Wine Tasting in the Santa Clara Valley

It’s Winter Break, which means the kids are once again spending time with their nonos.  It also means that Mike and I got a whole weekend alone together.  We spent Saturday wine tasting in the Santa Clara Valley (or rather I did, Mike drove) and Sunday relaxing at home.

Even though I’ve lived in the Bay Area for most of my life (which just means I’ve gotten pretty old) and I love to go wine tasting, I had no idea there were wineries in Gilroy and thereabouts.  But I wanted to go wine tasting somewhere new, and thus decided to look up all nearby wine-growing regions.  Given that the Santa Clara Valley is pretty much the closest winery region to my house that I haven’t yet explored, that’s where I decided to head.

It was a good choice, I found the wineries to be quite good. None of them were amazing, but many were reasonably priced and the wines all seemed to have a grown-up quality to them.   Wines were smooth, balanced and easy to drink.  The wineries we visited were mostly pretty small, but quaint, and we got very good service from everyone (despite my concerns after reading some Yelp reviews).

I definitely want to go back to this wine growing region, and this time explore the wineries east of 101 (we only hit the ones on the west side).

Caveats to my winery/wine reviews

I generally prefer bold flavored wines and lots of oak.  I like my white wines on the sweet side, I usually prefer oakey Chardonnays, and my red wines heavy.  I used to be almost totally into Cabernet Sauvignons, but in recent years I’ve started to prefer Zinfandels.  I like Merlots and Malbecs, but I usually find them too mellow for my taste buds.  I’m usually not a fan of Pinot Noirs, and I used to really dislike Syrahs, but they’ve been growing on me lately.  Finally, I don’t like fortified wines.

I usually cannot identify specific flavors in wine. A wine may taste flowery or fruity to me, but don’t ask me which flower or which fruit it is.  Mostly I concentrate on the things that scream to me: how balanced the wine seems, how full, how alcoholic/tannic/acidic, basically, how much I enjoy drinking it 🙂

J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines

J. Lohr makes wine from grapes grown in Monterey County, Paso Robles and Napa, and they have tasting rooms in both Paso Robles and San Jose.  The one in San Jose is quite nice, though the wine counter is *really* tall.  I’m 5’1″ and it was almost as tall as my neck.  On the plus side, they have purse hooks underneath it, so my husband didn’t have to actually hold on to it while I wrote my notes 🙂

Tastings of up to 6 wines (from the 20 or so they offer) is complimentary.  I started with their 2010 Estates Riverstone Chardonnay ($14) which wasn’t bad for the price.  it was somewhat bright and slightly sweet and oakey, with a pretty smooth texture.  Their 2010 October Night Chardonnay ($25)  was much more expensive and not as good.  It was very floral, but too light and it felt empty.  I also wasn’t too big a fan of their 2009 Estates Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon ($17).  It was fruity, somewhat sweet and easy to drink, but it sort of fell flat towards the middle.  Their 2009 Gesture Mourvedre ($30) had a wonderful earthy aroma and deep edges, but it felt hollow.  I wouldn’t buy it.  I found their 2007 Hilltop Cabernet Sauvignon ($35) much more interesting.  It as a fairly light wine with an intriguing fruit flavor in the center.  It reminded me of a less-sweet grilled peach.  I don’t think I’d ever tasted anything quite like it.  Finally, their 2008 Carol’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($40) is made from Napa Valley grapes and it tastes just like a typical Napa cab .  It was tannic, spicy and yet a bit fruity.  Quite nice, but overpriced.

The staff was very friendly and knowledgeable and it was a good tasting experience.

Once properly in the Santa Clara Valley region, we started with

Clos LaChance Winery

This is a very pretty family-owned winery, with an upscale tasting room.  They offer $5 and $10 tastings from their different lines, but the former is free if you mention Yelp.  We went for the free tasting, and were pleased by the offerings, though I think the wines are overpriced.

One thing Clos LaChance understands, and that many wineries don’t, is how important it is to serve white wines cold.  I’m not a huge white wine drinker, but I enjoyed both their 2010 Viognier ($22)  and their 2007 Chardonnay ($22).  I found them fresh and crisp, smooth and easy to drink, but I think the temperature influenced my enjoyment as much as the quality of the wine.

I was not a fan of either the two Pinots I tasted, but then again, I’m not a big pinot fan to begin with.  Both the 2008 SCM Pinot Noir ($32) and the 2008 Erwin Vineyard Pinot Noir ($50) felt like small wines to me, very self-contained, with bright, rich edges, but a hollow center.    Not surprisingly, I enjoyed the 2008 Estate Zinfandel ($20) and the 2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($35) more.  They were both fuller, the zinf was particularly spicy.

Service was nice and friendly.

Sycamore Creek Vineyards and Winery

Very close to Clos LaChance, Sycamore is more of a “working” winery.  The tasting room is a in a large barn/barrel room.  The people pouring were very knowledgeable, and we learned quite a bit about barrels (my husband was pointing out how amazing it was the wood slabs would have a leak-proof seal, in the absence of any adhesives between them).  For example, I hadn’t realized that an oak barrel will only be able to impart its flavor to up to 3 batches of wine, as each barrel holds about 500 bottles, that means that oak-aging ads from 30cents to over $1 per bottle (depending on whether you use American oak or French oak barrels).  New barrels can also make the wine too oakey (as if that was possible!), in which case they mix that wine with wine from the same vintage that has not been aged in barrels, so that they get just the right amount of oak.

In any case, the wines were definitely pleasant and well priced.  They offered a complimentary tasting and a reserve one for $5, I went for the former.  Their 2010 Naked Chardonnay ($18) was nice and crisp, a tiny bit sweet and, as it’s aged in steel barrels, not at all oakey.  I’d drink it but not buy it, at least at that price.  Their 2010 Sauvignon Blanc ($17) was more interesting.  It had a fun combination of earthy and bright fruity aromas and flavors and was light and fun.  But it also felt like a tease, like it should be followed by something more substantial.  I think it’d be a good wine to serve before dinner or with a first course.

The next wine on the list was their 2007 Merlot.  It sells for $19, but they’re getting rid of their unsold inventory at a price of $100 per case (12 bottles).  A great deal if you’re looking for a good wine for a function.  I found this merlot quite good, oakey and with a medium body, pleasant to drink.  Their 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon ($25) shared similar qualities.  At last, Rosé wine can sometimes be a guilty pleasure – a completely meritless wine, only made palatable by lots of sugar – but here it wasn’t sweet enough to amount to anything.  At $17 a bottle it was ridiculous overpriced when you consider that Rosé is made with grapes that would otherwise be thrown away.

All in all, this was a nice winery to visit and I’d like to go back and taste their reserve offerings.

Kirigin Cellars

I have to admit it, I only stopped at Kirigin Cellars because the wine tasting was free and because they had a dog.  Their wines were not very well reviewed on Yelp, but their dog was.  I don’t like dogs but my husband does – and I figured, given that he wasn’t tasting (as he was driving), at least I could give him a pooch to play with.  As it turned out the dog was too busy playing with a kid (he was a cute and friendly dog, indeed), but the wine turned out to be pretty good.

I started their complimentary tasting with their Champagne ($18).  It’s not made by them, but I imagine they figured that nobody else in the region is making/selling sparkling wines, so they might as well have one.  I have to admit that it was actually very good.  Yeah, it was very sweet – I have started to prefer my champagnes on the sweet side – and very bubbly, and probably not sophisticated, but mighty nice to drink.

Though I find that drinking regular wines after champagne is a mistake – as the latter makes the former taste, well, flat, their Sauvignon Blanc ($15) was actually quite nice.  It was sweet enough, without going overboard, very smooth and just pleasant.  For the flower lover, their Malvasia Bianca ($18) offers a full bouquet in a glass.  The flavor doesn’t last long, but it can be quite fun if that’s your type of thing.   I did like their Estate Red ($15), a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel.  It was balanced and smooth, with a medium body. Their Cabernet Sauvignon ($20) was even better, though it probably needed a bit more oak and tannins.  It was nicely spicy, though, with earthy undertones.

The favorite of the bunch had to be the Vino de Mocca ($20), however.  That’s sad because this is basically a cheap wine flavored with chocolate and coffee.  Still, if it tastes good, it tastes good.  Dessert on a bottle, what can I say?

The tasting experience in the small tasting room was pleasant enough.  The servers weren’t the most engaging people in the planet, but they were nice enough.  I’d go back.

Our next stop was Fortino, but we run into a very nice guy with a 1991 Lamborghini Diablo outside and stayed talking to him for a while, and by the time we were done the tasting room was closed (they close early on New year’s Eve), so we went on.

Hecker Pass Winery

Hecker Pass was my fifth winery of the afternoon, which meant I was a bit tipsy by the time I made it here.  I found the little winery cute cute and our attendant, Stephanie, was friendly and knowledgeable.  Tasting from their very long wine list is free, and you get to chose which wines you want to taste.  I started with their Grenache Rose ($15, cases on sale for $60) which I did not enjoy.  The alcohol in the wine had too prominent a flavor, and the wine itself tasted as if it was going bad.  I would not recommend it even on sale.  Their Quintetto Rosso ($15, cases on sale for $70) is a much better choice.  It’s your basic red table wine, with bright, clear flavors though pretty much one-tone.  Not a wine you’d buy for $15 but perfectly acceptable to serve an event for $6 a bottle.

The funnest part of their Uva Nera ($25) is guessing what grapes it’s made from.  The wine is rather weak and hollow, and I wouldn’t bother serving it, specially at that price. Mike guessed that it was Cabernet Franc, but he was wrong.  It’s a combo of two grapes, and I won’t spoil the surprise, but thinking back I wouldn’t have expected such toothless wine from those two grapes.

I enjoyed their Carignane ($22) more, but by that point I had ceased writing detailed notes, and really liked their Petit Sirah ($22).

On to their dessert wines, Mike found their Ruby Port ($22) very “yummy” but was less impressed with their Dolcetto Rosso ($22), which I don’t think is fortified.  Not surprisingly he found it lighter and not as fruity.  I did like their Cream Sherry ($22), it had a nutty maple flavor that would go great with ice cream.

Note that the prices at the winery are a few dollars higher than those they list on their online wine store.  If you visit the winery you may want to ask them to match their online prices.

 Solis Winery

Solis was my sixth and final stop of the afternoon.  Before coming here I had signed up for their mailing list, and had gotten a “50% off any bottle of wine” coupon (available to first time visitors, only) so I was hoping I could find something I liked.  Of course, with five wineries and probably 30 tasted wines under my belt, I was probably not too picky by that point.

Tastings here are $5 and you get a coupon for the same that you can use towards the purchase of any wine.  The first one on the list was the 2009 Chardonnay ($24), a very nice wine with a slight oak flavor, if I was much of a white wine drinker I might have gotten it.  Their 2010 Fiano ($24) was like a bowl of fruit in a bottle and surprisingly refreshing.  Solis is the only winery growing fiano, an Italian white wine grape, in the area and one of the very few outside Campania.  It’s definitely worth a try, though it seems different from the wines usually made with this grape.

Going into the reds their 2008 Seducenten ($30) is a very nice blend of Sangiovese and Merlot.  While it was lighter than the wines I usually enjoy, its velvety feel won me over.  It offers a hint of spice and butter.  I didn’t like their 2007 Merlot as ($20) as much.  It had a sharp start and a smooth finish with hints of oak, but it didn’t work as well for me. I wasn’t a fan of their 2001 Reserve Merlot ($28) either.  I thought it was a bit passed its prime, all the flavors had combined into a one-tone mess.  Mike liked it, though.

Their 2007 Syrah ($30) tasted like a typical good Syrah while their grown-up 2003 Syrah ($28), was good in itself but would great with chocolate.

And that was it for my afternoon of wine tasting.  I managed to remain fairly coherent while tasting (at least as much as I can remember and I can see by my notes), but six wineries was certainly too much and I fell asleep as soon as I got home.  I ended up missing my planned New Years Eve celebration and welcomed the new year in bed with a headache, but it was still worth it 🙂

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