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California Wines

“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.



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.



Verdad Winemaker Louisa Sawyer Lindquist Grabs Back

“I once asked a friend of mine, who came back from France, to describe a famous winemaker in the Cornas region of Rhone. They said, ‘you know, kinda earthy, a little bit of brettanomyces!’”  

– Louisa Sawyer Lindquist

Louisa Sawyer Lindquist has been making wine for her label, Verdad, since 2000.  She has been involved in the wine business since the 80’s, and has known her destiny as a winemaker since the age of 18.  She is modest, an artist, and knows the business well.  She’s self critical, yet proud, and very clear about her vision.  Her wines have a beautiful femininity;  vibrant acid, flowery nose, earthy / minerally complexity, that pair well with food.  Louisa follows in a line of pioneer women in the industry; Heidi Peterson Barrett, Milla Handley, Merry Edwards, Kris Curran, and Carol Shelton, to name a few.  I really value the female perspective in the wine business, and find that my palate is moving towards feminine wines.

Louisa, along with her husband, Qupé winemaker, Bob Lindquist, were the first to convert pasture land into biodynamic vineyards, in California, in 2004-5.  The wine industry is leading the organic / biodynamic charge in agriculture, and I can really taste the vibrancy and life in these wines.  Verdad’s wines are no exception.  The focus is on Spanish varietals, Albarino, Garnacha, and Tempranillo, with a some rosé as well.  She had me at Albarino!

Her Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard in Edna Valley is really special, in part, because it’s farmed biodynamically. Biodynamic farming was originally conceived by Rudolf Steiner in the late 19th century.  Think of it as an extension of organic farming, using plants in the vineyard to attract insects that positively influence it, feeding the vineyard nutrient rich manure teas, and composting.  When getting certified by organizations, like Demeter, they’re looking for an ecosystem unto itself, on the property.  I’ve never been to the Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard (looking forward to visiting, Louisa!), but I once stood in Michael Topolos’ biodynamic vineyard, and there was an energy about it that was so vibrant.

Let’s get to the interview already!

What got you started in the wine business?   What led you to make wine?  Who are your influences?

“I was 18, working in Yosemite, hanging with a lot of older friends, sharing wine and camping.  I immediately fell in love with it.  The taste, the ambiance, the communal aspect;  I saw that wine brought people together, and it had a story.  Right then I wanted to be a winemaker.  

I went to school in Long Island, NY.  Coincidently, a Long Island wine industry was beginning to emerge.  I was able to intern with Hargrave cellars, the first winery on Long Island, in the 1980’s.  I pruned grapevines and worked in the winery, and that was my first job.  I also worked in wine shops and restaurants to supplement my income and gain wine knowledge, but never wavered from that initial focus to make wine.  Then I met Walter Channing, who was a venture capitalist, and artist in NYC. He started an experimental winery (now known as Channing Daughters), and I made a little wine for him.  I really didn’t know what I was doing, but I worked with other local winemakers and found my way.”

What brought you to Cali?  Tell us about the birth of Verdad?

“I moved to SF to work for an importer, but I always wanted to get back into the production end.  When I met my husband, Bob Lindquist, that became a possibility.  We had a shared interest in wine and winemaking.  I turned my husband on to Albarino and Spanish varietals.  Bob had a long term lease with the Ibarra – Young vineyard, so we were able to plant a couple acres of Albarino, slowly from ‘96-’98. Sticks propagated from vines that Brian Babcock brought over from Spanish icon Bodegas Morgadio.  A lot of the early Albarino planted in CA were from those cuttings.  It was sorta like, ‘oh wow, you have Albarino!?  Let’s get some sticks and plant them!’”

Albarino was not a varietal that Americans knew about in the 90’s. It is only in the the last 15 years, that the world has come to know the magic of this varietal.

“In the late 90’s, the economy was soaring, and it never seemed like it would end. Verdad was born with visions of making Albarino, Tempranillo, and rosé.  Rosé represents the joy of summer and outdoor living in California.  When I wanted to start my own label, I wondered why California wine had no relationship to Spain, when the geography was so similar.  With CA history ties to the missionaries and the Mission grape history, I wondered what happened to grapes like Tempranillo (and why was California not interested)?  In 2000, I spent six weeks in Spain, researching.  I got the name ‘Verdad’ from going there.  I was particularly interested in Galicia (where Rias Baixas lays claim to Albarino), cool climate Rioja (Alavesa and Alta), and coastal influence reds.”

What are your obstacles?   

“The cost of production is really high.  The smaller the winery, the more it costs;  trucking, labels, and bottles.  It’s hard to make a return on your investment.  In eight years, I haven’t been able to raise prices, yet  everything else has gone up.”   

Why is the cost of wine so high?  

“Trucking companies are doing great.  Warehouses are doing great, yet it’s very difficult for a small winery to succeed.  Delivering out of state fees place a bottle of wine beyond the price point of what you originally envisioned.  There are so many moving parts, and there’s a correlation between winery and restaurant.”

The restaurant industry is struggling right now.  

“Your customer base is price sensitive, but they don’t realize how complex it is to run a business like that,  with so many moving parts.  Chefs work so hard just to get their food out there, to cook.  It is a fleeting moment in time…”

Being a woman in the business.  Do you see any challenges to being a woman in a male dominated biz?

“There were very few women in the business in the 80’s and 90’s, in NY and CA.  American, the offspring of distributing giant Southern, led the way, and hired a bunch of women in the mid 90’s.  The liquor sales reps, in their Seagram’s jackets, or Italian suits (depending on the distributor), dominated the business then.  The business has been a “guy” culture, but I think it’s changed a lot.

Doing the physical work as a woman is demanding.   I think it’s more about being a small winery in this business that’s very difficult.  When you get less of a piece of the pie, and you’re less represented in the industry, people look at you differently… they talk over you.  It’s subtle, but you know when you’re feeling it.  It’s hard to quantify.”

Do you have any words of advice for women who want to start their own business?  

“You might have to work a little harder to get noticed.  Pair up with people that know what they’re doing and have experience.  You can have a big picture of where you want your business to go, but the devil is in the details.   All the little costs and steps along the way – it really pays to analyze it.  Over time you realize how important every detail is to having a successful business.  It’s a joyous business when things are working. Making it, seeing the grapes come in, and having your wine turn out the way you want, it’s just delightful.”

What’s unique about Edna Valley?   

“Edna Valley is a very small AVA (American viticulture area), 6 miles from the ocean, with a direct coastal influence.  We have cool summer temperatures, with a really long growing season.  It gets warm and sunny in September / October, when the onshore marine layer moves offshore.  It’s really ideal, cool grape growing.”  

Like most great wine regions, the best soils are in the hills.

“Sawyer Lindquist is hilly, with rocky, clay loam, decomposed sedimentary soils, and a volcanic influence from the Seven Sisters.  There’s also a glacial influence, where I find fossils in the soil.  It’s very rocky, white San Luis Obispo mudstone, which I call “limestone’s poor cousin”.  Because the valley is so small, there’s a common thread in soil types throughout.  A much larger valley would have many different soil types.”

Tell me about the Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard.  Why Biodynamic?  

“Over time, using biodynamic farming brings in rich biodiversity within the soil.  Since 1998, I started thinking more about organic. Steven Singer (Olive oil and vinegar importer, and husband of Alice Waters) was very influential on me.  I would send him wines, and then talk about them with him.  When he was married to Alice, they only and wanted to work with only organic wine producers, people who really cared about the soil.  1999 was our first year of going organic.  I’m close friends with Steve Beckman, who was doing a lot of experimenting with biodynamic farming, and getting great results.  I thought about it for a while, you know, a lot of people think it’s about fairy dust, when they first hear about it.  We were a little bit skeptical initially.

Bob (Lindquist) went to London for a semi-annual trade tasting, and it just so happened that there was a biodynamic conference in London at the same time.   He saw Andre Ostertag and Dominique Lafon there, and had dinner together.  Ostertag was all biodynamic, and Dominique Lafon was doing both organic and biodynamic, and they were both totally singing its praises.  That was the game changer.  Bob and I decided to do biodynamic farming from the beginning. We started doing a biodynamic prep, on pasture land.  It’s one of the first vineyards in CA to go straight biodynamic from raw land.  At first it was a lot of work, but as the years went by, we didn’t have to do as much, because the land was really healthy.  It’s super labor intensive, but it gets easier as you go along.  The vineyard is teeming with life.  Philipe Armenier (biodynamic wine consultant) pointed out, that in the afternoon sunlight, the vines that use organic farming are a light green translucency, and the conventionally grown vines are a duller, more darker green color in the leaves (further evidence that organic / biodynamic farming produces healthier vines).”

The vibrancy in the vineyard is palpable for biodynamic vines, and that translates into wine that smells, tastes, and feels so alive.

I feel like, when I try your wines, that there’s a real femininity that comes out in them.  The grace, vibrant acidity, floweriness, and earthy / minerally complexity.   Do you sense that in your wines, and when you try other wines, do you see wines as masculine or feminine?

“I agree.  Wines reflect the winemaker.  Often times, there’s a thread that you can carry through to the winemaker.  Cool climate has the elegance that’s lending to the wine as well. I put my Tempranillo against many domestic Tempranillos, and it’s completely different.  It takes years of winemaking to see that thread.  I started making my Biodynamic Tempranillo in 2008, and now I’m on the ’14 and ’15 vintages.  My first Tempranillo was in 2001, from the Ibarra – Young Vineyard, perhaps the first Tempranillo produced in Santa Barbara county.  It takes so long to change anything in the wines.  Even if you want to tweak anything stylistically, it takes years out to see it.  You need to be true to your vision.  It’s easy to be discouraged, if you have anything go wrong.  Going entirely biodynamic and using native, wild yeast, I’ve had stuck fermentations, where I’ve had to sell the wine out bulk (not bottling it under the Verdad label).  In 2013, I experimented with whole cluster fermentation, and some of the barrels ended up being a little weird, but then it ended up coming around and being really good.  Then I got really nervous, and didn’t do it again until the 2016 vintage.  Time moves really fast, but sometimes it doesn’t move fast enough to make changes for the consumer market.”

That’s something that consumers have no idea about.

“As a winemaker, if you’re not absolutely crazy about a wine you’ve made, sometimes you just have to keep your mouth shut.  I tend to be hypercritical of myself, and my winemaking. But, overall I’m really excited about what I’m making these days, and proud of my wines.  It’s joyful.  I love how wine brings people together, and how I get to facilitate that.

Do you see the business changing from the high scoring, fruit forward, extracted wines of the 90’s to wines that are more food friendly?  

“I noticed that on the east coast (NY and Boston), they’ve been on that for quite a while, with the influence of European wines.

I was on a panel a few years back, tasting Tempranillo, and I noticed that my palate was obliterated after tasting a couple flights.  The really big, extracted wines are what you remember.

The Wine Spectator, because 1998 was a difficult vintage in Napa, declared it a horrible vintage.  They didn’t bother to look at other wine growing regions, such as the central coast and Santa Maria Valley, where it was an excellent vintage.  They misrepresented the vintage as a statewide issue, which is always a mistake given the many growing regions and microclimates we have in CA.  Many of us stopped sending our wines to the publication after that.”

The Wine Spectator declaration ruined the vintage, as many consumers avoided the ’98 vintage, and wineries lost thousands.  In my opinion, the ’98 vintage was one of the more interesting California vintages in recent memory, with really complex, feminine, earthy, well balanced wines.  Contrast that with the 1997 vintage, touted as the “vintage of the century”, and fell apart after less than 10 years of bottle age.

Millions of Americans still pay attention to what these publications are saying. That’s got to be a challenge for you?

“I’m grateful if someone’s interested in learning about the wines, and tasting them.  I used to submit my wines to contests, but realized that a wine needs to be over 95 points to mean something.  Blogs are becoming more meaningful, rather than a point system.  Wine changes so much.  It evolves.  Something that tastes beautiful, or conversely is closed (goes through a shy phase where the fruit doesn’t show), and you give it to the reviewer, and the wine changes, how can you predict that?”

My favorites of her wines (you can purchase them HERE):

  • Verdad Albarino 2014, Sawyer Linquist Vineyard, Edna Valley
  • Verdad Garnacha / Mourvedre Rosé 2015, Central Coast
  • Verdad Garnacha 2014, Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard, Edna Valley
  • Verdad Tempranillo 2013, Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard, Edna Valley


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



An Interview with Paul Mathew Winemaker – Mat Gustafson


“Can there be any other business where there’s so much bullshit?”  – Carole Meredith (from the documentary, “Somm”)

In a twist from my usual blog posts, I thought I’d try something new. So, I called up my friend Mat Gustafson of Paul Mathew to help give us a little window into a winemaker’s world.  First of all, you should know that I really dig the wines of Paul Mathew.  Mat and his wife, Barb, run a mom and pop label of outstanding quality, and have a tasting room in Graton, within the Russian River Valley AVA (American Viticulture Area).  They’d love some new visitors, so plan a trip over to one of California’s most important Pinot Noir AVA’s, and tell them I sent you.  

If you haven’t signed up for the “Secrets to Food & Wine Pairing – an Italian Immersion” workshop on December 11 in Oakland, you might want to hop on that.  Tickets are going fast.  Go HERE to reserve tickets, and find out more info.

Mat Gustafson is a winemaker; equal parts scientist, artist, philosopher, and steward of the land.  He’s been involved in the wine business for decades, and making wine for twenty years.  He has a pedigree as sommelier, worked for Joseph Phelps on the business side, owned his own vineyard development company, worked in the cellar for Oakville Ranch, made wine with Merry Edwards at Dutton Estate, then decided to create his own label in 1999.  He sought out the Green Valley AVA, within the Russian River Valley, after discovering that these wines have great ageability, structure, and finesse.  Amidst the political banter (I talked to him November 7), his passion for the wine business was unleashed.

Can you speak about the positive effects of using native yeast vs. commercial yeast?

“Like turning tables (in a restaurant), using commercial yeast helps big corporate wineries move through the fermentation process as quickly as possible, so they can get to the next batch.  UC Davis (school of viticulture and enology) is not a proponent of native yeast, because (they think) by the end, it gets taken over by commercial yeast that’s been present in the winery.”  

Mat doesn’t think so.  He sees a real difference with using native yeast (the yeast that occurs naturally in the vineyard).  

“Commercial yeast, when used, creates very short, hot fermentations, cooking the wine, and blowing off all the prettiness.  Native yeast takes 4-5 days to get started, having a mellow start and mellow end.  The native yeast fermentations are 5-7 days longer, creating a real difference in mouthfeel, texture, and aromatics.  

Paul Draper (Ridge Vineyards) was one of the first California winemakers to use native yeast.  Helen Turley and David Ramey also got a lot of credit.  Draper, although he didn’t boast about it, helped to dispel myths (perpetuated by UC Davis) that native yeast can ruin a fermentation.  Humans have been making wine for 7000 years without using commercial yeast!”

What are the effects of sulfur on wine?

“25 to 30 years ago wineries were using 100 to 150 ppm (parts per million) SO2 (sulfur dioxide) at the crusher (used to crush grapes and destem them) as a standard practice.  Now that range is 25 to 50 ppm. I am doing 5 to 10 ppm, depending on how clean the fruit is.  There are producers who are not using any SO2 at the crusher, and only add it just before bottling.  There are some who don’t use any SO2 at all, but have varying results.  Conversely, SO2 (when added in high amounts) can shut down the fruit, and gives the wine a little harder edge.”

So, why not hit it super hard with SO2?  

“A fermentation, if it is very sluggish, can benefit greatly by adding 5 to 10 ppm SO2.  It knocks down the bacteria allowing the yeast, who are not as sensitive to SO2, to take off without the competition for nutrients from the bacteria.   ‘Brett’ (Brettanomyces – a yeast that can formulate to potentially ruin a wine) might creep up later, or the wine could get VA (volatile acidity) without the use of some SO2.  If you’re wanting more fruit, softer texture, and higher acid (all characteristics that are crucial to making great Pinot Noir), using minimal SO2 is the way to go.”

Have you seen any effects of global warming?

“Global warming has created droughts, and really warm winter months.  I haven’t had a normal vintage in 5-6 years.  I recently had Cab Franc come in from the vineyard, and the acid kept going up during fermentation.  That’s a first I’ve seen in the business.  As a winemaker there were some hard rules that you could count on in the past.  Some of those are changing.  I had a wine that went down in brix (measurement of sugar in grapes) during fermentation, and I’ve never seen that.  Global warming has made things less predictable.”  

I’d imagine that owning a winery, albeit rewarding, is a challenging business.  Can you tell us about some of the challenges you face?  

“Unless you’re getting 97’s and 98’s (the point system used by many to rate wines is out of 100) in the major publications, a small winery will see no bump in sales with scores, even in the low 90’s.  Only the top 1% get the benefits of publications.  (Kind of like the music business!)  

The most annoying thing about the business is all the lies and deceit that goes on in the business.  Words like ‘sustainable’, ‘gravity flow’, ‘organic’ are often used as marketing jargon to attract sales, but very few are actually following through with these practices.  A perfect example is the use of ‘Roudup’ in the vineyards to save money.  There are plenty of wineries that proclaim to be organic, yet spray weed killer in the vineyard to avoid paying someone to get out there with a hoe.

I thought, for sure, that once the public learned about Velcorin (a harsh poison that kills everything in the wine, but breaks down over the first 24 hours), it would become a huge issue, but nobody seems to care. The big boys in Napa and Sonoma use Velcorin in place of sterile filtration to kill ‘brett’ and bacteria, making a wine taste better when it’s young.  Then you can act like, ‘oh, my wine is unfiltered or more natural’, but in actuality you’ve put the harshest poison imaginable in there, and killed everything to avoid sterile filtration.  There’s no accountability for lying to gain a marketing angle.”  

Do you see the point system publications still driving the retail business, and having the impact they had in the 1990’s and early 2000’s?  

“There seems to be some backlash with the younger wine buyers with the point scoring system.  With so many publications out there rating wines on the internet, it’s like any news you’re trying to get.  It’s hard to sift through all the bullshit.  James Laube of the Wine Spectator (who has so much power in the industry) prefers low acid, high pH, and a high alcohol style that tastes more like Cabernet Sauvignon.  He hasn’t rated many wines outside of California, so that’s his frame of reference.  The classic styles and appellations of the world are unknown to him, so finesse and acidity are not appreciated.  Robert Parker has more exposure to Bourgogne and Bordeaux, but the big wines with power and oak are his favorites.  When you’re a reviewer, tasting lots of wine, the big wines really tend to stand out, because you’re palate gets fatigued.  It’d be nice to get somebody (with a major publication) that appreciates wines with more acidity, lower alcohol, more restraint, and having more of a delicacy.”  

What do you think is unique about the Russian River Valley, particularly Green Valley?

“I remember a conversation I had with Forrest Tanzer (former winemaker at Iron Horse, and California icon), and I asked him what he thought was the flavor profile of Russian River Pinot?   He said, ‘well, I don’t think there is one style, because Russian River is so big.’”  

Since then, there has been only one new AVA, the Green Valley, amended in 2007.  However, the Russian River wine world knows there to be five distinct areas.  

“The Green Valley is known for darker, more structured, and tannic Pinots with great aging potential.  Middle Reach (otherwise known as ‘Westside Road’) is warm and the wines are riper (and where the Williams Selyem’s of the world bottle fruit forward Pinot’s that make James Laube blush!).  Laguna Ridge in the Forrestville area (where Joseph Swan first planted Pinot after Prohibition, with the advice of one Andre Tchelistcheff) is all about the mouthfeel.  Sebastopol Hills (also known as ‘West Sonoma Hills’) is the coolest of the five regions, where Pinots have the most vibrant acidity in the Russian River Valley, with crisp red berry notes.  Lastly, the Santa Rosa Plain, also known as ‘Olivet’, where lighter style Pinot Noirs with bright acidity are crafted by deep, gravelly, clay soils.”

Mat could have talked all day about wine.  In a world where there can be so much posturing in the wine business, Mat is one of the good guys.  He’s truly passionate about his craft, and shoots straight from the hip.  He’s says that he’s just trying to scratch out a living by doing what he loves.  But, to me it’s more than that.  Integrity is an important piece of humanity, and a key ingredient in artistry.  Like appreciating your favorite jazz artist (not named Kenny G or Boney James), a great wine IS art, and its sincerity is more important than its image.  

Some Paul Mathew wines that I love:

  • Chardonnay 2013, Weeks Vineyard, Russian River Valley
  • Pinot Noir 2009, Horseshoe Bend Vineyard, Russian River Valley – tell them I sent you, eh Barb?
  • Pinot Noir 2013, Bohemian Vineyard, Russian River Valley
  • Cabernet Franc 2014, Alegria Vineyard, Russian River Valley – get this one for Thanksgiving and December holidays
  • Syrah 2013, McReynolds Hills Vineyard, Russian River Valley


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



Keenan Winery Bucks the Trend in Napa and Makes Beautiful Bordeaux Style Wines.

keenan-logoMichael Keenan is one of my favorite people in the business.  His passion for wine, his winery, and life itself not only shows up when you meet him, but it comes through in his wines.  I’ll be featuring Michael and wines from the Keenan winery this coming Wednesday, September 14, 7PM, at the Vestry, inside the Chapel, in San Francisco.  Not only will you experience amazing food and wine, but you’ll get to hear how the wine was made, and why it was paired with each course.  Click HERE to see the menu prepared by chef Elaine Osuna, and get tickets. You’ll get inside the secrets of the trade, while having your mind blown by such delicious fare.  Don’t miss this event next week!  Seating is limited.

Robert Keenan, Michael’s father, fell in love with Bordeaux wines by drinking a lot of them at the dinner table with his family.  Not only were they delicious, but the rich history of wine production in Bordeaux came through in the wine as well.  He was so inspired that he decided to break ground on Spring Mountain, in Napa, in 1974, to make Bordeaux style wines that had brilliant fruit, balanced acidity, complexity, and longevity.

Robert had an understanding of terrior, and picked a spot with eastern sun exposure in a place that gets really hot in the summer.  A vine’s placement in relationship to the sun is critical.  Normally southern sun exposure would be preferable, but mountain fruit have a different set of needs.  The sun and temperature during the day really bake the grapes, producing huge amounts of sugars (sugars turn to alcohol), and limiting potential acidity.  This eastern exposure produces lots of morning sunshine.  For the rest of the day, the grapes cool off, producing Bordeaux-like acidity, and keeping the fruit in balance.  I find this to be an anomaly in Napa, where Cabernet Sauvignon lacks the grace of Bordeaux, and Chardonnay becomes a cocktail wine.

In 1998 Michael Keenan took over the reins, and has continued the tradition of making wines of grace, and style.  He replanted much of the property, with an eye for improving the quality of the vines.  His eye for sustainability grabs my attention, too.  He had huge solar panels built to produce enough electricity for everything on the property, including several residences.   They also have a pond on the property that collects rainwater to irrigate the vineyards.

My favorite Keenan wines will be featured at the wine dinner September 14.  I’m pretty sure they’ll rock your world, as they did for me!

Keenan Summer Blend 2015, Napa Valley

A blend of Chardonnay from the estate with small amounts of Albarino and Viognier purchased from the Napa Valley floor.  I particularly love the aromatics from both the Albarino and Viognier, and the fresh peach fruit with bangin’ minerals.  

Keenan Chardonnay 2014, Estate

I’ve featured this wine for years at Venus Restaurant in Berkeley.  I stayed in the, now extinct, “Love Shack” right on the Chardonnay vineyard.  I loved walking the vineyard at night until a fox started to get protective of his home, and scared me away!  Staying up there can really change your perception of Napa from a Highway 29 perspective.  It’s really wild!  The acidity, stone fruit, almond extract, and earthiness are all balanced out by lovely acidity and sexy texture.  

Keenan Merlot 2012, Carneros

Keenan vineyard manager Peter Nissen also manages the Ghisletta Vineyard in Carneros, where this fruit comes from.  I love Carneros Merlot.  The proximity to the San Pablo Bay brings out softer tannins, rounder fruit, and and lighter style.  The AVA has the longest growing season in Napa, similar to that of Saint Emilion in Bordeaux.  I love the complex nose of licorice, plum, campari, menthol, dill, and vanilla.  It finishes wonderfully tense, with tart cranberry, firm tannins, and well balanced acid.

Cabernet Franc 2012, Estate

Perhaps one of my five favorite wines of the last year, this wine delivers with elegance, power, and the yin/yang I love in a well balanced beauty.  It comes from the highest elevation on the property at 1900 feet.  These vines only produce 2.5 tons per acre, creating an amazing amount of fruit quality per grape cluster.  A great balance between Bordeaux and Chinon with notes of violets, cherry, plum, earth, and minerals.  The acid remains vibrant with pencil lead earthiness and structured tannins.

Zinfandel / Merlot / Cab Franc 2012, “Nod to History”, Estate

Only available at the winery (and at this wine dinner because Michael likes me!), I love Zinfandel when made with balance.  It is California’s noble varietal as talked about in one of my recent blog posts HERE.  The Merlot and Cabernet Franc give the wine structure to go with the brilliant fruit of Zinfandel.  With only 10 cases released total, you won’t be able to try this wine anywhere else.  I love the brambly notes and rich texture.  If you come on Wednesday, you’ll get a chance to try it with Filet Mignon!

It is impossible to 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.


Tablas Creek. One of California’s “First Growth” Giants.

cal poly honored alumni

Hello Folks.

A bunch of people have been egging me on to brag about the Secrets to Food & Wine Pairing – Volume 1, I recently held w/ Executive Chef Amy Murray.

I tend to be a modest fellow, but honestly the event was off the hook. So, here’s what you missed:   Amy and I made an elegant but cozy impression, from the laid back atmosphere to the diverse menu.  It was a perfect learning environment;  relaxed, yet full of hands-on experience and useful information.

We wanted to make sure that everybody, from beginners to advanced wine connoisseurs, would feel welcome and learn something new.  We started the afternoon off with two courses out on the deck.  The first, grilled shrimp paired with the 2015 La Marea Albarino from Monterey;  oceanic saltiness in the shrimp paired beautifully with the minerality of the Albarino, a classic pairing technique.  For the second course we had ricotta and goat cheese stuffed squash blossoms paired with the 2015 Cochon Rosé from California.  Goat cheese and rosé are a classic pairing that always delivers.  

In between each course we took questions, and I showed folks how to key in on bridge ingredients with each wine.  It really helped step up people’s pairing knowledge.  One person even said:  “this was the best use of my Sunday”, and “I feel like I’m more confident making food & wine pairing choices”.  Another couple, from Stomping Girl winery, despite their experienced background in the wine world, were so happy they came because they learned a lot.  Food & wine pairing is not an exact science.  The more we experience it, the more comfortable we get talking about it and applying it to our own lifestyle.

You’ll definitely want to reserve your spot for next time in the fall, as I had to turn folks away!  This is wonderful opportunity to refine your palette, and learn the Secrets of Food & Wine Pairing in an intimate environment.   

In the meantime – you can make sure you get this on your calendar. I’m hosting a wine dinner Wednesday June 29 at 7PM, at the Vestry on Valencia St. in San Francisco . I’ll be featuring one of my favorite wineries in California, Tablas Creek.  I’ve selected my favorites of their current releases, and am delighted to pair them with chef Elaine Osuna’s creations.  Go HERE to get tickets and more info.  

Tablas Creek winery is considered by many in the wine world as one of California’s great Rhone-style wine producers.  I’d go so far as to put them up there with some of the best producers in the French Rhone.  That’s how good the wines of Tablas Creek are.  The Perrin family from Chateau Beaucastel in Chateauneuf-du-Pape collaborated with importer Robert Haas in 1985 to pick the Rhone-like Paso Robles AVA (American Viticulture Area – like Russian River Valley or Napa Valley) as the place to break ground.  The limestone soils, hot sunny days, and cool, ocean-influenced nights reminded the Perrin’s of the French Mediterranean, where Rhone varietals flourish.

There are very few limestone deposits in California, and the bulk of them are in the Central Coast, where Paso Robles resides.  It is limestone that holds the key to greatness in places like the French Loire, Champagne, Bordeaux, and Rhone.   How do limestone soils influence the quality of the wine?   The answer is 4-fold:   1.) these soils retain water and need less irrigation.  2.) they are more “basic” in their PH so vines can retain maximum nutrients, and help to maintain acidity late in the season.  3.)  it allows for a deep root system, encouraging vines to find their own water table.  4.) the vines are more disease resistant in limestone soils.

Specifically, in Southern Rhone, white varietals, like Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, and red varietals like Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah, Counoise, and Cinsault flourish in conditions similar to west Paso Robles.  Combined with organic farming, the close proximity to the ocean, and ideal terrior, Tablas Creek uses their rich history of producing Rhone varietals to make such fabulous wines.  Check out their entry level “Patelin de Tablas” line at $20 retail.  Their white and red blends all have lovely minerality, with undeniable California fruit, vibrant acid, and a restrained, food-friendly finish.  If you’re feeling like you want to get something special, go for their “Esprit de Tablas” line.  These wines are most similar to Chateauneuf-du-Pape, with actual vineyard cuttings transported from the Chateau Beaucastel estate. They have serious richness and depth.  What I love most about the “Esprit…” is that Tablas Creek doesn’t sacrifice acidity in the wine to add more depth of flavor.  They are age-worthy, if you want to lay them down for a few years, and delicious to drink right now.  

My favorites of Tablas Creek:

  • Patelin de Tablas Grenache / Counoise / Mourvedre / Syrah Rosé 2015 – $20
  • Patelin de Tablas Grenache Blanc / Viognier / Roussanne / Marsanne 2014 – $20
  • Esprit de Tablas Roussanne / Grenache Blanc / Picpoul 2013 – $36
  • Patelin de Tablas Syrah / Grenache / Mourvedre / Counoise Rouge 2014 $20
  • Esprit de Tablas Mourvedre / Syrah / Grenache / Counoise 2013  – $44


Are you a fan of French Rhone wines?  Are you a fan of California Rhone-style wines?  Have you tried Tablas Creek?  I’d love to hear from you.  Your feedback is important and may help someone else in this process.

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



Zinfandel – California’s Noble Varietal

Old Hill VineyardIn the ‘serious’ wine world, Zinfandel tends to have a bad rap.  It has a reputation for being a one-dimensional fruit bomb, flaunting itself with zero sophistication. But there are ALWAYS exceptions that will delight even the most sophisticated of palates.

I was reminded of this when I recently tried a bottle of Bliss Family Vineyards Zinfandel leftover from a potluck. At first I had very low expectations of its merits.  But when I popped the cork, I was pleasantly surprised by its vibrant acid, depth of character, subtle earthiness, nuanced oak, and food-friendliness. 

My advice to you is be open to the possibility of having a great Zin. If you’re looking for quality and sophistication, choose one that is under 14% alcohol. They tend to have a balance of tart black cherry fruit, bright acidity, and brambly nose that remind me of August in the Oakland hills — absolutely delicious and layered with complexity. Plus you’ll find a gem for under $20.

Like Pinot Noir to Bourgogne and Sangiovese to Tuscany, Zinfandel is California’s noble varietal — meaning it has sophistication, age worthiness, beautiful fruit, and has a long history of greatness here in CA. It was also one of the first varietals to be planted commercially in California.

It arrived during the California gold rush via Europe in the mid-19th century, and quickly became the most widely planted vine because its adaptability to the California climate. It is still known as a hearty, disease resistant varietal, with existing Zinfandel vineyards in California that date back to the 1850’s.

Although a vineyard of that age is quite rare, there are a significant amount of vineyards that are 30-40+ years old. These “old vines” give depth and character that younger vineyards can’t possibly achieve.  As the vines get older, they produce less fruit naturally and spend all of their energy concentrating the juice of the few grape clusters that remain on the plant. It gives a complexity that’s difficult to achieve by any other means.

The ideal conditions needed to make a great Zinfandel are as follows:  1.) The soil needs to be rich in minerals to help the vines flourish and impart minerality in the wine. 2.) The timing of harvest must take place with exact precision to avoid compromising flavors. If picked too early, the wine will taste like bell peppers;  pick too late (like many producers do) and it becomes a sugary juice that masks potential subtlety, earthiness, and complexity.  3.) Vineyard age adds depth and character. 4.) Use of minimal oak to impart notes of baking spice and tannin adds more depth of character.

Zinfandel is the perfect summer wine because it goes great with BBQ.  Pork ribs, steak, lamb, duck, portobello mushrooms, and skewered veggies will all sing with one of my top picks:


We’ll taste an example of one of these well-balanced, vibrant Zinfandels at my upcoming “Discover the Secrets of Food & Wine Pairing” Workshop June 12 in Oakland.   Space is limited.  Go HERE to make a reservation and save yourself a spot.

It’s impossible to know everything about wine.  Let’s keep learning.



Every now and again there’s a wine that comes along that doesn’t fit into a box and helps redefine the definition of a really great wine.

Preston Vineyards 2

I love my job, because I love to learn and get surprised. Discovering new treasures never gets old. I find that staying curious, open, and available to experience the unknown always works in my favor. Last Thursday I was lucky enough to have one of those magical moments.

I attended a wine pairing event at Millenium in Oakland. The featured winemaker was Chris Condos (Vinum cellars, Kathryn Kennedy ) from Horse & Plow. The surprise gem of the evening was an unsulfured and organically farmed 2013 Sauvignon blanc from the Preston Vineyard in Dry Creek. WOW! The texture and complexity was absolutely sensational.  It reminded me of 1er Cru Chablis from Bourgogne because of its viscosity and weight while having well balanced acid, lovely minerality, and delicious fruit.

The most intriguing and paradoxical aspect of it was that it was completely different than any other Sauvignon blanc I’ve had before.  Unlike the usual suspects of Sauvignon blanc – being predictably clean and crisp, it was complex yet accessible.  It also had beautiful fruit mixed with earth, minerals and nutty undertones.

Most winemakers never go the route of making unsulfured wines because it’s too risky. Sulfur helps stabilize the wine and prevents oxidation.  If you don’t have the perfect acidity — your wine turns to vinegar.  It takes a master of alchemy to pull this off.  And in my opinion, Chris hit it out of the park.  One of the things I admire most about him is that he doesn’t shy away from the challenge of producing natural wines.  His philosophy is to use sustainable practices to craft wines with greater complexity and sense of place, while caring for worker health and the environment.

Despite some of the stressors that can come with growing organically Chris stood firm in his beliefs.  He chose to experiment with the Preston vineyard in the Dry Creek Valley as his #1 choice of fruit because of its pristine quality and high acidity.  He didn’t add any sulfur, left it in neutral barrels for 4-5 months on the lees (dead yeast from fermentation that give a wine texture and a subtly nutty taste), and sweated it out.

With tremendous faith he had to give the wine enough space to go through a series of phases, including a “dumb phase”, where the wine’s earthy and tannic qualities dominate the fruity qualities.  The result is the fruit caught up with the earthy minerality, and tannins and became a real symphony of a wine;  silky texture, delicious fruit, rocky minerality, and great structure.  All of these qualities reminded me of Bourgogne which uses a different varietal but has a similar flavor profile.    

Chris is a maverick.  His patience, courage, and keen sense of knowing how to put the right variables together created a delicious product with just enough experimentation and originality.

I recommend the 2013 Horse & Plow Preston Vineyard Sauvignon blanc with herbed goat cheese, Petrale sole with butter and parsley, grilled pork chops with sauteed mushrooms, seared scallops, or trout salad with toasted hazelnuts.  

You’ll want to grab your bottle HERE.  There are only few more bottles left so jump on it and don’t miss out.

Be sure to also leave a comment below.  What have been your favorite wines that have made you think outside of the box?  What did you think of this Sauvignon blanc with the suggested pairings?   Your feedback is very important to me.

Again…you 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.