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Tasted: 3 Wren Hop Pinot Noir and a Chardonnay

Wren Hop Vineyards is located on Mark West Station Road, about a mile west of the Santa Rosa airport. Visits are by appointment only and primarily limited to their mailing list customers. Tastings are conducted in a lovely, open-ended room in a guest cottage adjacent to owner Jim McDonough’s home or under an arbor just down the hill.

I tasted under the arbor last Saturday with friends who are on the list. It was a library tasting, so only one of the wines below is a current release. Wren Hop wines are made by Russell Bevan in Santa Rosa.

The tasting salon at Wren Hop. Photo: Fred Swan

2009 Wren Hop Chardonnay “Shipwreck Sailor” Sonoma Coast, $46 (current release)

The nose is somewhat savory with peppery spice, fresh bread, green apple and a hint of chervil. Those notes lead to a surprise on the palate with is very rich, a touch sweet and loaded with fruit and spice. It’s full-bodied and long in the mouth with succulent layers of flavor. Butterscotch, apple and sweet spice are followed by lemon and pineapple brulée. Highly Recommended+

2009 Wren Hop Pinot Noir “Siren’s Lure” Sonoma Coast, $65

Befitting it’s name, this wine draws you in with a pretty, feminine nose and then holds you fast with its powerful palate. The enticing aromas include rose petal, brown and sweet spice and red cherries. A sip reveals a creamy, nearly full-bodied wine with light tannins and surprising freshness given the weight. The deliciously concentrated flavors echo the nose’s spice and cherry. Very Highly Recommended.

2010 Wren Hop Pinot Noir “Fire Messenger” Sonoma Coast, $62

Fire Messenger labelLight ruby in the glass, perhaps owing to the cool vintage, the Wren Hop Fire Messenger isn’t at all shy on the nose. Wild cherry, raspberry, tangy orange and spice greeted me well before the glass reached my nose. On the palate it’s nearly full-bodied with a rich, sexy mouthfeel and flavors of slightly tart red fruit, vanilla and spice. The finish is long and clean with food-friendly freshness. Very Highly Recommended.

2011 Wren Hop Pinot Noir “Wisdom & Chaos” Green Valley of Russian River Valley, $62

Wisdom & Chaos labelThe ruby-colored Wisdom & Chaos is intensely aromatic with raspberry, cherry and tangy herb. Those flavors come through on the palate as well and are consistent through the lengthy finish. In contrast to the ’09 Siren’s Lure and ’10 Fire Messenger which are virtually full-bodied with extremely fine and thoroughly integrated tannins, Wisdom & Chaos is just medium-plus in palate weight and its more prominent, yet still moderate, tannins are lightly grainy. This is in keeping with both the chilly 2011 vintage and the growing site. Green Valley of Russian River Valley is the coolest of Sonoma County’s AVAs. [This considers AVAs as a whole. Individual growing sites in Sonoma Coast AVA may be cooler.] The 2011 Wren Hop Wisdom & Chaos will be at its best from 2014 through 2019. 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.


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 review above reflects my personal experience with the product. It 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.

This article is original to Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. Label art courtesy of Wren Hop. All rights reserved.

Reality, Perception and Potential

We all want to reach our potential. And we hope others’ perception of us at least matches the reality of who we are and what our potential might be. It’s nice when perceptions go reality one better. That creates expectations we must strive to meet. Motivation.

But what happens when the perceived quality of something, say a wine growing region, is lower than the actual quality? In that situation, the sales of grapes and wines may be lower in both dollars and units than deserved. Lagging perception also has an impact on the area reaching its true potential. If people dismiss the existing products and refuse to pay a fair price, will investments in even better products be rewarded?

This problem has been faced by most wine growing regions at one time or another. There may be a few exceptions, Burgundy for example. But I think it’s fair to assume that every single viticultural area in the New World has faced it due to OId World bias. Very few — Napa Valley, Marlborough, etc. — have completely blown past this phase. One might argue that even those regions still have perception issues.

This was my train of thought as I drove past acre after acre of characterful ancient vines, their roots reaching dozens of feet deep into unique, extremely well-drained soils. I was pulling into Lodi for three days of intensive vineyard visits, tastings, and meetings with growers and winemakers. Fortunately, Lodi has spent the last 20-something years focused on simultaneously improving the real quality of its products and the consumer and critical perceptions of that quality.

[Note: You may see a Lodi ad running to the right of this article. That is being served by the Palate Press ad network and the placement is entirely coincidental. I do not get any direct revenue from the Lodi or any other region or winery and this article is not sponsored in any way whatsoever.]

One of the many old vine Zinfandel vineyards in the Mokelumne AVA, nested within the Lodi AVA.
Photo: Fred Swan 

The raw materials were there. Lodi had century-old Zinfandel and also Carignane, Cinsault and more. There’s a multiplicity of soil types, most conducive to excellent grape quality. There is plenty of sun and warmth but also surprisingly stiff and cooling breezes, a big Delta air-conditioner. Perhaps the most important element though was a generation of growers and vintners who believed in the phrase “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

They thought cooperation, collaboration and mutual investment would help both farmer and producer. Successful marketing could make Lodi a nationally-known and sought after AVA. Outside producers could be convinced to designate the AVA on labels. Consumers would learn to taste the difference and eventually pay more for Lodi wines. That incremental revenue, if invested in improving quality from vineyard to bottle, would continue the cycle. They were right.

Two decades after that effort began, the vines are a little older. The soil and the weather haven’t changed. But Lodi’s wines and grapes are different — better. Consumers do seek out Lodi wines based on the AVA, not just the winery brand. Grower and producer revenues are up, as is the number of wineries. There are dozens of tasting rooms and Lodi has become not just a good source but a legitimate destination.

Even with these improvements across the board, the Lodi AVA is still working to get better.  That’s what you do, especially when the potential is so high. (It really is.) There were bumps and uphill climbs on the road to betterment and there will be more. There is also a lot of positive momentum and a new generation of people who have grown up within and fully embrace the process. I’m looking forward to sharing specifics with you about some of the most intriguing wines, vineyards and people in the Lodi wine region.

The timing of this article, just days after the announcement that the Mendocino County Winegrape and Wine Commission will be dissolved, is coincidental yet appropriate. When Mendocino County set up the group six years ago, the area already had more critical acceptance than Lodi did at the founding of it’s commission. And, while Mendocino’s road forward was appropriately twisty, progress was definitely being made. The area has been getting much more press. New tasting rooms have been built and Mendocino is now thought of as much for wine tasting weekends as for whale watching and peaceful retreats.

Yesterday’s Taste of Mendo, held in San Francisco, was a great reminder of the diversity of Mendocino wines. At one point I sampled six consecutive rosés, all good and none made from the same variety as another. There were some excellent Pinot Noir of course, but also very fine Syrah. I found compelling Sauvignon Blanc in three distinct styles. And there were plenty of other highly recommendable whites, including Albariño, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc.

However, the wine business is intensely competitive. (See the first part of this recent post by Randall Grahm for some excellent thoughts on that.) There are countless wine regions, wineries and drinks conglomerates all fighting over a finite amount of available mindshare and revenue. The Mendocino County wine industry has to find a way to get everyone working together again or it will not only fail to reach its potential but the perception of its quality and relevance will slide backward.

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. Photos by Fred Swan. All rights reserved.

A Big Day for Petite Sirah

Yesterday, I attended the 10th Annual Petite Sirah Symposium. I came away with excellent technical information and historical perspectives, tasted several wines I can happily recommend and made some new friends. And I poured a magnum of history myself.

Petite Sirah has a long history in California. An Alameda County acreage report from 1885 identified it by name. Concannon Vineyard released the first varietally-labeled Petite Sirah in 1964 (from the 1961 vintage). Today there are nearly 850 producers of Petite Sirah varietal wines. Acreage has climbed to 8,354, the most since a dramatic, but short-lived, spike in the 1970’s. Growth in planting has been gradual, but steady and seemingly sustainable, for nearly 20 years now.

The attractions of Petite Sirah — deep color, mouth-filling dark fruit punctuated by exotic spice, firm yet approachable tannins — make it ideal for the way most Americans eat. The wine is happy to tuck into burgers and ribs, grab a burrito, call out for pizza or bring home Chinese. More and more, it’s showing up in restaurants featuring other ethnic cuisines: Thai, Moroccan, Persian, Ethiopian, Greek. Steak will be just fine too though.

For those people who like aged wine, Petite Sirah is a good candidate. Some of my favorite bottles of it have been Concannon wines with 10 years or so in the cellar. Just for fun, I brought a magnum of venerable wine to share at yesterday’s lunch.

I had purchased the 1965 Concannon Vineyard Petite Sirah recently from K&L Wines. They had gotten it in the acquisition of a private cellar not too long ago. A good friend and fellow lover of old California in a bottle, Rich Meinecke, pointed it out to me online and I snapped it up right away. Thanks again, Rich!

A magnum of 1965 Concannon Vineyard Petite Sirah Livermore Valley.      
Photo: Melanie Gameng

Jim Concannon, Fred Swan & John Concannon at Concannon Vineyard, July 31, 2012.
Photo: Melanie Gameng

It was fun to be able to share the wine with so many people passionate about Petite Sirah. Jim Concannon remembered 1965 as a good vintage and showed the bottle to friends. Clark Smith came pretty close to identifying the vintage blind and called out a lemony flavor he often gets from aged Livermore Petite Sirah. It brought back memories for acclaimed winemaker Nils Venge who worked at Concannon for a time in the early 1960‘s.

This particular bottle’s was in its golden years but was an enjoyable companion for our barbecued ribs. We drank it happily and enjoyed it’s evolution in our glasses. Bottled at just 12% alcohol, this Petite Sirah still had plenty of elegant tannins, neatly balanced by acidity and rich, baked fruit. And there were attractive spice notes, a touch of earth and more — including Clark’s lemon which I'll make a point of looking for in the future.

After lunch, we headed into the barrel room to taste current releases of Petite Sirah from numerous wineries. Stay tuned for my report on that. It will highlight some truly delectable bottles.

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 2012 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Buy a Nose

”Nose” has many meanings.


  • the part projecting above the mouth on the face of a person or animal, containing the nostrils and used for breathing and smelling
  • the sense of smell
  • an instinctive talent for detecting something
  • the aroma of a particular substance, esp. wine
  • the front end of a vehicle
  • a projecting part of something
  • a look, esp. out of curiosity (as in nose around)
  • an informer


  • thrust one’s nose against or into something, esp. in order to smell it
  • investigate or pry into something
  • make one’s way casually forward1

Nose is also a just-released novel by James Conaway and the title applies in almost every sense. Conaway is a reporter and journalist, first at the New Orleans Times-Picayune then on to the Rome Daily American, New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Magazine, the Washington Post and more. He’s also a writer of novels (The Big Easy, The Texans) and non-fiction books (The Life and Times of Leander Perez). In wine circles, Conaway is best known as the author of Napa: The Story of an American Eden and his follow up, The Far Side of Eden, best-selling social reportage on the development of modern Napa Valley as a dominant wine region, the ups and downs of its powerful families, and conflicts over land, tradition and what Napa should represent.

Nose, though, is a story of mystery and romance, new beginnings and untimely ends. One family is ruined by greed and new ones are created through shared passions and respect. Nose is also a story about wine: the seduction of wine, the growing and making of it, and the wine business in Napa Valley an imaginary place called Enotopia. It’s funny. It’s sad and exciting. It’s fiction that reveals truths. Did I mention that it’s funny?

The story starts with Clyde Craven-Jones, a rotund wine critic with unparalleled olfactory acuity and the power to make or break producers through his newsletter and 20-point scoring system. [Surely such a person could only exist in fiction!] When an unlabeled but lovingly wrapped bottle of red wine inexplicably shows up at his doorstep, his devoted wife and assistant includes it in the next blind tasting. The wine is Cabernet perfection. That launches a sub rosa investigation wherein noses are nosed, noses investigate and detect, noses divulge, noses are punched, noses rub noses, and a wine blog puts noses out of joint.

My nose was glued to the book. It’s page-turning satire. And it’s like a wine which makes you think, yet goes down easily — simultaneously complex and a guilty pleasure. Glasses fill and are quickly drained. Suddenly the bottle is empty. You want more but are also happy to spend the next week playing back its details in your mind.


There are big differences between a good story and excellent writing: structure, character development, layers of complexity and, of course, language. Conaway is excellent in all respects. He grew up and learned his craft in a place and time — the south in the ’50’s and ’60’s — in which many of America’s greatest writers were active: William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Walker Percy, etc. Like them, he can turn even the most mundane event, such as someone arriving on a tractor to lend assistance, into very good reading.

“She never heard the putt-putt of Cotton’s electric/solar-enhanced tractor because there had been no putt-putt, just a hiss audible at close range, an entirely unreassuring sound when you’re used to the authoritative throb of a real engine. He had fitted it with a blade that rode perilously close to the ground, snagging the occasional weed, and he sat solemnly in the bucket seat under a baseball cap, in a Pendleton shirt gone in the cuffs and collar, his expression somewhere between dubiousness and elation. Sara had never been so glad to see anyone.”

Conaway writes artfully but he’s also a reporter. Those familiar with his non-fiction accounts of Napa will know he doesn’t hold back from telling the truth, even if it pisses people off. In one of our recent conversations, he alluded to people who felt he’d told stories out of school and who said they would never forgive him. “I’m a journalist. I told them I was in Napa researching a book. I had a notebook with me all the time and they saw me taking notes during every conversation. But they didn’t think I was going to write about what they said?”

James Conaway close up 72dpis
James Conaway in St. Helena on February 20, 2013.   Photo: Fred Swan

He doesn’t have any regrets and has plenty of friends in Napa. But, while Nose also touches on consequential wine country issues, it is a work of fiction. He addresses ownership succession problems and family squabbles, bloated wines, the state of wine writing and criticism, the need for truly responsible and sustainable agriculture, and the occasional perversion of land preservation regulations for personal gain. But Nose’s geography and characters are jumbled, names changed to protect both the guilty and innocent. That said, there are enough clues in some cases to add yet another level of enjoyment to reading Nose, guessing at who might have inspired aspects of certain characters.

Nose isn’t intended to be the great American novel. It has serious aspects, but lampoons rather than preaches. Above all it’s an enjoyable and deftly written wine country whodunnit. So, buy a Nose. I knows you’ll like it.


James Conaway has a blog related to this book at Check that out for more information, other reviews (such as that by Tom Wark today) and details on book signing events.


1from Dictionary by Apple Inc. 

Follow NorCalWine on TwitterBecome a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on Facebook. Also 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.

Russian River Valley Winegrowers’ 2nd Annual Single Vineyard Night

The Russian River Valley AVA is very large. It covers roughly 150 square miles, 15,000 acres of which is planted with high-quality wine grapes. It has one-third the vine acreage of the Napa Valley AVA. But Napa Valley contains 15 smaller AVAs. There are only two smaller AVA within Russian River Valley: Chalk Hill and Green Valley.

Because it covers so much territory, it is hard to make useful generalizations about the characteristics of Russian River Valley wines. There are too many mesoclimates, soil types, slopes and flats, wind breaks and wind gaps. This diversity allows wineries to create succulent and balanced blends. But, in a tasting of five different Russian River Valley Pinot Noir or Chardonnay blends, there could be five very dissimilar wines. The variety is delightful on one hand, but frustrating on the other. If you are looking for a particular flavor profile or want to know why a given wine tastes the way it does, you need to a wine that highlights a much smaller piece of land.

Fortunately, there are hundreds of single-vineyard wines made from Russian River Valley fruit. Taste these wines and you begin to understand how Chardonnay grow on Goldridge loam vineyards differ from that on volcanic clay, how a slope near Occidental with an eastern facing ripens grapes differently than the flats near Santa Rosa. When you want wine that stimulates your mind as well as your palate, single-vineyard selections are hard to beat.

To really get a sense of the differences between a group of single-vineyard wines, you want to taste them side by side. There is a great opportunity to do exactly that coming soon. The Russian River Valley Winegrowers’ 2nd Annual Single Vineyard Night is Saturday, June 4 at Thomas George Estates. There will be more than 30 winemakers pouring small lot, single vineyard wines in partnership with their growers. Tasty bites, provided by local eateries, will be paired with each wine.

The tasting runs from 6:30 to 8 PM. (Sign up for the VIP Reception to get in an hour earlier, have exclusive access to winemakers and more.) At 8PM, an auction begins. That is followed by a dance party which goes until 10PM. For more details, visit the event page at Advance tickets are just $45.

Buy tickets for the Russian River Valley Winegrowers Single Vineyard Night

If you’d like to win a pair of tickets, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . In the email, tell me which Russian River Valley winery is your favorite. A winner will be selected at random from all entrants. I’ll accept entries until noon on Tuesday. I will notify the winner shortly thereafter.

Here is the roster of participating wineries and growers:

Ancient Oaks, Siebert Ranch
Arrowood-Saralee’s Vineyard
Balletto Vineyards , selection of single vineyards
Benovia, Bella Una Vineyard
Desmond Wines, Estate
Dutton Estate Winery, Dutton Palms Vineyard
Dutton Goldfield, Freestone Hill Vineyard
Ferrari-Carano, Fiorella
Gary Farrell, Westside Farms
George Wine Company, Leras Family Vineyard
Graton Ridge Cellars, Bacigalupi Vineyard
Hop Kiln Winery, HKG Bridge Selection
Inman Family, Olivet Grange Vineyard
Iron Horse Vineyards, Rued Clone
John Tyler Wines, Bacigalupi Vineyard
Joseph Swan, Trenton View Vineyard
LaFollette, DuNah Vineyard
Lauterbach Cellars, Estate
Longboard, Dakine Vineyard
Martinelli Winery, Lolita Ranch
Matrix Winery, Nunes Vineyard
Merriam, Willowside Vineyard
Merry Edwards, Klopp Ranch
Moshin Vineyards, Bacigalupi Vineyard
Mueller Winery, Vino Farms
Nalle Winery, Hopkins Ranch
Old World Winery, Estate
Papapietro Perry, Leras Family Vineyard
Russian River Vineyards, Estate Vineyards
Sandole Wines, Oehlman Ranch
Siduri Wines, Ewald Vineyards
Sonoma Cutrer, Owsley
Thumbprint Cellars, Saralee’s Vineyard
William Selyem, Flax Vineyard

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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. Banner edited from photo by Naotake Murayama. All rights reserved.