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Get ready for the Annual Family Winemakers of California Tasting in SF on Aug 23

While much of the sheer volume of California wine is produced by very large corporate wineries, the vast majority of wineries in the state are family owned. It is those small, unique wineries that produce most of the best wines this country has to offer.

It isn’t always easy to find many of the wines for tasting though. Production quantities tend to be low and distribution limited. Some of the best small wineries don’t even have tasting rooms. So, while family wineries thrive on selling wine direct to consumer it’s often hard for consumers to get that essential first introduction to a wine.

The Annual Family Winemakers of California Tasting at Fort Mason in San Francisco is perhaps the best chance to taste a multitude of these special wines. This year, on Sunday, August 23, there will be about 360 small wineries offering tastes. With most of the wineries providing samples of multiple wines, the variety will be staggering. As will some of the tasters.

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.

Good Wine: A Matter of Degrees?

Chardonnay_grapes_close_upI tried a wine the other day at a walk-around trade tasting. It was an unoaked California Chardonnay. The winemaker poured it for me from the bottle displayed on the table.

I brought the glass to my nose with an open mind. The wine’s aromas surprised me: powerful but with an odd green figgy note. I took a sip. The wine was heavier than I anticipated, very round and without texture. The flavors were similar to the nose with fruit that was simultaneously green and cloyingly ripe. I was seriously disappointed.

I had been anticipating — perhaps even hoping for — a crisp wine with taut flavors. I expected green flavors, but wanted them to be of green apple and citrus. The winemaker said he strives to deliver minerality. I had gotten some, but it was too much like the aroma of an empty beer can. The wine was not something I’d recommend.

Later, I was standing near the same table when a women walked up. “Thank you so much,” she said to the winemaker. “This unoaked Chardonnay is my favorite wine of the tasting.” “Wow,” I thought to myself. “Either her taste is waaaay different than mine or I’m missing something.”

A few minutes later, I ran into someone who’s opinion on wines I value highly. He’s a master sommelier with an excellent knowledge of Burgundy. “Could you do me a favor?” I asked him. “Try that unoaked Chardonnay over there and let me know what you think.”

The master somm came back to me a few minutes later. “Thanks so much for turning me onto that wine,” he enthused. “It was really good. Exactly what I look for in an unoaked Chardonnay.” A storm of question marks and exclamation points burst over my head.

I walked directly over to that table again. “May I try the unoaked Chardonnay again,” I asked the winemaker. “Absolutely,” he said. Then he reached under the table and pulled a bottle from an ice bucket hidden behind the tablecloth. He poured. I sniffed. Tart fruit, citrus with a hint of tropical, limestone and steel.

I took a sip. The wine was very cool and fresh with a light, chalky texture. The flavors were crisp and the body medium-minus. It was a really good wine.

The difference, in this case, between a bad wine and and a good one was a matter of degrees — Fahrenheit. It’s impossible to know exactly, but I’d say the wine I tasted first was at about 62°. That’s an appropriate temperature for medium- to full-bodied red wines but too warm for most whites. The second pour was closer to 50°, the proper temperature for light- and medium-bodied white wines.

The difference in both temperature and perceived quality was extreme in this particular case. A delta of as little as three degrees can make a significant difference in the way a wine smells, tastes and feels. Warmer temperatures emphasize sweetness, ripeness of fruit, oak and alcohol. Cooler temperatures enhance the perception of acidity, tart fruit and minerality while making the body seem lighter.

You can easily experiment with this at home. Pop one of your favorite wines into the refrigerator for an hour. Take it back out and pour some in a glass. Give it a try, thinking about the aromas, taste and mouthfeel. Keep trying the wine at 15 minute intervals as it warms up in your glass. Experiment with a few different wines and you’ll soon find the temperature zones you prefer for different styles of wine.

For more specific advice on the best temperatures for different types of wine, and for other tips on serving wine, take a look at this article: Serving Wine.

By the way, I’m very happy to recommend the 2010 Joyce Vineyards “Stele” Chardonnay Monterey County ($16, 13.7% alcohol). It’s made solely from Dijon clone Chardonnay from the Franscioni Vineyard, fermented cold in stainless steel tanks. There was no malolactic fermentation, oak aging or stirring of lees. Serve it well-chilled.

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 NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2012 NorCal Wine. Photo of Chardonnay grapes by Dan Random. All rights reserved.

Wine Tasting in Paso Robles - 5 Can’t Miss Wineries in Northwest Paso

NorCalWine’s tasting guide to Paso Robles continues. This week we’re off to what I’m calling northwest Paso Robles. It could also be described as the wineries of Adelaide Rd. This article will detail my top five tasting recommendations there. It’s well worth a full day of tasting (or more).

Tasting Wine in Paso Robles: Northwest/Adelaida Road

Two main things distinguish this part of Paso Robles from other areas when it comes to growing wine grapes: proximity to the ocean and the soil. Being closer to the ocean means temperatures are more moderate. The growing season is longer. This increases the potential for elegance and complexity in the wine, and just the right level of ripeness.

There is more calcareous soil (a mixture of limestone and clay) in the Paso Robles AVA as a whole than in any other AVA in California. But, in these western hills, it is less granular and often mixed with denser clay. That allows for dry-farming in many years. Calcareous soil and a cool climate are prized for Chardonnay in Burgundy. It also makes this zone Paso Robles’ best for Chardonnay in my opinion.

Getting to these wineries takes more time than those in most other parts of Paso Robles. It’s not too long a trip though. Driving directly from a likely starting point, such as the Starbucks near 24th St. and Highway 101, to the most far-flung winery, Justin Winery, only takes 30 minutes.

You’ll spend five minutes or so heading west on 24th Street. Then, just as the road changes its name to Paso Robles Rd, your surroundings change from town to outskirts. Soon you pass the historic Paso Robles District Cemetery and the road changes names again. Now you’re on Nacimiento Lake Drive/Hwy G14. Just past Jardine Ranch, make a left turn onto Adelaide Rd.

As you wind through the countryside - driving carefully on the narrow two-lane roads — you’ll quickly find yourself in a totally rural/ranching environment with grassy slopes, scattered oak trees and the occasional wild boar jogging across your path. Most wineries here are set back from the road, so keep to the speed limit and watch for their signs lest you cruise right by.

Aside from Deborah’s Room at Justin which is open for lunch on weekends, there are no restaurants in this area. Unless you’ve made reservations at Deborah’s, you should definitely bring a picnic lunch of some sort, or be ready to buy some deli food at Halter Ranch or Justin. Almost all of the wineries in the area have nice places to sit down and enjoy your meal.


Alta Colina

Our first stop on this route is Alta Colina. Alta Colina is a small, relatively new, family-run winery known for excellent Rhone varietals from their estate vineyard. The tasting room is compact but there’s a good chance you’ll be tasting with one of the family members.

The Tillman family’s first vines were planted in April, 2005. Despite their young age, the vines are already leading to excellent wine. Their pedigree is excellent, coming from a French, government-owned, nursery and from Alban Vineyard in Edna Valley. The Alta Colina vineyard includes four red and four white Rhone varietals. Two star winemakers from the Paso Robles region, Amy Butler and Scott Hawley, guide the winemaking. Highlights for me recently were the 12 O'Clock High Viognier blend, the GSM and the Old 900 Syrah blend.

Address: 2725 Adelaida Rd., Paso Robles CA 93446 (co-located with Villacana Winery)
Phone: (805) 227-4191
Open Hours: 11am - 5pm, Thursday - Sunday Tours
Available: Vineyard tour by appointment
Food Available: No
Picnic Area: No


Adelaida Cellars

The next recommended stop as you head west is Adelaida Cellars. The first Adelaida Cellars wine was made in 1981, but it wasn’t until ten years later that their first estate vineyard - the Viking Vineyard - was planted. Three years after that, the winery purchased 400 acres of the Hoffman Mountain Ranch vineyard. That land was, in 1964, the first in either San Luis Obispo or Santa Barbara Counties to be planted to Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir is not among the top five, or even ten, varietals that usually come to mind with regard to Paso Robles. However, Adelaida Cellars’ HMR Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir is very good. It offers aromas and flavors of cherry, raspberry, Dr. Pepper and spice with a smooth mouthfeel and long finish. Other wines not to miss include the Version White, a Roussanne/Grenache Blanc blend and the Viking Estate Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.

The tasting room at Adelaida Cellars has just one stone-topped counter, but it's long enough to accomodate a dozen people. As you’re tasting, you can look beyond the bar through the large picture windows that reveal the stainless steel fermentation tanks. To the left are glass doors leading to the barrel room.

Address: 5805 Adelaida Road, Paso Robles CA 93446
Phone: (800) 676-1232
Open Hours: Daily, 10am - 5pm
Tours Available: By appointment
Food Available: No
Picnic Area: Yes


Halter Ranch

Halter Ranch, with it’s newly remodeled facilities, is another excellent spot for tasting. It is in a lovely setting, surrounded by big oak trees and a nice garden. The ranch-style buildings are lovely too, as is the restored Victorian Farmhouse.

The Halter Ranch vineyard was established in 1996. Planted on well-drained, south-facing slopes are 20 different grape varieties, almost all of which are either Rhone or Bordeaux varieties. Initially, the grapes were only sold to other wineries. Some, such as Justin, have used them as important components in flagship wines. Now Halter Ranch produces its own wines too. I particularly recommend the Viognier, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Address: 8910 Adelaida Road, Paso Robles CA 93446
Phone: (805) 226-9455
Open Hours: Daily, 11am - 5pm
Tours Available: By appointment
Food Available: Yes
Picnic Area: Yes


Justin Winery

Justin and Deborah Baldwin founded Justin Winery in 1981. There were very few wineries in Paso Robles back then, and almost none were focused on high-end wine. Justin thrived. It has developed massive and loyal wine club — the Justin Wine Society — and produces a large number of very good wines, with broad distribution. It's focus on quallity and the good life extended to its grounds too, which made it what was probably the first true destination winery in Paso Robles.

There are now two tasting areas. One is at the original facility, which also houses Deborah’s Room restaurant (dinners served nightly), a very chic four-room bed and breakfast and nice gardens. Members of the wine club can also enjoy the Wine Society Lounge. That’s located down the road at the massive winery and event center.

The wines range from excellent but affordable whites and reds up to the very exclusive Bordeaux-varietal blend, Isosceles Reserve. Over the years, Justin has also experimented with a lot of different varietals. And they’ve done a good job with them. There has been Malbec, Nebbiolo, Tempranillo and a very convincing Sangiovese among others. My usual favorites are their crisply citrusy Sauvignon Blanc, the various red Bordeaux-varietal blends and the Reserve Chardonnay which may be Paso Robles’ best take on white Burgundy.

Past NorCalWine review of Justin wines:
2008 Justin Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles
2008 Justin Sauvignon Blanc Paso Robles
2008 Justin Reserve Chardonnay Paso Robles

Address: 11680 Chimney Rock Road, Paso Robles CA 93446
Phone: (805) 238-6932
Open Hours: Daily, 10am - 5pm
Tours Available: By appointment
Food Available: Yes
Picnic Area: Yes


Tablas Creek

Tablas Creek is probably the best-known of all Paso Robles wineries specializing in Rhone-variety wines. That recognition is well-deserved. Tablas Creek was among the very first in the area to put a major focus on such wines. And it has been one of the most important on all of the west coast for popularizing Rhone varietals. This is no accident.

Tablas Creek is a partnership between Chateau de Beaucastel, the most celebrated winery in all of Chateauneuf du Pape, and Robert Haas. They chose this area of Paso Robles for its close similarity to the climate and soil conditions of Chateauneuf du Pape. The Rhone variety vines planted there now were all taken from Chateau de Beaucastel or grown at Tablas Creek’s nursery from those cuttings. The winery produces a very large number of Rhone blend and varietal wines as well as a couple of Chardonnay. All are very high quality. The Esprit de Beaucastel red blend is the flagship wine, excellent and ageworthy every year. But, make sure you try the Cote de Tablas. It's very good too and a great value.

Tablas Creek’s hospitality center has also been remodeled recently. Now there is a very large and elegant tasting room with three long counters of polished wood. Behind the central counter is a long wall of glass showing massive wooden barriques used for aging some of the red wines. There is another smaller tasting room with two counters. The gift shop has been expanded. And there is a large patio and picnic area just outside.

Past NorCalWine review of Tablas Creek wines:
2009 Tablas Creek Rosé Paso Robles
2008 Tablas Creek Roussanne and Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc Paso Robles

Address: 9339 Adelaida Road, Paso Robles CA 93446
Phone: (805) 237-1231
Open Hours: Daily, 10am - 5pm
Tours Available: By appointment
Food Available: No
Picnic Area: Yes

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
My Top 4 Picks in Southwest Paso Robles
3 Top Stops on Anderson Road
3 Winning Wineries on Live Oak and Arbor Roads

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 NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2011 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

On Bordeaux, Robert Parker and Bloggers

The topic of Bordeaux en primeur is hot right now. The current stir started with an article in Decanter. The article is about Americans (finally) realizing that buying futures in Bordeaux wine isn’t always a good idea, even in excellent years. The article seems to have been prompted, at least in part, by U.S. wine resellers that are wondering what they are going to do with all the 2008 and 2009 Bordeaux they’ve committed to buy, since they can’t get rid of their ’05, ’06, and ’07.  “The conviction that en primeur in a great vintage is always worth buying has been shaken and probably destroyed,” said Michael Glasby of Premier Cru in the pull-quote that launched a thousand tweets.

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