Author Archives: vvblogman

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

Minestrone and Syrah for the New Parents

An old friend of ours, ex-girlfriend of one of our sons, daughter of friends of ours had her first child a few weeks ago. As she lives relatively close by, in San Francisco, we thought it would be good to go visit, see the baby, and bring them a meal. It was one of the first colder weekends in the Bay Area, so we decided on soup for lunch, and of course we needed to bring a bottle of wine.

Lori holding baby Miles!

Baby Miles was 2 weeks old when we visited, and also of course, Lori had to hold the baby. Interesting to note that this is the third “Miles” that friends have had in the last 1 ½ years. First was Milo, then Myles, and now Miles. I don’t see this on the list of trending baby names, but maybe our friends are just ahead of their time.

Minestrone was chosen for the soup, to be served with a loaf of fresh sourdough plus a bottle of 2007 Arrowood Syrah, Sonoma County #Arrowood #Syrah #SonomaStrong. We enhanced the soup for the lunch by adding some beef to it. You can find the recipe on the ViciVino.com recipe page. The Syrah was delicious: nice nose, great fruit, enough structure and body but a very smooth, easy finish, and went great with the soup.

We all – new parents, grandparents, Lori and I – really enjoyed the soup, and especially enjoyed catching up and telling stories of the new mother when she was young, plus other fun stories.

Our best wishes to Miles for a long and healthy life, and to the parents, may he bring them much nachas.

L’Chaim,

Larry

Foley Johnson: Fun Tasting in Rutherford

The initial tasting lineup at Foley Johnson.

Bill Foley has been on a mission to build a wine business, much in the way Jess Jackson did with Jackson Family Wines. Bill started with Foley Estates in the Santa Rita Hills AVA of Santa Barbara County about 20 years ago, and now has, as part of Foley Family Wines, wineries in Santa Barbara, Sonoma and Napa Counties, Oregon and New Zealand, with the current total being somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 wineries. He’s also built a wine distribution company to help get the wines to the consumers. He even recently hired the former president of Jackson Family Wines.

Halloween scarecrows in the Foley Johnson patio.

Lori and I recently visited Foley Johnson Wines in the Rutherford AVA of the Napa Valley, essentially between Yountville and St. Helena on Highway 29. Foley Johnson was founded in 2012, and is named in honor of Bill Foley and his wife, Carol Johnson Foley. They have a beautiful tasting room, with a great patio if you’d like to take your tasting outside, and have views of the vineyards and hills.

A statue of head-trained old vine Zinfandel is the centerpiece of the Foley Johnson fountain.

We had a great tasting there, helped by Kenny, an ex-Marine who has been in the wine business for about 20 years and now is certified as an advanced sommelier. Foley Johnson makes “Estate” wines, with grapes grown on their property, and also makes a “Handmade” series of wines with grapes both from their estate and from other vineyards in Napa Valley and Santa Rita Hills. We started by tasting both the Estate and Handmade Sauvignon Blancs from 2016. Two different styles of Sauvignon Blanc, the former with a bit more bite, possibly better with food, the latter a bit smoother, might age well for a white. Lori and I split on these, with Lori liking the Estate better, while I liked the Handmade one. We moved from there to the 2013 Estate Merlot (98% Merlot) and the 2014 Estate Meritage (52% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 10% Petit Verdot, 10$ Cabernet Franc, 3% Malbec). The Merlot was nice, not too soft, with some good tannins on the finish. The Meritage was similar, but with a better entry into the mouth. Really liked that Meritage, and at $45 per bottle, it’s a very good value. (Yes, we bought a few.) Last we tried a couple of the Handmade Cabernet Sauvignons, made mostly with grapes from their Rutherford estate. Delicious! These were priced more in line with Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon at $110 per bottle. (That’s probably median pricing for Napa Valley, but not the ultra-high end of $200+ per bottle.) Bought a couple of the 2014 Foley Johnson Handmade Cabernet Sauvignons too.

My takeaways from Foley Johnson? More down to earth than many of the Napa Valley wineries, more affordable than the majority of the Napa Valley wineries with their wines priced below $65, and really good wines. On my list to recommend to friends for Napa Valley visits.

L’Chaim,

Larry

Cliff Lede Vineyards: Rock Blocks and Wines That Rock

Burnt hills from the Atlas Peak fire above Cliff Lede Vineyards.

A long time ago, when we were first starting to go to Napa Valley, we visited a winery called S. Anderson. On the edge of the Stags Leap District, S. Anderson made very good Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, and also was relatively unique in producing sparkling wine. In 2002 Cliff Lede purchased that Stags Leap property, and Cliff Lede Vineyards and Lede Family Wines were born.

Some of the Rock Blocks from Cliff Lede Vineyards.

One of the first things Cliff did was to start replanting the vineyards. The problem? Vineyard blocks, with different varietals, are most often given numerical designations: Block 1, 2, … Cliff couldn’t remember which numbers went with which varietals, so the names of favorite rock songs and albums were used. Those, he could remember. I’m pretty sure Cliff is within 5 years of my age, because this reads like my high school playlist: Dark Side of the Moon, Your Song, Magic Carpet Ride, Born to Run and a whole lot more. There’s a taste of it above, but for the full map (and cheat sheet) go to Cliff Lede Rock Blocks.

View from under the arbor at the Cliff Lede tasting room. Burnt hills from the Atlas Peak fire in the background.

One of the other things done was to revamp the tasting room, including adding a patio and arbor outside. We started our tasting at the bar inside, but soon migrated to the very comfortable seats under the arbor, just coming inside when we were ready for the next wine. Pierce did a great job helping us, although it was dangerous to come inside, as he and I talked as much or more about the music of the Rock Blocks as about the wine.

The patio at the Cliff Lede Vineyards tasting room.

Also, while Cliff started with the Napa property, he eventually purchased Savoy Vineyards in Anderson Valley and launched the FEL Wines brand. (FEL are his mother’s initials.) FEL is focused on great Anderson Valley Pinot Noir.

We tasted both the Cliff Lede and FEL wines. The Sauvignon Blanc is still their best seller by volume, but wasn’t on the tasting menu that day. We really liked the 2015 FEL Anderson Valley Pinot Noir. It’s not common for Lori and I to agree on a Pinot Noir, but we did on this one! We also enjoyed the 2014 “Scarlett Love” Cabernet Sauvignon. The name of this blend comes from the two blocks from which the grapes are sourced. First, there’s Cabernet Sauvignon from the Scarlet Begonias (Grateful Dead) block, then there’s Petit Verdot from the Sunshine of Your Love (Cream) block. Of the Bordeaux style blends that we tasted, this was our favorite, showing nice balance from nose through entry all the way to the finish. It should age nicely; at least we’re hoping so, since we’re laying it down for one of those round number anniversaries that’s still a few years off.

In a couple of the photos above you will notice burnt hills, from the Atlas Peak Fire last month, in the background. It seems that the fire didn’t damage any of the vineyards. Regarding this vintage, they had most of their grapes already harvested by the time the fires hit, so there should be no smoke taint on their wine. (Probably anything that has smoke taint, and this goes for everyone in Napa and Sonoma, will be sold on the bulk wine market, and end up in the very low end wines.)

This was a great tasting. I’m not sure when we’ll be back, but I’m not hesitating to send friends there.

L’Chaim,

Larry

North Bay Wildfires 2017

Sunrise at Armida Winery Monday of the wildfires.

It’s really hard to put feelings into words for the wildfires which raged this week, and by the way, are still raging. Fortunately for us the active areas are not nearby, but many others are still at risk. And many, many people have lost loved ones, homes, other possessions; we are quite fortunate by comparison.

It’s the numbers that still stick in my head. From about 9:30pm on Sunday, when the Tubbs Fire was first reported near Calistoga (north end of Napa Valley) to this fire reaching more heavily populated areas in Santa Rosa (Sonoma County) at 1:30am Monday, the fire traveled about 8 miles. Put a different way, that’s 2 miles per hour, or a little over the length of a football field every 2 minutes. There was no warning for so many people.

We were awakened about 2:30am Monday morning by a neighbor ringing our doorbell and pounding on the door. (Thank you!) The hills behind us were glowing red/orange; there was thick smoke in the air. We grabbed our kitten, and what we thought were the essentials, and were out the door in about 15 minutes. (Laptops and cell phones? Check. Charger cords? Oops. Pretty common mistake apparently.) We went to our town square, where a number of people had gathered. One restaurant had heard about the fires before closing time, and had just stayed open all night, providing television, coffee, water and restrooms to any and all. We talked to both our boys. Our younger son lives about 30 minutes drive southwest of us, and thankfully was in no danger from the fires. Our older son had been up since 1:30am or so monitoring the fires as best he could, and at 4pm he and his family left their house. We met up with Brandon and family at his winery, Armida, and spent the next 30 hours up there. Armida had power, had television, had internet. It also had, from the western edge of Dry Creek Valley, views east and north to track the fires. Fortunately, it stayed as a distant (smoky) view, since the fires never got close to Armida.

The view from Armida Winery around midday on Monday.

We were allowed back into our house on Tuesday. Power never went out, so we still had the food in the fridge and freezer. Internet was out, and the gas was shut off. No hot water (which is a luxury that I will never take for granted again.) Brandon and family joined us at our house, as they still weren’t allowed back into theirs.

The view from our backyard on Wednesday.

The fires came within about 1/2 mile of our house, and within about 1 mile of Brandon’s house.

The view from our backyard on Thursday around midday.

One week later, the fires are still burning, people are still sorting through the ashes, and people are still unaccounted for. It’s still too fresh to take any lessons from this, except 1) don’t take life for granted, and 2) think about your emergency go list.

People have asked about the impact of the fires on the 2017 harvest, and on wineries and vineyards. Let’s take that up in a separate post.

L’Chaim,

Larry