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.


Getting Better at Blind Tastings

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Arianna's Wine Tasting Notes | 5 Comments

I’m going to let you in on a deep, dark secret – one that has been burning inside the most hidden recesses of my soul: I can’t identify different red wines, based on taste alone.

Yeah, I know. And sometimes I leave the dirty dishes in the sink overnight, too. Sue me.

But this secret bothers me and I have vowed to do better, so the other night I made a move to change my life. I drove over to BottleRock – Culver City, and told my-favorite-waiter-who-never-gives-me-discounts-even-when-I-flirt-like-a-crazy-girl, Byron, to line up some reds and let me puzzle through their mysteries. I also ordered a grilled cheese sandwich.

Cute little British Byron said he’d help me out and help me out he did! After disappearing for a few minutes, he returned to my table with four glasses containing two-ounce pours, and lined them up on a diagonal. Byron gave me instructions on the order in which to try each taste, and then bounced merrily away like some benevolent spirits pixie, tending to the thirsty masses.

Out came my notebook and down the hatch went the first wine.

The strong blast of alcohol heat clued me in that what I was drinking was young. The nose contained lots of delicious

Taste test

Taste test

plum and raspberry and cherry. It tasted of rich, ripe red fruit but felt a little oily. It had a medium body and a short finish. I thought it was a Cabernet.

My next taste smelled like a combination of dill, fennel and cherry – but was very pleasant, despite the somewhat odd-sounding mix. On the palate this wine was floral and herbaceous and really lovely, with definite strawberry notes and high – but not overwhelming – acid. It was a little thin, but ended up being my second-favorite pour. I noted that this wine was probably a Shiraz.

Wine number three was big and jammy. It smelled and tasted like cough syrup, but not in a super sweet way. Again, I picked up some dill on the nose, but on the palate it was mostly cherry. This pour was huge and hot, but contained smooth tannins. “I’m picking up tannins,” thought I, “so this is probably a Cab!” I decided I had been wrong about the first wine and crossed the varietal off my notes. I told you I have no idea what I’m doing.

The final pour had a nose of plum, a little hay and a bit of petrol, so when I tasted it, I was incredibly surprised at how smooth and delicious it was. This wine was massive, with a silky mouthfeel and flavors of delicious plum. It was a little hot, but all of these wines seemed to need age or decanting. This was another favorite. I decided it was a Pinot Noir, because I like making stuff up.

Wine consumed, sandwich finished, Bryan sprang back to my table and took a look at my notes. To his credit, he didn’t laugh at me at all – not even once – which is why I love him, even though I always have to pay full price.

MacMurray Pinot Noir

MacMurray Pinot Noir

The first wine, the one jotted in my notes as Cab Sav (?) turned out to be Pinot Noir – a 2007 MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir (about $17 per bottle) from the Central Coast of California, in fact. Duh. (Super delicious)

My second tasting was not a Shiraz, as I had thought, but a Zinfandel – a 2006 Puccioni Zin from the Dry Creek Valley, in Sonoma County, California ($28). I love Zinfandel; it’s one of my favorite varietals. And apparently I can’t tell a Zinfandel from a hole in the ground. Or from a Shiraz. Man, I’ve got some catching up to do.

Wine three – the one I so wisely guessed was a Cabernet based on the tannins – was a 2005 Robert Keenan Winery Merlot (about $35 per bottle). A big Merlot, mind you, but still not Cab.

Keenan Merlot

Keenan Merlot

Finally, wine four was a 2006 Josh Cellars Amber Knolls Cabernet Sauvignon, from Napa Valley (about $15 a bottle). If you know anything about wine, you know that Cabernet Sauvignon is not really the same as Pinot Noir. Oops.

So how did I get all of these wrong? More important, what should I remember for next time?

Let’s start with Pinot Noir:

Pinots tend to be lighter in body, but are often complex and aromatic. New World Pinot Noir is more fruit-driven than Old World Pinot Noir, but I find that this is – in general – a given for all New World vs Old World wines. Pinot also possesses a more earthy character, often containing notes of mushroom/truffle, smoke, spice, tea or floral perfume. I only picked up on the heavy fruit in my Pinot pour, which pinned this as a New World wine. In my defense, I did register its lighter body, too, but I didn’t sense a trace of earthiness. But maybe that’s my bad.


Zinfandel grapes


Because of the huge variation in alcohol from one Zin to another (anywhere from 13% to over 18%), this wine presents a very diverse flavor profile. The term “jammy” is pretty popular as a description, since Zinfandel tends to possess big, concentrated blackberry, boysenberry, raspberry and/or black cherry fruits. But often woven within the chewy flavors are hints of black pepper, clove, anise and herbs. The more alcohol, the bigger and more concentrated the Zin. These are the “monster Zinfandels” you may have heard about. However, these 16%+ alcohol heavy hitters lack balance and acidity, and therefore don’t pair well with food. In the taste that I tried at BottleRock, I detected some of the herbs in the wine. Also, this must have been a lower alcohol Zin because I didn’t get drunk found the pour to be thin and high in acid.

By contrast…


Syrah/Shiraz grapes

Syrah/Shiraz grapes

Are big, bold, bad (in a good way) motor scooters. Despite having two different names, these are actually the same grape. It’s also known as Hermitage, but that name is a protected French designation (like Champagne). Australian and South African producers call the wine Shiraz. If it comes from France, the United States, Argentina or Chile, it’s labeled Syrah.

These wines display firm, smooth tannins, and are medium-to full-bodied. Huge black cherry, blackberry and plum fruits are common, but so are more exotic notes of bell pepper, black pepper, spices, licorice, lavender, chocolate, vanilla bean, smoked meats and musk. If you remember, I found the wine I described as Shiraz to be herbaceous (not spicy) and thin. See where I went wrong?

Merlot grapes

Merlot grapes


Merlot can be soft and mellow or big and bold. Obviously, the tasting notes will be different, depending on the heft of the wine.

In general, Merlot presents with fruit-forward black fruits like blackberry and plum and blueberry. It can also contain cherry and currant. It is also common to pick up floral flavors and stronger notes like cocoa, black pepper, clove, caramel, bay leaf, green peppercorn, green olive or bell pepper. With a bigger Merlot, you might find yourself chewing through smoke, tar, coffee, leather, cedar or cigar box. Milder Merlot will be more floral, with toasty tastes of vanilla and coconut and sweet wood. It is also worth mentioning that, although usually on the softer side, Merlot can be tannic – especially bigger Merlot. This might be why I got my pour confused with Cab Sav.

Cabernet Sauvignon:

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes

“The noblest of all grapes,” “the king of red wine grapes,” the darling of collectors and connoisseurs, Cabernet Sauvignon contains the most tannins of any other wine – love it or hate it – which makes this the best wine around for aging. Cabs can present a similar set of flavors as Merlot, although Cab Sav is not as sweet and soft as Sideways-maligned Merlot. Cabernet Sauvignon ranges from medium-to full-bodied and the tannins support all that plummy, berry fruit. Depending on the way it’s aged, Cabernet Sauvignon can also be rich, warm and spicy on the palate, with notes of vanilla or tobacco, warm spice and sometimes leather, toast or tar. Some fancy folks talk of pyrazine, which is a green pepper or sometimes asparagus-like flavor imparted from under-ripe grapes. This is not a wine fault, and is often attributed to growing influences.

The fact that I thought this pour was a Pinot is proof that I need to drink more.

Maybe I’ll do this with another blind tasting at BottleRock and a full glass of the MacMurray Pinot Noir to start.

Orvieto, Vinho Verde and Pinot Blanc – Oh Dear…

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Arianna's Wine Tasting Notes | Leave a comment

wine_corkI recently had the pleasure of trying several types of wine that – prior to my drinking them – I had never even heard of before. They were an Orvieto from Italy, Vinho Verde (a slightly effervescent wine) from Portugal and Pinot Blanc from Austria and the Alsace region in France.

Orvieto is a Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) located in Umbria and Lazio, Italy, centered specifically around the commune of Orvieto. Wine has been made here since the Medieval days of yore, although the actual wine making has changed a bit; while Orvieto whites were once known for their golden sweetness, now similar sweet wines are only produced in small quantities, and the majority of whites are made dry and delicious.

Most Orvieto whites are crafted from a blend consisting primarily of Grechetto and Trebbiano grapes (often called Procanico in this area, and referred to as Ugni Blanc, St. Émilion, Thalia and White Hermitage in other parts of the world). Eight blended red varietals are sold under the Rosso Orvietano DOC.

The beautiful Italian town of Orvieto

The beautiful Italian town of Orvieto

The Orvieto I tried – a 2008 Palazzone Umbria Dubini Bianco (try saying that ten times fast) – is comprised of all five of the standard varietals from this Italian region: Procanico, Grechetto, Verdello, Malvasia and Drupeggio.

Palazzone Umbria Dubini Bianco, as you might have guessed from the name, is a white wine. In the glass, it has the color of light golden sunlight and a nose of dried honey, apricot, pineapple and hay. The consistency is almost creamy; it’s smooth and somewhat thick. It has a lovely balance and flavor of apples and honey and stone fruit. Not sweet, but not overly sharp and acidic, either – even though this wine is aged in steel tanks. And at around $15 a bottle, it isn’t just the color that seems like sunshine in a glass.

Vinho Verde is my most exciting new alcoholic discovery, next to Jess’ La Finca Chardonnay find and adult Arnold Palmers. Vinho Verde, or “green wine,” is a popular Portuguese wine, from the Minho region in the north – a rainy and protected designation of origin (in Portuguese: Denominação de Origem Controlada (DOC)). The name doesn’t refer to its color, but rather its youthfulness: Vinho Verde is best enjoyed within a year of bottling.

Green, green wine...stay close to me...

Green, green wine…stay close to me…

While available in both white and red varietals, white is exported far more than red and is rumored to be the tastier of the two (although not, perhaps, for the Portuguese, who tend to drink more of the red stuff). For the purposes of this piece, I will be referring to white Verde.

Although these wines do not qualify as sparkling or even semi-sparkling, they do contain a lovely, light effervescence. The Portuguese actually play this up by pouring one’s glass of Vinho Verde from a dramatic height. This sets all those tiny bubbles to frothing, and enhances the overall experience of the drink. But even poured from a more normal altitude, it’s still super yum.

Vinho Verde is less alcoholic than most of the wines we’re used to here. The most potent ones, made from the Alvarinho grape, top out at 11% alcohol by volume. This makes Vinho Verde great for lunch and picnics and not people who’re looking to get totally wasted – although, especially in the hot summer sun – this wine can pack a more powerful punch than you might expect.

Vinho Verde is light and crisp and refreshing and cheap. There is great stuff to be had between $5 and $10, although some go all the way to $20. I just finished a bottle of Trajarinho Vinho Verde, a blend of Trajadura and Alvarinho grapes, for about $10. It was the color of light straw with a nose of green apple and honeysuckle and peach. In the mouth it was fruity and lively and magically delicious, with flavors of honey and peach and citrus and green apple and the slightest touch of yeast. It bears repeating that Vinho Verde should not be cellared – but at these prices it’s worth it to drink up!

Pinot Blanc, like its fiery cousin, Pinot Noir (genetically mutated sibling, actually), is mysterious, seductive and – apparently – kind of hard to get to know.

Not Chardonnay

Not Chardonnay

Pinot Noir is genetically unstable, and sometimes a vine will produce all black fruit, but for one cane that grows all white. These freakish grapes (which are grown in their own right) are used to make still Pinot Blanc and bubbly Cremant d’Alsace in France (although buying a bottle of “Pinot Blanc” does not necessarily mean you’re getting Pinot Blanc if it comes from the Alsace AOC (speaking of freakish…). Pinot Blanc from that region only means it was made from Pinot varieties).

The most full-bodied and well-known Pinot Blanc wines (whether you’re looking for Pinot Blanc or “Pinot Blanc”) hail from Alsace. Sometimes Pinot Blanc grapes are used in the making of Champagne, although in the Champagne region, Pinot Blanc is usually called Blanc Vrai. Pinot Blanc is most widely grown in Italy, where it is known as Pinot Bianco; it is also grown abundantly in Slovenia and Croatia, where it’s called Beli Pinot. In the United States, what we tend to label Pinot Blanc is actually a variety called Melon de Bourgogne or Muscadet, but looks a lot like Chardonnay on the vine.

I’ll give you a minute to catch up.

Actually don’t bother, let’s just get right to the tastings!

Hop on over to Tasca and try a glass

Hop on over to Tasca and try a glass

I first tried Pinot Blanc while at Tasca wine bar with my friend, Jordana. It was her pour, and she picked a good one: Light straw color in the glass, with a lively nose and taste of green apple and a little citrus. An almost effervescent crispness. It was delicious, refreshing and – frankly – quite a surprise! Great balance and a nice, firm body. Went incredibly well with our ridiculously flavorful braised short ribs with spinach and goat cheese agnolotti with brown butter and sage sauce, and Tasca’s succulent wild mushroom linguine (with five types of mushrooms!) that made both of us sigh with pure contentment.

To recreate the joy of that experience, I went straight away to a local wine shop to pick up a bottle of my very own.

Much to my significant disappointment, they did not carry the 2008 Hopler Pinot Blanc from Burgenland, Austria. Instead they sold me a 2006 Domaine Stirn Pinot Blanc, from the Alsace AOC (and what did we learn about Pinot Blanc from the Alsace AOC, kids? Right. Could be any ol’ Pinot.) It was Pin-ew, in fact. Not impressed. I found it thicker and sweeter than the light, crisp Hopler. A bit flabby, without a lot of character. I guess one could describe it as the Billy Baldwin of beverages…


Whatever your taste or interest in adventure, I encourage you to try something new in 2010. In fact, I’d recommend you do it with an open heart and a glass of Vinho Verde.


The name does not refer to the color of the wine,

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, 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.

A Weekend Full of Great Wine & Friends

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Wines from the Grocery Store | Comments Off on A Weekend Full of Great Wine & Friends

This past weekend my husband and I flitted off to San Diego to visit some friends and chill out. In addition to excellent company and excellent food, it was a fun wine weekend, too.

Wine #1: 2006 Beringer Napa Chardonnay

2005 Beringer Napa Valley Chardonnay

2005 Beringer Napa Valley Chardonnay

As a pre-dinner diversion, our friends Greg & Celine had us over for snacks and a glass of wine before heading out. They served us homemade dips (a delicious Greek yogurt dip with herbs in it and a yummy parmesan-artichoke dip) with pita chips and edamame. They served it to us with (and here's an adjective I never thought I'd use to describe a Beringer wine) Napa Valley Chardonnay. It was crisp, a little oaky, and had hints of green fruit. A well-structured, enjoyable white wine for $10-13 per bottle.

Wine #2: 2007 Alexander Valley Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon

2007 Alexander Valley Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon

2007 Alexander Valley Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon

Greg & Celine brought us to their friends' new restaurant in Del Mar, California called Zel's. The patio was lovely, the food (mine at least) was excellent, and the service was an adventure. Greg insisted that since I have a wine blog I needed to choose the wine for the table. Unusually, there was a choice to be made because Zel's has a great wine list and really great bottle prices on the wine. I asked around and everyone liked Cabernet, so I chose the Alexander Valley Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon. You've heard me say before that you can't go wrong with a Cab from Alexander Valley and this gem was no exception. A delicious Cab typical of Alexander Valley, it carried us gracefully through mussels & french fries, warm spinach salad, sea bass with mushroom risotto, steak, pork shoulder, and a serrano ham woodfired pizza. We happily ordered 2 bottles during dinner and not only would I go back to this restaurant (a rare compliment from me) I would buy this wine at twice it's normal price of $14-17 per bottle.

Wine #3: 2005 Clos du Bois North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon

2005 Clos du Bois Cabernet Sauvignon North Coast

2005 Clos du Bois Cabernet Sauvignon North Coast

In the afternoon, I took my friend Gary shopping at Walmart. There are so many parts of that sentence which sound strange to me, but the strangest of all is that I voluntarily went into a Walmart (stranger still I spent money while I was there… on wine!). While we were wandering the aisles, I discovered they sell wine. In fact, I picked up a couple bottles of the Bonterra Organic & Biodynamic Chardonnay for $6 which is a STEAL. While perusing the shelf I saw the 2005 Clos du Bois North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon and opted to pass. Boy was that dumb. Later that afternoon, while sitting around playing games and drinking (that's what Sunday afternoons are for, right?) we opened a bottle that Gary already had at his place… and it was better than I've come to expect from Clos du Bois which can be SO hit-or-miss. (Example: I love their Pinot Grigio but hate their Pinot Noir.) This Cabernet was not of the same exceptional quality as the one from the night before, but nonetheless, when you're looking for value in your limited wine budget, this wine will make you think you spent more than you did for your $12-15 per bottle.

Wine #4: 2006 Domaine Chandon Pinot Noir Carneros

2006 Domain Chandon Pinot Noir Carneros

2006 Domain Chandon Pinot Noir Carneros

When we made it to our final dinner of the weekend, we were ready to keep the good times rolling, so we ordered another bottle of wine. Well, I guess we technically ordered two bottles of wine. The first one was a Zolo Malbec… a wine I love! Or thought I did. I in fact love the Zolo Gaucho Select Malbec which I bought at BevMo! (which is, near as I can tell, a Reserve wine). They also bottle a lesser-version of it without the Gaucho Select, and I can tell you it's not as good as the Gaucho Select. So, I sent it back. Instead we ordered the 2006 Domaine Chandon Pinot Noir Carneros because Mitch loves Pinot and we were all eating dinners that would go nicely with a Pinot. Lately I've felt like every Pinot Noir I taste is overwhelmingly cherry or tastes like water even though it looks like wine. Finally that streak has been broken but I don't have a new Pinot to add to my shopping list when I want a wine in the $20-25 range because I don't think it was worth that much. More like $15-18 per bottle.

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.

Pourtal, Santa Monica

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Wine Tasting Trips | Comments Off on Pourtal, Santa Monica

pourtalLast night my friend Adra and I tried the new wine bar in Santa Monica called Pourtal (104 Santa Monica Boulevard, 310.393.7693, Pourtal is one of those hip new wine bars that looks like a set piece from Star Trek. It's all chrome-and-glass push-button decanters, laminated wood and flat-screen TVs displaying cutesy variations of varietal names. I was skeptical…but never too skeptical to turn down wine tasting.

After what I'm pretty sure was a good solid minute of staring blankly while turning around in circles, trying to decide how to adapt to the environment, Adra and I were gently shown a menu, given two glasses and asked if we would like to purchase a wine card. This credit-card type device is stocked with the dollar amount of one's choosing, and is inserted into the chrome-and-glass machines to cover the cost of whatever one wishes to taste. Tastings seemed to be priced between $1.50 to around $7. All pours are exactly the same size.

We loaded the card with $40 between us, ordered a proscuitto, arugula and mascarpone flatbread to share, and began the adventure.

I started with a taste of Eugene “La Pierre de Sons” Pinot Noir from Languedoc, France. I was intrigued by the fact that it's a bio-dynamic wine, which means – according to

“The wine is 100% organic, plus the grower has gone beyond to try to bring the farming process more closely in tune with nature. For instance, wine growers may make their own compost and/or watch the stars and planets to time what they do. The concept of biodynamic farming originated from the early 20th-century Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner.”

Nifty, right?

Not really.

In fact, we both found it nearly undrinkable due to the overpowering sourness. I know there has to be a better way to describe it in fancy wine parlance. How do you translate “like drinking turpentine” into oenophile?

Adra's choice was a 2005 Tissot Poulsard “Sans Souffre.” Also a bio-dynamic Pinot, the description read: “Medium body, lively, mineral, smoky and thoroughly charming.” Adra loved it and described it as being “very drinkable.” I thought it was just okay, but certainly not worth the retail price of $30 – although I do like that it's made without sulfur.

For my next pour, I chose a Pinot Noir from Russian River, California: A 2003 Davis Bynum from Allen Vineyards. With a hefty retail price of $67.50, this wine requires commitment, and frankly – if I had the pocket change – I would be more than willing to take the plunge. Described as:

“Dried black cherry, cola, and sassafras rooty flavors together with a supple balanced, alcohol-rich, warm finish is now displaying at 5 years of age the secondary aromas of tea leaf, licorice and all-spice.”

I would also describe this wine as:

“Delicious. Tasty. Awesome. Scrumptious. Very well-balanced with lots of body.”

It was rich and flavorful. Big win.

Adra's next pour was a 2007 Chesebro/F&G Vineyards Pinot Noir from Arroyo Secco, California. Honest to God, our first impression was that this wine tasted like vanilla yogurt. Which is terrific – if you like that sort of thing…

It was very, very rich – almost overpowering. Described as having “earth flavors with a long finish,” I think it was a little closer to a rich-yet-sour taste than “earth flavor.” But it was fascinating to drink, especially as different flavors emerged in that aforementioned long finish.

It was about this time that our flatbread arrived, which was terrific timing. Loaded with fresh argula and striped with strips of proscuitto, our “pizzette” had a thin layer of marscapone and was drizzled with a lemony-olive oil dressing, giving it a summery and crisp – yet also savory – taste, and also served as an excellent palate cleanser. It was also perfect as a light snack for two people.

The tastes we chose next were a 2006 Donkey & Goat “3/13,” if for no other reason than the name; and a 2006 Four Vines Syrah/Carignan/Zinfandel mix they call “The Maverick.” Adra described her Donkey & Goat Syrah/Mourvedre/Grenache combo as “interesting,” with a “sweet aftertaste,” and “not what [she] was expecting.” I found it to be rich, full-bodied and incredibly sweet.

The Four Vines pour was excellent, if very young. Despite letting it sit for several minutes, the initial taste was overpowered by alcohol. However, by the bottom of the glass (snide comments about my tolerance aside), it was incredible. Four Vines wines come from old world vines (they claim to be over 100 years old). I'd heard a thing or two about this particular vineyard before trying, and the word on the street is that – old as these vines may be – a collector's best bet is to buy a few bottles now and hang onto them for 5 to 10 years. When this wine has matured a little longer, it will apparently be one of the best in the region. All I can say is that letting my tasting “mature” for about 15 minutes transformed it into my favorite wine of the evening.

As for Pourtal – it was…fun. Although I'm not entirely certain I will go back for seconds.

Buying Wine by Region and Year

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

About a year ago I decided to try an experiment. It was this: use the Wine Spectator region/year rating system to pick out wines even when I've never heard of the vineyard or winemaker (which constitutes at least 90% of wines I encounter). I can honestly say I've never been disappointed with this wine-buying method.


The Vintage Ratings Chart at Wine Spectator (subscription required to view the chart)

Here are some example region-vintage combinations that I like, and the full list of winners as decided by Wine Spectator (who I trust for their wine reviews explicitly… better than Parker in my opinion).

  • Australia: Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale 2003-2005
  • Spain: Ribera del Duero 2004-2005
  • California Pinot Noir: Anderson Valley 2003-2005, Sonoma 2004, Santa Barbara 2004
  • California Cabernet Sauvignon: Napa 2004-2005 and (in my experience) you can never go wrong with a Cabernet from Alexander Valley in Sonoma
  • California Syrah: Napa 1999-2006, Paso Robles 2004 and 2006, Sonoma 2002-2006
  • Washington: 2005 and 2006

I keep this short list in mind as I peruse wine lists in restaurants and when I go to wine stores. This helps me pick out the best bargains. It's led me to some of my favorites including:

  • 2004 Vina Santurnia, Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero, Spain
  • 2004 and 2005 Peter Lehmann Shiraz, from McLaren Vale, Australia (ok in all fairness, a friend brought a bottle of this over for dinner, bit I've continued to test the vintage/region combination and am pleased with it)
  • 2005 Chateau Ste. Michelle Cabernet Sauvignon, from Washington

Last week I was out for happy hour with a friend at my favorite wine bar in town (Bodega Wine Bar in Santa Monica) and I ordered a bottle I'd never heard of, but it was a 2005 Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero and since I love that Vina Santurnia I figured it was worth a shot. We both enjoyed the wine!

Try this! If you don't have a Wine Spectator online subscription and you don't want to purchase one just to get your hands on this list, I found pre-printed copies of it at my favorite local wine store… yours might have them, too. It's called the Vintage Ratings chart.

Wines we don’t think you should buy

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Jess' Wine Tasting Notes | 4 Comments

It's unfortunate, but every now and again we come across a wine that's just not worth drinking. In recent memory there have been very few. Here are the ones that make the list (and why):

  • 2006 BV Coastal Estates Pinot Noir
    Even at $5 a bottle (it was on sale and we had a coupon) it was undrinkable. Don't waste your money on this one, whatever you do.
  • PromisQuous Red
    Sigh… I had so much hope for this one. It's regular retail price was $16.99, it had snazzy marketing and an expensively-printed label. Honestly, it's only a little better than the BV Pinot. I'll finish the bottle, though Mitch has said “no thanks, it's all yours.” It's a little too sweet for me and has nothing to offer my mouth but sweet. It almost tastes like they hoped all the different reds would cover each other up.
  • 2005 Keltie Brook Merlot
    Yet another example of why when prices seem too good to be true, they probably are. I'm not generally a Merlot fan, but I thought I'd give this a whirl. Tasted too much like grape juice for me. It was almost without body, and it left a slightly dry and  ticky sensation in my mouth after it was gone.
  • NEWEST BUZZ KILL: 2007 Shiloh Road Syrah
    I tweeted about this one, and I suppose if you like this sort of thing than maybe you shouldn't listen to me on this one. I found this Syrah to 1) not taste like a Syrah 2) taste like a cherry bomb 3) have a grapey aftertaste 4) be overly acidic 5) lack depth. It's available at BevMo and I feel like Wilfred Wong let me down here with his 90pt rating.

We'll keep adding to this post over time, and refer to it in future posts, too.

Have some real stinkers on your mind? Add a comment below… and warn others! Life's too short for bad wine!