A Unique Experierience At Williamson Wines

Williamson Wines was the top new find on our trip to Sonoma. After a few wines, co-founder Dawn Williamson joined us at the table for a lively conversation. Along with her husband Bill they provide a unique experience at Williamson Wines. First, you can’t beat the price for the tasting: $0.00 for groups smaller than six people. Second, they serve the wine tastes accompanied by food morsels so you can evaluate the wines in the context of an appropriate food.

Dawn and Bill emigrated from Australia about 35 years ago. They’ve been making wine since 2002. And their wine is great!

Dawn with our crowd A Unique Experierience At Williamson Wines

Dawn with our crowd (click for larger image)

An unusual, terrific aspect of Williamson is their restaurant. There are a number of wine and food pairing options:

Wine and Food Pairings A Unique Experierience At Williamson Wines

Wine and Food Pairings (click for larger image)

Or visit The Terrace at Eighteen (18 Matheson St. in Healdsburg).

The Terrace at Eighteen A Unique Experierience At Williamson Wines

The Terrace at Eighteen (click for larger image)

If you’re feeling flush, a mere $395 gets you a 30 minute helicopter ride over Sonoma Valley followed by a tasting at the winery:

Helicopter Flight and Wine Tasting A Unique Experierience At Williamson Wines

Helicopter Flight and Wine Tasting (click for larger image)

The Wines

But let’s talk about their wines. By my count they offer 47:

Williamson Wine List A Unique Experierience At Williamson Wines

Williamson Wine List (click for larger imaage)

By making so many different wines, Williamson can produce small lots of each wine and still achieve some economies of scale. Production is 12,000 to 15,000 cases per year. That’s between 255 and 319 cases per wine on average.

Here’s what we tasted.

2015 viognier “Frolic” Mendocino County ($34). Aromas of honeysuckle and orange blossom greet you. On the palate, light flavors of peach and apricot, with a nice finish of well balanced acidity. The food pairing was apple horseradish jam.

2014 grenache “Embrace” Dry Creek Valley ($47). Aromas of cotton candy supported by light hints of blood orange peel. Flavors of hint of apple and cranberry notes of light leather and soft tannins finish. The food pairing was Moroccan date sauce.

“Entice Cuvée” Bordeaux-style blend ($48). Blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, malbec, petit verdot. Youthful aromas of coffee and blackberries greet you from the glass.. The cabernet sauvignon appears immediately on the palate, but softened by the merlot and malbec. The food pairing was jalapeño and sweet pepper jam.

2012 cabernet sauvignon “Indulge” Dry Creek Valley ($65). Rich plum and blackberry with a hint of tobacco to the nose. White pepper and plum with hints of caramel, tobacco and black licorice on the palate with assertive tannins finish. Age this one for a year or two. The food pairing was blue cheese and honey.

2015 pinot noir “Rapture” Sonoma Coast ($56). Aromas of bing cherry and cranberry with hints of cinnamon and leather. The palate is earthy and big, with notes of brambleberry and clove lead to a long finish with silky tannins. The food pairing was truffle salt.

Dawn and Bill Williamson

Dawn likes “Wednesday night recipes” that people can actually cook. As she put it,

People come to wine country and they think you’re going to have the big Viking stove, and you have to have all this stuff. We ship to New York, we ship to Washington, people have beautiful apartments, but they don’t have huge kitchens. We like recipes that you can cook in an apartment kitchen, that you can get on the table in a reasonable amount of time, and, as I tell young people, if you screw up it’s still going to be all right. … I have hundreds of cookbooks with all the pretty pictures. I enjoy them. You flip through them and see how pretty they are. You say, “That looks good,” then you look closely and it’s ¼ teaspoon of everything you’ve ever heard of.

Together they have put together a memorable, unique wine-tasting experience. Assisted, of course, by their terrific wines. Not bad for immigrants from down under!

Murder Ridge at Family Winemakers 2017

Cooper had $7.50 on his person and a demijohn of wine. The wine was missing but the money was found in his coat. Joseph Cooper was about 70 years of age, an inoffensive man, and why he should be murdered is a mystery.

Murder Ridge won our award for Most Original Name in our overview of Family Winemakers 2017. But they would not have made the list if their wines hadn’t been excellent. Let’s take a closer look at their pinot noir. This is Murder Ridge at Family Winemakers 2017.

The Story

 Murder RidgeSteve Alden at Family Winemakers 2017

Winegrower Steve Alden

We were greeted by Steve Alden behind the Murder Ridge table. As we later discovered, Steve grows the grapes. Steve’s degree in photojournalism is from San Jose State University. In 1951 his grandfather bought a 2,000 acre timber ranch in coastal Mendocino. Steve found he was spending more and more time managing the ranch. Then he caught the grapegrowing bug. He started surveying the ridgetops to find the best locations for growing winegrapes. The Perli Vineyard was planted with pinot noir and zinfandel in 1994. The winery’s first vintage was 1997 And we sure are happy he made that decision. Today Murder Ridge produces 250 cases of wine per year and zero timber for the last fifteen years.

Fog Over Perli Vineyard Murder Ridge at Family Winemakers 2017

Fog Over Perli Vineyard (click for larger image)

Winemaker Leslie Sisneros Murder Ridge at Family Winemakers 2017

Winemaker Leslie Sisneros (click for larger image)


The Murder Ridge winemaker is Leslie Sisneros. She followed a more traditional career path, getting her degree in Plant Science, Viticulture from U.C. Davis. The two met when Steve was delivering grapes to Vinwood Cellars in Geyserville for the 2001 harvest. They hit it off and Leslie has been making wine from Perli Vineyards since 2007. She also works with several other wineries.


After partaking in a thirteen month global agricultural work program she continued her pursuit of a fulfilled life by getting married, starting a family and working at various large wineries including Chateau St. Jean and Rodney Strong. She eventually stumbled onto a family operation known as Kendall Jackson where she welcomed the challenge of this dynamic, growing, business and worked her way up from lab tech to Pinot Noir Princess during her thirteen harvests.

The Name

There was, in fact, a murder on Murder Ridge. The complete tale is shown here:

Murder Ridge story Family Winemakers 2017 Stay On Message

Murder Ridge story (click for larger image)

And there’s also a poem about the event.

The Wine

2015 Murder Ridge Perli Vineyard Mendocino Ridge pinot noir ($48). Blackberries and black cherries on the nose, a palate that is a fruit bomb with a hint of forest floor.

The Murder Ridge wine club is called a Murder of Crows.  Hence the excellent logo:

Murder Ridge Logo Murder Ridge at Family Winemakers 2017

Murder Ridge Logo


Discovering new wineries like Murder Ridge is one of the real pleasures of writing at CaliforniaWineFan. We urge Steve and Leslie to keep up their excellent work.

Artisan Does Italy

It’s been a while since we visited Artisan Wine Depot. (For a retired couple we seem to be awfully busy.) But then we were invited to a tasting of Italian wines, olive oils and imported foods. How could we say no?

The Sponsors

Casa de Case takes its name from Kris and Howard Case. This couple loves Italian food and wine. In 2000 they started Casa de Case as an importer. Their original focus was Italian olive oil. After a few successful years they quit their day jobs to focus on turning Casa de Case into an importer and distributor of Italian foods. Shortly thereafter, they began importing wines from wineries they had visited and enjoyed.

Kris and Howard Case

Kris and Howard Case (click for larger image)

Our usual practice is to review the wines in the order tasted. But this time we’ll make the primary ordering by winery. That way we can give you some background on each winery before moving on to their wines. All prices quoted are the Artisan single-bottle prices, not including shipping and handling.


Be warned: if you visit the Mustilli website and don’t read Italian, have your dictionary ready (or use a web translation service). Italian only written here. But the site itself is visually spectacular.

The first wine featured a new grape, the Falanghina. Well, it was new to us. Specifically, the wine was “Vigna Segreta” 2015 Falanghina (Sannio, Campania, Italy) ($30). That name sounded too short for a good Italian wine so we visited the winery website. Sure enough, the full name is “Vigna Segreta Falanghina del Sannio Sant’Agata dei Goti DOC 2015.” As for the wine, it’s pleasant enough with very light aromas and flavors of white peaches and minerality. If you’re looking for a wine to beat the summer heat that’s guaranteed not to offend any of your guests, this is a good bet.

Mustilli’s “Artus” 2015 Piedirosso di Sannio (Campania, Italy, $30) was our favorite among the reds. Aroma of plums and red fruits, with a delicate finish of floral notes, herbs, lavender, thyme and sage.

La Baia Del Sole

Lo and behold, La Baio Del Sole‘s first wine was a vermentino. And it was our favorite of the event. We first encountered this grape on our visit to Tessa Marie in Los Olivos. The Italian version features much less vermouth flavor. This one is very nice indeed. The wine is the “Oro d’lsee” 2016 Vermentino Colli di Luni (Liguria, ltaly, $16) Our tasting notes feature aromas of peaches and honeysuckle with more peaches and some minerality on the palate. This one qualifies as a BARGAIN.

A second vermentino, “Sarticola” 2015 Vermentino Colli di Luni _ (Liguria, ltaJy, $20) had been kept on the skins a few days. We found it overpowering.

Vermentino nero? Black vermentino? Apparently. The “Prima Brezza” 2015 Rosato IGT (Liguria di Levante, Italy, $15). Not to our taste, but quaffable.


There were several other wineries and wines at this event.  But the nebbilios were too, well, nebbolio-esque.  As always, we’ve reviewed what we liked.

Our Weekend in Sonoma Part Calistoga

Well.  It has been a few months since we wrote about our March trip to Sonoma and Napa.  We’ve been busy working on paying projects to support our wine habit.  While we were in Calistoga we visited Chateau Montelena and Picayune Cellars. This is our weekend in Sonoma part Calistoga.

Chateau Montelena Our Weekend in Sonoma Part Calistoga

Chateau Montelena (click for larger image)

We went to Calistoga for the Spire Collection event.. Neither of us had ever visited the justifiably famous Chateau Montelena (featured in the movie Bottle Shock). We brought home three bottles of their zinfandel. If we had the patience to wait 20 years we might have picked up a bottle of their cabernet sauvignon. Forthwith our review of the wines.

Their 2015 Napa Valley sauvignon blanc ($35) opens with citrus aromas leading to yellow grapefruit on the palate. (The current release is the 2016 vintage at the same price.) A 2014 chardonnay ($58) was appealing with no butter and very light oak. But it lacked fruit.

By far our favorite was the 2013 Napa Valley zinfandel featuring an unusual butterscotch nose with bing cherries and light berries on the palate. (The current release is the 2014 vintage from Calistoga for $39.) Finally, if you can wait 20 years we have the perfect wine for you. The 2013 Montelena Estate cabernet sauvignon ($160) currently shows a nice balance of tannins, oak, and fruit with a good structure.

Our second stop was Picayune Cellars. We’ve written about them before and looked forward to dropping by their new tasting room. Claire Ducrocq Weinkauf is now the sole proprietor of the enterprise, having bought out co-founder Jennifer Roberts a few years ago. Claire works in the spirit of a French négociant, buying wines from different sources and blending them. The quality today is just as good as the first time we tasted their wines. Current production is 2,600 cases per year.

Jennifer Roberts and Claire Weinkoauf First Bottling April 2011

Jennifer Roberts and Claire Weinkoauf First Bottling April 2011

These are all major bargains. Claire knows her stuff.

2015 sauvignon blanc ($21). 87% Red Hills Lake County, 13% Napa Valley. Aromas of lemon, gooseberry and grapefruit.  The palate is bright and lively with lime zest, Asian pear and lemon curd.

2014 Sonoma Coast pinot noir ($29). A burst of juicy blueberry and fresh raspberry. The vibrant fruit flavors are complemented by hints of lilac.

2014 Padlock ($29) 73% merlot, 21% malbec, 6% cabernet sauvignon. Deep layers of black cherries, cassis, blackberries, cocoa, currants and bit of truffle on the nose. A rich mid palate with attractive texture and excellent acidity, This one needs to sit for a few years.

Made in New Zealand Featuring Craggy Range

Over at NewZealandWineFan.com, we’ve reviewed Craggy Range.  We tasted their pinot noir at Made in New Zealand last March.  You can read our full review here.

Craggy Range Owners Terry and Mary Peabody Made in New Zealand Featuring Craggy Range

Craggy Range Owners Terry and Mary Peabody (click for larger image)

RN Estate 2015 Chardonnay Solomon Hills Santa Maria Valley

RN Estate 2015 chardonnay

(click for larger image)

This is Roger Nicolas’s first chardonnay and it sure is a winner. Aromas of wet slate and lemon curd lead gently to more minerality on the palate with hints of lemon and tropical fruit. A long finish with a slight butter tinge. We rate the $49 as a fair price for a wine this subtle and varied.



RN Estate 2009 Cuvée des Artistes

RN Estate 2009 Cuvée des Artistes

(click for larger image)

We are long-time members of the RN Estate wine club. Today, as I was browsing the Eurocave™ I spotted this beauty on the shelf. Before I write about it, here’s some advice if you’re lucky enough to own some of this: give it a few more years. There are still some slightly rough tannins and a bit of oak. But we’re old and impatient. (If you’re curious about our history with this winery, search for RN Estate.)

Forthwith, my notes: aromas of smoke and black pepper followed by a dark, brooding palate. Notes of brambleberries and dried tart cherries lead to a long, slightly tannic finish. If you can find it, buy it and be patient.

Amazingly, you can still buy this on the RN Estate website for a mere $49. This is a serious bargain.

Owner-winemaker Roger Nicolas regularly makes these blends, using proportions adjusted to each year’s vintage. The 2009 is 50 percent syrah, 19 percent cabernet sauvignon, 18 percent merlot, and 13 percent zinfandel. In Bordeaux and Burgundy a blend like this would be illegal. Luckily for us, Roger is beyond the reach of the French wine authorities.

A Lynmar Horizontal

Confession: we have somehow accumulated a large number of bottles of Lynmar 2014 pinots in our Eurocave. So we’re creating space. This will be the first of several Lynmar horizontals.

The wines are the Susanna’s Vineyard (Sonoma Coast, $65) and the “Old Vines” (Russian River Valley, $80). I’d advise you to join their wine club to save money, but neither membership tier offers a discount to new members. You should have joined when we first reviewed Lynmar.

Lynmar Horizontal A Lynmar Horizontal

(click for larger image)

These two wines are terrific representatives of the respective terroirs. The Susanna’s has a black cherry black raspberry nose followed by more black cherries on the palate and a marvelous butterscotch finish. The “Old Vines” is slate and river rock through and through – with a milder butterscotch finish.

I could copy the text from the back labels, but the Lynmar website has done the heavy lifting for me. Forthwith, the story.

Lynmar_2014_PinotNoir_OldVines Lynmar_2014_PinotNoir_SusannasVineyard

(click for larger images)

Balletto Vineyards Has Great Wine and
an All-American Success Story

Balletto mainly grows grapes. They keep ten percent for their use. And their wines are pretty terrific. Not to mention reasonably priced. All their wines are estate grown and bottled, with a Russian River Valley AVA designation. And the best word to describe their wines is unusual. You will find aromas and flavors that, in our experience, are unique.

Wow Wine Country Dawn Balletto Vineyards Has Great Wine and an All-American Success Story

Wow Wine Country Dawn (click for larger image)

The Wine

Balletto’s 2016 sauvignon blanc ($19) is a little heavy on the grapefruit for our taste, but with nice, unusual lemon-lime undertones.

Their 2016 “Teresa’s” chardonnay ($20) features tropical fruit and green apple, again, quite unusual.

Addie the Winery Dog Balletto Vineyards Has Great Wine and an All-American Success Story

Addie the Winery Dog (click for larger image)

A 2016 gewürztraminer ($19) was heavy on lychee nuts and ripe pear, lacking much of the traditional spice. Nutty aromas make this another unusual, but not bad, wine.

We’ve always had problems with pinot noir rosé. Usually most of the pinot character is lost with the coloration. But Balletto’s 2016 offering ($18) shows good pinot character, both in the nose and on the palate. This is a major bargain and just the thing for upcoming warm summer evenings.

Their 2014 pinot noir ($29) is a blend from seven vineyards. Aromas of dark fruit with a hint of leather. The palate is an explosion of juice, with a lush butterscotch. finish. Another bargain.

A single-vineyard pinot noir, the 2013 “Burnside” ($42), was lighter with less fruit, more tannins and more oak than the blend. This will improve with age.

Finally, the 2013 zinfandel ($28) was another delightful surprise. Aromas of brambleberries, followed by a soft palate, a small hint of spice, and an overall very nice experience.

The Winery and Its History

To understand the Balletto winery you need to know something about the Balletto family. In 1977 John Balletto started growing vegetables at the tender age of 17. The untimely death of his father sidetracked his college ambitions. With the help of his mother Hazel, he planted produce on five acres in Sebastopol.

Balletto Tasting Room Balletto Vineyards Has Great Wine and an All-American Success Story

Balletto Tasting Room (click for larger image)

The business grew. With the help of Pete Barbieri, the family bought a ranch in Santa Rosa. The business continued to expand. John started leasing land, but quickly realized that fluctuations in lease rates did not make for a stable business environment. With his wife Terri he bought a large parcel at 5700 Occidental Road and built a packing and shipping house. That building is the winery tasting room today.

Jacqueline Balletto and Winemaker Anthony Beckman

Jacqueline Balletto and Winemaker Anthony Beckman (click for larger image)

The Ballettos eventually became the largest vegetable grower north of the Golden Gate with 700 acres under cultivation. But losses caused by three successive El Niño storms combined with competition from Mexico after NAFTA was signed convinced them that there was no future in that market. Luckily they already had 35 acres of chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot gris on their home ranch west of Sebastopol. The family began the full-blown conversion to grape growing in 1999. Today they have over 500 acres in the Russian River Valley. In July 2010, the Balletto Family was honored being awarded the Sonoma County Farm Bureau Farm Family of the Year.

There are actually three vineyard sites. The Santa Rosa Plains are a few miles west of Santa Rosa. Sebastopol Hills is southwest of the town of Sebastopol. And they now have a vineyard in the Petaluma Wind Gap, an up-and-coming region featuring very cold, windy conditions.

Balletto Vineyard Map Sebastopol Hills Balletto Vineyards Has Great Wine and an All-American Success Story

Balletto Vineyard Map Sebastopol Hills (click for larger image)


Some days we get lucky. We feel very fortunate to have stumbled onto Balletto. They have terrific wine and a fabulous story.

Mud House 2014 Central Otago Pinot Noir

Artisan Wine Depot was offering a deal on Mud House 2014 Central Otago pinot noir at $16 per bottle. (The link is to our full review on New Zealand Wine Fan.) We bought four bottles on a whim. Subtle aromas of cherries with hints of leather and tobacco greet you. Be sure to swirl vigorously, as this wine is a little shy about exposing itself. On the palate, pure grape juice with bright acidity on the finish.