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“Brett” is no taboo for Cain in Napa Valley.

I recently had the privilege of staying up at Cain vineyard and winery, on Spring Mountain, in Napa Valley. From an elevation of 2100 feet, the views were spectacular, overlooking Howell Mountain, Pritchard Hill, southern Napa, and Cain’s 140,000 vines. It’s a far different perspective than that of the tourists experience on highway 29; surrounded by nature, quiet, and without any pomp and circumstance.

I spent three hours with J.J. (the operations manager), and met the associate winemaker, François, along the way. We were able to try all three of their current releases, the “Cain Cuvée N.V. 12”, the 2008 “Cain Concept”, and the 2012 “Cain Five”. J.J. also broke out a crown jewel of a wine, in the 2006 “Cain Five”. All the wines were superb. One thing that stands out about Cain (relative to Napa wines, in general) is that they all have an earthiness that’s reminiscent of Bordeaux. They still have the lovely California fruit, but there’s a common thread about all these wines, that I’ve loved from Cain over the years.

During my visit, we were able to check out the cellar, a vast, air conditioned hall, containing myriad barrels of different shapes and sizes. What I found out was fascinating. The cellar contains Brettanomyces, a yeast strain that affects the bouquet and palate of wine. “Brett” occurs naturally, forming on the skins of fruit, then later marrying with the juice, and feeding off the sugars in new oak barrels, as the wine ages. It can have a wide range of effects on wine, from an orange citrus / cranberry note to leather, tanned leather, and even a barnyard-like quality.

To some, this may sound off-putting. Merryvale winery, in Napa, spent millions ridding themselves of their “spoiled” barrels, worried that they might fall out of favor with certain wine publications. But to those of us that love the earthy component in our wine, “Brett” can have a balancing component to the lush fruit that California terrior evokes. Cain embraces this concept. In fact, it is a part of the winemaking process that fascinates them.

There’s a mystery here, though. When speaking with the very people that have been working with “Brett” for years, they don’t know how to predict it. They can tell you that two out of every three vintages of “Cain Five” (2012 has notes of floral citrus and tanned leather) have it. “Cain Five” contains only estate fruit (where “Cain Concept” is all purchased fruit, and “Cain Cuvée” is a blend of estate and purchased), and “Brett” is definitely present regularly in some of their vineyard blocks that make up “Cain Five”. But it doesn’t show up in the wine every year. Ultimately Mother Nature decides when “Brett” will make an appearance. The most fascinating part of this is that, even though all three wines rotate and share oak barrels (“Brett” can be passed through oak), it shows up in the “Cain Cuvée” and “Cain Concept” a lot less frequently. It is in these mysteries that wine continues to captivate those of us who love it.

Let me know if you’d like to visit Cain for a tasting. I’ll connect you.

Current Cain releases:
Cain Cuvee NV12
A blend of Merlot, Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec, with 60% from the 2012 vintage and 40% from the 2011 vintage. Notes of coffee, leather, moss, licorice, minerals, blackberry liqueur, black tea, sage, and lavender. Dry finish, with firm tannins, balanced acid, and a Campari finish.

Cain Concept 2008, the Benchland, Napa Valley
“Concept”, meaning, in the style of the great 70’s Mayacamas wines of Napa. A blend of the “who’s who” of Napa Valley vineyards, including George III, Tokalon, Missouri Hopper, Stanton, and Morisoli. Nose of spice, leather, bramble, and blackberry lemonade. Round, and silky texture. Vibrant acid, and a chocolaty finish.

Cain Five 2012, Estate
A blend of Cab Sauv, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. All estate fruit (see the photo for this spectacular view!). Nose of violet, “Sen Sen” candy (back in the day, you’d pop these after leaving the bar to “freshen the breath”!), citrus/floral, tanned leather, brandied cherries, black cherry, toffee / coffee, and pine. On the palate, chocolatey / silky tannins, rich body, mocha, and structured. Try is with grilled ribeye and cippolini onions.

And if you are lucky enough:
Cain Five 2006, Estate
A similar blend to that of the 2012 vintage. As with all wine that ages, the palate is much more integrated, and a bit rounder around the edges than the 2012. Nose of minerals, pencil lead, barnyard, blueberry, black tea, exotic spices, black cherry, sage, citrus/violet, umami, and plum. Still plenty of tannins on the palate, with a well integrated body, and transcendent finish. Try this with beef tenderloin, sauteed mushrooms, and turnips.

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



The Blood of Hercules

In a new series of blog posts, I’ll be combining my love of music with my passion for wine. In this series, I’ll pair wines of great value with specific artists’ albums.

For part one of my music and wine pairing series, we’ll head to Greece for the Georgos Agiorgitiko (pronounced Ag-ee-oh-Gee-tee-koh) from the white sandy beaches of Mykonos island. The varietal is popularly known as “the blood of Hercules.”  After Hercules slayed the Nemean lion, it was Agiorgitiko, from Nemea, that he guzzled in victory. Greece has been making wine for 6500 years, and, from this vast experience, they know a lot about it. They were the first to age wine and crush grapes before fermentation. Hippocrates prescribed it for medicinal purposes. During the spread of Greek civilization, large cults of people worshiped Dionysus, the god of wine (now that’s a god I can get behind!).

Pair this wine, or any Agiorgitiko for that matter, with music from the Toids’ “Unblocked Ears”, released in 2006. The cats in the band, Ryan Francesconi, Danny Cantrell, Lila Sklar, and Tobias Roberson are my homies, and world class musicians. The music is steeped in the vibe of Eastern European zestiness. Soulful, celebratory, exotic, and sorrowful, with rhythms that are hard to count, even if you’re a musician. The Toids blend their own originality with traditional Balkan folk music, and skillful songwriting to create a music that’s completely unique.

Pay particular attention to track three, “Seek”, with yours truly playing baritone saxophone. It’s as if Hercules himself is embodied in the composition, taking on the lion during the bari solo. The battle commences, each feeling each other out, while the heat of the day simmers off of the turf. The solo builds and the battle ensues, tense, yet sexy, and riveting. It all climaxes when the battle of two giants gets lethal, and Hercules drinks the blood of his fallen enemy. Or was it Agiorgitiko?

Notes of black plum, wild strawberry, blackberry liqueur, clay pot, graham cracker, Ouzo (watch our RF!), and tomato vine pop out of the glass, whilst Francesconi kills it soulfully on various lutes and flutes, in songs, like “Groping and Hoping” (having help from Cantrell with his technically gifted fingers), and “Slinker” (laying it down while Sklar and Cantrell play cat and mouse). I love the vocal interplay of Cantrell and Sklar in “Magnolia”. The chorus is as beautiful as the velvety fruit that Agiorgitiko generously provides. It’s no fruit bomb, though. Very much tempered by the tannic structure, subtle bitterness of the oak, and notes of iron earth, specific to Greece, this wine is sophisticated and balanced.

As I’m taking this all in, I love contemplating the rich history of Greek winemaking, and losing myself in that gorgeous “Magnolia” melody. I feel as if I’m back there somewhere in 1600 B.C.;  getting down with Dionysus, and appreciating these musicians in a time where they were as important as the gods.

Georgos Agiorgitiko 2013, “Farmer”, Mykonos, Greece

paired with

The Toids “Unblocked Ears”



A Renaissance Man’s Perspective on the CA Wine Industry, Circa ‘78-85

“A coke habit is God’s way of saying, ‘you’ve got too much money’ ”. – Gordon Stevens

Gordon Stevens is a jazz musician and Renaissance man. He’s 81, and is way more hip than I am. He speaks about everything with passion, and with a lingo that James Laube might not understand. I can talk to Gordon about anything, because he’s so engaging about it. Like many of my elders, I find myself wanting to sit and absorb his stories and wisdom.

Speaking of stories, the jazz tradition is handed down from musician to musician through tales about the famous icons. The way Gordon speaks is very much in that tradition, except substituting wineries for great musicians, like Miles Davis and Duke Ellington.

When we sat down to talk, I had no idea Gordon was going to share, stream of consciousness, about the early CA wine business, but I found it fascinating, and hope you enjoy it too.

“The discoveries (of great wine), man, you’re like ‘ahhhhhhhhhhh’ (a moment of unabashed nostalgia, like a paramour you’ve never forgotten).

I broke my teeth on red wines with Charles Krug (the 1978 – 1985 vintages). Even the 1940’s stuff, because Krug had a library. He hooked up with Chesterfield cigarettes. Guys would smoke their Virginia tobacco with Cab (Cabernet Sauvignon).”

“As a pairing?”

“No. Everyone was smoking anyway, so it wasn’t a decision to pair (wine with cigarettes).”

“One informed the other?”

“Yeah. Then it became cigars and port, or cigars and big Cabs. That’s Wine Spectator stuff.”

“I can see the whole coke and wine fad being a thing?”

“I saw it in action with the various people, ‘cause that’s when I got deep into wine, when our violin shop started to take off (Gordon owned a series of music shops, called “Steven’s Music”). I saw a lot of high rollers, the Persian guys that came in and bought all the Saratoga real estate, and the Stradivarius violins on the west coast.

I had a bunch of stock in Chalone (Richard Graff, founder and winemaker of Chalone, is a California wine legend) when they first hit (somewhere between ‘78 and ‘82).  As a stockholder, we got invited up there for an annual business meeting, and celebrities would come to speak. Bill Walsh had a great palate, and he loved classical music. Julia Childs was a keynote speaker. She called to me, out by the porta potties, ‘Young man, young man, can you direct me to the oysters! I just don’t understand these business meetings’. We had the greatest talk. She told me about her husband, their Buick stationwagon, her first trip to France. It was fucking amazing, man. ‘Tell me about you?’, she said. It was the most thrilling celebrity meeting I’ve ever had.

After Chalone came close to being the best of the Chardonnays in the famous Paris tasting, I bought stock. The first bottle of Chalone Chardonnay set me up for those French Burgundy trips into the 80’s. The standard was always Chalone.

I remember watching a ballgame all by myself, and nearly finished a bottle of Chalone, and I set the bottle down. It had a tiny bit left, and I forgot about it. The next day I saw it, and I swished that sucker around and hit it, like you do with a jar of maple syrup! It was like perfume from God.

It was not that buttery shit they were making in Napa. The malolactic craze (changing the appley Malic acid into buttery Lactic acid – which caught fire in the 80’s) came after (the great Chardonnays of the 70’s). Then Kendall Jackson came in and got busted.”

“For chaptalization?” (Which is a controversial process of adding sugar to wine to give it more alcohol and fix stuck fermentations.)

“Yes. Putting sugar in on top of their malolactic excesses. Then you got sugar and butter going, and then every secretary in San Francisco had to have one of them after work on Friday.

I got crazy on the olfactory thing. Then the food pairing came in on the naturals. My mother, and her family, locals (in San Jose), used to own all the property that Ford and Tesla is on right now. They had access to everything. The best vintages of (Ridge) Montebello and Picchetti. She (and Gordon) had access to all the greats.

Wine sales went up after the 50’s. Gallo, Grenache, and Muscats…mostly sweet, people were sucking them down.”

“How about Syrah and Grenache (in CA)?”

“Yeah, the Syrahs and all that. All those came in as a result of Rhone-Villages, and Kermit Lynch (local wine legend with many ties to France). I remember seeing headlines from Robert Parker, talking about how Kermit had discovered all these killer wines and varietals, you know?

A lot of that was here (in California). We used to go to Buena Vista (the oldest winery in California) up there (in Sonoma). The wine sucked, relatively speaking, but it was part of the mystique and history.

California natives jumped right on this thing. It was not a yuppie thing at all. The locals and Italian guys. That’s why Mondavi is so iconic. He was rubbing shoulders with all the fruit farmers in the valley. It was a fruit bowl heaven.

My godfather, an Italian guy, owned all of San Jose city college. I got to go over there every weekend, and I remember him sitting at the end of the table, and he had a big crystal bowl. He’d take a full bottle of his favorite white, put that in there with a quart of apricots, some cinnamon, and mix it up. He’d eat that like soup for breakfast!

I used to talk to Burt Williams from Williams Selyem. We met on the Russian River steelhead fishing. I remember a stash of Williams Selyem I got, ‘83-’86. He had total control of the Rochioli vineyard. That was the heyday. When…a tasting guy, whether it be Robert Parker, or whoever, they always described it as ‘exotic’. Like patchouli oil is exotic. It was like Omar Khayyam. The poetic palate. Like something you’d read in Middle Eastern poetry.”

“Like Kahlil Gibran?”

“Yeah, then later Neruda for the Chilean / Argentinian thing. It didn’t taste like anything else. You assumed it was the mother ship of all the Pinot (noir) grapes.”

“Were they fruit forward or dry?”

“I don’t think the word ‘dry’ ever entered my mind when drinking his wines. They weren’t fruit forward, they were Williams Selyem!

I also got into 80’s Rafanelli, a wonderful winery up the valley on the west side in Dry Creek. Ohhhh! I got into the core of that.

The high point in all of this for me, though, was the Williams Selyem / Rafanelli hookup.”

“I find those wines to be quite fruit forward. It’s almost like Williams Selyem is blending Syrah to give their wines real chewy depth?”

“It depends on which Selyem vineyard. This is the perfect storm, that creates four great vintages (’83-’86). You have one vineyard replacing the one that went over the hill.  They didn’t have to blend or anything. They could do it purely. That’s the same thing that Navarro did with white wines. They managed to have enough high quality from middle to old-aged vineyards. That chronological thing is paramount. This whole Russian River and Dry Creek region was really a sleigh ride on a slope, right down through the goodies.”

“How about Napa Valley?”

Caymus started in about ’78 for me. Just killers! Then they started the ‘special select’ thing, which became really chichi. It’s as though they tried too hard. The price for the ‘special select’ was insane. You could get a bottle of Diamond Creek for $40 and the ‘special select’ for $60. But the ’78-82 regular Caymus! (He sighs with nostalgia) My God, man!

There was a 60’s thing, called “Rota Red”. The owner was an old Spanish guy that had some vineyards down by Atascadero, near Hearst castle, in West Paso. The San Francisco hippie / Beat establishment, the poets and painters, and people like Bill Graham bought this Rota wine. You’d bring your own bottle. Those old gallon Gallo bottles were going around. There was a rumor that the Rota wine owner put a psychedelic substance, or had cloned some ergot in it. It gave you the weirdest high. If you’re smokin’ hash, you got some sugar here, some psychedelic there, and you got some wine. This was folklore. There was a myth created around this guy. It was an event. It was like scoring Mexican weed and Culiacan. Just normal hippie procedure.”

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



Everyone’s Doing it. Even Canada is making good wine

Eh?As a kid, and into my late 20’s, my dad, brother, and I used to drive from our home in Detroit to northern Canada for a week of fishing and relaxation.  It was a highlight of the summer, and the best way to connect with my pop.  We used to “smuggle” top shelf vino into the country, because the wine situation in Sault Ste. Marie (“the Soo”) was dire.  My dad hated that we snuck wine over the border, because he was a law abiding man that was true to his word.  All was forgiven, though, after we tried that pirated ‘91 Mugneret Nuit-St-Georges 1er Cru paired with freshly caught partridge. To this day, it is one of my favorite food & wine pairings ever. There was no way we were going to get anything close to that at the Ontario government controlled liquor store.  

15 years after the last pilgrimage, my family and I went back to Canada to honor my pop and reminisce of experiences past.  We drove through “the Soo” on our way, and had an unusual experience buying wine.  First of all, you can’t go into a grocery store, liquor store, or wine store to buy wine.  The Canadians and their provincial government only sell wine (and liquor for that matter) through a few designated stores called “LCBO” (Liquor Control Board of Ontario), and there are only 3 in the whole city.  Some of these stores, like the one in Chapleau, Ontario have a really sad assortment.  Some, like the one I went into in “the Soo” (population 75,000) are a far cry from the wine situation in decades past.  They had a robust selection from most wine producing countries of the world;  France, Italy, Australia, California, Portugal, and even Canada.  I was pleasantly surprised that the Canadian government came through for us!  See, not all governments are bad!

As per usual, I like to buy wine locally wherever I can.  I had heard about the world class icewine (grapes that ripen on the vine until the first freeze) from Ontario, but didn’t really have a clue what else was being produced.  To my surprise, I couldn’t find one icewine in the store, but I found a lots of other wines from the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario.  So, I did a little research.

The VQA Niagara Peninsula appellation produces over half of Ontario’s wine, and is helped greatly by Lake Ontario’s regulating temperatures.  It’s a cool climate appellation, as you might expect, but the long summer days, a relatively large shift in day-night temperatures, and well drained soils help ripen some varietals just enough.  I found riesling, chardonnay, dry rosé, pinot noir, cab franc, and merlot at the LCOB. The wines that stood out to me were the Cave Spring dry Riesling 2013, and Trius Gamay / Syrah Rosé 2015.  Each of those wines was low in alcohol, high in acid, and perfect for the hot, sticky summer days that find their way to the region in July.

My trip to Canada with the family was wonderful.  I really felt at home there, and felt my dad’s presence with us too.  I envisioned him sitting at the dinner table, his usual two-ounce pour of wine, toasting to life and washing down Aunt Carolyn’s comfort foods.  The wines on this trip weren’t like the ‘91 Mugneret we had years ago, but they were solid, well-made food wines that went well with simple cuisine.  Next time you’re in Canada, don’t be afraid to try a few from the VQA Niagara Peninsula.

Wines that “Pop” Jack would have enjoyed:

  • Cave Spring dry Riesling 2013, VQA Niagara Peninsula
  • Trius Rosé 2015, VQA Niagara Peninsula

And the secret weapon:

  • Domaine Pinnacle Cidre de glace-ice, Quebec – made from frozen apples


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



The Day Gary Farrell Met Gary Locke at the London Wine Bar

Miles and Wayne

Many of you know that I am also a jazz musician in addition to being a sommelier.  The jazz tradition is passed down from generation to generation, both literally and figuratively.  The stories we’ve heard about how Miles created “Kind of Blue”, how Dizzy got fired from Cab Calloway’s band, and how Trane was influenced by Dexter are all vital parts of understanding the tradition.  

In understanding the California wine business, it’s also important to give props to those that have helped carry the business forward.  So, in the jazz tradition of telling stories about my favorite musicians, I’m going to tell you about the day Gary Farrell met Gary Locke at the London Wine Bar (LWB).  For you jazz fans, this would be the equivalent Wayne Shorter sitting in with Miles Davis for the first time.  The history of the California wine business is a passion of mine.  Knowing who helped move the business forward is, I feel, partly my responsibility, so I can help educate others.  Many people in the business know who Gary Farrell is, but few know who Gary Locke is.  I think he prefers it that way, but I’ve let the cat out of the bag.  Gary Locke is an icon to me.

But, first, a little back story.  I worked as a server at the LWB from 2000-2008.  The influence that job had over my career in the wine business far surpasses any sommelier credentials I’ve had to work for.  As I grew more confident selling wine, I earned myself carte blanche, able to dig through the cellar on my own and try anything, as long as I could sell it.  ‘75 Pontet-Canet, ‘83 Dow’s Port, ‘89 Joseph Swan Zin, ‘95 Laurel Glen Cab, ‘81 Neyers Chenin Blanc, ‘94 Skewis Pinot, ‘91 Mugneret Gevry-Chambertin;  I tried and sold them all.  The more I tasted, the more my palate and confidence grew.  I wanted to share my passion with anyone that came through those doors.

The LWB was America’s first wine bar, opened in San Francisco circa 1975.  Many folks are surprised that America didn’t have a wine bar until ‘75, but not many Americans drank wine back then.   It also wasn’t until the mid-80’s that there were dedicated by-the-glass programs in bars and restaurants.  Gary Locke was the owner and bar manager when I arrived.  Amazingly, he had been there since 1975, coming to SF as a fresh faced, hardworking young man from Indiana with little wine knowledge.  He later came to be the bar manager, wine buyer, and owner of LWB in the mid-80’s.  Gary knew all of the heavy hitters in the California wine business.  He developed one of the best palates in the city, with the knowledge to back it up.  What I loved most about him was that he was always modest about it, with no pretense, or desire to toot his own horn.  He became like Wayne Shorter, soulful, original, supremely knowledgeable, understated, and very skilled.  

Sometime in the fall of 2004, I was finishing my lunch shift at the LWB and hung around to taste wine with “G-Locke”, and in walked Gary Farrell.  It was like Miles Davis walking into the club, with moxie, money, cockiness, an entourage, and a pedigree.  Gary Farrell was a California icon.  He started making wine for Davis Bynum in 1978 then helped get the likes of Rochioli, Limerick Lane, Moshin Vineyards, and his own label, Gary Farrell, off the ground.   What I didn’t realize at time was that Gary Farrell had just sold his name to Allied Domecq and probably had a contractual obligation to go out into the field and sell his former label.   I was taken aback for the first wine or two, watching these two heavyweights interact.  I’ll be honest, there was a little posturing going on.  It was still cool though.  I wonder what Gary Farrell was thinking about when G-Locke was trying his wines.  G-Locke played it close to the vest.  “Nice wines” he would say.  Unfortunately, I don’t remember much about how those wines tasted, it was all about witnessing the meeting of two heavyweights.  A moment in history that only a few were lucky enough to witness.

Two wines Gary Locke (and you) would love:  (if you’re a collector, these wines are difficult to find, but keep an eye out…)

Franus Zinfandel 1997, Brandlin Vineyard, Mount Veeder

I learned that structured Zinfandels age well at the LWB.  I saw several Peter Franus wines poured there throughout the years too.  This wine would have made the “Zinfandel Sampler” short list.  I love the complex nose of caramelized black plum, bramble, menthol, sun dried tomato, rosemary, and black licorice.  It’s still finishing dry (Mount Veeder fruit yields plenty of structure) with earthy notes of coffee, smoke, and still lots of acidic backbone.  

Leacock’s Bual 1966, Madeira

Bual is one of the most sought after Madeiras, known for just the right amount of sugar to go with its vibrant acid.  The Brits have been credited with helping the production of Madeira along over the centuries.  I remember caressing and dreaming about a number of Madeira and Port bottles in the LWB basement years ago.  This wine would have fit right in.  The notes of hazelnut, salted caramel, maple syrup, and toffee take the cake.  The finish lasts for days, with vibrant acid from start to finish.  It brought me back to those nostalgic days of my childhood with “Callard & Bowser” English toffee.