A Collaboration – At a Whole Foods Near You

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Jess' Wine Tasting Notes | 1 Comment
A Collaboration

A Collaboration

If you happen to live in Southern California, and you find yourself in a Whole Foods, you have an opportunity to purchase wine as part of an effort to celebrate a partnership between Whole Foods Market and Santa Barbara County wineries. My assumption, though it’s not called out anywhere, is that this is a “Buy local” program.

The project is called “A Collaboration” and is currently a partnership between Whole Foods and (at press time) two well-known wineries: Margerum Wines and Hitching Post Wines. The first wine, from Margerum, was available on September 30th and I acquired a bottle for free through a P.R. firm representing the effort (I have to tell you that, but I would have anyway).

The 2009 A Collaboration with Margerum label contains backstory which is remarkably similar to Margerum’s well-known M5 (and even goes so far as to say M5 Red Wine right on the label):

Five Grapes ~ Six Vineyards ~ One Wine
51% Syrah (53% Colson Canyon Vineyard clone 877, 37% Great Oak Ranch Vineyard and 10% Purisima Mountain Vineyard that was pulled from a new Francoise Freres barrel), 32% Grenache (58% Alamo Creek Vineyard and 42% Grundoon Vineyards), 11% Mourvedre from Camp Four Vineyard, 3% Counoise from Camp Four Vineyard and 3% Cinsault from Camp Four Vineyard.

For me, this wine has amazing “bones” but seems to be lacking in a serious case of “living up to its potential.” Then again, I kinda felt that way about M5, too. As a general rule, I favor fruitier red wines to minerally red wines, and am especially not enamored with Napa Cabernets because of that dusty, chalky thing everyone loves so much. To me, the Margerum wines seem to be reaching for Napa (and falling short) instead of embracing what makes wine from Santa Barbara County and the rest of the Central Coast so unique and enjoyable… the fruit. I consider the other wines coming out of these vineyards, made from the same grapes (Tensley, Qupe, Tercero, Epiphany, and Beckmen come to mind), and I’m disappointed in the lack of body, the lack of anything interesting happening on my mid-palate, and the short finish.

The Hitching Post collaboration is a completely different animal. All of the things that we love about Santa Ynez wine and winemaking are typified in this bottle of wine and it was an exciting bottle to drink. The label is chock-full of information (yay!) to help the consumer get a better sense of what’s special about this wine:

This collaboration celebrates:
A Place
– Terravant Wine Company in Buellton, CA, where Gray Hartley and Frank Ostini of Hitching Post Wines are writing the next chapter.
A Story
– of making wine since 1979, in a garage, a shed, a co-op, and now this ultra-modern winery. From humble beginnings to high tech, Hartley Ostini continues to created traditional wines of balance and finesse.
The Fruits
– This is a 22 barrel selection blended and handcrafted by Gray Hartley and Frank Ostini, and includes 73% Valdiguie grown by Hank Ashby at French Camp Vineyard near Shandon, and 27% Syrah grown by Loren Colahan at Alisos Vineyard in the hills above Los Alamos.

My husband says to me, “What’s Valdiguie?” My reply? “I think it’s an Italian varietal.” Yeah, um, notsomuch. It’s actually a French varietal from the Languedoc-Roussillon region in Provence. When we opened the bottle, poured the glasses, and took a deep analytical inhalation, we were impressed with the textured, deep fruity aroma. What surprised and impressed us even more was the less-fruity palate as well as the incredible balance and structure of this wine. We like many Hitching Post wines, but for me, this is one of their finest “collaborations.”

Live Wine Blogging – Red Wines #WBC10

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Jess' Wine Tasting Notes | 3 Comments

Red Wines – Speed-dating for Bloggers & Wineries!

We sat at a table for an hour while 12 wineries brought us 12 wines and shpieled us for 5 minutes each. Here’s the rundown… lots of goodies for red-wine lovers! (Updates coming later)

  • 2008 Ortman Sangiovese, $20
    What the winemaker says: East-side Paso Robles, 2nd-gen tier $20 and under
    What Jess says: Not what I expect from an Ortman wine, but I’m excited about them producing
    What Arianna says: Where’s Arianna???
    Other notes: Cuvee Eddy & Chardonnay (Bien Nacido and Cat Canyon) coming soon!
  • 2006 Louis M Martini Lot No 1 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, $120
    What the winemaker says: Nice velvety tannins but will lay down for 25+ years
    What Jess says: Deep purple flavors. A little rough on the acid/tannins. Chalky at the back of the mouth. I imagine this will be beautiful in a few years, but I’m not interested in spending this kind of money. My eyes popped out of my head when she said the retail price. I’m SO not a Napa girl :(
  • 2007 Isenhower Bachelor’s Button Cabernet Sauvignon, $28
    What the winemaker says: 4% Petite Verdot
    What Jess says: Lacks a little body, not very fruity (if you’re looking for a fruit bomb you’d be disappointed), but there’s a likeable quality to it. The fruit’s character shows through the hands-off winemaking style. A nice wine.
  • 2008 The Crusher Petite Sirah (Sebastiani), $12
    What the winemaker says: Clarksburg (North of Rio Vista river delta near Sacto!!)
    What Jess says: Big red fruit nose, no alcohol. Medium body, big blackberry, no tannins no acid. Not refined, but interesting.
  • 2008 Desert Wind Ruah, $20
    What the winemaker says: Intensely aromatic, with bing cherry, cinnamon, and toasted walnut in the forefront. On the palate, flavors of cherry, raspberry and clove mingle harmoniously with supple tannins ending in a long finish.
    What Jess says: Nice wine! Similar flavor profiles to the Louis Martini and definitely more than 1/6th as good. I’d like to buy myself a bottle!
  • 2008 Duck Pond Red Blend, $15
    What the winemaker says: Dundee, Oregon. 52% Merlot, 29% Syrah, 19% Cabernet Sauvingon. Value-focused.
    What Jess says: Nice round, fruit-forward red. Nothing hits me on the head and it’s balance and lack of tannin make me happy. Would rather have this as my weeknight red than The Crusher (sorry guys!)
  • 2009 Velvet Glove (Molly Dooker), $180
    What the winemaker says: A great everyday wine… or a special occasion if you prefer. Much ripeness fiddling in order to achieve its full vinological ripeness. Set the glass aside, try it again later. Can age very well.
    What Jess says: A velvet label! Super complex. Cherries, black fruit, spice, tobacco?
  • 2008 TrioVintners Riot, $18
    What the winemaker says: 52% Sangiovese, 36% Syrah, 12% Mourvedre
    What Jess says: Loved the Mourvedre we tasted at their tasting room earlier today (bought two!)… very nice. I like this almost as much as the Mourvedre. This is a GREAT wine for $18… get yourself some!
  • 2008 Ponzi Vineyards Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley, $35
    What the winemaker says: Sustainable, and certified. Take note! 2008 was a winemaker’s dream in Willamette Valley.
    What Jess says: Nice Pinot Noir. I’m not a Pinot fan but I’m always happy to take one from Willamette Valley and this is no exception. It’s not knock-your-socks-off, but it’s very nice. A little earthy and tannic/acidic (hard to tell with palate-fatigue).
  • 2007 Stoller Pinot Noir, $25
    What the winemaker says: Dundee Oregon. Guest houses on property, come stay and hang out! 1st Gold LEED-certified winery in the US (first LEED-certified winery of any level)
    What Jess says: Earthy earthy earthy nose. On the palate: Very cherry, no tannin, light body. I like it. It needs certain foods that’ll go well with VERY cherry. But good!
  • 2008 Stepping Stone Cabernet Franc from Cornerstone, $30
    What the winemaker says: Carneros because I like acidity in my wines. Acid is what makes the wine live. Acidity is the taste and tannin is the texture. Trying to build longer molecule chains to preserve the taste in the mouth longer.
    What Jess says: Chewy. Nice flavors in the background. Nice expression of Cab Franc (despite the 4% Cabernet Sauvignon). I like it. But I like Cab Franc. Opening up in my glass in just these few minutes. Worth the price, let it breathe 30 minutes before you drink and you’ll have a nice new special occasion red.
  • 2007 Sequel Syrah (Longshadows Vintners project), $55
    What the winemaker says: John Duval (Barossa Valley), 3% Cabernet Sauvignon
    What Jess says: Yummy yummy! Worth every penny if you love Syrah. This is what I would hope to get from Washington Syrah!

Wine Blogger Conference – Day 3

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Jess' Wine Tasting Notes | 1 Comment

What happened to Day 2? Well, I was too drunk to write about it yesterday, so you’ll get THAT update later :)

We’re in the middle of Day 3 (it’s the first official day of the conference) and it’s quite a trip being around so many wine drinkers, wine lovers, and wine writers in one place. The wine community in Washington is super-friendly and it’s been a thrill to get to know the different regions and wineries.

It’s also been fun to meet all kinds of people who I’ve known online for different reasons… including accidentally meeting Steve Heimoff while chatting at the Meritage Alliance table.

We’re listening to the kick-off speech right now, and so I’m taking this opportunity to point out some of my favorite values and wines I’ve had so far:

  • Barnard Griffin Fume Blanc, $9
  • Barnard Griffin Sangiovese Rose, $12
  • Milbrandt Merlot Traditions, $15
  • Milbrandt Riesling, $13
  • Chinook Semillon, $15
  • McCrea Grenache Blanc, Boushey Vineyard, ~$20

I also liked the Gruner Veltiners I tasted today. I think they need to go on my list of alternative whites (as I’m kinda getting tired of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc).

More to come, and cheers!

My Introduction to the C. Donatiello Winery

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Jess' Wine Tasting Notes | 1 Comment

c-donatiello-bottlesLast month I was kindly invited to a pre-release luncheon for C. Donatiello Winery at the lovely Chaya Brasserie in Beverly Hills. Rarely one to turn down free wine or free food, I gladly accepted the invitation and waited for the big day.

Since I'm hyper-punctual (thanks, Mom!) I was the first one of the guests to arrive and I had an opportunity to spend some time with proprietor Christopher Donatiello. One of the things I love about the wine business is the willingness of the owners and winemakers to talk about their wines and themselves (even before they're knocking 'em back). Like a piece of art whose meaning is deepened by the artist's story and message, the more you know about the people making the wine and where the wine comes from, the more you get from the experience of drinking it. Getting to know the story of the birth of the C. Donatiello Winery helped me experience the wines as if I secretly knew the wines' hopes and dreams, in addition to what they were in the glass that day.

The focus for this winery was to be on single-lot wines made in a traditional “hands-off” style. I can't always taste the way a wine is made, but I typically notice a “naked” wine where minimal winemaking has been applied and the fruit is allowed to speak for itself. I enjoyed this aspect of the C. Donatiello wines we tried.

Chris was also interested in making great Pinot Noir (who isn't?). He wanted his Pinot to express a lighter style, and be more elegant than much of the super-cherry fruit-forward Pinot Noir we get from California.

I happen to be a big fan of Russian River Valley wines and typically when I purchase them I do so as a treat because they tend toward the over $30 mark and there's too much good wine out there priced well below $30 to have the expensive stuff on a regular basis. If you're looking to buy any of these wines, here's a good place to start for C. Donatiello Winery, and here for Healdsburg Ranches.

The Chardonnays

The first wine poured for us was the 2007 Russian River Valley Chardonnay (release price $24 per bottle). I always feel bad for the first wine that gets poured because my palate and nose are hyper-sensitive to alcohol until I've had a few sips. I suppose that's why they started us with their “lesser” Chardonnay (not single-vineyard). This wine contains fruit sourced from two vineyards: Orsi Vineyard and Maddie's Vineyard. Maddie's estate-grown contribution made all the difference in this wine.

What they said:

Nose: Lemon curd and apricot, with a bit of clove and just a hint of wet wool. Don't be surprised if you also detect an ever so faint whiff of vanilla cookies.

Palate: Layers of spiced apple, honey, and nutmeg reveal seamlessly on a tight frame to give way to the long, luscious chamomile-tinged finish.

What Jess says:

After trying all of the wines, this was the one I came back to and wanted more of. I was particularly impressed with the balance of this Chardonnay, a feat indeed since so many Chardonnays lean oaky or buttery or alcoholic or fruity… this just expressed itself as fine fruit made in a fine style. I find the $24 release price to be a good value, especially if you can find it a retailer for less.

Side note: I smelled honey on the nose. I often can't tell the difference between honey and apricot on the nose (or on the palate) until it's pointed out. I was able to detect the spice (though it was super mild) and I detected “herbal” where they say the “chamomile” ought to be. But then again, my descriptions tend toward the general rather than the specific.

Next up was the 2007 Chardonnay, Orsi Vineyard (release price $30 per bottle). This single-vineyard wine, in my opinion, didn't enjoy the balance of the Russian River Valley Chardonnay. It was brighter and fruitier (popular characteristics in Chardonnay, just not my preference).

What they said:

Nose: Aromas of baking spices, pannetone and toasted pineapple, exquisitely accented by a faint hint of lemon.

Palate: Decadently lush with flavors of caramel candied apple, key lime, lemon, and grapefruit. A round, full mouth feel develops effortlessly into a medium to long finish.

What Jess says:

I have no idea what pannetone tastes/smells like. And toasted pineapple isn't exactly familiar to me either (though I smelled what I referred to as “tweaky pineapple.” But I sure did smell and taste that lemon! I found this wine to be enjoyable and unique, but since fruity isn't my favorite, I didn't find $30 to be an attractive price.


Later on, we tried some of the wines from different labels that are part of the Hambrecht Wine Group. A value highlight for me was the 2009 Healdsburg Ranches Russian River Valley Chardonnay (release price $14.99 per bottle).

What they said:

Nose: Stone fruit, honey dew melon, apricot, golden delicious apple

Palate: Apricot, toffee, nutmeg, white peach, nectarine

What Jess says:

This was a great Chardonnay in this price range. I would happily sip on this on warm summer days or nights, accompanied by some form of food since the acid tended to build up a little in my mouth as I drank it. I detected a brightness and some non-specific form of “fruit” on the nose. Well-balanced for a $15 Chardonnay (only a little acidic), I detected notes of apricot, citrus, pear, and little hint of malolactic fermentation that didn't annoy me as buttery (considering this wine's fermentation was 100% malolactic, that's saying something).

The Pinot Noirs

I'm not one who goes gaga over Pinot Noirs, but when I do, they tend to originate from the Russian River Valley (and sometimes elsewhere in Sonoma County). So please take all of the following comments with the perspective that I'm not really a Pinot Noir afficionado… I think it's because Pinot Noir is one of the most difficult wines to produce and so very few wineries have truly figured it out.

First up in the Pinot department was the 2007 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (release price $38 per bottle).

What they said:

Nose: A vibrant burst of Morello cherry, Santa Rosa plum, cranberry and muddle raspberries, braced by notes of grey pepper and mocha.

Palate: Luscious and fruity, with perfectly-balanced flavors of cherry, strawberry, and cola. The brightness of the fruit is elegantly framed by structured tannins.

What Jess says:

I found the nose to be bright, bold with cherry (though again, I don't know what a Morello cherry smells/tastes like) and a bit peppery. To me the palate was musty and structured up front but I found wateriness in the mid-palate right where the party is supposed to start. This Pinot had an earthy quality that really didn't resonate with me. Maybe it was my brussel sprouts that ruined it? (Though that Pasta Primavera dish they served was out of this world.)

Also served was the 2008 Pinot Noir, Floodgate Vineyard, Block 15 (release price $48 per bottle). When a label starts getting THAT specific I have an expectation that this wine is going to be very unique and special. I didn't have that experience. I have to wonder how much the record-breaking weather affected this particular vintage and would be interested to try a bottle from a year when the weather conditions were within normal range.

What they said:

Nose: The floral essence of rose petal meets the earthy aroma of forest floor, with jammy notes of cranberry and blackberry.

Palate: Opposite of showy, with reserved flavors of cherry and wet stone balanced subtly and beautifully by a tactile, full mouthfeel.

What Jess says:

The nose was mellower than the previous Pinot Noir (that's a good thing for me… sometimes when a wine has a strong nose it, by contrast, falls apart on the palate). I definitely was aware of “forest floor.” The palate expressed deep layers of flavor, was very balanced, felt restrained, and was supported by light, supple tannins. This was a very well-made wine, but at $48 and with my preferences, I'd probably spend my money elsewhere (like a Suacci-Carciere Pinot Noir also from the Russian River Valley).

Side note: C. Donatiello Winery takes the time to point out that this Pinot Noir contains grapes from Dijon Clones 667 and 777. Until I started studying plants, this seemed like a rather pedantic thing to talk about (especially since the rest of the plant-growing community refers to “clones” as cultivars and varieties).  But since I study wine and plants with the same level of voracity, I thought I'd see who else is using these clones… if you like any of these wines, you might very well enjoy this Pinot Noir:

Clone: 667

  • Melville (not sure which vineyards have this clone)
  • Cambria Clone 667
  • Alma Rosa (La Encantada Vineyard)
  • Foley (Santa Rita Hills)
  • La Rochelle (Sleepy Hollow Vineyard)

Clone: 777

  • Melville (not sure which vineyards have this clone)
  • Aston Estate
  • Brewer-Clifton
  • Windsor Oaks Vineyards
  • Lafond Winery & Vineyards

One last Pinot Noir was served that day, the 2009 Healdsburg Ranches Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (release price $18.99 per bottle).

What they said:

Nose: Aromas of plum, cranberry, cherry, golden raspberry, and spices

Palate: Flavors of strawberry, bing cherry, spice, baked rhubarb

What Jess says:

Oy. I don't agree with those tasting notes. I tasted toasty chocolate, not a lot of cherry expected from a Pinot Noir at all, and a touch of spice. Slightly acidic. Good Pinot under $13 is the holy grail of the value wine drinker. Good Pinot under $25 per bottle is rare enough that one should be impressed by such a feat. For me, this one falls under the general description of “nice Pinot Noir under $25.” For the same price I'd take the Clos du Bois Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir over this one though.

They also poured for us two wines from the Bradford Mountain label. The 2006 Grist Vineyard Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel and Syrah (release price $33 for each). I didn't find either of these wines to be exciting for their varietal, or for Dry Creek Valley. I'd skip 'em altogether if you find 'em at the store.

The Winery

Typically when I do an elaborate tasting review such as this one, it's because I've visited the winery on a tasting trip. That's not the case but there are few special things about this winery that makes me hope I get there before too long.

The Aroma / Sensory Garden

Sensory & Aroma Garden at C. Donatiello Winery

Sensory & Aroma Garden at C. Donatiello Winery

C. Donatiello Winery has on premises an elaborate aroma garden where each plant has been chosen to reflect the wines they're making. There is a 60-species rose garden, a perennial garden in the English style, and herbs are planted between the two. Sounds AWESOME.

New Wine & Cheese Pairing program launching June 5, 2010

We are introducing a new wine and cheese pairing program. Over the course of the remainder of the year, the winery will focus on three local Sonoma County creameries, pairing four select cheeses with a flight of four carefully selected single-vineyard estate Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.  Each cheese plate is adorned with locally produced accoutrements and fresh cuttings from the winery’s organic Aroma Garden to further enhance the tasting experience. Reservations are required, so please allow us 24-hour notice.

Food & Wine Classic in Aspen June 18-20, 2010

Food & Wine magazine’s signature event brings together the world’s foremost authorities on food and wine. Chris has the distinct honor of participating in a panel discussion this year.  Food & Wine Magazine’s Wine Editor Ray Isle has invited him to speak on “The Power of Points.”  He will also be in attendance with the Russian River Valley Winegrowers Association, so if you’re attending, be sure to stop by his booth in the tasting tent.

“Live from the Middle Reach” Summer Music Series, July 4 -October 3, 2010

The series will lead with the popular local Sonoma County group the Hellhounds, who have been a staple in kicking off the concert series on 4th of July weekend since its inception.  A total of 13 bands will be featured throughout the summer and early fall, including returning favorites and fresh new acts. The full list of music acts can be found on the Events page of their website.


The San Francisco Vintners Market

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Jess' Wine Tasting Notes | 2 Comments
Lots of happy wine drinkers at the San Francisco Vintners Market

Lots of happy wine drinkers at the San Francisco Vintners Market

A few weeks ago I sprinted up the coast for the San Francisco Vintners Market upon the request of a super-duper awesome friend. We SF-newbies found our way to the Fort Mason Center early enough to enjoy the event before it filled up with a really huge number of people (think of an airplane hanger filled with tables and tables and tables of wine and wine reps and maybe 100 tasters). It was a fun event where I ran into some friends (who were working) and made some new ones (who were also working).

Cameron Hughes pouring Lea Ann's wine

Cameron Hughes pouring Lea Ann's wine

I really only had one objective for the day… meet Cameron Hughes of the eponymous wine label, Cameron Hughes. And meet him we did. The emptiness of the hangaresque space made it easy to chat with him and his team for a bit, and he personally poured our tasting which was a great deal of fun. Now, Cameron Hughes wines aren't exactly the stuff the snootier publications typically go ga-ga over, but I'm a BIG fan for a few reasons:

The wines in the Lot Series are consistently excellent. Not every one of them pleases my palate, but they are all high quality wines produced from fruit grown by top-notch vineyards or juice from top-notch winemakers.

This great quality of wine is available easily (Costco, Sam's Club, grocery stores, and MANY wine stores) and at affordable prices (rarely over $20, usually from $9-13).

I admire the innovation of the business model.

My newest reason: Cameron is a friendly, down-to-earth guy who loves wine and sharing wine with as many people as possible

The rest of the event was a hit, too. Rather than spread ourselves too thin, we tried the full line-up at a few different wineries. We of course visited friends at Ziata Wines (conveniently right next to Cameron Hughes) and Oakville Ranch in the Reserve Area.

Ken Suacci

John Suacci

We checked out Suacci-Carciere because their name has been popping up on tasting room lists and had piqued my curiosity. I took one whiff of the Chardonnay, turned to my friend and said, “Now THAT is why the Russian River Valley is my second favorite AVA!” The first wine I ever drank was a Russian River Valley Chardonnay (1994 Jordan) and I've been hooked ever since. The quality coming out of that area is always superb, but the terroir there just does something to those grapes that makes my palette enter a trance-like state of bliss. Suacci-Carciere is no exception. They mostly make Pinot Noirs, also of sublime palate-pleasing quality and for these wines I broke my “only break this rule if you really mean it” rule of not buying wines over $30. I bought TWO! A $36 Chardonnay and a $48 Pinot Noir to be enjoyed at a later date worthy of such divine wine.

The Suacci-Carciere Line-up

The Suacci-Carciere Line-up

We also looked at Heidi Barrett's own label, La Sirena, and some other winery in the Reserve room which I can't even recall the name of… that's how memorable the wines were. I wish we could say either of us was impressed with the La Sirena wines. I was far more impressed with the cute little pirate finger-puppets they were giving out and the bottle design which looked like a bottle of pirate's rum. Other than that I found the wines overly alcoholic and not super interesting. Too bad as I had high hopes for this one.

Aaarrrrgh! Thar be Pirates in heeeeerre!

Aaarrrrgh! Thar be Pirates in heeeeerre!

Surprise of the day: Vina Robles. Their giant sprawling winery & tasting room is located just south of the 46 in Paso Robles. I'd seen it before since we drive past it pretty regularly as we scoot up and back between Los Angeles and the SF Bay Area. It keeps geographic company with Robert Hall, Eberle, EOS, and Rio Seco vineyards&emdash;so naturally I had my suspicions of its potential quality—big showy tasting rooms usually equal a fun time, but not necessarily great wines down here in southern Cali. Standing in front of a table full of their wines with no extra effort involved in getting to the tasting sounded like a great way for us dive in with little risk… so we did! I was so impressed with the 2008 Vina Robles Sauvignon Blanc – Jardine and the 2008 Vina Robles Chardonnay – Monterey, that I made arrangements for a tasting at their “hospitality center” on the way back to Los Angeles. There's an upcoming post where I'll review the Vina Robles wines and the tasting room experience, so stay tuned!

Women & Wine: A new perspective

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Jess' Wine Tasting Notes | Leave a comment
A lovely gathering of inspiring women

A lovely gathering of inspiring women

Every now and again we have experiences in life that either support or challenge our own unique point of view. Most experiences do neither and are therefore not particularly noteworthy. On March 22nd, Julie Brosterman of Women & Wine and Wine Valet hosted a get-together at her home to honor five women who are blazing trails in the wine industry. Aside from having a beautiful home and being a fantastic cook, Julie has an amazing set of friends and acquaintances… and I walked away with a new amendment to my point of view. Doing business with women is great… even when the relationship is predicated on fellow womanhood.

You know how we always talk about how men and women are different? And it always sounds like a cop-out for us not understanding each other? Well, it’s true. Women and men ARE different… in a good way. We learn different things from each other and it’s so important to remember that. Businesses, relationships, and even the way we make wine benefits from a well-rounded perspective that includes women and men.

I’m really trying to not make generalizations here (well, not more than usual at least), but after wading through a man-filled techie business world for so long, it was incredibly refreshing to discover the differences in the way women talk about their businesses. The passion level is the same, but the expression of that passion is rooted in more in the human part of the experience, the friendships, the struggles, the triumphs… and less in the numbers, the “success,” or the technical details.

Here’s what I learned from these women who kindly opened up their worlds to me, and 30-something other women, to share their passion for … wine!

Julie Brosterman, Women & Wine and Wine Valet
A venerable host and generous spirit

I’m so glad I finally got a chance to meet Julie Brosterman. I have a soft spot for women entrepreneurs (gee, I wonder why) and a personal connection to her store Wine Valet. Julie is an impressive social networker and plugged in to the wine world from multiple angles making her a fantastic connector (think The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell). But she’s also generous and talented, open and honest, and very very hard working. If you have a reason to do business with Julie, you should… if you just want to be part of a network of women who love wine, she’s got you covered there, too…

Karen Cakebread, Ziata Wines (Buy)
A brave one who thinks it’s worth trying

I love how Karen talks about her “project.” As if launching a winery, and all of the work that goes into it, could be encapsulated by such an ordinary word. What it reflects most is her humility considering what she has accomplished in what must be acknowledged as one of the most difficult climates ever in which to launch a new business.

Karen’s “project” is a lovely pair of wines that tasted as good when I had them in the giant, cold, clammy seaside Fort Mason Center in San Francisco as they did in the warm Hollywood home of Julie Brosterman. Karen demonstrates an impeccable taste level not just in her wines but in decisions including the naming of her winery after her mother and the commission of exquisite wine labels that perhaps only a print designer would go gaga over.

P.S. Yes, her last name is from that Cakebread. But she wanted to do something different and share her point of view with “friends, family, and other wine lovers.”

Cathy Corison, Corison Winery (Buy)
One who sees, and knows the importance of, the details

It takes someone with keen vision to recognize an idea within herself and bring that vision to life. After almost 30 years of making wine for others, Cathy transformed the “wine inside me that needed to be made” from an internal notion to an incredible wine. From the precise location of her vineyards, to the specific (down to the forest) source of her oak, to letting “the vineyards speak,” Cathy has found a way to give all of us something from inside her.

Each year Cathy crafts two Cabernet Sauvignons at her Rutherford winery in Napa Valley, California. She brought two of these to Julie’s soiree and one of them was such an incredible experience I sat down alone with it to savor it (and take notes).

My experience with the 2001 Corison Cabernet Sauvignon
(Note: I try not to use prose to describe the wines I drink because it’s nearly meaningless to anyone else, but this wine was special and I found myself unable to access the experience with out flowery language.)

Beautiful black pepper, purple and black fruits, smoky on the nose. Silky tannins, pleasant bite, graceful finish. Lively, deep Cabernet, roundness. Light minerality or chalkiness. Red fruit in the finish.

Julie Johnson, Tres Sabores Winery (Buy)
Loves her life, and it shows

It’s always interesting to meet someone who you already know a little about. Even more so when that person warmly opens up, exudes friendliness and happiness, and welcomes in new people with a big smile and joyous eyes. Or maybe Julie just likes a party!

Caution! Julie comes with show-and-tell props that can be mistaken for snacks! She brought a Ziploc sandwich baggy filled with the organic (of the carbon-based kind, not the Whole Foods kind, though it’s probably that, too) fertilizer they use at the vineyard. The stuff looks like trail mix but it’s kind of neat to think the vines can get their nutrients the same way we do. No, I didn’t taste it.

Related anecdote: Several months ago I purchased a bottle of wine for Arianna’s birthday and the wine shop I bought it from saw me buying an expensive (by my standards) Zinfandel so tried to sell me on others. Being a oeno-neophyte I had not yet heard of The Prisoner, but no amount of reputation conveyed to me by a salesperson is going to convince me to shell out that kind of cash. After a stern “that’s outside my price range” they suggested I try a wine they referred to as “The Little Prisoner.” This was Tres Sbores’ ¿POR QUÉ NO? I think the store is doing themselves a disservice by pushing The Prisoner (I found it ruined the expensive meaty meal I drank it with) and considering ¿POR QUÉ NO? to be similar.

Paula Kornell, Oakville Ranch (Buy)
Connected to the land

Paula was born and raised in the Napa Valley… an upbringing I’m more than a tad bit jealous of. From childhood she recognized the Napa Valley as an extraordinary place to be protected, revered, and enjoyed. She brings that love of the Napa Valley to her post at Oakville Ranch, where you can taste how the wines reflect the company’s dedication to “giving back to this land.” Paula is a warm and lovely woman who not only manages a fantastic winery, but also has a long history of charitable work for a variety of causes and does everything to support her love of life, community, and land. I can’t wait to visit her at the winery and see first hand where all the magic happens.

Kelly McElearney, Ehlers Estate Winery (Buy)
Dedicated to something bigger

In the days when too many wineries to count are competing for your taste buds and your wine budget, it’s getting harder to tell the difference between wines (and equally hard to remember the difference). Some wineries are offering us better reasons to buy their wines than just “it’s a Napa Valley Cab that got 91 points from The Wine Spectator.” Among them, Ehler Estate is a non-profit winery where 100% “of the proceeds from the sale of these wines go to support the Leducq Foundation, a highly regarded, not-for-profit foundation dedicated to funding international cardiovascular research.”

What’s even cooler about this winery is Kelly. Kelly comes from a well-known Napa wine family. You may have heard of them… the Duckhorns? Rather than take a leadership role in her family’s legacy, Kelly is putting her knowledge and passion to work supporting a winery with much larger goals. What’s not to love about that?

P.S. I think her Mom sounds pretty neat, too.

BevMo! Mega Tasting Notes!

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Jess' Wine Tasting Notes | 4 Comments
The GrapeSmart gals and their pimp-for-the-day, Wilfred Wong

The GrapeSmart gals and their pimp-for-the-day, Wilfred Wong

BevMo!, a beverage superstore local to California and Arizona, recently opened its 100th store, and Jess, Mitch and I trekked all the way to Rolling Hills Estates to help them celebrate (see Bordeaux Wines That Won’t Break The Bank). The expansive wine, beer and spirits “mega-tasting” was probably an incentive…

Armed with vinoculture literature and a solid breakfast, we descended on the event – determined to taste as much as possible before passing out. Or until they closed up shop at 5pm. So we started at the most likely place: The ticket booth.

Our $15 tax-deductible entrance fee went straight to Boys and Girls Clubs of the South Bay, and gave us 10 tasting tickets. Jess and I looked at our notes, looked at each other and promptly decided to buy 10 more tickets to split between us. We were handed a reusable 6-bottle wine carrier, a commemorative BevMo! glass and a shiny new wine key, then headed into the fray.

Before I talk about our tastings, I thought I’d share some important bits of info we quickly learned about these types of events:

1) Don’t buy extra tickets in advance. At this tasting there were several wineries at each tasting station but only one ticket was requested per table. So one ticket could buy as many as 10 tastings, depending on who was crowding into the area. And by the time the place was packed, tables weren’t even taking tickets anymore. Go back and buy extras as needed, but don’t stock up in the beginning.

2) Wear a hat.

3) Come sober.

(The last one is probably a given, but I thought I’d throw it out there, just in case)

And now that that’s out of the way, here is a list of our favorite pours and the ones we would’ve preferred to pass up:


Silver is golden

Silver is golden

Mer Soleil Silver Chardonnay 2007: This unwooded Chardonnay is made from grapes grown in the Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey County and is aged in concrete tanks (which are made in Burgundy). It contains no malolactic fermentation and never touches oak. A beautiful light straw color in the glass, it has a lovely nose of grass, stone fruit (peaches, apples), and bright flavors of pineapple and citrus. It comes with a screw top!

Altocedro Reserva Malbec 2007: Rated as #47 of the “Top 100 Wines” in Wine Spectator, this Argentinian delight is a rich, dark purple in the glass, with a nose of grapes (!), oak, cherry and earthiness. On the palate it’s big and lush and oaky, with flavors of bright, dark fruit. This was definitely one of the stand-outs of the day. I should note, however, that it was only the Reserva that blew us away. The Ano Cero and Desnudos Malbecs didn’t do much to impress.

Rosenblum Rockpile Road Zinfandel 2006: This old clone Zinfandel is rich and robust and bursting with flavors of blackberry, black cherry, raspberry and vanilla. I’m already a big fan of Rosenblum’s more value-priced vinos, but this one really stands out and I think it’s worth the steeper price. Grown in Lake Sonoma in the upper Dry Creek Valley.

Trefethen Chardonnay 2006: Bright, light yellow in the glass, with aromas of pear, lemon and honeysuckle. Great balanced flavors of pear, lemon and vanilla. This is a nice, full, creamy white and has become one of our favorites in this price range.

Le yum!

Le yum!

Joseph Perrier Cuvee Josephine: Have you ever taken a sip of champagne that was so delicious it made you smile? The perfect amount of tiny bubbles tickling your tongue through the perfect balance of aroma and taste and mouth feel? Apple-y, citrus-y, peachy, vanilla and caramel deliciousness cascading over every tastebud and gracefully slipping down your throat? If you answered “no” to any of the above, than you need to find an occasion to try this remarkable champagne. Those French really know what they’re doing.


Roth Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2006: You know how we’ve said that Alexander Valley Cabernet is across-the-board delicious? Yeah…well…we can also admit when we’re wrong. This is a blend of 76% Cab Sav, 19% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc. The color is 100% gorgeous. The nose is scrumptious chocolate cherry. The flavor is…well…bland. Slightly tannic. Unimpressive. And at $30 – $40 a bottle, I need more for my money.

Lancaster Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2005: Hailing from Healdsburg, California, Lancaster is a family-owned winery and was at the same tasting table as Roth. In the glass, this wine is gorgeous and dark, with a nose of cherry and coffee. Smooth, rich mouthfeel. Coffee flavors. Very tannic. Fussy. However, in their defense, I learned in my research that Wine Enthusiast doesn’t feel this wine will reach its full potential until 10 years of bottle aging. Currently between $55 – $70 per bottle, that’s the chance you’d have to take.



Renwood Grandmere Zinfandel 2006: Boy, I really wanted to like this wine. The owner was at the tasting. He was incredibly enthusiastic. His winery is “Green Friendly,” which is a term he coined to describe the beautiful environmental protections he practices in his business. The grapes for this Zin are grown in the “oldest known Zinfandel vineyards in America.” Honest-to-blog, I really, really wanted to like this wine. But I didn’t. The color was super light. The scent and taste were very strawberry. It was incredibly tannic. It wasn’t very good. In fact, I couldn’t even drink it. Maybe that makes me a bad person. I’m sorry. I tried.

Parcel Thirty-One Zinfandel 2007: The Wine Whore has an interest in the topic of why some varietals don’t work for him, but he just keeps tasting them anyway because you never know when your palate will change or you’ll find one you DO like. There are three wine-growing areas that I feel this way about… Monterey, Lodi, and Mendocino County. And this Zinfandel, from Victory, was yet another example of how the wines from those areas don’t work for me. This was thin and light (Zinfandels should have body and finish!) with no appreciable flavor qualities beyond “red wine.” {Sad face goes here}

To wrap up… Wine Tasting Events are fun! Bring a friend and come prepared. And don’t forget to take notes or you’ll forget EVERYTHING. Oh, and don’t go shopping at a wine store while you’re drunk… the next day Jess looked in the wine box and the following conversation ensued:

Jess: “I bought those?!”
“Is that a bad thing?”
“No, actually, those are wines I either like or have wanted to try.”
Mitch: “I guess it’s a good thing that even when you’re drunk you know what you like!”

Kirkland Signature Chardonnay – from Costco… Really!

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Jess' Wine Tasting Notes | 2 Comments
2007 Costco Napa Valley Chardonnay

2007 Costco Napa Valley Chardonnay

I noticed recently that Costco has come out with more wines in their Kirkland Signature wines line and naturally, since I'm there once a month trolling the wine bins like the wine whore, er value seeker, that I am, I picked up a bunch more of 'em.

This time I tried the 2007 Napa Valley Chardonnay from Costco's Kirkland Signature brand line of house wines. In a different but happy way, I'm as impressed with this Chardonnay as I was with the Kirkland Signature Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

First, I've never had such a well-balanced Chardonnay under $20, much less under $10. California Chardonnays are often overly oaky, frequently too acidic, and sometimes taste like Sauvignon Blanc. Occasionally we come across Chards we love, but this one is a solid enjoyable player in a field of mediocre wines priced under $15.

What they say: 2007 Kirkland Signature Napa Valley Chardonnay is opulent and richly flavored. The succulent notes of apricot and fig are surrounded by intense bursts of apple and pear, finishing with bright, mouthwatering acidity; a distinctive, buttery edge; plus hints of cedar and oak. Chardonnay from Napa Valley is scarce, highly sought after, and the source for some of the finest California Chardonnay from the 2007 vintage. Drink now through 2010.

What Jess says: The bouquet is oaky, but don't let it fool you, other wonderful flavors come out to play once you take a sip. At first I noticed a brightness at the front of my mouth, oakiness in the mid-palate, and a smoky finish. The wine lingered in my mouth to offer a mild green-fruit and buttery finish. This wine would be great with any of the traditional foods one pairs with a Chardonnay (cheese, salad, fish, chicken, etc.) but could also compliment a heartier meal.

It doesn't seem to be on their website (I think because it's only available in California), so if you live in California you'll have to go to your local Costco to pick some up at the super bargain price of $7.99 a bottle. Here's an article about Kirkland Signature wines at Costco.com.

2005 Zaca Mesa Syrah, Santa Ynez Valley

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Jess' Wine Tasting Notes | 1 Comment

A few weeks ago I went to a tasting event hosted by the Rhone Rangers which is an organization focused on wine produced from Rhone varietals grown in the United States. Being a Southern California event, most of the wineries (if not all) were from Paso Robles, Santa Barbara, and the Santa Ynez Valley appellations.

Prior to attending, I researched the wineries to see which 20 I should actually taste because I knew I'd never make all 40-something. During my research I found the 2005 Zaca Mesa Syrah, Santa Ynez Valley had been rated 92 by Wine Spectator (for my palette, that almost always means I'll like it). I found that highly suspect

because I'd had Zaca Mesa wines before and been, as I like to say, underwhelmed. The other thing I found surprising was a $22 bottle of Syrah from Santa Ynez was rated so highly. Now I LOVE Syrah, especially Santa Ynez Syrahs, so for me, it was a little jewel to behold.

2005 Zaca Mesa Syrah

2005 Zaca Mesa Syrah

I managed not to get to the Zaca Mesa table while I was at the tasting event, but that's okay because it's a fairly large-production wine and I knew I could find it elsewhere. On tonight's trip to Costco I noticed the Zaca Mesa Syrah and grabbed a bottle. Being me, I naturally couldn't wait more than 5 minutes to crack it and see if it passes my critical (ha!) muster, or at least lives up to its hype.

What Jess says: First impressions are great. A nice cherry/jammy bouquet with a little smoke at the back of the nose. Chewy, but enjoyable, mouthfeel. It does something funny toward the back of my tongue that I'm not loving (somehow reminds me of the other Zaca Mesa experiences I've had). Hardly noticeable jamminess in the mouth (some people love it, some hate it… I'm a lover) as opposed to the nose. Some kind of salty or some other mineral taste in the finish. Would almost certainly benefit from aeration, age, (I was too eager) and some red meat (or any food probably).

What Wine Spectator said: “Tight and beefy, with focused blueberry and wild berry flavors that are spicy and complex. Full-bodied, with a hint of stewed plum and wild berry peaking through on the finish. Drink now through 2015. 13,090 cases made.”

What Zaca Mesa said: “Our Syrah displays rich blackberry, cassis, espresso, mocha and our signature sage spice aromas and flavors. The silky finish lingers from the ripe tannins and smoky oak. This full-bodied wine should be enjoyed over the next ten years. A traditional pairing for this wine is a rack of lamb marinated in rosemary and garlic. However, a peppercorn steak or mushroom risotto would work incredibly well.”

[Editor's note: Even though I don't think all wines at Costco are priced as “deals,” knowing what your favorites cost elsewhere helps you identify when Costco has listed something at a lower price than most other places. We paid $16.79 and which seems to be a middle-of-the-road price for this wine in today's market despite it's $22 release price.]

Request from Twitter: Cheap Chardonnay for Wedding

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Jess' Wine Tasting Notes | Leave a comment
Vinavera Unoaked Chardonnay

Vinavera Unoaked Chardonnay

This was a fun incoming request from Twitter:

@BluelegsTango Daughter’s wedding on a budget. Having Chinese.Can you recommend a dry white wine, $10 range, to appeal to a range of drinking tastes.Thanks – 11:11 AM Aug 22nd

Truthfully there aren’t that many whites under $10 I’d recommend to anyone. Some people out there think cheap white wines are more palatable than cheap reds, but honestly I think you have to spend more to get a decent white than a decent red, on average.

Something I’ve recently stumbled on is unoaked chardonnays. In keeping with my newly discovered preference for wines that are true to their varietals (meaning you can drink and know what grape it is, not have a guess what it is). I like the flavor of the chardonnay grape and even though I appreciate some oakiness, most California chards are too oaky. There’s definitely been a trend of late to downplay the oak that gets added, but the fascinating part is that there’s a natural gentle oakiness to Chardonnay anyway!

I recommended the Vinavera Unoaked Chardonnay to this inquirer. You can get it at Bevmo for $12.99 a bottle and it’s in their 5-cent sale, too. At the moment, the ClubBev price is $7.99!

You can also shop around and try some other unoaked chardonnays.

Coincidentally, I was at Crate & Barrel the other day and they’ve got empties as decoration around the store… what did they empty? Vinavera Unoaked wines of course! I wish I could have been the one to drink the wine they must have dumped 😉