Tag Archives: Cabernet Sauvignon

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

Pride Mountain Vineyards: Tasting and Picnic

Lulu chilling in the Pride Mountain tasting room.

Lulu’s weekend of wineries concluded with a visit to Pride Mountain Vineyards. Pride sits on the ridge between Sonoma and Napa counties; actually the county line runs through the vineyards and winery. This makes for some painful logistics, having to keep track of which county which grapes come from, and having to do paperwork if grapes and/or juice is transferred from one county to the other. Also, while it’s a winding road up the mountain to Pride (which is at about 2100 feet elevation), if you haven’t been completely turned around, it seems that the counties are on the wrong sides of the line, with Napa on the west and Sonoma on the east. It’s just that the county line is not even close to straight, so it is backwards up there. (I wonder what the history of that line-drawing is, and if it’s documented anywhere.)

Pride Mountain Vineyard tasting room.

We did an initial tasting in their tasting room. Most of the grapes are grown right there, the exception being the Chardonnay, grown in the Carneros region. Lori and I both thought their Viognier was excellent: not too flowery a nose, good acid and fruit, nice body. One of the best that we’ve had. Left there with a bottle of that. They also make a dessert Viognier by just fortifying the Viognier juice. This makes a dessert wine that is not too high in alcohol (less than 14%), not too sweet, not too syrupy. We also left with a bottle of that, and we don’t ever (well hardly ever) get dessert wines. Not that we don’t like dessert wines, just that we don’t usually drink them, so we don’t buy them. We also tried the Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, which were excellent. And there was a 2001 Merlot open! This one had aged quite nicely; yes we brought home some of the current release Merlot.

Winemaker Sally Johnson-Blum gave us a tour of their cellars.

We then took a tour of their caves with the winemaker, Sally Johnson-Blum. They have about 20,000 square feet of cave space for barrels. As we went through, we stopped at some of the interesting barrels for tastes: Cabernet Franc from two different vineyard blocks, Merlot from different vineyard blocks, Cabernet Sauvignon field blend, and a couple more. A lot of fun tasting with the winemaker and getting her perspective on the different vineyards and varietals, what she likes about each, what she thinks about when she’s blending either the straight varietals or the Bordeaux style blend.

View from the Pride Mountain Vineyard picnic area.

Last, we had a picnic. They’ve got a few picnic tables essentially at the top of their vineyards. Tremendous view, and we had an excellent lunch of quiche, lox, salami, cheeses and fruit, together with one of those Merlots. Beautiful.

No veraison yet (July 30th) in the Pride Mountain vineyards.

By the way, grapes grow differently in different microclimates, different AVAs. Of course we knew this, but here was direct evidence. The previous day we were in the Dry Creek Valley and veraison had started; the grapes had started turning red. Not so at Pride. Sally mentioned that their harvest typically runs a couple of weeks later than that for wineries on the valley floors.

L’Chaim,

Larry

Wine Is More Than Manischewitz and Hearty Burgundy

Al Lapides on his 80th, glass of Diamond Creek Cabernet Sauvignon in hand

Al Lapides on his 80th, glass of Diamond Creek Cabernet Sauvignon in hand

My father, Al Lapides, died last year. He taught me a lot, and set a pretty high standard to try to live up to. Maybe the most important thing he ever taught me was to “brake before the curve, accelerate coming out.” First, it’s a good driving practice. If you hit the brakes while you’re in the curve, there’s much more likelihood of losing control of the car. Second, it’s a life philosophy. When you see a curve coming, when you see the unknown coming, be under control and leave your options open. Then, once you’ve seen the curve and know which line you’re going to take, hit it. Commit to it. Accelerate.

A turning point in my father’s life, and in my life, came between my 11th and 12th birthdays. In that time he quit his big company job, joined my uncle in an executive search firm (which was just the two of them), and he, my uncle and a friend of theirs started another company. Just for kicks, my father and uncle also started a wine appreciation club, led by a local wine merchant/distributor, to learn more about fine wines. Talk about accelerating out of the curve!

As I look back on this time, a few lessons were absorbed in my subconscious, the first two more quickly than the third.
1) Working for a large company can be stressful; being your own boss means more pressure, but less stress.
2) Starting your own company is a lot of work. The company started by the three partners was started by an incredibly small investment by each of them, which meant a lot of sweat equity went into it, including from my brother, my sister and I.
3) Wine can be interesting, delicious and fun.

The first two lessons moved from subconscious to conscious fairly easily and quickly. From my first job out of college to my current day job, I have gone to smaller and smaller companies, including being part of high tech startups for the last 26 years. With my current company I am part of the founding group, which took no outside funds, and it was really rough at the beginning. It’s still hard work now, but we’re at least profitable at this point.

Wine, the third lesson, took more time. Not that I didn’t drink wine from an early age. I grew up having Manischewitz Concord Grape (or for a change of pace, Blackberry) wine, cut by seltzer water, at Passover seders and other holiday events. Mom and Dad used to have Gallo Hearty Burgundy by the gallon jug in the house. The wine club changed at least the wine in the house pretty quickly. (It didn’t really change what I got to drink.) I didn’t take the time to learn about wine then, only to see that this was something my father was enjoying. Occasionally I got to taste the good stuff, but really didn’t know what I was drinking.

As an adult, when I could legally go out and buy and drink wine, I got to develop my palate a bit more. Lori and I have been fortunate to have lived in wine regions: first in the Finger Lakes area of upstate New York, then in the Santa Barbara area, and for the last 20+ years in the San Francisco Bay Area, with the Napa, Sonoma, Livermore and Santa Cruz wineries all within easy striking distance. Visiting wineries was both fun and educational, and a way to see the beautiful areas we lived in.

Dad also shared some of his wine when we were living back in California, and could bring a bottle or two home from a visit. One meal I remember clearly is having a couple of my college friends over after we moved back to the Bay Area. Lori cooked a Greek lamb dish, and we drank a 1970 Cos D’Estournel and a 1974 Louis Martini Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Easily the best wines I had ever tasted to that point. As I recall, at that time (around 1994?) the wines were about the same (11 on a scale of 10), although the Louis Martini did take more time to open up.

The best wines I have ever had

The best wines I have ever had

As a final story I give you my mother’s 65th birthday, where my parents decided to have a sit down dinner at the house, catered by a nice restaurant, for just the immediate family. My parents, my brother and sister and their spouses. As an added bonus, our boys, then 16 and 14, were deemed old enough to join the dinner and share the wine. I can’t remember the meal, but as with the wines above, I have the wine bottles. 1961 Chateau Latour and 1970 Chateau Pichon Lalande. Amazing. The Chateau Latour is the best wine I’ve ever had, and the other is tied with the wines from the previous story.

L’Chaim, and don’t forget to brake before and accelerate coming out,

Larry

Dierberg and Star Lane Make a Great Pairing

Dierberg and Star Lane share a beautiful tasting room in the Santa Rita Hills area.

Dierberg and Star Lane share a beautiful tasting room in the Santa Rita Hills area.

The Santa Barbara County area – Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Maria – is known for producing very good Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah (and other Rhône varietals). So we went to the Dierberg – Star Lane tasting room, in the heart of the Santa Rita Hills AVA, the original Pinot Noir growing region in the Santa Ynez Valley, with an eye to taste the Pinot Noir.

The garden at Dierberg Estate Vineyard.

The garden at Dierberg Estate Vineyard.

Dierberg Estate Vineyard and Star Lane Vineyard are the two brand names that the Dierberg family uses for their wines, with the Dierberg label used for the Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah, and the Star Lane label used for the Sauvignon Blanc and red Bordeaux varietals grown at the Star Lane Vineyard in the warmer Happy Canyon area of Santa Ynez Valley. The tasting room serves wines from both brands, and is located at their Drum Canyon Vineyard. They also have a third vineyard, producing grapes for the Dierberg label, in the Santa Maria area.

Bean bag toss at Dierberg.

Bean bag toss at Dierberg.

As I said, we were looking to taste their Pinot Noir, and we got to do that. But we were also able to taste the Star Lane wines, and these were a revelation. An excellent Star Lane Sauvignon Blanc, really well balanced, led off the tasting. (Yes, bought a bottle of the Sauv Blanc.) After going through some of the Dierberg Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, we went to the Star Lane Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignons. They make a few variations on these, ranging from a Cabernet Franc at about 90% Cab Franc, to a standard Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec), to a high end Cabernet Sauvignon (called “Astral”, with just Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc), to the “Roots” Cabernet Sauvignon. This last has just a bit of Merlot blended in (4%), with the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes coming from a block of the Star Lane Vineyard that was planted with actual Cabernet Sauvignon root stock instead of the usual American grape root stock with grafting of the Cabernet Sauvignon. The Astral was very good, very balanced, as one would expect from their high end wine. But the Roots caught our attention. There was a lot going on there, from the fruit in the nose and the entry, to the big body, to the tannins on the finish. Loved it, had to buy a couple of bottles.

We were seated outside for the tasting. Beautiful day, beautiful wines. Our tasting was led by Megan, who has already passed her first level sommelier exam and is studying for the second level. She was incredibly knowledgeable, and responded to both our basic and advanced questions with easy to understand answers. So a great tasting experience also. Megan thinks the Astral will age better than the Roots, but I put my money (literally) on the Roots Cabernet Sauvignon. I’ll check back in 10 years or so and see where we are on this one.

L’Chaim,

Larry

Sharing a Doobie With My Brother

View from B.R. Cohn Winery.

View from B.R. Cohn Winery.

My brother and his family were in town a few weekends back. The ladies ended up spending a few days in Santa Cruz, while the guys – myself, my brother, his 15 year old son – otherwise amused ourselves. One of our side trips was up to Sonoma County, eventually to see my kids and grandkids. On the way we stopped in the city of Sonoma for lunch (Murphy’s Irish Pub, down an alley off the main square, great food and vibe) and then at B.R. Cohn Winery in Sonoma Valley.

Doobie Brothers platinum records behind the tasting room bar at B.R. Cohn Winery.

Doobie Brothers platinum records behind the tasting room bar at B.R. Cohn Winery.

Bruce Cohn was and still is the manager of The Doobie Brothers band, from the beginning of the band’s rise to stardom. This was music my brother and I grew up with as teenagers in the ‘70s, listening to China Grove, Long Train Running and the numerous other hits. There are a few platinum records mounted above the tasting room bar. Well, Bruce bought the land the winery is on in 1974, and started making wine in 1984. The land originally had olive trees on it, and still does, with olive oil being made, sold and tasted at the same location as the winery.

B.R. Cohn Winery tasting room in Sonoma Valley.

B.R. Cohn Winery tasting room in Sonoma Valley.

B.R. Cohn’s focus is on Bordeaux varietals, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and blends. I find it difficult to buy Cabernet Sauvignon: It’s usually expensive, you want it to age to get better, and yet it’s a bit of a guessing game as to how well the wine will age. So most of the time I ignore the Cabs and go for the Pinot Noir and Zinfandel as reds, with the occasional Syrah, as I’m not taking as big a risk. [Thus the lack of Cabernet Sauvignon related posts in this blog.] My brother and I both made an exception to our no-Cabs rule at B.R. Cohn. First, the Cabs were good, really good, and showed every sign of being age-worthy. Second, the winery has been around for a number of years, and wouldn’t be doing so well if they didn’t put out a good bottle of wine. Third, their wines are not overly expensive. Our favorite was the 2010 Olive Hill Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, with grapes grown from the vineyard just in front of the tasting room, which retails for $69. Very good wine, very good value.

The Gourmet Shop at B.R. Cohn Winery features estate olive oil.

The Gourmet Shop at B.R. Cohn Winery features estate olive oil.

By the way, we also each bought a bottle of the 2012 Doobie Red, a drink-now Cab with some of the proceeds going to Veteran and other charities. I’ve already opened my bottle, and enjoyed it immensely.

Thanks also to Linda for her excellent help guiding us through the tastings. It was a great tasting experience, and now on my list of wineries to recommend, especially to Cab lovers.

Bruce also puts on a charitable music festival each year. This year the lineup includes Chicago, America, Ringo Starr, Todd Rundgren, Gregg Allman and of course The Doobie Brothers. For more information, see 2015 Sonoma Music Festival. Hope to see you there!

L’Chaim,

Larry