Category Archives: Wine

What to pair with crocodile and other African cuisine

A few years back, we purchased a South African photo safari at a fundraising auction and decided, this August, to schedule the trip and add three days at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.  Upon arrival at the Zulu Nyala Game Preserve in South Africa’s northeastern Zulu province, we discovered that all guests purchased their excursion by supporting a non-profit.  It’s part of their business model and something rewarding to be a part of.

Crocodile Frickadelle at the Palm Restaurant at the Ilala Hotel in Victoria Falls

The food was quite good, but commonly included such dishes as crocodile meatballs, ostrich filets and grilled Eland, Africa’s largest antelope.  Seeking a wine to pair with this new cuisine, I was delightfully surprised with a Diemersdal Pinotage 2017, from an historic winery in the Durbanville Valley region near Capetown, and began to rely upon their brand for the remainder of our African adventure.

Pinotage is a signature grape in South Africa, created in 1925 by Abraham Izak Perold, the first Professor of Viticulture at Stellenbosch University. It is a marraige of pinot noir and cinsault, a popular varietal used in southern Rhone-style blends and known in its homeland as hermitage.  The Pinotage 2017 and other red and white varietals from the Diemersdal Estate became a familiar name among many unfamiliar choices.

Wines have been produced at the Estate for over three centuries and six generations of the Louws family have artistically and meticulously farmed the land for over 130 years.

The Diemersdal Estate covers 840 acres, of which nearly 450 is planted under vine with pinotage, merlot, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and others.  Of note, many of the remaining acres are used for grazing and the preservation of Renosterveld, a threatened vegetation type in southernmost Africa’s Cape Floristic Region. The hillside vineyards at the Estate welcome cool, misty afternoon breezes that permit dry-farming, culminating in fully ripened fruit.

To accompany fresh-caught grilled bream and crocodile frikadelle at the Palm Restaurant in the Ilala Hotel at Victoria Falls, we fortunately chose the definitively styled Diemersdal Sauvignon Blanc 2018 with layered tropical fruit on the nose and palate and a vibrant minerality on the finish. The reasonable price made this wine even more appealing.  

For the record, crocodile does taste like chicken and we had served as a meatball, then grilled and diced, potentially popular in the States when served in a taco. Crocodile tacos, an idea before its time?

Diemersdal also produces a high-end sauvignon blanc reserve and the Diemersdal Winter Ferment 2019, described as a “new world style of sauvignon blanc” with tropical flavors, a hint of grapefruit and a rich, vibrant acidity throughout.

Days later, seeking a white wine that we could pair with a buffet featuring an array of fish, meat and game dishes as well as fresh sushi, we selected the elegantly aromatic Diemersdal Chardonnay Unwooded 2017.  The rich, creamy texture of the wine is balanced with melon and citrus flavors that linger. I now can forever brag to my “foodie” friends of eating sushi in Zimbabwe.

In addition to the red pinotage, we selected a bottle of Diemersdal Merlot 2017 for dinner one evening at the game preserve. Aged twelve months in 30% new French oak, this wine is still young but delivered very evident spice overtones throughout the nose and palate.

Once again relying on Diemersdal for our last dinner in Johannesburg, we reached out for a bold, nicely structured Diemersdal Shiraz 2017, a complex wine with strong spice overtones and a full palate of flavors that paired well with everything from a venison stew to a cheese plate.

Wines from the Diemersdal Estate carried us through South Africa and Zimbabwe, but a search upon our return found them available on numerous on-line wine sites but very limited access in local outlets.

Diemersdal Estate

However, for those seeking to explore the pinotage varietal, your options are wide open.  K&L Wines in San Francisco and Redwood City offers a 2015 Beaumont Pinotage Bot River South Africa ($28), awarded 92-points from James Suckling describing flavors of “blueberry, violets, orange peel and citrus.”

For a local option, wine.com sells a Fort Ross Vineyard Pinotage Sonoma Coast ($37) from northwest Sonoma County, boasting ratings in the nineties and, most appropriate for our recent adventure, the Graham Beck Game Reserve Pinotage 2015 ($16) from beautiful South Africa.


Mi Sueno Winery: An Immigrant’s Dream

The theme that is woven through Rolando Herrera’s inspiring story is one of hard work and persistence.  Rolando, who with his wife, Lorena, founded Mi Sueño Winery in Napa Valley, was born in Mexico but migrated, at age eight, with his parents to the St. Helena area, where his father worked in the vineyards.

Mi Sueno Founder and Winemaker Rolando Herrara

The family moved back to Mexico, but Rolando, with fond memories of Napa, returned, at age fifteen to finish high school while working at as a busboy at Auberge du Soleil.  One day, he was hired to help build a garden wall for Stags Leap Cellars founder Warren Winiarski, who recognized his work ethic and the rest is history.

Rolando spent several years working in various wine cellars before becoming, in 1995, the Assistant Winemaker at Chateau Potelle in St. Helena.  A few years later, after purchasing four tons of grapes from Lorena’s father, he made 200 cases his of chardonnay and Mi Sueño Winery, in 1997, was born.

In 2006, Mi Sueño moved into its current facility that houses the winemaking, barrel rooms and tasting lounge and in 2007, they purchased the industrial park building as their permanent home, including cozy indoor and outdoor tasting areas.

After starting Mi Sueño Winery, Rolando still pursued other opportunities and served as Winemaker at Vine Cliff and Director of Winemaking at Paul Hobbs in Sonoma County while launching Herrera Vineyard Management in 2003.

Mi Sueno Winery has had the privilege of having its wines served at the White House on three separate occasions:  the 1999 Mi Sueño Los Carneros Chardonnay in 2001, the 2006 Mi Sueño Russian River Pinot Noir in 2008 and, in 2010, the 2006 Herrera Rebecca Cabernet Sauvignon, a label of small production, premium wines named after their children.

Although Mi Sueño Winery produces 10,000 cases annually, Rolando still sees himself more as a farmer than a winemaker and enjoys it the most.  He says that seventy-percent of a winemaker’s job is done before the grapes are harvested at precisely the right time, something he does by taste. His winemaking and marketing philosophies remain simple:  respect Mother Nature and let the wines speak for themselves.

The wines did speak for themselves, beginning with the 2016 Sonoma Mountain Chardonnay ($55), complex with a floral nose, crisp acidity and vivid flavors. Aged in 65% new French oak, this wine is nicely balanced with expressions of tropical fruit on the palate.

Another release, the Burgundian-Style 2016 Los Carneros Chardonnay ($42), from a cooler appellation, consists of Dijon and Wente clones, chosen because they both ripen early.  The grapes are co-fermented, whole-cluster pressed with full malolactic fermentation and aged eighteen months with regular batonnage stirrings.

Tropical and stone fruit flavors are revealed through a bright acidity with discernible mineral elements on the finish.

Similar to a symphony, with wine, we expect certain elements to be constant, but are open-minded to someone’s interpretation.  Deep, layered aromas of dark fruit, spice with herbal and floral notes precede a similar flavor profile of the 2016 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($55), sourced from a single vineyard in the Sonoma County appellation.

I have a preference for good pinot noir and I found the traditional aromas and flavors of this release to be bold and expressive, but balanced with soft tannins.  This is a wine I could nurture.

The La Chole archeological site sits in the village of La Soledad de Maciel near Zihuatanejo.  Myth has it that the ancient site was once known as the town of fear, a place where people went when they were running from something.

The 1st vintage 2016 Mi Sueño “La Chole” Red Wine Napa Valley, a blend mostly of malbec with syrah, cabernet sauvignon and petite verdot, serves as a tribute to the Mexican roots of the Herrera family.  Currently under a test distribution in southern California only, it is doing well and we may see more in the future.

With a blend of cabernet sauvignon, syrah, malbec and a pinch of petit verdot that is available to club members only, the 2015 El Llano Red Wine Blend ($49) pays homage to Rolando’s grandparents and his birthplace of El Llano, Michoacán, Mexico.

The Herrera Family

A poised and polished 2105 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($75), sourced from four vineyards and aged in 65% new French oak, completed out tasting stylishly.

Rolando’s wines are as compelling as his story, born from hard work, a passion for the land, his family and a love for the Napa Valley.


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.