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Wine: Reviews, Thoughts & Culture

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A Visit to Palmaz Vineyards in Napa Valley

A Visit to Palmaz Vineyards in Napa Valley

Several years ago I was out in Napa Valley with only a few hours left on the last day of my trip. Someone strongly recommended Palmaz Vineyards as a must. I wasn’t familiar with them and since it was appointment only...

Visiting Napa's Round Pond Estate

2012RutherfordCab750ml_FrontThere are literally hundreds of ways to taste wine in Napa Valley. The classic tried and true way is to bump up to the bar and enjoy a range of current offerings. Napa started doing that way back when and allowed Vintners to showcase their wares. The idea was and still is that if you liked one or more of their wines you’d take some home to enjoy later. At most wineries you can still do this. Many tasting rooms, all over now, also offer additional ways to enjoy wine. This can be as simple as a wine and cheese pairing or as involved as a helicopter flight to a mountain top tasting. Round Pond Estate has chosen to allow guests to enjoy the bounty of their property and all that encompasses in a number of ways. Depending on how much time you want to commit and what parts of Round Pond you’d like to see you can spend as little as half an hour there, or as much as a day. For my recent visit I cut it right down the middle and spent more than 2 hours there. My guest and I took part in Round Pond’s Il Pranzo Lunch ($120). Head over to The Daily Meal to read the rest.

Visiting MacPhail Family Wines Tasting Lounge at the Barlow

Macphail bottle 002Over in Sonoma County in the town of Sebastopol sits The Barlow. It’s a series of former warehouses that has found new life as an open-air mall of sorts. More than a mall, though, it’s a destination for shopping, eating, drinking ,and plain-old hanging out. There are many reasons to go there, but my favorite is the MacPhail Family Wines Tasting Lounge. The focus at MacPhail is largely on pinot noir. They source fruit from distinct vineyards and use it to produce a wide range of wines. Most of them are single vineyard offerings, a few are region specific. There are several tasting options available at MacPhail, some of them require reservations; most of them do not. In my opinion, it’s always a good idea to make an appointment anywhere you go for best results. The atmosphere fostered by general manager and long-time Sonoma Wine Guy Jim Morris at MacPhail is welcoming, laid-back, and informative. Head over to The Daily Meal to read the rest.

Darioush: A Warm and Inviting Napa Valley Palace

4Darioush_DarioushKhalediPortraitOn a recent trip to Napa Valley, I scheduled time with producers I’ve never visited and a handful I have been to previously. In one case I’d been several times prior, but not in a few years, and it was time to correct that and see what they were up to. That particular producer is Darioush, a fairly small winery in terms of production size. In all, they make about 20,000 cases of wine each year and roughly half of that is their best-known wine, a cabernet sauvignon. Darioush sits towards the southern end of Napa Valley’s Silverado Trail. Of the two main thoroughfares in Napa, Silverado is the less densely populated, slightly quieter one. Darioush’s physical structure is one of the more lavish and ostentatious in the valley. It was founded by Darioush Khaledi, an Iranian immigrant who made his fortune with a family-owned grocery store chain in Southern California. As you drive up, it’s difficult not to be enraptured by the gorgeous property and winery building. In fact, the building is so incredible that you... Head over to The Daily Meal to read the rest.

Visiting Clif Family Winery in the Heart of Napa Valley

Clif Family Winery RifugioMost every moment I spend in wine regions I’m on the hunt. Of course I’m looking for excellent wine, but when I’m on the ground somewhere I’m searching for brilliant tasting experiences too. They come in every shape and size, offering everything from just wine, to light pairings, all the way to full on meals accompanying wines. I just spent 10 days split between Napa Valley and Sonoma County; and on this trip alone had a huge variety of experiences. Many of them were quite good and well worth mentioning. One, however, stood above the pack. To say my tasting at Clif Family Winery was a homerun would be to sell the experience short. The tasting at Clif Family Winery is a Hall-of-Fame-caliber tasting, easily in the top five tasting experiences available in Napa Valley. Head over to The Daily Meal to read the rest.

Visiting Black Stallion Winery on Napa Valley's Silverado Trail

Black Stallion Winery is a Napa Valley producer located at the Southern end of the Silverado Trail. Relatively speaking they’re a pretty new operation, having opened their doors on site in 2007. I was just out in Napa Valley and since I had liked a couple of their widely distributed wines which I’d had recently I thought I should visit and see what they were up to. One of the first things you’ll learn if you visit Black Stallion is that their portfolio is far wider than the wines they have in distribution. In terms of releases, most of their offerings are aimed at their wine club and people who take the time to stop by their tasting room for a sample. There are a couple of different options when you do visit; these range in price from $15 to $30. The choices include things like a tour and tasting, Reds only tasting, private tasting, Wine & Pizza pairing and more. Basically they have something that will fit most people’s mood, desire, and budget.

The property Black Stallion sits on as well as some of the structures was previously an Equestrian center, the longest lasting one in California actually. I toured the facility while I was there and it’s an interesting an appealing property to check out. Right outside the building are rows of different grapes that are used as a learning vineyard. Many different varieties of grapes are featured, each with their own row. showing them side by side makes it easy for staff to teach interested visitors how to spot the differences between say a Chardonnay leaf and a Cabernet leaf. Walking through the production area it’s easy and fascinating to see where the doors to horse stalls once were. I enjoyed a nice, crisp and refreshing Rosé while I was walking around and then eventually sat down in a welcoming and comfortable room for a private tasting. Here are my thoughts on a handful of my favorite wines from the visit.

Black Stallion Estate Winery 2012 Chardonnay – This wine which is 100% Chardonnay is one of the two releases they currently have in nationwide distribution. It was aged over 10 months in entirely French oak; 30% of the barrels utilized were new. This wine has a suggested retail price of $22. Granny Smith apple aromas fill the nose of this Chardonnay. Taking the first sip the apple characteristics continue along joined by Anjou pear, baker’s spices and a bit of citrus zest. The finish is long and spicy with a hint of pie crust bringing things to a close. This wine is a solid value in readily available Napa Chardonnays.

Black Stallion 2011 Monte Rosso Zinfandel – 100% of the fruit for this wine comes from the esteemed vineyard of the same name. This offering is entirely Zinfandel. It was aged in French oak over 15 months. 46% of the barrels were new and the rest a combination of once and twice used. This wine sells for $45 through the winery. Right from the brambly nose it’s apparent that this is a classic example of Monte Rosso Zin. A potpourri of berry fruits fills the engaging palate with mouth pleasing flavors. Blackberry and raspberry flavors continue through the finish and are joined by black pepper and the essence of vanilla bean. This is a proportionate and even keeled Zin. Stylistically it owes much more to the classic old school Zin of past generations than it does the flashier, rocket fuel style Zins that are in fashion these days. This is simply an awesome Zinfandel and with less than 400 cases made it probably won’t last long, so grab it.

Black Stallion 2010 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – This wine is composed of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Merlot. All of the fruit is from Napa Valley. Barrel aging took place over 22 months in entirely French oak. It sells through the winery for $75. This Cabernet has a huge and boisterous nose loaded with dark fruit character. Black Cherry flavors dominate the palate. Blackberry and boysenberry flavors emerge on the finish along with a fine helping of chicory and dusty cocoa. This Cabernet has excellent length, chewy tannins and firm acid. It’s delicious today but will improve over the next 5-7 years and age gracefully for a handful after that. If you like classic Napa Cabernet that’s fruity but not over ripe, not to mention proportionate and food friendly, this is a wine for you.

Black Stallion 2009 Bucephalus Red – This proprietary blend varies in varietal composition from vintage to vintage. The 2009 was made from Cabernet Sauvignon (92%), Merlot (7%), and Syrah (1%). Barrel aging took place over 24 months in entirely French oak. It sells for $175 through the winery. Plum and black cherry aromas leap from the nose of this blend. The palate is rich and lush with depth, complexity and flavor to spare. Big, ripe, red and black cherry flavors are joined by a copious amount of spice. The finish is long and lusty with hints of kirsch liqueur and sweet chocolate sauce making an appearance. This wine has medium tannins that recede with some air. It’s a big, bold wine but it’s also quite approachable. I had a chance to sample the 2007 vintage as well and it had aged nicely. While the varietal composition varied the general intent of style was similar and speaks to the wine’s ability to age well in the mid term. There is even a dedicated Bucephalus tasting option available on weekends (or by prior reservation). One of their lounges off the main tasting room is used for this and for $30 you get the chance to taste four vintages of Bucephalus, which even has its own dedicated club you can join to guarantee an allocation.

This is a small sampling of the wines Black Stallion is making; they have quite a few others in their portfolio. One upcoming addition is a Pinot Noir which is going to be distributed alongside the Chardonnay & Cabernet Sauvignon. Next time you’re in Napa Valley I highly encourage you to visit Black Stallion Winery and pick the tasting option that suits you best. It’ll give you the opportunity to taste some authentic Napa Valley wines that you won’t be able to get elsewhere in a beautiful and welcoming facility.

Visiting Williams Selyem Winery in Sonoma County

Visiting Williams Selyem Winery in Sonoma County

Williams Selyem Winery has been making wine in Sonoma County since 1981. It was that year that they produced their first vintage of Pinot Noir. Since then their portfolio has been expanded a bit and there are a handful of other varietals in the mix; however they are first and foremost a Pinot Noir House. A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit them and taste through some current and older releases, as well as tour the facility. Williams Selyem graciously welcomes visitors by advance appointment. Check their website for specific details. Pulling up to the winery, the facility is impressive in a number of ways. On the one hand it’s a beautiful structure that would look good anywhere. Secondly and somewhat more importantly it fits perfectly into its surroundings. When they built this new winery property a few years back they surely kept the idea of being shepherds of the land in mind. From every angle I walked the facility, inside and out, it literally seemed as if it had been gently dropped into the vineyard land so as not to disturb anything. And in fact numerous trees of significant age are about as close to the building as one could possibly imagine. It’s also an eye-catching edifice inside and out without ever being ostentatious in any way.

William-Selyem is best known for Pinot Noir and their portfolio is dotted with single vineyard designate wines and cuvee offerings. In addition to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Zinfandel and a port produced from traditional Portuguese varietals are part of the mix. One of the interesting production methods that sets them apart is the use of Dairy Bins for fermentation. These large, rectangular bins offer a larger surface area than traditional fermentation vessels. They’re so ingrained in the production process that William-Selyem has a company routinely looking out for additional bins for them to acquire. Once they are purchased, the bins are retrofitted to comply with their needs. While a small amount of wines go out in distribution, 96% of their production is sold direct to consumers. They have had a robust mailing list of admirer’s for years that’s the envy of many others in the industry. Allocations are largely based on time on the list and buying history.

Quite a number of well made and delicious wines passed my lips while I visited; here are my impressions of a handful of selections that particularly stood out that day.

Williams Selyem 2011 Unoaked Chardonnay. The fruit for this entirely stainless steel fermented wine was sourced at three vineyards; Drake Estate Vineyard, Olivet Lane Vineyard, and Lazy W Ranch located on Westside   Road. This was a preview of a wine being released this spring. It’s going to have a price of $37. Orchard fruit aromas fill the fresh and vibrant nose of this wine. Tart green apple flavors are prominent on the palate along with bits of lime and pear. Minerals and an undercurrent of spice emerge on the finish which is clean and crisp. If I were to sum up this wine in one word it would be lovely. Those who aren’t fond of overdone, over-oaked Chardonnay should do whatever they can to acquire their own stash of this wine. It’s beautiful, refreshing and simply a pleasure to drink.

Williams Selyem 2010 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. The fruit for this cuvee style offering was sourcec at a combination of five vineyards; Bucher Vineyard,  Drake Estate Vineyard, the Foss Vineyard, the Lone Oak Vineyard, and Williams Selyem Estate Vineyard. Oak aging took place over 11 months in a combination of new (25%), once used (50%), and twice used (25%) barrels. This wine which was released last spring sells for $37. Both red and black fruit aromas fill the nose of this Pinot Noir. This theme continues through the palate where black cherry characteristics take a starring role. Raspberry, earth, black tea and a gentle wisp of anise all emerge on the finish which has excellent length. Fine acidity provides a firm backbone. This is a really terrific Pinot Noir in the under $40 category.

Williams Selyem 2005 Vista Verde Pinot Noir. This wine was made entirely from fruit sourced at the Vista Verde Vineyard. The location of this vineyard is just south of Holister, near where Calera, another highly regarded California Pinot Noir house is located. Barrel aging took place over 15 months in a combination of new (65%) and once used (35%) oak. At release this wine sold for $49. From the first whiff to the last sip this wine showed itself to be in its sweet spot. At just over seven years old it’s showing subtle cherry aromas on the nose. The palate leads with gingerbread spice notes that are accompanied by red fruits. Earth, sour cherry and a bit of tea are present in the finish which has terrific length. This is a stunning wine at its peak.

Williams Selyem 1998 Central Coast Pinot Noir. This wine was produced from Estate Vineyards located south of Hollister. Their Central Coast release typically spends 10 months in a combination of new (33%), once used (33%) and twice used (33%) oak. The current release sells for $39. At first blush this wine was a bit closed off and honestly I thought it might be gone. However a few minutes in the glass did wonders. Ultimately I was knocked out by how very much alive this 15 year old Pinot Noir is. Good lively fruit marked the nose and palate, with zippy acidity and a core of spices playing along as well. Impressive for its age and well worth drinking if you can get your hands on a bottle. This underscores the importance of balance and its role in the age-ability of wines.

If you’re a Pinot Noir lover traveling to Sonoma County Williams Selyem should be on your short list of producers to visit. This is a relatively small outfit, doing things in a unique manner with consistently noteworthy results. And if for some strange reason Pinot Noir isn’t your thing, the Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Port are quite tasty as well.

A Visit to Veramonte in Chile's Casablanca Valley

Years ago when I first started drinking Chilean wines I tasted some juice from a host of producers, many of them blurry to the memory at this late date. However a select few of the names still resonate for me; one of those is Veramonte. I recall drinking and enjoying several of their varietal wines, which make up the Reserva tier, consistently, the Sauvignon Blanc in particular has long been a favorite value wine of mine. My interest shifted to a higher gear for me when they first released Primus, a Red Blend. That was an impressive wine for the money when it was first released. As time went on I drank more and more Chilean wines but kept returning to the Veramonte releases. In the last few years that’s included the Ritual line of wines as well as the expanded lineup under the Primus name. So when I found out Veramonte was on the itinerary of Winery visits for my Chile trip I was thrilled. There is something particularly interesting and exciting to me about visiting a winery for the first time whose wines I’ve enjoyed for close to two decades. I wondered what I’d learn, that the contents of all those empty Veramonte bottles hadn’t taught me.

Most of our visit was spent with Winemaker Rodrigo Soto as our guide. He’s the Director of Winemaking for Veramonte and prior to his current gig he most recently spent six years working at Benzinger Family Winery in Sonoma County. Benzinger is well known for their Sustainable and Biodynamic winemaking practices. In speaking to Rodrigo it was fascinating to learn what he has planned for Veramonte. This is a successful winery that already makes delicious wines, but he and owner Agustin Huneeus aren’t satisfied with that. Their drive is to completely change the farming practices, eschewing herbicides and the like for sustainable and natural methods. The goal is Sheppard these vineyards for future generations, as well as of course making even more delicious wines. Rodrigo made the point that Chilean wine in general stands today where California did a couple of decades ago. As such, the perspective and knowledge Rodrigo gained working in Sonoma will serve Veramonte well on their move to the next level. After a tour of the winery and a look at some vineyards we sat down and tasted some highlights of the current portfolio. What follows are some brief impressions of a couple of my favorites.

Veramonte – 2011 Ritual Sauvignon Blanc – This wine is richer and riper than the entry level Sauvignon Blanc. The palate has a bit more heft than the average Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. It’s a spicy and round wine with a mineral laden finish. Most of the fruit was sourced from two high performing blocks. Their goal of proactive farming as opposed to winery manipulation shines through in this release.

Veramonte – 2011 Ritual Pinot Noir - This wine has a fresh nose with cherry, strawberry and bits of herbs. Fruit leads the palate with savory/spice playing a lesser but present role. Black cherry and a touch of plum are present. The 2011 has a solid finish. This continues to be an excellent value.

The Ritual wines have been noteworthy to me since their release a handful of vintages back. The current editions do nothing to dissuade me, if anything the style has come fully into view with several consistent vintages under their belts. If you enjoy the Veramonte Reserva tier of wines, the releases in the Ritual range are an obvious place to go next. The Ritual wines are generally available under for $20.

In addition to the Veramonte wines we had the opportunity to taste Neyen This is a partnership between Raul Rojas who founded it in Apalta in 2002, and Agustin Huneeus. The wine is sourced from Old Vines in Apalta planted to Carménère and Cabernet Sauvignon. Neyen is their take on a single spectacular wine made from old vines in an area already regarded for some highly respected Chilean releases. This wine sells in the US for around $45 and the current vintage is the 2008. If you like big mouth-filling reds with depth and character it’s one to consider. As delicious as it is today, my sense is that it will improve in the bottle over the next 5 years and be quite lovely for another 5 or 6 after that.

Veramonte was a place I was really looking forward to visiting. Not only did it meet my expectations it exceeded them on many levels. I’m excited by the plans they have to take things to a new level going forward. These wines are already well made, delicious and more than reasonably priced. More natural farming practices in the vineyards and around the winery in general stand to enhance what they’re doing. I’m excited to continue drinking these wines for years to come, you should be too!

Visiting Viña Vik in Millahue, Chile

In the late 1970’s when Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild where planning Opus One Winery In Napa Valley they had a singular vision; to create one wine that could stand alongside any other in the world in terms of quality and recognition. That’s a monumental undertaking but they had a bit of a head start. The Mondavi Family for their part chipped in with prime vineyards in the heart of Napa Valley as well as significant experience making wine in that very place. The Rothschild’s brought their experience of many years, and both families invested a lot of capital to achieve execute their plan for one great Bordeaux inspired wine.

Norwegian businessman Alexander Vik has gone to Chile with a similar vision; to make one world class wine. Unlike the Opus One Project he started from scratch assembling a team and providing the financial resources. To start the team he assembled visited more than 50 vineyard sites before settling on the land Mr. Vik eventually purchased. In studying the land they were about to purchase they spent a full year with the soils, pulling 6,000 samples. In short he has invested massive resources into this project, a bet of sorts on his vision for greatness. This week I had the opportunity to visit Viña Vik and meet some of the members of his wine-making team.

And what a property it is 4,325 hectares of which 382 are currently planted to vine. The plantings are all high density something which is becoming increasingly popular in Chile. That said the average is currently 4,500 per hectare. Our group was given an extensive tour of the property which is breathtaking in its size and scope as well as the attention to detail being paid to each block of fruit. Each one gets its own tank and its about 15 months after vinification that they begin to work on making a final blend of their wine. We were able to taste the 2009 and 2010 vintages of the finished wine as well as components that are under consideration to be used when they assemble the 2011.

The Viña Vik 2010 is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (56%), Carménère (32%), Cabernet Franc (5%), Merlot (4%) and Syrah (3%). It was fermented with native yeasts and spent 23 months in barrel prior to bottling this past April. This wine has a spectacular nose loaded with Cherry and leather characteristics. The palate is layered with depth and complexity to spare. Cherry and hints of black fruits star. This is a juicy and mouth-filling wine with an impressively lengthy finish. It’s a young wine that will benefit from proper cellaring and should have at least 10 years of enjoyable drinking ahead of it. We tasted it several times both by itself in a formal setting and paired with lunch where it had been decanted. When it had the opportunity to showcase itself alongside food it really impressed.

This wine will sell in the U.S. for around $135. There is no question that they have made a wine that should make Chile proud. As the vines gain age, the team learns their property even better, there is a likelihood that future releases will be of even higher quality. Case in point the 2010 vintage was significantly more elegant and noteworthy than the 2009. They are a massive property in the process of building an impressive underground winery and they are making one wine in small boutique quantities. For those willing to spend that sort of cash on a bottle of wine whether it’s to age, drink today or have Chile’s version of a trophy wine in their cellar, there’s no question it’s a very nice wine. I’ll be quite curious to follow their story on a go forward basis to see how they do and how future vintages of this wine turn out. The pieces are in place to win their bet, now we’ll see how the market responds. People love a story and they love to have collectibles, the bet here is that they will be successful.

Visiting Newton Vineyard on Spring Mountain in Napa Valley

A couple of months back I had the opportunity to taste some of the wines from Newton Vineyard in New York City alongside their winemaker Chris Millard. To say the least I was incredibly impressed with the lineup of wines that he presented that day. So naturally when I was planning a trip to Napa Valley, they were on the short list of places to visit that I’d not been to prior. The bottom line is that I’m quite glad I made them a priority. While Newton Vineyard has a history that stretches back just about 35 years it’s only over the last couple of years that they’ve been open to the public for tours and tastings. Each day they have two set times for those who want to tour and taste. Times are 11:00 AM and 2:30 PM for a tour and tasting at a cost of $40. This option lasts around 90 minutes but will vary based on group size and how interactive everyone on the tour is. For those who simply want to taste the wines, they offer that option each day at 1 PM for $30; the tasting only choice lasts about 45 minutes. Advance reservations are required; check their website for specific details on how to make your reservation. I’m sure that the tasting alone will be fun and rewarding, but I urge you to set aside the extra time to take the tour too, it’s a very good one, and I’ve been on hundreds of them.

Driving up Spring Mountain is always a treat. Even though it’s not that far I feel as if I’m being transported to a land far removed from the relative hustle and bustle of Highway 29. Once you reach the gate for Newton Vineyard you’ll notice a British style phone booth which is a nod to the winery’s co-founder Peter Newton and his heritage. You’ll immediately note that the property itself is stunning, with views to die for.

Visits at Newton start by checking in at the office. Just off to the side you’ll spot the room which will serve as the setting later to taste the wines. The tour of the property includes a magnificent garden that is painstakingly maintained. The garden itself is so stunning that it alone could warrant a trip to Newton Vineyard. Its design as well as that of the overall estate is the brainchild of Su Hua co-founder and wife of Peter Newton. After walking the grounds we saw some of the barrel rooms and winemaking facilities that are on property.

Then it was time to make our way back to the main building where we sat down at a large table in the midst of a beautiful well lit room to taste the wines. The room is gorgeous in its own right and is accented by pieces of art, commissioned each year by the winery from different artists. This is one of those little touches, like a lingering bit of spice on a wine's finish that stay with you long after you leave the winery. Each of the wines we sampled was paired with bites of food. The pairings were well thought out and flawlessly executed. On their own, the wines are terrific, but showcasing them with perfectly paired morsels allows whoever is sampling to experience them at their absolute best. The four wines we tasted were all part of their Unfiltered Tier of offerings which also amount to their reserve wines. These wines are generally distributed and available around the country but not as widely as their Red label wines. The Newton Unfiltered wines are distinct, fruit driven selections that show off their sense of place as well as the varietal used to make them.

There are quite literally hundreds of choices when you visit Napa Valley to go wine tasting. Many of the possible destinations are beautiful and have gorgeous, well made wines. Taking all of that into account Newton Vineyard still stands out. This is a place you want to set aside time for and make an extra effort to be sure you visit. There isn’t anything about it that isn’t lovely, delicious or impressive. This was my first time there and I’ll no doubt go back on a future trip so I can re-experience the perfectly decadent pairings, enjoy the noteworthy views and bask in the great hospitality they provide. If you want to experience the best Napa Valley has to offer, Newton Vineyard needs to be on your itinerary.

Visiting Balletto Vineyards & Winery in Sonoma County

It’s a good thing I keep lists. In this case it’s a list of Wineries in Sonoma County I keep meaning to get to but haven’t yet. Thankfully I can now scratch Balletto Vineyards & Winery off of that list. A couple of years back someone had poured one of their wines for me and It had left an impression. Subsequently a few people whose opinions I trust had mentioned them to me as well. But I kept running out of time on previous trips and never made it there, until last week. I’m quite glad that I did. Balletto Vineyards sits at 5700 Occidental Road, Santa Rosa, CA and their phone number is 707-568-2455. Balletto is open every day from 10 AM to 5 PM. Balletto started out as growers and farmers and they still are, selling off roughly 90% of their fruit in most years. The tasting room has a country charm which instantly brings to mind classic Sonoma County. The day I visited they had roughly ten wines they were pouring. Overall, both whites and reds left a very good impression as did the welcoming nature of their tasting room and operation as a whole. Here’s a look at a few of the wines that stood out the most on my visit.

Balletto Vineyards & Winery 2010 Russian River Valley Estate Pinot Gris is the 9th vintage they have made of this particular release. All of the fruit came from their own vineyards. This wine is 100% Pinot Gris. Just fewer than 2,500 cases of this wine were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $18. A welcoming nose shows of bits of Lychee as well as vanilla bean. The palate shows an impression of sweetness in the droves of stone fruit such as Apricot and White Peach. Lemon Zest rounds things out and leads to the finish which is clean and crisp with zippy acidity. This is perfectly suited to pair with spicy food and light meals; it’ll also work perfectly as a welcome wine.

The Balletto Vineyards & Winery  2009 Russian River Valley Estate Gewürztraminer is the 5th vintage they have produced this wine. This is a single vineyard effort with all of the fruit coming from their Piner Road vineyard. It’s 100% Gewüurztraminer. Just over 500 cases of this wine were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $18 but when I visited they were selling it for a bit less. White rose petal aromas emerge from the nose of this wine along with loads of fruit and hints of spice. Stone fruits, pear and bits of white pepper and vanilla are present on the palate which is gentle and layered with plenty of complexity. The finish here is lengthy as well as spice and mineral laden. This is a really beautiful example of Gewüurztraminer, something a bit too rare in California. Whether you drink it on it’s own or pair it with light foods, this wine is a sure fire winner.

The Balletto Vineyards & Winery 2011 Russian River Valley Estate Pinot Noir was produced from fruit sourced at 5 different vineyards within the winery’s Estate holdings. It’s all Estate fruit and this is the 11th year that they have produced this offering. It’s 100% Pinot Noir. Just fewer than 3.900 cases of this brand new release were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $29. Bits of tea and strawberry emerge on the slightly reticent nose of this 2011 Pinot Noir. This is a new release a bit on the young side and some additional time in the bottle will be a benefit. Cherry and cranberry lead the palate which has good depth as well as being gentle and proportionate. Nutmeg and clove as well as white pepper emerge on the finish along with bits of mineral characteristics. This is a really nice Cuvee style Pinot Noir that you should decant for an hour or two if you’re going to drink it soon. Otherwise hold it for another year or so and it’ll be immediately approachable.

The Balletto Vineyards & Winery 2009 Russian River Valley Estate Syrah is a Single site effort with all of the fruit coming from their Estate BCD Vineyard. This is the 5th vintage they have produced this wine. A mere 210 cases were made and it has a suggested retail price of $24. Aromas of smoked meats and black fruits fill the deep, dark nose of this Syrah. Dark, brooding fruits continue on the palate along with spices that include both white and black pepper. The smoked meat characteristics continue on the lengthy finish along with bits of dark, dusty chocolate. This wine, which is a killer example of how well Syrah can be made in CA when it’s grown and treated right, will pair well with a host of bold meat dishes.

I highly recommend Balletto Vineyards & Winery as a stop to anyone visiting Sonoma County. The wines are well made, delicious and quite reasonably priced. The folks manning the tasting room are friendly, welcoming and informative. In short it’s a great place to while away some time, tasting excellent wine. The day I visited they had several wines on sale which made those particular wines nothing short of a steal. It took me awhile to get there, but I’ll be back, on my very next trip.

Visiting Trefethen Family Vineyards in Napa Valley

Trefethen Family Vineyards is a classic Napa valley spot. As you drive north on Route 29 their sign is amongst the very first you’ll see; long before the highway gets crowed with one tasting room after another. If you hang a right turn onto Oak Knoll Avenue you’ll come upon their entryway before long. Ambling up their driveway it’s interesting to note how neatly tucked into the property they are. Eventually you’ll come upon a historic building that dates back to the 1800’s. Once inside the tasting room the atmosphere has a lovely rustic feel. They offer several tasting options as well as tour which is available daily at 10:30 AM by prior appointment. Their Estate tasting which is $15 offers a choice of four wines from their current releases. Their Reserve tasting is $25 and focuses on their more limited offerings. Trefethen also has some special events and after-hours tastings, check their website for specific details. The wines at Trefethen are by and large well balanced offerings that showcase terrific varietal qualities. There wasn’t a wine in their lineup that I wouldn’t be happy to drink on any given day but three of them really stood out to me and here are some details on them.

The Trefethen Family Vineyards 2011 Dry Riesling was produced entirely from fruit sourced at their home ranch on Oak Knoll Road. This offering is 100% Riesling. This is one of their selections which are available nationally and it has a suggested retail price of $22. This is a spicy, dry wine with a hugely aromatic nose, lovely mid-palate loaded with gentle fruit flavors, crisp minerality and continued spice on the finish. Whether enjoyed on its own or paired with lighter foods this is an impressive Riesling sure to leave a lasting memory.

The Trefethen Family Vineyards 2010 Viognier is a small production wine produced from fruit sourced at their home estate. This wine was crafted entirely from Viognier. It’s for sale through the winery at a price of $30. Tropical fruit aromas and hints of vanilla bean lead the nose followed by a palate loaded with unctuous fruit flavors that go on and on. A hint of crème fraiche accompanies spice notes on the finish. This is a beautiful wine all by itself but will pair wonderfully with soft ripe cheeses and roast chicken dishes to name a few.

The Trefethen Family Vineyards 2008 Cabernet Franc was produced largely from fruit sourced at their home ranch (92%), along with a small amount (8%) from their Hillspring Vineyard. This small lot wine is available from the winery for $38. The Franc opens with a huge nose loaded with leather and cherry aromas. The palate has depth and complexity to spare as gently layered flavors just wash over your taste buds. Cherry characteristics continue and give way to graphite, earth and bits of espresso on the impressive finish. This is a perfect wine to pair with a Sunday roast.

If you’re travelling to Napa Valley I highly recommend that you add Trefethen Family Vineyards to your itinerary. They have a long history in Napa that grows with each passing year. Their wines are classically styled offerings that don’t bend to the whims of the day; solid, impressive wines you can buy with confidence to enjoy today or in several cases lay down for later enjoyment as well. It’s always fun to visit the new kids on the block and see what they’re up to. But it can be equally rewarding and delicious to visit with folks who have been getting it done, with class, for decades. The folks at Trefethen are welcoming and knowledgeable people who are happy to pour some wine for you and tell you the history of the property, winery itself or the wine you're tasting. In short you can't go wrong with an hour or two whiled away at Trefethen.

Visiting Benessere Vineyards in Napa Valley

On my most recent trip to Napa Valley I had the opportunity to visit Benessere Vineyards, while there I spent some time with winemaker Jack Stuart. He’s been on board at Benessere for roughly a year and he’s set to usher in the winery’s next era. Of late he’d been working on his own projects, but prior to that he’d been the winemaker at Napa Valley stalwart Silverado for more than 20 years. The focus at Benessere is on Italian varietals. Sangiovese, Pinot Grigio. Muscat Canelli, and Aglianico are all part of the portfolio. Their Rosato contains Sangiovese as well, and they make several Zinfandels in addition to a couple of other releases. Each wine in the portfolio I tasted on my visit was distinct. What ties the Benessere wines together is that they are well balanced offerings loaded with varietal character; each of them is primed to pair with food.

In speaking to Jack I was able the gleam quite a bit about his approach to winemaking and what changes he intends on a go forward basis for the Benessere wines. In fact it’s fair to say that his intent is to take the traits I feel are already strong about the wines and take them to the next level. From a technical standpoint he’s making small changes with the oak treatment some of the wines receive, using French instead of American in spots he feels that’s appropriate. Another example is improving the Pinot Grigio by working to craft one without the bit of residual sugar that has cropped up in some vintages.

Benessere makes a couple of single vineyard Zinfandels which are impressive for a couple of reasons. Importantly, the Benessere Zinfandels are distinct, as single vineyard wines should be. Unfortunately not every single-vineyard wine on the market is as distinct and special as that designation is intended to indicate. That’s not an issue at Benessere where the Zinfandel is made in a classic style which compared to some of the other Zinfandels on the market today would be considered restrained. In truth what they are is impeccably balanced and age-worthy, showing off a sense of place that makes them noteworthy.

Benessere Vineyards is located at 1010 Big Tree Road in St Helena and they’re open daily from 10 AM to 5 PM. Check there website for more specific details as well as tasting and tour options. Benessere sits up on a quiet road in St. Helena, one of the least hectic parts of Napa Valley. It’s a serene atmosphere that seems far removed from the hustle and bustle that so often embodies Highway 29, just a stones throw away. The folks at Benessere are friendly and the wines are well made, quite delicious and more than fairly priced. If you’re going to be in Napa Valley I highly recommend setting aside some time out to visit them. Take a break from the endless array of Cabernet Sauvignon and sample some well made California versions of classic Italian varieties.

Also, please stay tuned as I’ll take a close look at some of the current releases from Benessere Vineyards right here over the next few weeks.

Visiting Judd's Hill Winery on the Silverado Trail in Napa Valley

Wine tasting is one of the greatest and most relaxing ways to spend a couple of hours, a day or a week. If you spend enough time in tasting rooms it’s easy to pick out the places that are truly special. At the end of the day if the wine is good, that’s sufficient I suppose. That said some places take it to another level by treating their visitors particularly well or offering more than just a couple of pours at a bar in the corner. I spent the last week plus out in Napa and Sonoma and I found some excellent places to recommend. Once such producer is Judd’s Hill, which is located on the Silverado trail. If you hit the trail out of downtown Napa they’re quite literally the first producer you’ll run across. Judd’s Hill is a boutique winery that sets itself apart from the masses in Napa in a number of ways. From the moment you drive onto their property you’ll feel like you’re transported to a different time. Their facility is just perfectly secluded enough to make this an incredibly serene environment. Lucky for us wine lovers that they share it with the public. Tastings at Judd’s Hill occur daily from 10 AM to 4 PM by prior appointment. The tasting room itself seems like anything but the standard bearer rooms you find at many other spots nearby. It’s a bright, well lit room, with a large conference style table at the center. The walls are adorned with artwork from both local artists who are being featured and members of the family such as founder Art Finkelstein. Tastings at Judd’s Hill are $10 (waived with a $45 purchase) and officially they have about 5 wines at a time they pour. However often they have other wines open which are gladly sampled for the keenly interested. Someone will guide you and/or your group through the tasting and walk you through the facility as well if you’re interested. Their wines are made both from estate and purchased fruit. What is distinct about the Judd’s Hill wines is that they are each well-balanced and loaded with varietal character. They’re also priced very fairly which is nice to see. Their new release 2010 Sauvignon Blanc ($24) is a particular standout in terms of being an exceptional value. The Estate Pinot Noir which is available only at the winery was my favorite of their current releases. I also got to sample a Merlot and several Cabernet Sauvignons. Each wine they poured for me was terrific and if you’re a fan of one of their wines there’s a good chance the portfolio in general will appeal to you. The reason for this is the house style which is aimed towards producing balanced and food friendly wines which are proportionate.

In addition to producing wines under their own label, Judd’s Hill is a custom crush facility. That means you can sign up to utilize their equipment and vast wine making acumen to make your own wines. Unlike many of the other such facilities out there Judd’s Hill is a Micro Crush facility; their focus is not on large commercial clients but rather on wine enthusiasts the world over who want a place to enjoy their hobby or start their small brand. By focusing on smaller clients, one barrel (24 cases) is the minimum; they can apply the same personal touches they do to their own small-lot wines and tasting room visitors to their Micro Crush clients. Their website contains many more details, but in short someone who wants to participate can pick exactly which parts of the process they want to be involved in, Judd’s Hill will handle the rest for you.

Judd’s Hill also offers a wine club that can be customized to suit your personal tastes and needs. This includes selecting the number of bottles you receive (shipments are quarterly), as well as an option to receive red wines only. Wine club members are also welcome to pick their wines up at Judd’s Hill. That sounds like a perfect reason to stop by for a taste every 3 months. They also throw events throughout the year including wine pick up parties. If you’re lucky, winery namesake Judd Finkelstein’s Ukulele band will be playing.

So whether you’re in Napa Valley looking to taste wine or you want to bottle some of your own, Judd’s Hill is a place to keep in mind. Their friendly, welcoming atmosphere as well as eclectic artistry and tastes guarantee you’ll have spent time at a special and distinct place when you eventually walk out their door. Call them at 707-255-2332 to schedule a visit; you’ll be glad you did.

Visiting Signorello Estate in Napa Valley

I’ve been travelling to Napa Valley since the early 90’s. Even with trips out here several times a year there are wineries that have existed that whole time that I have yet to get to. With that in mind I try to scratch a few off of my list each time out so I can taste their wine and of course see what they’re up to. One such producer whose wines I’ve been drinking over the years is Signorello Estate located on Silverado Trail. Even before landing I had them on my short list of places to finally get to this trip. I’m happy to say I’m very glad I did. The drive up the road to Signorello Estate from Silverado trail isn’t a long one, but when you reach the top you’re sure to feel like you’ve entered a special place. The grounds are stunning and the colors of the tasting room building inside and out are warm and inviting. When I reached their tasting counter I was greeted enthusiastically and noted that there are several tasting options. In addition to current release and Reserve flights poured in the tasting room Signorello offers tours, food and wine pairings and picnics on their patio. The food is cooked in house, actually right in the tasting room which features an open kitchen area.

The day I visited the current releases being featured included two whites and three reds. This tasting is available for $15. The reserve tasting featured fived reds; within that a three year vertical of their Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and two vintages of “Padrone” their Proprietary Estate Blend. Depending on the day you go, they may have other treats open for you to sample. For example I got to experience a Cabernet Franc that was simply out of this world. One of my favorites amongst the current releases is their white blend “Seta.” This classic Bordeaux inspired blend is 60% Semillon and 40% Sauvignon Blanc, flipping the formula on most of the White Bordeaux style wines you’ll run across in California. It’s a really lovely wine that features a gentle palate layered with lots of flavor and a slightly zippy finish with good length. It’s delicious on its own but it’ll really work fabulously with lighter foods.

At the other end of the spectrum I thought that their proprietary Red “Padrone” was a knockout wine. I tasted both the 2006 and 2007. Currently the 2007 is a bit more accessible and ready to drink. However both are beefy, Cabernet based wines that will age gracefully for a minimum of 15 years. Other wines I tasted included Chardonnay, Syrah and Zinfandel. There’s clearly a house style at Signorello; Proportion, grace, balance and precise power are the words I’d use to describe that style. Each wine I sampled was loaded with varietal character and made in a food friendly style. I had the chance to speak to Pierre Birebent for quite awhile and he’s a charming host and great ambassador for these wines, not to mention a killer winemaker. He’s been at Signorello since 1998 after working at several other places as a vineyard manager, a title he also retains here. His passion for making excellent wines that are balanced but not wimpy was obvious in speaking to him. He’s clearly achieving his goal.

Out in back of the tasting room is beautiful patio and pool, where events and some of the tastings take place. The view is nothing short of stunning. Truthfully it took me much longer to visit Signorello Estate than it should have. One thing is for certain, it won’t take me nearly as long to get back. Their picnic on the patio sounds way too tempting, plus the wine is outstanding. I highly recommend you add Signorello to the itinerary on your next trip to Napa too! These folks are doing a wonderful job and a stop will be well worth your time and money.

Visiting Medlock Ames in Alexander Valley

Much like Wineries come in all shapes and sizes so do Winery visits. When I landed in San Francisco yesterday I had quite a few wineries on my list to visit during my trip. I didn’t however have any specific plans for my first day. My itinerary that initial day involved getting settled in and attending Gateway to Passport in Healdsburg. Of course though once I was settled in and had several hours to spare I headed off to make a couple of stops. On my way to my first stop I passed a tasting room I hadn’t noticed before in Alexander Valley I made a note and on the way back I stopped in to check out Medlock Ames. Their tasting room sits on the same property that for decades housed the Alexander Valley Bar and Store. They rebuilt the structure on the same footprint using as much reclaimed material as they could. Walking in the feel is rustic, modern, incredibly natural and quite welcoming all at the same time. I made my way up to the tasting counter and noted that they have a couple of different options. Their standard flight of four wines is available to taste for $10 and their Library tasting which features those 4 plus others is $20. In addition to the tasting counter they also have a long, picnic like table that accommodates quite a few folks for a sit down tasting. The room is tastefully adorned; wine sits naturally throughout the room as does the olive oil and pickled vegetables they make. Medlock Ames is both sustainable and Biodynamic; that’s clear in their approach and the purity comes singing through when you taste their wines.

I sampled about 6 wines during my visit. The regular flight included, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. In addition to those I got to sample a Cabernet/Merlot blend and an earlier (2001) vintage of Merlot. Each of their wines was impressive in its own right. Varietal correctness is the order of the day and there is no doubt when you taste their Chardonnay for instance, the clarity of the grape shines. My personal favorite however is their Merlot. The fruit for this comes from their home estate on Bell Mountain. It’s mostly Merlot with 5% Cabernet Sauvignon blended in. As it should this wine tastes like Merlot. It’s sad but there is a sea of uninspired, tired, flabby wine out there with Merlot written on the label. This is NOT that. This is a tremendous wine with great structure, pure fruit flavors, gripping tannins and a long, inspiring finish. This 2006 Merlot has excellent aging potential to boot. I also sampled the 2001 which was made from the same vineyard source. That 10 year old Merlot is in peak mode now and it’s drinking like velvet.

In the grand scheme of things Medlock Ames is a tiny producer. They make about 4,500 cases with plans to expand a little over the ensuing years. But the way they grow their wines, operate their business and shepherd their property makes them a very important player. They’re part of a movement that is increasing in size every day. This little boutique winery with a charming tasting room on a corner in Alexander Valley is well worth a visit. Check them out soon, you’ll be happy you did. I know I’m absolutely thrilled that I popped in yesterday. Sometimes these last minute, unplanned visits are the best kind, this one was a true delight.

Visiting Opus One in Napa Valley

Expectation can be a heavy burden to live up to. Whether it’s a film, book, a bottle of wine or an athlete’s performance, anything perceived as less that the anticipated result comes off as a let down. The same of course can be true for winery visits. Producers of all shapes and size the world over open their doors and invite folks in to taste their wares and perhaps tour their facility. Sometimes it’s easier to be wowed when you know nothing of the wine or the producer in question. Again, with a lack of expectation it’s somewhat easier to impress people. Folks in all lines of work do this all the time; under promise and over deliver, it’s a classic time honored technique. But with many of the world’s wineries, particularly the well known ones, their reputation is known and the expectation level exists. Such is the case with Napa Valley’s Opus One. Last month I paid to Opus One with some friends. I’d been their once before and recalled it fondly, but it had been about 7 or 8 years so the details were dull. The wine itself is of course the stuff of legend. Founded in 1979 by Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild the goal from the outset was simple, greatness. These two legends of their respective wine worlds came together in Napa Valley to make one wine that would compete with the best of the best. It was to be an offering in the great Bordeaux style using the classic varieties which also flourish in Napa Valley. Pretty much from the outset the wines have been praised, setting the bar even higher.

So as my friends and I approached Opus One each of us had different ideas about what we’d find inside, but certainly we all had lofty expectations. Keeping that in mind it’s impressive to say the least that we were all knocked out by the experience. Our tour guide Yasko was part of the greatness of our visit. She’s been with Opus One for a few years and knows the history of the project amazingly well and answered every question we had. But well beyond that the grandeur of the facility is hard to miss. Everything about Opus One is as precisely as it was masterminded, regal and impressive. If I had a nickel for every barrel room I’ve seen on winery tours, well I’d have quite a few nickels. They come in all styles and sizes but at the end of the day not many of them make my jaw drop. I’d seen the barrel room at Opus One before, but still it was a sight to behold. The same came be said for the tank room and other pieces of the wine making facility. The entrance, the tasting area and essentially every last square inch of Opus One is on a different rung than most wineries. It’s intended to be both a working winery and a knock your socks off showplace and it succeeds admirably at both of those things.

At the end of the tour, right after being wowed by the barrel room we had the opportunity to taste the current release of Opus One, the 2007. I was left with a similar impression that I’ve had each time I’ve tasted a new release of their wine. It was impressively structured and tasty, but ultimately tight and in need of some time in the bottle to really resolve itself fully. Hopefully most of the folks who are spending the money to invest in this wine ($195.00 SRP) are also patient enough to give it a few years of time. A few minutes later tasting the 2005 vintage proved to be a revelation in itself. While I believe it still has quite a few years ahead of it, the 2005 Opus One is performing phenomenally right now. It’s a showcase wine and if you want to bowl your wine loving friends over and you can locate some 2005, it’s sure to do the trick.

Touring and tasting at Opus One is neither the least or most expensive proposition in Napa Valley. However it’s an incredibly impressive display of greatness that actually lives up to the hype; something my entire group of four could attest to. So if you’re heading to Napa Valley and you want do something nice for yourself and maybe for your friends too, book a tour at Opus One, you won’t forget it. The cost is $40 and you should book in advance. I for one know that I won’t let another 7 or 8 years pass until my next visit. How could I, I don’t want to forget what the experience was like. Sometimes expectations as grand as they are can be met and exceeded.

Visiting Domaine Carneros in Napa

Every time I travel to California Wine Country I undergo a lot of internal tussling. Honestly long before I even book a flight I’m thinking about where I want to go to taste wine. There are of course hundreds of options. But making the choice even tougher is the lure of old favorites, sitting on my shoulder and whispering in my ear like a comfortable, well known angel.  There’s something to be said for revisiting something you love, particularly the attraction of new vintages. On the other shoulder sits the unknown. This angel doesn’t look familiar but he whispers to me about unusual delights that I have yet to experience. In the end I try to strike a balance between the two with the unknown angel getting a little more of my attention. Each trip I also attempt to come up with some places I have been meaning to visit but somehow have managed to elude me. I visited one such spot a couple of days ago, Domaine Carneros. I’ve driven past Domaine Carneros more often than I could possibly count, and I’ve had some of their wine before. But for one reason or another I was always passing by on my way somewhere with a clock ticking. I had a 3 PM appointment for a tour and tasting and I arrived in their entryway just before that and was warmly greeted. Moments later a gentleman by the name of Jean Claude came over and introduced himself. He was our guide for the tour, and so much more. I’ve been on many wine tours and it was immediately obvious that this was going to be a noteworthy one. Jean Claude has a passion for his subject, an ability to read his audience that many don’t posses, and enough personal warmth to fill a room. The tour I was on had a total of 10 people on it; Jean Claude managed to connect on some level with every one of them. Along the way he showed us around the facility and told us about the history of Domaine Carneros as well as the Carneros appellation itself. We tasted a quartet of Sparkling Wines on our journey, from their most widely available release, to wines that are a bit harder to come by on store shelves. In short a well planned cross section of their Sparkling Wines. In an engaging and easy to follow manner that never spoke down to anyone Jean Claude went through the production of Sparkling Wine. As we did this we made our way through the facility and saw different parts of it. It was an A to Z on Sparkling Wine that provided good basic knowledge for a newer wine lover but also a level of detail that would hold the attention of a more veteran taster.

When we were finished with the Sparkling wines we sat down in a lovely bar area and Jean Claude guided us through a trio of Pinot Noirs from the Portfolio. He spoke about these as well and we enjoyed them alongside a light snack of nuts.

At the end of the tour I was lucky enough to get a chance to spend time with still Winemaker TJ Evans. He poured me an additional sparkling wine I had yet to taste and then we headed to the barrel room.  Once there TJ showed me some lots of wine with varying age on them. Some were specific clones and others a blend of more than one. I was able to get a real window into his winemaking philosophy and where the Pinot Noir Program at Domaine Carneros is headed. In his time there he’s added a few releases to the line and it looks like he’ll continue to tinker and add things when he feels the fruit justifies it.  After going through some barrels TJ showed me some older wines. While he didn’t make the 2000 and 2001 Pinot Noir he poured for me tasting them was an eye opener as he’s working with the same vines. It’s clear that the fruit those vines produces can make Pinot Noir which has the ability to age.

Taking a tour at Domaine Carneros costs $25 and lasts approximately 90 minutes. In that time you’ll learn quite a bit about the Estate, their wines, Sparkling Wine and Pinot Noir in general and Carneros. We tasted seven wines in that period and they were well spaced out with plenty of time to enjoy and contemplate them. Domaine Carneros is a beautiful property and they make terrific wines, both still and sparkling. If you’re going to be in the Napa area, don’t wait as long as I did, get to Domaine Carneros, it’s well worth your time, effort and money. I should also note that if you don’t have time for a tour there are also numerous tasting options available as well. Check their website for details. My initial instinct was right on, this was a noteworthy tour and visit.

Visiting The House of Sandeman in Portugal

One of the many highlights of my recent trip to Portugal was visiting Sandeman Cellars in Porto. Tasting a producers wine is one thing, you can conceivably do that anywhere. But the experience is always heightened for me when I get to do it in the winery itself. When you consider that Sandeman has a history dating all the way back to 1790 it’s immediately obvious that a visit there is at least, partially a step back in time. By the same token the upkeep on the facility is staggeringly on point. The sections that could and should be modernized are, the portions that are best as they were, remain intact with care. Being in close proximity to the water and walking into Sandeman Cellars was breathtaking. The history contained in the city and even in that single facility is stunning. There’s something impressive and regal about Sandeman Cellars as an edifice even as you approach it. Perhaps it’s the Sandeman Don looking down on you, or it’s the stucco and stone work that has weathered beautifully over time. In any case it’s hard not to be swept up in the times gone by. But then you have to consider that this is very much a working facility. In earlier days the Port was vinified on site. Now it’s made elsewhere, up in the Douro, and stored in casks and barrels of varying size in Porto. Walking through the cellar I felt as if the wine angels and ghosts of Ports past were walking alongside me. I practically felt them over my shoulder when I tasted some of the wines too.

George Sandeman, who is a descendent of the founder, guided us through the facility on my visit and he was a wealth of information. The tour included a look at lots of historical Sandeman artifacts encompassing documents, classic artwork and even older bottle styles. Looking at pictures of these sorts of things is one thing, to see them inches away a whole other experience. The all-inclusive tour includes a short film that serves to fill visitors in on the history of Sandeman and their production of Port. Again watching it is one thing but doing it a few feet away from barrels full of port, a very different experience. The same can be said for tasting Port not only in Sandeman, but in the very heart and soul of Porto. This is the mother of fortified wines and to taste it in its true birthplace and natural home felt as right as enjoying a glass of wine can.

The coup de grace for me was something that admittedly not every visitor will get to experience. I want to mention it however as it left a deep impression. The group I was travelling with had the good fortune to enjoy dinner in the Sandeman boardroom. We were graciously hosted by George Sandeman and several other terrific folks who work in a variety of capacities for Sandeman. In addition to the great food, the kicker was tasting several of the ports as well as other Portuguese wines alongside dinner. I’m a firm believe that wine is really an important part of a meal, so that’s my preferred method of enjoying it. Tasting Sandeman Ports alongside Portuguese cuisine is even more effective because you get to taste the wines precisely as the winemaker might when they’re putting together blends and making decisions on what works and what doesn’t.

While I was in Porto I took the time to scope out a number of Port producers. As you’d expect there are a lot of them, many of them well worth your time. However if you only have the time to visit one producer in Porto, I believe Sandeman Cellars is a perfect choice. They have the history that will wow you, the consistency of quality that will keep you coming back vintage after vintage, and the stylistic variety to appease most every palate. Once you sample the Sanedman Ports you’ll want to procure them again back home. So it’s also important to note the wide availability of the lion’s share of their different port wines. If you like Port wine and haven’t had a Sandeman, I’m not sure what you’re waiting for. If you’re new to Port the wide berth of styles and price points available under the umbrella that is their portfolio makes them a natural place to start.

Tasting the Phifer Pavitt 2006 Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon

My time in Napa is always precious. This most recent trip, a few weeks back, it was particularly so. While I was spending nine days in wine country tasting, only one was in Napa Valley. Spending one day in Napa feels like an eye blink to me, so I planned the day as well and carefully as I could. A couple of friends were going to be with me for the whole day so whatever I planned they’d be in on, something for me to be mindful of as I planned. When I was presented with the opportunity to meet Suzanne Phifer Pavitt, taste her wine and have dinner with her, I took  the chance. Even though the day was already pretty full, and I was unfamiliar with her or her wine it seemed like exactly the sort of great opportunity with fortuitous timing that pops up on the best trips to Napa Valley. Without question I’m glad I did. My friends and I met Suzanne at her property on the Silverado Trail. We got to see the Phifer Pavitt tasting room which is currently being completed. After seeing the property and getting a little bit of her history we made our way to dinner so we could learn more and taste her wine. Suzanne and her husband Shane spent a lot of date nights meeting up at various locations throughout California. At first their relationship was long distance and they would pick a place to meet and have a date night each week. Eventually once they were together it led them to buying property in Napa. Those date nights then started taking place on their property, where they dreamed of what it would become.

When the time came to name their wine they realized that Date Night was the natural choice for them. Sure it sounds catchy but for them the name embodies the essence of how they got around to making a wine to begin with. It’s rare (at least for me) to meet a person and feel as if you already knew them. Suzanne has that quality about her. She’s incredibly engaging and charming. Being from Georgia she’s imbued with down home hospitality; quite frankly it pours out of her.

Between stopping at her property and sitting in the restaurant we were all talking for close to a couple of hours and we hadn’t actually tasted her wine yet. At that point I was hoping I would like her wine because I already liked her. I’d have been genuinely disappointed if it turned out I didn’t care for her wine. The good news is that her wine is pretty terrific. Suzanne and her husband make a single offering, Cabernet Sauvignon. They’re currently on their second vintage which is 2006. The fruit is from the Pope Valley section of Napa. In addition to Cabernet winemaker Ted Osborne blended in 2% Petit Verdot. They made 275 cases of this wine and it has a suggested retail price of $75.

Over the course of a leisurely and delicious meal at Solbar we went through two bottles of Date Night and it left a lasting impression. The Phifer Pavitt 2006 Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon is classic example of Cabernet from the valley to my taste buds. Make no mistake it’s a big and bold wine, but it’s structured, well-balanced, and remarkably even, throughout a very persistent palate. The flavors are remarkably mouth-filling and completely take over, but do not overwhelm your senses. The finish is lengthy and the flavors linger for a good long while. The tannins are finely knit and give this Cabernet the structure to age gracefully over the next 6 or so years. And while it will certainly improve in the bottle, this Cabernet is ready to go now. This wine is simultaneously bold, refined and elegant. Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon harkens back a few years in my opinion, to when the goal was to make delicious, drinkable wine that had legs, not specifically to chase scores.

Before too long the Phifer Pavitt tasting room will be open. I highly recommend that you stop by. Tasting the wine and meeting the people behind it is likely to be an occasion you won’t forget. I generally only speak for myself but in this case I can safely say my friends and I all had a wonderful time getting to know Suzanne and her excellent Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon. I eagerly anticipate tasting the next vintage.

Photos by David Vermeire