Los Olivos Wineries Best Bets for Pinot Noir and Creativity

Los Olivos wineries best bets for pinot noir and creativity include Coghlan Vineyards, Longoria Cellars, Dragonette Cellars, and Tessa Marie Wines.  Los Olivos is a charming little town consisting of nothing but wine tasting rooms, gift shops, and small restaurants.  It’s dedicated to you – the wine tourist. Because of our focus on pinot noir we were quite selective in which tasting rooms we visited.  If you are looking for Los Olivos wineries best bets for whites you have more choices to discover. Los Olivos lies about an hour east of Santa Barbara along highway 154 and only a few miles from U.S. 101.

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Coghlan Winery Tasting Room and Jewelery Shop

Coghlan Winery tasting room interior - pinot noir under artsy etsy lighting

At Coghlan, be sure to admire the jewelry.  It happens that Coghlan was one of the wines at the Pinot Summit 2012 in San Francisco. When we asked the Coghlans which business subsidized the other, they replied it was about even.  They have three pinot noirs whose labels reflect their semi-precious gems business: Diopside (2009, Santa Rita Hills, $40), Sapphire (2009, La Encantada Vineyards, $47), and the 2010 Fluorite (clone 115, Santa Rita Hills, $37).  Each of the three is unique and displays the variety of flavor and aroma traits characteristic of the pinot noir grape.

Longoria Cellars tasting room - pinot noir is a focus

Longoria Cellars tasting room guard dog

Longoria lists seven pinots on their website.  We tasted two in Los Olivios and were quite impressed.  Prices tend to be in the $50 range, a little out of our range, but fairly priced.

Dragonette Cellars is a true family operation, owned and operated by the three Dragonette brothers, their wives, and a brother-in-law who was in the tasting room when we were there. Their treatment of pinot noir grapes from the justifiably famous Fiddlestix vineyard is about as good as it gets.  We were especially impressed by the 2008 MJM, a Rhône-style blend of syrahs from several vineyards.  According to our notes, the MJM was nearly sold out and only available to club members.  But the tasting room guy made a phone call and got permission to sell us a bottle.  We drank it with great pleasure in late March.

Dragonette Cellars tasting room - a Rhone, GSM focus

Tessa Marie Wines is a must-visit.  We’ll answer your two obvious questions first. Yes, there is a Tessa Marie.  Her picture is below.  She’s Fess Parker’s granddaughter and comes by her winemaking skills genetically.  (If you’ve never tried any Fess Parker Wines, you should.)  The second question is the location of the tasting room.  Do not believe Google maps.  Our map above is the correct location.

Tessa Marie Cellars - focus on Italian varieties of grapes, especially whites

Now about Tessa Marie’s wines. No pinot noir here — Tessa Marie prefers Italian varietals.  Her first love is sangiovese.  We tried her 2009 vermentino which (not surprisingly) has a faint vermouth finish. You’ve never heard of the vermentino grape?  Neither had we.  She also makes a sparkling vermentino that is, to put it mildly, interesting.

Los Olivos is worth a full day if you have the time.  We spent a half-day there and really felt like we had just scratched the surface.


Oregon’s Yamhill-Carlton AVA

One of our best single day experiences on our summer trip was discovering Oregon’s Yamhill-Carlton AVA (American Viticultural Area).  We’d recommend heading straight for Carlton on the first day and enjoying being able to wander around on foot rather than spending time in the car.

Our first stop in Carlton was Alexana Estate Vineyards and Winery.  Their motto, “Diverse Soils, Complex Wines” says it all.  In fact, their home page (see below) has photos of the various soil types found in the Willamette Valley.  Alexana is owned by Dr. Madaiah Revana and winemaker Lynn Penner-Ash (yes, from the justifiably famous Penner-Ash Winery). The winery is named after Dr. Revana’s daughter Alexandra. They own several vineyards in the Dundee Hills and other regions. Their Revana Vineyard 2009 ($40) opens with a powerful vanilla nose, followed by lovely red brambleberry fruit and a long, lovely, red currant finish.  This vineyard is owned by the winery.

Despite owning vineyards, Madaiah and Lynn buy grapes occasionally.  One purchase was from the incredible Shea Vineyard (2009, $75).  From the winemaker’s notes: “taught [sic], tart-cherry pie-bomb with a blast of black and red fruit on the mid-palate. The flavors are long and subtle on the finish, echoing the fruit and earth notes.”  This wine is still under the legal age for drinking.  If you have the patience for a couple of years it should be even better.

We also tasted two of Alexana’s white wines.  The 2010 Revana Vineyard pinot gris ($26) is a respectable entry in this growing varietal.  The 2010 Revana Vineyard riesling ($28) carries peach aromas and flavors with a nice acid balance.

Alexana Home Page

Alexana Home Page

Like many Carlton wineries, Alexana’s tasting room is on the main street of Carlton, separate from the winery.  A notable exception is the Carlton Winemakers’ Studio where would-be winemakers can try their hand at the craft. There are a dozen wineries using the facilities.  Each produces several different wines.  We tasted half a dozen wines, one each from half the wineries. The Lazy River 2008  Lumpkin Family vineyard pinot noir ($33) has a mineral nose with spice and tannins on the palate.  Ayoub’s 2009 “Memoirs” pinot noir ($35) is a blend of Willamette Valley grapes.  Memoirs is actually a second label for Mo Ayoub, owner, winemaker, gourmet cook, and holding a degree in engineering.  Don’t be put off by the mineral nose.  There is an amazing tangerine flavor followed by a cinnamon finish.  Unbelievable and quite a bargain.  Hamacher Wines 2007 Willamette Valley pinot noir ($45) begins with light berry aromas followed by “yummy tannins” (from my notes).

Carlton Winemakers' Studio

Carlton Winemakers’ Studio

We tasted pinots from several other wineries. The three above were our favorites.  Visit the Studio on several different days because the wines being tasted change from day to day.  (In fact, Dukes Family Vineyard which we had favorably noted at other tastings, was not pouring the day we were there.)

Ken Wright is justifiably famous even among Oregon winemakers.  But you won’t find his tasting room in Carlton.  Instead head to the Tyrus Evan tasting room — which happens to be Ken’s second label.  Once you’re inside, ask if any Ken Wright labels are open.  You may have to pay a little — believe me, this is worth a visit.  If you’re looking for an incredible bargain, Ken makes a Willamette Valley pinot noir blend.  My notes about the 2009 (which we opened at dinner that night) simply say, “Wonderful stuff.  A bargain.”  At $25 it’s a steal.

Inside Ken Wright's tasting room, aka Tyrus Evan

Inside Ken Wright’s tasting room, aka Tyrus Evan

Ken’s single-vineyard pinots are terrific examples of the influence of terroir and the varied soils and microclimates of the Willamette Valley.  These two are sold out.  The Guadalupe 2008 opens with black cherry aromas and an explosion of dark fruit on the palate.  The Canary Hill 2008 has mineral aromas, with a full-bodied mouth feel and earthy flavors.  Luckily, there are two others we tasted that are not sold out.  The bad news is that Ken is selling them only by the six pack at $350 each.  The Carter Vineyard 2008 has strawberry aromas followed by heavy spice on the palate.  The web site says “moderate tannins and acidity.”  This baby needs a few years to grow up.    The Savoya Vineyard 2008has nice aromas with tart cherry and spice flavors.  Ken’s web site says, “Floral and Spice Focused. Forward and lush in its youth. (Cola, hint of Tobacco, Black Cherry).”  If you can afford them, these are highly recommended.

And Tyrus Evan is no slouch.  The 2007 Del Rio chardonnay ($28) has citrus aromas with honey and peaches on the palate.  My notes say, “Wow.”

That’s enough for today.  Next up: the high end (Penner-Ash and Archery-Summit).

Alexana Estate Vineyard & Winery
116 W Main Street
Carlton OR 97111
Phone: (503) 852-3013
Fax: (503) 852-3064
Email: Christie@alexanawinery.com

The Carlton Winemakers Studio
801 North Scott Street
Carlton, OR 97111
Phone: 503.852.6100
Fax: 503.852.9519
Email: info@winemakersstudio.com

Tyrus Evan Tasting Room
120 N Pine
Carlton OR 97111
Phone: 503-852-7010
Fax:  503-852-7111


Livermore Valley Wineries – Picks for Red Wine Fans

The Livermore Valley wineries are just an hour away from about anywhere in the greater Silicon Valley area. So it’s a great destination for an afternoon getaway of red wine tasting. It’s not a Sonoma, Napa or Paso Robles experience, but there are quite a few competent reds to experience.


California Wine Fan on Steven Kent Winery lawn and patio tasting area

Steven Kent Winery is head and shoulders about the rest. For over 20 years, the owner and winemaker, Steven Kent Mirassou, has been making excellent single vineyard cabernet sauvignon wine, as good any anything you will find in Napa. This past week, he released three 2008 cabernets made from local estate grapes — Smith Ranch, Home Ranch and Ghielmetti Vineyard — all at $60. As usual all these wines will age well. The Ghielmetti Vineyard cab was most approachable and CWF’s favorite. Tastings at Steven Kent run from $10 to $20 depending on what is being poured. As another option across the driveway is La Rochelle Winery, Steven Kent’s foray into pinot noir using grapes from Monterey, Sonoma and other regions. Tastings can be pricey for some of these very low volume pinots.

Concannon modern patio for lunch and tasting

Concannon modern patio for lunch and tasting

CWF recommends Steven Kent as a first stop in the Livermore Valley. You might as well experience cab heaven while your palate is fresh. Then, if you need lunch, across the street and down the road 1/2 mile is Concannon Winery, a large bulk wine producer. The wine is just OK, but the sleek modern outdoor patio set alongside an emerald expanse of lawn is wonderful for a light lunch.

Having made the drive, you will want to fill out your afternoon with more wiinery visits. Behind Steven Kent and up the hill are several wineries. Our pick is McGrail Vineyards and Winery , for it’s nouveau Tuscan tasting room, it’s view of the valley, and it’s quest to make beautiful cabernet sauvignon. The owner-winemaker Joe McGrail played one season with the NFL’s Buffal0 Bills.  He joins Terry Hoage among the exclusive group of former NFL players that have made the transition to winemaking.  Hoage played 13 seasons, including a year with the San Francisco Forty-Niners in 1993.

Nearby is Murietta’s Well, owned by volume wine producer Wente. The historic winery has been artfully restored with a modern aesthetic. The boutique wines include some more unusual Italian and Spanish varietals. This is were CWF first encountered a California tempranillo. The tasting menu is broad and visitors can select from several flights.


California Wine Fan at Nottingham Cellars storefront

Low on architectural appeal, but higher on wine appeal is Nottingham Cellars. It’s located in a business strip mall and can be hard to spot from the road. Watch for the A-frame signs and flags. The tasting room is comfortable and intimate with a tasting fee of $10. Their red blends are competent, but are way are more affordable that most. Their reds were interesting, but need some aging. CWF bought their viogner and steel-aged chardonnay.

At the Cuda Ridge Wines tasting room

At the Cuda Ridge Wines tasting room

About a mile away is Cuda Ridge Wines. The tasting room is located in a ranch barrel room, with horses and tractors outside, now surrounded by a new upscale suburban development. Lawrence Livermore Labs is just down the road behind a lot of chain link fence and threatening signs. The winemaker’s passion is Bordeaux style blends — cab with merlot, merlot with cab, all spiced up with cab franc, petit verdot, etc. He also makes an “American” single vineyard cab and some nice whites. Flights from $5 to $10.

Wineries close starting at 4, latest close 5. Got more time?

CWF suggests Page Mill Winery — it looks like a farm, but inside the tasting room is a decorating surprise. Lots of different reds and whites to taste here. Or, on the way out to the road back to Silicon Valley, check out Thomas Coyne. This really is still a farm. You can usually see plenty of sheep and other livestock. The view of the valley is pretty, so if it is not windy, this is a welcoming place to have a rustic picnic lunch in their picnic area. The owner-wine maker hails from Pennsylvania, is a Penn State Nittany Lion fan, and makes an eclectic menu of red and white wines.

Let us know how these wineries worked for you. Or if you know of other Livermore wineries CWF should “pick” please let us know.

Oregon Wineries: Nine of the Best for Pinot Noir

Here are nine of the many good pinot noir  producing Oregon wineries we just visited on at 6 day visit to the Willamette Region.  Any pinot noir from one of these wineries would be a safe good choice at a restaurant or wine shop. ( Future posts will identify more good pinot producers.)

Foris Vineyards Winery (Cave Junction in the Rogue River Valley). We bought a bottle of their 2008 pinot noir off the shelf in a supermarket.  What a surprise.  Berry aromas and an explosion of fruit on the palate.  Price from the winery website: $19.  A best buy.

A to Z Wine Works (Dundee).  “Aristocratic wines at democratic prices.”  A to Z became our “go to” pinot.  We consumed several bottles of their 2009 ($20 on the website).  Another best buy for those who want a little complexity.  Another best buy.

Wine by Joe (Dundee).  Who could resist?  And why should we?  My notes say, “pretty darn good.”  Another bargain at $19.  Trader Joe’s shoppers should look for VinTJs pinot noir from the Willamette Valley.  Joe does the work for Trader Joe.  No relation.

Lange Estate Tasting Room

Lange Estate Tasting Room

Lange Estate Winery and Vineyards (18380 NE Buena Vista Drive, Dundee, Oregon 97115).  If you go to the tasting room, drive a Jeep or some other vehicle with high road clearance.  Google maps shows Lange as 3.2 miles from downtown Dundee.  However, the last 1.7 miles are on an increasingly rough gravel road.  BUT it’s worth the trip. Their 2009 Reserve ($32) was cherry and soft tannins with mineral aromas.  The 2007 Lange Estate ($60) started with smoke aromas, then mineral and plum flavors.  The 2009 Three Hills Cuvee ($40) is fruit, fruit, and more fruit.  As long as you’ve made the trip, stop at

The View from Lange and Torii Mor

The View from Lange and Torii Mor

Torii Mor Tasting Room

Torii Mor Tasting Room

Torii Mor on the way back.  Their 2008 Chehalem Mountain Select ($40) is very nice.  And the winery itself is spectacular.  Like Lange, Torii Mor shares spectacular views of Mt. Hood on clear days.  The architecture is rustic Oriental zen, complete with Japanese sand gardens (one of which was sorely in need of a Buddhist practitioner).  The photo below gives a small sample of what you’ll find.  By the way, torii is the Japanese word for the entrance to a garden.  Mor is Celtic for earth.  An interesting juxtaposition that gives the flavor of the terroir.

The gravel roads here are one lane and pretty rugged.  Drive slowly and be prepared to pull over to let cars get past.  As we were leaving Torii Mor we stopped at the entrance to consult a map.  Another brave soul coming from the direction of Lange was impatient to get in.  We moved quickly.

The staff at Torii Mor is extremely friendly and encourages guests to explore the property.  The photo above was taken at the edge of the deck overlooking the valley.

Twelve has a tasting room in downtown McMinnville.  The winery itself is in Carlton, an absolute must visit if you’re in the area.  More on Carlton in a future post.  Twelve offered seven different pinots, three of which were labeled 144 (12 squared for non-math geeks).  We liked the 2008 version of 144 ($35) best, but would not have turned down any of the seven we tasted.

Twelve Tasting Room

Twelve Tasting Room



Chehalem Winery Tasting Room

Chehalem Winery Tasting Room

Chehalem Wines (tasting room in Newberg) offers the 2009 3 vineyard ($27).  Smoke and rose petals on the nose with lots of spice and a long, smooth finish.  If you go, try to arrive around lunchtime.  There is a food truck called “Uprooted” parked semi-permanently in their lot.  This is a converted Airstream trailer.  We had an arugula salad with an avocado bacon sandwich.  Outstanding and highly recommended.  (They are @uprooted1 on Twitter if they move.)

Uprooted Ambiance

Uprooted Ambiance


David Hill Tasting Room

David Hill Tasting Room

David Hill Winery and Vineyard (46350 NW David Hill Road Forest Grove, OR 97116).  Another long dirt road.  Make sure your cell phone is charged because you might have to call them for directions when you’re nearby.  It’s easy to miss the small turnoff that leads down into a wonderful valley.  We sampled their 2008 Estate ($16), the 2007 Estate Barrel Select ($22), and the 2007 Estate Reserve ($32).  Any of them is a bargain.  If you’re looking for a real deal try the Farmhouse Red ($11).  The winery is a big old farmhouse in the middle of a large valley covered with grapevines.  Even if you don’t like wine it’s worth the trip just for the views.

Elk Cove Vineyards (27751 NW Olson Road, Gaston, OR 97119).  We encountered these folks at IPNC.  Their pinots were so good we decided they deserved a visit.  We were not disappointed.  They poured their 2008 Willamette Valley ($27), a 2009 Mount Richmond ($48), and a 2009 Five Mountain ($48).  The Five Mountain is notable for a hint of lime aroma.  All three are excellent.  The Willamette Valley qualifies as a best buy, even at the price.

That’s enough for today.  More later.


California Wine Month – Favorite 1-day Sonoma Winery Tour

September is California Wine Month. There’s a ton of travel information on the Discover California Wine web site. While you can easily design your own winery tour, we thought we’d offer a favorite one of our own, the Sonoma Russian River pinot noir 1-day tour. Click here to link to a page that includes winery names, a map, and even a nice place to stay. We do this circuit at least once a year.

Go to the live Map

Oregon Wineries Road Trip: Overview

We spent a couple of weeks on an Oregon wineries road trip at the end of July.  The first week we were on the coast.  We spent the second week in the heart of the Willamette Valley.  By my count we sampled wines from 49 Oregon wineries — probably more, I stopped writing the names of those that weren’t at least a little interesting.

The aroma of Oregon pinot noir

The motivation for the trip was the International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) in McMinnville.  I’ve written about this previously so won’t go into details here.  I will add that IPNC is a juried show.  Wineries have to submit samples and only the top 75 are selected.  Plus there’s a rule that says a winery can’t be there for two consecutive years.

Coast or Oregon from a 2000 foot mountain

In some ways Oregon pinot noirs are a throwback.  The cooler climate and earlier rainy season mean the grapes don’t get the extended hang time vineyard managers in California seem to be striving for.  The result: wines that are still in the general vicinity of 12.5% alcohol.  Very food-friendly.

The Oregon coast has many rocks all along it. Here’s the most unusual.

We discovered a new wine cluster near Cave Junction down on the Rogue River.  The clear winner was Foris Vineyards Winery.  Their pinot noir featured berry aromas on the nose followed by an explosion of fruit on the palate.  Unfortunately, we ran out of time and could not visit the winery, but this region shows real promise.  If you’re looking for a place to stay, the winery offers  a five bedroom house for $150 per night.

Stay tuned.  Blogging for this trip should take us well into September.

SLO food, SLO wine, SLO County – San Luis Obispo Wineries

We headed down to Paso Robles for the Jack Creek Winery club party, but made it an extended trip. We first visited the northern San Luis Obispo (SLO) county area in the late 80s, then not returning again till 2006 to revisit western Paso Robles and the coast town of Cambria. We are impressed with the growth of the wine industry in SLO, as well as with the excitement and vintner creativity there.  In many ways, Paso Robles reminds us of Sonoma County back in the 1980s – or Napa in the 1970s.  The wineries are generally smaller, less crowded, and friendlier … going SLO.

The folks behind the tasting bar are also more knowledgeable than their more commercialized counterparts in Sonoma and Napa.  San Luis Obispo wineries are taking off!

Canyon Villa at sunset


“West side” Wineries –
Jack Creek, Tablas Creek, Treanna

We visited “west side” Paso Robles once again for a long weekend this past June 12 – 15, 2009.  We stayed at the Canyon Villa, a “bed & breakfast” where we’ve stayed before.  B&B hardly describes the quarters – it’s a mini-mansion Tuscan style with 270 degree panoramic killer views of the mountains and accomodates up to 4 guest parties.  [quote_left]In many ways, Paso Robles reminds us of Sonoma County back in the 1980s – or Napa in the 1970s.  The wineries are generally smaller, less crowded, and friendlier …  going SLO.[/quote_left]Jim and Diane Babcock, the owners and hosts, know their way around the local wineries and are a fount of information.  Add to that Diane’s terrific breakfasts, the large Jacuzzi-style tubs in the rooms, and, … well, for us, it doesn’t get much better than this! It costs little more than a standard business class hotel, so for weekends you’ll have to reserve weeks in advance.

Canyon Villa – view from room

Jack Creek Cellars

The ostensible excuse for our trip was the annual Jack Creek Cellars members-only pickup party Saturday afternoon.  There’s food, music, good company, and lots of wine (including barrel tastings of some of the soon-to-be-released vintages).  [quote_left]…the owners went “green” with this wine club party, using eco-chic bamboo plates and napkins. Doug and Sabrina makes some great pinot noir, syrah and chardonnay [/quote_left]Doug and Sabrina Kruse, the owners, are wonderful folks who went “green” with this party, using eco-chic bamboo plates and napkins. This couple makes some great pinot noir, syrah and chardonnay.  We particularly liked the 2005 pinot noir and managed to acquire one of the three remaining bottles in their inventory.  Watch for the 2008 pinot noir clone and the 2007 syrah.  We tasted both from the barrel and were quite impressed.

Doug and Sabrina added a tasting counter this year and it’s open to the public most days. How convenient. Before this addition, tasting was by appointment only and sometimes at the Pasolivo [quote_left]… tasting  is inside the winery facility …get up close to the stainless steel tanks, hoses, and aging barrels …that’s mighty fine winemaking[/quote_left]olive oil tasting room a few miles up the road.  The new Jack Creek tasting counter is off to one end of the non-nonsense winery facility — it’s a great place to get up close to the stainless steel tanks, transfer hoses, and aging barrels! Nothing pretentious here. Just mighty fine winemaking going on.


But we actually started Saturday’s wine touring at Treanna.  This small winery actually produces four labels: Treana, Liberty School, Austin Hope, and Candor. (If you’re looking for entertainment, the url for the Candor label is http://candorwines.com/truth.html.) These are all labels of the Hope Family, producing wine in Paso Robles for over 30 years (according to the web site, anyway).  Most of their wines were bigger than we like (more oak, more tannins, need five years in the cellar).  But we bought a couple of bottles of the Candor Zinfandel Lot 1 ($20).  My notes say spice and blackberry on the palate.  Also needs about a year aging.  We can wait that long.


After we left the Jack Creek event we went on to Jada Vineyard.  Seeing wines named “Hell’s Kitchen,” “Jersey Girl,” and “Passing By”we had a pretty good idea that we’d wandered into a touristy portal to the east coast. Lots of souvenirs for sale here.  But we persisted.  In general, we found their wines too acidic and tannic for our taste.  And with prices upwards of $30 per bottle, we weren’t quite ready to take a chance on most of them.  We did pick up a bottle of Passing By (2006, $38 per bottle), a cabernet sauvignon – merlot blend.  My tasting notes say plum and black cherry on the palate, slightly tannic, with a very slight herbal aroma.  We’re gonna age this one a year, too.

Tablas Creek

Tablas Creek Tasting Room

Tablas Creek was our next stop.  We’ve visited these folks many times in the past and have always been impressed.  Quoting from the web site, “Tablas Creek is the realization of the combined efforts of two of the international wine community’s leading families, the Perrin family, proprietors of Château de Beaucastel, and Robert Haas, founder of Vineyard Brands. They had since the 1970s believed the California climate to be ideal for planting Rhône varietal grapes. In 1987, they began the lengthy process of creating a Châteauneuf-du-Pape style vineyard from scratch in the New World. The Tablas Creek Vineyard Partnership was born, with the Perrin and Haas families as majority partners, and French and American wine loving friends as minority partners.

[quote_left]In 1987, they began the lengthy process of creating a Châteauneuf-du-Pape style vineyard from scratch in the New World…looking for a close match to the Mediterranean climate and high pH soils of Château de Beaucastel.[/quote_left]

The partners searched California from the foothills of the Sierras in the north to coastal Ventura County in the south, looking for a close match to the Mediterranean climate and high pH soils of Château de Beaucastel. In 1989, they purchased a 120-acre parcel twelve miles from the Pacific Ocean in west Paso Robles. They named it Tablas Creek Vineyard, after the small creek running through the property.

Burgundian styles at Tablas Creek

The property elevation averages 1,500 feet, and the shallow, rocky limestone soils are of the same geologic origin as those at Beaucastel. Summer days are hot and sunny, but the influence of the nearby Pacific cools the nights, and the remarkably Rhône-like Paso Robles climate allows the grapes to mature fully and yet retain crisp acidity.”

M. Perrin brought vines from France including Mourvédre, Grenache Noir, Syrah, Counoise, Roussanne, Viognier, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc and Picpoul Blanc.  As a side note the winery offers vines for sale to the public for $9.95 each.

Good wine choice at a restaurant

In any case, Tablas Creek wines are very good.  We always enjoy the Côtes de Tablas Blanc (2007, $25) and the Côtes de Tablas (red, 2006, $25).  The Blanc blends viognier, marsanne, roussanne, and Grenache blanc.  My notes say citrus aromas followed by ripe melon on the palate and a long honey finish.  Nectar!  The red version blends Grenache, syrah, mourvèdre and counoise.  Smoky green pepper nose followed by dark fruit and black pepper.  Both are very drinkable right now and are often available at restaurants.  The two are always an affordable and pleasing choice when dining out.

The Far Out Wineries – Northwest Paso Robles

We next headed for a region that bills itself the “Far Out Wineries of Paso Robles.”  The tasting rooms are all quit a bit of a drive heading northwest from downtown–figure on 30 to 45 minutes.

Spectacular View from Calcareous Winery


However, one winery makes the extra driving effort worthwhile: Calcareous Vineyard.  (The unusual name will be familiar to geologists.  “Calcareous” refers to the limestone formations in which the grapes are grown.  Limestone imparts a unique flavor to pinot noir.

Since our last visit, the owners have built a fine new tasting room with walls of glass which look out to this winery’s stunning view of the Sierras to the East. (Their prior tasting room was quite nice, but cozy and can you believe it — didn’t have any windows except into the barrel aging warehouse.!) They also have increased the guest capacity of their picnic facilities which are now extensive, now have nice sun umbrellas, and still all savor the stunning mountain views. This is a great place to enjoy a bottle of wine with your party, but please stay long enough to sober up, cause the drive home is a two-lane blacktop!

Calcareous Twisted Sisters Wine Bottle

With our dinner in downtown Paso Robles Friday night, at Artisan Restaurant, we drank a bottle of Calcareous “Twisted Sisters” blend. At the winery we tasted 2006 Twisted Sisters Meritage ($36 and worth every penny),a wine which evokes all the qualities of a good Bordeaux: aromas of dark fruit, toasty oak and spice. Ripe red cherries on the palate end with soft fruit characteristics.  We also noted the 2004 zinfandel ($26 but on sale for $17 per bottle to clear out the remaining inventory as of June 18, 2009).  Light strawberry nose, dark fruit and spice on the palate, an excellent representative of the lighter style zinfandel.  The 2005 vintage zinfandel exhibits more youthful exuberance and could use a year or two of aging.   Finally the 2005* Paso Robles syrah ($34), about which my notes say simply, “Yummy.” (*My notes say this is the 2006 syrah, but the Calcareous web site lists only 2005.  I suspect the error is mine.)

Day Trip South to the Santa Maria Wine Region-
Fess Parker, Volk, Cambria, Laetitia

After some indecision on Sunday morning, we decided to head nearly 100 miles down to the Santa Maria region for the day.  The drive is pleasant, but we’d advise getting a good map before you head down that way.  Freeway exits are erratic and none of our GPS devices seemed to find the places we were looking for.  But we persisted.

Fess Parker Winery grounds

After a quick stop in the town of Arroyo Grande, next to 101, to pick up a winery map, we headed out Foxen Canyon Road to the Fess Parker Winery.  Yes, it’s that Fess Parker.

Fess Parker tasting room

Fess Parker

Buy a coonskin cap in the gift shop/tasting room ($15, a real bargain) and amuse all your friends. We did.  But whatever else you do, taste the wine!   We were especially impressed by the 2006 pinot noir (Pommard clone). Cloves, smoke, and tobacco leaf nose followed by black cherries, oranges and cranberry. [quote_left]Buy a coonskin cap in the gift shop/tasting room ($15, a real bargain) and amuse all your friends. We did.  But whatever else you do, taste the wine!   Impressive was the 2006 pinot noir (Pommard clone)[/quote_left] The tasting room hosts $49 per bottle, but it’s listed on the web site at $58.  Hey, this is good stuff, but we found ourselves thinking the price was way above our tasting abilities.  Far more approachable (and affordable) was the 2006 syrah (Santa Barbara County).  At $25 per bottle ($24 on the web site) it’s quite a bargain.  A smoky nose is quickly replaced with blueberries and licorice on the tongue.  Unique and a pretty good deal.  We would be remiss if we didn’t mention the 2007 viognier (Santa Barbara County).   This time the web site and my notes agree: $24 per bottle.  A classic lighter style of viognier without the overpowering aromas seen so often.

Fess Parker wine with coontail cap

The real bargains at Fess Parker may not even be available in the tasting room.  The 2008 riesling (Santa Barbara County) is light with a good acid balance often missing from California (and German) Rieslings.  The winery’s tasting notes say “Lychee nut, white peach and citrus on the nose and mouth”  At $14 a bottle it’s a steal.  As is the Frontier Red ($12 per bottle).  This wine is 60% syrah.  It’s a blend of the leftovers after making the more expensive vineyard appellation and regional-varietal appellation bottlings.  And it’s delicious.  What with Novy discontinuing their leftovers red — Novy Family Three Mile Creek — we found Fess Parker Frontier Red just in time.  (If you try to order from the web site, Frontier is a separate label.  Click on the Family of Wines link at the top of the page to see all the labels.  Interestingly, one of their labels is Parker Station, a pinot noir we have enjoyed on a number of occasions. At $14 per bottle it’s also a pretty good deal.)

Ken Volk Winery Tasting Room

Ken Volk Vineyards

Our next stop was Kenneth Volk Vineyards.* Mr. Volk was formerly the founder and winemaker at Wild Horse (near Paso Robles).  He sold Wild Horse in 2003, bought his new Santa Maria region property from Mondavi in 2004 and released his first vintage in 2006.  We feel privileged to have discovered him so soon after his new winery opened.  (Thanks for the pointer, Diane at Canyon Villas, Paso Robles!)  Even if you don’t buy his wines or make the trip to his winery, make sure you check out the website: whimsical and reflects Mr. Volk’s personality.

[quote_left]Ken Volk sold Wild Horse Winery in 2003, bought his new Santa Maria region property from Mondavi in 2004 and released his first vintage in 2006.  We feel privileged to have discovered him so soon.[/quote_left]

We especially liked the taste of the  2006 pinot noir “Santa Maria Cuvee” ($26).  Light, fruity, and perfect for hot summer evenings.  The 2005 Santa Barbara County pinot ($30) has more spice on the palate, but is probably too complex for our tastebuds.  We also liked the 2006 chardonnay “Santa Maria Cuvee” ($24) which exhibited a nice, straightforward chardonnay character.  The 2006 “Jaybird” ($22) is completely unoaked.  A little too much citrus for our taste, but still very nice.  (Jaybird – naked – get it?)

Ken Volk Wine Bottles

*If you’re approaching Volk Vineyards and the distant neighbor, Cambria Vineyards, from the south, beware road detours.  The maps show a right turn from Foxen Canyon Road onto Tepusquet Road.  Don’t do it – there’s a bridge out.  Instead you have to continue on Foxen Canyon Road through the town of Sisquoc until you can make a very sharp right turn onto Santa Maria Mesa Road.  According to our tasting room hosts work is underway to replace the bridge, so check before you leave. The detour is about 10 miles and the drive is very pleasant, so the detour is not a big deal. (2011 update: an e-mail from the winery has informed us the bridge has re-opened.)

Cambria tasting room

Cambria Winery

The Cambria Winery was next up the road.  We discovered their “Julia’s Vineyard” pinot noir on a trip to Maui a few years back.  Looking at the price today, we’d guess a lot of the rest of the world has discovered it since then.  The 2006 vintage ($20) lives up to the reputation, with an earthy nose and spicy palate.  Cambria makes over 10,000 cases of this pinot and over 100,000 cases of “Katherine’s” chardonnay.  Yes, Julia and Katherine are the owner-winemaker’s daughters of course.

But the real surprise of the visit (for us, anyway) were the lower case volume boutique wines, like the 2006 Bench Break pinot noir ($30).  Notes of ripe cherry on the nose followed by red fruit and spice on the palate.  A soft, creamy mouth feel complements the excellent flavors.  We usually find we like the lower-priced version of most wines.  Not this time.

[quote_left]…the real surprise of the visit to Cambria Winery was the lower case volume boutique  pinot noirs…they make single clone pinot noirs …we tasted the clone 2A and 667 side by side[/quote_left]

Cambria actually makes single clone pinot noirs as well.  According to the folks in the tasting room there are 140 different clones carefully cataloged by U.C. Davis.  Cambria, like Parker and Volk all located in this extremely low rainfall area, has wisely decided not to try producing the entire catalog.  The clones they do produce are 115, 23, 2A, 4, and 667.  We had the chance to taste the 2006 2A clone side by side with the 2006 667.  These are about as different as can be imagined.  Clone 2A ($48) has earthy, leathery aromas with a spicy flavor.  Clone 667 ($48) is all smoke and cedar on the nose with flavors of mineral and dark berries.  The web site describes clone 667 as “dramatic, perfumed, lavish and silky.”  Hard to disagree with that.

Cambria is a very large producer

Luckily for chardonnay lovers, there is a second daughter.  The 2007 Katherine’s Vineyard Chardonnay ($18) is all oak and butter. As with the pinot noirs, we much preferred the step up to the  2006 Bench Break chardonnay ($25).  More butter, noticeably less oak and a touch of citrus make this wine very quaffable.

Laetitia Winery entrance

Lasetitia Winery

Our last stop was the Laetitia Vineyard and Winery, which is practically right off the 101 freeway exit.  Laetitia produces seven different sparkling wines.  We started with the 2004 Laetitia Cuvee M ($25).  Half pinot noir and half chardonnay.  Citrus with a little yeast.  Nice, but not our favorite.  The NV Brut Cuvee ($22) is one-third each pinot noir, pinot blanc and chardonnay.  This one might be a little too approachable.  And the 2006 Laetitia Brut de Noirs ($28) lacked excitement.  But we really enjoyed the 2004 Laetitia Brut Coquard ($25).  Quite approachable, fruity with just a touch of yeast.

Laetitia Winery bottle of pinot noir

Luckily for our digestive system Laetitia also makes still wines.  Our favorite was the 2007 pinot noir clone 2A ($32).  Berries and chocolate on the nose, very nice fruit on the palate.  And, for those who are really into comparative tasting, Cambria also produces a pinot in clone 2A.

All things considered,  quite a successful trip.  We now belong to the Fess Parker and Kenneth Volk wine clubs and have a couple bottles of Laetitia cuvee in the frig.

Pinot Noir Winery Crawl – Sonoma, Russian River, Dry Creek

Stryker Tasting Room on a lively weekend

What better excuse for a three-day crawl through Sonoma on July 20 – 24 than to observe our four-year wedding anniversary and to continue our search for the perfect pinot noir? Our wanderlust took us to several wineries that were new to us. The wineries we liked best among all the ones we visited included the Hartford Family Winery, Zichichi Family Vineyard and Winery, Stryker Sonoma Winery and Vineyards, Acorn Winery, Selby Winery, and Copain Wines.

In the Russian River area, the Hartford Family Winery, with it’s lovely, tasteful chateau-like winery and grounds, is making pinot noir and chardonnay wine the way we prefer it — fruit forward, not much tannin or oak, and drinkable now (but also ageable for a year or two). Their yummy 2004 Three Jacks chardonnay ($45/bottle) features a citrus nose with a lemon-vanilla finish and is sourced 100% from three different chardonnay grape vineyards. Unfortunately, this chardonnay is in limited quantity and is available only at the winery. (We’ve bought a enjoyed a couple bottles since the visit.) The 2006 Fog Dance pinot noir ($45, Green Valley of the Russian River vineyard) has black cherry aromas followed by cranberries, red cherries and allspice on the palate. (We’ve bought and consumed about six bottles of this elegant pinot noir since our first winery visit.) Finally their 2006 Dina’s Vineyard zinfandel($50, Russian River Valley) is a big, chewy wine that needs at least two years in the cellar. I can give no better description than the winery’s own tasting notes, “deep, dark colors along with highly focused blackberry and blueberry aromas and flavors with a broad multi-layered texture and wet stone finish.” (We’ve put aside a couple bottles in our basement.)

Update on Hartford, April, 2009. After enjoying our initial July 2008 bottle purchases at home over the summer and fall of 2008, we decided to join their wine club (reds) on a visit in late 2008. We have been very happy with our quarterly shipments and have used the member discount to load up on special favorites – like the 2006 Fog Dance pinot noir.

Truett-Hurst Vineyards and Winery is one of the newer wineries in the Dry Creek area.  The new owners bought the former Martin winery and renamed it  They’re also revising the production model; when we visited there were about 20 acres outside the tasting room that were growing weeds.  Jim, the winery manager, explained to us that the land was lying fallow for three years and would be farmed biodynamically when grapevines were planted.  They intend to move toward zinfandels and petite sirahs.  Truett-Hurst actually has two other labels in addition to their own.  They still own the Martin label, although that will be retired once they sell off the remaining inventory.   The other label is Stonegate, an ultra-boutique wine from the Napa Valley.  Truett-Hurst is using telemarketing to sell the Stonegate label, unusual in the industry.  (April, 2009 update: the winery web site is a single page.  It appears that progress may be slower than they had anticipated.)

Zichichi Family Vineyard and Winery, Dry Creek ValleySonoma, is a new hill-hugging winery with an unpretentious, contemporary, rustic wooden architecture building for tasting, featuring a charming family-sized deck with a view of a vast expanse of vineyard below. Owner Steve Zichichi is a New Orleans refugee from hurricane Katrina, a physician, and father to vivacious coed triplets and also to a new younger brood. (Busy, busy, busy.) He bought his 22 acre Sonoma ranch in 2000 well before Katrina and was planning to retire to Sonoma at the usual age. However, when Katrina devastated New Orleans, he decided to leave the city with his family rather than stay and try to rebuild his business. Steve’s misfortune is our good luck. He has hired a wine maker (see picture) who has a real knack for producing the kind of traditional Zinfandel wines we like.

Zichichi winery has stumbled into an unusual business model. They only produce two or three wines and you usually can’t even buy the bottles in the tasting room. That’s because Zichichi fans so love the wine, that most of their (small) production is pre-sold in the futures market. Fortunately the minimum futures order is six bottles, so it’s at least a somewhat affordable. Even though the winery was begun in 2000, they have been producing estate wines for only the last two years. We were fortunate to try a barrel tasting of their 2007 “Old Vine” estate zinfandel. We immediately bought a six bottles future, our first purchase ever in a wine future. This wine promises to be very fruit forward with soft tannins and exceptionally mild spice for a zinfandel. The wine will be bottled in November, 2008 and shipped in March, 2009. We can hardly wait.

Update on Zichichi, April 2009. It’s early April 2009, and we are drooling with anticipation of delivery of our six bottles sometime this month … we hope.

Update on Zichiichi, July 2009.  We received our six bottles and sampled one.  Our futures baby has turned out to be a very big berryiful wine, almost viscous in texture, yet still dry through all the fruit. At 16% alcohol, we expect to consume it as an an aperatif rather than as a table wine.


Stryker Winery Architecture

Stryker Sonoma Winery and Vineyards, Alexander Valley, is another hill-hugging winery. It has a very exciting, very stylish modern glass & steel tasting room overlooking the entire north valley – this is a really spectacular view. (picnickers welcome). There is also an unsual “view” from an interior glass wall in the tasting room which looks down into the murky winery aging room with its hundred of bottles and fork lift trucks racing to and fro. Opened in 1999 Stryker has an extensive list of over 50 wines, mainly reds and predominately zinfandel and cab. On any day, they have 12 or so open for tasting with fees for the “reserve” wine flight. Quite popular, their room can get crowded on weekends, but the pouring hosts remain efficient, friendly and knowledgeable, so you’ll have a good time.

On this our first visit we found an intriguing 2005 100% petite verdot ($32, Speedy Creek Vineyard, Knights Valley). My notes say, “Too much verdot, not enough petite.” But if you like big, brawny red wines give this one a try. Wines that we preferred included the 2005 Martinelli Vineyard Russian River Valley chardonnay ($25). My notes say “candy.” The winery’s notes say “elegant yet playful, with an inviting nose of honeysuckle and vanilla. When chilled, flavors of melon, pineapple, and pear unfold on the palate and then give way to subtle notes of oak and vanilla in the finish. At warmer temperatures, the wine exudes hints of crème brulee, lemon, and honey.” Either way we liked it a lot. The 2004 Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon ($24) includes soft tannins and oak, probably needs 6 months to a year in the cellar. But our find of the day was the Alegria Vineyard, Russian River Valley, Zinfandel 2005 – fruit forward, yet with some characteristic spice, medium-bodied (aka no jam).

Update on Stryker, April 2009. We enjoyed the Alegria so much that on a return visit we decided we trusted Styker’s “taste” enough to join the wine club (reds only). We’ve been happy with our shipments and have used the member discount to buy another six bottles of the Alegria 2005 Zinfandel.

Acorn Winery & Alegria Vineyards, Russian River, is a small gem, producing only 3.000 cases annually. We decided to visit them because we had just tasted the Stryker Sonomia wine-maker’s version of zinfandel using 100% Acorn- Alegria Vineyards grapes. We were quite curious about what the original grape sourcer might produce with the same grapes.  At Acorn, we found that winemakers Bill Nachbaur & Alison Green Doran offer tasting from a small, utilitarian converted store room. Think garage, very real, very rustic, a real farm. You need to call for an appointment because Bill and Alison are busy doing real chores. Bill was a very congenial host, providing valuable snippets of information about the wine business, viticulture, and local competition. Bill also pointed us to Selby wines in downtown Healdsburg.. We especially enjoyed the 2005 Alegria Vineyard “Heritage Vines” zinfandel ($34). Whereas Stryker used 100% Alegria grapes for their Alegria zinfandel , Bill and Alison have added 10% each of alicante bouschet and petite sirah to the Alegria grapes (which themselves are actually a “field blend” of 9 varietals among the mostly zinfandel) to produce a wine with “aromas of ripe blackberry, vanilla, and toasty oak. Smooth luscious layers of plum, black raspberry, cocoa, and spicy black pepper mingle with the essence of strawberry from the Carignane and Cinsaut. The Petite Sirah and Alicante provide subtle tannins and structure and add to the lingering flavors of dark-skinned fruit.” (from the winery’s tasting notes). Much to our surprise, because we don’t usually like sangiovese, we bought a bottle of the 2005 Alegria Vineyards Russian River Valley sangiovese ($26). This wine was aged in Hungarian oak with one barrel out of every 40 smoked. Again I can’t do better than excerpts from the winery’s tasting notes: “Smoky aromas of dusty tannins mingle with hints of vanilla, mocha and black pepper. … luscious, toasty center through to the broad spicy finish… . Creamy mocha and vanillin oak notes join classic flavors of plum and dark cherry.” All these wines say Bill and Alison know what they’re doing.

Selby Winery, located in a small shopfront one block off of the Healdsburg town square, was recommended by wine maker Bill Nachbaur at Acorn. Selby had been on our “should visit sometime list” after discovering them on the web. But Bill’s recommendation was the little push that got us to go there at last. Owner-winemaker Susie Selby says, “I’m lucky. Since I only make wines I’d like to drink, I get to choose my favorite varietals and use time-honored techniques to achieve wines that are accessible now – but can be laid down for later.” Our particular favorite was the 2006 Russian River Valley “Dave Selby reserve” chardonnay ($40), named after her late orthopedic surgeon dad … and only bottled in years where the chardonnay is good enough to really honor him. This wine has a surprisingly delicate, fine structure. Susie describes this wine as “soft flavors of apricot and pear expand to a honeyed, rich flavor with broad mouth-feel and hints of spicy oak.” We can’t argue with that. While we recommend trying all Selby’s wines, a second favorite was the 2006 Sonoma County “Old Vines” zinfandel ($28). My notes say “approachable, berry nose, spice and berries on the palate.”

Selby April 2009 update: We’ve just pulled the Dave Selby 2006 chardonnay out of the basement and are looking forward to consuming it at home sometime this month.

Copain Wines was our last stop on this crawl, and a bit of a drive out into the country going south on Eastside Road.  Definitely worth the effort of a side trip, this new “rustic chic” winery is up a hill with lovely views of the river below. The grounds enjoy the same view and would be a perfect venue for a wedding or other event. Copain opened their new facility last year with the first crush in the fall of 2007. Their 2007 Mendocino County “Tous Ensemble” viognier ($20) stands out as the bargain of the trip. Blended with 10% roussanne, the wine exhibits aromas of peach and honey with added flavors of lychee and apricot. We just thought it was delicious. A second find was the 2005 James Berry “Les Copains” Rhône-style red blend ($40). Blending 42.5% each of grenache and mourvedre with 15% syrah, Copain has produced an amazing wine. My notes say “rich blackberry on the nose, berries, spice and soft tannins on the palate. Age one year.” Norma actually thinks two years would be more like it.

Winemaker – owner Wells Guthrie served his apprenticeship at Chapoutier in the northern Rhône. He has brought excitement and style to this new venture. By the way, if you happen across any wine from Chapoutier in your local shop, give it a try.  We’ve been pretty happy with the couple of bottles we’ve tried.

Copain April 2009 update: We’re getting the travel itch and will certainly revisit Copain sometime this summer … after our upcoming April “wine tasting school” at UC Davis and after our June 2009 crawl in Palo Robles.

Contact information:

Hartford Family Winery, 8075 Martinelli Road, Forestville, CA 95436.
Phone: (707) 887-8010 Fax: (707) 887-7158
Email: hartford.winery@hartfordwines.com
Tasting room hours every day except July 4 10 am – 4:30 pm

Lynmar Estate Winery, 3909 Frei Road, Sebastopol, CA 95472
Hospitality Salon: (707) 829-3374 x 118 Reservations: (707) 829-3374 x 102
Fax: (707) 829-0902 Email: info@lynmarwinery.com

Truett-Hurst Vineyards & Winery
5610 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, CA 95448
Voice: 707-433-9545  E-mail: info@truetthurst.com

Zichichi Family Vineyard and Winery, 8626 W. Dry Creek Rd., Healdsburg, CA 95448.
Phone: (707) 433-4410 Fax: (707) 433-6358.

Stryker Sonoma Winery and Vineyards, 5110 Highway 128, Geyserville, CA 95441.
Toll Free (800) 433-1944 Local (707) 433-1944 FAX (707) 433-1948
email info@strykersonoma.com
tasting room open 10:30 am to 5:00 pm daily.

Acorn Winery by appointment only.
12040 Old Redwood Highway, Healdsburg, CA.
Phone (707) 433-6440 Fax (707) 433-7641
E-mail: nachbaur@acornwinery.com

Selby Winery, 215 Center St., Healdsburg, CA 95448
(707) 431-1288, (707) 431-8902
Open daily 11 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.

Copain Wines by appointment only.
7800 Eastside Road, Healdsburg, CA 95448.
(707) 836-8822 x 104, (707) 836-8877 (fax)