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Tasting Event

Notes from the Karen Culler Wines Tasting at Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant

The Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant in San Francisco’s Ferry Building consistently offers interesting and enjoyable wine tasting events. While there’s a natural, and laudable, emphasis on local wineries, plenty of the events are focused on imports as well. Either the winemaker or winery owner is present at each of the events to go from table to table greeting people and talking about the wines. You should definitely try to attend some of these tastings, if you haven’t done so already.

Last night’s tasting was focused on wines made by Karen Culler. Ms. Culler’s first winemaking experiences were as a child, destemming grapes for her father and grandfather who were home winemakers in Ohio. She went on to get a degree in Botany and Agronomy from Ohio State University and then, after spending a year working at Columbia Winery in Washington, headed to U.C. Davis where she earned a Master’s Degree in Viticulture and Enology. After getting her Master’s, she went to work at Robert Mondavi Winery for two years and then moved to Vichon Winery which was also owned by Mondavi. During her tenth year at Vichon, their line of Napa Valley wines was discontinued. So, in 1997, Karen Culler set off on her own, founding Culler Wines.

Today, Karen Culler makes just under 1,000 cases of wine for her own labels, Culler Wines and Casaeda, and serves as winemaker for several other Napa Valley labels including Ladera, Wolf Family, Renteria and Rivera. Yesterday’s tasting included five wines, though I managed to sneak a taste of a sixth. Ms. Culler was on hand to talk about the wines, wineries and vineyards, as were Jane and Doug Wolf of Wolf Family Vineyards and that company’s general manager, Melinda Kearney. All of the wines were very good. My tasting notes are below.


2006 Culler La Palette Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, $50
Almost opaque ruby, leaning to purple with a narrow pale rim and colorless legs, this wine has an inviting nose of black currant, brown spice and wood. The body is medium plus as are the slightly powdery tannins which kick in at mid palate. Excellent Cabernet Sauvignon flavors of black currant, black cherry, dark chocolate, cedar and spice carry through the generous finish along with the tannins and some warming alcohol. 95% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Petit Verdot, all from Alexander Ranch. Decant to drink now or hold through 2016. Highly Recommended.

2006 Culler Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain Napa Valley, $65
Bright and nearly opaque ruby with a thin pale rim and colorless legs. The medium plus nose entices with aromas of dusty black currant, dark chocolate powder and herb. The palate is rich and almost creamy with talc-like tannins and bold flavors of black currant, briary blackberry, dark chocolate, dried leaves and mint. The tannins are prominent but well balanced by the fruit and acidity. The finish is long. A structured wine that will age well but is delicious now. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Ladera Vineyard. Aged 20 months in 50% new French oak. Just 65 cases were made. Drink now through 2020. Very Highly Recommended.

2007 Casaeda Syrah Sonoma, $20
This is another bright, nearly opaque ruby purple wine with a thin pale rim, but it’s legs are heavily pigmented. The nose announces “Syrah” with notes of black pepper, plum, prune, game and leather. The palate is chewy and structured yet smooth and brimming with black pepper, spicy blackberry, chocolate and espresso. There’s enough acidity to complement braised or seared meat but also a very long finish which you might like to savor on it’s own. 78% Sonoma Coast Syrah and 22% Howell Mountain Malbec. A remarkable deal at just $20. 234 cases were made. Drink now through 2015. Highly Recommended.

2007 Wolf Family Cabernet Sauvignon Phaedrus Napa Valley, $40
Bright ruby and fully opaque with a narrow pale rim and colorless legs. The nose is medium plus with focused black currant and currant leaf. The palate exhibits a deft balance of the medium plus tannins and alcohol with prominent, winning flavors of black currant, cocoa powder, black cherry and coffee. A blend of Malbec, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. 524 cases produced. Drink now through 2015. Highly Recommended.

2006 Wolf Family Cabernet Franc Napa Valley, $60
Bright, opaque ruby with a thin pale rim and colorless legs. Alluring black currant on the nose with more cassis and dark cherry with coffee on the palate. Beautifully textured with lightly chewy tannins, mouthwatering acidity and a long finish. 95% Cabernet Franc and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon from the estate vineyard that lies in St. Helena between Dean & DeLuca and the hills. 122 cases made. Drink now through 2020. Very Highly Recommended.

2009 Culler Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley, $NA
Clear and bright, light lemon in color, this is not one of those Sauvignon Blancs that is trying to offer Chardonnay body, but neither is it in your face with tart, aggressive fruit. It is medium minus in body and does lean toward high acidity but remains soft and pretty on the palate. Gentle aromas and flavors of stone fruit with a light touch of vanilla. Drink now through 2011. Recommended.

Disclosures: I paid for my tasting samples, except for the Sauvignon Blanc which was poured for me by the distributor who had opened it for some trade folks with whom I shared my table. These wines were not tasted blind.

If you enjoyed this article, please share it! Icons for popular sharing services are at the right above and also below.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check outour comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2010 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Highlights from the 2010 Rhone Rangers Grand Tasting

The Rhone Rangers Grand Tasting is always a good time. The great diversity of wine varietals is interesting and helps prevent palate fatigue. There are a large number of wines and wineries, more than anyone could taste in even a full day, but not such a huge number that you feel overwhelmed or have to wander through multiple halls. Attendees, both wineries and tasters, are friendly. And, while the tastings draw a big crowd, the hall isn’t so crowded that you get claustrophobic.

This year’s Rhone Rangers Grand Tasting was made even more interesting by the large number of non-wine vendors. Most of the companies were offering some sort of food that might go well with the wine. The Girl and the Fig restaurant served up some good duck cassoulet. Others had chocolates, flavored crackers, bread, paté, olive oil, etc. The SanTasti people had their palate-cleansing water and Aidells was there with sausage. There were also a few tables with wine bags, corkscrews. Soirée demonstrated their wine aerators.

One table that was not a hit with winemakers offered flavored water from ICIO. I didn’t taste the water myself, so I can’t make any comments on it’s quality, pro or con. What had the winemakers up in arms were some of the flavors and their potency. The peppermint was particularly reviled for it’s capacity to overwhelm the palate and make the wines taste lousy. I overheard one woman (a trade tasting attendee) say that it smelled and tasted like mouthwash. Perhaps it would have been better to give the water to people as refresher when they left the building rather than handing it out in the middle of the hall.

There were just under 100 wineries in attendance at the 2010 Rhone Rangers Grand Tasting. Most were from California, but there were a handful from Oregon, two from Washington and one from Idaho. Of course, I wasn’t able to taste every wine. I did make a valiant attempt to do so for the whites and managed to taste pretty much every white wine from Northern California wineries as well as a few from farther south and all of the ones from Oregon. That alone took about two-and-a-half hours, moving at a fast pace. After taking a brief break to wolf down a sandwich, there wasn’t much time left to sample the red wines. So, for those, I went to a few specific wineries that I know well in an attempt to get a sense for how the new releases compare to those in recent years.


Overall, the quality of these Rhone-varietal wines was very good. My general sense, and this was reinforced by other tasters and winemakers with whom I spoke, is that acidity, minerality and restraint are making a comeback. Excessive extraction, oak and alcohol levels are much less common. Naturally, these comments are relative to past California vintages. The majority of the wines are still heavier, fruitier and more potent than typical wines from the Northern Rhone in France.

Having tasted hundreds of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay based wines already this year, and having seen the same trends with regard to acidity, alcohol, extraction and oak there, I feel confident in saying that there is a broad movement among the better wineries toward a “less is more” approach. I have not noticed a similar degree of change in Pinot Noir though. Perhaps the feeling is that, though California Pinot Noir is a good deal heavier and fruitier than Old World or even most Oregonian versions, the levels of alcohol, oak and extraction in absolute terms are not so high as to necessitate substantial change. In any case, the Rhone-varietal wines poured yesterday were generally leaner than those in the recent past.

Another trend I see is the increasing use of Grenache Blanc for single-varietal wines. This grape, which has historically been used primarily in blends and not been copiously planted in California, seems to be gaining favor with winemakers. Most of the Grenache Blanc-focused wines I’m tasting now seem to be targeted at people looking for crisp and refreshing wines that are more subtle than Sauvignon Blanc. The majority of the wines are being made without any oak and with little, if any, malolactic fermentation. While I don’t think that Grenache Blanc is “the next Chardonnay,” I do find typical Grenache Blancs I’m tasting to be more attractive than the majority of New World unoaked Chardonnay I’ve had. If you’re looking for something new for Spring or Summer, something clean with good acidity and interesting minerality that will go with a range of light foods, check out some of the top-rated Grenache Blanc from below.

Without further ado, I’ll post my recommendations based on the 2010 Rhone Rangers Grand Tasting below. As always, bear in mind that this was a walk-around tasting, not a blind tasting. My judgement may have been affected by anything from the winemaker’s smile to the aroma of those Aidell’s sausages. I stand by my ratings, but reserve the right to change them slightly based on future tastings under more controlled circumstances.

For your convenience, I’m breaking the ratings into two sections. The first is the dry whites (and the one rosé I tried), the second will be reds. Within each section, the wines are listed in alphabetical order by winery name. Those wines for which no varietal is explicitly stated are blends. I only tasted one dessert wine and am not including that category of wine in this review.

Very Highly Recommended
2008 L’Aventure Roussanne Estate, $35
Highly Recommended
2008 Adelaida Cellars Viognier Glenrose Vineyard, $30
2007 Anglim Viognier Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Barbara County, $26
2008 Arrowood Vineyards Viognier Saralee’s Vineyard, Russian River Valley, $30
2007 Bonny Doon Le Cigare Blanc, $22
2008 Calcareous Vineyard, $28
2008 Clavo Cellars Viognier Apparition, $15
2008 Clavo Cellars Grenache Blanc Oracle, $18
2008 Clayhouse Wines Estate Cuvee Blanc Paso Robles, $23
2009 Clos Saron Carte Blanche, Sierra Foothills, $24 Sauvignon blend!
2008 Edward Sellers Viognier, $29
2008 Edward Sellers Estate Blanc, $35
2008 Epiphany Grenache Blanc, Santa Barbara County, $24
2007 JC Cellars Marsanne Stagecoach Vineyard, $38
2008 Katin Viognier, Paso Robles, $32
2008 Grenache Blanc, Paso Robles, $32
2008 Novy Family Viognier, Russian River Valley, $22 100% stainless steel, no ML
2007 Qupé Roussanne, Bien Nacido Hillside Estate, $40
2008 Sarah’s Vineyard Roussanne Estate Vineyard, $22
2008 Sierra Vista Viognier, $22.50
2008 Skylark Pinot Blanc Orsi Vineyard, Mendocino County, $16
2007 Sol Rouge Viognier, $32
2008 Stage Left Cellars The Go Getter, Central Coast, $34
2008 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, $40
2007 Treana Winery, $25 [At present, this wine is on the border between highly recommend and recommended. I’m placing it at the higher level with the caveat that it needs 6 months to a year of bottle age, which is almost always the case with this particular wine.]

2008 Adelaida Cellars Version, $30
2006 Anglim Cameo, Paso Robles, $22
2006 Arroyo Robles Rosé Estate Syrah, $21
2008 Bonny Doon Vineyard Viognier Dewn, $20
2008 Caliza Kissin Cousins, $28
2008 Carina Viognier, $22
2009 Cass Winery Roussanne Estate, $26
2009 Cass Winery Viognier Estate, $22
2009 Cline Cellars Marsanne-Roussanne, $16
2009 Concannon Vineyard Viognier, $15
2007 Derby Wine Estate Fifteen 10 White, $24
2007 Frick Winery Grenache Blanc Estate Owl Hill Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley, $27
2007 Frick Winery Viognier Estate Gannon Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley, $27
2008 Hagafen Roussanne Lodi, $18 [kosher]
2008 Halter Ranch Estate Vineyard Cotes du Paso, $24
2009 Holly’s Hill Viognier Estate Vineyard, $18
2008 Jemrose Vineyards Viognier Egret Pond, $32
2008 Justin Viognier, $22
2008 Lawer Family Viognier Three Coins, $24
2007 Lone Madrone Roussanne, $28
2008 Lone Madrone White Blend, $22
2007 Michael-David Vineyards Viognier Incognito, $16
2007 Michaud Marsanne Estate Vineyard, Chalone AVA, $40 [This wine was a notably viscous, if that’s not your preference in Rhone whites beware.]
2008 Miner Family Marsanne La Diligence, $38
2008 Pride Viognier, Sonoma County, $42
2007 Quady North Viognier, Steelhead Run Vineyard, Applegate Valley, $19
2008 Qupé Marsanne, $20
2008 Robert Hall Winery Viognier, $20
2007 Rosenblum Roussanne Fess Parker, $25
2007 Sarah’s Vineyard Cote de Madone Blanc, $27
2008 Sierra Vista Roussanne, $22.50
2008 Skinner Vineyards Seven Generations, $25
2007 Sol Rouge Gypsy Blanc, $28
2007 Stark Wine Viognier, $25
2008 Tablas Creek Cotes de Tablas Blanc, $25
2008 Tablas Creek Grenache Blanc, $30
2008 Tablas Creek Roussanne, $30
2007 Terre Rouge Roussanne, Sierra Foothills, $25
2007 Terre Rouge Viognier, Amadaor County, $25
2007 Terre Rouge Enigma, Sierra Foothills, $25
2008 Terry Hoage The Gap Cuvee Blanc, $32
2008 Thacher Viognier Hastings Ranch, $25
2008 Truchard Roussanne, $20
2009 Villa Creek White Blend, Paso Robles, $24
2006 Zaca Mesa Roussanne Estate Vineyard, $25
2008 Zaca Mesa Grenache Blanc Estate Vineyard, $25

Since I did sample almost every dry white wine offered [by wineries located from Paso Robles north in California] at the 2010 Rhone Rangers Grand Tasting, it’s fair for you to assume that if a wine is in the Grand Tasting catalog but not on my list I am not recommending it. That said, I would like to clarify two things. First, non-recommendation does not mean that a wine is bad. It may be quite acceptable but simply isn’t at the same level as those above. Second, there are a few wines which I simply didn’t get to at the tasting. I’m listing them below so that their absence from the lists of recommended wines isn’t misinterpreted.
2008 Clautiere Vineyards Estate Viognier
2008 Jada Vineyard XCV, $35
2008 Michael-David Roussanne Chicken Duck
2006 Pug Blanc Saralee’s Vineyard Russian River Valley
2007 Pug Blanc Saralee’s Vineyard Russian River Valley
2006 Renaissance Viognier
2006 Renaissance Roussanne
2006 Renaissance Roussanne Vin du Terroir
2007 Steele Viognier, Lake County, $16
2008 Steele Roussanne, Writer’s Block, Lake County, $16

Highly Recommended
2005 Domaine Serene Syrah Del Rio Vineyard, $45
2007 Edward Sellers Mourvedre, $45
2007 Fleming Jenkins Syrah Black Ridge Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains, $40
2006 JC Sellers Syrah, Ventana Vineyard, $30
2006 Kaleidos Syrah, $
2006 Kaleidos Grenache, $45
2007 Outpost Petite Syrah The Other, Howell Mountain, $50 [Needs 7 years of bottle age at minimum]
2007 Pride Syrah, Sonoma County, $60
2008 Shane Syrah The Unknown, North Coast, $38
2008 Shane Syrah Jemrose Vineyard, Bennett Valley, $42
2008 Shane Syrah Judge, $NA
2007 Skylark Syrah Unti Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley, $26
2007 Skylark Syrah Rodgers Creek Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, $36
2007 Skylark Syrah Stagecoach Vineyard, Napa, $40
2007 Sol Rouge Syrah, $32
2006 Stage Left Cellars The Breadwinner Central Coast, $42
2006 Stage Left Cellars Petite Sirah Russell Family Vineyards, Paso Robles, $40
2007 Villa Creek Mourvedre Damas Noir, Paso Robles, $40

2006 Domaine Serene Syrah Rockblock Reserve, $40
2007 Fleming Jenkins Syrah Madden Ranch, Livermore Valley, $40
2007 Justin Syrah, $27
2007 Justin Savant, $45
2005 Kaleidos Syrah, $28
2006 Kaleidos Osiris, $28 [Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre]
2006 Kaleidos Morpheus, $34 [Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre]
2007 Outpost Grenache, Howell Mountain, $40
2007 Outpost Petite Syrah, Howell Mountain, $35
2007 Skylark Red Belly, $20
2007 Skylark, Grenache, Mendocino County, $26
2006 Sol Rouge Grenache, $36
2006 Sol Rouge Gypsy Rouge, $28
2007 Sol Rouge Mourvedre, $29
2006 Sol Rouge The Keep, $NA
2007 Stage Left Cellars Syrah The Escape Artist Watch Hill Vineyard, Los Alamos, $38
2007 Stage Left Cellars Syrah The Scenic Route Del Rio Vineyards, Rogue Valley, $38
2007 Villa Creek Garnacha Denner Vineyard, Paso Robles, $35
2007 Villa Creek High Road James Berry Vineyard, Paso Robles, $50

I tasted very few red wines, so the two lists above should be taken as isolated recommendations and no assumptions of any kind should be made about wines that are not listed. In many cases, I only tasted one or two wines from a given winery though they had more available.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2010 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Recap of Hospice du Rhone 2011 - Day Two

They Have a Dream - Pursuing Great Wine in Roussillon

The second day of Hospice du Rhone started out with a spirited seminar introduction by moderator Patrick Comiskey of Wine & Spirits Magazine. The seminar, "They Have a Dream," focused on producers of the Roussillon. Patrick started out with the necessary and expected: facts, characterization of the wines and an explanation of where in the heck Roussillon actually is. [Sidebar: The Roussillon we’re talking about is not the singular, ochre-colored, beautiful at sunset stony peak rising out of nowhere in the Luberon (Provence) and topped with a picturesque village. It’s an area in the Languedoc (south of France near Spain) with picturesque villages and multiple craggy peaks overlooking vineyards and Mediterranean beaches while the Pyrenees loom in the distance. But it’s also beautiful at sunset.

It's not this Roussillon. Photo by Nikater

It's this Roussillon. Photo by Mick Stephenson

So, anyway, Patrick lulled us with information and then launched into a simultaneously rousing, inspiring and humorous adaptation of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. My words couldn’t do his speaking justice, but I had my video camera rolling...

After that, it would have been a let-down if the wines were not good. Fortunately, they held up their end of the bargain. We tried 12 wines.

2009 Domaine Madeloc Collioure Tremadoc Blanc (floral and pretty with notes of yellow apple, peach and baking spice)
2007 Domaine Thunevin-Calvet Hugo (80% Grenache and 20% Syrah giving plum and black cherry with thick, talc-like tannins and a character that Patrick Comiskey called “unrelentingly intense”)
2007 Domaine Madeloc Banyuls Cirera (candied cherries, warm and sweet spices, herb and leather)

Astoundingly, nobody imports Domaine Madeloc to the United States. I’m tempted to get into the business myself just to get some of their Banyuls Cirera. Because, yum!

Drew Noon, Noon Winery. McClaren Vale

The day’s second seminar was completely different but no less charming (and delicious). It was the smallest and most personal of the seminars. One can’t really moderate a one-person panel and John Alban didn’t try. He had a conversation with Drew Noon of Noon Winery in McClaren Vale. The topic was Noon’s 2011 vintage. The seminar had been planned well in advance as Drew had video clips of himself at each important milestone of the vintage, describing how the vines were progressing, how they had been affected by weather and how he hoped the vintage would progress. We smiled with him at the excellent flowering. We shared both his concern and hope through mid-season weather variations. And we were devastated to hear that late season rain brought rampant rot which ruined his Langhorne Creek grower’s entire crop of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz.

Fortunately for Drew Noon, and all of us, his ancient vine Grenache in McClaren Vale came out just fine. While you’re waiting a couple of years for that wine to be released, try to find yourself some of the 2008 Noon Eclipse McClaren Vale. It has a nose of oak, spice, cured tobacco and plum with a mouthful of sweet cherry and plum, cured tobacco, oak and spice on the creamy palate. John Alban called it “lively, elegant, graceful.” My notes say “Highly Recommended” and “Buy!” By the way, blistering heat wiped out his 2009 crop of Grenache —he can’t catch a break — so the ’08 will have to hold you until the ’10 is released.

The Live Auction

Saturday lunch at Hospice du Rhone means good food, very good wine and a rousing live auction. As usual, auctioneer Todd Ventura kept the auction fast and fun, playing with the crowd, wheedling donors out of just a bit more, and bidders out of quite a bit more. He was aided by winemaker/restauranteur Cris Cherry.

The Hospice du Rhone live auction is not something you participate in to get “a steal.” The cause — funding for the next year’s Hospice du Rhone — the lots and the generosity of the bidders is too great for that. What you do get is the opportunity for once-in-lifetime experiences or truly unique collections of wine. You could have gotten one of only ten magnums made of 2004 Noon Eclipse, plus a 750ml to keep you from opening the magnum too soon. Or you could have won a dinner for four at John Alban’s house [repeating for emphasis: dinner at John Alban’s house] with he and Vicki Carroll helping chef José Dahan in the kitchen and their spouses keeping your glasses full. And you could have helped choose the old and new world wines to come out of his cellar. Or you might have wowed your friends, and eventually your own palate, with a hand-painted 3-liter bottle of 2008 Saxum Bone Rock James Berry Vineyard. It was Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year for 2010. Justin Smith signed the bottle and took a picture with the winning bidder. There were 22 auction lots in all. The pace was good and the tasty lunch disappeared quickly.

Media/Trade Tasting & Grand Tasting

At the end, there was just enough time to fantasize about an espresso while wandering over to the big hall for the Grand Tasting or, in my case, the smaller hall for the self-pour media and trade “speed” tasting. Normally, big tastings aren’t a very good way to properly evaluate wine. Even this self-pour event isn’t blind or sufficiently “controlled” for uber-serious reviews. However, it was quiet, uncrowded and allowed me to taste everything swiftly and effectively. I got a good sense of a broad range of Rhone varietal wine.

I’ll post a full recommendations list separately but, in the meantime, here’s some stuff you should go out of your way to try:
2007 Westerhold Syrah (deserving winner of the Syrah Shootout)
2008 Wrath Doctors Vineyards Syrah Santa Lucia Highlands
2007 Torbreck The Factor
2009 Domaine Gaillard Rose Pourpre Cote Rotie (it’s not a rosé)

After the media tasting, I headed into the main hall to try more wine. I found a lot to like.

I’ll have more details from the seminars later, along with that long list of recommended wines. In the meantime, check out the photos below and think about making hotel reservations for next year’s Hospice du Rhone. And, if you haven't done so, take a look at the recap of day one.

Photos of Hospice du Rhone 2011, Day Two

If you enjoyed this article, please share it! Icons for popular sharing services are at the right above and also below.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2010 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Zin Pourin' and Food Porn at ZAP Epicuria

Heading out the door last night to drive to San Francisco for ZAP Epicuria 2013, I stopped, turned around, and grabbed my camera. A big lens can be unwieldy for crowded walk-around events though. So I ditched the zoom and attached my nifty — and extremely light — portrait/macro lens. I'm glad I did. These photos should give you a great flavor of the event. Enjoy!

rose pistola ravioli

Light and delicious is a good way to start. And truffles! Rose Pistola fit the bill with Ricotta Black Truffle Pansotti with Parmesan Broth and shaved Black Truffle.


Il Davide's Black Truffle Porcini-filled Agnolotti with White Truffle Fondue tempted me to lick the bowl.


Then it was time for Zinfandel. There's no better way to start than with Ridge. Their 2005 Lytton Springs blend was elegant but flavor-packed.


Joel Peterson of Ravenswood had a decanter full of Zinfandel...


that came from this 1997 three liter bottle made from... 


this historic Russian River Valley property with 90+ year old vines. The large format bottle meant the wine still showed some youth, but there was also the grace that comes with age. This was one of my favorite wines of the night and the one I went back to for my very last sip.


Nils Venge also brought his wine in a large format container but, appropriately for a winery called Saddleback Cellars, he used a pony keg. The wine was his 2010 Old Vine Zinfandel from the Frediani Vineyard's 88-year old vines, Calistoga AVA. The wine was excellent and I'm sure he was tipping it to get the last drops for people by evening's end.


Old vine Zinfandel was a recurring theme for the evening. Scott Harvey and Jana Harvey featured the 2010 Scott Harvey Old Vine Reserve, Amador County from an 80-year old vineyard that had been owned by Scott's grandfather.


Time for more food. These delicate but decadent bites from Twenty Five Lusk were Duck Confit Crepes with Organic Watercress, Comte and Dried Cherry Powder. The ravaged state of the platter testifiess to pace at which people were snatching them up.


A16's bowl and spoon presentation brought a little bit of restaurant dining to The Concourse. Their Lamb Sausage with Butter Beans, Herbs and Fennel had a lot of fans, I among them.


But there's nothing wrong with finger food and there was nothing wrong with these tasty bites from the Carneros Bistro, Spiced Tartlets of Sonoma Duck Confit, Caramelized Onions, and Big Rock Blue Cheese.


Julie Johnson of Rutherford's Tres Sabores blends Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot and asks "Por que no? My question is, "May I have some more?"


Jule and Tres Sabores also took food pairing and estate-grown products to a higher level by providing guinea fowl raised at the vineyard/ranch/farm to Local: Mission Eatery who then made these scrumptious Crostini with Guinea Hen Confit, Red Onion Jam and Pepper Cress.


Le Truc served up one of the most memorable and distinctive bites of the evening. I loved their Spicy Thai Curry Pulled Pork on Candied Jalapeno with Cilantro and Lime and will definitely be visiting the restaurant big black schoolbus to try their other dishes.


Also memorable was the excellent 2009 Grgich Hills Milijenko's Old Vines Zinfandel. On a side note, I like the way this photo has a slight faux-aged look even though I didn't edit a single pixel.


There's nothing faux about the age of the vines used for this 2011 Robert Biale Vineyards R. W. Moore Vineyard Zinfandel from Coombsville. They date back to 1905.


Harris' knows beef and I had no beefs at all with their signature Steak Tartare. Both the taste and texture were perfect.


From raw beef we go to slow-cooked with Straits' flavorful and tender 5-Spice Bali-style BBQ Beef Ribs. The spice mix is a proprietary blend, so I'm going to have to go to the restaurant over-and-over again to enjoy it.


The slow-cooked meat was a good setup for this 1986 J. Pedroncelli Sonoma County Zinfandel from Dry Creek Valley. The wine was still showing fruit but offered a lot of tertiary flavors. Drink them if you've got them, but you will enjoy it. Note the 12.5% alcohol by the way. You don't see that from Dry Creek Valley too often these days, but such low levels weren't necessarily the rule "back in the day." There were plenty of 15+% alcohol Zins made in the 1970's.


Meanwhile, back in Napa Valley, Ballentine's superlative 2010 Block 9 Reserve Zinfandel was rich but balanced with with a lengthy finish.


The 2010 Rock Wall Reserve Zinfandel Hendry Vineyard was powerfully palatable.


So too the 2010 Frank Family Vineyards Zinfandel Napa Valley.


The 2010 Outpost Howell Mountain Zinfandel was a barrel-sample, but I'd be happy to drink some tonight. It offered lip-smacking dark berries and succulent powdery tannins.


Speaking of succulent, I double-dog dare you not to smile after a bit of this Rosamunde Sausage Grill Lamb Merguez Sausage Sandwich with Mango Chutney and Sauerkraut.


City College of San Francisco's Culinary Art and Hospitality Studies Dept earned an "A" for their 5-Spice Duck Confit Sliders.


Carol Shelton Wines invited us to do the Wild Thing. The 2009 Wild Thing Old Vine Zinfandel, Mendocino County is full-bodied and oozes jammy fruit.


This 2009 Carol Shelton Monga Zin from old vines in Cucamonga Valley (between Los Angeles and San Bernadino) was the first wine I've ever tried from that area. It was really good, balanced but showing plenty of perfectly ripe fruit.


If anyone should know how to pair Zinfandel with food, it's the house chefs at Zinfandel-specialist Seghesio Family Vineyards in Healdsburg. They didn't disappoint. Seghesio's smokey Signature Ribs had just the right ratio of chew to tenderness and a light touch with the caramelized sauce contributed lip-smacking flavor that didn't compete with the wine.


The Lamb Lollipops with Zinfandel Dem-Glace from Ruths' Chris Steak House may be the best lamb chops I've ever had, and I've had some lamb chops. They were almost melt-in-your-mouth tender, flavorful and perfectly seasoned.


You can't go far in Lodi without tripping over an old Zinfandel vineyard, which might lead us to take them for granted. We shoudn't. Many have been torn up over the years, as in other regions, and it's only been in the past decade or so that a broad audience has begun to grasp the quality and character old vines deliver. How proud would the farmers of a century ago be to know that their work was still bringing joy to people?

Harney Lane is surrounded by old vine Zinfandel, including the Lizzy James Vineyard. The 2010 from that site was so good my camera practically took this picture by itself.


People say, "Zinfandel can't age." And even people who've enjoyed an old Zin here and there would scoff at the idea that Zinfandel from Lodi can age rather than just get old. In reality, most wine can't age and isn't designed to do so. But, as with many other red wines, Zinfandel made from good vineyards and vinified for ageability can improve with some years in bottle. Yes, even Lodi Zinfandel. This 2003 Klinker Brick Old Ghost Zinfandel Lodi, the winery's first vintage, was absolutely killer and easily one of my favorite wines of the night.


One of my favorite bites of the night was this little ball of happiness, a Chicken Croquette with Chipotle Aioli from Alebrijes Bistro in Lodi. The croquette was crispy on the outside, almost fluffy inside and the chipotle aioli offered just the right level of "pop."


My penultimate sip was Layne Montgomery's 2010 M2 Soucie Vineyard Select Block Zinfandel, a gorgeous, powerful wine with fine, powdery tannins and flavors of sweet berries, ripe red cherry, chocolate mint and oak-spice accents. The finish held up all the way over to the Ravenswood table where I got my Belloni Vineyard nightcap.


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In Vino Unitas Tasting

In Vino Unitas is a small group of California wineries united by the fact that they sell their wine direct to the trade. Periodically, In Vino Unitas holds group tastings so that restaurants, retailers and the press can conveniently sample many of the wines. I attended their March 3, 2010 tasting at One Market Plaza in San Francisco. If you are in the trade in Southern California, check the In Vino Unitas website for the tastings they'll be having in your area next week.

Here's a full list of the wineries that poured at this event:
Alpha Omega
Astrale e Terra
Diamond Creek
Ehlers Estate
Etude Wines
Gargiulo Vineyards
Gemstone Wines
Grgich Hills Estate
Heitz Wine Cellars
Krupp Brothers Estate
Larkmead Vineyards
La Sirena
Mayacamas Vineyards
Merry Edwards Winery
Meyer Family Cellars
Nickel & Nickel
Silver Oak Cellars
Testarossa Vineyards
Twomey Cellars

All but one of the wineries were pouring more than one wine. Most were pouring several. As a result, I wasn't able to get through all of the wines offered. I didn't get to the Gemstone wines at all. Here are my comments and recommendations from among the wines that I did taste:

Very Highly Recommended
2008 La Sirena Moscato Azul - This is admittedly a high rating but it's hard to imagine Muscat Canelli being much better at this level of dryness. if you don't generally like this style of wine, adjust your expectations accordingly. On the border between dry and off-dry, this wine is beautifully floral with complementary aromas and flavors of stone fruit. Good acidity and that hint of sweetness. Refreshing on it's own, this wine would be great with top quality toro sushi.
2007 Vellum Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley - The fruit is from Coombsville. The winery's goal is to produce Cabernet Sauvignon inspired by the style of Bordeaux's St. Julien. While St. Julien has several different styles itself, this wine does succeed in being leaner and less dominated by oak than many expressions of California Cabernet Sauvignon yet more structured and complex than others.

Highly Recommended
2007 Alpha Omega Chardonnay Napa Valley - 100% malolactic fermentation softens this wine and adds richness. Very nice.
2006 Alpha Omega Proprietary Red - Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petite Verdot
2007 Alpha Omega Cabernet Sauvignon - No micro-ox for this vintage of the AO Cabernet 
2004 Astrale e Terra Arcturus Cabernet Sauvignon
2007 Buonchristiani Dolcetto - 100% Dolcetto, mostly from Dry Creek Valley's Unti Vineyard but supplemented with fruit from the estate vineyard in Yountville.
2006 Buonchristiani O.P.C. - Cabernet, Syrah, Merlot and Malbec
2006 Buonchristiani Artistico Syrah - from the Stagecoach and HdV vineyards
2006 Buonchristiani Cabernet Sauvignon
2006 Diamond Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Red Rock Vineyard
2006 Diamond Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Gravelly Meadow Vineyard
2006 Diamond Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Volcanic Hill Vineyard
2007 Goldeneye Pinot Noir Anderson Valley
2008 Grgich Hills Fumé Blanc - A study in grapefruit and gooseberry. Very nice.
2007 Grgich Hills Chardonnay - Stone fruit focused with a round texture yet sufficient acidity 
2004 Heitz Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Trailside Vineyard Rutherford - The vineyard is certified organic.
2005 Heitz Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Martha's Vineyard 
Krupp Brothers Black Bart's Bride (Marsanne/Viognier/Chardonnay) - This was a surprising wine. It has a very delicate nose of white flowers with fruited accents. The body is very full and, based on that, my brain was expecting a somewhat clumsy palate, either cloyingly sweet or full of butter. Happily, the flavors were as delicate and pretty as the nose. Lovely. Drink it while it's fresh.
2007 Larkmead Firebelle (Merlot blend)
2007 Larkmead Cabernet Sauvignon 
2006 La Sirena Cabernet Sauvignon,  Napa Valley
2005 La Sirena Syrah Napa Valley
2005 La Sirena Syrah Santa Ynez 
2007 Mayacama Sauvignon Blanc - Citrus, gooseberry and mineral
2007 Mayacamas Chardonnay - Pear, apple and juicy acidity
2001 Mayacamas Merlot 
2005 Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 
2007 Merry Edwards Pinot Noir Klopp Ranch
2007 Merry Edwards Pinot Noir Meredith Estate
2008 Far Niente Chardonnay
2005 Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley 
2008 Testarossa Pinot Noir Garys' Vineyard

Alpha Omega 2009 Sauvignon Blanc - A barrel sample, this is an attractive wine with light oak treatment smoothing out the flavors.
Alpha Omega 2009 Unoaked Chardonnay - A tank sample, this wine goes through no malolactic fermentation. As a result it's lighter in body and flavor than your typical Napa Valley Chardonnays.
2008 Astrale e Terra Sauvignon Blanc - Round and restrained with attractive Sauvignon Blanc flavors and satisfactory acidity, Astrale e Terra's first ever Sauvignon Blanc could convert some Chardonnay drinkers.
2004 Astrale e Terra Estate Syrah
2009 Buonchristiani Rosato Napa Valley - Based on Syrah and Malbec, this was the best of the rosés I tried. It had bold flavors but retained good acidity and wasn't high in alcohol.
2008 Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc - Good, but i'd have preferred more acidity.
2008 Duckhorn Decoy Merlot
2008 Duckhorn Decoy Cabernet Sauvignon
2007 Paraduxx Napa Valley Red 
2006 Grgich Hills Chardonnay Reserve Carneros Selection - Stone fruit focused like the 07 non-reserve above, but even rounder with less acidity and more oak.
2007 Heitz Wine Cellars Chardonnay - No malolactic. A real bargain at the $20 price.
2005 Heitz Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley - Subtle and elegant
2005 Heitz Wine Cellars Bella Oaks Vineyard 
2007 Larkmead Sauvignon Blanc - Very nice with grapefruit, gooseberry and a touch of oak. Sold on-premise only. Look for it at your favorite restaurants. 
2004 Mayacamas Mt. Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon
2005 Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 
2007 Merry Edwards Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast
2007 Merry Edwards Pinot NoirRussian River
2004 Meyer Family Cabernet Sauvignon Bonnie's Vineyard Oakville
2008 Nickel & Nickel Chardonnay Searby Vineyard - buttery fruit 
2005 Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 
2007 Testarossa Castello Chardonnay Central Coast
2008 Testarossa Chardonnay Sleepy Hollow Vineyard
2008 Testarossa Palazzio Pinot Noir
2008 Testarossa Pinot Noir Sleep Hollow Vineyard