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March 2016

Why Pinot Noir Will Always Have A Soft Spot in My Heart

swirling red wine in glass 02Pinot Noir possess an unforgettable personality and flare that makes her absolutely irresistible. She’s like a woman in charge with her grace, strength, and versatility.  She satisfies the taste buds having substance and virtuosity with a controlled and soulful finish.

What I love best is her poetically understated flavors that keep you coming back for more. She really knows how to grab your attention in the most sophisticated way. That’s what makes her so sexy. She’s regal in poise and is confident in who she is.

One of the things I find most intriguing about this powerhouse varietal, is the fragility at the core of her being. Unlike vigorous varietals such as Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir needs cool weather and EXTRA TLC to evolve into the seductive beauty that we’ve all come to love. If she doesn’t get her way or get the attention she demands, she becomes extremely finicky and moody — making her one of the most challenging varietals to grow.

Yet despite her temperamental mood swings, she’s a team player too. As the most food versatile of all varietals, Pinot doesn’t discriminate and can hold her own with pretty much any meal. Her acidity and tannins combined with suppleness of fruit is what makes her versatile.  I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for her.

My Favorite Picks

Historically,  Burgundy, France or “Bourgogne” has been the home of high quality Pinot Noirs. One of my favorites for the price is the 2013 Gerard Seguin “La Place” vineyard from the town of Fixin which is adjacent to the world famous Gevry-Chambertin. She gives off the aroma of coffee beans, sizzling bacon, mushroom and thyme. Her palate has lovely acidity, yummy sour cherry fruit, and a toasty finish.  The savory / herbally character of the Gerard Seguin pairs perfectly with the richness of Coq au Vin. She is sophisticated, slightly uptight, and dry with an English sense of humor. Not until you pair her with food does she really open up. I call this one Lady Diana.

Another one of my favorites similar to the Bourgogne style is the 2013 Ayres Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley in Oregon. She’s my Kate Winslet. Her complex earth tones of evergreen, herbs and forest floor balance out the generous cherry fruit and rich tannins. Like that of Bourgogne, she’s grown in a region that happens to be located near the 45th parallel. This makes for having a similar terrior (climate and soil type), of her French cousin. It’s the cool, wet weather that forces the vines to struggle in ripening their grapes creating a delectable tension you can taste from start to finish. What makes her different is that she tends to have more pronounced fruit to go with the amazing balance, because of the slightly warmer temperatures she gets in Oregon.  You’ll love this wine, especially at $26, with grilled salmon with mushrooms and a Pinot Noir sauce.  

Last but not least, my #1 choice comes from Green Valley in Russian River Valley — Paul Mathew’s 2013 Bohemian Vineyard. She is an absolute bombshell beauty; kind of like Scarlett Johansson.  Despite California having the reputation of being too hot for making great Pinot Noir, it’s the consistent fog and the Petaluma Wind Gap in Green Valley that keeps temperatures cooler and regulated. This forces the grapes to ripen slowly and is the secret to crafting artisan quality Pinot Noir.  With notes of mushroom, cherry cola and vibrant acid the Bohemian Vineyard Pinot Noir will blow your mind when paired with curried lamb shanks.  

When it comes to Pinot Noir, earthy complexity, supple fruit, and acidic tension are the key ingredients. Burgundy, Willamette Valley and Green Valley are the ones you have to try, so don’t miss out on getting to know these special ladies.

Check them out and let me know what you think. I’d like to know if there are other producers  from Burgundy, Willamette Valley or Green Valley that you particularly love? I also want to know what you paired these gals with and why?  Leave me a comment or question.  I look forward to hearing from you and continuing the conversation.

We can never know too much about wine.  Let’s keep learning.



5 California Wineries That Capture the Elegance & Grace of the Old World. Buying Local Helps Reduce Our Carbon Footprint.



I happen to be a huge fan of European wine. Europe holds the longest record of winemaking, and consistently produces some of the best, well balanced food wines with equal parts fruit, earth, and acid.  Yet with rapidly increasing global warming issues, I started to question the impact of my taste buds on the environment.  I wanted to find alternatives that captured the Old World-style without the environmental consequences that come with importing wines into the country.

It turns out that if I wanted to purchase wine from Europe here in California, the carbon footprint measurement is actually 5 times greater than buying California wine.  Instead, if I buy wine here locally in the Bay Area, I participate in lowering my carbon footprint, not to mention supporting the local economy.

Shipping long distances by truck is the biggest carbon footprint issue for wine.  Transporting wine by ship is the most effective in limiting emissions.  Believe it or not, we contribute less carbon to the air by shipping wine from South America than trucking around California wine from Santa Barbara to San Francisco.   That’s why drinking Bordeaux instead of Napa Valley is much more eco-conscious for people on the east coast and midwest.  I’d still encourage my New York friends to check out what’s happening locally though.

When I think about the possible consequences global warming has on my little girl’s future, it makes me want to take a more responsible stance and set an example by doing my part.  So I began investigating high quality alternatives that grow right here in my own backyard.  But before I hand over these five gems, I’d light to bring to light two important things to consider. For those of you who are convinced that California can’t compete with her older sister AND that Europe is the only place to find quality Old World-style wine — I beg to differ.  You’ll want to let that myth go, otherwise you may miss out.

What I’ve learned over the years is that, if you want to refine your palate and become a true connoisseur with taste, then you’ll need to take some chances.  I invite you to step beyond your comfort zones and have a curious approach to exploring outside of the box.

Sure many of us savvy wine drinkers want the minerality of a Sancerre from France, or crave the earthy and powerful finish of Brunello from Italy.  California wines aren’t meant to replace European gems, but they certainly can compete.

Ok, it’s true that California has backed herself into a corner over the last few decades by making jammy, cocktail-like fruit bombs.  But that is changing now. In my most recent blog, I spoke about the evolution of Chardonnay reverting back to her old style, food pairing roots. Check out some of my best picks of Chardonnays here.

Despite being young in its winemaking stage, California has learned from the experience of Europe.  It’s experimentations combined with climate and terrain (known as terrior) gives Cali a leg up on making some great wines that will stand the test of time.

Enjoy my list of favorite California wineries that resemble the Old World.  I encourage you to buy local more often.

Leave me a comment below on your thoughts, questions and suggestions below.  I love hearing for you.

Donkey & Goat – Berkeley

One of my favorite qualities of Jared and Tracey Brandt’s wines is that they taste wild.  They love the Old World and “natural” (native yeast, no fining/filtering, organic, etc) style of winemaking despite recent trends of fruit forward California wine.  They tend to have vibrant acid, earthy characters and bright fruit. They also pick their fruit earlier than most, insuring that the sugar levels are on the low side and the acid bright.  Check out the 2015 “Isabel’s Cuvée” Grenache Rosé, the 2014 “5.13” Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone-style red blend, and the 2013 Fennaughty Syrah from El Dorado.  

Oro en Paz – Treasure Island

These 3 gents met in Oenology school at UC Davis and decided give the winery a go after several vintages from their garage.  I love their simple approach to winemaking – something they learned firsthand in their travels through Europe.  They focus on single vineyard winemaking, believing that it is important to show how the terrior (climate, soil, landscape, etc) can be reflected from a single place.  Their wines are always bright with acid, balanced with lovely fruit, low in alcohol, and always great with food.  Check out their 2014 Benson Lane Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc. Also try their  2014 Del Barba Vineyard Carignan with Girl Scout Thin Mints – it’s a smash.  Lastly, their 2013 Frank Johnson Vineyard Pinot Noir goes down light on the palate and is silky smooth.

Bluxome Street – San Francisco

What most people don’t know is that California winemaking started in San Francisco.  Long before winemaking took root up north, there were many wineries that made their home “South of the Slot” between Market Street and the Cable car line.  About a century after the disastrous 1906 earthquake and Prohibition, Bluxome Street is carrying on the tradition of San Francisco wineries.  “Fruit bombs be damned!” – a reference to a winemaking style that has backed California into a corner the last few decades.  Bluxome Street focuses on low yields in the vineyards and cool AVA’s that produce high quality fruit and well balanced wines.  Check out their 2013 Russian River Sauvignon Blanc.  The combo of vibrant acid and silky texture is reminiscent of France’s Pouilly-Fumé.  

Stomping Girl – Berkeley

Uzi and Kathryn Cohen own and operate this small outfit that focuses on great Sonoma county pinot noir and chardonnay vineyards.  As a boy Uzi was inspired by how his grandmother made wine in Israel, and two generations later he is able to carry on the tradition.  Be sure to try their famous Larry Hyde vineyard chardonnay for its gorgeous fruit and rich texture.  The Lauterbach Hill pinot noir is vibrant and feminine with violet and lilac notes, licorice, red raspberry fruit, and a structured, Burgundy-like finish.  

Dashe Cellars – Oakland

Yet another husband/wife team came together in 1996 to create an Oakland gem.  Michael and Anne Dashe work side by side as a winemaking team with over 40 years experience in the who’s who of international wineries.   They focus on single vineyard, cool climate Sonoma County sites, then bring the grapes back to their Jack London Square, Oakland winery for crafting.   The wines have great style and balance, combining both a French and American winemaking style.  I’d say check out their zinfandels first. Their Dry Creek zin has elegance, style, food-loving acid, and delicious fruit.  



Sonoma County is Laid Back, Stylish and Has Some Great Values. 6 Wines that Pair Well with Food – All for $20 and Under

pressing grapes into wine glass_Blog

Even though Napa Valley seems to get all of the attention, this week I’m going to highlight the gems of Sonoma County, and why it produces some of the best food pairing wines in California.

One of things that makes Sonoma so special is it’s geographical location. Nestled between the Mayacamas Range and the Pacific Ocean, the natural environment creates the perfect recipe for high quality grapes. It’s the diurnal temperature variation that makes Sonoma so special.

The hot days followed by fog influenced cool night time temperatures make it a melting pot for many different varietals to flourish.  So basically, the hotter it is, the riper and sweeter the grapes become.  But it’s the cooler air during the evening that regulates and balances out the sugars with acidity.  This is a key component that makes many wines of Sonoma County perfect for pairing with food.

Napa is known for Cabernet and Merlot, whereas Sonoma County’s multiple microclimates offer much more variety.  Sonoma is divided up into 15 sub appellations (or AVA’s) that allow specific varietals to flourish.  Pinot Noir loves the oceanic influence of the Sonoma Coast and the cool breezes of the Russian River Valley.  Zinfandel does really well with the hot daytime temperatures of the Dry Creek Valley and Cabernet does well with the soil types of Alexander Valley, Knight’s Valley and Sonoma Mountain.  There are so many subclimates in Sonoma that there’s bound to be a wine for every palate.   

The one Sonoma County wine that changed everything for me was the 1996 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma Mountain.  I discovered it in 2006 and was amazed at its power, grace, earthy complexity and gorgeous fruit.  Until then I didn’t think Sonoma could touch Napa Cab’s.  Boy was I wrong!  It’s level of complexity and finesse beat the pants off of Napa Cab’s that were twice its price.  Sonoma wines became my new favorite in terms of approachability, complexity and value.   

What I also like about Sonoma is it’s laid back, down to earth vibe that welcomes visitors to relax and enjoy the simplicity of life.  I often buy wine directly from places like Paul Mathew, Les Caves Roties de Pente and Speedy Creek, because I prefer supporting the small wineries that have a passion for winemaking and aren’t pretentious about it.

Napa wineries can be great too, but one of the big differences is that they usually come with a different vibe and loftier price.  If you’re looking for a more regal vibe and love being a part of the buzz, then Napa is your place.  In contrast, if you’re looking for more of a laid back, country feel with some decent value, Sonoma is the spot.

Truthfully it’s been a difficult task to find great Sonoma County wines for $20 and under.  Most of them are either $25 and up or the style and value don’t exist for under $20. However, these 6 wines from Sonoma County are fantastic while pairing excellently with food – all for $20 and under:

Barber Cellars Pinot Gris 2013, “Rougissant”, Keller Vineyard, Sonoma Coast – $18

This tiny winery makes sustainable, organic and biodynamically farmed wines.  The Keller vineyard was planted in the 80’s insuring that these old vines produce grapes of wonderful complexity.  Think of this wine as somewhere between pinot grigio and a French Rhone white.  It’s honeysuckle nose and gorgeous stone fruit are balanced out by a savory finish with plenty of structure.  I’d go grilled pork loin with this wine.  

People’s Wine Revolution Viognier 2013, Salem Ranch, Dry Creek Valley –  $18

Speaking of French Rhone … this is in the style of Rhone with wonderful mouthwatering acidity that pairs really well with fat.  All of Matt Reed’s wines are deliciously made and a relative steal.  Classic notes of honeysuckle, peach, green apple, green melon and chalky minerals pop out of the glass.  Think of the body as heavier than Sauvignon Blanc but lighter than Chardonnay with vibrant acid.  Pair this Viognier with sautéed duck breasts with honey, ginger and lavender.  

Paul Mathew Gewurztraminer 2014, Harvest Moon, Russian River Valley – $20

I love the wines of Paul Mathew.  This husband/wife knock it out of the park with care and reverence for the land while making wines that’ll make you sing in the rain. Winemaker Mat Gustafson cut his teeth as a sommelier to put himself through school then worked for CA icons Joseph Phelps, Oakville Ranch and the Dutton family.  Most of these small lot hand-crafted wines are pricier than $20, but this “Gewurtz” is a gem for the price.  The classic nose of peach, orange Marmalade and clove will pull you into the glass while it’s meyer lemon acid and dry finish balance out the fruit.  It’s perfect with Phad Thai or smoked ham with a spicy apricot-orange glaze.  

Lioco Chardonnay 2014, Sonoma County $19.99

The gents from Lioco fell in love with wine through the restaurant biz.  They wanted to counterbalance the “bigger is better” CA movement with more subtle, nuanced wines.   A decade later … mission accomplished.  Their wines remind us of “vintage California”, a time when wines weren’t attempting to score big in publications and reflected a desire to create wines to go with food.  Nose of lemon blossom and jasmine with pear, apple and rocky minerals.  The palate is clean with balanced body and acid and a slightly creamy finish.  Pair this with a crab salad with a lemon-curry dressing.

Brack Mountain “Barrique” Pinot Noir 2014, Sonoma Coast – $17

All of the Brack Mountain “Barrique” wines are as good as it gets for the price.  The Pinot is complex with sea-like minerals, graphite and raspberry on the nose with a soft, supple, sophisticated and sexy body.  Pair this it salmon or a wild mushroom risotto.  

Gundlach Bundschu “Mountain Cuvée” 2012 Sonoma County – 16.99

a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel from a great winery near the town of Sonoma.  Gundlach Bundschu had its beginnings in 1868 leading to a 4th generation vintner in President Jeff Bundschu.  Notes of blackberry and plum-like fruit, clove, tea and spices. Soft and robust with a great texture.  Pair it with grilled lamb and porcini sauce.  

Be sure to try some of these pairings and leave a comment below on how they were for you.  What’s your experience of Sonoma County wine?  Are you a fan?  What are your favorite places to visit and why?  Do you have a favorite Sonoma winery for great value?



The Journey of the Chardonnay Grape from Old World to California…These Top 5 will make you a fan

Chat Montelena '76 TastingCalifornia Chardonnay has gone through a transformation over the years. It was the Judgement of Paris in 1976 that put it on the map as a serious wine that could rival Burgundy producers who’d been making wine for centuries.

But during the 1990’s, a lot of experimentation in the California wine market took place. The ideologies wanted to reflect American culture and aimed to create a bigger more flavorful wine.

Three major changes happened: 1.) Winemakers started using a heavy hand in techniques like full Malolactic fermentation. This process changed the tart malic acid to a silky / buttery lactic acid.  2.) They also let the grapes hang longer to create more sugars. 3.) Lastly, they barrel fermented the wine for lengthy periods of time to create dominant baking spice flavors.  

These wines began to take on a playful cocktail shape for social occasions rather than serious artistic statements for dinners. Whereas French Burgundy Chardonnay wines have focused on subtle fruit, rocky minerality and vibrant acidity that bring out the savoriness in food.

In last 6 years, the old school style of Chard’s has come full circle. This happened for 2 reasons:  1.) In 2010 and 2011, record low temperatures forced winemakers to return to the old style of more acidity and structure. 2.)  Coincidentally, a younger generation of winemakers started making food friendly wines, as they grew tired of the one dimensionality of the commercial Chardonnays made during the last two decades.  

I find Chardonnay to be truly delightful when made well.  Here are 5 really delicious California Chardonnays that approximate the complexity of Burgundy; grown right here in our own backyard:

Saracina Chardonnay 2015, “unoaked”, Estate, Mendocino $17.99 retail

Blended with 4% Viognier for flowery aromatics, all the fruit for this wine is made from a 30-year-old certified organic vineyard on John Fetzer’s Sundial Ranch.  California wine rock star David Ramey is the consulting winemaker, and he don’t play!  On the nose you’ll smell candied grapefruit, lime, grass and lychee.  It drinks like a silky Sauvignon blanc with a noticeable acid backbone and grapefruit finish.  Pair it with potato leek soup, roasted chicken with fennel or seared scallops with lime / lemongrass coconut cream sauce.  http://www.saracina.com

Keenan Chard 2013, Estate, Spring Mountain. Napa Valley  – $32.99 retail

Barrel fermented with no Malolactic (this process changes the tart malic acid to a silky / buttery lactic acid) this minimalist intervention wine comes from a vineyard that sits on picturesque Spring Mountain overlooking Napa Valley.   The feel of the vineyard is far removed from our experience of Napa via highway 29.  It’s wildness influences and nurtures the grapes to perfection.  On the nose you might smell pear, peach, almond extract, absinthe and hay – which foreshadows the complexity of the palate.  Its lovely texture and nervy backbone (acid and structure) make it ideal for pairing with pork shoulder braised in milk or grilled pork chops.  http://www.keenanwinery.com

Stomping Girl Chardonnay 2013, Hyde Vineyard, Carneros – $40 retail

Situated a few miles from the San Pablo Bay makes all the difference when the fog from the bay and cool nights swoop in to brighten up the acidity of these grapes.  The famous Larry Hyde vineyard in the Napa part of Carneros has a waiting list to obtain grapes from this superior vineyard, and Stomping Girl was lucky enough to obtain some.  I find the nose complex with notes of grass, caramelized pear and stone fruit.   The palate sings with gorgeous fruit notes, accents of cedar, hazelnut and nutmeg to finish.  Pair this with hazelnut-crusted trout and crab cakes with rémoulade.  https://www.stompinggirlwines.com

2013 Chardonnay Fort Ross Vineyard, Fort Ross-Seaview, Sonoma Coast – $40.99 retail

Winemaker Jeff Pisoni, son of California wine rock star Gary Pisoni, has recently joined the Fort Ross team, so I’m confident the winemaking is in good hands.  Only 378 cases were made in total!  Fort Ross’ vineyards overlook the Pacific Ocean and struggle to ripen – extracting the taste of salty minerals out of thin air and producing a bright acid backbone.  Notes of toast pop out of the glass from a small percentage of new oak used in aging.  Its extended lees contact (after fermentation the yeast die but remain to add silkiness) gives a deliciously creamy texture.  The apricot and pear fruit linger from nose to finish.  Pair with seared Ahi tuna with ginger & orange, or risotto with squash & oyster mushrooms. http://www.fortrossvineyard.com

Stony Hill Chardonnay 2008, Spring Mountain, Napa Valley  – $41.99 retail

Fred McRea purchased the property in 1945 becoming one of Napa’s first bonded wineries.  Their first vintage was in 1952, and I don’t think the style of winemaking has changed one bit!  Not that it’s a bad thing – these wines are as unique as any in California. Neutral oak and zero malolactic fermentation make this wine age-worthy, and will give you a “double take” to make sure it’s not from the Mosel!  Gorgeous nose of peach, apricot and petrol.  Its Lemony acid and nervy acidity will make you pine for food.  Pair this with pan-seared salmon with a lemon beurre blanc or mussels in a saffron cream sauce. http://www.stonyhillvineyard.com

Make sure you try of few of these pairings and leave me a comment or question below. I’d like to know what’s been your experience of Chardonnay?  Are you a fan or are you someone that won’t drink Chardonnay because you assume that they’re all too oaky and buttery?  If that’s the case, did any of these wines change your mind?   

Tune in next week when I answer Caroline Lee’s question about the best Sonoma County wines for under $20.