Tag Archives: coastal appellations

Pinot Fest ’13



Large wine events are most often over-crowded with an overwhelmingly number of represented wineries and more people having fun and supporting a charity then seriously tasting new pinot noir releases. Thus, my strategy for “PinotFest 2013”, held at the Alta Dena Country Club near Pasadena, was to work the room and select a few new wineries to explore. Because they are contemporary and boasting high ratings, I started with a relatively new winery that is producing wines in the Russian River Valley and other prominent Sonoma County appellations

Sojourn Cellars began in 2001, a collaboration of two friends committed to producing distinctive pinot noir in a region that, arguably, leads the world.  square-1CraigHaserot and winemaker Erich Bradley source their grapes from vineyards north of Sonoma, near Cotati, where I watched my uncle race formula cars in the early sixties.  Today, we tasted three single vineyard pinots, one asserting a 96-point rating from the Pinot Report.

We began with the 2009 Sojourn Cellars Sangiocomo Vineyard Pinot Noir ($54/96), a wine that put across an earthy, dark fruit nose followed by complex flavors and a rich, creamy texture.  Not a bad beginning.  The second pour was a pinot noir from Gap’s Crown Vineyard whose out-sourced grapes are used in many fine wines.  The 2009 Sojourn Cellars Gap’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir ($54/95) comes from a hilly slope with stressed soil pushing the grapes to fully ripen, producing those jammy, concentrated flavors that are nicely structured.

The very earthy 2009 Sojourn Cellars Rodger’s Creek Vineyard Pinot Noir was actually my favorite of the three, adding mushrooms and savory herbs to the concentrated dark fruit flavors. As I finished the server leaned forward and whispered, “Do you want to taste our dark pinots,”

Many winemakers could not resist “bootlegging” some of their other varietals into “Pinot Fest 2013” and, in this instance; it was two new Cabernet Sauvignon wines from extraordinary vineyards that were about to steal the squareshow.

The Beckstoffer Georges III Vineyard is royalty among the many great Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon vineyards.  The name adorns the label of many great $100+ wines from the Napa Valley floor in Rutherford.  The 2009 Sojourn Cellars Beckstoffer Goerges III Cabernet Sauvignon ($95/) was, of course, very full-bodied with deep dark cherry flavors and luscious textures, a wine to savor.

A late frost, prompting a decision to cut back clusters, reducing volume, ultimately led to a wine rich both in structure and flavor that was one of the “hits” of the show.  A suitable descriptive adverb for the 2009 Sojourn Cellars Home Ranch Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($48) is “opulent,” with complexity and structure of wines twice the price.  For those serious about cabernet sauvignon, this is a find.

Winemaker Kenneth Volk, born and raised in San Marino, CA has been a fixture in the central coast wine culture for decades, having started Wild Horse Winery and Vineyards over thirty years ago, ultimately

Kennet Volk

Kennet Volk

producing 150,000 cases annually.  Now operating in the Santa Maria Valley AVA, north of Santa Barbara, Volk is producing pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay under the label that bears his name, his signature.  Today, we tasted two single-vineyard pinot noir and a few “bootlegged” varietals.

From a small township in the Santa Maria Valley, the 2009 Kenneth Volk “Garey” Vineyard” Pinot Noir ($48) was, clearly, one of the notable wines poured, an atypically huge wine with extracted flavors that can pair with a broader range of food. Aside from the influences of French oak, the warm location of this vineyard allows for full ripening of the grape.

For pure elegance in the pinot noir tradition, the Kenneth Volk “Sierra Madre Vineyard” Pinot Noir ($48) has floral and spice aromas and delivers a nice, flavorful finish. Volk’s pinot noir wines are well crafted, respecting the tradition of the Burgundian grape but willing to push the envelope to higher levels.

2007 Kenneth Volk "Garey Vineyard" Pinot Noir

2007 Kenneth Volk “Garey Vineyard” Pinot Noir

A close look reveals that the Paso Robles region is quietly producing some nice cabernet sauvignon, adding to an already expansive range of varietals that thrive in the area.  One example is the 2008 Kenneth Volk Cabernet Sauvignon ($36), sourced from multiple vineyards in the region.  Again, French oak is used to create complex smoky flavors that continue through the finish.


2008 Kenneth Volk Cabernet Sauvignon

At 86 years and claimed to be one of the oldest California plantings, the mourvedre vines from the Enez Vineyard produce low-yield, small cluster fruit, resulting in intense flavors.  The 2009 Kenneth Volk Enez Vineyard Lime Kiln Valley Mourvedre ($36) earns the prize as the pleasant surprise of the tasting.  The flavors also linger on the palate.

A decade since the Alexander Payne film, “Sideways” put the Hitching Post restaurant and the region on the map, the eating place and their fine selection of pinot noir, expressive of the local terroir are thriving.

In the late seventies, Frank Ostini Jr. the co-owner of the Hitching Post family business and friend Gray Hartley began making wine at

Frank Ostini Jr. and Gray Hartley

Frank Ostini Jr. and Gray Hartley

their home. Soon, they were making wines for specific cellars and eventually the Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post label, exclusively pinot noir, was born.

Personal wine labels, created under the wing of a successful restaurant often fall below expectations of serious wine drinkers.  This is NOT the situation at Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post wines.  They are the real deal, sourcing grapes from the best vineyards because the partners agree that is where great wines are made. Having met Frank Ostini, Jr. at a Glendale tasting years ago, Gray Hartley was on hand at this event to guide me through their new releases.

Combining warm Santa Maria Valley and cool Santa Rita Hills vineyards, the flagship Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post “Highliner” Pinot Noir combines the best barrels of the best vineyards to achieve balanced, complex flavors and the overall elegance typical to the region.

From Fiddlestix, Sanford and Benedict and Clos Pepe, three notable Santa Rita Hills vineyards, the 2009 Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post “St. Rita’s Earth Pinot Noir($34) is very fruit forward for those who prefer a healthy dose of black cherry flavors.  Two single-vineyard

Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post "Highliner" Pinot Noir

Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post “Highliner” Pinot Noir

pinots from the Fiddlestix and Bien Nacido vineyards both have the structure to become excellent wines in time.

Gray’s “bootleg” offering was the reasonably priced Hartley-Ostini “Big Circle” Syrah ($20) sourced, once again, from warm and cool climate vineyards throughout the region.  The bouquet hints of the wine’s complex flavors that don’t disappoint on the finish.

Recognition also goes out to the new releases of pinot noir from the Brian Loring Wine Company.  The technique of sourcing grapes from the best vineyards in California to produce world-class pinot noir has served him and us well. If you enjoy pinots, you will take pleasure in any wine from the Loring Wine Company.

00202 LWC 2009 Pinot Keefer Ranch 750ML Label

2009 Loring Wine Company “Garys’ Vineyard” Pinot Noir

All in all, attending the “Pinot Fest 13” event led to some new discoveries and opportunities to do more follow-ups at their respective wineries and vineyards.  Ironically, my favorite wine of the event was the “bootlegged” 2009 Sojourn Cellars Home Ranch Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, one of the “dark pinots.”


The Summer of Chardonnay


The summer months always evoke discussion of nice white wines that are more refreshing in the heat. In the forefront of any such discussion is chardonnay, arguably the most popular grape in the world.  It thrives in Burgundy, France; Australia, northern and southern California and even New York State because it can be distinctive and unique, heavily influenced by soil, climate and many post harvest techniques.  The grape responds to stainless steel or oak, limestone or marl, cool or warm climates and 0% to 100% malolactic fermentation, a technique that significantly softens the wine by converting the tart malic acid into lactic acid,  producing those more full-bodied, buttery wine flavors.

Foley Estate Rancho Santa Rosa Vineyard

Thriving earlier in the Napa Valley, today’s chardonnay vineyards can be found from Mendocino to Santa Barbara County, gradually shifting to more coastal appellations like Santa Lucia Highlands, Santa Rita Hills and the Sonoma Coast.  In fact, Sonoma County past vintages rank the highest in California and, with the Burgundy region of France, produces the world’s best chardonnay.  Over the past few years, it has been difficult to find a bad one from the Napa Valley or Sonoma regions.

Normally a fan of the soft, buttery, oak-driven, lactic-laden California chardonnay, I have begun to appreciate the minerality in Burgundian wines, so influenced by the nature of the soil.

The following is a list of recent vintage chardonnay that I have enjoyed during the past year, representing a variety of price points, regions and oak influence. I did not designate a certain vintage because these wines are consistently good.

Chalone Vineyard Chardonnay Monterey County ($12). Chalone Vineyards have produced Burgundian-style wines for decades, contributing a chardonnay for the 1976

Chalone Chardonnay Monterey County

Paris Tasting.  Although they produce very good single-vineyard estate chardonnay at higher prices, the Monterey County designate is a complex wine that is accessible locally.

Merryvale Starmont Chardonnay ($18).  From the cooler climates in the Napa Valley, this amply available wine consists of grapes aged in both stainless steel and oak with partial malolactic fermentation.  The result is one of the most full-bodied, creamy chardonnay available under $20 anywhere. Nice citrus is engulfed with rich, nutty flavors with a nice minerality on the finish.

Morgan “Mettalico” Un-Oaked Chardonnay ($21).  Morgan Vineyards produce good quality pinot noir, chardonnay and other varietals from the Santa Lucia Highlands.  The “Metallico” favors those with no regard for oak or malolactic fermentation.  It is a very crisp, food-friendly wine with a nice

Morgan “Metallico” Chardonnay

acidity and stone fruit flavors.

Melville Estate Chardonnay Clone 76 “Inox” ($36).  Located on East Highway 246 on the way to Lompoc, Melville creates nice pinot noir and cool-climate chardonnay in the Santa Rita Hills.  “Inox” is the French word for stainless steel, foreshadowing a wine void of oak and any softening of its crispness.

Melville “Clone 76 Inox” Chardonnay

Cold temperatures are integrated into the fermentation process, protecting all the malic acid from harm.  Aromas and flavors of lemon, lime, pineapple, apple and honeysuckle assure us that it is not void of taste.

Rombauer Carneros Chardonnay ($32).  Familiar with this wine for several years, I was recently surprised to see a bottle in the “frig” at a “fork and cork” rental home and quickly drafted it to pair with scallops and smoked salmon cakes.  Complex aromas and flavors of peach, melon, citrus and vanilla make this wine, consistently, a great pair with food and a top value within this price range. It is often available locally.

Fort Ross Vineyard Chardonnay Sonoma Coast ($32). From the Sonoma coast, this wine embellishes both the crispness and rich opulence that chardonnay can express. Combining pineapple with butterscotch and vanilla in a balanced way is the main reason it found itself among Wine Enthusiasts Top 100 wines of 2011 with a 92 pt. rating.

Rombauer Chardonnay Carneros


Demetria Winery “Eighteen” Chardonnay ($45). My first encounter with Demetria Winery in the Santa Ynez Valley was through this wine at a tasting last year.  The “Eighteen” stood out among the others.  Aged 18 months in French oak, it combines wonderful stone fruits aromas and flavors that are rich and heavy-on-the-tongue.  With only 200 cases produced, one will not find this wine outside of the winery.

Demetria “Eighteen” Chardonnay


Foley Estate “Barrel Select” Chardonnay ($50). This wine is simply my favorite California chardonnay from a winery that produces many. To retain some acidity, 25% of the grapes are void of malolactic fermentation.  The best barrels are combined and aged another 21 months in oak.  The result is consistently lush citrus aromas and flavors balanced with rich vanilla and toasted nuts.  A pass through the area always warrants a stop for “Barrel Select”.


Mt Eden Vineyards Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains ($55).Any discussion of good white wine always includes Mt. Eden’s classic California chardonnay from the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation that produces many. A bulk of the aging is with new French oak creating a creamy, heavy-on-the-tongue wine with a perfect balance of citrus, spice and toasted nuts. It is always ranked among the best.

Foley Estate “Barrel Select” Chardonnay


Louis Latour Puligny-Montrachet ler Cru ($55). Discovered at a tasting, this wine, from one of Burgundy’s finest appellations, has a nice earthy/mineral quality combining some citrus with melon flavors and a very long finish.  Grand Cru from this area can age up to 10 years, becoming supple, less acidic along the way.  Available at Monopole in Pasadena.

Louis Latour Puligny-Montrachet “Les Truffieres”

These are my recommendations although what I know about this wine is what I don’t know. Having the opportunity to taste good chardonnay from many regions

within California and abroad, I am always reminded of the complexity of the wine and it’s ability to enhance food.  Any one of these wines and a myriad of others were designed to augment shellfish, sea bass, game hens and even veal.  The major player of the United State victory in the 1976 Paris Tasting, California chardonnay has never sat on its laurels.