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Cress wine Design Tag

“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”



It’s That Time for Sparkling Wine

The other day I finished my “Secrets to Food & Wine Pairing” workshop, and knew it was time for Champagne.  Even after the intense flavors of Barolo and wild boar ragout, the bubbles danced on my tongue, and the vibrant acidity cleansed my palate.  Case in point, my friend said, “no, I’ve been drinking red wine all day”, when asked if she wanted some.  I bet she finished half the bottle after that first gulp had her hooked!

My family has celebrated Christmas morning for years with Champagne. There are not many days in a year where I’m drinking by 10AM, but exceptions can be made!  It’s a great memory I have of my dad, along with my immediate family, opening presents and clinking glasses together.  Sparkling wine has a way of turning an already festive occasion into something special, and my family knows how to do it in style.

It’s true that Champagne can be expensive, but you don’t have to drink Champagne to let the good times roll.  There are so many great sparkling wines (to call it “Champagne”, the wine has to be from that particular region in France, unless you’re lowly Korbel, then you can make up your own rules!) out there that are delicious, and are reasonably priced.

But, before I let you in on some of this year’s favorites, let me explain a little bit about two common styles of making sparkling wine.

Traditional method

This classic style of sparkling wine has been made famous by Champagne for over 250 years.  To make traditional method sparkling wine, it is first fermented in tanks or barrels, then transferred to the bottle. Then, a tirage is added (sugar and yeast) to each bottle, and a bottle cap is placed on top to trap the carbon dioxide inside the bottle. Riddling (slowly turning the bottle over time to move sediment to the top of the bottle), then discorging (freezing the dead yeast and sediment at the top of the bottle, then releasing the pressurized particulates), and a dosage (reserve wine and cane sugar) is used to top off any wine lost during discorgement.  You can imagine why Champagne is so expensive.  It is a process that requires dedication and years to produce.  Spanish Cava is also made in the traditional method, so you tend to get a lot of value out of these Champagne counterparts.  Cava doesn’t have the minerality and sophistication that Champagne has, but they can have the acidity and toastiness that help make sparkling wine delicious.  

Charmat method

This method is commonly used to make Prosecco, patented in the late 19th century.  After the initial fermentation process, the wine is placed in pressurized stainless steel tanks, then mixed with sugar and yeast.  The sugars turn to alcohol and carbon dioxide, forming naturally, and gets preserved inside the tank.  The resulting sparkling wine is then filtered and bottled.  The Charmat method is less expensive to produce than traditional method wine, and therefore less expensive for the consumer.  

My favorite sparkling wines of 2016:

  • Francois Chidaine NV Brut, Montlouis Sur-Loire, France – from 100% Chenin Blanc, perhaps my favorite white wine the world has to offer. Combine Chenin with bubbles, and it will make you so, so happy.
  • Domaine Rieflé Pinot Noir NV Brut, Cremant D’Alsace, France – biodynamically farmed (taking organic farming to the next level), and produced by the same family for fourteen generations.  Ah, France.
  • Nicolas Noble NV Brut, Champagne, France – a “grower Champagne”, coming from a single estate where the producer grows the grapes and makes the wine.  Very rare, indeed, for Champagne
  • Tenuta Stella Ribolla Gialla Metodo Classico NV Brut, Collio, Italy – besides Alsace, Northeast Italy (Collio, Alto Adige, Friuli) makes some of the most beautiful white wines in the world.  Ribolla Gialla is native to the area, making floral whites.  
  • G.D. Vajra Extra Brut, Vino Spumante, N.S. Della Neve, Italy – made from equal parts Pinot Nero and Nebbiolo, this wine is DRY, yet goes so well with cheese and charcuterie.  
  • Raventos i Blanc Brut L’hereu 2013, Penedes, Spain – also a biodynamic producer, 18 months on the lees (dead yeast) makes this a traditional method sparkling wine.   Toasty finish, and nose of minerals that lasts for days.
  • Sh’Bubbles Carignane NV Brut, CA  – no room for pretension on this wine!  Morgan Twain Peterson picks this Carignane early, making it dry but with a lovely nose of almonds and cherry pits.  Charmat method.
  • Roederer Estate L’Ermitage 2009, Anderson Valley, CA – perhaps making the best sparkling wine in all of California, this vintage sparkling wine is made in the traditional method, and would be considered a top shelf Champagne in a blind tasting.


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


P.S. – the next “Secrets to Food & Wine Pairing” workshop with be February 12, 2017, featuring winemaker Michael Keenan of the Robert Keenan winery, up on Spring Mountain in Napa Valley.  You’re going to love his wines.  


These Wines Will Make Your Thanksgiving Feast Even Better

turkey-with-wineThe Thanksgiving feast is a cornucopia of flavors that can be super challenging to pair with wine.  From turkey to cranberries, stuffing to green bean casserole, and candied yams to brussel sprouts, finding a wine that goes well with all of it is tough.  

A couple things you’ll want to keep in mind when picking out your wine this week.   Acidity in wine is key.  There’s gonna be plenty of butter, cream, and duck fat in your food this week.  Pair it with a wine having vibrant acidity, and you’ve got a match made in heaven.  Secondly, you’ll want your wine to have a little texture to it.  Sauvignon Blanc, albeit vibrant in acid, will be too light on texture, with all that complexity and sugar in the food.  Riesling, Gruner Veltliner, Semillon, and Pinot Gris will work well for whites, while Gamay, Grenache, French Loire Cabernet Franc, and Pinot Noir are great choices for reds.  When buying red this week, stay away from medium full to full tannins.  Save those wines for steak.  Although tannins love fat, having a wine with a tannic focus will completely dominate Thanksgiving’s flavors.  


The Gardener Riesling 2013, Carneros, Sonoma County

Nikolaihof Gruner Veltliner 2014, Hefeabzug, Wachau, Austria

Oro en Paz Semillon 2015, Luchsinger Vineyard, Lake County, California

Antiquum Farm Pinot Gris 2015, “Aurosa”, Willamette Valley, Oregon


Anthony Thevenet Gamay 2013, Morgon, Beaujolais, France

Verdad Garnacha 2014, Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard, Edna Valley

Chateau de Brezé Cabernet Franc, 2015, Clos Mazurique, Saumur, France

Zotovich SR/246 Pinot Noir 2013, STA. Rita Hills, California

Happy Thanksgiving!



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.



The Secrets to Food & Wine Pairing – An Italian Immersion

screen-shot-2016-11-02-at-12-40-10-pmI think I was Italian in another life!  Since the late 90’s, I have been fascinated with Italian wine and culture.  My dad grew up in an Italian neighborhood, where his mother learned to make amazing spaghetti and meatballs, and his dad learned how to make wine from their Italian friends.  Later, my dad, having been influenced by my passion for wine, delved into the world of Italian wines.  He bought the good stuff;  Barolo, Barbaresco, Amarone, Brunello, and Bolgheri “Super Tuscans”.  They became the centerpiece of our family celebrations.  

A true fantasy of mine has been to utilize my knowledge and passion to teach about Italian wine, and I’m finally making it happen on December 11, noon-3:30, in the Oakland hills.  With twenty years of experience in the restaurant business, and almost a decade as a sommelier, buying wine for restaurants, I’ve finally found the nerve to share my love for Italian wine with you.  So, I surrounded myself with a great team of Italian friends to help immerse this workshop in all things Italy.  We’ll travel from Sicily to Piedmont, tasting food and wine, and be serenaded by the sounds of musician Laura Inserra, playing music from each region.  It all takes place in the comforts of my beautiful home, overlooking the bay.  With the help of chef Marco Antonelli, you’ll try wild boar ragout and Barbera, from Piedmont, Focaccia al Formaggio and Pigato, from Liguria, pasta with porcini mushrooms and Etna Rosso, from Sicily, and that’s just to whet your appetite.  

The workshop is for beginners and aficionados alike.  I’ve had everyone from first time wine drinkers, to winemakers get something useful out of this workshop.  Past attendees not only loved the food and wine, but they felt engaged and included in the conversation.  Beginners will ideally start to understand what they like, and how to ask for it, while wine professionals will benefit from reinforcement of existing knowledge.  Nonetheless, it will be relaxed, informative, delicious, and engaging.  

Listen to what others are saying about the Secrets to Food & Wine Pairing HERE.  

This event will sell out.  Order your tickets and get more information HERE, and don’t miss out.

Vegetarians are welcome.   Be sure to let me know what your dietary restrictions are in advance.

I can’t wait to share the day with you.

Patrick Cress


Austrian White Wines are Perfect for Fall Fare

danube-river-in-fallI love this time of year. I love the smell of fallen leaves, and the crisp evening air on my face.  This is my favorite time of year for food, too.  Pomegranate, persimmon, nutmeg, chestnuts, sage, apples, squash, turkey, cranberry, and hearty dishes like roasted duck and braised pork shoulder.  Sometimes, my palate gets a little tired of one red wine after another, and I need a white wine to help give me some variety.  If you’re like me, Austrian whites are the way to go this fall.   

Austria has a rich history of winemaking, dating back at least 2000 years.  It thrived under (who else!) the Romans, where we first see evidence of Gruner Veltliner, Austria’s national varietal.  In virtually every important winegrowing region of the world, there is a river that is vital to producing quality grapes.  Austria’s key landmark was and still is, the Danube river.  The hillside vineyards along the Danube have poor quality soils, perfect for producing high quality grapes.  These stressed out vines produce less fruit, and spend most of their energy concentrating on the few clusters that remain on the vine.  Very little Mediterranean influence reaches Austria, so the continental climate is reliant upon this mighty river to regulate temperatures, both in the summer and winter.

What seems totally unique, though, is the influence of the Waldviertel forests in northwest Austria.  It is these nordic breezes, that flow from the northwest that heavily influence the diurnal shift from hot daytime temperatures to cold nighttime temperatures in regions like the Kremstal and Kamptal – two appellations where you get maximum bang for your buck.  A significant contrast in day / night temperatures is needed to regulate sugars in the grapes, and help facilitate the racy acidity and beautiful aromatics that are so important for exceptional whites.  The areas of Kremstal and Kamptal are more influenced by the Waldviertel forest than the Danube.  Both produce fantastic Gruner Veltliner, Riesling, and Chardonnay that have everything I’m looking for in great white wine;  flowery aromatics, silky texture, vibrant acidity, and a finish that lasts for days.

Check out these amazing Austrian whites this fall:

Schloss Gobelsburg Gruner Veltliner 2014, Kamptal

The property has been a monastery since the 12th century, and the current winemaker sees himself as a steward.  Loess and loam soils challenge the vines to put most of their energy into the grapes.  

Buchegger Gruner Veltliner 2013, Vordernberg, Kremstal

The Vordernberg vineyard is prestigious for fabulous gruner.  Whole cluster pressing emphasizes the aromatic, while 4 months on the lees (dead yeast) lends itself to texture.

Geyerhof Gruner Veltliner 2014, Rosensteig vineyard, Kremstal

Organically farmed.  Gravel and crushed rock soils lend a vine to minerally characteristics in the nose.  

Weixelbaum Gruner Veltliner 2014, “Wechselberg”, Kamptal

Organically and biodynamically farmed, the Wechselberg vineyard has partly volcanic soils that are iron-rich.  These soils retain heat longer into the night and hang on the vines longer into the season.  

Hannes Reeh Chardonnay 2013, Burgenland

My sleeper chardonnay of 2016.  Creamy, and super subtle vanilla combine with citrus blossom and a wonderful texture on the palate.  The acidity is perfectly balanced.  

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


Cabernet Franc. Seductive and Sexy.

bettie-pageWine can be such a visceral experience. Sometimes I get a little flush in the cheeks, when I’ve had a wine that’s so delicious, it becomes slightly arousing.  I first encountered this at A Cote restaurant in Oakland, where I was introduced to the seductive Brundlmayer sparkling rosé.  Pink complexion, dancing bubbles, attractive yet introverted fruit, and a finish that lasted for days! Cabernet Franc, more often than not has a similar effect on my psyche.  It smells of sophistication with its black cherry fruit, herbal notes, and intermingled roasted pepper earthiness.  Add in a touch of French oak for a subtle baking spice finish, and it may be hard for you to concentrate on dinner conversation.  

So, what kind of terrior brings out the best in Cabernet Franc?  Limestone and gravel are key, like with the “Right Bank” appellations of Saint Emilion and Pomerol in Bordeaux.  These nutrient poor soils prevent vines from focusing energy on canopy and leaves.  Instead, all of the energy is focused on producing fruit. These “Right Bank” appellations usually blend equal amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, so they tend to be richer, and have a weightier mouthfeel.  Bordeaux is no stranger to hot summers, where daytime temperatures in the nineties bring out fruit and depth in wine.  I love these wines with braised lamb shanks.  The earthiness of the lamb really brings out the fruit of the wine in a beautiful way.  Fat in animal protein really goes well with acidity in wine, and “Right Bank” Bordeaux wines are the perfect pairing.

The Loire, perhaps my favorite style, focuses on Cabernet Franc as its sole varietal to create a nose of violets, roses, cranberry, tart cherry-like fruit, and vibrant acidity on the palate.  The appellations of Chinon, and Bourgueil float my boat.  The tuffeau limestone soil in the vineyard brings out a complex minerality on the nose to balance out the fruit.  Loire is where “Cab Franc” first became popular in the 1600’s, probably because it had the finesse of Chopin’s “Nocturnes”, the seductiveness of Bettie Page, and the silky smooth texture of a red velvet dress.  Who doesn’t want to taste that!?  These wines are perfect for the fall, too.  Think Thanksgiving.  Turkey, stuffing, cranberries, roasted root veggies, and a pan gravy.

Of late, California has taken the ball and run with it.  Using “Right Bank” Bordeaux and the Loire as their reference, California winemakers are producing delicious Cabernet Franc wines.  The key is to not overcrop Cabernet Franc, though.  It is especially susceptible to green bell pepper and vegetal flavors, when the vines are allowed to produce too much fruit.  California is still in the infant stages of figuring out how to balance volume (tons per acre) with quality, and Cabernet Franc will certainly let you know about it!  That roasted pepper on the nose and palate needs to be in balance with the fruit, acid, oak, and texture.  When we find that balance, it is pure magic in a glass.

Check these Cabernet Francs out:

  • La Petite Chopinere Cab Franc 2012,  Bourgueil, France
  • Dom Beausejour Cab Franc 2014, Chinon, France
  • Zepaltas Cabernet Franc 2014, Pickberry vineyard, Sonoma Valley
  • Truchard Cabernet Franc 2013, Carneros, Napa Valley
  • Keenan Cabernet Franc 2012, Spring Mountain, Napa Valley
  • Chateau La Croix Chantecaille Cabernet Franc / Merlot 2012, Saint Émilion, Grand Cru, France
  • Overture By Opus One Cabernet Sauvignon / Cabernet Franc / Merlot NV, Oakville, Napa 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.



Skin Contact Whites – White Wine For The Red Wine Drinker

orange wineHello Team, before I get into this week’s topic, I want to invite you to an event you should not miss. I’m hosting “the Secrets to Food & Wine Pairing – Volume 2” on Sunday Sept. 11, from 1-4PM in Oakland.  I’ll be working alongside long time friend and badass chef, Shawn Mattiuz.  We’ll feature our favorite flavors of fall, let you taste, and show you how our food & wine pairings work so well together.  It’ll be delicious, relaxed, fun, and informative. Reserve your ticket HERE.

There are some people that will not drink white wine.  Either they had a bad experience with a Chardonnay that tasted like dirty old feet, or almost got their soft palate burned by a searing Sauvignon Blanc.  It doesn’t matter if it’s 90 degrees out;  it’s red wine or nothing!   Others are more ambivalent towards white wine, but would much rather feast their palate on a rich and complex red.  For those of you that love red wine, I’d like to introduce you to skin contact white wines.

For thousands of years, white wine was produced in the very same way as red wine, using open top fermentors, with extended time on the skins and lees (dead yeast).  These “orange wines”, of what we now call Eastern Europe, were wild in many ways:  unpredictable, nutty, tannic, and zero shelf life.  Since the 1940’s, however, white wine production has gone through a major transformation.  Cleaner and better controlled environments, pressing juice out of grapes, cold temperature fermentation, fining and filtering, and stainless steel have become the norm.  There are many benefits to this modern winemaking style, such as more vibrant, food friendly wines.  These contemporary whites are created with some predictability in how they will last on the shelf.  But, there’s also something very exciting about the wildness of skin contact whites.  They have a life to them that you don’t get out of your everyday Sauvignon Blanc.  They have the complexity, nuttiness, structure, and body to go with the vibrancy of acid.

Skin contact whites use the same principles in making a red wine.  The juice and the skins soak together, sometimes for upwards of a month.  Winemakers can choose to ferment the wine in either closed stainless steel or cement vats, which control the process somewhat.  Or, they can get all jiggy with it and ferment exactly as they would a red wine in open top fermenters.  The process oxidises the wine, creating a hazelnut quality on the finish and caramelized color, also known as “orange wine”.  In either case, the tannins, earthiness, and floweriness are emphasized when macerating (fermenting wine on its skins) white or red wine on its skins.  In whites, you’ll get a structure and texture like red wine while still having the grace and femininity of white wine.  Consequently, these wines are some of the world’s most versatile food wines – going with everything from fish, to pork, to even beef.    

It is the more aromatic whites that work best for skin contact.  These floral notes mix really well with the richer notes that a winemaker achieves through the skin contact process.  Here are four or my favorite whites.  Click on the link to see where you might buy a bottle or twelve.

Anselmo Mendes Alvarinho 2014, “Contacto”, Monçao Melgaco, Vino Verde, Portugal

This type of wine is extremely rare in Portugal.  My guess is that Mr. Mendes is seen as a bit of an odd bird in those parts!  I love the grace and acidity of Alvarinho (also known as Albarino in Spain).  They are really graceful, and fragrant as a warm spring day when made well.  Mix that with a full month on the skins, and four months on the lees, and you get a truly exciting wine.  Notes of honeysuckle, peach, pear, and chalk.  The cucumber water-like texture, beautiful pear fruit, and subtle, food-loving tannins will seduce you.  

Batic Pinela / Rebula (Ribolla Giala) / Zelen 2014, Slovenia

Now, this part of the world is where “orange wines” start to become a little more normal!  I got a great education about “orange wine” and indigenous varietals at Oakland’s own A Coté restaurant.  Jeff Berlin has got an amazing wine list there.  This wine comes from a family owned winery, making wine since 1592!  It is organically certified, comes from the Vipava valley, and has seven days of skin contact.  It really feels like you’re drinking something vibrant and full of life when you try this wine.  Its notes of fennel, gardenia, cider, pastis, smoke, and honey make you forget you’re drinking wine for a second.  On the palate it comes across as dry, richly textured, and smoky, with a nice acid backbone, and subtle tannins.  

Antiquum Farm Pinot Gris 2015, “Aurosa”, Willamette Valley, Oregon

Winemaker Stephen Hagen is truly dedicated to holistic farming, using red clover as a cover crop, and compost to fertilize.  He literally still tends the vineyard rows with horse and plow.  The Willamette Valley in Oregon is known for two varietals world wide.  Wine aficionados love the Pinot Noir, but the oft forgotten Pinot Gris is also world class.   He lets the skins macerate for thirty-six hours in some neutral oak, and leaves the wine on the lees for five months.  I love this wine so much, with its notes of hibiscus tea, rose hip, lavender, lemon blossom, mandarin fruit, and ocean-like minerality.  It’s textured with layers of apricot fruit, and has orange-like acidity.  

Donkey & Goat Vermentino / Grenache Blanc / Marsanne / Roussanne / Picpoul “Sluice Box” 2014, El Dorado

Jared and Tracey at D&G in Berkeley are some of my favorite people in the business.  I love their dedication and stubbornness of making an old world style of wine, despite a lot of California still pining for Napa Valley wines.  You can get a glass of this wine at Revival Bar & Kitchen in Berkeley.  Almost fifty percent of the wine is left on the skins for about seven days.  I feel like this practice goes so well with their philosophy of picking early (yielding drier, more acidic wines) to create a truly complex food wine.  Think melon, peach, and caramel on the nose.  It is textured, has structure, and acid on the palate, with pronounced tannins.  Go for it!  Pair it with the heartiest of dishes.  

Skin contact white cheat sheet:

  • Anselmo Mendes Alvarinho 2014, “Contacto”,  Vino Verde, Portugal
  • Batic Pinela / Rebula (Ribolla Giala) / Zelen 2014, Slovenia
  • Antiquum Farm Pinot Gris 2015, “Aurosa”, Willamette Valley, Oregon
  • Donkey & Goat Vermentino / Grenache Blanc  “Sluice Box” 2014, El Dorado


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