on Big Basin Way, the main street of Saratoga.  Checking out Cinnabar and Mountain Winery are other options along the Saratoga wine trail.

For the most charm, the towns of Los Gatos and Saratoga are good, convenient bases and lodging and restaurants are available at all levels. Strolling both towns is part of the experience.

Between tastings, visitors should not miss the breathtaking Villa Montalvo Estate and

Hakone Gardens outside of Saratoga

Arboretum (where we married 47 years ago) and the eighteen-acre Hakone Gardens, one of the oldest and most impressive Japanese gardens outside of Japan. Also, many of the wineries have concert venues and their music series schedule is posted online.

Exploring the entire Santa Cruz appellation will take some time, although it could be fun.  The wines of Saratoga can be a great introduction to the elegantly charming side of the Silicon Valley.


The Wines of Corbières

 

During each of our two nights in Castelnaudary in southern France, we dined with friends at Chez David, a restaurant owned by Chef David Campigotto, a son of chefs, who prepares his renown cassoulet throughout the world.  Both evenings, based on the recommendation of our waiter, we selected a local 2013 Celliers d’ Orfee Corbières Cuvee

Chef David Campigotto

Sextant and were intrigued. Aside from the cassoulet, it also paired well with fresh cod on the second night. This newly discovered wine had a great nose, rich, fruity flavors and, most appealing, it was inexpensive.  While it sold for

2013 Celliers d’Orfee Corbieres Cuvee Sextant

twenty euros in the restaurant, we consistently found other wines from Corbières priced at ten euros. What else could we learn about these wines?

Corbières is the largest appellation in the Lanquedoc-Rousillon region, producing nearly fifty percent of its wine production on over thirty thousand acres.  Nearly all the wines are red blends, leaving about five percent for white and rose’ production.  They are similar to Rhone blends with one exception.  Among the five major grapes used in Corbières blends, carignan, also known as carignane or mazuelo, is often the main varietal.

Blended with grenache, mourvedre, the grenache-related liedener pelut, syrah and, at times, the more obscure piquepoul blanc and tenet noir, carignan clearly dominates.  During the late 1980s, carignan was the most widely produced grape in all of France, with over 400,000

Corbieres vineyard

acres under vine.  Then, in a comprehensive approach to improve the overall quality of  wines, the European Union hatched a “vine pull” program, offering subsidies to growers for pulling up their vines. As a result, production of Carignan dropped over forty percent and was replaced by merlot as the most abundant varietal.

Outside of the appellation, single-varietal carignane is produced by several California winemakers including the 2013 Carol Shelton Carignane “Oat Valley” ($28), from 60-year old vines in north Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley.  I recently paired this Santa Rosa-based wine with fresh salmon and found the creamy texture and smokey flavors complimentary, not overpowering.

We left Castelnaudary by boat, cruising down the Canal du Midi. In the villages and towns along the route, including Bram, Carcassonne and Trebes, the shops and restaurants proudly showcased their local wines, including the Cuvee Sextant.  Enjoying locals wines enhanced the cultural experience of the canal, especially at these low prices.

Vineyards in Corbieres

The Corbières appellation is so large and diverse that it has eleven identified terrors within its boundaries. Wikipedia defines terroir as a “set of all environmental factors that affect a crop‘s phenotype, unique environment contexts and farming practices, when the crop is grown in a specific habitat.”  This is a complicated way of saying that when factors like climate, sun exposure, soil types and conditions are matched with the proper varietal, stock and farming practices, a harmonious relationship ensues that creates a unique characteristic to the wine. The term “terroir” is not exclusive to wine.  It is used in growing coffee, chocolate, chili peppers, agave and others.

Still intrigued with this new-found region and what is has to offer, I began, upon my return, to research what was available in California.  Surprisingly, Corbières wines are readily accessible in wine shops and on-line.  It helps to know what you are asking for.  I have not tasted any of the Corbières wines described below.  However, based upon a recommendation or something in the wineries background that caught my attention, these are releases from the region that I have targeted.

From a small, organic winery described as a “true one-woman show,” the carignan-dominant 2014 Clos de l’Anhel

2014 Clos de l’Angel “Lolo de l”Anhel Corbieres

“Lolo de l’Anhel” Corbières($13) is a blend from limestone-laden soils, enhanced with small amounts of syrah, grenache and mourvedre. The low price reflects its profile as a great everyday wine. The Clos de l’Anhel winery also offers, at a higher price, the 2014 Clos de l’Anhel “Les Dimanches” Corbières ($23), that blends carignan (60%), from 80-year old vines, syrah (30%) and grenache (10%), boasting rich fruit and minerality, both welcome to my palate.  Les Dimanches translates to “Sundays.”  This is meant to be a special wine, reserved for special occasions.

From twenty-three different organic and biodynamically grown grape varietals that are field blended and harvested together, then co-fermented, the 2015 Domaine Tour Boisée “Plantation 1905” ($12) is as unique a wine that can be found within the region, from vineyards in the village of Minervois, near Carcassonne.  One of the newer producers in the region, dating back to 1826, the array of varietals in the Plantation vineyard were first planted in 1905.  I did not recognized the names of fourteen varietals used in this all-embracing blend, but, at $12 per bottle, I am very curious.

Domaine Tour Boisee “Plantation 1905”

Michel Gassier Corbieres de Nimes Nostre Pais

My interest in the Michel Gassier Corbières de Nimes Nostre Pais Red 2013 ($22) rose because the vineyards are in the AOC Corbières- Nimes appellation, located between the cities of Montpellier, Nimes and Arles, all places that we recently visited.  Secondly, it is grenache dominant.  Because the Corbières appellation is so large, these vineyards are within an hour of the Rhone Valley and share deep beds of limestone that influences the flavor.

Aside from grenache (40%), this blend includes equal parts carignan, syrah and mourvedre.  Awarding it 90-92 points, Wine Advocate described a wine that “exhibits pretty, perfumed notes of raspberry and passion fruit intermixed with subtle leather, violets and spice.”  With the history, unique terroir and reviews, this is the one that I will pursue first.

On the surface, the Chateau d’Aussieres Corbières 2013 ($30) is a typical Rhone blend.  Syrah-dominant and supported by grenache and mourvedre, this blend mirrors those produced in Chateaunef-du-Pape, Gigondas and other appellations in the southern Rhone Valley.  A wine that consists mostly of syrah, the tasting notes described fair amounts of typical spice (pepper), herbs and toasted flavors.  Of this vintage, Wine Advocate states, “Domaine d’Aussières has turned out an incredibly classy, elegant 2013 Corbières that checks in with the top wines of the appellation.”

For those who follow French rugby, apparently, Gerard Bertrand is a household name.  After 17 years as a star in the French leagues, he returned to the family wine business in Corbières and, recently, saw his Gerard Bertrand

Gerard Bertrand Corbieres

Corbières 2012 ($20), a blend of syrah, grenache and mourvedre, land on the #55 spot of Wine Spectator’s 2016 Top 100 wines

Since his retirement from professional rugby, Bertrand has focused on acquiring regional vineyards and refining his organic and biodynamic practices. Wine Spectator describes the 2012 vintage as “Full-bodied and powerful, with decadent layers of raspberry compote, kirsch and red plum notes that are met with savory details of herb and cured meat.”  The release price of the wine was under $20, but I found that wholesalers are seeking higher sums since its recent recognition.

The Lanquedoc-Rousillon wine region extends from the Pyrenees Mountains to the Mediterranean Sea.  The Corbières appellation, bordered by Carcassonne, Narbonne and Perpignan is large and assorted enough to offer a range of styles and terroir. These wine are made to pair with duck, pork and other meats in the region’s rich cassoulet, but are also complimentary to chicken and seafood.

There is a “new age” renaissance emerging from Corbières wines.  The number of wineries has expanded in recent years and there is a strong desire to improve the quality of the wine and vineyards in a responsible, sustainable way.  We discovered and explored this region via the Canal du Midi, but their local industry is expanding to welcome tourists of all types.  Of course, you no longer have to travel to Corbières to enjoy these finely blended wines. I expect that awareness among US wine consumers will swell as they expand their presence in our market.


Margaux, by chance?

 

After sleeping in St. Emilion during the last few nights of a month in France, we dedicated the next day to exploring nearby Bordeaux and the renown wine appellations to the north of the city.   Famous regions along the Left Bank of the Gironde River, like Haut-Médoc, Saint Julien and Paulliac, were at our fingertips but I was focused on

Grand Vin du Chateau Margaux

Grand Vin du Chateau Margaux

Chateau Margaux, the Grand Madame of them all.    A bottle of their Grand Vin du Chateau Margaux sells  for thousands of dollars and has been in the discussion as the world’s finest wine for more than a century.  We understood that time-consuming post-harvest activities were at peak and any chance of tasting required connections and months of planning.  “I just want to be there,” I said, trying to maintain reasonable expectations, “to see it, to touch a vine,”  Karen, remembering that I had followed her into three Cro-Magnon caves in Les Eyzies-De-Tayac days before, was supportive.  “Let’s do it,” she answered, “I’m in.”  We try to be conscious and supportive of each other’s passions.  For us, the concept first became instilled after listening to the 1977 Joni Mitchell 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”/

Chateau Margaux wine production buildings

Chateau Margaux wine production buildings

Although fairly commonplace today, these were poignant thoughts in 1977, for two twenty-somethings trying to make a go of it.   Today, thirty-nine years later, it’s more about managing round-a-bouts and reminiscing of the anniversary dinner with a bottle of Grand Vin du Chateau Margaux 1992, a gift from the parents of our German exchange student.   Karen would stop eating sugar shortly after and forfeit the enjoyment of wine.  If these were her last two glasses, what a way to go out.  Her apt description of “liquid velvet” remains a standard by which I compare good wines today.

The central city of Bordeaux was being victimized by its own progress.  Road

Chateau Margaux

Chateau Margaux

construction and the ensuing congestion was everywhere.  Thanks to modern-day GPS, we were able to maneuver our way through and, more importantly, master the round-a-bouts.  During a previous visit, entering a round-a-bout was quickly followed by a female voice on the GPS directing us to, “Re-route.”   This time, improved technology and graphics, along with experience, neutralized our stress level.  Streets soon turned into country roads that connected the small viticultural villages, a calming transition into a world that defies progress.  Royalty resides here but essentially these people are farmers from families that have worked this land for centuries.  The marbleized skies, poplar trees silhouetted by the afternoon sun and freshly harvested vines created the autumn Bordeaux landscape that I had always imagined.

The tiny village of Margaux was on the horizon.  Looking in the distance, I recognized the steeple of an old church, one that I had seen in photographs of the Chateau property.  I turned the wheel abruptly, veering off to a side road.  “What are we doing now, isn’t the village straight ahead?” Karen’s question made me realize that I hadn’t been too forthcoming about my new plan  “The village can wait,  I think Chateau Margaux is less than a mile from here and I want to get as close as we can,” I said, hoping for even a distant glance.

Suddenly, we came upon a vineyard near mustard-colored production buildings.  Vines

In a field of cosmos

In a field of cosmos

tend to look alike, but these were surrounded on two sides by a thirty-foot swath of multi-colored Cosmos, creating a Jackson Pollack-type border surrounding the uniformity of the vineyard.  As we stopped to take pictures, I noticed numerous cars passing by that seemed to access a large grass and dirt field about a quarter-mile away, then stop and park. Something was going on.  I could see other landmarks from the Chateau and knew we were close.

We entered the field strewn with uniformly parked cars looking like we belonged.   It

Chateau Margaux grounds

Chateau Margaux grounds

was a small, eclectic crowd that were leaving their vehicles and strolling along a poplar-lined path toward the Chateau’s entrance.  Karen fit right in with her fashionable jeans, tweed blazer and scarf while my orange sneakers, matched with faded jeans and gray cashmere sweater, may have eventually outed us as outliers.   However, we did leave our car and casually stroll onto the estate, immediately coming upon the Chateau Margaux mansion. On display behind iron gates, looking like it had in photographs over the

years, it defined grandeur, elegance and tradition.  Staff was working in the courtyards of the freshly painted production buildings on immaculately manicured pavement.  These building clusters resembled the backlot of a Hollywood film studio more than a working winery.

Soon we were walking on neatly trimmed, rustic paths that directed us and others

Chateau Margaux grounds

Chateau Margaux grounds

through a grove of large trees and over a stone bridge spanning a small canal.  One man, with large, working hands, wearing old jeans and a white starched shirt, unbuttoned to reveal his chest, strolled with a young woman in a navy business suit, struggling to walk with four-inch heels.  Another young couple looked very Goth with tight black pants and many piercings.  The moment was surreal, walking through the grounds of the world’s most iconic and private winery with no idea where we were going or what we may find when we got there.

Once across the bridge, we came upon another grove of the same Cosmos that framed a

stone building at Chateau Margaux

stone building at Chateau Margaux

large one-storied stone building with several  framed window openings, each with a small crowd gathered outside.  This was definitely where everyone was going.  We thought we were blending into the crowd as we looked into one of the windows to discover an elegant luncheon setting for about one hundred and fifty people with white linen tables cloths and napkins,  porcelain dinnerware, sculpted silver and five crystal wine glasses at each place.  We had seen settings like this before, but never of this size.

“May I help you?” said the nice looking forty-something man in a tailored black suit and open blue shirt, as he approached Karen.   We were busted.  She described our little sojourn and he patiently explained that we were at the Chateau Margaux Harvest

Discussing wine at the Chateau

Discussing wine at the Chateau

Luncheon, an annual event to celebrate the harvest and honor all the local vineyard owners and staff that contribute grapes and/or land toward each vintage.  This famous luncheon is both very exclusive and very local.

During our brief  conversation, I informed the gentleman of our Grand Vin du Chateau Margaux 1992.  “I hope you still have it,” he said, “the 1992s are peaking now.”  “No”, I answered, slumping my shoulders, “we drank it,”  adding, “But, it was damn good in 1995.”  Karen repeated her “liquid velvet” metaphor and thanked  him.  “We don’t want to crash your luncheon any more than we already have,” she said.  Speak for yourself, I thought.   We said good-bye and he reminded us to walk by the mansion on our way out.  At Chateau Margaux, even being bounced from an exclusive event is done with distinction.

Karen in Margaux

Karen in Margaux

My day visiting wineries in the Bordeaux region was over.  No other experience could match this one.  During a late lunch at a boutique hotel in the village, we  stared out at the vineyard, then looked across the table at each other and smiled.  Feeling exhilarated and mischievous, we knew that this would always be a good story and a great memory among many.