Richard Longoria Wines


Years ago, while enjoying a dinner with friends at the Ballard Inn in the Santa Ynez Valley, we selected a local wine, the Richard Longoria Fe Ciega Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Santa Rita Hills.  The wine began my appreciation for cool-climate chardonnay and pinot noir from this appellation and of Richard as a winemaker who works the land.

Richard and Diana Longoria established their winery in 1982 after building a résumé with other local producers.  Richard’s desire to make wines in the Burgundian style and the

Richard Longoria

unique terroir of the region remains a successful partnership.

The Santa Rita Hills lie forty minutes up the coast from Santa Barbara on the north side of Point Concepcion, California’s only east-west coastal mountain range. The vineyards are directly exposed to cool nights, moderately warm days, wind and fog, protected only by the hills and valleys.  The soils are rocky, somewhat stressed and infused with marine sediment that helps to define the wines.

The Fe Ciega Vineyard is a great property in a prestigious neighborhood that includes Fiddlestix, Sweeney Canyon and Seasmoke vineyards among others.  The 2014 Longoria Chardonnay Fe Ciega Vineyard Santa Rita Hills ($50) is sourced from a few rows of Mt. Eden clone and is aged sur lee in only 26% new French oak.  Although Richard usually avoids malolactic

Fe Ciega Vineyard

fermentation in his chardonnay releases, nearly three-quarters of this juice went through it.  There is a distinctive herbal, earthy quality to the flavors and a balanced acidity on the finish.

Longoria is cautious with new oak and doesn’t make any determinations until he analyzes the juice.  His signature wine, the 2014 Longoria Pinot Noir Fe Ciega Vineyard Santa Rita Hills ($55) was aged fifteen months in 40% new French oak resulting in complex herbal, fruit-forward flavors and soft, but clear tannins.  The “Fe Ciega,” which translates to “blind faith,” expresses the finer qualities of pinot noir in the appellation.

Whole-clustered pressed, the 2016 Longoria Chardonnay “Cuvee’ Diana” Santa Rita Hills ($45), with juice sourced from two vineyards, is aged separately for 14 months in 23% new oak, then blended before bottling.  The rich, creamy texture and baked fruit flavors explode on the palate and last through

Longoria” Fe Ciega” Pinot Noir

the finish.

What a difference a vineyard can make.  Sanford and Benedict is one of the oldest and most respected vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills.  In contrast to the Fe Ciega release, the 2014 Longoria Pinot Noir Sanford and Benedict Vineyard Santa Rita Hills ($50), aged fifteen months in 39% new French oak, exudes big, bold cherry pie aromas and flavors.  Drinkable now, this wine will get even better with some time on the shelf.

Richard’s favorite varietal from the region is actually cabernet franc.  The problem with cabernet franc is that it suffers from an ailment called “cabernet sauvignon love.”  It can’t compete. Years ago, he began using it in a unique Bordeaux blend with added syrah.  Are the French scorning or just envious?  Re-launching the disguised cabernet franc, he called the annual blend, “Blues Cuvee’ to honor his love of blues and jazz.  Each label has original blues-themed artwork, a perfect gift for those passionate about vino and vibes.

2006 Longoria Syrah Alisos Vineyard

To my fortune, Richard pulled out a twelve-year-old bottle of syrah from the Alisos Vineyard, cooler than most that produce it.  The 2006 Longoria Syrah Alisos Vineyard Santa Barbara County ($40) had spice notes, but the expressive flavors were so integrated and soft, I was surprised to find an alcohol level of 15.9 percent.

Two very different varietals, both sourced from the Clover Creek Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley, are worthy of mention. The 2016 Longoria Albarino Clover Creek Vineyard ($25), offers a spirited acidity and clean stone fruit on the palate.  In the late-harvest, dessert wine category, the 2012 Longoria Syrah “Vino Dulce” Santa Barbara County ($23) is at the top of my list.  Albeit

Longoria Blues Cuvee’ label

sweeter, the herbal, spice qualities of the grape, along with rich fruit and berry flavors, are expressed throughout.  To sip it after dinner is captivating, but to pair it with chocolate is simply decadent.

Tonight, in honor of Richard, his 2014 “Fe Ciega” pinot noir was perfectly paired with the 1979 Bill Evans’ “Paris Concert, Edition One” recording.  It’s always a pleasure to sip and listen to “Quiet Now.”




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


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.

Edvins and Florencio


I remember simpler times when a face was just a face, another friend on the playground.  Post World War II Santa Clara Valley was rapidly expanding and most of the faces moving into the new houses were various shades of Europe. We were all different to some degree and, beyond a little curiosity, it was quietly accepted or irrelevant within the serious business of childhood.

Most of our fathers fought in the war, mine in Tarawa and Guadalcanal in the South Pacific. The common paradigm for returning GI’s was to get married, have kids and live happily and peaceably ever after.  The textbooks called it “Return to Normalcy,” a panacea for the scars of battle.

My parents had little money, but I had everything I needed and some things I didn’t, like freckled cheeks and a “cowlick” on the back of my head resembling the Alfalfa character on the “Little Rascals” television show.  Another social challenge, surprisingly, came from re-runs of The Honeymooners on the CBS channel.  In each episode, Bronx bus driver Ralph Kramden, played by Jackie Gleason, bullied and yelled at his sewer-worker neighbor named Ed Norton.  For an entire year, I was known only as “N-A-W-W-T-O-N,” usually from voices at maximum volume. Aside from that, things were quite normal.

During the 1958-59 school year, in Ms. Joan Davis’ fifth grade class, I met two young boys who were as different as any two people could be.  Although our friendships were short-lived and we have had no contact in sixty years, they both remain in my memory because their stories are still pertinent today.

Both Edvins Augusts and Florencio Lopez were immigrants, one seasonal and the other fleeing communism with his parents after the Soviet Union invaded his homeland.  Neither of them had television sets and both called me by my first name.  They focused on what they had, never on what they didn’t.

I asked, “Hey Edvins, where are you from again?”

“Latvia,” he answered.

“Latvia.  I’ve never heard of it.”

“Oh, that’s because it doesn’t exist anymore.”

He often spoke of his homeland but didn’t dwell on it.  He told us that his father was an engineer in Latvia, but they had to leave and now he was managing an orchard across from the school until something better came along.  We never discussed it, but I strangely became empathetic to his quiet struggle and understood that life was a little harder for him. Feeling empathy was a new experience for me.

Edvins was outgoing, verbose and smart.  These factors offset his non-athletic, somewhat flabby body and the thick crew cut that fully covered his head like a completely grown “chia pet” gnome.   He had no reservations in assuming the role as the smartest kid in class and his strong opinions convinced us that he hated the “commies” more than we did.  His personal stories, many handed down from his father, reassured us all that Kruschev was the devil and the Soviet Union was indeed the “Evil Empire.”

Edvins was the first kid that I met who was an artist.  He could draw anything and often spent his day sketching portraits of other classmates and not concentrating on the subject at hand.  For the most part, we all saw his art as an asset, one that we relied on to make our class projects better.

One day, years later, in seventh grade homeroom, Edvins quietly passed me a dollar bill.

I whispered, “What’s this for?”

Gesturing with his finger, he said, “Look at it.”

Edvins had drawn a near perfect one dollar bill, both sides. At first glance, I easily mistook it for the real thing.

“I want to try it out at lunch,” he muttered.

I knew what he meant and still allowed my curiosity to make me complicit in his plan.  We ate lunch together in the cafeteria, then set out for the room where students took turns selling ice cream to other students.  The money raised went to the end of the year picnic.

Edvins said, “Two Fudgesicles,” holding up his fingers in the shape of a “V”.

The innocent student clerk took the phony bill, handed him the two bars and seventy cents change. Barely able to contain our emotions, we took the contraband and slithered out to a remote area to eat it.  Edvins was beside himself, celebrating the fact that he had pulled off his little scheme.

On our way back to class, we stopped by the ice cream room as Edvins turned over a real dollar bill and asked for his forgery back.  We all laughed, knowing it was typical Edvins, mischievous but honest, curbing his boredom in ways the rest of us could not imagine.

Florencio Lopez had dark skin.  His slim  but strong physique and the deep cheekbones in his face looked like an old, sepia photograph of a Native American warrior. His wardrobe consisted of jeans and a few different flannel shirts that he always wore with the top button fastened. His hard-soled  shoes looked like they had survived generations.

Florencio was shy, quiet and stoic, remaining a mystery to most of us.  He stood out as the sole Hispanic kid in class.  Because English was not his first language, he was often slow to comprehend lessons, making this strong kid self-conscientious and vulnerable.

When Ms. Davis called on him, he often answered, “I don’t know.” She was very patient and set an all-inclusive tone in the classroom,  yet  he remained aloof and preferred to be by himself.  There was still this mysterious aura that made us unsure and cautious about approaching him.

Florencio’s moment came not in the classroom, but on the playground.  In those days, every fifteen minute recess and the half hour remaining after lunch was ample time for many of the boys to divide into teams for a day long progressive touch football game.

He started showing up on the sidelines and watching us play.  One day, someone asked him if he wanted to join in. He nodded quickly, then as the football hurled toward him as an impromptu try-out, he raised his large hands up and stopped it in its tracks. After an instant of stunned silence, an argument ensued.

“Okay, we’ll take him.”

“No, no, we’re a man down, we’ll take him.”

With minutes of recess left, the dispute was quickly resolved and, before the bell rang, we all learned that Florencio Lopez could run like the wind.  From that point, he was known to everyone as Flo and he embraced it.  His athletic abilities became his wristband to inclusion.

He could outrun anyone else backwards in hard soled shoes and the team he was on typically called only one play, “Throw to Flo,” hoping that he would not out run the arm strength of the passer.  For weeks afterward, Flo became the playground star and far less mysterious to us all.

On the first Saturday of December, there was a district-wide football jamboree where all the elementary schools would gather for one day of competition.  Permission slips and a small lunch fee were required.  We all expected Flo to be our secret weapon, but he quietly told us that he couldn’t go.  We pressed the issue until it became uncomfortable for everyone.  Things that most of us took for granted were beyond the reach of others.

The last time that I remember seeing Florencio Lopez was a chance meeting when I was visiting his neighbor, Edvins Augusts. Next to Edvins’ modest, green, 1940s ranch house was a large, old bungalow in disrepair and in need of paint.  Florencio lived there with his parents and five younger siblings. Ironically, the only two dwellings in the large orchard were side by side and the homes of my two new friends.  Outside of class, it was the first and last time the three of us hung out together.  The afternoon did not include art or football, just the three of us talking about whatever ten-year- old boys talk about.

Florencio did not return for the sixth grade, but Edvins stayed for a few years.  The orchard was being sold off and by 1961 became a neighborhood with its own expressway, no longer in need of a manager or a foreman.

Recent research revealed an Edvins Augusts of my age who married twice, once in California and once in Nevada to a woman with a Russian surname.  The search results for Florencio Lopez ranged from a Professor of Finance at a major university to a notorious Mexican drug lord apprehended in the late nineties.

Their fates remain unknown, but for me, getting to know Edvins Augusts and Florencio Lopez in the late fifties widened my young perspective and began to cement the understanding that, with our differences, we are all, deep down, the same.

Sojourn in Sonoma


The Sonoma Square is a peaceful place.  I’m rarely in a hurry there and, aside from finding a weekend parking spot, the surroundings bode well for managing stress. In addition to the quaintness, the California history and fine restaurants like Cafe Le Haye, Girl and the Fig and El Dorado Kitchen, it’s about another treat described as “Pinot on the Square.”  Within the next several weeks, I will feature local spots for tasting fine pinot noir and cool-climate chardonnay, each offering a private, stylish setting and hosts that are passionate about the wines and their story.

Our first stop is Sojourn Cellars on East Napa Street where I met with Director of sojourn-cellars1Marketing Sherrie Perkovich.  My first introduction to Sojourn was in 2007 at an annual Pinotfest event in Pasadena and I have closely followed their releases since. This tasting would include a chardonnay from a noted vineyard, three pinot noir releases and a Napa cabernet sauvignon.

In the past month, I have tasted four chardonnay releases from the Durell Vineyard, all from separate wineries. It straddles the boundaries of the Sonoma Valley, Sonoma Coast and Carneros AVA’s and has produced highly sought after juice for decades. The well rated 2015 Sojourn Durell Vineyard Chardonnay Sonoma Coast($48) is 100% Wente clone stock, pressed whole cluster with full malolactic fermentation, aged in forty percent new French oak and has the known


Durell Vineyard

qualities of low-yield vines. There is a restrained intensity in the bouquet with complex, layered stone fruit flavors and a soft “wet stone” finish.

Terroir defines the wines. It starts with the stock, then the dirt and the winemaker only comes in at the end. To that point, we tasted a flight of vineyard-designate pinot noir, each with distinctive qualities.

Located at the foot of the Petaluma Gap, the Rogers Creek Vineyard is, interestingly, the furthest east, but the coolest and last one harvested.  The cool winds thicken the skins, the grapes struggle and the result is deep, more intense flavors.  Using the Pommard clone, the 2016 Sojourn Rogers Creek Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast ($48), 140576hyounger than the others, had the most expressive aromas and flavors of the flight.

From a popular local Sonoma vineyard, the 2015 Sojourn Pinot Noir Sangiacomo Vineyard Sonoma Coast ($59) offered definitive pinot noir aromas and flavors with shades of spice. More earthy and textural than the Rogers Creek, the Sangiacomo experienced low yields in 2015, that enhanced its fruit flavors.


Sangioacomo Vineyard

The earthiness and the savory side of the 2015 Sojourn Pinot Noir Reuling Vineyard Sonoma Coast ($69) made it the most distinctive wine we tasted.  I enjoy many Sonoma Coast designated pinots but the name is deceiving in that the appellation extends to vineyards miles inland.  The Reuling Vineyard is located between Forestville and Graton, next to the northerly Russian River Valley. The stock is Calera clone and some so-called “suitcase clones” smuggled in from Burgundy.

With the Reuling, typical vanilla spice bouquet and cherry flavors defer to those more earthy and herbal.  Head winemaker Eric Bradley is said to prefer unpretentious, natural wines and this release is a fine example.

Our last tasting reconfirmed my opinion that the 2015 Sojourn Cabernet Sauvignon post-sojourn-cellarsHome Ranch Cuvée Sonoma Valley ($59), and earlier vintages, is one of the best value cabs in the state.  From a vineyard originally planted by Sojourn proprietor Craig Haserot in 2007, the flavors of the “Home Ranch” are intense, but balanced and smooth tannins surface throughout the finish.  It has received many rating in the low to mid-nineties.

For those with more discerning palates, Sojourn produces a few cases of high-end cabernet sauvignon from well-known Napa Valley vineyards including the 2014 Sojourn Cabernet Sauvignon Beckstoffer Georges III Rutherford ($125), awarded 95-points by Robert Parker, the Wine Advocate.

Any wine tasting excursion on the Sonoma Square should include the little house on East Napa Street where Sojourn provides enlightened comparable tastings in a private setting, complete with Reidel stemware. As with other local wineries, there is a $35 tasting fee but your minds and palates will be broadened.

Mumm’s The Word

View from Mumm Napa tasting room

There is the intriguing story of how Mumm Napa Estate was established on the Silverado Trail in the early 1980s and how that has lead to their current production of over 450,00 cases per year, all in the acclaimed methode traditionelle.  However, after sitting down with winemaker Ludovic Dervin, I found that the real story is how Mumm Napa Estate has become engrained into the fabric of the Bay Area.

Mumm Napa emerged from an idea and partnership between Champagne Mumm of France and Joseph F. Seagram and Sons of New York to research the best location in the U.S. to make sparkling wine.  They hatched a secret plan called “Project Lafayette” in honor of the friendship between the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson and dispatched seasoned Champagne master Guy Devaux to lead the search.

With the only rule requiring that the wines be made from traditional

Champagne grapes chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, Devaux traveled from New York to Oregon to Texas before declaring, in 1984, the Napa Valley as the premier appellation in America.

The sublimely inviting Rutherford site was completed in 1987 in a serene setting that co-exists with the Napa Valley vineyards off to the west. Secure in their ability to source outstanding grapes, Mumm Napa Valley has also established the 112-acre DeVaux Vineyard in the Carneros region, named after the Founding President who passed away in 1995.

Mumm Napa Brut Prestige

As the tasting began, a smiling Ludovic Dervin said, “I’m partial to the Brut Prestige because it is the wine that will put my kids through college.”  The large production Mumm Brut Prestige Napa Valley ($22), is the one that is readily available in wine outlets and supermarkets, good quality at a reasonable price.  He further described a “four-wheel drive” wine with pinot noir providing the muscle, chardonnay the finesse and a bit of key lime.  Pinot meunier and pinot gris add the stone fruit flavors and the consumer delights in the opportunity to contribute to the kids schooling.

The methode traditionelle in making sparkling wine starts with quality grapes and good harvesting practices.  The grapes are picked at 18-24 brix and to reduce bruising, Mumm presses the grapes in the vineyards, then transports the juice to the winery.  The varietals are fermented individually, then blended prior to tirage, the transfer from the barrel to the bottle for secondary fermentation and aging.

Automated or by hand, the bottles are held at steep angles and rotated for days, a process known as riddling. With the bottles

Lyle with Mumm Napa winemaker Ludovic Dervin

upside-down and the yeast lees sediment settled in the neck, it is frozen to 24 degrees Celsius, encapsulating the yeast deposit in an ice plug.

Disgorging occurs when the temporary cap is removed and pressure forces ice plug out. Finally, a small amount sugar solution is added to each bottle, called dosage, and the final cork and muselet wire is secured.

We tasted ten different sparkling wines at various price points, some readily available, others, like the Mumm Brut Reserve Napa Valley ($39) and the Mumm Sparkling Chardonnay Napa Valley ($48),only at the winery or to club members.

Ludovic hinted that the Mumm Cuvee’ M Napa Valley ($22), with thirty grams of residual sugar, targets Millennials who grew up with a sweet tooth. This wine is all

Mumm Napa “Santan”

about peaches and cream with sweetened stone fruit flavors.  Actually, the “M” honors the late-harvest muscat used in dosage, something prohibited in Champagne.  “It’s fun to make sparkling wine in California,” Dervin added.

The vintage specific 2010 Mumm Napa DVX ($65), from the best of the Carneros grapes, is equal parts pinot noir and chardonnay, the perfect balance of power and finesse.  Aged on yeast for five years, the complex and balanced flavors were the highlight of the day.

Two gallery spaces are part of the tour, a permanent Ansel Adams photograph exhibit and a rotating private collection gallery. Always present in the Bay Area lifestyle, Mumm produced all the champagne for each of our San Francisco Giants World Series victories and partners with guitarist Carlos Santana on a special “Santana Series” of releases that benefit his Milagro Foundation.

Mumm Napa DVX

An afternoon at Mumm Napa Valley in Rutherford is time and investment well spent.

Rusack’s Island Wines


A few miles from the town of Solvang, in north Santa Barbara County’s Ballard Canyon area, lies the estate vines of Rusack Vineyards, a small boutique winery producing well-reviewed syrah, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc and other varietals. Established in 1995, Geoff and Alison Wrigley Rusack have developed a reputation for consistency and innovation.  However, it was an idea and an opportunity years ago that lead to a project truly unique to the wine community.

Alison’s great grandfather, William Wrigley, Jr., of chewing gum fame, headed a company that owned Santa Catalina Island.  While the property was deeded over to the Santa

Rancho Escondido Vineyard on Santa Catalina Island

Catalina Island Conservancy years ago, the family retained ownership of a few parcels, namely the old Rancho Escondido horse ranch site on the westside of the island.  It was there, after some study and research, that the Rusack’s decided the terroir, similar to California’s other Burgundian-style growing regions like the Russian River Valley and Santa Rita Hills, was ripe for pinot noir and cool-climate chardonnay.  In 2007, they established a five-acre vineyard on the old site with 2.5 acres of chardonnay and two acres of pinot noir, leaving a small sliver for something totally out-of-the-box.

Geoff caught wind of a story about some old vines that had survived on Santa Cruz Island, off the coast of Santa Barbara.  He received permission to take some cuttings which were sent to the University of California, Davis and determined to be zinfandel.  Apparently, the vines, planted around the turn of the century, produced wine until Prohibition. More cuttings were taken and planted in the remaining half-acre and, in 2007, an experiment that reached far beyond most people’s imagination, began.

Rusack Santa Catalina Island Pinot Noir

In 2009, amid much anticipation, Rusack released the inaugural vintage of their Santa Catalina Vineyard wines and, those willing to take a risk on a brave idea, committed to an Isla Wine Circle membership, receiving one bottle each of chardonnay, pinot noir and old-vine zinfandel in a monogrammed wooden box.  While the entire story is intriguing, the gauge of success would be the quality and sustainability of the wine. Recently, the seventh rendition in the wooden box was released and, by all accounts, their experiment has been a huge success.


An earthy quality distinguishes the Rusack Catalina Island Pinot Noir 2014($72) from many other fruit forward pinots. Citrus and cinnamon aromas lead to tart, full flavors of cherry and cranberry that soften during the finish.  Wine Enthusiast magazine, awarding the 2014 release 92-points, described a “strong sagebrush quality” that, in my mind, does not distract, but nicely balances the expression of fruit.  Fermented in macro bins and aged in French oak, 50% new, only 1,500 bottles of this unique wine exist.

The island’s highest rated chardonnay release to date is the Rusack Catalina Island Chardonnay 2015 ($60), granted 92-96-points by the major periodicals.  Barrel fermented with 100% malolactic fermentation and multiple lees stirrings, it has a wonderful silky texture that expresses flavors of vanilla, oak, nuts and butterscotch.  Those preferring citrus and tropical fruit qualities might be disappointed except for complexity of the flavors and the rich, soft finish that this wine delivers.

There are many fine California zinfandel releases on the market, none with more history and backstory than the Rusack Catalina Island Zinfandel 2014($72).  In this vintage, the small half-acre planted in zinfandel produced only 205 cases.  Aged sixteen months in a combination of French and American oak, there are strong spice notes in the bouquet followed by flavors of plum, cedar and various spices.  Once the wine opened up, the tannins softened and the lush texture came to the surface.  As with much zinfandel, this wine can be enjoyed immediately or within the next decade.

Rusack Santa Catalina Island Zinfandel

I recently paired the 2013 vintage of the zinfandel with a diverse cheese plate of chèvre goat cheese, smoked gouda and Roncal, a sheep’s cheese from Spain and it was compatible with each.

The seventh vintage, including the 2015 pinot noir and zinfandel along with the 2016 chardonnay, was released last November. Rusack’s Santa Catalina Island project has been a success and answered any questions about the vineyards ability to produce sustainable, high quality fruit.

Where’s WALT


Vintners Craig and Kathryn Walt Hall, purveyors of fine Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, have developed a large following of wine lovers, enamored by the magnificent grounds and sculpture gardens, events, a state-of-the-art tasting and production facility and, of course, a menu of annual releases for the more discerning palates, including their signature 2014 Kathryn Hall Cabernet Sauvignon.

Inspired by the memory of Kathryn’s parents, longtime growers Bob and Dolores Walt, they embarked upon a new venture a few years ago to produce high quality pinot noir and cool-climate chardonnay, something that required a new mindset.  Perfect terroir is important to all varietals, but essential if there is any chance of success with these two

WALT tasting room at Sonoma Plaza


WALT’s perspective is narrow in that they are continually seeking to produce or source the best grapes from specific vineyards, but broad in that they are present in all pinot noir appellations from Oregon to Santa Barbara. They have become a one-stop shop to explore literally “a thousand miles of pinot,” producing 23,000 cases annually of low yield, boutique wines.

We recently joined our hosts, General Manager Jeff Zappelli and Wine Educator Terry Cush in the small Tudor-style bungalow off the Sonoma Plaza to taste some current releases and to discuss where they are and where they are going.  It was a study in terroir and well-known vineyards.

Full malolactic fermentation and numerous lees stirrings give the creamy, rich texture and soft minerality to our first wine, the 2016 WALT Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, with fruit from their estate Bob’s Ranch Vineyard east of Sebastopol.  Sur lees aging and French oak give us creamy California-style texture with balanced citrus and stone fruit flavors.

Sheas Vineyard

From one of Oregon’s best known vineyards, sourcing grapes to the likes of Bergstrom Wines and Penner-Ash, the 2015 WALT “Shea” Willamette Valley Pinot Noir offers dense, concentrated flavors with spice on the finish.  Similar to Shea, “The Corners” Vineyard in the Anderson Valley has sourced grapes to many wineries.  The vineyard, now owned by WALT, is in Booneville, south of the valley’s more northern marine-influenced vineyards. More heat means more flavor, better mouthfeel and the 2015 WALT “The Corners” Anderson Valley Pinot Noir may be your only opportunity to enjoy it.

The Sierra Mar Vineyard is owned by Gary and Rosella Franscioni, pioneer growers in the Santa Lucia Highlands, arguably California’s best appellation for pinot noir. The vineyard is at high altitude and exposed to the elements, producing a bright acidity to the 2015 WALT “Sierra Mar” Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir that exudes a rich mouthfeel and concentrated plum flavors with spices overtones. Wines from this appellation deserve our attention.

At nearly one thousand feet elevation, the Rita’s Crown Vineyard, recently acquired by Seasmoke Cellars, is exposed and

2012 WALT “The Corners” Pinot Noir Anderson Valley

windswept, facing due west only seven miles from the Pacific Ocean. From diatomaceous soil and slightly stressed vines, the 2015 WALT “Rita’s Crown Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir has an earthy quality with silky tannins, expressive fruit and minerality on the finish. Seasmoke plans to continue sourcing grapes to fine producers like WALT, so we can expect more of this exceptional release.

Now that WALT is leasing and managing Santa Barbara’s iconic Clos Pepe Vineyard, just off highway 246 in the Santa Rita Hills appellation, we can expect more fine releases.  From the dark color to the rich, bold flavors, the 2015 WALT “Clos Pepe” Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir was, without question, the most masculine wine of the tasting.  The flavors were lush and complex with enough earthy tones on the finish to pair well with most food.

WALT has an aggressive business plan that has given them access and a strong presence in all major pinot noir growing regions. Their pedigree and commitment to quality are good indications of continued growth and success.  Jeff Zappelli spoke of plans for a large, “green” production and tasting facility in Sebastopol that can continue to grow the brand in a sensitive and sustainable manner. This sounds pleasingly familiar to the Hall’s style of doing it the right way.

Clos Pepe Vineyard

For today, visiting WALT in the small bungalow on First Street is a must when visiting the Sonoma Plaza, but with a reservation.  Take the opportunity to refine your pinot noir palate by exploring all of its diverse and stunning terroir.