Tasting in North Dry Creek Valley; Harvest is Coming

Grapes are getting ripe! Harvest 2019 is coming.

Lori and I and son Jacob and cousin Diego went wine tasting in the northern part of Dry Creek Valley last weekend. Here’s a quick recap.

View from the tasting room deck at Zichichi Family Vineyard.

Our first stop was Zichichi Family Vineyard. We had last visited Zichichi probably about 8-10 years ago, and my recollection was that they were a nice small winery with a great view from the tasting room, making a classic Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel. Well, the part of my memory that collects wine tasting notes seems to be in pretty good shape, because that’s exactly what we found. I would also add that the people behind the bar in their tasting room were quite enthusiastic and helpful (kudos to Rose). They were doing barrel tastings that day in the cellar, in addition to the normal tastings, and we left having ordered futures of the 2016 Zichichi Old Vine Zinfandel. Delicious.

Next was Sbragia Family Vineyards. We first went there 7 years ago for the Winter Wineland event, and go back regularly for the wines and the view. They sit up the hill toward Lake Sonoma at the very northern tip of Dry Creek Valley, and the view down the valley is great. Another enjoyable tasting experience there.

View of vineyard and Lake Sonoma from the picnic area at Gustafson Family Vineyards.

From Sbragia we drove past Lake Sonoma, heading west towards the coast through the hills to Gustafson Family Vineyards. (If you’re sensing a trend here with the “Family” vineyards, you’re correct, but it was completely coincidental for the day’s agenda.) We first tasted Gustafson wines at a Petite Sirah industry event in 2012, but it took us a couple of years after that to make the effort to drive to the winery. It’s worth it, for the views, for the nice people helping in the tasting room, and especially for the wines. The Heritage Tree Zinfandel is always a favorite of ours, as is the Petite Sirah, and their Syrah was also quite good. By the way, Gustafson also has a tasting room in Healdsburg, making it easy to taste their wines, but then you wouldn’t get the great view from the winery.

Last on the list was Martorana Family Winery, out of the hills and back in Dry Creek Valley. We first visited Martorana about 7 or 8 years ago, and liked their wines and their story. They’ve been growing grapes for decades, but only recently have they begun making their own wine. Very nice wine, made from their organically farmed vineyards. Ask for Donna in the tasting room.

Trellised grape vines getting ready for the harvest.

Harvest is coming! The first grapes have already been picked (for sparkling wines), and the first grapes for the still wines could be picked as early as this week, depending on how the weather goes. Good luck to all the vineyard crews and winemaking teams; may you have a great harvest!

L’Chaim,

Larry

Mendocino Getaway

Goldeneye Winery tasting flight

My mother came up north to visit recently, and in addition to having her see her grandkids and great-grands we decided to take her up to Mendocino for a couple of days.  We started by picking up sandwiches at Big Johns market in Healdsburg.  Great place for grabbing your wine country picnic supplies, as they’ve got a large range of prepared foods in addition to the deli and custom sandwiches.  Our first stop was Hendy Woods State Park, near Philo in Anderson Valley.  The park is home to several stands of the huge coastal redwoods, and has the Navarro river running through it.  

After our picnic and a walk through one of the redwood groves, we continued up Anderson valley, stopping at Greenwood Ridge Vineyards.  Stacey the tasting room manager helped us with our tasting, starting with Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, then Syrah and finally Zinfandel.  All the wines were good, with the Viognier standing out as one of the best we had tasted in a long time.  

In Mendocino we checked in at the Alegria B & B, relaxing there for a bit before heading to dinner at the Little River Inn about 2 miles south of the town of Mendocino. They’ve been family owned and in business continuously for over 70 years, now with the third generation running the inn and restaurant. Excellent food — I had a nice bouillabaisse and Lori pork osso buco. Fresh ollolaberry compote a la mode for dessert was delicious. Then back to Mendocino to the Mendocino Headlands State Park, and viewing sunset over the ocean. 

The next day, after a delicious breakfast at Alegria, we headed up to Ft. Bragg to ride the Skunk Train.  Lunch was at Sea Pal at the Noyo Harbor, for the best fried fish I’ve had in quite a long time. Fresh cod, light batter, fresh frying oil with no residual taste, small pieces cooked perfectly.  I accompanied this with one of the 18 or so beers they have on tap, a Redwood Curtain special bitter ale. Sitting at a picnic table outside on the dock, watching the boats come and go and the crews clean the fresh caught fish, it was a great lunch. Then on to the Point Cabrillo Light Station, a lighthouse that’s been around for about 100 years.

Dinner that night at the Heritage House 5200 Restaurant, with another outstanding dinner. The highlight was again dessert, this time chocolate pot d’creme.  

Then the slow trip back home the next day, after another great breakfast at Alegria. We wandered around Mendocino for an hour, then had ice cream for lunch. Coming back through Anderson valley we tasted Pinot Noir at Goldeneye Winery. Our final stop was at Pennyroyal Farm, which we had visited earlier this year. This was just a buying stop, as we knew about their cheeses, and had just opened up a bottle of the Pennyroyal Pinot Noir the previous week. It’s a great value. 

So ended a nice weekend in Mendocino County.

L’Chaim,

Larry

Goat close up

Pennyroyal Farms Cheese Tasting

Goat close up
Close up with one of the goat herd at Pennyroyal Farms.

For a week in March the focus of Sonoma County turned slightly away from alcohol (wine and beer) to cheese, with the annual California Artisan Cheese Festival (CACF). Part of CACF is holding cheese education and tasting events at various creameries in the area.  Lori and I decided to attend the event at Pennyroyal Farm in Anderson Valley (Mendocino County).  Yes, not quite in Sonoma County, but only about an hour drive from our house.  

Here’s the agenda we had for the event:  

10:45 – 11:00              check in

11:00 – 12:00              tour of the farm

12:00 – 1:15                lunch in the creamery

1:15 – 2:45                  cheese tasting/pairing

Pennyroyal Farms makes cheese and wine, and raises the goats (lots of goats) and sheep for their wine. They also grow some of their own grapes.  They’ve got a great backstory:  two young women meet in the Fermentation Science major at U.C. Davis, one interested in wine, the other in cheese.  A few years later some land becomes available in Anderson Valley, and they join together as partners, realizing both their dreams together.  

The tour is fun and educational: vineyards, the goat barn for both the mature and baby goats, the milking shed, the cheese-making operation.  They’re not making their wine on site right now, but there are plans to expand the current buildings to add the winery facilities.  

For a change of pace I had pre-ordered the vegetarian meal for lunch, and it was delicious.  They served their Sauvignon Blanc and one of their Pinot Noirs with lunch, for a nice accompaniment.  Then we had the cheese tasting, and pairing with various drinks, including hard cider, wine and beer.  Their cheeses were all wonderful, but especially notable was the Laychee, a fresh cheese with a soft, spreadable texture that is hard to stop eating. (They only gave us enough for the tasting, but we bought more and brought it home, and it was hard to stop eating it!)  

Pennyroyal Farm picnic benches and view
Pennyroyal Farm is a great place for a picnic.

If you can find their cheese in the store or restaurant, don’t hesitate to purchase.  And if you’re in Anderson Valley for the wine or the beer (Anderson Valley Brewing Company is one of the best microbreweries around), take a break and go for the cheese.  Or bring a picnic lunch and buy a bottle of wine there.  You’ll enjoy your time at Pennyroyal Farms.  

L’Chaim,

Larry

Quick Harvest Update from Armida

I’ve been on the sorting table three days now at Armida, helping with Tina’s Block (Maple Vineyards) “Zinfandel”, Maple Vineyards Zinfandel and Petite Sirah and Pamelee Hill Vineyards Zinfandel. Tina’s Block Zinfandel is in quotes, because the 110 year old vines in Tina’s Block (in contrast to the 90+ year old vines in the rest of Maple Vineyards) are an interesting field blend of mostly Zinfandel, Carignane, Alicante Bouchet, Petit Sirah and some vines that remain unknown even after DNA testing at UC Davis. Harvest looks great at this point, with Armida having brought in about 95% of their grapes. I can’t remember ever seeing such a high percentage of great grapes: minimal rot, and most everything ripened optimally.

It was all hands on deck for harvest at Armida.

Brandon had one stretch of 13 straight days of getting grapes in. It was all hands on deck for that stretch, and Brandon even asked Dr. Doolittle for help, and the egret answered the call. The grandkids even came up, and while they didn’t “help”, spraying each other with water on the crush pad could be seen as helping to clean up. At least it kept them busy, until it was time for them to reflect on the harvest.

Contemplating the harvest.

I’m looking forward to tasting these wines in the barrel in a few months, then in bottle in a couple of years.

L’Chaim,

Larry

Santa Barbara Rhônes Revisited

A few years back Lori and I spent a few days in the Santa Maria/Santa Ynez Valley/Santa Barbara area doing some tasting. We had some great wine tasting experiences on that trip, but overall the best wines (and tasting experiences) were the Rhônes, the Syrahs, Grenaches and Mourvèdres and blends of those (typically called “GSMs”). Over the last month or so we’ve had a chance to open up these wines we tasted and bought, and Wow!

First, there was a 2010 Qupé Syrah, Bien Nacido Vineyard, opened the weekend we spent celebrated my mother’s 85th birthday. Big, yes, but more graceful than we usually get in a wine with this much fruit. “Graceful?” I was looking back on my notes from a Wine Bloggers’ Conference panel on Syrahs, and one of the participants compared Syrahs to the dancing hippos from Fantasia, at once big but surprisingly light on their feet and graceful. Opening the Qupé also reminded us of the visit to the Qupé winery (not the tasting room), and being invited to join Bob Lindquist and his team for lunch in the winery. One of our most memorable meals ever.

The second bottle opened, also in Mom’s honor, was the 2012 Carr Grenache, Santa Barbara County. It’s hard to adequately describe this wine, made from 100% Grenache, grown in a vineyard south of the city of Santa Barbara, pretty much where no other vineyards are located. Grenache fruit up front, both in the nose and the initial entry into your mouth, then this fullness in mouth like it’s expanding to fill all available space, then a lingering flavor in your mouth but without a lot of tannin. It’s time to order more of this from the husband and wife team, with the great tasting room in downtown Santa Barbara.

The last bottle was 2011 Harrison Clarke Vineyards Eve e Marie, Ballard Canyon, Santa Barbara County. Eve e Marie is a blend of 70% Syrah and 30% Grenache from another husband and wife team. Actually, at that same Wine Bloggers’ Conference panel where panelists were describing Syrah as dancing hippos or thunderstorms or just dangerous, Hilarie Clarke Harrison stood out for her no-frills approach. This approach is embodied in their wines, made from grapes they grow themselves, harvest row by row, transport a few hundred yards to their winery, and make into wine. It was a pleasure to visit their vineyard and winery, to walk those rows of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre with Dave Harrison, and taste with Hilarie. It’s just good, very good, wine. This bottle was opened last week with some friends that mentioned that they were looking for good Syrah and GSM.

L’Chaim,

Larry

2018 Harvest Sneak Peak

Elli checking the vineyard. Are the grapes ready yet?

The 2018 harvest has started, and the early returns are … delicious. At least so says our granddaughter Elli, shown above while helping her father Brandon (Winemaker B at Armida) check the Pinot Noir and Zinfandel grapes at Parmalee Hill Vineyard in Sonoma County.

Brandon gave a quick summary of the harvest expectations the other night over dinner.

Summer weather was good. No prolonged hot spells, especially near the end of summer, that can throw off the ripening of the grapes. Also, no hot spells in sight for the next couple of weeks. This is producing a slower start to the harvest, as some of the varietals, especially the early ripening varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, are taking longer to ripen. Interestingly, the early Sauvignon Blanc came in at about the same dates as last year, and seems really good. We’ve tasted the juice, and agree: wonderful!

The slower ripening means longer hang time (total time on the vine), and this can result in enhanced flavors in the grapes.

Brandon is cautiously optimistic, although he did say something like this could end up being the best vintage of the decade, especially for the big reds like Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

Of course, this is just his opinion, and he’s focused on Sonoma County and Dry Creek Valley specifically, so we’ll see how things go over the next 8-10 weeks.

L’Chaim,

Larry

Lamb and Zinfandel, A Classic Pairing Updated

I bought a new cookbook a few months ago, but haven’t had the chance to do anything with it (aside from reading and drooling) because of the kitchen remodel. My favorite cuisine: Middle Eastern. Thanks here to my brother and his family, because while waiting to meet Lori in downtown Santa Rosa, we all went into the Barnes & Noble bookstore. I wouldn’t have found the cookbook (Jerusalem: A Cookbook, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi) without the old-school wander through the aisles.

Jerusalem: A Cookbook, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, showing the Braised Eggs and Lamb on the cover.

But the kitchen is done now, so no more excuses. And friends were going to come over for dinner, and cousin Diego was in town. We cooked up the recipe shown on the cover of the cookbook, Braised Eggs with Lamb. At least we got it looking pretty close to the cookbook picture! Actually it tasted pretty darn good. This is the sort of recipe that I really like making. Essentially a one pot meal, nothing especially fancy about it, just good ingredients and flavorful spices. Cumin, sumac, pine nuts and pistachios are the flavor anchors for this dish.

Braised Eggs and Lamb on our stove.

With the lamb and the unique flavors, we needed a special wine to go with this. We pulled out a 2010 Armida Winery Zinfandel, Sonoma Coast, Parmelee-Hill Vineyard. This vineyard is nearer to the cool Carneros region than to the warm Dry Creek Valley, where Armida and so many other wineries get so much Zinfandel. As a cool climate Zinfandel, it’s got different characteristics than a typical Zin; less fruit forward, a bit more body, more layers to the flavors. This sort of Zinfandel ages well, and at 8 years this wine is just hitting peak. The subtleties of the wine matched well the complexities of the flavors in the lamb dish. An excellent pairing.

2010 Armida Zinfandel, Sonoma Coast, Parmelee-Hill Vineyard.

We decided ahead of time to decant the wine. Also, I had stood the wine up for about 24 hours ahead of decanting, to allow sediment to go to the bottom of the bottle. We did this based on experience with older Zinfandels, and for show (always nice to serve from a decanter). As we saw when we finished decanting, the bottle did have some sediment left in it.

If you look carefully behind the Armida label you can see the sediment left behind in the bottle.

Lamb and Zinfandel: always a good combination.

L’Chaim,

Larry

Birthday Weekend Wine, Food and Spa

Lori took me for a surprise 2-day vacation for my birthday last month. We didn’t go too far; just far enough to get away. First stop was lunch at Pascaline in Sebastopol. This is a small restaurant located on Highway 116, a few miles northwest of Sebastopol. French in style, with some nice looking pastries (which we somehow avoided trying). For lunch, we split a tuna sandwich (good, but nothing special) and their “Farro-Sotto”. This was farro done in the style of risotto, with mushrooms and chicken and greens. Simply delicious. We’re going to have to try to replicate this at home when the kitchen remodel is done.

Next up was spending the afternoon at the Osmosis Spa in Occidental. We did the cedar enzyme bath, then 90 minute massages, then spent some time in the meditation garden. One of the best spa experiences I’ve ever had.

Arrowood 2007 Cote de Lune Rouge

Then the Inn at Occidental, a largish B&B in Occidental. After checking in and having a glass of wine, we walked down the hill to dinner at Hazel. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, and the inside, while nice, isn’t overly done up. Just comfortable. We first shared their grilled pita appetizer, which came with tzatziki, feta, olives, roasted red peppers and Marcona almonds. The tzatziki was made fresh kefir cheese/yogurt, and was amazingly delicious. Next up was sharing the lamb meatballs, served in a tomato sauce. Again, delicious. Last up was a pizza, cooked in their wood fired oven, with garlic sausage and two sunnyside up eggs. Breakfast for dinner, sort of. Again, just delicious. We paired the meal with a bottle we brought, a gift from friends, an Arrowood 2007 Côte de Lune Rouge, Lasseter Vineyards, Sonoma Valley, which is a GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre) blend. By the way, Thursday nights at Hazel there is no corkage fee for bottles from Sonoma County. This meal was one of our most memorable in the last few years, with food, wine, service (excellent!) and occasion all coming together, and yet it was just over $50 before tip.

Iceplant flowering on the Bodega headlands

The next day, after a nice night’s sleep and a very nice breakfast at the Inn at Occidental, we headed out to the Bodega headlands to wander around, watch for whales and check out the Spring flowers. Success on all counts: saw whales spouting a few hundred yards off shore, and the flowers were beautiful. Interesting to note that the California poppies, which are a bright orange further inland, were bright yellow at the coast. Soil, sunlight, wind, cold, humidity or maybe just a natural mutation of the flower.

Poppies and vineyards at Marimar Estates

Last on the list for Lori and I was a stop at Marimar Estate for a tasting. They do a very nice sit down tasting, and the weather was warm enough for us to enjoy the patio. Marimar does mostly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, appropriate given their location in the Russian River Valley, but they also do some Spanish varietals including Albariño and Tempranillo. Great job by Mary leading the tasting, and we really enjoyed the wines and the views from the patio.

Marimar Estates has a beautiful patio for outdoor tastings

L’Chaim,

Larry

Armida Zinfandel and the ZAP Grand Tasting 2018

Brandon (right) and Larry Lapides at ZAP 2018

The first major wine tasting event of the year is the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) weekend in January in San Francisco. This year held on the third weekend of the month, it included a Thursday evening dinner with winemakers, Friday seminars and dinner, and the Saturday Grand Tasting. Last year I went with son Brandon, and poured his #Armida wines. I had so much fun that I volunteered to stand for 7 hours again talking and pouring.

View of Treasure Island and the Bay Bridge from Pier 27

The setting for ZAP is tremendous: the Pier 27 conference hall in San Francisco. It has windows on all sides, letting in light, with views of the San Francisco Bay (water, bridges, islands, boats) and the city skyline. Not much time to contemplate the beauty around, though, as we were talking about the beauty in the bottle.

San Francisco skyline from inside Pier 27 at ZAP

The tasting starts with a couple of hours for VIPs and #ZAP patrons only, then opens to the general public. Many years ago, the general public was allowed in for the whole tasting, and the admission price wasn’t much, so there used to be a lot of drunk “Zinfandel fans” by the end of the tasting. ZAP changed their format and price a while back, and moved to this new Pier 27 location, and it’s a great tasting.

The crowd at ZAP 2018.

For the VIPs, we were pouring the 2013 Armida “Tina’s Block” Zinfandel, from the Dry Creek Valley, and the 2013 Armida “Maple Vineyards” Zinfandel. Tina’s Block is the original 2 acre block of Maple Vineyards, planted in 1910. That’s old vine Zinfandel. The rest of Maple Vineyards was planted over the next 20 or so years, so it’s no spring chicken either. And all of Maple Vineyards is dry farmed, because these vines are old enough to have thrown down roots to the center of the earth. While Tina’s Block was originally planted to Zinfandel, over the years as individual vines died some were replaced with blending grapes such as Petit Sirah, Alicante Bouchet and Carignane. And some of the replacements have yet to be identified, even with DNA fingerprinting by U.C. Davis. This unique field blend gives the Tina’s Block Zin a unique taste, a complexity and subtlety and elegance that is rarely found in Zinfandel.

For the general public part of the tasting, we poured the Armida flagship wine, PoiZin, plus the 2015 Maple Vineyards and the 2015 “Il Campo”. PoiZin is a very nice $20+ bottle of Zinfandel, made from grapes from 5 different vineyards in the Dry Creek Valley. Great name, great label, great value. The Maple Vineyards Zin (both the 2013 and the 2015) are very nice single vineyard Zinfandels, the most popular single vineyard Zin in the Armida lineup. The Il Campo (“the field” in Italian) is a field blend of the Zinfandel and Petite Sirah (typically around 20% of the blend, depending on the year) grown at the Armida Winery site. Bigger, badder and bolder than the other Zinfandels, it showed well at the end of the tasting, when everyone’s taste buds are slightly blown out. But it’s really good any time.

About terroir and Zinfandel: While Pinot Noir is commonly talked about as enabling the terroir, the area where the grapes are grown, to shine through, good Zinfandel does that too. Both the Maple Vineyards and Tina’s Block wines bring with them their unique soil, topology and microclimate, and the Armida “Parmalee Hill Vineyards” Zinfandel, grown in an area between the Carneros region and the city of Sonoma, reflects that colder climate in its delicious profile.

By the end of the day, my voice was pretty much gone. Too much talking, because my pouring partner, Winemaker Brandon, had been elected to the ZAP board of directors last year, and was off talking to the press, chatting up special guests, hobnobbing with other winemakers and generally schmoozing. I’m a glutton for punishment though, so I’ll be back next year.

L’Chaim,

Larry

Porter Creek for Syrah, with a Side of Scottish Rugby

The Porter Creek Vineyards tasting room is not much more than a glorified tool shed.

Lori and I took some friends wine tasting the other day in the Russian River Valley, and our first stop was Porter Creek Vineyards. We had only been to Porter Creek once before, but it was a memorable wine tasting experience. We were there with my parents, pulled into their dirt parking lot, and between there and their tool shed of a tasting room we were greeted by a pair of big dogs. Probably around 100 lbs each, friendly as could be. We all love dogs, so that started the tasting off on a great note. As far as I remembered their wines, while they’re known for their Pinot Noir, it was the Syrah that we loved and walked away with that day.

Vineyard view at Porter Creek Vineyards in the Russian River Valley.

No big dogs this time. Forgot to ask about them. Instead of the big dogs, we got Paul from the tasting room, letting us know that us guys could use the ladies room, because where he’s from “they all wear skirts.” While I’m sure Paul doesn’t have any bad days, he was particularly happy that day because the Scots had beaten England in rugby earlier in the day, for the first time in some large number of matches. He’d even posted the score on the wall behind the tasting room bar.

Tasting with friends at Porter Creek Vineyards.

Porter Creek still has the same tasting room, crowded enough on this day that we took our tasting outside. More Pinot Noir to taste than any other wine. They are in the Russian River Valley after all, and Pinot Noir is what the RRV AVA is known for. However, our favorite of the day was again the Syrah, the 2012 Timbervine Ranch, Russian River Valley. Interestingly, they put a few percent of Viognier in the Syrah, similar to the winemaking style in the Northern Rhone Valley in France, which helps give a boost to the nose on the Syrah. I don’t know if it was that, or just good Syrah grapes, but this was a really nice Syrah from start to finish. Not too big and bold, not in your face, just waiting for a nice lamb chop to pair with it.

They also had a Carignane, 2012 Old Vines Mendocino County. I don’t think I’ve ever run into one before, since Carignane is almost always (now with one exception) used as a blending grape. Sort of like coming across a California Grenache, except that bottles of Grenache are much more common. I really liked the Carignane: it was a bit bigger and bolder than the Syrah, felt like it filled up your mouth a bit more.

We walked away with some of the #PorterCreekVineyards Syrah and Carignane, with me humming one of my old college drinking songs, which I’ve been told (after a few pints) has direct roots in rugby drinking songs.

L’Chaim,

Larry