Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Sonoma Saturday, If You’re so In-Clined

Hi guys. Just a quick post about a little jaunt we took up to the lower reaches of Sonoma, just above Carneros, the other day.

The “Pendulum” wine club up at the Cline winery was hosting one of their release parties for the latest club shipment, and though we had picked up our selections a couple of weeks earlier when we were in the ‘hood, these events always provide a fun, festive opportunity to taste a couple of dozen offerings, including myriad wines that aren’t part of the current club selections.

It’s one of those clambakes wherein parking attendants are hired for the occasion, directing you with professional precision just where on the lawn to park the Lisa Marie, the barrel room is ringed by the “stations of the cross” pouring locales, and cooperage is upended to provide resting spots for your glass as well as catered small bites.

The Cline club is a fave for us here in CoCo County; the Cline and Jacuzzi families have solid rootstock in our little Oakley burg, and many of their bottlings reflect the municipal vineyard holdings that they maintain and hold in estimation high enough to designate the real estate on the bottles’ labels. As posted before when Kathy and I began this project of gumshoeing vineyard sites in our area, Cline made it easy: Their Big Break, Bridgehead and Live Oak patches just happen to be named for Oakley roads.

On Saturday, Kath and I worked our way through the hymn book that was the wine card for the event. Among the 20+ selections were an “Oakley White,” (though I suspect that that’s just a callback to the fam’s roots; not much, if any, white grapes grown around here), an “Oakley Red,” and the new 2011 release of the Big Break Zinfandel.

Bisected by Burlington Northern railroad tracks and surrounded by sporadic walls of eucalyptus trees (not mention terminating at the parking lot of the veterinarian for our rescue kitties, Fritter and Baklava), Big Break Zins routinely deliver that outrageous hint o’ mint that K and I dig in certain Sonoma Cabs and other offerings sourced from funky varietal terroir.

Sometimes, ‘tis a puzzlement: Yul often read in the various wine rags the latest entry in a teapot tempest about wine alcohol levels; lately, I’ve been trying to digest the charge that, as vine rootstock can not digest rock or mineral, the idea that any white can taste “flinty” or “ of mineral” is deluded. Tell that to Chablis.

Just sayin’.

In the meantime, in between time, ain’t we got a little more of that Cline “Small Berry” Mourvèdre from CoCo County?

Friday, February 22, 2013

Carneros: A Bit of Versailles, a Lot of Vines

Hi gang; nice to talk at y’all encore une fois. There weren’t a lot of wine jaunts to take us out of our Oakley ‘hood here in Contra Costa County in recent weeks. Although, between Kathy’s day gig, we both running errands and doing groceries, it’s amazing to see our local gnarly ancient vines suddenly, one morn, shorn of shaggy canes, as if visited overnight by some viticultural Sweeney Todd.

Still, there’s nothing like the Circe-like call of a wine club shipment to inspire us to gas up the Lisa Marie, tuck away a $5 bill for one (of many around these parts) California bridge toll, and once again zip over the “Mothball Fleet” of WWII troop carriers rusting away in the Carquinez Strait, before choosing one of the tines of our regular wine country fork in the road.

Now, the bottles awaiting us were selections from the Hess portfolio, a very civilized collective comprising, among other menu items, estate Mt. Veeder juice, small-production varietal bottlings, and winemaker Randle Johnson’s “Artezin” label spotlighting old-vine selections such as those sourced from the oft-mentioned-and-posted-about Evangelho Vineyard a few miles up the road from our house.

But Kath had set up a little excursion to a region in which we haven’t lately spent a lot of time: Carneros, a cool (in all senses of wine connotation) regional east-west band undergirding the southernmost real estate of the Napa and Sonoma Valleys.

When K and I lived in San Fran a couple of lifetimes ago, we’d explore Carneros a bit; after crossing the Golden Gate, the crazy 12/121/29 (hey, my birth date!) highway interchanges brought us to our first wine stops of the morning en route to Napa.

The other day, on our Carneros trek as born-again Cali locals, and approaching from a more easterly (and cheaper) toll bridge, our first stop was once again Domaine Carneros, the venerable Napa outpost of Champagne house Taittinger.

The Cali joint (see photo above) has been around for decades at least, and if the marketing vibe has changed, the experience still serves as a tasty way to toot that flute of sparkling wine. Breakfast of Champions, indeed.

So, Carneros is that cucumber-cool cousin to Rutherford or Dry Creek to the north. They unabashedly espouse the Burgundian model of outrageously distinctive Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Fog from San Pablo Bay to the south (soup that rolls in by which you could set your wristwatch); sun-drenched daylight and “nighty-night” shutdown: It ain’t the crib for Cabernet or Zinfandel, both of which thrive in Napa and Sonoma, the municipalities of which Carneros shares.

My head hurts.

There’s a road loop up the hill from Domaine Carneros, and across the road from the southern outpost of Cuvaison (a gorgeous, and green, tasting salon combining “Atomic Age” design with small-lot elegant juice: the former you see in architectural magazines; the latter on San Francisco wine lists.

The limited production offerings at Acacia and Bouchaine and Etude, labels that were familiar to me, had me puzzled. Turns out that they have flagship, big-volume stuff for the distribution chain, but some, such as Acacia, produce esoteric 247-case stuff for sale only in-house.

We added $lightly to our Pinot and Chard $tash. But before we headed off to summit Mount Veeder and pick up our Hess stuff, we had a rendezvous avec destiny.

The tasting room at Artesa is another architectural marvel visible off of the north side of 121. Back in the day, ‘twas opened as Codorniu Napa, a literal mission vanguard for the Spanish Cava sparkling wine house. Owned by the same fam decades later, Codorniu has retooled its Carneros operations to focus on still wines, though bubbles are definitely in the mix.

At Artesa, ask for Troy Johnson. He will hook you up.


Hess. In the galleries and in the glass. In da house. As aforementioned, their Artezin project is not shy of Frank Evangelho’s fruit from our neighboring burg of Antioch. CoCo fruit, with 5% Petite Sirah.

The tasting bar experience at Hess has always been a bit of a head-scratcher for me as a wine club member. For such a class outfit, with its mesmerizing art collection and pedigreed wine selections, it seems to lack a satisfying tasting regimen, especially for members picking up their wine in person.

I’m going to hark back to our Seattle days a few years ago as Chateau Ste. Michelle wine club folks. CSM set the club standard: any bottle open in the Vintage Reserve Room (complimentary reservations encouraged) was awaiting your glass; and, most important, they were pouring the current club selections.

Right now, Hess, citing “limited production,” does not pour the juice you’re picking up, never mind provide a members’ tasting area. And lest y’all think that this is wine club elitism coloring this, please know that Kath and I experienced an identical vibe in WA state once before at a brand new, architectural-magazine-worthy winery; a communally oval tasting bar with a full pouring staff so obviously assigned “stations” that one would swear that the bar was electrified should a host cross zones.

At “J/NH” (not the winery’s real name), we literally had pourers lock eyes with us, and then turn away to shuffle papers because there was no one tasting in their real estate. We cancelled our membership soon after.

We’ve seen a similar thang up Mt. Veeder way, seeing people ignored (and being ignored ourselves). Enough to make me run upstairs to gaze at a Rauschenberg, STAT.

OK, enough of my oh-so-softball edgy crit-ee-kues. I mean, here in Wine Countries, Kathy and I have had great conversations at tasting rooms region-wide with regional/national/international citizens who don’t have the nonluxury of a $5 bridge toll to cross the wine component off of their Bouquet List.

So, yeah, a bit of Versailles and a honkin’ lot of vines for us: from bubbly in Carneros to a brambly Carignane.

What was I complaining about again?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Odd Bins

Just a few random musings over the last couple of weeks of tasting and touring.

Several months ago, Kathy and I had a very civilized tasting up on Sage Canyon Road in St. Helena, with Tiffany Buchanan, hostess extraordinaire of Napa Valley’s Neyers Vineyards.

We always love when some fur-flung winery shouts out to our ‘hood via a vineyard designation on their label. Neyers’ winemaker Tadeo has previously called back to das roots: Zin from Pato; Mourvedre from Evangelho; and most tastily, a couple of years of Tommy Del Barba’s Zinfandel grown a few blocks from our old (circa 2009) homestead (see photo above).

Dig this: Eric Asimov, in The New York Times, rated this Zin in his selected top ten. Jon Bonné, wine dude for the San Fran Chronicle puts it in his top 100 wines of the year.

I call Tom (he’s in the slim Oakley phone book), and hang up upon no answer. Seven minutes later, I get a return call from Tom Del Barba. Daddy had no idea that his juice won such love. Imagine me being the one to tell him that.

We head south to Livermore last weekend, and the release event for La Rochelle, our Pinot Noir-centric winery pals, sharing real estate with Steven Kent Mirassou and his eponymous (minus the surname) concern. Always nice to taste and then pick up our selections without paying for shipping.

And Pinot winemaker Tom Stutz always brings it, sourcing Pinot fruit up and down the coast, this one from Santa Cruz.

OK, you’re no doubt fatigued from Das Oldee Ty-mee Sugar Mill stuff., but we can’t help that 3 Wine Co had a release party the other day; the other wine was a Spinelli Mourvedre (Matt Cline insists on calling it Mataro). And he’s pretty tight-lipped on the whole “Spinelli” vineyard-location-in-Oakley thang. Nonetheless, it’s outrageous juice, kickin’ it CoCo style.

And then we leave early, thinking that we might take an adventurous highway trip across a levee bridge to find Miner’s Leap winery, a Clarksburg joint that we’d never visited before.

Crossing a bridge did not have to happen; we just look for the patrons congregating on the civilized patio below the levee roadway, an entire 12 inches above sea level.

We’d endured a bit of a cold snap in our neck of the woods, but one would never know it this past Saturday afternoon. The sun was shining on the outdoor tasting bar, the fire pit was smoldering, and the pet friendly digs were awash in canines, cats and Cinsault (among other varietal bottlings). Check out Kath’s second photo: So, what were YOU doing mid-January, 2013?

The varietal Cinsault was crazy: lots of cherry stuff. And then, we find out, via the back label, that the label’s great-grandpa was a convicted bootlegger in WA state’s town of Bothell in the 1920s, before being granted a presidential pardon upon Repeal.

All in all, a sweet couple of weeks for this couple of Oakley wine-lovers: a smattering of good press, good Pinot and a good Prohibition story.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Transitioning to 2013: Balsamic, Bun Run & Black-eyed Peas

We rung out (wrung out?) 2012 as adults, finally.

It’s always sad to break with tradition, and New Year’s Eve 2012 was the first time in I don’t know how long that Kathy and I were not in our Nick & Noras snorting Zeds (Canadian Zees) by 10 p.m.

Shalom, tradition; this was fun.

But, gawd, you’d have that we had kids the number of precautions we set up for ourselves. Taxis and a hotel stay: I guess better safe than sorry, though Kath and I both concurred that 10:30 p.m. was probably not going to be Crash Cab.

We had a lot of fun, though. Kath’s biz had a cool rate on the Exec floor at the Concord Hilton, which allowed us a nice Snappy Hour with wine and snacks in their Concierge lounge while we played these crazy card games ( “Gloom” and “We Didn’t Playtest This at All”) that K got me for Christmas. WDPTaA was silly fun; Gloom’s rule pages glazed my eyes, and then it all made sense: very simple overall, very macabre. Can’t wait to play encore une fois.

We dressed across at the room and cabbed it to the Walnut Creek Yacht Club for our Dungeness Crab Party reserve seating. Fixed was the price, and family was the seating style.

Our “family” at table included United Airlines pilot Al and anesthesiologist Stephanie. Holy Crap! Here’s a Discovery Channel series if ever there was one.

Man, I don’t want to go all “Ice Loves Coco,” but Kathy does love calamari. The antipasti are hooked up with a reduced balsamic, rendering syrup a great forkful whenever you can snag some from the plate. A wonderfully filling meal of antipasti, Calimari and Dungeness crab with aioli. Lest we forget the Albacore confit salad kickin’ it on the iceberg lettuce tip. Crazy how these disparate pieces, introduced to a glass of Chablis (itself introduced by the importation prowess of Kermit Lynch), knit together.

Taxi back to the Hilton, where we actually stayed up till midnight. Shocked, I say! Shocked!

We grab a quick, early comped breakfast, then head home to brew some coffee, give extra food to the Baklava and Fritter kitties, ignite the Hoppin’ John in the slow-cooker (Black-eyed peas on Jan One is supposed to be good luck {here’s hoping}), then hit the bricks to Bethel Island and the annual Frozen Bun Run.

Check Kathy’s pic. Again, it’s a crazy tradition wherein everyone is welcome to sign in to jump into Delta freezing waters and ski/board/whatever behind the motor, all on January 1 of the new year. Clothing optional, of course.

It didn’t take more than two free-pour Irish Coffees to forget the chill that the Delta can bring on, even with clear skies. I can only imagine what semi-nude Bun Run participants, let alone Harley-esque spectators pulling on a cold beer, could possibly be thinking.

As usual, lots of laughs (Bun Run virgin Drew wiped out mere meters from the start), and bikers et al (again, check Kathy’s pic) proved to be the coolest cats on the turf. As Kath noted to me, these were not people who went to bed at dusk.

It’s the one time that I can wear gloves for more than 5 minutes, sport a polyester jacket that does not breathe, and consider wearing earmuffs. Back in the Lisa Marie, I couldn’t wait to doff the do.

Back home, John is Hoppin,” and downright delicious.

Wanna talk in 2013?

Saturday, December 29, 2012

‘Twas Three Days Before Christmas

And up in Sonoma,

‘Twas a feast full of color,
Mouthfeel and aroma.

Hey, so what’s new, huh?

Well, this time our little jaunt up to Sonoma Valley last Saturday began with one of Kathy’s screaming Internet deals from livingsocial: an 80-minute massage for each of us, preceded by a refreshing glass of bubbly, at the Sonoma Holistic Center, located a mere chakra’s throw from the downtown Plaza square in the actual historic city of Sonoma.

It was wonderful! So much so that my blood pressure stayed out of the red zone when having to make a left turn onto the main drag afterward.

And since we were at the south end of the Valley anyway, it didn’t take a whole lot of arm-twisting to get Kath and me to motor a few clicks north to Kenwood and our new hang, Naked Wines. As posted before, we’ve amassed a considerable, if quickly eroding, “store credit” with Naked, having scored three $500 NaWi vouchers at substantial discounts during Sonoma County PBS station KRCB’s recent on-air wine auction.

It’s always a great time up at the NaWi wine works; tasting room diva Ashley, director of winemaking Robin, and founder-slash-honcho Rowan are convivial and generous hosts up at the ranch. Last Saturday, December 22, K and I tasted a few new releases from some of our fave winemakers in the NaWi stable, including more than one Pinot Noir, which broadens their already extensive varietal portfolio.

Our plan was to not make it a full day on the wine road, but since we were next already heading south to go back home to Oakley, Kath suggested that, since we’ve had a two-for-one Internet coupon for Imagery Estate gathering moss in our voucher file, let’s live a little before hitting the return leg in earnest.

Ow, Ow: my arm.

We’d visited Imagery, a sprawling site neighboring the Arrowood winery, a sibling winery to Benziger, some time back, but we must have hit the joint on an event day. That time, the place was packed to its well-appointed rafters; there was no chance of nosing, let alone bellying, up to the tasting bar. And if I remember correctly, I think I even got into it with a couple of walking dudes who refused to move from the middle of the road as we were trying to leave the parking lot. Good times.

But this time, the Saturday before Christmas, could not have been better, and all thanks to the woman behind the stick, our pourer Karen. She gave us her full attention, and we must have talked grape with her for an hour, all the while being treated to off-the-menu selections and bottle pours from under the table. Kathy looked around and noticed that almost every other host/hostess at the bar was sticking strictly to whatever was printed on the tasting card; Karen hooked us up, boy-eeeeeee.

Check out Kath’s snap of Imagery’s hearth at the end of the tasting room: Karen’s hospitality had us glowing like that proverbial Yule log.

And the extra presents under the Imagery tree concerned our purchase of a gorgeous (gustatorily and visually: as befits the name “Imagery,” every selection sports original artwork on the label) bottle of 2008 Lagrein crafted by winemaker Joe Benziger. Lagrein is a Northern Italian varietal grape, rarely seen in these parts, and sourced from French Camp Vineyards in California’s Paso Robles region (Jacuzzi, too, does a Lagrein, also sourced from Paso).

It seems that Karen forgot to charge us the “one” in “two-for-one.” And she figured that we were wine club members entitled to a significant discount. Or maybe she was just slyly spreading a little extra holiday cheer to a couple of wine lovers heading home.

Ho, ho, hope it’s the latter: our own little Miracle on Highway 12.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Of Bivalves and Bubbly

Oyster jones, y’all.

Fortunately, Kathy had an appointment in das city, and we agreed to meet après for snappy hour © at Waterbar, on the San Fran waterfront by the Ferry Building.

Four dozen oysters at $1 each, but no Muscadet on the list? I’m shocked, Rick, shocked!

But with dollar oysters available from 1130h to 1800h, a crisp Sauvignon more than did the do. It took a while to snag a table; this is no secret happy hour.

Last Saturday evening was the Holiday Open House for Hess wine club members, up the winding Mt. Veeder road at the lower end of the Napa Valley.

Kath and I decided to make an afternoon of it, with an overnight stay due to the twilight start of the event.

Now, I have a file for each of our regular regional wine haunts: a Livermore folder; a Lodi folder; upper Sonoma (Healdsburg, Dry Creek, Russian River) and lower Sonoma (Carneros, Santa Rosa, Kenwood, Glen Ellen) each, among other regions, has its own — if we visit a delineated wine area, it has an informal plastic-sleeved dossier consisting of maps and tasting coupons for that region.

We brought our Napa Valley infopak, the proverbial heart on/in said plastic sleeve. Plus, with 2012 (and maybe more; I’m typing this on 12/12/12 after all: Holla, Mayans in das house!), coming to an end, K and I thought that this might be a great opportunity to avail ourselves of our Lot 18 card, which obviated so many Napa tasting fees until the end of this year.

Nothing lasts forever, despite what DeBeers would have you believe, and we figured that, aside from a wine club connection with Hess, this could be a nicely civilized “Shalom” to the Napa “Twenty-Dollar-Tasting-Fee-Not-Refundable-With-Purchase” Valley.

Highway 29, the Valley’s main drag is a winery’s Pushmi-Pullyu: bachelorette parties, tiaras: It’s all good, as long as we don’t have to share the bar with the Cosmo sippy cup.

Hit Clif Family up in St. Helena, one of our Lot 18 entreaties. Kath and I had the great fortune to meet both founders, Gary and Kit, as we sipped the Clif Family juice. We met them both, and then, as my bro at Cambridge might say, they were on their bike.

We’ve really dug being Hess club members. For one thing, as Kathy says, it’s like having a membership to an art museum, with the bonus of a complimentary open wine bar downstairs.

We also dig that Hess Collection winemaker Randle Johnson has embarked on his “Artezin” label side project spotlighting varietal grapes, not, as the nomenclature might suggest, just Zinfandel, some of which are sourced from vineyard sites, such as Evangelho, in our Oakley ‘hood.

Apparently I get paid by the comma.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Occupy IKEA. And, Oh, Yeah, Alameda

Another Black Friday and another jaunt to IKEA in Alameda County, followed by a trip to Rosenblum with their parent’s umbrella current commitment to vineyard designated varietal juice from our ‘hood, St. George Spirits and their neighbor Rock Wall.

OK, a little bit disturbed to find IKEA culpable of using East German prisoner labor back in the day, maybe putting the “No” in “Nortorp.” I vass only following hors d’oevres (meatballs and lingonberry excluded).

So we get a couple of groovy pillows, then hit the trail for Rosenblum Cellars, where we know we can get juice made from Stan and Gertie Planchon’s fruit, as well as same from the late Rich Pato’s estate directly across Empire Avenue here in Oakley.

As noted in an earlier post, Rosenblum’s corporate parent, Diageo, maintains a commitment to Plato and Planchon fruit. It’s all we can do to keep our fingers crossed for this exquisite varietal Zinfandel, Mourvedre and Petite Sirah.

Believe me, there is no need to plough these ancient vines under in order to house the likes of me. Just saying.

On to St. George and the dragon net (Look up Stan Freberg, y’all).  Had a great distillery tour, hitting all the food groups from pear to potatoes; juniper to generics. As usual, the St. George tasting bar let their universe unfold as it should: concentrated flavors where appropriate; subtle notes otherwise. Sweet. And don’t let a chained link fence dissuade you: They finish painting the Golden Gate Bridge and they have to start all over again; across the Bay, we can just be cheerleaders.

Rockwall is a mixed bag, man. Staff at the tasting room is OK, and the view out the oversized windows toward San Francisco is outrageous. The wine is good, too. So I can’t put my name on what’s just a little off, but for Kathy to go for something completely out of the ordinary won big points from yours truly.

Yeah, she could have gone the Zin or Rhone route; Baby girls gots it goin’ on and and on with the funky varietal Tannat, from Solano and Yolo Counties.

Sight unseen, mouthfeel untasted, untested.