Category Archives: California Wine Tasting

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!



Wine Bloggers Conference 2014

We are getting ready for another road trip. This time we are heading down south to Buellton which is in Santa Barbara County. It’s about 1/2 hour north from Santa Barbara. We are heading there specifically to attend the Wine Bloggers Conference 2014, #wbc14. We went to the first and second wine bloggers conference when they were held up in Santa Rosa. The first year, 2009, they concentrated on the wines from Sonoma County and in 2010 they concentrated on the wines from Napa Valley. We had so much fun and met so many nice and interesting people. This year we are very much looking forward to learning more about the Santa Barbara County wines. We will be doing a lot of tasting wine, pairing wine with food, wine blogging, learning and networking with other wine bloggers.

We are leaving Dublin on Thursday and stopping along the way at two wineries in the Central Coast region. More on those in a later post. We are going to be staying at the Santa Ynez Valley Marriott and going out to dinner at Mirabelle Restaurant in Solvang. This restaurant was suggested highly to us by my brother-in-law. After 2-1/2 days at the conference we will end our stay in Buelleton by watching the final Wold Cup game. Once that game is over then we will be heading up to San Luis Obispo to the Granada Hotel. This is a small boutique hotel near the center of town. There we will be celebrating our 34th wedding anniversary. We will most likely have dinner in the bistro at the hotel. On Monday we will drive back up to Dublin stopping at one or two wineries along the way.



Risotto Palooza

We were in Southern California a couple of weeks ago.  My sister turned 50, and that was
sufficient motivation to get in the car and make the trek down I-5.  More on her birthday dinner in the next
post.  This post is about the
risotto palooza at my brother’s house the night before the birthday


Apparently my brother really likes to make risotto.  Who knew?  Not me, or Lori, that’s for sure.  Since we had an evening available, we connected for dinner,
and he decided to make risotto. 
Not just one recipe, but two different risottos.  I’m a bit new to this, having just made
my first risotto only a month ago. 
(See my blog post on risotto and pinot noir.)  But I
like risotto.  It’s like a blank
canvas, and the cook can do whatever he/she wants with the meal.  Different meats, vegetables, flavors,
styles; it’s all available to the cook/artist.  The other nice thing about risotto, and the different meals,
is that wine pairing isn’t really formal. 
Just go into the cellar and choose something good, and it will work just


My brother went with a seafood risotto with shrimp and
scallops and some vegetables, and some nice lemon accents, and a balsamic
risotto with chicken.  The seafood
risotto was wonderful, with lots of different layers of flavor and texture.  The balsamic risotto was very good, but
a bit one-note on the flavors, and needed some vegetables or something else for
more texture.  Next time. 


For wines we went with a 2007 Matanzas Creek Merlot, Sonoma County, and a
2006 Brian Benson Syrah, Paso Robles.  I
wouldn’t say that I’m not a fan of Merlot, but I don’t drink a lot of Merlot,
mainly because most Merlots are sort of washed out wines without much going
on.  There are a few producers in
California, though, that know what they’re doing with Merlot, and Matanzas
Creek has consistently been in that group.  And this bottle didn’t disappoint.  It also worked great with the risotto.  The other interesting point about this
bottle was that it was purchased at the winery, when Lori and my sister in law
were up there wine tasting.  So it
had come full circle, from Lori recommending the winery and wine, to them
purchasing it, to having it available when we came over a few years later.  Must be good karma. 


We had never had a bottle of Brian Benson wine before, but
we knew of him.  His parents are the proprietors of Dark Star Cellars, and were friends with Winemaker B when he was living in Paso
Robles.  So we were excited to open
this bottle, and see what he had done. 
We’re assuming that this was one of his first vintages, and it was
great.  We’ll have to stop by on
our next trip to Paso Robles and taste more. 






Sierra Foothills Wine and Dine

December and January are big months in our family for
celebrations.  Aside from the usual
holidays we have a daughter in law’s birthday, my father’s birthday, my mother
in law’s birthday, Winemaker B’s birthday, my sister’s birthday, and my
brother’s anniversary.  More than
any other two months on the calendar. 


For my mother in law’s birthday, we headed up to her place
in the Sierra foothills.  Usually
there is snow on the ground this time of year, but not this year.  Drought years are interesting, and this
year looks particularly bad.  From
a wine/grape perspective, there are likely two issues.  First, the warm weather now may cause
early budding of the vines which, if there is a late frost, will significantly
impact grape quantities.  Second,
just getting water to the vines will be interesting.  Older vines with deeper root systems will likely have a
distinct advantage this year. 


But enough of drought. 
We were up there to celebrate, and so we did.  Nothing too elaborate or fancy, but we took Lori’s mom and
her husband, and their best friends, out to their restaurant of choice, the
Sierra Banquet Hall in Camino, near Placerville.  Their facility is a modern log “cabin” that the owners built
themselves.  Cabin does not do the
structure justice, as it is two stories, and just beautiful.  So a good start, just walking in to the
beautiful building, and finding a nice fire going in the fireplace.  While the menu had pretty good variety
to it, 5 of the 6 of us opted for steak that night, either filet mignon or
ribeye.  And we were not


For wine we brought a bottle from a local winery, a 2008
Auriga Wine Cellars Barbera, El Dorado County.  We’ve posted about Auriga before, as it is conveniently near my mother in law’s house, has good
wine and very nice people.  We’ve
used it for rehearsal dinner wine, as well as enjoying individual bottles.  We had brought up the bottle of wine
from home, but luckily for me I had a few minutes to spare during the day, and
was able to go say hi and pick up a half case.  (Their French Columbard sparkling wine, a few bottles of Zinfandel and more
Barbera, since you asked.)  The
Barbera went great with our steaks. 
I’ll probably be stopping in again next year for some birthday






Seafood Risotto and Pinot Noir

The holiday season provides interesting opportunities for food and wine and family and fun.  Here was one of our weekend days in December:  

– Lori took granddaughter Elli to a local (Santa Rosa area) production of the Nutcracker.  Nice little production, front row seats, and great grandmother-granddaughter special time.  

– Daughter-in-law Kim went and got a massage.  Some wonderful me-time for her.  

Winemaker B and his father (that would be me) took care of his son Eden for the afternoon, and took responsibility for dinner.  

On the menu for the evening was Seafood Risotto.  (The recipe can be found on our Food and Wine Pairing page.)  I had never made risotto before, so this was going to be a bit of an adventure.  Lori and I stopped at the fish market on the way up to Santa Rosa and picked up some bay scallops and salmon, both of which looked quite good.  We already had all the other ingredients needed.  Once in Santa Rosa, we all split up to do our thing, as noted above.  This included taking Eden for a walk to the grocery store to get a nice loaf of fresh bread to go with the meal.  Then the cooking started.  

The chef (that would be me again) needed some white wine, both for himself and for the risotto.  So out came a bottle of 2012 Armida Chardonnay, Russian River Valley.  Nice, basic Chardonnay, good bottle to get things started.  Winemaker B pitched in by cooking the fish, and taking care of Eden himself while I cooked.  I found that risotto is a bit of work, as once you put the rice in and start adding the stock, you have to keep on stirring.  It ended up being about 30 minutes of adding stock and stirring, adding more stock and stirring, until the risotto got to the right consistency.  Then the seafood and other ingredients were added in, and we were ready to eat.  

Our younger son, Jacob, his wife Brittany and their daughter Zinnia joined us for dinner.  We had interesting wines to go with our risotto:  

2011 Arista Pinot Noir, Bacigalupi Vineyard, Russian River Valley

2011 Armida Pinot Noir, Bacigalupi Vineyard, Russian River Valley

Yes, two Pinot Noirs made from grapes from the same vineyard.  That was fun!  The wines were quite different, with the Armida having bigger fruit and body, and the Arista being a bit smoother, with better finish.  Both of the wines worked great with the risotto, which turned out good enough for us to publish the recipe.  

It was a great day.  I hope your holiday season went well also.  

Best wishes for a happy, healthy 2014!  



Napa Valley Wine Train – BART Connection

Here’s an interesting idea for an outing:  take BART to the Napa Valley Wine Train.  Earlier this year the Wine Train and BART started shuttle service between the BART North Concord/Martinez station and the Napa Valley Wine Train.  $30 round trip, and you don’t have to worry about a designated driver.  Here’s where you go for more information:  Wine Train – BART connection.  

Your outing does not have to be just the Wine Train.  From the train station, it’s a 5-10 minute walk to the Oxbow Public Market, where more food and wine treats await.  Three Twins Ice Cream might be a good way to finish off the day.  

Also, there are a number of wine tasting rooms in Downtown Napa within walking distance of the Wine Train and the Oxbow Market.  

No excuses now!  It’s easier than ever to get to Napa for wine tasting.  



Thanksgiving Wine and Ullage

Thanksgiving is always interesting from a wine perspective,
because you can do so much, and because you want to do so much, but …


Hi kids! 
Welcome to Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood.  Yes, for those of us of a certain age, this is a reference
to Eddie Murphy’s Saturday Night Live skits, where things didn’t always go as
smooth as Mr. Robinson would like. 


Well, for our Thanksgiving day skit, our word of the day is


I thought I had the Thanksgiving wine situation under
control.  Thanksgiving was going to
be great, with both boys and their families coming (all three grandchildren) as
well as my parents and Lori’s mother. 
No problem.  Let’s start
with a little bubbly, then move into the still whites.  That should get the afternoon rolling
fairly well.  Then as we get closer
to the meal, I was going to open up 3 different 2006 Dutton Goldfield single
vineyard Pinot Noirs, and we would do a blind tasting.  Then we’d have the Pinot with the meal;
usually a pretty good bet, Pinot Noir and turkey.  (This year there was both turkey and turducken, but that’s
another story.  Ask Lori for that


Anyway, I had a great plan, which I told to the wine
providers (my father and Winemaker B so that they could plan any wine they
wanted to bring to fit into that framework.  And Winemaker B did bring a bottle of his 2012 Armida
Gewurztraminer, which fit in pretty well with the still whites.  And he also brought an old bottle of
Gamay Beaujoulais, which he didn’t really have much hope was any good, so it
wouldn’t disrupt any other plans. 
But my father – argh, my father – he’s past the point of anyone being
able to control him, except my mother. 
And she doesn’t interfere in wine matters. 


Well, my father got it into his head that since we are
rarely in Southern California to drink wine with him, he was going to bring up
some of his old wine to share.  So
two 25 year old Cabernet Sauvignons came up north, for the express purpose of
being opened on Thanksgiving with all the family.  It is pretty hard to say “no” to those old bottles, and even
harder to say “no” to my father when he’s on a roll. 


Ah, you thought I had forgotten about ullage.  Well, ullage is the distance between the
level of the wine in the bottle and the bottom of the cork.  For old wine, a look at the bottle to visually estimate the
ullage is a good way to guess how well the wine has been kept.  The closer the wine level to the cork,
the less evaporation has happened. 
If wine has evaporated through the cork, then air, and with it nasty
oxygen, has come through in the other direction, and has accelerated the aging
of the wine. 


Unfortunately, evaporation is not the only sign that an old
wine is bad.  You can have a bottle
with minimal evaporation and it can still have gone bad.  With these bottles there wasn’t
excessive evaporation, so we thought there was a pretty decent chance of some
good wine. 


With old bottles, decanting is a must, so there went my
three decanters (previously earmarked for the Pinot Noir) for the three old bottles.  With the decanters being used for the Cabs and the Gamay,
and wanting/needing to wait at least an hour to see if there was anything good
there, the blind tasting went by the wayside.  In the end, only the William Hill Cabernet Sauvignon was any
good, and at that it was past its peak. 


We did end up grabbing a couple of random bottles of Pinot
Noir from our cellar to have with the meal, which partially rescued the wine
situation.  Actually, the bubbly
and the whites were really tasty. 
Here’s a list of the bottles that were opened over the course of about 6
hours of snacks, appetizers and main meal: 


Mitchell Katz Non-Vintage Sparkling Wine, Livermore Valley

Armida 2012 Gewurztraminer, Russian River Valley

Armida 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, Russian River Valley

Optima 1985 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley

William Hill 1986 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley

Louis Martini 1987 Gamay Beaujalais, Napa Valley

Desmond Estate Vineyards 2009 Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley

Soquel Vineyards 2005 Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains

Next year I think I’ll drive down before Thanksgiving and
raid his cellar myself.  



Livermore Wines; Old Friends

We went wine tasting in our backyard last weekend.  Provided that we can define our backyard as our home territory, otherwise known as the Livermore Valley.  The first winery we went to was Cuda Ridge, which we hadn’t been to since they moved into a new facility in Livermore a few months ago.  Cuda Ridge specializes in Bordeaux varietals, and they do a pretty good job at it.  We really liked their Petit Verdot, which is the fifth red Bordeaux grape, after Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec.  It’s usually used just for blending, but this was really nice on its own.  

More important than the fact that we hadn’t been to the new Cuda Ridge tasting room was that they were having music there.  The guy with the guitar, Tim Gomes, was one of my friends at UC Berkeley, eons ago.  And now, like me, he has children; his daughter Audrey (now a sophomore in college) came and sang with him.  Fortunately, she didn’t ask me for any stories about her father, and even more fortunately, she didn’t ask Tim for any stories about me.  Tim can play the guitar really well, but it gets a lot better when his daughter accompanies him.  She’s got a great voice.  We also got to see Tim’s wife Nancy, who was a classmate of my brother, also at UC Berkeley.  Doesn’t get much better than a beautiful day, a nice glass of wine, and shooting the breeze about ancient history.  

Another winery that has recently changed locations is Mitchell Katz Winery.  This is another case of ancient history, although not quite as ancient, as Mitch and I used to play pickup basketball together a couple times each week, early mornings before work.  That was before knees started getting a bit less reliable.  Mitchell Katz Winery is one of the relatively older wineries in the Livermore Valley, at a ripe 15 years now.  And Mitch has an even longer history in winemaking, having helped his grandfather make wines.  

My consistent favorite from Mitch is the Sangiovese.  He just seems to have a nice touch with this wine.  He know regularly makes two different single vineyard Sangioveses; we went home with a few bottles of the Crackerbox Vineyard version.  Easy drinking, nice balance, good fruit, works with food, and a good value too.  Can’t ask for anything more than that.  

One more thing about Mitch and his winery:  great customer loyalty.  Customers keep coming back, whether to talk to Mitch, or because they have a favorite wine (we also liked the Merlot, the Zinfandel, and the nonvintage sparkling on this last visit), or because they just like the vibe and want to hang out there.  It’s great to see a friend be successful in something as tough as the wine industry.  



Livermore Cabernet Blend Scores Against the Best

You don’t get to do one of
these every day, a blind tasting with


Opus One

Joseph Phelps Insignia

Ridge Montebello

Continuum (Tim Mondavi)




I just heard 5 “Wows!” and 1
“Huh?”  Those first 5 are
consistently top California Cabernet Sauvignon bottles.  $150 per bottle and up.  So what is that sixth wine, and why is
it in the tasting? 


Lineage is a Bordeaux blend
from Steven Kent Mirassou.  If the
name is familiar, it should be. 
The Mirassou family is the oldest winemaking family in America, and
Steven is the 6
th generation of winemakers in the family.  “Steven Kent
may also be familiar, as it’s the name of his winery in the
Livermore Valley.  When he founded the winery back in
1996, his goal was to make one great wine, a Bordeaux blend that would show
what the Livermore Valley could produce. 


Lori and I live next door to
the Livermore Valley, and have been tasting wines there for the last 20+
years.  Livermore has consistently
good wines, very good wines for the price, and occasionally great wines.  It’s a different growing region, with
an east-west oriented valley (unusual for California) producing huge summertime
temperature swings.  Add in a few
different microclimates and soil types, a history of winemaking and
grape-growing that goes back to the 1840s, and you have the makings of a great
wine region.  However, the
Livermore VAlley hasn’t been known for its great wines, but instead for the
large producers and good value. 


To find out if Steven Kent
Mirassou can make a great wine, and change the reputation of the Livermore
Valley, we should return to the tasting. 
We went into San Francisco for this tasting, put on by the
American Institute of Wine and Food
(AIWF).  About 20 of us, tasting
those 6 wines, all from the 2009 vintage, blind.  The results were, from last to first:


6.            Opus

5.            Phelps

3.            Dominus

3.            Ridge

2.            Lineage

1.            Continuum


All of us tasting were wine
lovers, with a fair bit of experience tasting wines, but all amateurs.  And 20 people is not a lot, from a
statistical point of view.  Still,
the Livermore wine, Lineage, hung with the big boys and showed that it deserved
to be there. 


Well done, Steve Kent








Edna Valley Wine Tasting

We recently celebrated my
mother’s 80
th birthday by gathering the family in Pismo Beach.  Lori has already written about the
celebration, and about wine tasting in Paso Robles, on her
.  On the way to Pismo we
stopped for wine tasting in Edna Valley. 


Edna Valley is about 45
minutes south of Paso Robles, still in
San Luis Obispo County.  We had never been to any of these
wineries before, so Mom’s birthday was a great opportunity to explore a new



We stopped first at Tolosa
.  Great views there, and
a beautiful tasting room.  We had
arranged a special tasting for Mom and Dad, and Lori and I, and also our
younger son Jacob and his family, including their first child, 5 months old in
the picture below.  The special
tasting was a wine and cheese pairing as follows:


2011 Chardonnay (No Oak) <-> Bucheron


The No Oak Chardonnay is
crisp, fruity, light.  The Bucheron
is a goat’s milk cheese from the Loire Valley in France, fairly mild, a little
bit soft.  The No Oak Chardonnay
was our favorite wine of the day. 


2010 Chardonnay <-> “Lamb Chopper”


A more conventional
California Chardonnay, paired with a sheep’s milk cheese from Holland. 


2010 Pinot Noir <-> Taleggio


This is a cow’s milk cheese
from an area northeast of Milan, Italy. 
This was the favorite cheese among those of us who like soft


2010 Cabernet Sauvignon <-> “Barely Buzzed” 


This is a cow’s milk cheese
from Utah, semi-firm, with the rind rubbed with espresso and lavender.  Unique and delicious. 



This was a relaxed and fun tasting. 


Next we went to Saucelito
Canyon Vineyard
.  This was a
completely different wine tasting experience for a few reasons.  Where Tolosa has a large and immaculate
facility, Saucelito Canyon is small and quaint.  Tolosa was Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Saucelito Canyon was
Zinfandel.  Where Tolosa was a
relaxed and special tasting, at Saucelito Canyon we were joined by my brother
and sister and their families, and the noise level went up considerably.  Fortunately they have a really nice
outside tasting area that we took over, so as not to disturb their other guests
inside the tasting room. 


Here’s what we tasted: 


2011 Sauvignon Blanc:  Good, but we came here for the Zinfindels.  Let’s move on. 


2011 Zinfandel
“Backroads”:  A lighter bodied Zin,
with nice fruit.  Bought a couple
bottles of this, and opened one last night when we cooked a turkey breast.  Worked quite well. 


2011 Dos Mas:  Zinfandel plus two more:  Grenache and Petite Sirah.  Those two more gave it a bit more
oomph, and a nice finish.  This was
the favorite of a few people in our group.  And it comes in a bottle with a slightly unconventional
shape, which makes it different and unusual. 


2011 Muchacho:  Zinfandel and Tempranillo.  OK, we’ve tasted blends like Dos Mas
before; they’re fairly common.  I
can’t remember tasting another Zinfandel-Tempranillo blend.  And why not, why haven’t other
winemakers put these two grapes together before?  This was great; my favorite and the favorite of a few others
in our group. 


2011 Zinfandel Estate:  For those purists who like just the
Zinfandel and only the Zinfandel, especially when it comes from 100+ year old
vines.  This wine is a tribute to
the winemaker being able to get out of the way and just let great grapes make
great wine.  The other favorite of
some of the group.