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Mendocino Sparkles

”We’re trying to be a picnic wine, not trying to be fancy,” Signal Ridge Vineyard owner Roger Scommegna told me as I sipped his non-vintage Signal Ridge Bubbles last Sunday night. “There are already world-class sparkling wines here, like Roederer Estate. We’re trying to be Mendocino-like.” His demeanor is totally Mendocino, as is his sparkler. But despite being priced for picnics, Bubbles will be just fine for the dinner table or fancier affairs.

signal ridge vineyard
An aerial photo of the Signal Ridge Vineyard, Mendocino Ridge AVA. Photo by Signal Ridge.

There were a few Mendocino vintners last week who mentioned wanting to disgorge sparkling wine from the golden-moments-only mindset. “People will drink a $15 to $20 still wine any day of the week,” Zac Robinson, proprietor of Husch Vineyards and president of Mendocino Winegrowers Inc., observed. “But they think sparkling wine at the same price needs a special occasion.”

He’s right. Sure, there are people without that bias. I’ve got friends who go bubbly more often than not. But they’re a very small minority.

I suspect much of the blame lies with the highly successful marketing of France’s Champagne houses. Over the past few decades they have just about convinced people that no celebration is complete without sparkling wine. That, coupled with the preceding reputation of Champagne as a drink for royalty and upper class soirées, has had the unintended consequence of tying sparkling wine so closely with festivities as to make it seem inappropriate for everyday drinking.

I view Scommegna’s comments to be aimed at opening minds, not capping his wine’s potential. Brisk sales of relatively inexpensive Cava and Prosecco have been busting the stereotype already. Driven by those bottlings and the growing market for crisp wines of moderate alcohol, sparkling wine is starting to become “a thing” with “new California winemakers” now. Soon, you’ll be seeing a lot more releases by producers, from Mendocino to Santa Barbara, who have previously been focused solely on still wine.

Here are four sparkling wines from Mendocino County—all methode traditionelle—I enjoyed last week. (My tastings last week didn’t include Roederer Estate or Scharffenberger Cellars so their wines aren’t included in this article.)

signal ridge bubblesNV Signal Ridge Bubbles Brut, $25 ($99 for a half-case)
Bubble is a mélange of chalk, lemon, green apple, stone fruit and delicate spice on the nose. A sip brings a creamy mousse with a light touch of sweetness that quickly subsides leaving a clean mouthfeel with flavors of lemon pith, green apple, spice and steely minerality. I like it quite a bit and, at just $99 for a half-case, it really can be an every day wine. Single bottles sell for $25, so six-pack is definitely the way to go. Recommended+

2006 Handley Cellars Brut Rosé, Estate Vineyard Anderson Valley, $40
A richly creamy mousse gives this sparkling wine body that feels medium+ but is well-balanced by juicy acidity. The delicious aromas and flavors include dried ginger, cream, yellow apple, lemon curd and strawberry. Highly Recommended

2003 Handley Cellars Brut, $ inquire, tasting room only
Zippy acidity coupled with flavors of toast, chai spice (especially cardamom) and green apple. Very good now but capable of building complexity with further bottle age. Because this wine is nearly sold-out it’s sold only at the winery and not available for tasting. Recommended+

NV McFadden Farm Cuvée Brut, $25
This 50-50 blend of organically-grown Pinot Noir and Chardonnay spent two-and-a-half years on the lees. (It’s billed as NV but is essentially a 2009.) A little riper and sweeter, but with plenty of acidity, the McFadden Farm sparkling wine will be a versatile partner for food. Flavors include creamy pear, pear skin and baking spice. Recommended
(You might enjoy this recent SF Chronicle review of the McFadden Farm tasting room too.)

Interpreting my wine ratings


Disclosures: The FTC has tightened its guidelines with respect to online ads, reviews, blogs, etc. in response to people who are passing paid ads off as personal recommendations or who accept samples of expensive hard goods in exchange for reviews. My lengthy disclosure here is meant to address those guidelines.

The reviews above reflect my personal experience with the product. This is not a paid ad, nor do I accept ads or compensation for reviews from wine producers. Reviews may cover products that I have purchased, received as samples, or tried under other circumstances I consider to be good tasting conditions. Receiving a product as a sample does not obligate me to review it positively (or at all) and I do not consider samples to be compensation or “free wine.” I have purchased plenty of wine over the years and have more of that than I can drink. Samples are opened for review purposes, not added to my personal cellar or taken to restaurants.

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This article is original to Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. Signal Ridge label photo by The Bubbly Girl. All rights reserved.

California Cabernet Aging Potential - It’s Not About the Years, it’s the Character

People, especially Americans, put undo focus on some numbers. Every week news outlets tell us which movies had the biggest box office revenue. They don’t tell us what the films are about or if they’re any good. Morning shows tell us who is celebrating a 100th birthday. We don't learn what those people are like, what they accomplished or who loves them.

Contemporary California wines, Cabernet Sauvignon blends in particular, are often dismissed as wines that won’t age well. They are too high in alcohol, have too much sweet fruit, not enough acidity, etc. The complaint is frequently dismissive. “Sure, people like them, but they won’t age.” The subtext being that the wines are therefore inferior and so, perhaps, are the palates of those who drink them.

I was thinking about this as I sipped my way through the Taste of Oakville yesterday. 47 wineries from one of this country’s premier AVA’s were pouring their current releases. More than a few of them get that “won’t age” label. But some producers popped library wines, giving me the opportunity to see exactly how those wines have aged. Obviously, nobody was going to offer a wine that hadn’t held up, but the wines still gave a glimpse at the longevity of their general styles.

Before I get into how the wines were doing though, lets ask two questions, 1) What do we mean by “won’t age?” and 2) Who cares? The last question is at least half serious.

To me, saying a wine won’t age means one of two things. The first is that the wine simply won’t get any better than it is during the first three years or so after release. It won’t develop interesting tertiary flavors, the fruit will go away, etc. This may seem like a damning indictment but in reality the vast majority of wines made are not intended to improve with bottle age. Beyond that, most wine drinkers—including those buying expensive, genuinely age-worthy bottles—drink their wines fairly young. So the answer to the second question in this case is that most people don’t care most of the time, but people who love a good well-aged wine may care a lot.

The second meaning of “won’t age” is more a matter of degree. The wine will age, it just won’t last as long as a reference Bordeaux or Burgundy, or an iconic California wine from 30+ years ago. Here, the answer to the second question is that virtually nobody should care and one could argue it’s actually a good thing. A good thing? Yes.

As much as we love numbers, history and the cool factor of drinking something bottled before Paul McCartney met John Lennon, it should be the wine’s character that matters. Enjoy the complex aromas, developed flavors and elegant mouthfeel of the aged wine. Don’t dwell on how long it took them to appear. And, if you’re on the far side of 50, you may appreciate not having to wait another 40 years for your new purchases to reach their peak.

All that said, how were the Oakville Cabs aging? Nicely, by and large. They are indeed developing tertiary flavors faster than wines from days gone by. However, these contemporary wines had the virtue of having been drinkable upon release. Many long-lasting wines from days of yore were not. In addition, the best of today’s library wines look like they’ll last a good while longer.

Here were my favorite library wines from the 2013 Taste of Oakville (by vintage):

RMW Reserve CabSauv Lg2006 Far Niente Estate Bottled Cabernet Sauvignon - Drying leaves, black currant and vanilla. Full-body, moderate acidity and medium-plus chalky tannins. A very good wine today from a vintage that may lack aging potential overall. Drink soon. Highly Recommended+.

2001 Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve - Slightly raisined black currant, drying leaves, spice and chocolate. Nearly full-bodied with moderate acidity and a good measure of fine, powdery tannins plus some chalk. Quite long. Drink now through 2020. Very Highly Recommended.

1995 Dalla Valle Cabernet Sauvignon - Intensely flavorful with lightly raisined black currant, forest floor, spice and graphite. Nearly full-bodied and juicy, very fine grained tannins. A gorgeous wine. One of my two or three favorite wines of the day, young or old. Drink now through 2023. Very Highly Recommended

1986 Johnson Turnbull “Selection 67” Cabernet Sauvignon (6L) - Drying leaves, dried currant and spice. Medium-plus body, acidity and tannins (fine powder). Just 13.2% alcohol. Holding up well but smaller format bottles would likely be past peak. Drink now. Highly Recommended.

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 2013 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Fall Back on Spring Mountain

It was the kind of pre-Thanksgiving day that makes us feel very fortunate to live in this area. Somewhere in Wisconsin, moon boots were stepping gingerly out onto snow-covered lakes to see if the ice was thick enough for fishing. On the east coast, cars did graceful pirouettes through frozen intersections. Meanwhile, we sat in short sleeve shirts atop Spring Mountain drinking wine. We had just one weather-related concern. If we leave our wine in the car, will it cook?

It is sometimes said that we don’t get “real seasons” out here. It’s certainly true that we don’t get a lot of snow in the coastal wine country. We have to head to the Sierra Foothills if we want to go wine tasting and skiing on the same day. That isn’t a very long drive though. And if it’s Fall colors that people fear we miss, those colors are vivid on the grape vines. The grape leaves change from green to shades of gold and red just like a Pennsylvanian tree.

Review: "101 Wines" by Gary Vaynerchuk

Gary Vaynerchuk’s WineLibraryTV is the world’s leading video wine blog. His informative and entertaining tastings on video attract as many as 80,000 viewers daily, not to mention the people who download his podcasts via Apple iTunes. (I watch them on my Apple iPhone 3G while on the treadmill. I don’t like getting on the treadmill, but Gary’s videos really make the time fly by. Three or four of his podcasts, which typically run between 15 and 22 minutes, give me enough time to get in a good workout including warm up and cool down. Plus, I get to broaden my wine horizons and frequently get a good laugh or two. Since, he’s recorded almost 600 of the podcasts now, I should be in decent shape by the time I’ve seen them all... If you haven’t checked them out, you really should.

As the tremendously successful operator of the Wine Library wine shop and one of the hardest working guys you’ll ever meet, Gary has tasted a stunning number of wines and famously developed his palate by sniffing and tasting pretty much every substance under the sun, as evidenced by Vaynerchuk’s appearances on the Conan O’Brien show among others. Gary’s detailed but irreverent tastings of wines from all over the world are a great way to get tips on expanding your own palate or finding tasty, if sometimes obscure, new wines to try.

While browsing the wine shelf at my local mega-chain bookstore, I was pleased to see that Gary has a book out and immediately snapped it up. Gary Vaynerchuk’s “101 Wines Guaranteed to Inspire, Delight and Bring Thunder to Your World” is medium garnet in color with a paper-white rim. It’s too early to tell, but I suspect it has legs.

Wine Tasting in Paso Robles - My Top 4 Picks in Southwest Paso

Today’s post offers my best recommendations for wineries in Southwest Paso Robles, near the intersection of 46 West and Vineyard Drive. I’ll also tell you where to grab a good lunch.

Tasting Wine in Paso Robles: Southwest


If Cypher means zero to you, perhaps Four Vines will ring a bell. Less than a year ago, the Four Vines brand and it’s deservedly popular sub-$20 Zinfandel labels were sold to Purple Wine Company. The sale means Four Vines will be better funded for expansion of its marketing and distribution at consumer-friendly prices points and high-volume stores. It also formalized a division that had already existed, that between the relatively high-production Zinfandel blends and the lower volume wines that include vineyard-designate Zinfandel and Syrah plus the assortment of wild blends collectively known as “The Freak Show.”

Christian Tietje, who had been the winemaker and one of the owners of Four Vines, is continuing to make the Zinfandel for that company’s new owners. However, he kept the high-end wines for himself, along with the old Four Vines winery and tasting room. He has named that venture Cypher, which was the name of one of the Freak Show wines.

The vibe at Cypher is hip and irreverent. Their blends have names like The Heretic, Anarchy and Loco. The labels, mostly line art silk screened directly onto the bottles, show the same attitude. You can even get yourself a ZinBitch rub-on tattoo at the tasting room. Some of the wines are serious rule breakers too. Take (Louis) Cypher itself. Nine varieties go into that blend: Teroldego, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Coa, Sousou, Tinta Ruiz, Zinfandel, Carignane, Petit Verdot and Petite Sirah. Huh? It’s crazy but delicious.

There are a lot of wineries with labels that try to be cool or appeal to your wild side but fail when it comes to the actual wine. Tietje takes the vineyards and winemaking very seriously. Cypher wines deliver. One of his vineyard designate Syrahs even won the Syrah Shootout at Hospice du Rhone in 2009.

The tasting room is freshly remodeled and a cool place to hang out. You might plan to stop there either right before or after lunch, since it's co-located with the Farmstand 46 restaurant (see below).

Address: 3750 Highway 46 West, Templeton CA 93465
Phone: (805) 237-0055
Open Hours: 10am - 6pm daily
Tasting Fee: $10 and keep the glass
Tours Available: $15 Barrel Tasting Experience, best to make reservations
Food Available: Co-located with Farmstand 46 restaurant
Picnic Area: Yes

Turley Wine Cellars

Turley is one of the most famous names in Zinfandel. There is a good reason for that. They were among the first to make Zinfandel in a big, super-ripe style that focused on maximizing concentration of aromas and flavors without dwelling on how much alcohol would result. They did it well and continue to be among the very best in that genre.

Turley offers Zinfandel blends but are probably best known for vineyard designates. The dark fruit flavors can have jammy richness, but not the cooked aspect that indicates over-ripe fruit. And, despite the power and sweetness of the fruit, the wines are well-balanced in flavor and structure. Signatures of the different vineyards shine on the nose and palate. Oak barrels provide tannins necessary to carry the fruit and even provide the ability to improve with age. Turley wines are among the most expensive Zinfandels you’ll find, but not unfairly so.

To me, Turley is like Led Zeppelin. They created something great, unique and intoxicating, but also inspired a huge number of copycats. The pretenders have varying degrees of success but, almost without exception, fail to capture the magic. Go for the original.

Address: 2900 Vineyard Drive, Templeton CA 93465
Phone: (805) 434-1030
Open Hours: 9am -5pm
Tasting Fee: $10 for standard tasting, keep the Riedel glass. Reserve tasting of two wines available separately for $5.
Tours Available: No
Food Available: No
Picnic Area: Yes


I typically recommend only tasting rooms or experiences that are open to anyone, if sometimes by appointment only. I’m making an exception for Denner. Their tastings are also appointment only, but are open only to club members and their guests. There are several reasons for the exception. Denner's sustainably-farmed vineyard is one of the best in West Paso Robles and provides fruit for several top wineries, including Linne Calodo, Justin Winery and Villa Creek. Denner’s own wine, to which just under half of its 100+ acre estate vineyard is dedicated, are often exceptional in their own right. And the physical winery is architecturally unique and among the few to be wholly gravity-flow in Paso Robles.

The reason the tasting room is open only to club members is that the wine sells out very quickly. For that matter, wines by the bottle are essentially available only to club members. This isn’t a unique situation. Many boutique wineries sell out quickly and a lot of them aren’t open at all. At the lowest level, club members receive 8 bottles per year for about $300 plus tax. That’s an awfully expensive tasting fee, so you might want to visit with a friend who is already a member.

The vineyard includes 19 different grape varieties. The vast majority are either Rhone or red Bordeaux. There is a smattering of Zinfandel and a trace of Vermentino. The most-planted variety is Cabernet Sauvignon (33%) followed by Syrah (20%). The Denner wines include a 100% Viognier, a Roussanne blend, a Grenache-based rosé blend, Syrah, Grenache and Zinfandel varietal wines. There are also two red blends, one of Chateauneuf du Pape varieties and one of Bordeaux grapes.

Address: 5414 Vineyard Drive, Paso Robles CA 93446
Phone: (805) 239-4287
Open Hours: By appointment, 11am - 4pm. Open only for club members at this time.
Tasting Fee: Yes, applicable to purchase. The amount of the fee changes depending on what wines are being poured.
Tours Available: By appointment
Food Available: No
Picnic Area: Yes

Linne Calodo

Linne Calodo was founded in 1998 as a joint venture between Matt Trevisan and Justin Smith, wine-obsessed friends who roomed together while attending Cal Poly in nearby San Luis Obispo. Smith eventually left Linne Calodo to found Saxum and pose for the cover of Wine Spectator magazine after making its Wine of the Year. Matt remains at Linne Calodo making very highly sought-after juice himself.

The wines are so popular, in fact, that what used to be an appointment only tasting room is now even more exclusive. They don’t do tastings of current releases anymore. Not even by appointment. In part, that’s because the wines sell out too quickly for it to be practical. The other reason is that Matt simply doesn’t like the commercial, bar-like vibe that goes with regular tasting rooms. He preferred the days when tastings were rare, but done with him personally at his house.

The good news is that you can have that kind of experience if you plan ahead. The only tasting offered by Linne Calodo now is a library tasting with winemaker Matt Treviso. It is for small groups only (minimum of four people, maximum of eight). The experience includes four back-vintage wines, a cheese plate, and a great discussion with Matt about the wines, vineyards and winemaking in general. In order to ensure his availability, appointments must be made at least two weeks in advance.

The Linne Calodo wines themselves are based mostly on Rhone varieties and entirely from grapes grown in west Paso. An 18-acre estate vineyard provides most of the fruit they need. Seven of the blends are solely Rhone-based, three include Zinfandel with some Syrah and Mourvedre. Just one of the wines is white, Contrarian. The last vintage was 62% Viognier, 18% Roussanne, 12% Grenache Blanc and 8% Picpoul Blanc.

The character of the reds leans (heavily) toward the bold and rich, geared toward enjoyment on its own in the American style rather than needing food or extended bottle age. Trevisan described his 2009 Problem Child Zinfandel blend thus, “...uncontainable fruit explosion of sweet cranberries, currants, and plum lunges to center stage. Managed gracefully by the soft and lush Syrah and animal instincts of Mourvedre.” That sounds awfully good, doesn't it?

Address: 3030 Vineyard Drive, Paso Robles CA 93446
Phone: (805) 227-0797
Open Hours: By appointment, 2 week advance reservation required
Tasting Fee: $50 for library tasting of four wines with winemaker Matt Treviso
Tours Available: A brief tour is included with the tasting above
Food Available: Cheese plate included with tasting
Picnic Area: No

Where to Get Lunch

Farmstand 46

Christian Tietje of Cypher hasn’t always been a winemaker. He used to be a chef. His interest in healthy food made from locally-grown organic ingredients and the dearth of nearby eateries led him and his partner, Susan Mahler, to open Farmstand 46. It’s THE place for lunch in this area. Much of the produce is grown on the property.

Most of the Farmstand 46 menu is freshly made sandwiches and wood-fired pizzas, the latter available just Friday through Sunday. But they also have deli salads and picnic lunches of charcuterie or rotisserie chicken that you can take away. The daily specials can be enticing too. On a recent trip, I was impressed by a savory Spanish-style stew. Prices are reasonable, around $10 for a sandwich. There is seating inside and out.

Address: 3750 Highway 46W, Templeton CA 93465
Phone: (805) 239-3661
Open Hours: 10am - 6pm daily
Tours Available: You can wander through the garden

Wine Tasting in Other Parts of Paso Robles

This article is one in a five-part series on wine tasting in Paso Robles' different areas. Here are links to the other four articles:
5 Excellent Stops near 101 and Downtown
5 Can't Miss Wineries in Northwest Paso Robles
3 Top Stops on Anderson Road
3 Winning Wineries on Live Oak and Arbor Roads

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 2011 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.