Tag Archives: russian river valley

Wine and Cheese Pairing, 2016


The idea began with our desire to support “ArtStart,” a local Santa Rosa non-profit that provides opportunities for high school student artists to create and install public art projects.  Our solution was to donate to the auction a wine and cheese pairing for 14 people.  After a successful $1,500 donation, it was now time to create a

The Wines

The Wines

memorable experience that exceeded the donors expectations.  As always, the wine selections would be easier than determining and acquiring the proper cheeses.  Even living in Sonoma County where many fine artisan wine and cheeses are produced, research to find unique pairings would require some effort.

To facilitate the outcomes to 1)discover the aromas and flavors of each wine and cheese, 2)understand their backstory and 3) promote discussion and select favorites, we distributed comments from winemakers and sommeliers that assisted us through “power of suggestion.”  Seven bottles opened, seven cheeses unwrapped, we were ready to start the global culinary journey.


Pairing #1:  Old World vs New World Chenin Blanc

Chenin blanc, originating from the Loire Valley in France, is one of the most versatile wines in the world,

2014 Huet Le Haut-Leiu Vovray Sec

comfortable as a dry, semi-dry, sparkling or dessert wine.  Grown extensively in South Africa, Australia and California, the grape has made a huge comeback over the past few decades. We compared the waxy richness and minerality of the 2013 Williams Selyem Chenin Blanc, grown in San Benito County and fermented in concrete eggs at the Russian River Valley winery with the rich 2014 Huet Le

Williams Selyem Chenin Blanc 2012 San Benito County

Williams Selyem Chenin Blanc 2012 San Benito County

Haut-Leiu Vouvray Sec, a classic semi-dry from France with stone fruit flavors throughout the finish.  No favorites here as the group decided that the two wines were different but equal, experiencing the diversity of the grape.

The two wines were paired with Valencay (Val-on-say), a tangy goat cheese from central France and a



young Mahon from the island of Minorca in Spain, both salty with an appealing creamy, nutty flavor.  Young, as opposed to aged Mahon (mah-ON), is an accessible semi-soft cheese that becomes hard with distinct salt crystals as it ages.  Surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea, locals explain that even the grass and cow’s milk from the island is salty.  My usual preference is for the young Mahon, but the citric tanginess of the of the Valencay, rare to the US, was a unique new discovery for all.

Pairing #2:  “California Chardonnay and Spanish Goat Cheese”

Sonoma County’s Kosta Browne Winery consistently creates, arguably, the best pinot noir in California, earning Wine of the Year status from Wine Spectator magazine with their 2011 Kosta Browne Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast.  The winery has recently begun producing a rich, Burgundian-style chardonnay from the Russian River Valley that epitomizes their high

2012 Kosta Browne "116" Chardonnay Russian River Valley

2012 Kosta Browne “116” Chardonnay Russian River Valley

standards.  This pairing features the 2012 Kosta Browne Chardonnay “116” RRV, named after the highway that meanders through the Sonoma Valley, that combines nice aromas of lemon, pears and toast with stone fruits and lemon curd flavors and a lingering mineral finish. To augment these flavors, we chose a pasteurized goat cheese from northeastern Spain.



Garrotxa (gah-ROW-cha), an area in the Catalonia region, north of Barcelona, is home to a collective of goat farmers, many of whom fled urban life to revive the local cheese making trade. The semi-aged, semi-soft cheese has a somewhat sweet, nutty flavor with hints of cooked milk.  We used the rich texture of the wine to compliment the buttery sweetness of the cheese to create a celebration on the palate.


Pairing #3:  “All-American Classic”

One of this country’s most awarded cheeses, Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Farms in Wisconsin won Best Of Show by the American

2013 WALT Pinot Noir "The Corners" Anderson Valley

2013 WALT Pinot Noir “The Corners” Anderson Valley

Cheese Society in 2001, 2003 and 2010, the only cheese to do so. After careful consideration of pairing this creamy, nutty, caramel flavored cow’s milk cheese with the Kosta Browne Chardonnay, we opted for the earthy 2013 WALT Pinot Noir “The Corners” Anderson Valley, knowing from experience that they would compliment each other perfectly. From the northerly Mendocino County, WALT is owned by the Napa Valley’s Hall Wines team and responsible for the production of their pinot noir releases. This 2013 vintage, awarded 92-pt by James Laube from Wine Spectator magazine, has a floral, clove bouquet with a rich, vibrant cherry-cola flavor that lingers throughout the finish.

Pleasant Ridge Reserve

Pleasant Ridge Reserve

A rare raw cow’s milk cheese in the US, the Pleasant Ridge Reserve comes from a single herd and only from the pasture season, beginning in late spring through the fall.  The evenings most creamy, well-integrated cheese with a young, but luscious pinot noir release was an instant hit with our guests and stood out as the best pairing.


Pairing #4: “The Island Pairing”

Geoffrey and Allison Wrigley Rusack have, for decades, produced quality wines in the Ballard Canyon area of the Santa Ynez Valley, near Solvang.  Through Allison’s family connections, they gained access to five acres on the old Rancho Escondido site on the island where they began, in 2010,

2012 Rusack Zinfandel Santa Catalina Island

2012 Rusack Zinfandel Santa Catalina Island

producing pinot noir, chardonnay and a half acre of a very special varietal.  Geoffrey received permission to excavate some cuttings from ancient vines on Santa Cruz Island, another of the Channnel Islands.  Analysis determined that they were old zinfandel vines, later transplanted to the Rancho Escondido site.

Having an opportunity to secure one bottle of each varietal annually, the scents of cranberries and old leather foreshadowed the youthful maturity of the 2013 Rusack Zinfandel Santa Catalina Island (Bottle #827), fruit-forward with a complex flavor profile strong enough to compliment aged Mahon (mah-ON),

young Mahon, aged Mahon

young Mahon, aged Mahon

a hard, textural cheese, salty with toasted nuts and caramel flavors that thoroughly coat the palate, pairing best with a rich, deep flavored wine like zinfandel.


Pairing #5:  “Nearly French”

Randall Grahm, founder/winemaker at Bonny Doon Vineyards, is one of the patriarchs of the California Rhone Rangers, replicating the famous blends from Chateaunef-du-pape in France’s southern Rhone Valley.  The

2010 Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant Reserve

2010 Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant Reserve

syrah/grenache dominant 2010 Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant Reserve en bonbonne, is a rich, savory red blend with deep berry and tobacco aromas followed by herbal flavors and a long, silky finish.  Awarded 92-pt by Wine Enthusiast magazine, it is uniquely aged in 5-gallon glass bottles, the same ones from yesterday’s water coolers.  The right cheese to compliment this wine was never in question.

From France’s Basque region near the Pyrenees Mountains, the semi-soft Ossau-Iraty (OH-so ear-ah-TEE), a very wine compatible sheep’s cheese, has complex brown butter, caramel flavors that seem to soften deep



flavored wines like syrah, especially one as earthy and savory as the Le Cigare Volant.


Pairing #6:  “Dessert!”

The last and sweet pairing of the evening featured a 2010 Longoria Syrah Port “Vino Dulce” from Santa Ynez Valley with the creamy, buttery Rogue River Blue

Rogue River Blue

Rogue River Blue

from southern Oregon’s Rogue Creamery.  The port-style wine, available in Longoria’s Los Olivos tasting room expressing cherry, vanilla and spice flavors, is often served with chocolate desserts but the Rogue River, lacking the aggressive bite of most blue’s and augmented by sage honey, was a memorable compliment to the wine and the experience.

Of course, there were no winner or losers, just some of the world’s finest cheeses carefully matched with fine wines, a culinary delight beyond reproach.  Many of these cheeses are available at various gourmet markets, often providing personalized assistance with selections.  As a

2010 Longoria Syrah "Vino Dulce" Santa Barbara County

2010 Longoria Syrah “Vino Dulce” Santa Barbara County

backup, there are many reliable websites that can offer the most rarest of cheeses.  I also often consult food columnist Janet Fletcher’s “Cheese and Wine – A Guide to Selecting, Pairing and Enjoying” and “Cheese Course” by Fiona Beckett as resources for our pairings.

Westside Road Wineries


Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley is synonymous with world-class pinot noir and

Russian River Valley, Sonoma County

Russian River Valley, Sonoma County

cool-climate chardonnay.  Its name on a wine label commands immediate respect.  The river itself streams down from Mendocino through the heart of the valley, flowing into the Pacific Ocean north of Bodega Bay. The valley vineyards appear as islands as the road emerges from the thick pine and redwood forest.  The Westside Road is a beautiful, scenic thoroughfare connecting Healdsburg with River Road and the Guerneville area and home to some of the appellations finest winemakers.  Today, we are visiting a patriarch among California producers of Burgundian wines and a fairly new operation on a renovated, historic site, both offering fine wine and unique tasting opportunities along Westside Road.



Estate vineyard at Williams Selyem

Simply stated, Williams Selyem produces some of the best wine California has to offer.  Admittedly a customer for several years, I find  all of their releases to be balanced, complex with layered, lingering flavors.  Opposed to some of the luscious “fruit bombs” from the Valley,  Williams Selyem wines are more austere, medium-bodied, with flavors and texture than appeals to palates of all levels.

What began in the late 1970s  as two friends making wine in a Forestville, CA garage, Ed Selyem and Burt Williams have, in a few decades, turned their hobby into an aptly self-proclaimed “cult status winery of international acclaim”.  After some early renditions, the first vintages of the Williams Selyem labels were released in 1984 and soon after, accolades for their single-vineyard pinot noir from Richioli Vineyards began to set them apart from other wineries and

Williams Selyem Winery

Williams Selyem Winery

build a reputation for the Russian River Valley as a premier wine region.  Burt and Ed sold the winery to John Dyson in the late 1990s who later relocated it to the Westside Road property, establishing the first estate vineyards and completing a new sate-of-the-art winery in 2010.

Weathering a change of ownership, head winemaker and location, Williams Selyem has more interest in their wine than they can handle and still produce world-class pinot noir, chardonnay and zinfandel sourced from our finest vineyards.

I have been a patron of Williams Selyem for more than a decade and did not know that they produced a 100% chenin blanc wine, a Loire Valley grape that has made somewhat of an international comeback in recent years in South Africa and other regions.  Available only at the winery, the 2012 Williams Selyem Chenin Blanc Vista Verde Vineyard ($30), sourced from a San Benito County vineyard.  As one would expect, they have succeeded in  balancing the tartness of this varietal by pushing the fruit flavors forward.  I recommend this wine as a vibrant, crisp summer wine, but it is only available to those willing to explore the depths of Westside Road, past the one-way bridge to Williams Selyem.  Your reward is a lovely property with  impressive tasting room, tour program and space for a nice picnic.

2013 Williams Selyem Unoaked Chardonnay

2013 Williams Selyem Unoaked Chardonnay

One of the spring releases that I was picking up was the 2013 Williams Selyem “Unoaked” Chardonnay Russian River Valley ($39), fermented in stainless steel, once again balancing a crisp acidity with full texture and mouth feel.  This exceptional wine can be perfectly paired with sushi, crab, river trout or enjoyed al fresco.

Williams Selyem has received acclaim for single-vineyard chardonnay sources from the Allen, Drake and Heintz Vineyards, all rated in the mid to high 90-point range.  I prefer the Heintz Vineyard located in Occidental, CA, family owned for over 100 years with an abundance of dirt called Goldridge Sandy Loam.

Two more tasting room exclusives, both estate pinot noir, were the next pours. The initial vintage 2012 Williams Selyem Pinot Noir “Luella’s Garden,” named after previous property owner Leulla Litton, who kept a garden where the vineyard now stands, was very fruit-forward with rich concentrated cherry and spice flavors.

Unlike the single clone “Leulla’s Garden,” the 2012 Williams Selyem Block 10 Mass Selection Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir is planted to 18 different Pinot Noir clones and is reminiscent of the Burgundy-style wines, medium-bodied with layered flavors and a pleasant minerality.

Williams Selyem Central Coast Pinot Noir

Williams Selyem Central Coast Pinot Noir

Williams Selyem produce an array of single-vineyard pinot noir releases from esteemed vineyards like Bucher, Ferrington and Allen. Past vintages, the 2008 Hirsch Vineyard Pinot Noir and the 2009 Precious Mountain Pinot Noir both received near perfect 99-point ratings from wine Enthusiast magazine.

Today, I received a bottle each of two pinot noir releases, both different and uniquely

Williams Selyem Central Coast Pinot Noir

Williams Selyem Central Coast Pinot Noir

notable. The 2013 Williams Selyem Central Coast Pinot Noir ($39) is sourced from the Vista Verde Vineyard in San Benito County, near the small town of Tres Pinos where the soil is heavily laden with limestone.  The result is usually an earthy wine with beautiful bouquet, firm tannins and full floral and spice flavors.

Highly rated, vintage to vintage, the 2013 Williams Selyem Sonoma Coast Pinot

Noir ($52), sourced from the Hirsch and Estate Drake Vineyards, is often their most complex with flavors of cherries, cranberry, orange, vanilla and even chocolate among others.


Although their first vintage was 2007, the Thomas George Winery is steeped in Westside Road history.  The picturesque, recently renovated property was previously owned by Russian River Valley icon, Davis Bynum, the first winemaker to establish a winery on Westside Road and use the Russian River Valley

Thomas George Winery

Thomas George Winery

appellation designation.  The Baker Family, dad Thomas and son Jeremy purchased the Bynum Winery and assembled three estate vineyards with fully intention to carry on a tradition of fine wines from the property.

We met up with Operations Manager Sean Tevik who showed us around the property including the vineyards and the impressive tasting room cave.  He explained that nine staffers handle all facets of the operation that

Baker Ridge Vineyard

Baker Ridge Vineyard

encompasses 8,000 cases of wine produced annually, some in concrete eggs.  Thomas George owns around ten concrete “eggs” that serve as a new approach other than oak or stainless steel to construct chardonnay.  Unlike stainless

steel, concrete is porous and permeable to water and can impact the flavors of the wine.

Our first tasting, the 2012 Thomas George “Concrete Egg” Estate Chardonnay ($42), aged sur lie for nine months with no malolactic fermentation had a nice tartness

concrete egg at Thomas George

concrete egg at Thomas George

and minerality that was balanced by the full-bodied tropical flavors.  The larger production 2011 Thomas George Estate Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($34), comes from 70% oak barrels and 30% concrete eggs with some malolactic fermentation giving it a nice rich mouthfeel with tropical and stone fruit flavors.

Next we tasted a flight of three pinot noir from different blocks within the Baker Ridge Vineyard, each from a unique micro-climate. East-facing for ample morning sun, the 2011 Thomas George Baker Ridge Backbone Block Pinot Noir ($75)comes from a cooler, protected slope, producing less than 100 cases of a deeply rich wine with a complex, floral nose and dark fruit flavors.  A lovely wine that will become exceptional with age.

From a south-facing slope that receives sun until 7 pm during the peak growing season, the 2011 Thomas George Baker Ridge Dexter’s Block Pinot Noir ($75) exhibited intense floral aromas and a rich, concentrated and complex flavor profile.  The 2011 Thomas George Baker Ridge Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($70) originating from multiple cloned vines planted decades ago by Davis Bynum, exudes floral aromas and dark berries and spice on the palate.

2011 Thomas George Baker Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir

2011 Thomas George Baker Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir

We finished the pinots with the 2012 Thomas George “Barrel Selection” Pinot Noir ($50) and the 2012 Thomas George Cresta Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir ($60), the later as full-bodied as any tasted.

Our tasting concluded with a delightful grenache sourced from local vineyard management icon, Ulises Valdez’s El Diablo Vineyard. The 2011 Thomas George Grenache El Diablo Vineyard  was very fruit forward with a satisfying finish that lingered.

Valdez, an immigrant and self-made man, farms and manages over 800 acres of vineyards, mostly in the Russian River Valley including all the Thomas George estates.

Thomas George Winery intends to address all needs, grape to glass.  Cave tours, beautiful picnic facilities, locations for

Cave and tasting room at Thomas George Winery

Cave and tasting room at Thomas George Winery

outdoor weddings, special events await wine club members and those looking for a unique wine experience in the heart of the Russian River Valley. Wine club members also enjoyed reduced rates on the four upscale guest houses on the site.

Westside Road is synonymous with the Russian River Valley which is synonymous with, arguably, the best pinot noir and chardonnay produced outside of Burgundy, France. Williams Selyem and Thomas

George are but a few of the many great experiences available to those who travel “The Road.”


Healdsburg and the Dry Creek Valley


Sonoma County is known for great appellations like the Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast and Alexander Valley that produce famous pinot noir and chardonnay with the aid of coastal

Endeavor Vineyard in the Dry Creek Valley

Endeavor Vineyard in the Dry Creek Valley

influences.  The overshadowed, more inland Dry Creek Valley appellation serves as the region’s “banana belt,” somewhat protected from the morning fog, causing warmer average temperatures.  As a result, Dry Creek Valley boasts some of the best zinfandel and sauvignon blanc, anywhere in the world.

Another attraction of the Dry Creek appellation is that all of its wineries are within a few miles from

Healdsburg Plaza

Healdsburg Plaza

quaint downtown Healdsburg, recently described as “Carmel North” for the upscale lodging, restaurants and shopping that is available on the plaza.  If the thought hasn’t already crossed your mind, this spectacular area is ideal for your next wine-tasting getaway. Luckily, Healdsburg is 12 miles from my new home, so I can do some quick on-site research to help entice you.

The Dry Creek Valley is rooted (pun intended) in California’s wine history and was one of the first areas to be recognized with an American Viticulture Area (AVA) designation.  With vines dating back 140 years, the area was booming in the late 1800s with nine wineries and over 800 acres of vineyards.  The boom was interrupted by Prohibition, leaving only Frei Brothers and J. Pedroncelli post-repeal, both still producing fine wine.

The area’s current winery map, boasting over 9,000 acres under vine, includes historic patriarchal producers and a plethora of new start-ups that are focusing on organic, sustainable farming, remarkable zinfandel and the exploration of new varietals.  On a recent gorgeous afternoon, we visited two wineries, one established in 1972, the other in 2007, that are representative of the Dry Creek Valley profile.


Part of a large, wine-producing conglomerate, Truett-Hurst was established in 2007, as

Truett-Hurst Tasting Room

Truett-Hurst Tasting Room

a flagship winery to create high-end wines using “holistic” biodynamic farming methods.  The estate vineyards, included in a magnificent setting for picnics and strolling, are composed of zinfandel and petite sirah vines from cuttings that the Italian immigrants brought over a century ago. To extend their palate of wines, Truett-Hurst also source chardonnay, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon grapes from nearly Russian River and Napa Valleys.

Our tasting began with the 2014 Truett-Hurst Gewürztraminer Russian River Valley ($24) expressing fragrant bouquet and crisp flavors of pear, melon and

Barn at Truett-Hurst

Barn at Truett-Hurst

honeysuckle and a very dry 2013 “Salmon Run” Zinfandel Rose Dry Creek Valley ($18) with pleasant, soft flavors of peach and strawberry.  Specialty, boutique rose’ is popular and the full-flavored zinfandel grape seems to be conducive to the style.

Next, a flight of their Dry Creek Valley zinfandel releases was in order beginning with the jammy 2013 Truett-Hurst “Luci” Zinfandel ($35), named for Lucifer, the

Truett-Hurst "Luci" Zinfandel 2012

Truett-Hurst “Luci” Zinfandel 2012

property’s lone black goat, clearly expressing the richest texture and body with delightful  blackberry overtones.  The lighter 2013 Truett-Hurst “Rattler Rock” Zinfandel ($33) provides a different alternative with loads of cherry, pepper and very soft tannins. I now have both options in my cellar.

The single-vineyard 2013 Truett-Hurst Bradford Mountain Grist Vineyard Zinfandel ($35) is still young, but has much going on with nice layered flavors.  The rich texture, spice and lingering finish are all indications that this

Adirondack chairs along the river at Truett-Hurst

Adirondack chairs along the river at Truett-Hurst

wine will be a “gem” in a few years.

The winery’s two pinot noir releases, from different micro-climates within the nearby Russian River Valley, also offer the consumer distinct styles of the varietal. Probably named after the friendly beast that I petted on my walk, the lighter Truett-Hurst Pinot Noir “White Sheep” ($40), from the nearby Deer

Creek area in west Russian River Valley, has pleasant spice and raspberry flavors.  From the heart of the valley, the full-bodied Truett-Hurst Pinot Noir “Black Sheep” ($40),  has an expressive nose and loads of cinnamon, vanilla and berry flavors, fully balanced.  It’s difficult to compete in one of the world’s

Truett-Hurst "White Sheep" Pinot Noir

Truett-Hurst “White Sheep” Pinot Noir

finest pinot noir markets, but these reasonably priced options are recommended.

An unusual blend of syrah (75%) and zinfandel (25%), the 2013 Truett-Hurst “Dragon Fly” Red Blend ($35) represents the new Dry Creek Valley persona, innovation with zinfandel ever-present. The wine is still young, but nice hints of vanilla with plenty of oak project a very promising future.  We finished our tasting with a nice cabernet from prestigious Rutherford in the Napa Valley.  The reasonably priced 2012 Hurst Family Collection “Osprey” Cabernet Sauvignon NV ($52) has soft, balanced flavors and tannins, a true value.

The grounds surrounding the tasting room/winery have several picnic areas for small or large groups, live music on Saturdays, an herb garden, trails, goats, grape vines and a flowing river.  The Truett Hurst Winery is a place to relax, but get serious about enjoying good wine.


Following an M.I.T. education and some time in the work force, David Stare made his

Dry Creek Vineyards Founder David Spare

Dry Creek Vineyards Founder David Spare

way to California in the 1960s, founding Dry Creek Vineyards in IMG_13441972 and, eventually, providing the leadership for the re-emergence of the Dry Creek Valley as a prime wine region.  Today, with all their history and prominence, they are still producing high quality wines at favorable prices.

Ironically, our tasting began with the 2014 Dry Creek Vineyards Chenin Blanc ($12) from Clarksburg, near the Sacramento Delta and far from the Dry Creek Valley. This re-emerging varietal, produced in stainless steel, has a good, crisp minerality, tropical fruit flavors, a long finish and a fabulous price.  Everyone should have at least one chenin blanc in their cellar.

Vineyards at Dry Creek

Vineyards at Dry Creek

The flight of three sauvignon blanc releases is yet another reminder of how fine wines can bring you to another level, vetoing anything you have previously enjoyed.  In the 1970s, Dry Creek Vineyards followed Robert Mondavi’s lead, re-naming their sauvignon

blanc releases Fume Blanc’  The 2013 Dry Creek Vineyards Fume’ Blanc is the sauvignon blanc varietal from the Russian River Valley where, apparently, there is more leaf growth, hence canopy, to protect the grapes from wind, fog and heat.  The winery’s description, “the palate repeats vibrant aromatic themes” is apparent with the crisp, citric aromas and flavors.

The next wine originates from the first Sauvignon Blanc vines planted in the Dry Creek Valley, decades ago.  The 2013 Dry Creek Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc ($18), awarded 90-pt by Wine Enthusiast, expresses a ripe melon on-the-nose, adding soft citrus and tropical flavors aided by small amounts of a unique clone,

foreshadowing the next wine.

Once you have tasted the 2013 Dry Creek Vineyards Sauvignon  Blanc Musque’ Taylor Vineyard ($25), you can’t go back. Take the previous wine, overlay a

2012 Taylor Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc Musque

2012 Taylor Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc Musque

very rich, creamy mouthfeel with many layers including hints of zesty orange peel, and

suddenly, the “musque” is the only white wine you need or desire. Highly recommended!

Claimed to be the first “old vine” designation in California, the flagship 2013 Dry Creek Vineyards Old Vine Zinfandel ($30), from 80-120 year old estate vines, is composed of 23% petite sirah, adding to its richness and deep berry flavors, earning a 90-p

2012 Dry Creek Vineyards "Old Vine" Zinfandel

2012 Dry Creek Vineyards “Old Vine” Zinfandel

t rating from Robert Parker.

The 2012 Dry Creek Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon ($25) and the 2011 Cabernet Merlot ($25) are actually blends similar to those from the left and right banks of Bordeaux,

Dry Creek Vineyards

Dry Creek Vineyards

each featuring the addition of malbec, cabernet franc and petite verdot.  Both wines had balanced, smooth, rich flavors, high ratings and a reasonable price.

The grounds and tasting room at Dry Creek Vineyards are befitting a patriarch with ivy-covered walls and picnic facilities amid lush landscaping. More importantly, they haven’t sacrificed quality as their business and reputation has grown.

Healdsburg and the Dry Creek Valley are located 60-90 minutes north of San Francisco along the Redwood Highway.  There are also two flights per day from LAX to the Santa Rosa Regional Airport, less than 10 miles from the heart of Healdsburg.

Once you arrive, options for lodging and dining are plentiful and varied. For a special experience, I recommend the Hotel Healdsburg on the downtown plaza or the stately Casa Madrona property a few minutes from town.  Healdsburg restaurants range from good burgers and salads to the full-on “foodie” experience at Dry Creek

Hotel Healdsburg

Hotel Healdsburg

Restaurant or Barndiva, not to exclude the Dry Creek General Store, a popular stop for lunch while touring the vineyards.

The abundance of nearby Dry Creek Valley wineries including, among others, Mazzocco, 32 Winds, Manzanita Creek, Kokomo and, of course, Truett-Hurst and Dry Creek Vineyards sets the stage for your next perfect Sonoma wine country sojourn.

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.”