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 🙂


Wine Tasting in Livermore – IV

The kids are out of town and I figured it would be a great opportunity to go wine tasting, something we haven’t done for a couple of years. Livermore is the wine growing region closest to us, so that’s where we headed last Saturday. Mike drove, I tested. For this trip I concentrated in smaller wineries – and in particular, those that offered free tastings. It ended up being a good strategy, I was surprise to find how good the wines from these little wineries were. Indeed, I think the whole quality of Livermore wines has gone up considerably.

We started out wine tasting at Wente Vineyards, the only large winery that offers free wine tasting.  Alas, there free wine tasting includes only their 2 most popular wines: their 2009 Riva Ranch Chardonnay ($20 at Wente, but as low as $12 elsewhere) and their 2008 Charles Wetmore Cabernet Sauvignon ($25).  I liked both wines, they were both very drinkable, low in acidity, well balanced and just nice.  You won’t go wrong buying a bottle of either.

Wente also offers  tastings of 5 wines for $5 or $10 (depending on the wines).  I think it would be worth trying them.  I didn’t this time because I wanted to be able to taste at other wineries as well but I will next time.  Wente has a very nice tasting room, heavy on wood, with a central, circular wine tasting area and a largish shop.  It was very busy.

Our next stop was Cedar Mountain Winery, a mom & pop operation with a tiny tasting room.  Tastings here are $5 or $10 for 5 wines, refunded with purchase.  I’d gotten a coupon for a free tasting, however (search online).  I started my tasting with the 2008 Pinot Grigio ($13), which was very sharp, a bit bitter but still buttery without being oaky.  It was nice and simple and I enjoyed it. It was a good wine for the price.  The 2008 Estate Sauvignon Blanc ($14) was even lighter, quite summery, with a stronger after taste, I liked it as well.  After that, the 2008 Duet ($22) was an unexpected burst of flavor.  This is a very punchy, very earthy, front-flavored wine, definitely very rustic.  I rather enjoyed it, but I’m not sure I’d buy a whole bottle of it.  The 2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($25) that followed it could not compete with the Duet for flavor, and pretty much disappeared in my mouth.

We then moved on to the Ports, which I’m not too fond of, but Mike is.  Their Viogner White Port ($20 for a 1/2 bottle) tasted like your typical dessert whine, it didn’t feel fortified at all and it was quite sweet, pretty much like grape syrup.  We both liked it.  Mike was even fonder of the Tortuga port ($25 for half bottle), which contains 70% Scharffen Berger cocoa powder.  To me it tasted like port mixed with cocoa powder, but Mike really enjoyed it and actually bought a bottle. I did like their 2000 Late Bottled Vintage Port ($40), made from 3 Portuguese varietals.  I found it very balanced and not very alcoholic. Mike liked it too, but not as much as the Tortuga.

Cedar Mountain only sells their wines at the winery, so if we ever want more Port we’ll have to head over there.

We then headed to Eagle Ridge Vineyards.  This is a cool winery with a tasting room located in the front of a large barn.  It was pretty crowded when we got there, so it’s probably best to head here early.  I liked their wines all in all, but what I particularly liked was the herbed cheddar on crackers they offered.  I’d like to find some more!

As to their wines, their 2010 Pinot Grigio ($20) was nice and easy to drink but overpriced.  The same can be said about their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon ($28).  Definitely good wines at a lower price point.  I found their 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon ($28) too shallow, though it had an interesting chocolaty essence.  Mike liked it but I found it just OK.  Their 2006 Zinfandel ($25) was too front-loaded for my taste, it sort of disappeared after a burst of flavor.  Finally, Mike liked their port ($25) but I found it too alcoholic, and preferred the one at Cedar Mountain.

Charles R Vineyards, our next stop, had a cute, sunny tasting room and a small outside patio with chairs for those looking for a picnic spot.  The small winery, they do 2,000 cases a year, has been in the family for three generations.  They only sell their wines at the winery and they don’t ship.  I started with their 2009 “Sur Lies” Chardonay ($20).  I thought it was nice, easy to drink with some hints of sweetness.  Mike didn’t like it, however, and I wouldn’t pay that much for it either.  Their 2007 Syrah ($23) was just OK for my tastes, but I’m not a big Syrah fan.  It was easy to drink, balanced, but would have been better served at a lower temperature.  I’d drink it, not buy it.  Their just-released 2008 Petit Sirah ($28) was bolder, with a medium body and again, perfectly acceptable without being remarkable.  The same can be said about their 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon ($27) and their 2007 Zinfandel ($28)  These are good, adult wines, just not outstanding ones.

Charles R. offers a brownie-with-port tasting for $2, and Mike definitely had to do it.  He found their 2006 Vino de Amor Port ($28 for a 1/2 bottle) to be well balanced, sweet with a subtle alcoholic note.

We also stopped at Eckert State Winery, another tiny family owned winery that only sells at the winery.  Here I had a very nice, refreshing and simple 2008 Simillon ($15) and a 2004 Dolcetto ($16) which was passed its prime.  Their 2008 Ensemble, a blend, is a reliable table wine for only $10: nice, simple but easy to drink.  Their 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon ($13.50) was also passed its prime, with a very blended flavor and too much alcohol.  Their 2006 Malbec ($16) was better, a bit too old but still perfectly drinkable.

Bent Creek, a slightly larger winery at 3400 annual cases, was bursting with activity when we got there around 4 PM.  The fact that they offer snacks and the tastings are free, probably help to attract visitors.  The tasting started with a 2009 Sauvignon Blanc ($15), which tasted very much like white grape juice. If you want some alcohol on your grape juice, this is the wine for you.  The 2009 Chardonnay ($19) was very light and lacked flavor, you can drink it but you’d ask yourself why.  The same can be said about the 2008 Cabernet Franc ($27).  This wine was just released and it’s not yet ready for consumption.  Its notes were too sharp, it’s not yet balanced and it leaves you empty.  Much better is the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon ($25), and nice, simply balanced wine, without too much oak or tannins.  I found their 2008 Red on Red ($25) both edgy and full bodied, a good BBQ wine. It was vibrant and yet had a smooth finish.  It was probably my favorite at this winery.

Finally, we visited El Sol vineyards, where tastings are $5 to $10 per 5-wine flight.  You sit down at a table in the large winery room and tell an attendant which wines you want to try.  Pretty much all of El Sol’s wines are old and, to my taste, well past their prime.  The flavors in all the wines I tasted had blended together, in almost a brandy-like mess.  The only wine I actually enjoyed was their Grand Cuvee Champagne ($14) and then only because it was the bubbliest wine I’ve ever tasted.  It had no flavor whatsoever, it works great as a palate cleanser, but the bubbly sensation was great.  I might buy a bottle next time.  The other cool part about this winery is that you get to taste two different wines directly from the barrel.  Now, both wines also suffered from a uniform, too alcoholic flavor, but clearly that’s what the winemakers like.  We also got to taste a 2009 Zinfandel made from a variety of grapes from backyard growers in Contra Costa County which would make a perfectly good dessert wine if served today.  However, the winemaker seems to want to keep it until it goes bad as well.  Needless to say this is not a winery I recommend unless you like one-tone wines.

I had a lot of fun wine tasting in Livermore, and I’m planning to go again soon. Alas, I’ve hit most of the free wineries so it won’t be as cheap an adventure.

For my older notes on other Livermore wineries, see:

Wine Tasting in Livermore 2008

Wine Tasting in Livermore 2005

Wine Tasting in Livermore 2004


Wine tasting in the East Bay

Believe it or not there are over a dozen wineries in the East Bay (see East Bay Vintners). Five of them even have tasting rooms in our backyard. I’ve been wanting to visit them for quite a while, but I don’t like the idea of going wine tasting with the kids on tow, so I had to wait until the kids were visiting the grandparents. Fortunately this was the case yesterday, so with not very much driving (by Mike, of course) I got to experience what the East Bay has to say about wine.

Our first stop was Rosemblum Cellars in Alameda. This is a HUGE winery, they produce 64 different wines and half-a-million cases a year. It’s pretty surprising, then, that I don’t recall ever having Rosemblum wine. It’s not that surprising that I won’t in the future either. I wasn’t impressed by the four complimentary wines that we were offered. I felt they all had very light-bodies (I like heavy wines myself), and very subdued flavors.

The 2007 Cote du Bone Blanc ($14), a white wine made out of several different grapes, had almost no flavor. There was somewhat of a fruity finish and some acidity, but little else. The 2006 Paso Robles Zinfandel ($18 – they have 26 different zinfs), had a heavier body (though still light) and some hints of oak. For that reason I liked it and so did Mike – but I doubt the wine is flavorful enough to stand up to food. The 2006 Rhodes Vineyard Grenache was grossly overpriced at $25. It had little flavor, with a slight tannin finish. Finally, the 2006 Maggie’s Reserve Zinfandel ($45) also had a very light body and some hints of tannins. Mike liked it for some reason, I thought it was a waste of grapes.

What I disliked the most, though, was the unbelievably hard sell the wine attendant gave us. They really want you to join their wine club (apparently wine clubs are the bread & butter of wineries), and as their wines are so widely available, the pitch is that you can go to the winery and have as many reserve tastings as you want (otherwise they are $8 for 5 wines). They also have special events for members only (as do most wineries). I guess if you liked their wines and had plenty of free time, that may make sense for you – but that’s definitely not our case. But they guy went on and on and on, on why we should join, even after we had firmly refused. It was pretty uncomfortable. Needless to say, we won’t be going back. For those who do, the winery offers different wines for tasting every week, other wines may be better.

Our second stop was Lost Canyon Winery in Oakland, which apparently has lost its tasting room. We did see a large door that suggested there was a tasting room in the building once upon a time, but no other indication of a winery in the premises. I’ll have to e-mail them and find out what the deal is.

Undeterred, we headed to our next stop, J.C. Cellars, which shares a tasting room with Dashe Cellars near Jack London Square in Oakland. The experience here was MUCH better. The wine attendants were very nice and pleasant, and there wasn’t any type of hard sell. These are also much smaller wineries, J.C. Cellars, for example, only produces 5500 cases annually. Both wineries have a $5 tasting fee – but we had gotten coupons for a free tasting at the Women of Taste fundraiser for Girls Inc.. Great way to save $20!

Our first tasting at Dashe was of the 2007 Dry Riesling from Mendocino county ($20). It’s an organic wine, very fruity and somewhat sweet. It’s very nice, good for sipping and would go well with my favorite salad. A little expensive for a white, though. We followed with a 2006 Florence Vineyard Zinfandel, from Dry Creek Valley ($32). It had a medium body, some oak and light acidity. For some reason, it reminded me of a Cab. I think it’d go well with pork or lamb – but again, I thought it was too expensive. At the same price point was the 2006 Todd Brother Ranch Zinfandel, from Alexander Valley. It tasted of darker fruit, it had more tannins and a medium body. It was a nice all around wine. I wasn’t too crazy about the 2006 Louvau Vineyard Zinfandel from Dry Creek Valley ($32). It had a stronger start, a medium body and light tannins. Mike liked it, though. The 2004 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($38) is done in the Bordeaux style, with a little Merlot and Petit Bordeaux to compliment it. It had a medium to heavy body, with noticeable tannins and light fruit. There were some traces of oak in the finish. It’d go well with meat.

Finally, and after tasting at J.C. Cellars, we had the 2007 Late Harvest Zinfandel from Dry Creek Valley ($24 for a 375 ml bottle). I really liked it, it was different from white dessert wines, almost with an essence of port to it (though clearly it’s not a fortified wine, which makes it more palatable for me). It was sweet, as you’d expect, but had levels of depth; it was very balanced. We tasted it with some dark chocolate, and it did compliment it very well. I would have bought a bottle if we ever actually drank the dessert wines we buy. Since we rarely entertain (or rather, have dinner parties) any more, we rarely have the occasion to drink them, we need to start doing it on our own.

The wines at J.C. Cellar are considerably cheaper than at Dashe – and I wasn’t cracy about many of them. I didn’t like the first one we tried, a 2006 Preston Vineyard Marsanne from Dry Creek Valley ($12). It was too light for my taste, with some hints of fruit and oak, but not enough. The 2007 Stagecoach Vineyard Rose from Napa Valley was only $7 but didn’t taste like a rose at all. There was no sweetness, it was too dry and had an earthy finish. Not my thing. I did like the 2004 Ventana Vineyard Syrah from Arroyo Seco ($30). I’m not a Syrah person, but this one had a nice body, notes of earth and chocolate and a nice finish. The 2005 Caldwell Vineyard Syrah from Napa Valley ($45) wasn’t that different form the previous wine. It also had hints of chocolate and tobacco, and it was easy to drink. I liked it. Our last red wine was the 2005 a la Cave Syrah ($40). It was drier and more tannic than the previous wines, and I also liked it.

We finished our tasting here with a 2005 Late Harvest Viognier from Lodi ($24 for 375 ml bottle). I liked it a lot, it had the right amount of sweetness (which means it wasn’t sickly sweet), with hints of honey and peach nectar. Again, I’d buy it if we ever drank dessert wines.

And that was it. No pressure whatsoever to buy or join their wine club; nice, friendly attendants and a very nice tasting experience.

After these wineries, we made our way to Periscope Cellars, which now share a tasting room with Urbano Cellars in Emeryville. We started tasting at Urbano, a tiny winery that only produces 600 cases a year. Our first wine was the 2007 Vin Rose from Solano County ($14). The wine was pleasant, but it lacked the sweetness and fruitiness I was expecting on a rose. Both were more evident in the 2008 Nouveau, also from Solano County ($14). The wine had a medium body and I think it would stand up to meat. The 2006 Dry Creek Syrah ($19) was nicely balanced, had easy tannins and a medium-full body. I really liked it, specially for a Syrah. I also liked the 2006 Petit Verdot from Lodi ($16). It was well balanced, with hints of chocolate and just nice. But what I ended up buying was the 2005 Zinfandel from Solano County ($18). It had a very concentrated, caramel-like taste, but wasn’t particularly alcoholic. It was nicely balanced with a concentrated fruit finish. I’d pair it with meats or bbq (though really, I don’t tend to drink wine in the middle of the day, when we usually have BBQ).

I was read to stop drinking at this time, but I was convinced by the guy at Periscope to give them a try – still, I wonder to what degree I was competent to really evaluate their wines by then. That said, I liked their 2006 Sangiovese ($22). It was light, with a mineral start and well balanced. The 2006 Pinot Noir ($24), was heavier in that fortified wine way. Not my thing. The 2006 Deep 6 ($24), a blend of cab, syrah and many other grapes, had a medium to full body, was deep and caramelish. I liked it as well.

The guys serving at both counters were very nice and clearly passionate about what they do. There was no pressure at all about buying, and no mention of a wine club. Tasting at both places was free.

In all, we had a great day of wine tasting. The pours at all the wineries were very generous, much more that in particular wine regions, and the conversation easier. I’d definitely go again next year, to sample the new offerings in wine. I’d skip Rosenblum, however.


Wine tasting in Lake County

Sometimes it seems like grapes for wine are grown in every region in California. Recently, I have discovered the wines of the Gold Country and Paso Robles, and early this week, I discovered those of the Lake County (or to be more precise, those on the eastern side of Clearlake). While I was surprised at how good the little-known Gold Country wines were, and disappointed at how mediocre the much-better-known Paso Robles wines were – I was unprepared for how much I’d dislike many of the wines from Lake County. No wonder I haven’t come across them in other venues. In all, I went to five wineries in the region, the wines of the larger one were generally good, but the other ones left much to be desired. All the wineries we went had a $5 tasting fee – which only in the case of Ceago was justifiable.

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Wine tasting in the Alexander Valley

On the fourth day of our trip we headed from Windsor to the Lake county, but first decided to visit some wineries in the Alexander Valley – where I hadn’t been before. I knew very little about the wineries, and pretty much stopped at those which were on the way.

field stone wineryWe started with Field Stone winery, which looks like a partly buried stone building. It’s pretty cool. The small tasting room is off the barrel room. There is a $5 tasting fee.

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Wine tasting in the Russian River (again)

Last year, Mike and I took a short trip to the wine country and went wine tasting in the Russian River Valley, in addition to other areas. This year, we decided to repeat ourselves, though vary our locations a little bit. Still, our third day had us traveling from Freestone, where we’d had an enzyme bath, to Windsor, where we were staying for the night. The easiest (or at least, most fun) way to do it is by driving through the Russian River wine country, and then we (I) might as well wine taste. Of course, this time I chose wineries I hadn’t visited on my previous visits to the region, and only visited three of them.

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Korbel Champagne Cellars

After a long canoe trip down the Russian River Valley, Mike and I headed towards Occidental, where we were spending the night. On our way we passed Korbel, and decided to stop for some refreshing sparkling wine.
Korbel seems to be a favorite destination for many, as the large complex was pretty busy that Saturday afternoon. There were people waiting for tours, people eating at their deli, and of course, lots of people drinking wine. A tasting is complimentary, though you get to chose 4 or 5 of the sparkling wines in their menu. The pours are pretty generous. This time, Mike tasted too.
I’m not a champagne snob (nor a wine snob, for that matter), so I will admit that Korbel champagne is perfectly fine for me. Indeed, as its offerings are sweeter than some of the more expensive champagnes, I probably like them more.
The Korbel Chardonnay ($10) had a sweet start and a bitter ending, and I wasn’t crazy about it. The Brut Rose ($10), meanwhile, had a nice floral bouquet and wasn’t too sweet while the Blanc de Noirs ($10) had nice bubbles, was fruity and sweet. But the wine I really liked was the Sweet Rose ($15), a floral, sweet and feminine champagne with a beautiful rose color. I got a couple of small bottles of it, and really enjoyed it.
Korbel also produces some somewhat more expensive wines. Mike really liked the Masters’ Reserve Blanc de Noirs ($22), it was light, flavorful with subtle bubbles. The Muscato Frizzante ($22), tastes like a bubbly muscat that has had some sugar taken from it. And the Korbel Port ($30) was very flavorful, with hints of dark berries. Mike liked it.
Tasting at Korbel was just fun, which is why I imagine so many people go there, and it had none of the pretentiousness of tasting at other champagne houses, such as Domaine Carneros. In all, I found that their sparkling wines were perfectly acceptable and would buy them.


Wine tasting in Healdsburg

During our short trip to the wine country last weekend, we hit a couple of wineries in the city of Healdsburg proper. The city features a dozen (OK, I’m guessing) tasting rooms from wineries in the area. Most of them charge a tasting fee, generally around $5.

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Wine tasting in Sonoma Valley

Mike and I just returned from a short trip to Sonoma and Lake counties, where we (OK, I) did a fair amount of wine tasting. As usual, I’m going to include my notes, which I think I will divide into wine-growing region (if I can, at least) – even though we may have hit the same region on different days. Our first day was a straight forward drive through Sonoma County, ending with a couple of tastings in Healdsburg.

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Wine tasting in Paso Robles

It’s amazing to me how many wine-growing regions there are in California, and in particular, how many I have not visited in the 25+ years I’ve lived in this state. While I know I’ll never be able to visit even a fraction of all the wineries around, I would like to hit the major wine areas, however. So, after our last trip down to the LA area, I asked Mike to take 101 on the way back north and stop at Paso Robles for some wine tasting. I decided on trying the wineries on highway 46E because several of them were free, and they were conveniently located off the Freeway. I would love to try the wineries west of Paso Robles some other time.
I wasn’t overly impressed with the area of Paso Robles we visited. It wasn’t particularly scenic, the wineries were not that pretty or interesting and the wines were mediocre at best. This was a particular disappointment after the unexpectedly good wine tasting trip I had to Amador County. I was hoping that my negative preconceptions about Paso Robles’ wine would have been similarly quashed.


EOS wineryThe first winery I visited was EOS. The tasting room was located in a small Mediterranean style villa, with a very Southern California look, and included a very large shopping area. They offer a flight of 4 regular wines for free, or estate tastings for $10. I decided to go for the free wines.
eos2.jpgI had their 2005 Novella Uno da Tavola ($20), their 2004 EOS Zinfandel ($18), their 2005 EOS Cabernet Sauvignong ($18 or $108 for a case), their 2005 Petite Sirah ($18) and their 2007 EOS Late Harvest Moscato ($22). In general I found the wines to be table quality. They appeared young and unsophisticated, lacking subtleties. None of them had even hints of oak (and I’m definitely an oak person). The Moscato was one of the lightest wines I’ve had. In all, I wasn’t happy with the wines and wouldn’t buy them even at half their price.
EOS sells their wines through supermarkets and BevMo – some are also available at Costco and CostPlus.


chumeia wineryOur second winery was Chumeia Vineyards – a relatively new and small family winery (you can see the owners’ home up in the hill) offering tastes from their steel-barrel room. Even so, it was pretty crowded and the lone attendant had to deal with 9 wine tasters on her own (and did an amazing job of keeping everybody content). Tastings are complimentary.
The owner is a winemaker but has a sister winery in Argentina (which made me eager to like them). Indeed, their not-quite dessertish Silver Nectar wine ($10) is made in Argentina (thus the cheap price). Steel, we found the wine too sweet for a regular white wine and not sweet enough for dessert, and saw little reason to like it.
That, unfortunately, was the case with the other wines as well. We almost spat out their 2006 Barbera ($35). It smelled and tasted like a fortified wine (and I’m not fond of spirits myself) and was somewhat piquant. I truly, truly disliked it – but the people next to me loved it and bought a bottle. According to the attendant, it goes well with tomato dishes.
I also tasted their 2006 Zinfandel ($14), the 2005 Estate Cab ($30), their 2006 Viognier ($16) and 2006 Chardonnay ($12). Once again I found the wines to have young, bold flavors, but not much in the way of finishes. They weren’t for me. One of the big problems may have been, however, that all the wines were served much warmer than they should have. It was a warm day, so it’s understandable, but I think I would have enjoyed them more a few degrees colder.


lauras.jpgAs of today Laura’s Vinyard is no more. We visited it in its last day of existence, tomorrow the tasting room will re-open as Derby’s. The wines will be different and you won’t be able to taste any of what we had. That may not be a bad thing, as while we found most of the wines satisfying and easy enough to drink, none of them was particularly interesting or delicious. We’d drink them, but not seek them out.
We tasted their 2005 Chardonnay ($18), their 2006 Rosado de Syrah ($14), their 2002 Merlot ($18), their 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon ($20), Their 2005 Laura’s Vineyard Cabernet ($26), their 2005 Petit Sirah ($22) and their 2003 Cabernet Franc ($24). Their white and rose could have used more fruit and more sweetness, their cabs, more oak (of course). None justified their high price. We wouldn’t buy them.
lauras2.jpgThe small tasting room is located in a double-wide mobile home and lacks charm. They do sell a few products, mostly t-shirts and oils, which seem to be popular with women named Laura and their friends and relatives :-). The attendant was quite knowledgeable and charismatic, and she will continue working there under their new name. Tasting was $5, you get to keep the glass.


eberle wineryWe moved on to Eberle Winery, which has a nice picnic area with a view of rolling vineyards. They also feature a bronze statue of a boar (eberle means small wild boar) spouting water, which kids may enjoy. Inside, there is a large tasting room with a large shopping area – which Mike browsed as I wine tasted yet again. Tasting here is complementary.
I was happier all in all with the wines here – I’m not sure if this is because they seemed more balanced, more commercial or because I was tipsier by then. I’ve noticed that the more I drink, the more I buy.
I found a couple of their wines – the 2005 Cotes du Robles ($20) and their 2005 Zinfandel – too blunt for my taste, but the 2007 Estate Chardonnay ($18) was refreshing and would go well with chocolate. I almost bought a bottle for their NV Full Board Red ($15), available only a the winery, which was a nice, balanced, quiet table wine. Instead we went with the 2007 Muscat ($14), which we found fresh, not overly sweet and light. I think it’d be a good dessert wine for a summer day, and could even go well with appetizers. Let’s see if we actually drink it (we’re very bad about drinking sweet wines).


firestone wineryI was determined to visit five wineries on this trip – after all, taking 101 made our trip much longer and I wanted to make it be worth it – and I still had one to go to. Firestone has some vague (or not so vague) relationship with the tire maker and apparently with one of the “stars” of the TV series “The Bachelor“. It also has a pretty nice tasting room. Tastings are $5 for 6 wines and you get to keep the glass.
Once again, I thought the wines here were nice. Not nice enough to buy, but perfectly adequate for drinking.


So that was it for my brief sojourn to Paso Robles. After all that wine I fell asleep in the car 🙂