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.

healdsburg-ranches

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.

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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.

kenwood-sb

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.

Great wine under $20 – Cabernet Sauvignon

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Jess' Wine Tasting Notes | Comments Off on Great wine under $20 – Cabernet Sauvignon

2005 Chateau Souverain, Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley

Last night we ate a nice little fish restaurant on the Malibu Pier (the Beachcomber). We ordered the 2005 Chateau Souverain Cabernet Sauvignon which I had had before and remember enjoying quite a bit. Mitch, who usually doesn't love a cabernet really enjoyed this and said, “We should keep