Abalone, You’ve Met Your Match

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Wine Tasting Trips | 1 Comment

Abalone (image by Julia Thiel, The Chicago Reader)

Abalone – those algae-eating, sea dwelling creatures, which are so delectable to otters and so strange to look at as they creep along the ocean floor – are part of the phylum Mollusca. They share this group with squid, clams, scallops, sea slugs and octopuses. So it’s no wonder they’re so tasty.

This deliciousness, enjoyed by both sea otters and humans alike, has led to a steep decline in wild abalone, but new advancements in abalone farming. I got to witness the latter, first-hand, at Cayucos, California’s The Abalone Farm. There, hidden away behind a cattle farm, and sprawled out against the sea, Brad Buckley gave a walking tour of the various stages of an abalone’s life, from the beginnings as tiny egg-specks through tanks and tanks of years’ worth of growth. Lucky for me, (but less so for the abalone), I was able to conclude my tour with the final act in the lives of several of these snail-like creatures. I like to think they sacrificed themselves for science.

My first meal of The Abalone Farm’s chief product happened at Cass House, in Cayucos, California. It was served as an accompaniment to olive oil-poached halibut, aside mussels, and decorated with leek and fennel and a bay laurel beurre blanc. The texture was a medium firmness, but velvety. The flavor had been strongly influenced by the rich and herbaceous sauce, but retained some of the animal’s fresh seawater taste. Right then and there, bathed in the glow of having just eaten exquisite food, I became a believer.

Olive Oil Poached Local Halibut with abalone and mussels, garden leek and fennel confit, parsley nage, bay laurel beurre blanc, frites, fennel pollen

The next day I went back to the stretch of seaside pale sand and dark warehouses that is The Abalone Farm, and Buckley fished through one of his adult abalone housing baskets, and pulled up a substantial creature approximately four inches in length and width, and about three inches across. He then quickly shucked it for me, deftly separating it from its life as he separated it from its shell. He showed me how a rigorous salt shower and subsequent scrubbing not only clean the abalone, it also speeds a sort of rigor mortus. Buckley then washed the stiff abalone in fresh water, sliced it into thin servings, and spritzed it with fresh lime.

This time, the abalone’s flavor was unadulterated, except for the burst of tart lime. It had the sort of soft snap familiar to anyone who’s eaten jellyfish. The flavor was subtle, clean and pleasant.

Flash forward to last month. A friend had organized a wine tasting/dinner party. The only rule was that everyone had to bring a dish, and every dish had to have a wine pairing. The rest was up to us.

Wanting to relive my Cayucos raw abalone experience, I chose to replicate exactly what I’d been shown.

…Then I got freaked out about having to prepare it for the first time at someone else’s house, for a room full of strangers, so I bought my live abalone from the Galleria market, in Koreatown, and they prepared it for me, sashimi-style. There was no salt scrub, but they cleaned and cut and served all six abalone beautifully. I paired the dish with a bottle of 2010 Domaine de la Pépière “Vieilles Vignes” Clos des Briords Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie.

What I found with the abalone this time around was that different parts of the animal had a different taste. Some slices echoed that fresh seawater flavor from my first experience, others were much more pungently fishy. Other parts almost tasted like the clean umami of yellowtail sashimi. I served the dish with wasabi, soy sauce and lime slices, and let people choose their own adventure. My favorite combination was like the first one I’d tried – nothing but flesh and lime juice. While the soy sauce was good, it tended to overpower the clear, delicate flavor of the meat.

2010 Domaine de la Pépière “Vieilles Vignes” Clos des Briords Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie. Long name, great wine

The wine pairing sang. The Domaine de la Pépière Muscadet is made from single-vineyard grapes that come from vines with an average age of about 80 years. This bottle was packed with mineral, with flashes of apricot, lemon and saline, which were perfect accents to the abalone. The focused acidity was enough to play against the baseness of the seafood, without competing with the presence of the fresh lime.

Like Buckley, Winemaker Marc Ollivier also seems to lean toward minimal embellishments when he’s presenting his work. Grapes are hand-harvested, fermentation is triggered by natural yeasts, and Ollivier employs a very light filtration. Clean, focused, pure.

Ready to try the wine, but don’t have abalone handy? This mineral-rich, chalky Muscadet is a natural (and traditional) pairing with oysters. Or, at around $16/bottle, it isn’t even unthinkable that you could try some pairing experimentations of your own…

Happy Stands: Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara Becomes an Official AVA

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Wine Tasting Trips | 4 Comments
Dierberg Star Lane Vineyards

Dierberg Star Lane Vineyards

On January 16, 1919 the Eighteenth Amendment (Amendment XVIII) and the Volstead Act went into effect in the United States. The ratification of these acts of Congress prohibited the consumption of “intoxicating liquors”, except for use in medicine, church rituals and up to 200 gallons per year of personal, home consumption. As one might expect, Prohibition was fairly controversial and not wholly embraced by the people.

The public’s demand for hooch led to speakeasies, bathtub gin and, in California alone, a 700% increase in vineyard plantings (to make “grape juice”). It also led people to a little region known as College Ranch, which was the location of the only spirits still in the north county of Santa Barbara. Because the area held the cure for what ailed ‘em, the locals lovingly nicknamed the spot “Happy Canyon.”



Some seventy-six years after the end of the Noble Experiment, canyon winemakers won a proposal to have the area registered as an official AVA: Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, currently consisting of 23,941 acres, 492 of which are planted for six vineyards and three wineries, in the east end of the Santa Ynez Valley.

I had the great pleasure of learning all about Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara on a recent trip to Star Lane and Dierberg Vineyards. Vintners Mary and Jim Dierberg grow over 237 acres of vines on their Star Lane property (half the total acres planted across the entire valley), including all five of the red Bordeaux varietals and Sauvignon Blanc. On their cooler-climate Dierberg estate, 160 acres are planted with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah grapes to produce “Burgundy inspired” wines. The former dude ranch-turned-vineyard/winery sits at the highest elevation in the valley, with their Sauvignon Blanc vines reigning over all, high up the hills at 1500 feet.

To celebrate the diversity of Happy Canyon’s soil composition, climate, rainfall, topography, etc., the Dierbergs and winemaker Nick de Luca strive to produce terroirdriven wines, while also showcasing the individuality of the grapes, themselves. The vineyard has been farmed organically since 2006, they use ground cover under the vines, eschew tilling, and most of their wines are fermented using native yeasts. All wines are made with free-run juice and, whenever possible, they use natural gravity flow instead of pump systems. Even their caves were dug by hand – all 27,000 ft of them – a process that took over five years to complete. They like to call their philosophy “Old method winemaking using new technology.”

And the result? Incredible balance, amazing acidity. Deep, complex wines that can be enjoyed young or cellared for greater finesse. The differences and nuances from one vintage to the next are discernible in the way that the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara wines are noticeably different from the rest of the juice produced in Santa Ynez Valley.

Dierberg Star Lane wines

Dierberg Star Lane wines

In order for a region to qualify for its own AVA (American Viticultural Area) designation, petitioners must prove that the area is significantly different from the surrounding appellation in terms of mesoclimate and geography, thereby producing distinguishable fruit. Everything from rainfall to soil content, pH, drainage, topographical history, etc is documented, analyzed and contrasted with neighboring locations. If the differences are significant, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms can award the new AVA certification. Once approved, all wines with the AVA certification must contain at least 85% juice from the specified AVA.

What a happy requirement that is, in the case of Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara. Of the wines I’ve tried – especially those from Dierberg/Star Lane, these wines are dynamic, distinguished and delicious. It truly is a Happy Canyon, indeed.

Wine Blogger Conference 2010 – Day 1

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Wine Tasting Trips | 3 Comments

The GrapeSmart gals took off for Washington yesterday morning at the uncivilized hour of 7am, but we landed in Seattle with a whole day to get ourselves out to Yakima Valley. We grabbed our rental car and headed for, duh, Pike Place Market, because, well, we’re foodies and it’s a must-go!


After an early lunch at a tiny little chowder place in Post Alley with amazing smoky chowders and super fresh fish we found ourselves a wine & coffee bar called Local Flavor to settle in with. A couple of glasses of Washington wines from Portteus (which we didn’t love) and our first coffee of the day made everything start humming. Then we spent some time wandering through the market–it was freaking food heaven and a festival for all of our senses–before jumping into our car for the spectacular journey across Washington state in anticipation of a somewhat spontaneous “tour” with our twitterpal @wino4ever (Scott Abernethy).

Scott generously introduced us to the who’s who of the Red Mountain AVA at an Industry Night event at Picazo 7Seventeen (a great Spanish restaurant in Prosser by Chef Frank Magana). Scott brought us two wines from a winery called Cooper which isn’t even open yet! The first was a and the second was the 2009 Cooper Pinot Gris.

  • 2007 Walla Walla Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
    My experience with the wine: Top notes of Vanilla or Chocolate and a touch of red or black berry in the background; Bouquet was less aromatic when it was first opened, and I think I detected leather but it may have just been terroir; Initially it struck me as a French-style Cab (less fruit, more finesse) but as it opened up the finish developed and I began to detect cherries & chocolate.
    Takeaway: This was a nice quality wine and I enjoyed it.
  • 2009 Cooper Pinot Gris
    My experience with the wine: Honeysuckle and anise on the nose paired with I think was some kind of tropical fruit; in the mouth this wine was balanced and bright, with flavors of citrus (later I determined this to be grapefruit), green apple, and a hint of mint at the back of the mouth.
    Takeaway: Yum! At $20 suggested release price this is a GREAT white wine. Very food friendly but tame enough to drink alone. Best when it’s cooler which is great for summer afternoons!

As the evening wore on, the other guests lubed up and loosened up. Scott started introducing us around and in particular introduced us to Robert O. Smasne of the ROS Wine Company. Possibly the hardest-working guy in the wine business, Robert has his hands in 24 wineries! He has several labels of his own, owns a crushpad and other facilities for helping smaller winemakers get the product out, AND he consults with MANY local wineries on their winemaking. When someone is this popular you’ve got to figure they’re good… and from what I can tell this quiet and sensible man makes sophisticated wines that rival the best anywhere in the world.

  • Smasne Cellars Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon from Snipes Mountain (a brand new Washington AVA)
    My experience with the wine: Carries characteristics of old vine Zinfandel (the only old vine wine I can compare it to based on my own tasting experiences). Tasted to me like a nicely-made red blend.
    Takeaway: I’d serve this to anyone who came to my home and I’d bring it along to a nice restaurant for dinner out
  • Smasne Cellars shiner
    My experience with the wine: Surreal. One of the finest wines I’ve ever tasted. I didn’t even balk at the $115 release price and I’ve never purchased a bottle that expensive. A blend of 67% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Petite Verdot, 8% Malbec and 8% Carmenere. The nose was vanilla and blueberry with no hint of alcohol. In the mouth was “excellent” “fantastic” blueberry “mmmmm.” This is Robert’s first reserve wine in what he’ll call his Signature Series. It’s already sold out on futures so unfortunately you can’t get any… but you should definitely check out some of his other labels: Farm Boy wine (value-priced) and AlmaTerra, a “project” where Robert is experimenting with Syrah’s from 8 different vineyards to get deeper insight into how terroir affects his wines.

We also got a taste of Chateau St. Michelle Malbec shiner from Wahluke slope that was lovely and an introduction to a winemaker not yet in business. The line of wines is going to be a favorite among women who have loved labels like Bitch… except it’s better than Bitch! Be on the lookout for Dumb Blonde wines being released in September! Oh yes, and we met Gary Hogue, co-founder of Hogue Cellars, too :)

Last but not least, Chef Magana is private labeling some wines from Alexandria Nicole for his restaurant. You can only get them if you go to his restaurant in Prosser, but they’re worth mentioning here because they were enjoyable and we want to thank him for his hospitality! When it comes to house wines, there’s nothing better than a chef who consults with top notch winemakers to get the right flavor profiles for his food…

  • Vino Rojo is a blend of 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, 6% Malbec, and 3% Petite Verdot. It’s sourced from Horseheaven Hills and goes brilliantly with the Spanish food being served at Picazo 7Seventeen. The nose was peppery & spicy followed by a fruity punch-in-the-mouth with a relaxed Bordeaux-style finish.
  • Vino Blanco is a blend of 65% Roussane, 24% Marsanne, and 11% Viognier. I LOVE Rhone wines and especially Roussane/Marsanne. I’m not a huge fan of Viognier though and I would have liked to see a little less of it in this wine. Knowing that my palate is a little tweaked compared to what’s popular among white-wine drinkers, I think this wine is for meals calling for a bright and sophisticated white.

Over dinner Scott gave us the rundown on the top local vineyards to be seeking out and some wineries we can’t wait to try! Here are the ones we’re keeping a lookout for:

  • Barnard Griffin Winery (high quality, value priced wines)
  • Kiona Winery (high quality, value priced wines)
  • Alexandria Nicole Winery
  • Maison Bleue Winery (Rhone)
  • Skylite Cellars
  • Phinny Hill Vineyards
  • Ciel du Cheval Vineyard
  • Klipson Vineyard
  • Champoux Vineyard
  • Boushey Vineyards
  • Sagemore Vineyard
  • Taptiel Vineyard
  • Seven Hills Vineyard
  • Pepper Bridge Vineyard

Today we’re off for a tour of Yakima Valley where we’ll continue to be wined, dined, and happy!

P.S. Here’s the view from our hotel room… the majestic Columbia River! (Not the Yakima River as I mistakenly exclaimed earlier before I had my coffee)


LA Wine Fest 2010

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Wine Tasting Trips | 1 Comment
LA Wine Fest 2010

LA Wine Fest 2010


June 5 & 6; $65 day pass, $100 weekend. Tix @ http://www.lawinefest.com

Border Grill, Tasty Meat and The Sweets Truck among those providing meals on wheels at LA WineFest 2010

”Absinthe Appreciation” by Nolan Kadoche of ABYSS, Authentic Superior Absinthe; Tickets $50

Charity Poker Tournament with Lamborghini Travels will raise funds for Hollywood YMCA; buy-in is $250 and includes admission to LA WineFest LA WineFest general admisison tickets $65 (single one-day pass) or $100 (couples one-day or single weekend pass) at LAWineFest.com

(May 17, 2010; LOS ANGELES, CA)—Absinthe, food trucks, Lamborghini’s and poker… while the 130+ wines at LA WineFest are sure to dominate, this year’s Fest includes a wide array of tantilizing offerings for the palate and preoccupation. New for LA WineFest 2010 are the following offerings and events: Tasty small plates prepared by LA’s buzz-worthy food trucks by Border Grill, Tasty Meat and The Sweets Truck, as well as local restaurants La Piazza, Tsunami Sushi, Must Bar, and Lola’s Restaurant. Plates start at just $2. Absinthe Education Class with Nolan Kadoche of ABYSS, Authentic Superior Absinthe. Sunday only, 1:00 -1:45 p.m.; $50 per person at LAWineFest.com. Charity Poker Tournament co-hosted by Lamborghini Travels. $250 buy-in includes general admission to LA WineFest; $100 re-buy. Play either Saturday or Sunday from 4:00 – 7:00 p.m.; two sets of prizes. First prize is a $4,000 Diamond Limited Edition Lamborghini Watch. Tickets at LAWineFest.com. Additional details for LA WineFest 2010 are as follows:

When: Saturday and Sunday, June 5th and 6th; 2:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. both days

Where: Raleigh Studios, 5300 Melrose Avenue Los Angeles, CA 90038

Tickets (Advance Purchase): $65 one-day pass (singles), $100 weekend pass (singles) or $100 one-day pass (couples); available at LAWineFest.com or local fine wine retailers. Tickets available at the door on the day of the event for $75 each.

Raffle: Wine, restaurant gift cards, luxury gift baskets, travel vouchers and other enticing items will be raffled off both Saturday and Sunday; minimum 10 raffle items each day. Raffle tickets are $5 each, available at the door.

Special Programs: Special classes on Absinthe appreciation, wine and cheese pairing, international wines, and bourbon, scotch and sake offered both days at 1:00 p.m. (prior to gates opening to the public); tickets available separately at LAWineFest.com or by calling (818) 429-6770.

Parking: Street parking (metered on Saturday) and paid parking available at Paramount Studios lots on Bronson and Van Ness. Metro accessible via Red Line; exit Vermont/Santa Monica and walk two blocks south, three blocks west. The Viceroy Hotel Group is serving as official hotel partner for LA WineFest 2010, with special rates available at Avalon Beverly Hills and Maison 140 for LA WineFest guests and vendors. For rates or reservations, please contact Rachel Madison Hill at (323) 445-0425.

Other LA WineFest sponsors include LA Weekly, CRN Digital Talk Radio, Vin Village and Patterson’s The Tasting Panel magazine.

About LA WineFest:
LA WineFest was founded in 2005 by renowned wine educator, columnist and Sommelier for the Escoffier Association of Southern California, Dr. Joel M. Fisher. LA WineFest is the largest wine tasting event in Los Angeles, with the dual mission of bringing wine education and enjoyment to Angelenos and supporting local charitable organizations. For further information, please visit LAWineFest.com or contact Director of Marketing, Michelle McCue at michelle@mccuecommunications.com or (213) 985-1011.
LA Wine Fest 2010

Summer Sipping For Some Great Causes

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Wine Tasting Trips | Comments Off on Summer Sipping For Some Great Causes

One of my favorite things about the heady days of summer is the even more hedonistic nights. I grew up in the South, where the humid afternoons gave way to evenings which wrapped themselves like a warm blanket around bare skin. Serenaded by the sound of cicadas and bullfrogs, I spent countless evenings drunk on the electrifying summer air.

Out here in SoCal, what we lack in humidity and loud amphibians, we more than make up for in fiery hot festivals with their fair share of music, super-charged excitement and beautiful people dressed in small summer clothing. And these days, it isn’t just my joie de vivre that makes me tipsy; California boasts some of the best wine events around.

Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater San Diego

Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater San Diego

There are two festivals, in particular, that are circled in red on my schedule: The first is Rhythm & Vine (produced in association with World of Wine Events and Fast Forward Event Productions, known for the nationally acclaimed San Diego Wine & Food Festival). This is a music and wine festival benefiting the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater San Diego. It’s worth the drive to spend the day eating amazing food from some of San Diego’s favorite restaurants, like Donovan’s Steak House and Truluck’s Seafood, Steak and Crab House. Breweries include Stone Brewing Company and La Jolla Brew House. Wineries such as Bridlewood Estate, Jake-Ryan Cellars and Pear Valley Vineyard will be pouring to raise money to keep kids off the streets and paired with mentors and life-long friends. The event also includes silent auctions and incredible live music. Tickets start at $75. Saturday, April 17, 2010.


4th Annual Valley Food and Wine Festival

The second event to get excited about is the 4th Annual Valley Food and Wine Festival. On Saturday, June 19, 2010, there will be over 100 different types of wine, beer and spirits mingling with tasty food and beautiful people in tony Calabasas, California. The $100 ticket not only gets you into what will be a fabulous, soon-to-sell-out event, but all proceeds benefit the Alzheimer’s Association. Even better, The Valley Food and Wine Festival is a “Green Event” – you’ll be tasting delicious chow, raising money for an amazing cause and doing it all without waste.

So get your summer groove on. Kick off the season with hot summer nights and cool, cool beverages – for a good cause! These events are out of town but definitely in touch. Bullfrogs cost extra.

Wine Tasting Trip: Hitching Post Wines

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Wine Tasting Trips | 3 Comments

One can hardly visit the Santa Ynez Valley and not notice the effect of the movie Sideways. I never visited before the movie so I can’t be sure what was different then (probably fewer tourists and less usage of the words “sideways” and “pinot noir”), but the impact of the film is obvious when you visit the area.

It’s the most obvious when you visit The Hitching Post II restaurant and bar on Highway 246 in Buellton. You can drive the route that Miles stumbled, you can hang out at the bar where he drowned his sorrows in Pinot Noir, and now you can even see pictures on the wall of the cast and crew when they were filming.

I was personally more interested to see what all the hype was about than I was in reliving the movie, but it was a bit surreal. Up until a few weeks ago my interest in Hitching Post was nil specifically because of all the hype and I’d avoided the scene on previous trips. This time though, I squeezed it into our itinerary for a few reasons.

First, I’d recently tried the Cork Dancer Pinot Noir at the Viceroy in Santa Monica at a friend’s birthday party. They have it on their Happy Hour menu (which goes until 9pm) for $6 a glass. That’s a deal for any wine in this town and it’s a great deal for good wine. The second reason we went there on this trip was that we were spending the night in Buellton and its gravity sucked me into a vortex of curiosity (that, and we needed to eat dinner in the small town). Lastly, I saw on their website they do a full wine tasting at their bar for $7 until 6pm. THIS was a reason to go!

We arrived around 5pm (we had a 6pm reservation–I HIGHLY recommend making reservations and going early. People were waiting in big crowds/lines for a long time.) and found a spot in the bar area which was eerily familiar (I’ve only seen the movie once but the images from inside HPII were burned into my brain). We ordered a couple of tastings and settled in to try the 7 pours of infamy before dinner.

(If you get bored reading the reviews of the wines, skip to the end where I talk about our dining experience.)

Note: The website is a little out of date and the wines available for purchase aren’t all the same vintages as I tasted so the notes and prices may be a little askew. Well, their notes might be… mine are probably as askew as they always are!

2007 Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post “Pinks”, a Dry Rose – $18 per bottle

What they say: Beautiful aromas of strawberry, cherry and rainbow sherbet. Brilliant color and fresh crisp flavors makes this a joy to swirl and sip.

What Jess says: Mild and subtle. Cool and refreshing. Would go well with anything on a hot day. (Still biased by my favorite Rose of all, Beckmen Grenache Rose.)

2006 Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post Cork Dancer Pinot Noir – $27 per bottle

Hitching Post Cork Dancer Pinot Noir

Hitching Post Cork Dancer Pinot Noir

What they say: A blend of six vineyards that stretch from Santa Maria through Los Alamos and into the Santa Rita Hills. Bright fruits, medium body, a well proportioned great drinking everyday pinot.

What Jess says: The nose was like other earthy local Pinot Noirs. (I find that Pinots from this area of a distinctive nose that I can always detect, no matter what the winemaking did to the wine.) It was a beautiful light red with a nice feeling at the back of the mouth. I detected berries in this well-balanced Pinot. I liked it as much as I did at the Viceroy, too. While I like this wine, I’m not sure most of us think $27 per bottle is an “everyday” wine.

2006 Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post St. Rita’s Earth Pinot Noir – $34 per bottle

What they say: Dark fruits, good structured blend of Sanford & Benedict, Fiddlestix and Clos Pepe Vineyards. All Santa Rita Hills. Aromas of earth and cherries. Deep purple color with warm flavors of berry and spice that linger.

What Jess says: The nose was detectably earthier and stronger than the Cork Dancer. When I tasted it my first response was YUM. Blueberries and blackberries slinking seductively across the tongue in this smooth well-balanced Pinot Noir. For $7 more, I’d choose this over the Cork Dancer.

2006 Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post Highliner Pinot Noir – $42 per bottle

What they say: Aromas of berries and sweet Frenchy oak, bright young fruit tastes rich and round, poised to improve over the next 5 to 10 years. (Note: this is their flagship wine.)

What Jess says: The nose had a very particular smell about it that I couldn’t put my finger on. I tasted cherries. This wine was super smooth and a long, silky, wonderful finish. WOW. I can see why this wine gets so much attention and it tastes like it’s their pride and joy. But even still, we didn’t buy any of this wine because it’s still out of reach for most people.

2006 Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post Generation Red – $18 per bottle

Hitching Post Generation Red Blend - Cabernet Franc, Mourvedre, Syrah, Refosco

Hitching Post Generation Red Blend – Cabernet Franc, Mourvedre, Syrah, Refosco

38% Cabernet Franc, 33% Merlot, 23% Syrah, 6% Refosco

What they say: Generation Red honors our parents and grandparents who first introduced us to wine at the dinner table, and our children, who have shown a keen interest in winemaking as inquisitive youngsters and excited young adults. With this bottling we focused on high quality sources: 20 yr old Cabernet Franc from Alisos Vineyard in the hills above Los Alamos, meticulously farmed Merlot from Westerly and Gainey vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley, and small amounts of White Hawk Syrah and Bien Nacido Refosco. This blend is mainly Cabernet Franc and shows a young rustic character with dusty, smoky aromatics. Excellent with food.

What Jess says: The nose smelled “Cabby.” I tasted cola and “purple” fruit. I found the wine smooth and interesting (in a good way, unlike the Porque No! red blend from Napa I just tried that found to be interesting in a notsogood way). This wine said to me, “Buy me!” So I did. A great value in a unique and high-quality wine.

2006 Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post Merlot, Santa Barbara County – $20 per bottle

What they say: I can’t locate their tasting notes on this one.

What Jess says: I’m not a fan of Merlot, but at this point my notes just say “too buzzed to care.” That’s me, slackin’ on the job!

2006 Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post Syrah, Big Circle – $25 per bottle

What they say: This cuvee honors the Big Circle Riders who surrounded the cattle to bring them together are the roundup, where our style of oakwood grilling got its beginnings by feeding the cowboys after a hard day’s work. Today we gather Syrah grapes from various Santa Barbara vineyards, and bring them together in this wine that combines the structure and intensity of cool sites with the broad flavors of Syrah grapes from warmer vineyards.This wine is ripe, juicy and flashy. Showing notes of black cherry and cooked plum with polished edges.

What Jess says: Red berry and chocolate on the nose. Nice, chocolate, black cherry, pepper, and plum in the mouth. A little more expensive than I normally spend, I bought a bottle anyway because it was very good and I’d look forward to serving it to guests.

At this point in the evening, our reservation was up and we were drunk. WE is a noteworthy comment because Mitch RARELY gets drunk.  The tasting pours were very generous and we were on an empty stomach (especially Mitch because at least I’d had some snacks at the Vino de Suenos event earlier in the day where I’d met and spoke with Frank Ostini–super nice guy). We ambled over to the hostess stand, and were promptly seated as we walked past hordes of jealous restaurant-goers.

Folks, I gotta say, this place is like a time warp. What it’s not though is snobby or elitist. When I met Frank Ostini earlier in the day, our conversation led me to believe he’s a genuine guy who believes in the good things in life: Good food, good wine, good friends, and doing what you love with honesty and integrity. I got that sense at the restaurant, too.

Not everything we tried was a winner and the veggie tray that they brought out when were seated was peculiar, right down to the 1970’s aluminum serving dish the veggies arrived in. We ordered a couple of appetizers (I liked the mushrooms, Mitch didn’t) and dinner. Mitch had pork chops for dinner and I had a cut of their famous BBQ steak. The steak was incredible. The most flavorful, moist, and tender piece of meat I’ve ever eaten (and I eat a lot of meat). I can’t recommend the steaks highly enough.

At any rate, if you’re a Sideways junkie, a Pinot Noir lover, or just want to take a trip back in time to the late 70s, add the Hitching Post II to your itinerary and make a reservation!

Spectacular Fall Foliage in Santa Ynez Valley

Spectacular Fall Foliage in Santa Ynez Valley

Wine Tasting Trip: Sanford Winery in Santa Ynez Valley, California

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Wine Tasting Trips | Leave a comment

People who love wine often talk about how wine is just as much about the experience as it is about the wine itself. They’re sometimes referring to the process of uncorking a bottle, who they’ve shared the wine with, or the time they visited the winery. In my case, when I wax poetic about Sanford Winery, it’s 1/3 because of how I discovered it, 1/3 because of how beautiful it is there, and 1/3 because I like the wines.

A couple of years ago on my first trip to the Santa Ynez area with Mitch, we got lost looking for the Wine Ghetto in Lompoc. We’d never been and Google Maps is dreadful at understanding the addresses in this area so we had to attack the problem the old-fashioned way–drive around aimlessly until we stumble on it, or give up and try it again next time. We did NOT find the wine ghetto on that trip (but we did on the next one with much more assiduous research). We did, however, take a detour down Santa Rosa Rd (which we didn’t know the name of) through a beautiful valley, part of the Santa Rita Hills AVA. On our way, we encountered what appeared to be a brand new, and open, tasting room… so we went. We’d never heard of Sanford before that moment, but we’re glad our adventure went that way.

Chardonnay grapes growing on the flat land at the Sanford-Benedict Vineyard

Chardonnay grapes growing on the flat land at the Sanford-Benedict Vineyard

On this past trip, honoring the discovery of the winery on our last trip and the several bottles of Sanford Chardonnay we’ve consumed since then, we popped in on our way to a scheduled wine-tasting charity event. Boy are we glad we did!

We came at the winery from the opposite side of Santa Rosa Rd (exiting 101E instead of 246W) and drove through the gorgeous valley in late-afternoon sunlight which–yes it’s cheesy–danced on the grapevines showing their new fall colors. We passed by Mosby and Alma Rosa, making note to come back this way next time, and pulled into the parking lot at Sanford to find only four cars. Sweet!

In we went to the familiar tasting room. We later learned that the beautiful architecture is made from reclaimed Douglas Fir and local adobe hand cut by the vineyard workers themselves. Because it was empty we were served immediately and we shared our first tasting of the day.

Mitch isn’t crazy about Chardonnays in general, but really likes the Sanford Chardonnay (probably because there’s no oak). We both remembered not being crazy about their red wines a couple of years ago, but we know our palates have matured and each vintage is different, so we had open minds as we began the discovery process all over again.

The door to the barrel room

The door to the barrel room

The Sanford Winery Tasting Room does public tours of their winery every Saturday at 12pm and 2pm. We were the only folks around so we took a private tour of the winery with the new tasting room manager’s inaugural tour. If he hadn’t told us, we wouldn’t have known!

It was our first time in the “employees only” area of a winery so it was great fun to see all the wine as it ages, to learn about the equipment and methods of their winemaking, to hear about the investments a winery makes, and just to soak in what daily life might be like if we lived there (one can dream). As our careful tour guide removed the lock and the stellar old-fashioned door “knob” from the West Barrel Room, we knew we were in for a treat. The room requires no HVAC to remain a constant 60-something degrees and walking into the quiet room filled with barrels which each hold 300 bottles of wine was serene.


Where the Chardonnay Ferments

We also saw the different types of equipment to start extracting juice from the grapes, the massive open-topped fermentation tanks, and views of the vineyard which included an explanation of how the Pinot Noir grapes grow up on the hill and the Chardonnay grapes grow in the lower flat areas. There were also, as I somewhat expected, various clones the winemakers are “fooling around with” as they craft their next wines.

The Pinot Noir grapes growing up the hill with the Chardonnay grapes in front

The Pinot Noir grapes growing up the hill with the Chardonnay grapes in front

Of course, let’s not forget about the reason it’s all here looking so luscious… the wines! Here’s a rundown of what we tasted and what we thought about it.

Sunlight shining into the Sanford Winery Tasting Room

Sunlight shining into the Sanford Winery Tasting Room

2007 Sanford Chardonnay, Santa Barbara County, $22 per bottle

What they say: Our 2007 Santa Barbara County Chardonnay comes from four great vineyards. Our estate vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills, La Rinconada and Sanford & Bendict, along with the El Camino Vineyard in Los Alamos and the Bien Nacido Vineyard east of Santa Maria, combine to give this wine aromatic complexity and layers of flavor. The 2007 vintage was low yielding and produced wines of great intensity and structure. This barrel fermented Chardonnay shows all of the exotic tropical fruit and citrus that Santa Barbara is renowned for, along with the minerality that is a signature of wines from the Santa Rita Hills. This full bodied wine has nice acidity to keep it in balance and makes a nice complement to most seafood, poultry, and pasta with lighter sauces.

What Jess says: Apple & oak on the nose, with a smoky, astringent quality to it. It’s initially strong on the front of the palate with a bit of pineapple in the mid-palate. A lingering finish that fades gracefully.

Also known as “The Flower Label” Chardonnay, it’s a fairly large-production wine that can be found at Vons/Pavillions/Safeway/etc. and other stores, too. Santa Monica Seafood retails it for $17 and it goes on sale at the Safeway stores for as low as $14.99. At $14.99 it’s a FANTASTIC Chardonnay.

Buy it at K&L Wines

2006 Sanford La Rinconada Vineyard Chardonnay, Santa Rita Hills, $34 per bottle

What they say: The 2006 La Rinconada Chardonnay comes exclusively from our estate vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills. It is sourced from our two best lbocks (Wente and Clone 15), whole cluster pressed and barrel fermented. With the traditional Burgundian technique of lees stirring and barrel aging, this wine has developed richness and elegance sought after in fine Chardonnay. Intense by balanced, our flagship Chardonnay is bursting with citrus and tropical fruit, with hints of creme brulee.

What Jess says: On the nose: detectable minerality, earthy, smells like a Chardonnay and not like overdone winemaking. In the mouth, light, acidic/bright, and smooth with notes of oak and, believe it or not, that creme brulee.

2006 Sanford La Entrada Chardonnay, $45 per bottle

What they say: A stunning Chardonnay from our most prized block of Clone 15. This intense but balanced barrel fermented wine is called “La Entrada” because it comes from the parcel at the entrance to the Rinconada Vineyard. From its lifted citrus and tropical aromatics, to its rich but well structured palate, this barrel fermented Chardonnay has impressed all who have tasted it.

What Jess says: Yum. I, too, was impressed. A delicate vanilla nose. Smooth and silky mouthfeel with hints of citrus and pineapple. I’d be happy to drink some more of this one.

2007 Sanford Flor de Campo White Blend, $48 per bottle

What they say: The 2007 vintage marks the second bottling of this exotic white wine. Inspired by the great wines of France’s Northern Rhone Valley, this wine from Santa Ynez Valley is called “Flor de Campo” which is Spanish for wildflower. To preserve the exotic spicy floral character of this Roussanne/Viognier blend, we barrel fermented in neutral French Oak barrels. The resulting full-bodied wine offers aromas of peach and nectarine, with hints of jasmine. The full palate is balanced by crisp acid and minerality.

What Jess says: Also blended with less than 1% Chardonnay, these grapes hail from Happy Canyon, happy indeed. The nose was sweet, green apple and honeysuckle for me. It was smooth but tasted heavily of the Viognier. As much as I’m a Rhone nut (or at least a Rhone Ranger Sidekick), I’m notsomuch a fan of the Viognier unless it’s been cut by something heavier or sweeter. In this case, the more delicate Roussane could have used more mmph than the 60%/40% blend gave it… at least for me.

2008 Sanford Pinot Noir Rose – Vin Gris, $18 per bottle

What they say: Our 2008 Vin Gris of Pinot Noir is from the La Rinconada Vineyard and the historic Sanford and Benedict Vineyard. After de-stemming our Pinot Noir, we allow 3-5 hours of contact time before draining off the lightly colored juice for our Vin Gris. This wine is then tank-fermented to dryness before aging in neutral French Oak barrels for 4 months. This wine has inviting aromas of strawberry, rhubarb, and cranberry along with floral notes suggestive of orange blossoms and a hint of white pepper. This dry orse has excellent acidity, which allows it to pair well with a range of foods. Grilled seafood, spicy dishes and most picnic fare would be excellent with this wine.

What Jess says: Nose: a nice smooth rose smell. Mouth, a light “red-fruity” flavor, cranberry, with a full-tongue experience and a good finish. We liked this and found it to be a good value at $18. The problem is that I’m in love with the Beckmen Grenache Rose and we figured we’d stop by there and pick some up on Sunday when we were over that way… except we didn’t go! I said, “Nah, some other time.” What was I thinking??

2007 Sanford Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills, $40 per bottle

What they say: A blend from our estate vineyard, La Rinconada, and the historic Sanford & Benedict Vineyard next door. A mix of vineyard blocks and several different clones give this wine added complexity. This wine is deep violet red in color and is bursting with black cherry and plub, pepper and sage on the nose. The palate delivers dusty berry flavors framed nicely by bright acidity and supple tannins. The wine was allowed to age in French Oak barrels (30% new oak) for 10 months where it gained concentration and picked up hints of vanilla and licorice.

What Jess says: Beautiful and earthy Santa Ynez Valley Pinot on the nose, enticing me to drink it. This is a structured, smooth Pinot Noir, the red fruit is expressive, there’s a little chalkiness on the mid-palate and I detected oak but no vanilla or licorice. We liked this Pinot better than last time but we don’t think it’s worth the release price of $40… yet. Perhaps with some age this wine will mature into something spectacular. You’d have to ask Robert Parker about that :) We’ve seen this at the grocery store at retail price, if it goes on sale for $25 or less I’d pick up a bottle.

Buy it at Wine.com, Buy it at K&L Wines

2007 Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Pinot Noir, $60 per bottle

What they say: Sourced exclusively from this historic vineyard in the esteemed Santa Rita Hills AVA. Planted in 1971 this iconic vineyard consistently produces distinctively superb Pinot Noir. The 2007 wine is deep ruby in color and is loaded with aromas of black cherry and raspberry with hints of clove, cinnamon, and white pepper. The rich palate delivers bright spicy cherry flavors framed nicely by bright acidity and ripe tannins. Aged in French Oak for 11 months where it gained concentration and complexity, this wine will improve in the bottle for 5 to 8 years with proper cellaring.

What Jess says: The nose was deep and earthy, hints of clove for sure. This wine melts over the tongue with cherry, smooth earthy finish, oaky (but not in a bad way). This blog is about value wines because we’re too cheap to buy a $60 wine (in general). We liked the wine, but not enough to pay $60 for it.

Charity Event Tasting: Vino de Suenos

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Wine Tasting Trips | Leave a comment
A charity event raising money for Santa Ynez Valley People Helping People (PHP)

A charity event raising money for Santa Ynez Valley People Helping People (PHP)

We had a trip planned for Santa Ynez Valley this past weekend and I decided to check out LocalWineEvents.com in the Santa Barbara area to see if there was anything going on we’d like to add to our itinerary. Indeed there was! Dean was kind enough to provide free tickets in exchange for our coverage of the event (the FTC requires me to disclose that to you).

Here’s an overview of the event:

Vino de Sueños, “Wine of Dreams,” is a wine brand conceived by the non-profit human services organization, Santa Ynez Valley People Helping People (PHP), and a small group of premium Santa Barbara County vintners. This group wanted to make a difference in the lives of vineyard and farm workers who are at the very heart of the County’s agricultural economy and more specifically, the vineyard and wine businesses. Founding Participant Wineries of Vino de Suenos include Alma Rosa, Buttonwood, Clos Pepe, Feliz Noche, Foxen, Longoria, and Presidio.

The Vino de Sueños wines will be sold in order raise funds to give workers and their families the assistance they need during difficult economic times. PHP will administer the funds to furnish basic needs (food, rent, and utility assistance) and family support services (counseling, youth after school programs, parent education, and scholarships). Services are directed to giving families a hand-up to achieve their dreams of a better life.

When I arrived, the staff was friendly and the crowd was pretty big. There was a beautiful tented set-up with a large catering area and plenty of tables to stop and chat at. Most wineries sent emissaries, and some of them were the famous winemakers themselves. It was heart-warming to see these big names and faces at an event designed to help the communities they, and their workers, live and work in.


About the Wine (General)

Top wineries & winemakers from Santa Ynez Valley were invited to participate and the showing was impressive. Each wine was given a unique bottle with a custom-made piece of artwork adorning it. The original art the labels were based on were available for silent-auction. One piece had the media listed as “wine on paper” and it was evocative of an Old World winery… and unusual. The wines were available for purchase at the event at a little bit of a discount from their normal release prices, and some wines are only available from Vino de Sueños directly.

I’ve now attended a few different types of tasting events and I have to say each has had its own unique flair. I’ve been to a Rhone Rangers event (30+ wineries, very professional vibe), a BevMo! Mega-Tasting event (hundreds of wines, beers, and spirits, mass consumer crowd), a Learn About Wine event (unoaked theme, pretentious but consumer-oriented), and now this Vino de Sueños event (a charity event with a blue-blood feel, despite the presence of rancheros and vaqueros).

I highly recommend tasting events to anyone who wants to learn more about wine or expand their palate quickly. Arrive as early as possible, take notes, and remember to dump most of the wine or you’ll be drunk inside an hour! (Which is fine, if that’s what you’re aiming for… it’s almost inevitable anyway.)

About Each Wine

Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards – Santa Rita Hills

“For over 20 years, my wife Thekla and I have focused on what’s most important to us: sustainable business practices and organic farming. We are deeply committed to the environment and the soulful connection with our employees and the people who enjoy our wine.” says Richard Sanford.

They presented their 2008 Alma Rosa Pinot Gris, Santa Barbara County ($16 per bottle, 1201 cases produced)

What they say: Like one of the models in a Modigliani, lean yet full of curves, our 2008 Pinot Gris is a bit softer and more rounded than the prior vintage. It retains that wonderfully brilliant nose of fresh orchard fruits and a pleasant bitter-almond quality, along with apple-pie like flavors and cleansing acidity that lead us to recommend pairing this wine with Mediterranean-inspired cuisine, or inventive Pacific Rim dishes… Let’s do some lightly-fried or grilled fish in garlic-lime butter with a spicy tropical-fruit salsa…

What Jess says: Produced in the Burgundian style with stainless steel fermentation and neutral oak. No malolactic fermentation. Has a screwcap closure. On the nose I detected grapefruit and pineapple. This was a smooth wine, showing green apple and a bright, but not overly so, acidity. I also detected something that seemed “nutty” to me, but that seems strange.

Au Bon Climat Winery – Santa Maria Valley

au-bon-climat-logo“The Au Bon Climat winery is located on the world-famous Bien Nacido Vineyard, and is owned by winemaker Jim Clendenen. Au Bon Climat was listed on Robert Parker’s Best Wineries of the World in both 1989 and 1990, while Jim Clendenen has been named Winemaker of the Year in 1992 by the Los Angeles Times, and Winemaker of the Year in 2001 by Food and Wine Magazine.”

They presented their 2005 Au Bon Climat Santa Maria Petit Verdot ($32 per bottle)

I was unable to find any information about this wine online and they didn’t send me home with any goodies so that I could reference those materials… so folks, you’ll just be getting my review of this one!

What Jess says: The nose was earthy and bore the scent of many other Santa Maria Valley wines I’ve tasted. It was aged 36 months in oak and reminded me of a Merlot (which isn’t really a compliment coming from me, but they ARE growing on me a little… thank you BevMo!). I’ve only ever had one other pure (or nearly pure) Petit Verdot and it was from Justin Vineyards & Winery in Paso Robles. The Au Bon Climat sample was better.

Buttonwood Farm Winery & Vineyard – Santa Ynez Valley

“Buttonwood’s varietal mix of sauvignon blanc, semillon, marsanne, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and syrah reflects the preferences of owners Betty Williams and her son-in-law, Bret Davenport, for Bordeaux and Rhone style wines. As we expected, they grow perfectly in our warm, eastern Santa Ynez Valley location.”

They presented their 2008 Buttonwood Sauvignon Blanc ($13 per bottle)

What they said: The 2008 Buttonwood Sauvignon Blanc is the perfect melding of our warm Santa Ynez Valley climate, careful cultivation and winemaker know-how. Imagine what sunshine would taste like if you could bottle it and you come close to the bright and tangy flavor of our favorite white wine. Flavors of lemon-lime edged tropical fruit with a creamy core and tart finish offer a rare treat at the end of a warm summer day. A high acid profile makes Sauvignon Blanc the perfect food wine and we like it best with seafood. Try our latest edition with chilled English pea soup served with a dollop of crab salad topped with lemon infused creme fraiche.

What Jess says: The 20% Semillon was a great idea to cut through the acidity of a Sauvignon Blanc from this area. On the nose: bright, grapefruit. In the mouth: Light and buttery. This was my first stop at the event (right next to the door) and my palate was at its freshest. I’m a fan of Sauvignon Blanc from this area (thank you Fiddlehead!) and at $13 a bottle, this is a great value wine.

Cold Heaven Cellars – Santa Maria & Santa Ynez Valleys

“My mission and goal as a winemaker is to illuminate and define Viognier, to elevate its profile and explore its potential through keen observation and copious tasting. I seek to sound the depths of this enigmatic grape, to reveal its secrets and shine a bright light on the extraordinary fruit grown in the cool vineyards of the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valleys of California ‘s Central Coast.” – Morgan Clendenen

Morgan was representing her own wine and was delightful to speak with.

She presented her 2005 Cold Heaven Syrah Santa Barbara County ($30 per bottle). At first I thought it was the “Second Sin” Syrah, but now I’m not so sure. She’s launching a second label (focusing on Sauvignon Blanc) called Strangelove. The order form for the wines says Strangelove Syrah. Regardless, I don’t have the winemakers’ notes for you, and again, you’re stuck with my interpretation (but since I can’t identify the wine, it will make it hard for you to argue with me!)

What Jess says: I found the wine to taste quite a bit like a Pinot Noir from the area. Since this was the sixth or seventh table I tasted at I figured it was just me, but someone else asked Morgan and she said it herself (something to the effect of) “everyone is trying to make their Pinots taste like Syrahs and here I am trying to make a Syrah taste like a Pinot.” If nothing else, it’s a testament to the effect winemaking can have on a grape! The wine was “pre-release” and even though it’d had 2 years in a barrel and 2 years in the bottle, it could have used a little more time to rest… and beef up.

D’Alfonso-Curran Wines – Santa Rita Hills

“D’Alfonso – Curran Wines is the identity for two very successful and celebrated wine makers – Bruno D’Alfonso and Kris Curran. The two together bring decades of knowledge, artistry, experience and accolades to their personal labels – Curran, DiBruno and BADGE. Their wines offer an array of sought-after, limited production wines, each with its own unique characteristics. Grenache Blanc, Pinot Noir, Pinot Grigio, Sangiovese, Syrah and Tempranillo all from locally grown fruit are just some of the varietals offered. The company operates a tasting room located in downtown Solvang and a new winery located in the heart of the Santa Rita Hills AVA on Rancho La Vina.”

They presented their 2006 BADGE Chardonnay, Santa Rita Hills ($30 per bottle)

What they say: I can’t locate any of the winery’s tasting notes on this one.

The person pouring (I’ve now forgotten who it was) told me about their unique “triple finish” which consisted of 1/3 Oak fermentation, 1/3 Malolactic fermentation, 1/3 Stainless Steel fermentation. So I’d expect oaky, buttery, and citrus or tropical fruit.

What Jess says: Smells like pineapple. In the mouth it was bright and buttery, but I lost the oak layer in there. Perhaps what I detected as “Viognier-like” was in fact oak?

Fiddlehead Cellars – Santa Rita Hills, Santa Ynez Valley, and Willamette

“Kathy Joseph established Fiddlehead Cellars to capture the pure essence of the two grape varietals that she loves best – Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. Now in her twentieth vintage

as “Head Fiddle”, Kathy continues to passionately pursue her goal of creating stylistic Sauvignon Blancs and silky, intense Pinot Noirs. Terroir-driven, Fiddlehead’s Sauvignon Blanc wines hail from the stellar eastern-end of the Santa Ynez Valley, while her estate Pinot Noirs showcase the cooler Santa Rita Hills in the western-most part of that transverse valley. And loving the nuances of place, Kathy continues to craft intriguing Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley.”

The opportunity to meet Kathy Joseph was a big one for me personally. Fiddlehead was the first wine club we joined (we joined our second on the same trip as this event) and it was the first time we were blown away by everything we tasted in a tasting room. We’ve enjoyed every shipment of wine we received and were seriously bummed when our financial circumstances didn’t leave room for us to join their Stradivarius Club (small group, library wines) and we were forced to give up our spot on the long waiting list. With every tasting note packet, personal recipe, and enthusiastic email I grow to appreciate Kathy and her passion more and more.

As a side note: Doing what you are most passionate about for a living, or making wine, clearly is the secret to good, healthy living. When you see Kathy in person she doesn’t look like someone who should have 20-something vintages under her belt.

Kathy Joseph herself presented her 2005 Fiddlehead Cellars Seven Twenty Eight Estate Pinot Noir – Fiddlestix Vineyard ($38 per bottle)

What they said: This cuvée struts the beauty of the varietal: classic black cherry fruit, hints of black pepper and an underlying earthy signature; together they express layers of finesse and concentration. Laden with silky, sexy tannins and spot on acidity that ensure vibrancy through to the finish and which predict long life in your cellar. A selection of six clones: Pommard 4 and 5, and Dijon clones 667, 777, 113, and 115, each adding significant layers to this charming wine.

Aged 16 months in our favorite selection of tight-grain French oak (Rousseau, Bel Air, Cadus, Saury, Seguin Moreau, Marcel Cadet) and held an additional year in bottle to allow the pinot charm to shine in all its glory!

What Jess says: I loved the wine. I always do. A special wine, balanced and luxurious in the mouth. A long finish with red fruit that makes you relish the last sip and reach for the next.

Foxen Winery – Santa Maria Valley, Santa Rita Hills, Santa Ynez Valley

“Bill Wathen and Dick Doré have been making wine together since 1985, when they founded Foxen Winery & Vineyard at the historic Rancho Tinaquaic in northern Santa Barbara County.

Since that time, their dedication has remained the same—the creation of very small-production, vineyard-designated wines using a “minimalist” approach to winemaking.”

They presented their 2007 Cuvee Jeanne Marie (GSM – Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre) ($30 per bottle)

What they say: I can’t find any tasting notes on this one. What’s VERY interesting to me though is that they give you every detail about how the wine was made, and don’t tell you anything about what it tastes like. I was told a story by a younger woman at one of the other tables about how the wine is named after her grandmother, and her father (or uncle?) was pouring the Foxen wine. Perhaps this family understands that everyone will taste the wine differently and the art is in the growing of the grapes and making of the wine rather than in the poetry that sells it?

What Jess says: I love GSM. It’s one of my favorite “varietals.” (Like my interpretation of the four food groups: Bread, Cheese, Garlic, and Wine.) On the nose this wine was hearty and smelled of that ever-unidentifiable “purple fruit.” In the mouth it was flavorful but a little “thin.” I noted that it started to fill out with more and more sips. I’d bet this would be great in 6-months to a year… but not at $30.

Hartley Ostini Hitching Post Winery – Santa Barbara County

“Frank and Gray believe that great wines are made in the vineyard. Their winemaking philosophy is that they are caretakers who guide the wine into the bottle. As the wine matures it is simply left to gently age in the barrel. This minimalist approach allows Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post wines to reflect the character of the vineyard and the vintage, preserving the essence of the grape for you to enjoy when you open the bottle.”

Frank Ostini himself presented a special blend of 2007 Santa Maria Pinot Noir & 2007 Highliner Pinot Noir ($25 per bottle)

Frank was charming and gracious. He reminded me of one of my friends’ Dad when I was a kid. It was nice to meet the man who would be responsible for my dinner that night (a separate review of my experience tasting Hitching Post wines will be available shortly). Since this was a blend made especially for this event (and probably some private labeling venture), there aren’t any winery tasting notes.

What Jess says: Nose was earthy and otherwise like a local Pinot Noir. It was a little thin, even for Pinot. It was aged 3 months in the bottle, but not scheduled for release until the Spring. And it could use the extra few months.

Kalyra Winery – Santa Ynez Valley

“With a strong conviction of creating food compatible wines and simply not making the same wines as everybody else, the Kalyra wine portfolio is as interesting as it is varied.
Winemaker Mike Brown holds true to the new world philosophy that a wine should be a reflection of the grape as well as the unique characteristics of where it is grown.”

They presented their 2005 Late Harvest Riesling ($27 per bottle)

What they say: Tasting notes from Kalyra are MIA, but that’s okay. You’ve got me!

What Jess says: Made in the “Ice Wine” style (properly called Eiswein), I was impressed. My husband is from Ontario and I always stare at the little Ice Wine bottles at the LCBO and wonder why anyone makes wine that sweet. You expect Ice Wine from the northern grape-growing regions as it can be damn cold early in the year (I remember from my Chicago-dwelling days), but it’s pretty unusual to find it in Southern California (the presenter pointed out that you can freeze anything). Honestly, I don’t like sweet wine and the only Rieslings I like are the dry ones. So let’s just say I was more than a little surprised to enjoy this Late Harvest Riesling. It was very sweet, but subtle, well-balanced and layered. I detected pineapple and other tropical fruit that I would expect from grapes grown in this area. If you like sweeter wines, I’d chase this one down.

Makor Wines – Bien Nacido Vineyards, Santa Rita Hills

“If you look at the Au Bon Climat triangular labels, a line near the bottom says “Produced and bottled by Jim Clendenen, Mind Behind.” And while Clendenen is the sole provocateur of the label, when he’s on the road promoting Au Bon Climat and Santa Barbara County, the daily winery tasks

fall to Jim Adelman, production winemaker at the joint Au Bon Climat/Qupé facility, located on the Bien Nacido Vineyard property. Effectively, he’s the mind behind the mind behind!

Adelman makes a small amount of wine under his Makor label, though it’s usually his own spin on something neither producer makes.” (Source: Appellation America)

Jim couldn’t be there that day and the event kindly provided a volunteer to pour this wine. She didn’t know much about it other than the fact that it was a 2007 Merlot from Santa Maria ($14 per bottle). I’m not a Merlot fan, so bear with me.

What Jess says: The nose was peppery (a good start!). It was a well-balanced wine with a nice finish, but it had that grapey thing going on that I don’t like about Merlot wines in general. If anybody knows why Merlot tastes grapey to me, please let me know! (That’s if you’re even still reading at this point.)

Richard Longoria Wines – Santa Barbara County

“My belief that the Santa Barbara wine region would someday produce world class wines has come true,” Rick states, “and my dream of having my own winery has also come true.”

Longoria wines are handcrafted in very small quantities ranging from 50 cases to 500 cases. Total production at this time is about 3,500 cases.”

They presented their 2007 Syrah Cuvee blended specifically for this event ($25 per bottle).

Rick Longoria created this special blend of Syrah from two of the top Syrah vineyards in Santa Barbara County, Alisos and Clover Creek. The blend is 71% Alisos Syrah, 24% Clover Creek Syrah, and 5% Viognier. The resultant wine is a delicious, complex blend that is enjoyable now but will also benefit from two to three years of cellaring.

What Jess says: The nose was smoky and chocolatey. This is a gentle, unusual Syrah. Thin and light, and Pinot Noir-like.

Vozelgang Vineyard – Santa Ynez Valley

Vogelzang Vineyard team is proud to have winemaker Robbie Meyer, former assistant winemaker at Peter Michael and winemaker for Lewis Wines. Over the last year, Robbie and the Coastal Vineyard Care team have worked together to fine-tune the growing of our Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc varietals in preparation for our coming estate wines.”

They presented their 2008 Sauvignon Blanc featured in the June 17th Wine Spectator Insider and rated 94 points ($25 per bottle).

What Jess says: The nose is like a Chardonnay to me. The wine was bright with pineapple, and acidic, with a little butteriness… despite the fact that there was no malolactic fermentation used for this wine. A very unique Sauvignon Blanc that other event-goers couldn’t get enough of.

Bordeaux Wines That Won’t Break The Bank

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Wine Tasting Trips | 2 Comments

Arianna & Jess tasted Bordeaux wines for the first time at the BevMo 100th Store Mega-Tasting in Rolling Hills Estates. At this type of event (a large mixed-beverage tasting at a “big box” store) it’s unusual to encounter a real wine experience. But to BevMo’s credit they lined up 100 2007 Bordeaux’s for tasting, and brought in the owners from many of the wineries to introduce the BevMo customer to Old World winemaking and wine-drinking. It seemed a strange juxtaposition (elegant wines poured by elegant French people in a SoCal parking lot), but in the end, we tasted a wide spectrum of 2007 Bordeaux wines across a broad price range and now we feel a little less intimidated by French wine in general and by Bordeaux specifically.

Jessyca’s ignorance of wines from outside of California has been discussed before, so the following revelations should not be interpreted as wine snobbery, but rather sharing what she learned…

1. Bordeaux is not a grape. While most people who drink wine know this, Jessyca did not. Or at least not officially. Grapes grown in the Bordeaux wine region of France are predominantly Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. Side note: Similarly, Chateau Neuf-du-Pape is not a winery, but also a wine region in France. Not all Chateau Neuf-du-Pape wines are worth the reputation.

2. They like to mix their grapes in Bordeaux. Most Bordeaux wines that we tasted were primarily Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon, but nearly all were blends of 3 or four different varietals.

3. French people aren’t all snobby. The manager at BevMo found it important to tell us how unusual and special it is that this level of wine proprietors would be present at such an event, much less doing the pouring. I found the proprietors to be charming, patient, and knowledgeable. One even spent several minutes teaching Jess how to pronounce Pouilly-Fuisse and Pauillac. They were eager to expose the American consumers to their wines and had much better attitudes about the heat and crowds than the other winery owners present at the event.

World famous for some of the oldest and highest regarded wines on the planet, Bordeaux wines are full-bodied, rich and delicious. The wines we listed here are a great value and will age beautifully for the next 5 – 10+ years.

2007 Chateau La Chenade, Lalande de Pomerol. $16 – $20

Bright, dark red. This wine smells of strawberry and is a little firm on tannin. This is a value price for a wine from the Bordeaux region, and while rich and delicious, it tastes “younger” and “greener” than some of the others on this list. However, La Chenade is a good place to start and will improve (although not a ton), by aging.

Drink by 2015

70% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc.

Jessyca really enjoyed this wine and after tasting 12 different Bordeaux wines, feels this one in particular is of good value. It also says something interesting about the power of winemaking because she’s not a fan of Merlot.

2007 Chateau Chasse-Spleen, Moulis-en-Médoc. $25 – $35

Although the property’s history dates back to 1560, it is likely that the vines from which these grapes descended are much, much older. The vineyard is widely held in high esteem, despite being one of the smallest producers in the area.

Deep red. Tastes of dark fruit, minerals and chocolate. This is an excellent wine at an excellent price. Drink now until 2025.

73% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and 7% Petit Verdot.

2007 Chateau d’Issan, Margaux Bordeaux. $35 – $45

Dating from the 15th century (and possibly even the 12th), Château d’Issan is located in Margaux, 30 minutes’ drive from Bordeaux. The chateau is still surrounded by a moat, and is frequently described as the most romantic in the Medoc appellation.

Mild at first with a strong finish, this lighter-colored red is fruity on the nose, with a nice, full structure and hints of tobacco.

70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot.

2007 Brane Cantenac, 2nd Grand Cru Classé, Margaux. $35 – $50

A Bordeaux blend middleweight, this is a softer, more “feminine” wine. Well crafted, earthy, with tastes of chocolate, strawberries, and raspberries. This isn’t one to age for long, but it’s an excellent value.

As a less robust wine, this might be a good choice for those who are just beginning to dabble in Bordeaux.

Drink now until 2015.

53% Cabernet Sauvignon, 39% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc.

Another of Jess’ favorites from the group–this was a smooth, flavorful wine that was pleasant in the mouth and had a long, enjoyable finish.

Duluc Ducru Dulicious

Duluc Ducru Dulicious

Chateau Branaire Duluc-Ducru, St. Julien. $40 – $55

Oak-y, earthy, fruity and balanced. Nicely integrated tannins. Hints of mocha, blackberries and violets. 2007 was not a great year for the region, but this shows a delicious fruitiness for the vintage. Very nice finish. This one is a good choice for the holidays, and should definitely be a crowd pleaser. Drink now until 2017.

63% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot, 3% Cabernet Franc.

At GrapeSmart we like to talk about how you can get more value out of your wine purchases, but sometimes we want to share wine experiences that defy the “Under $25” ethos and extend into the “If I had a million dollars” dreamscape…

The Tale of the Two Longueville Wineries – And Bordeaux Futures
(by Jessyca)

Those in-the-know went straight for the uber-expensive Bordeaux wines (and in retrospect, we should have done this, too) because these were only futures not yet available for purchase.

All day long people were talking of terroir, a concept that has much deeper meaning in France than it does in California. When the following two wines were poured, an explanation included that these two wineries are right across the street from one another so that they should have much in common with one another, and also, the particular area of Longueville in Pauillac is desirable, so the wines are higher-priced.

The 2007 Chateau Pichon Lalande ($100 – $120) and the 2007 Chateau Pichon Baron ($90 – $115) could not have been more different. The Lalande is 58% Cabernet Sauvignon, 36% Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot, and 2% Cabernet Franc. Easily one of the best wines I’ve ever tasted, smooth and luscious. It was easy to see what winemakers the world over are trying to achieve when I had the opportunity to taste such deliciousness. The Baron on the other hand, 74% Cabernet Sauvignon and 26% Merlot, was more acidic and less special. It felt extraordinarily overpriced, especially in comparison to the Lalande.

This experience really solidified for me the importance of winemaking in the whole process, and rather downplayed the terroir impact. These wines shared little other than their name and their price tag. Ultimately only you can say if a wine is good or bad for you. You just have to try a lot to know what you like and what you don’t.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that K&L Merchants has a MUCH better price on these two wines than BevMo is offering which suggests that perhaps when you want premium wines, it still pays to shop around before you buy.

An Introduction to LAW

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Wine Tasting Trips | Comments Off on An Introduction to LAW
A lovely afternoon at Learn About Wine

A lovely afternoon at Learn About Wine

Over the weekend I had the great pleasure of attending a class at Learn About Wine, with Ian Blackburn.

Despite being on what was, no doubt, the very worst date in human history, I had an absolutely fantastic time. The class was called Palate Builder, and was a 2.0 level class. Although marketed as slightly above entry level, I think that almost anyone could gain a great deal from the workshop. Except my date. But I’m not sure that he was human

Allow me to rephrase: Although marketed as slightly above entry level, I think that almost anyone – unless a robot, alien, fungal life form or truly consummate jackass – could gain a great deal from the workshop.

We started with a flight of three whites and access to a kit called ” target=”_blank”>Le Nez

“>Le Nez Du Vin Master Kit

Le Nez Du Vin Master Kit

du Vin (“The Nose of Wine”). This Master-level 54-piece aroma kit is designed to help tasters tease out the individual scents that form the total bouquet of the wine in their hand. So, holding a glass of ” target=”_blank”>2006 Mastroberardino, Lacryma Christi, Del Vesuvio (Italy), I sniffed pure scents from tiny vials of lees, grapefruit, fig, Muscat and pear. Incredible. Having access to the pure scent made detecting the mingled ones so much easier.

My date complained that the only thing he could detect was that the air conditioning was too strong.

When we returned to our tables, those of us who were actual living, breathing people compared what we had just smelled and tasted to the other whites waiting for us at our seats. A 2006 Kenwood Reserve Sauvignon Blanc (Sonoma), and an absolutely delicious 2008 Buttonwood “Zingy” Sauvignon Blanc (Santa Ynez Valley). True to form, my favorite was the cheapest one – the “Zingy.” I found it citrus-y and (as the name implies) zingy and zippy and refreshing.


2006 Kenwood Reserve Sauvignon Blanc – yum!

It is a little surprising that I preferred the youngest wine, as usually the younger the wine, the stronger the scent of alcohol. I tend to get pretty turned off by that, although I didn’t feel that the Buttonwood had an overpowering alcohol presence at all.

However, as I learned at the class, a strong smell of alcohol does not only come from the age of the wine. “New World” wines, such as US, Australian and South American varietals tend to be more alcoholic than “Old World” (European) wines, which grow in cooler climates and tend to be more acidic. For people who are beginning to feel their way through the wine world, this is a helpful bit of information: Once one begins to tease out their preferences, knowing certain details about geography can help make wine selection easier – and more interesting!

Our next flight was a selection of three Chardonnays: 2006 Badge, Rancho Santa Rosa (Santa Rita Hills); 2004 Domaine Emilian Gillet, Quintaine, Vire-Clesse (Burgundy) and 2007 Bighorn Cellars, “Camelback Vineyard,” (Carneros). I have to say that none of these really turned my crank. The Domaine Emilian Gillet and Bighorn Cellars were buttery and complex oak-y and ok. My favorite was the Bighorn Cellars; I had trouble drinking the Badge because it was just too tart.

Interestingly, it turns out that “Carneros” is basically another way to say “Napa.” Now you know…

It takes much longer to ferment Chardonnay than Sauvignon Blanc, so Sauvignon Blanc is often more cost-effective and allows wineries to turn a profit while aging their Chardonnay. Sauvignon Blanc never touches oak barrels, so it lacks that buttery, oak-y flavor common with Chardonnay. It tends to be crisper and lighter than Chardonnay.

My date said that the Chardonnays were better than the Sauvignon Blancs, but he couldn’t taste a difference between any of the three pours in front of him. Then he began talking about how his father and grandfather bottle wine in Seattle. The women across the table from us smiled and nodded. Sometimes it’s possible to actually read someone’s mind. I think that happened here, but I can’t reprint what one woman was thinking, on account of this being a family wine blog.

Our next flight was called “Crazy Reds” and consisted of a Zinfandel, a

Lake Sonoma Winery Dry Creek Zinfandel

Lake Sonoma Winery Dry Creek Zinfandel

Shiraz and an Italian red – Rosso di Montepulciano. While normally Zinfandel is one of my favorites, in this flight I actually preferred the Shiraz, a 2004 Emu Wine Company from Frankland River, Australia. All three of these were complex and earthy, but the Zinfandel – from Lake Sonoma Winery, Dry Creek Valley (2005), was a little spicier than I prefer. The website describes it this way:

“A solid structured wine, with firm tannins and integrated oak nuances. This Zinfandel is balanced with forward fruit flavors of blackberry and plum, and accompanied by a hint of black pepper spice.”

The Italian – a 2007 Avignonesi – was good too, although a little thin. It had a lovely finish, and would make a nice table wine. Especially at the $15 price point.

I was particularly excited about the next flight – a taste of three different Pinot Noirs. Along with Zin, Pinot is a particular favorite, and one of these Pinots happened to be from Cakebread Cellars, a winery I have heard a great deal about, but have never had the opportunity to try. The one in this tasting – a 2005 Pinot – was actually a little too oak-y for me. I expected it to be fruitier, since Cakebread is located in Carneros/Napa and wines from this region tend to be jammy and rich with ripe fruit. I just, personally didn’t feel that this one was.

The other Pinots in the flight were a 2006 Domaine Henri Delagrange, Volnay, Vielles Vinges (Burgundy), which I thought was pure fruity deliciousness; and a 2006 Margerum Wine Company from Santa Barbara County. That was quite nice, as well. I wish I had better descriptions of these wines, especially because – respectively – they cost approximately $50, $40 and $30 per bottle – obviously good stuff – but by this point I was already pretty drunk. Although I can point out that, once again, I preferred the wines with the cheaper price tag.

…And speaking of my preference for cheap: At this point my date was bemoaning the fact that we were not at a Scotch tasting. Everyone was ignoring him.

Chateau Pipeau Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2006

Chateau Pipeau Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2006

The final flight was all Cabernet. There was a ” target=”_blank”>2003 Chateau Pipeau, Saint Emilion Grand Cru (Bordeaux), a 2006 Poveriano Cabernet Franc (Italy), and a ” target=”_blank”>2005 Viader, “Dare,” Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley).

As part of this class, we were asked to break into teams to attempt to match the wines in each glass with the name, age and region on a paper in front of us. Using what we had been taught about the nose, palette, acidity and alcohol content of wines across the world, we were instructed to dissect and discuss each taste in order to identify what we were drinking.

Another important clue at our disposal were the colors of each pour. The older a wine, the browner it becomes. White wines turn golden, red wines become a little more dingy. While it is easier to see the richness of whites, obviously reds are a little more difficult because of their characteristic deep red or purple. The best way, therefore, to look for that browning effect is to hold your glass against a white backdrop. Younger reds will appear red or purple all the way to the edges, but the periphery of an older red will look almost dirty brown against the white.

This trick came in handy by the end of the class, since everything I drank was magically delicious and I was no more able to differentiate the taste of stewed plums and cherries than I was able to sing opera. I was told that the Poveriano had hints of lead. Maybe. I overheard Ian Blackburn say something about Darth Vader in describing the beautiful darkness of the Viader “Dare.” I know that the Chateau Pipeau runs about $40 a bottle in stores.

I also know that this was one of my best wine experiences to date, and that when I return – which I will – I’m going to make sure my date isn’t a sour grape.