My friend Lola and I went on weekend trip to the Gold Country last weekend, and spent Sunday morning wine tasting in the Shenondoah Valley. We hit 6 wineries, had a wonderful time and discovered a new and fantastic wine growing and wine making region. Pretty much every wine I tasted was good to very good, at one of the wineries I found some of my favorite wines ever. I was astounded, because I thought that that little known region would produce sub-par wines, I was definitely wrong.
Another great thing about tasting in Shenondoah is that none of the wineries had tasting fees and most of them offered a lot of wines for tasting. Indeed, after the first winery I limited myself to tasting four wines per winery, as I wanted to be able to hit as many as possible without getting tipsy.
Amador County specializes on Zinfandels, though Sangioveses and Barberas are also quite popular. Most of the Zinfs I tasted were very good, hearty yet balanced, and in the future I’ll look for Amador County when I go Zinf-buying.
Sunday night Kathy and I took our dad wine tasting in Livermore. He loves to wine taste and Livermore is the closest wine growing region to San Leandro. We hit quite a few wineries (Kathy, a non-wine drinker, was driving) and I took a lot of notes. It’s interesting that many wineries are now charging for tastings – and not necessarily the better ones.
Our first stop was Bodega Aguirre, where tastings are $5. It has a very small, simple tasting room. It was already crowded when we arrived there at noon, opening time. There were cheese and crackers offered, but not much wine talk. Indeed, we barely heard any descriptions of the wines we tasted, their growing conditions or even information about the wineries during our whole trip. On the other hand, it we rarely found any pressure to buy anything.
Bodega Aguirre seems specialize in blends. I found most of them to be very light and watery, with very little complexity. I like hearty wines, however, and oaky ones in particular. Some of their wines, like the Estate Merlot Reserva ($32) were earthy, which I liked. My father, on the other hand, liked them in general and got a bottle of the 2003 Merlot ($18). Given the tasting fee and the fact that the wines didn’t impress me, I don’t think I’d stop there again.
We followed up with Boaventura de Caires winery, where tasting were free but they had only 2 wines to taste – a Cab (Boaventura de Caires 05/06 Platinum Label Cabernet Sauvignon) selling at $39 and a white table wine (BoaVentura de Caires 2006 White Table Wine) selling at $22 (they also offer splits and magnums). I liked the cab, it was smooth with a hint of oak. The white table wine was dry (I tend to prefer sweeter wines), but I also liked it. However, I didn’t think either wine justified their price.
The winery was very cute and quirky, with an open and informal tasting room. Several types of cheese were available.
Next stop was Little Valley winery, a cute relatively new winery that offers both wines and flavored sparkling wines. Their California champagne was fruity, with hints of melon. I liked it. I also liked both their Chardonnay ($15) and their White Zinfandel ($9.50). They were easy drinking, non-challenging wines, perfect for summer afternoons. Their Tempranillo ($18) was also smooth, easy and flavorful, I’d definitely drink it. Finally, their 2002 Clark Vineyard Cabernet was very unusual, it tasted almost like brandy – though I was assured it had not been fortified. Not my cup of tea. I didn’t like the flavored sparkling wines ($14), they usually taste fake to me, but I did find the whole tasting experience very enjoyable. I’d go back here again.
The White Crane has a small tasting room which was very, very busy. It’s no surprise because not only there was no tasting fee, but the wines were very good. The 2006 Pinot Noir ($45) has a medium body but was full flavored, my father liked it too. The 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon was full bodied, oaky and smooth. I wasn’t as happy with the 2006 Zinfandel ($44), but I didn’t note why 🙂
I’d probably stop at this winery again, though I’d pray that it wasn’t as busy.
McGrail Vineyards could not have been more different. It features a large, brand-new tasting room in the style of those of Napa and Sonoma. Very elegant and slick. However, there was nobody there – they think because they are relatively new, but I wonder. Tasting are free and the wines are also good and more affordable than at other places. I found the 2005 Chardonnay ($28) to be very buttery and full bodied, I’d drink it. My dad would too. The 2004 Cabernet ($36) was smooth but full bodied, very nice to drink. I don’t have notes on other wines, so that’s probably all we tasted. Their wines are available at PW supermarkets in addition as at the winery.
After this tasting we took a break and went into town for some coffee (yes, we hit Starbucks, we couldn’t find anything else). We probably hang out there for an hour or so. But we weren’t yet done for the day, though we only hit a couple of other wineries.
I’d been to Tesla Vintners before. This is a pretty nice tasting room, also small, where you get to taste wines from a couple of other wineries in the region. They also have flavored champagnes, and we tasted the peach one ($14). It smelled nice, but the taste was a bit off-putting. I did like the Singing Winemaker Serzando ($16), made with malvasa bianca. It was very sweet and grapy (yes, grapy, it tasted like white grapes). I also liked the 2005 Mattern Ranch Zinfandel ($23). It was good, full bodied, meaty. Dad thought it was nice. The Ryhan Estate Vineyard Rouge Sang ($20), a red wine blend, was well balanced as was the 2005 Malbec ($25). I do wonder, however, if I liked the wines here more because by now I was quite tipsy. I think that Tesla has a $5 tasting fee as well, but I didn’t put it in my notes.
Here, again, I enjoyed the wines. I was the 2006 Crooked Vine Pinot Grigio ($16) nice, well balanced and summerly. The 2005 Harriet’s Merlot ($22) had similar attributes, but lacked a finish. Daddy wasn’t thrilled with it. He did like the 2004 Crooked Vine del Arroyo Cabernet Sauvignon ($38) which I found chocolaty. He was less impressed by the 2004 Crooked Vine Petit Syrah ($38) which he found unremarkable. Their 2004 Crooked Vine Cabernet Sauvignon ($32) had a medium body but lacked oak. In all, and given the tasting fee, I’m not sure that I’ll come back.
Finally, we went to Murrieta’s Well, where I’d also been before. I’d enjoyed their Chilean inspired wines before, but this time I found them weak and lacking. Their 2006 Semillon/Chardonnay ($20) was nice, with a medium body. My father says that (at least back home) semillon is a cheap grape used in cheap wines (a favorite of drunkards). The 2006 white meritage ($24) was somewhat bitter but mostly fine while the 2006 Zinfandel had a medium body and was quite tasty. I found neither the 2004 Touriga Francesca ($24) nor the 2004 Zarzuela ($30) to be fully-developed and was equally disappointed by the 2005 Red Meritage ($35). They may be wines you want to keep, however.
In all, I will probably give Murrieta’s Well a try again. Their tasting room is quite pretty, though they had some of the coldest attendants.
So in all we visited 8 wineries – quite a bit for just an afternoon – and had a very good time. I think that Livermore wines are improving, and I look forward to going again.
On our third day in the wine country, we tried the wineries in the Anderson Valley in Mendocino. I had never been to this part of California before and enjoyed the wine tasting experience very much. None of the wineries we visited were as beautiful as those we’ve been to in Napa, Sonoma and even the Russian River, but they were nice, friendly and relaxing experiences.
We started at Yorkville Cellars a small family winery that sells organic wines. It’s run by an English lady and it’s been there since 1986. They mostly sell at the winery, local shops and restaurants. We’d had organic wines before and had not been particularly impressed by them, so Yorkville pleasantly surprised us. The tasting room itself was small but featured a veranda with picnic tables and a view of the vineyards. They had a very friendly black lab greeting you. Tasting was complimentary and they gave us good sized pours.
On the second day of our wine country trip, we headed to the Russian River Valley. I’d been there only a couple of months before, when my friend Lola treated me to a wonderful girls-weekend-out for my birthday, and I was eager to go again. I found the wineries in the Russian River Valley more relax and more friendly than those in Napa, and I was there purely for relaxation (OK, and wine tasting too).
Last time, the helpful manager of the West Sonoma Inn, where we had stayed, had recommended we go tasting at the wineries on Olivet Road. We hadn’t managed to do it, but it made sense to try them on our way from Calistoga. So there we headed.
This week Mike and I took a mini-vacation to the northern California wine country. We spent three days wine tasting, in Napa, the Russian River Valley and Mendocino. Of necessity, we visited only a few wineries, but you can read my notes from them. Alas, I’m in no way a wine connoisseur and I’m completely unable to taste any of the dozens of flavors experts can discern in wine. Berries? mango? licorish? I can’t find them. So don’t take my reviews too seriously. In reality all I can say is what I liked and what I didn’t like, which may be very different from what you like. I tend to like full-bodied wines, neither light or heavy in tanins and with a well defined oakiness (which I didn’t find at all in this trip).
Anyway here is my report from Napa. Reports from the Russian River Valley and Mendocino will follow.
A couple of weeks ago, my sister Kathy and her friend Anna were in town and I decided to take the girls winetasting. Once again we headed to Livermore as it’s significantly closer to us. It was quite fun, we visited several wineries and had lunch at one of them. Anna became exposed to a few new wines, even found one she liked, and while Kathy didn’t try anything (she’s not a wine drinker) she said she enjoyed herself.
Once again, I was not impressed by the quality of the Livermore wineries. I am not a wine connoseur by any means, and I’m mostly a Cabernet Sauvignon drinker – that’s great if you’re in Napa, not that great if you are in Livermore where Cabs don’t a abound. I prefer complex, smooth, oaky flavors, and these were rare. In all, my impression was that the wines were young and simple, generally easy to drink but not fun or interesting. I didn’t find any wines that attracted me. Most of the wines are only available at the winery and at local grocery stores.
The guide below is mostly for my benefit, so that I can remember the experience and decide where I want to go back in future trips.
We started at Garré Winery with lunch at the Café Garré (good sandwich, OK pastas) before tasting. I found their wines easy drinking but unremarkable, often lacking complexity. Their Nonna’s Reserve, a combination of Merlot, Barbera and Cab Frank was particularly disapointing, it tasted mostly like cab frank but was very shallow. A 2000 Merlot was very melow, but had a sharp finish. The wine tasting room itself is very plain.
I was happier with the wines at Cedar Mountain, perhaps because they were tasting cabs. I wasn’t too excited about the 2002 Cab which was easy to drink, but didn’t have much depth, but loved their ’98 Cab which was very well balanced – but way overpriced at $50 a bottle. A ’99 Duet, a combination of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, was more reasonable at $22, but tasted younger and less refined than the cab. The tasting room here was also plain, but the people were very friendly and very much into wines, which made the wine tasting more fun.
Ríos Lovell charges a $4 tasting fee (you get to keep the glass) which is worth it given the quality of their wines and the friendly attitude of the attendant – who let us taste wines not in the list. In general, I found their wines to be much more finished, more balanced and substantial than those at the other wineries. I really liked their ‘2001 Reserve Estate Chardonnay ($14), it was somewhat tanic and oaky and not too sweet. Anna enjoyed their ‘2003 Viognier ($16) which tasted like an explosion of flowers and had a sharp, yet nice, finish. She also liked their 2001 Barbera ($18), an easy drinking yet nice wine. I wasn’t impressed by their Cab, which was in need of tanins. The tasting room was one of the larger ones, and had a nice store. I’d go back here again.
Tesla Vintners offers wines from 4 local wineries, the tasting room is very small and crowded but cute and it offers some cool novelties for sale that I hadn’t seen elsewhere. The server looked like a grandma and was quite pleasant and there is a grassy area outside and even a little playhouse for children to play in. If I ever came winetasting with the kids along, this would definitely be a spot. Here we tried the flavored champagnes by Little Valley winery. They are a gimmick, of course, but I rather liked the almond one – though I’m not sure if enough to drink a whole glass of it. The other wines we tasted were fine, easy drinking but not sophisticated.
Livermore Valley Cellars is a small, family winery behind a new McMansion housing development. We wanted to like the wines, many of them inventive mixes, but we didn’t. Most of them were shallow, tasted too acidic and lacked finishes. The woman serving them to us also gave us a weird vibe.
Finally, we went back to Concannon, where once again I noticed that their new syrahs are almost undrinkable while their older ones are quite good. This is one of the prettier tasting rooms in the valley and it has a nice grassy area outside, so while I’m not crazy about their wines, it makes a nice stop.
We spent part of today, our 11th anniversary, winetasting in Livermore – our closest winemaking region. The wines were generally pretty good, though not remarkable, and the wineries cute and modern. In all we had a great time. We made it to four wineries, apparently all I can take before getting too tipsy.
Concannon Vineyards, our first stop, seems to specialize in Syrah. Here we learned what a difference a few years aging can make. The 2000 Syrah was completely undrinkable for me – it was too tannic and acidic. The 1995, on the other hand, was quite pleasant. We found the other wines to be OK but unremarkable. I probably liked the Cab most of all, but it tasted just like your run of the mill $10 Cab (though it was probably more expensive than that). On the plus side, this winery has a very nice tasting room.
Stony Ridge Winery, our second stop, features not only their wines but those of Crooked Vine Winery, owned by the same people. Here we met some new wines for us like the orobianco (nicely drinkable) and the nebbiolo (id). But the Malvasia Bianca, a not-too-sweet dessert wine, was by far our favorite. If we only ever drank the dessert wines we bought, we’d have bought a bottle.
Our third stop was Steven Kent which was featuring Tamas Estates wines. All the wines here were nicely priced, completely drinkable but not too interesting. In a way, these are the perfect wines to serve at a party. They are sure to not offed anyone, beginners won’t find them too challenging and wine lovers won’t find them too cheap.
Finally, we went to Murrieta’s Well, a very cute “boutique” winery owned by Wente. Murrieta is trying very hard to be different by offering unique blends and not-very-common grapes. It has a Chilean winemaker that comes a few times a year to select the grapes and do the blending. You have to pay $5 to taste six wines here, and is probably worth it as they were by far the best wines we tasted in Livermore. Of the two white I liked the “Los tesoros de Joaquín” Chardonnay & Semillon blend the best. It was a smooth yet bodied wine that I could imagine would be perfect for sipping before a hearty meal or drinking with bread and cheese. Of the reds, I liked the Tempranillo quite a bit as well, specially for the price. It was smoother than a cab but probably as satisfying. I also really liked the Sarzuela, a mixture of tempranillo with other grapes, though probably not enough to justify the difference in prices. Murrieta’s pride and joy, the Red Vendimia, surprisingly didn’t do much for me, even though it’s a blend of cab and other varietals that I like.
Sunday afternoon we took my father wine tasting in the Russian River region. We’d previously taken him to Napa and Sonoma and wanted to go somewhere new. We started late so we only hit four wineries, but it was a very pleasant (if long) trip. The region is very pretty, the wineries are much less busy than those in Napa or Sonoma and they are more generous with their wines, I think you could taste an average of 7-8 wines at each winery we went to. Hint for next time: eat before we go.
We only hit four wineries:
Martinelli Winery was our first stop and it had by far the best wines we’d ever tasted at a winery. They were also the most expensive at $35-50 a bottle. The artisanal wines are hand-made (that is to say, without the use of heavy machinery) and they were all very smooth and non-tanic and yet quite complex. These are the types of wines you can sip for hours and still enjoy every minute of it. We were particularly fond of the Sauvignon Blanc (and we’re not white wine drinkers), though my dad’s favorite was the Giuseppe & Luisa Zinfandel. We’ll have to go and get a bottle sometime to gift him.