Tag Archives: Russian River Valley

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



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.



Dutton-Goldfield: Lulu’s First Winery

Lulu taking a break from wine tasting at Dutton-Goldfield

We got a puppy last week. Not just any puppy, but “Lulu”, at that time an 8-week old Labrador-Golden Retriever mix, and we got her from the Canine Companions for Independence (CCI). CCI works to provide service dogs to those in need, for whatever reasons. They function by having volunteers (suckers like us) do the basic rearing and training of the dogs, which takes 18-20 months, at which point the dogs are returned to the CCI for final training for their end-owner. So we’ve got probably around 20 months with Lulu, then we hand her back to the CCI. The training is actually pretty demanding, much more so than what we’ve done in the past for our pets.

Dutton-Goldfield Winery tasting room entrance

One of the key parts of training is fully socializing the dog by taking them everywhere with you. So on Lulu’s first weekend, we were off wine tasting. Dutton-Goldfield Winery was Lulu’s first tasting room. We sat in the patio, next to the fountain, which seemed pretty comfortable for Lulu. Actually, after one plus weeks with her, she rarely seems uncomfortable in public.

Lulu napping with her toy

Tasting at Dutton-Goldfield is a great experience, first because of the great staff, and second because of the great wines. Dan Goldfield is an acknowledged expert winemaker for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and those wines did not disappoint. What is not so well known is that Dutton-Goldfield makes a great Zinfandel. The Dutton Ranch Morelli Lane Vineyard, a cold climate Zinfandel vineyard in the Russian River Valley, has consistently turned out grapes that Dan has made into outstanding Zins.

Sitting outside in the patio, relaxing with the puppy, drinking excellent wines: what a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours.



Zin and Pinot and Pints, Oh My!

My cousin came to town between Christmas and New Years Day, and had one day for sightseeing with us. We hadn’t seen Diego for about 13 years, as he’s from the branch of the family that’s based in Argentina, although he’s currently living in Spain. He was traveling with his girlfriend who, as it turns out, is currently living and teaching English in Spain, but grew up only 30 minutes from us here in the Bay Area. We decided to spend the day up in Sonoma County, eating and drinking and seeing some of the most beautiful countryside in the world, and also seeing our boys and their families.

With that preamble, here’s our agenda for one day in the wine country:

• Wine tasting at Armida Winery
• Lunch at Matteo’s Cocina Latina in Healdsburg
• Wine tasting at Woodenhead
• Hiking in the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve
• Dinner at Hopmonk Tavern in Sebastopol
• Ice cream at Sub Zero in Sebastopol

Wine tasting at Armida was an easy choice, because our son Brandon, aka Winemaker B, is the winemaker at Armida. Moreover, the views are great, and so is the wine. Brandon gave us a tour of Armida, which started with a quick taste in the tasting room, and finished there as well. The zinfandels were a hit with our guests, and a bottle of the Reserve PoiZin (with the coffin package) went home to Diego’s girlfriend’s family.

Matteo's Cocina Latina in Healdsburg serves some of the best Mexican food in the Bay Area.

Matteo’s Cocina Latina in Healdsburg serves some of the best Mexican food in the Bay Area.

Lunch at Matteo’s was another easy choice. Great Mexican food, but not the conventional Mexican-American fare. This is a restaurant that has been in the top 100 in the Bay Area according to the San Francisco Chronicle, which is a pretty elite list given the quality of food in the Bay Area.

We had time for another winery between lunch and the Armstrong Redwoods, and so wanted something relatively convenient to the drive from Healdsburg to Guerneville. This narrowed down our winery choices to only about 50. Woodenhead was chosen because of their emphasis on Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, because we had recently opened our last bottle of Woodenhead Pinot Noir and needed to buy more, because they have a nice, cozy, comfortable tasting room and because the view from the deck outside the tasting room is quite nice. Certainly our stop there didn’t disappoint anyone.

My cousin Diego and his girlfriend on the left, Lori and I on the right, at the Colonel Armstrong redwood tree

My cousin Diego and his girlfriend on the left, Lori and I on the right, at the Colonel Armstrong redwood tree

From there we went to the Armstrong Redwoods. Until a visitor stands next to one of those Coastal Redwood trees, the numbers that you read – hundreds of feet in height, tens of feet in diameter, more than 1,000 years old – are just numbers. Then you experience it in person, and realize what those numbers mean. It’s awe inspiring, and spiritual, in a way that can only be felt, and not read about.

Dinner was a family gathering at the Hopmonk Tavern in Sebastopol. While the Russian River Valley and surrounding areas are now known mostly for wine and redwoods, this was once a great area for growing hops and brewing beer. Well, the hop vines are gone, but this area is now one of the great areas for craft beer brewing in California. Hopmonk brews a few of its own, but also has other local craft beers on tap. All the adults at the table had the Hopmonk brews, and we were quite impressed. On top of that, the food was very good, and they were able to easily accommodate and provide good service to a large group, ranging from 2 year olds to their grandparents.

Finally, even though it was the middle of winter, we needed dessert, and Sub Zero beckoned. This is a new ice cream store in the Barlow center, which makes their ice cream to order by combining the raw ingredients in a bowl, mixing them together and then freezing them on the spot using liquid nitrogen. Their claim is that this technique produces a creamier ice cream, and since texture is a big part of taste, this should improve the ice cream. The ice cream was very good, but even better was eating with everyone around the fire pit outside the store, then working off the ice cream by chasing a granddaughter around the area, and being chased by her.

I’m not sure a day could be any better.



Malm Cellars: Pinot Noir and Zinfandel

I often get asked what my favorite wine is, meaning what is my favorite varietal. I usually take that opportunity to talk for as long as that person is willing to listen, about how it depends on white or red, or food or no food with the wine, or price, or any one of a dozen other factors. It’s really the wrong question to ask a wine person. The interesting question is, Which wine(s) do I buy the most? Then the short answer is “Pinot Noir and Zinfandel.”

The medium length answer is that I buy more reds than whites (probably about a 4:1 ratio), and among the reds Pinot Noir and Zinfandel are usually a good value, go very well with food and don’t need a lot of aging. Also, these two wines are the best wines of the Russian River Valley wineries and Dry Creek Valley wineries, which are the two wine growing regions I visit the most.

(There is a longer answer too, but I’m not sure I have your attention for enough time.)

Brendan Malm getting ready to open another bottle of his Malm Cellars wine

Brendan Malm getting ready to open another bottle of his Malm Cellars wine

Nearly 3 years ago, when Lori and I visited Malm Cellars in Healdsburg during a barrel tasting event and saw the lineup of only Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, I got my hopes up just a bit, that maybe here was a winemaker aligned with my tastes. Then we tasted from the barrels, and I allowed my hopes to rise just a bit more, enough so that we bought some “futures”. Futures are wines in the barrel that have yet to be bottled. This is the purpose of the barrel tasting events, with the winery then shipping you the wine when it’s bottled and released.

Or you go to pick up the wine. Which was our option, since we get to Healdsburg on a regular basis. The only problem was coordinating our schedule with Brendan Malm’s schedule, since Malm Cellars is essentially a one man shop, and only open to the public on special event weekends. (That’s changing soon, but not quite ready yet.) So from buying futures of 2012 vintage wines at a 2013 event, with the wines released in 2014, it took until 2015 for us to pick up our case.

Malm Cellars 2012 Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley

Malm Cellars 2012 Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley

It may have taken us a long time to pick up the wine, but it didn’t take long to open the first bottle. About 6 hours later we were having a birthday dinner for one of our daughters-in-law, and wouldn’t you know, a bottle of Malm 2012 Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley was opened. 2012 was a pretty good year in the Dry Creek area, after two years in a row where harvests were below par for quality and/or quantity. Also, typical Dry Creek Zinfandels tend towards the big, jammy, drink-now end of the spectrum, especially in a good harvest year, which is not my favorite style. The Malm Zinfandel had the fruit flavors on entry, but was actually well balanced and went well with our dinner that evening. This is what I remembered from the initial barrel tasting, and I’m starting to feel pretty good about the purchase of the futures.

Then a couple of weeks later we opened a bottle of Malm 2012 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley (RRV). (I’m feeling pretty good about waiting even that long to open the first bottle of Pinot and see what we’ve got!) Well, this was worth the 2+ year wait, and it will be worth waiting even longer for the other bottles. Very nice RRV Pinot Noir, with some delicacy and subtlety, that should get better for the next few years. With half a case each of the Zinfandel and Pinot Noir, we’re pretty well set for opening one Malm per year for the next 10 years, if we can hold ourselves back.



Santa Cruz Thanksgiving

Lori and I spent the week of Thanksgiving in Aptos, a little town just south of Santa Cruz (actually it’s east of Santa Cruz, but you have to go “south” on Highway 1 to get there), in our vacation house just a 10 minute walk from the beach (Seacliff State Park). It was a great week from a weather point of view, with only one day of rain. There were great sunsets, as you see above, and great ocean views.

We were joined there for the holiday, and a couple of days on either side of it, by Winemaker B and his family. This meant some interesting wines for the meals, from his cellar and ours. Here’s a quick rundown:

Woodenhead 2005 Pinot Noir, Buena Tierra Vineyard, Russian River Valley
Crosshatch (Carr Vineyards & Winery) 2010 white blend, Santa Ynez Valley
Soquel Vineyards 2006 Zinfandel, Old Vines, Lodi

This doesn’t include the wines for the Thanksgiving meal, which won’t be talked about here. (We opened a vertical of Syrah from a single winery, and it didn’t quite live up to our expectations. Nice to have opened the bottles, and they were quite nice with the turkey, but not a highlight to spend time on.)

Woodenhead 2005 Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, Buena Tierra Vineyard

Woodenhead 2005 Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, Buena Tierra Vineyard

Woodenhead Pinot Noir: This is a small winery in the Russian River Valley (RRV), specializing in Pinot Noir. We did an interview with Zina Bower, the co-owner, in the early days of the ViciVino.com website. This bottle was what I like to think the RRV does best, Pinot Noir with some restraint, delicacy and subtlety. After 10 years this wine was all we expected, balanced from nose through entry through mid-mouth through finish. Not real heavy bodied, it went great with a shrimp stir fry we cooked on the barbeque. We have consistently liked their Pinot Noir; unfortunately this was our last bottle. Time to go up and buy a few more.


Crosshatch: This is the brand name for some interesting blends from Carr Vineyards & Winery in Santa Barbara. We enjoyed our visit to their tasting room this past summer, and really loved how they handle Rhone varietals. The reds we bought — Syrah and Grenache — will sit for another few years, but this white was ready now. The Crosshatch white blend is 70% Viognier, 30% Marsanne, and was delicious. Definitely ready to drink.

Soquel Vineyards 2006 Zinfandel, Lodi Old Vines, Schmierer Vineyard

Soquel Vineyards 2006 Zinfandel, Lodi Old Vines, Schmierer Vineyard

Soquel Vineyards: We’ve mentioned Soquel Vineyards a few times before in blogs, including writing about the 2004 vintage of this same Zinfandel. Soquel consistently produces excellent wines, and their tasting room is a great experience. The 2006 Zinfandel was lovely, sort of the “Mama Bear” wine: Not too big, not too soft, aged just right for drinking over the holiday.

I hope you had a great Thanksgiving!



A Merry (Edwards) Visit to the Russian River Valley

Lori and I were heading up to Mendocino for Memorial Day weekend and wanted to get an early start on Friday to beat traffic. However, we couldn’t check into the house we were renting until 4pm. We thought going straight up 101 and heading off to Mendocino on Highway 128, with maybe a stop in Geyserville for lunch and wine tasting. But then inspiration hit: Cut off 101 on the 116 west toward Sebastopol, stop at Merry Edwards Winery for a tasting, then find lunch somewhere in that area.

We had previously met Merry Edwards at a Russian River Valley Winemakers event a few years back, and tasted her Pinot Noir at that event, and really liked it. She is one of the first, if not the first, women winemakers in the Napa/Sonoma area, having started her winemaking career in the early 70s. Her eponymous winery was founded in the late 90s to make Pinot Noir. Sometime mid 2000s she started making Sauvignon Blanc, which turned out so good it was the first Sauvignon Blanc (the 2007 vintage) put into the top 10 wines of the year by Wine Spectator, and continues to win awards.

The winery cat enjoying the serenity garden outside the Merry Edwards tasting room

The winery cat enjoying the serenity garden outside the Merry Edwards tasting room

It’s a beautiful facility with a little garden in front of the tasting room, with her Coopersmith vineyard all around. Tastings are free. When we went, the tasting menu was the

2013 Sauvignon Blanc: Sauvignon Musqué grapes, a Sauvignon Blanc clone, are used in the blend. (I’ve previously talked about this clone in a post on Armida Sauvignon Blanc.)

2011 Chardonnay, Olivet Lane Vineyard: 100% malolactic fermentation, but not an extreme buttery taste. I forgot to ask, but I’m assuming that there was not a lot of new oak used on this wine. An enjoyable Chardonnay.

2012 Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast: This is a blend of a few vineyards, a lighter bodied Pinot Noir but well balanced. Actually it was our favorite, although the couple tasting with Lori and I liked the other Pinots better.

2012 Pinot Noir, Meredith Estate: Bigger, more fruit forward Pinot Noir, with some significant tannins on the finish.

2012 Pinot Noir, Georgeanne Vineyard: The warmest weather vineyard for Pinot Noir that Merry Edwards uses. Good now; but needs more time to come to terms with its different components.

Underwood:  seafood capellini in tomato broth

Underwood: seafood capellini in tomato broth

After picking up a few bottles from Merry Edwards, we headed off to Underwood in Graton for lunch. We’ve heard about this restaurant for a long time, but never eaten there. Every time we’ve been in the area for lunch/brunch it’s been closed; our poor timing. (They’re not open for lunch/brunch on Sundays.) This time though we scored. We took a quick look at the regular menu, but the daily specials enticed us. Lori had a delicious chicken sandwich, and I had this wonderful seafood capellini.

We did eventually make it to Mendocino. We were joined in Mendocino by our boys and their families, which made for a wonderful weekend. Sunset over the Pacific, through the fog, was beautiful. The beach was fun, even if both air and water were a bit cold. And we saw a parade of grey whales late one afternoon, 5 pairs of mothers and calves, about 100 feet off shore, heading back north for the summer.



2014 Harvest Wrap-Up

We went up to the Russian River and Dry Creek Valley area in late October to see the kids and grandkids, and check on the 2014 harvest. That weekend was the end of harvest for Winemaker B, and he was taking a few days off. We went to Armida anyway, to show my cousin the winery and taste some of the wines. It was a beautiful day, as you can see from the photos below. We also went to Arista, as we were invited by Kim, wife of Winemaker B and manager of Arista’s “A-List”, to their pick-up party. While we weren’t picking up any pre-purchased wine, we did come away with a few bottles of the 2012 Arista Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, Two Birds Vineyard, which was our favorite from the day.

Here are the key points from the harvest:

Start early, end early. Harvest started early this year, as previously mentioned in our Harvest Update post. It’s not surprising then that harvest ended early too. From the winemaker’s perspective harvest starts when the first grapes come in, and ends when the last tank is emptied, and the wine moved to barrels. From the winemaker’s wife’s perspective, harvest starts when the first grapes come in, and ends when the winemaker gets his first day off. In between, the “harvest widow” gets to deal with the winemaker leaving the house by 6am and getting home around 8pm (if lucky), for about 9 weeks in the case of Winemaker B and family.

The drought had minimal effect. A lot of the vineyards are “dry-farmed”, not irrigated, and those handled the drought just fine, with a slight decrease in quantity. Irrigated vineyards also had a slight decrease in quantity, as water cutbacks were required in most areas. However, quantities were going to be down a bit no matter what, as the 2012 and 2013 harvests were near record volumes.

The grapes/juice/wine are tasting excellent. Throughout the process, from harvesting the grapes to the initial juice to the initial post-fermentation wine, everything is tasting great. We’ll see how things taste in a few months, when the first whites like Sauvignon Blanc will be bottled, but right now Winemaker B reports that everything is going great. He is in the medium high maintenance mode on the wines, not quite working on every wine every day, but the wines don’t go unattended for long. Those wines that are getting a malolactic (ML) secondary fermentation are starting that process, some doing it on their own and some with help and tight control from the winemaker. The ML fermentation on these wines, which takes a lot longer than the primary fermentation, should be done by about the same time as those first wines (which don’t go through ML) are bottled, so early next year is the next major checkpoint for the 2014 wines.

As to where the 2014 vintage will sit compared with recent vintages, it’s too early to say. We’re still not sure about the 2012 and 2013 vintages, although they seem so far to be quite good. In the Russian River and Dry Creek Valleys, probably the best recent vintage was 2009, with 2007 close behind.

Since we were up there seeing kids and grandkids, we brought up a couple of bottles to share with the family. We opened up a Windy Oaks Estate 2001 Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains, Proprietor’s Reserve, Schultze Family Vineyards, and a Failla 2009 Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, Keefer Vineyard. The Failla justified the general feeling that 2009 was an outstanding vintage in the Russian River area. The Windy Oaks was our second to last bottle of that wine. We have opened bottles for family and friends, and even for business associates. (There was one interesting dinner with an associate from France, who I didn’t realize was a Burgundy aficionado and had a 1,000+ bottle cellar. He thought the Windy Oaks would stand up nicely to some of his best Burgundies.) This has been a great wine every time we’ve opened a bottle, and this one did not disappoint. Beautiful.