Monthly Archives: November 2014

Sommeliers Create Memories

IMG_4491-SmAlthough the role of Sommelier involves endless hours of hard work and continuing education behind the scenes, it is that front-of-the-house guidance to an elegant and memorable meal that we all remember.

If you are not familiar with the rigorous testing required to become a Master Sommelier there is a movie called SOMM that gives you glimse into their world (or perhaps just watch the trailer). What we don’t often see in a restaurant is what the Sommelier does before and after the service begins.

Obviously, a Master Sommelier must be professional wine taster, but additionally they go over the wine list with the wait staff and kitchen personnel; take charge of purchasing the wines and creating the wine list based on the chef’s recipes; handle the wine inventory and cellaring; and then on their days off, they are expected to familiarize themself with new wines and even visit wineries for tastings.  Hardly an entry-level occupation to make sure each and every patron receives the perfect recommendation to compliment their food and fit their budget.

Master SommelierTo highlight this often under-appreciated role, Delta Airlines is hosting a series of Blind Tasting Competitions.  The lastest of these events was at Flavor Napa hosted by Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson with fellow Master Sommeliers Ian Cauble of Somm Select, and Emily Papach of Jackson Family Wines, and Jay James of Chappellet Winery along with an impressive array of talented Sommeliers in the process of Master certification.

Estate Caves at Meritage Resort & Spa

Estate Caves at Meritage Resort & Spa

Flavor Napa is a dazzling array of Napa Valley’s master chefs and graduates of The Culinary Institute of America’s program creating heavenly epicurean delights to pair with the world-class wines of Napa Valley, but in no other Flavor Napa event is the Master Sommelier’s role highlighted as it is in the Blind Tasting Competition.

During Flavor Napa‘s Top Taster Blind Tasting Competition, it was impressive to watch the professionals demostrate their hard-earned skills.  In under five minutes they could completely analyze a wine’s aroma, palate, structure, varietal, region of origin, and vintage.  But this blind tasting was a little different – the Sommeliers used their background to educate those of us who are not as austute with wine instead of just to compete with each other.

IMG_4494As amateur blind tasters, we were given a practice wine (used for the Sommelier demonstration), then two white wines, and four red wines.  We were told the wines could either be from the Napa Valley appellation or a classic old world wine.  As we tasted through the wines, the Sommeliers walked through the group gently asking questions about what we were experiencing and expertly answering inquiries when we needed a little more guidance – to learn – to grow – and to enjoy the adventure of wine tasting without the intimidation of failure.  In other words, they practiced many of the skills they use every day to gentle learn what we know, what we like, and how to make wine approachable for all of us.

IMG_4514The wines were excellent, but challenging – a white that I thought was a Viognier was a Chardonnay.  But after we submitted our tasting forms, one of the Master Sommeliers walked through each wine with the other Sommeliers and we were able to witness them exploring their path through the clues of grape characteristics, winemaking techniques, and possible regions of production. From this I learned what parts I understood and what parts were opportunities to learn.  We were then able to re-visit the wine and see it anew through this acquired knowledge. A great way to learn without intimidation or judgment.

During the red tasting, my tablemates, a wonderful couple from San Francisco, identified a Sangiovese and then realized it was old-world as they described it to the Sommelier through encouraging questions about what they were tasting.  It was wonderful to see the light go on in their eyes as they found their own answer through an excellent educator.

Decanting WineIn a restaurant too, a Sommelier can share information about wines – what are the characteristics of the dish you have selected – what are some possible wine selections that might enhance that dish within your budget – but most of all what a glorious avenue of discovery a new wine might be.

Sommeliers are our bridge between food and wine turning a dining experience into a treasured memory – that perfect bottle of wine – the one that made a glorious meal with family or friends an event that you talk about many years afterwards!

Next time you are in a restaurant with a good wine list and Sommelier, be kind enough to let them do their job and I am sure you will be pleasantly surprised at the discoveries that await you in their knowledgeable hands. And the next time Flavor Napa comes around, be sure to visit our wonderful valley – they never disappoint either.

#FlavorNapa #NapaValley #Wine #Winetasting #Sommelier #MasterSommelier #WineEducation #BlindTasting #Event #Competition

RRV Single Vineyard Night – Viva Variety!

View of Alcatraz from General's Residence at Fort Mason

View of Alcatraz from General’s Residence at Fort Mason

Internationally-renowned sommelier, Christopher Sawyer, with the Russian River Valley Winegrowers hosted an evening of Single Vineyard splendor at the General’s Residence (Fort Mason, San Francisco). As a native of Sonoma County, Christopher was the consumate host for this appellation in the heart of Wine Country. Christopher described Sonoma County as a little Europe, the land of promise, and everything you could ever want as far as a great place to live. The European analogy seemed to be a perfect introduction to the extraordinary variety that was to exemplify the Russian River Valley Single Vineyard wines.

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Northeastern section of Russian River Valley – Limerick Lane, Healdsburg, CA

The Russian River Valley (RRV) American Viticulture Area (AVA) encompasses more than 15,000 acres of winegrapes and approximately 100 wineries. Although world-class Pinot Noir is grown in abundance in the RRV, it not alone in the vineyards. The RRV is incredibly diverse consisting of five distinct growing neighborhoods or regions – Middle Reach, Laguna Ridge, Green Valley, Santa Rosa Plain, and Sebastopol Hills. The westernmost vineyards lie among hills on California’s coastal range sometimes within 8 miles of the Pacific Ocean.  These areas are cool-climate vineyards with the climate strongly influenced by the ocean and fog and focus on Pinot, Chardonnay and cool-climate winegrapes.

Statistics via Russian River Valley Winegrowers

Statistics via Russian River Valley Winegrowers

Further north in the RRV, the vineyards enjoy a milder influence from coastal breezes and oceanic fog; the relatively warmer climate finds Zinfandel winegrapes.  In the RRV’s northeastern corner it is at its warmest; the vineyards include winegrapes like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Many varietals florish within the RRV from Chardonnay to Gewurztraminer and present themselves as a reflection of the place in which they were grown by Winegrape Growers and Winemakers that are working to be 100% sustainable and protect this incredible valley for many generations to come.

What does ‘Single Vineyard’ really mean?  The RRV Winegrowers defined a single vineyard wine as the “grand cur” of grapes – the highest quality and most sought after.  Most winegrowers nuture a vineyard for years and then only in the best vintages do they single out those grapes for a vineyard designate wine – a year where the concentration, depth of flavor, balance, and complexity of the harvest results in an impeccable reflection of the terroir on that vineyard. This gives you an idea of the quality of the wines presented at this signature RRV event.

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Sommelier Christopher Sawyer

To exemplify the terroir diversity in this region, Christopher Sawyer along with an expert sommelier panel of Ian Burrows, Mauro Cirilli, and Michael Ireland selected four wines to discuss – a Bacigalupi Vineyards Estate Chardonnay (middle reach – Westside Road); a Dutton-Goldfield Freestone Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir (Freestone – southwestern RRV); Martinelli Bondi Home Ranch Vineyard Pinot Noir (Green Valley of the RRV); and Novy Papera Ranch Vineyard Zinfandel (Santa Rosa plains). As host, Christopher began with the Bacigalupi Chardonnay describing the old vine patch to the right of the family home that was planted in the mid 1960’s with an intimate knowledge of the winegrapes and wine produced there.  This white wine had a natural minerality with aromas of peach and mango followed by hints of cinnamon and nutmeg.  The medium acidity and citrus on the mid-palate created a well balanced wine.

Ian Burrows, Michael Ireland, and Mauro Cirilli

Ian Burrows, Michael Ireland, and Mauro Cirilli

Ian Burrows (formerly with FarmHouse Inn) continued with the Dutton-Goldfield Pinot Noir which displayed a good natural stucture that Ian felt would fully develop within 1-2 years in the bottle but would cellar well for 8+ years. The Pinot Noir displayed blackberries with a coriander/white pepper spice (called “Freestone spice”), some tobacco in the mid-palate and medium acidity.  Ian recommended pairing this Pinot Noir with tuna tatare or duck. Michael Ireland presented the Martinelli Pinot Noir which displayed dark cherries, plums, cardamon, cloves, cinnamon in a much riper wine than the Dutton Goldfield.  This wine also requires a little age to come together, but was an excellent historical representation of the Green Valley of RRV and showed a very different style of Pinot Noir.  Mauro Cirilli finished with the Novy Zinfandel.  Papera Ranch is an old-vine Zinfandel vineyard, located on the eastern side of the Laguna de Santa Rosa. Planted in 1934, after the repeal of prohibition, the wine from this vineyard showed aromas of red raspberries, mint, wild flowers and sage with the silky tannins of an old vine winegrape. This seminar’s prelude of diversity introduced the audience to the variety of amazing wines that followed in the grand tasting.

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Middle Reach of Russian River Valley

I started off my journey through the Russian River Valley Single Vineyard wines looking outside my standard favorites (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) for those wines that would show the diversity in this truly rich agricultural region. Here are just some of the wines I tried.  I hope they give you a small taste of the wonderful choices that you can experience exploring the high quality wines produced from vineyards in the Russian River Valley AVA.

Cartograph‘s 2013 Floodgate Vineyard Gewurztraminer a pale yellow Alsace-style bone dry white wine with aromas of lemon and mandarin orange.  DRNK Wines 2013 Catie’s Corner Viognier a crisp white wine with aromas white peach, melon and guava, a mineral driven structure, light tannins and a fresh finish. Gordian Knot Winery 2012 Elieo Vineyard Albarino a tangy mix of white peach, grapefruit with firm acidity. Valdez Family Winery 2012 U.V. El Diablo Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc a zesty white wine with aromas of lemon grass, green apple, and subtle notes of honey. J Vineyards 2013 Cooper Vineyard Pinot Gris a tropical white wine with aromas of oranges, apricots, and honeysuckle; a crisp acidity and distinct minerality. I would drink all of these wines now.

Nicole Bacigalupi

Nicole Bacigalupi

Mueller Winery 2012 Block Eleven Syrah a fruity red wine with aromas of blackberry, black cherry, oak and vanilla; complex with a smooth finish. Viszlay Vineyards 2009 Five Vines Bordeaux Blend a fruit-forward ripe red wine with aromas of blackberry, currant, vanilla, and caramel; a medium acidity and fine tannins.  Y. Rousseau 2012 Tannat, Matthew’s Station a rich dark red wine with aromas of black cherry, cassis and licorice that turns into a juicy cherry pie on the palate. Acorn Winery 2012 Sangiovese, Alergria Vineyards a red wine with aromas of cherries, plum and oak that add mocha on the palate; slightly chewy with youthful tannins. Bacigalupi Vineyards 2012 Petite Sirah a big, bold red wine with earthy aromas and flavors of pepper, nutmeg and cinnamon which dominate a boysenberry jam and typically firm tannins, cellar to enjoy later.  Most of these red wines would benefit from a little patience in the bottle/cellar.

Ted Elliott with Christopher Sawyer

Ted Elliott with Christopher Sawyer

Okay, I can’t help myself – one Pinot Noir.  First, I must say, there are too many great Pinot Noirs in the Russian River Valley to try them all in one sitting, but maybe one Pinot Noir to start your journey would be TR Elliott 2009 O’Connell Vineyard Burgonet a selection of three barrels from the two-acre vineyard atop a knoll on Vine Hill Ridge in western Sonoma County that is planted exclusively to the Pommard clone. The O’Connell Vineyard has a long, cool growing season and Gold Ridge sandy loam soils.  The aroma of this wine is cherries, raspberries, and cinnamon that waifs into tobacco and forest floor on the palate. A beautifully complex wine that will make you want to take a life-long journey through Russian River Valley wines.  So whether you choose to explore new varietals or some of the classic grapes plan to fall in love with the Russian River Valley Winegrowers and Winemakers.

If you missed the Russian River Valley Single Vineyard Night, they also host Russian River Valley Passport to Pinot coming in June 2015.  Join their mailing list and you will always know when these two classic events go on sale.

#RussianRiverValley #Winegrowers #Wine #Winetasting #ChristopherSawyer #SingleVineyardNight #AcornWinery #BacigalupiVineyards #Cartograph #DRNKWines #DuttonGoldfield #GordianKnotWinery #JVineyards #JWine #MartinelliWinery #MuellerWinery #NovyFamilyWines #TRElliott #ValdezFamilyWinery #YRousseau #IanBurrows #MichaelIreland #MauroCirilli #PassporttoPinot #PinotClassic

A Wine and Food Affair

IMG_3571I love wine for many reasons, but most of all because of the memories I have of sharing a great bottle of wine with family and friends. These gatherings have usually included copious amounts of fabulous food as well as some amazing wines.

One of The Wine Road‘s signature events, A Wine and Food Affair, highlights this Wine Country tradition of pairing local food and wine which is why it is one of my favorites. The 16th annual Wine & Food Affair was held Nov 1-2, 2014 featuring wineries in Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley, and Dry Creek Valley (American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in Sonoma County). Additionally, wine tasting rooms in Healdsburg participated – many of which have vineyards in these AVAs.

Since good wine festivals offer many excellent choices, everyone needs a plan of action to make the most of these events. So let me start with a couple of suggestions and then tell you how I planned my affair with wine for this weekend adventure.

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A Wine and Food Affair is a festival where participants travel to multiple locations to try wine, meet the winemaker, sample excellent pairings, and enjoy the venues. I love that it enables participants to discover the personality of each winery by seeing the people in their natural habitat – whether it be a warehouse, an urban storefront or surrounded by vineyards and breathtaking views.  But since this does involve travel, the first choice is to select a designated driver. Second, make an action plan of what your goal is for the event.  Sometimes, I choose a wine varietal – for this event, I selected a wine region – the Dry Creek Valley. Finally, be realistic about the number of wine or wineries you will be able to visit – both by the distance between faciities and whether you plan to consume the wines or spit them out (yes, this is acceptable).  

IMG_3246-SmSonoma County is largely a county of family farmers and Dry Creek Valley is no exception. In many locations you will find family members in the winery or tasting room proudly sharing their wares. Dry Creek Valley is rightfully acclaimed for a number of varietals, but this intimate (16-mile long x 2-mile wide) valley has been kind to Zinfandel. Nearly 2,400 acres of Zinfandel are farmed in Dry Creek Valley and it is one of the densest concentrations of Old Vine Zinfandel in the world. Dry Creek Valley, long noted for its fertile landscape became one of the first California wine regions to be recognized as an official American Viticultural Area (AVA) with almost 10,000 acres under vine and approximately 50 wineries. Long, warm days allow the fruit to fully ripen with coastal cooling in the evening to enable the grapes to mature slowly while retaining their acidity. These are the perfect growing conditions for Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, Bordeaux, and Rhone varietals that are food-friendly and appeal to consumers and sommeliers alike.

IMG_3253My goal for this two-day adventure was to find some new food and wine pairing ideas and explore a couple of wineries not open to the public without an appointment.  The surprise winery for me was Simoncini Vineyards, a destination winery built solely by local artisans in a massive cave.  The grounds include intimate picnic settings along a winter creek and a wine tasting bar inside the cave. Simoncini produces Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel from vineyards in Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley and Rockpile.  I enjoyed the friendly atmosphere of a small staff that knows the details of winery.

IMG_3295For food pairings there were many standards and some of my long-term favorites like duck and polenta served with Pinot Noir.  The photograph shows the one served by Forchini Vineyards and Winery and paired with a vertical selection of their Russian River Valley Proprietor’s Reserve Pinot Noir which is estate grown & bottled.  The lovely patio setting to enjoy the food and wine and speak with the winemaker added to the enjoyment of the visit.

IMG_3572Another delicious pinot pairing was from Papapietro-Perry Winery in which the sauce for the slider included their 2011 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir and was then paired with the same wine.  This winery produces Chardonnay, Zinfandel, and Pinot Noir.  I like their single-vineyard Pinot Noirs and a wonderful way to experience them is to try their Pinot on the Patio, a seated wine and cheese pairing which includes five wines and is conducted by a knowledgeable wine educator from their staff.

IMG_3402-SmOne of the more unique and fun pairings was from the always eclectic and fun team at Kokomo Winery. It was an apple-pear chutney made with Kokomo verjus.  Verjus is the pressed juice of unripened grapes.  The French term vert jus (green juice) refers to the high-acid, low-sugar grapes that winemakers thin from the vines just when the crop is beginning to ripen. Unlike wine, however, verjus is not fermented, and is not alcoholic.  Kokomo paired the chutney with their 2012 Chardonnay.

IMG_3283But my favorite pairing was the Zinfandel Barrel Stave Grilled Hangar Steak with 2012 Fritz Estate Grown Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel. Fritz Underground Winery is a small, family-owned, subterranean winery that has been producing wines since 1979. When you visit be sure to book a tour of their wine cave and underground winery facility and learn about gravity-flow winemaking.  It is located just a short distance from downtown Cloverdale on the far northern side of Dry Creek Valley.

IMG_3327-SmThis event included so much more than just food and wine – as you visit many of these family owned and operated wineries they often share other local artisans with you as well.  No one did this better than Vicky & Mike Farrow, proprietors at Amista Vineyards. They regularly feature art work by Carole Rae Watanabe (photo at the left is an image of one of her works) and she was on hand with paint bushes, art work, and information galore. Wine glass holders were available from 3G Designs which are always usefully with food and wine pairings. Did I mention they had chocolate! Amista featured Cocotutti chocolate which always has fun and artsy chocolates that are so delicious. Can wine drinkers ever so no to chocolate?  There sure seemed to be a fair amount of it in Dry Creek Valley this weekend.  If you are looking for sparkling wine in Dry Creek Valley this is one of the only sparkling producers here and the only one that I know that makes a sparkling Syrah. Additionally they produce Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Syrah, and Cabernet (from my favorite place Rockpile AVA).  Friendly and nice doesn’t begin to cover the way you feel when you meet these warm and gracious winery hosts, Vicky and Mike.

IMG_3272-SmFinally, I have to give a nod to all of the winegrape growers in the Dry Creek Valley that work hard to maintain healthy vineyards that are sustainable, organic, and/or biodynamic and the efforts that many of them have made to protect and restore Dry Creek for which this valley was named. I would specifically like to mention Gio Martorana of Martorana Family Winery who last week received The National Private Lands Fish and Wildlife Stewardship Award from The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies for his work with the restoration of Dry Creek. Their organic winery and vineyard is located on West Dry Creek Road.

IMG_3321As you can see, even with my limited wish list and narrow focus, I found many wonderful treasures while enjoying The Wine Road in Dry Creek Valley for A Wine and Food Affair.  If you would like suggestions for wineries to visit in Dry Creek Valley, please feel free to ask or visit my Dry Creek Valley webpage. I will also offer suggestions for any of our other wonderful wine regions in Sonoma County and I am working on webpages for those regions.

You don’t need to wait an entire year to enjoy a Wine Road event – in January The Wine Road will be hosting the 23rd Annual Winter WINEland and in March the 37th Annual Barrel Tasting.  I am going to be in the Russian River Valley for Winter WINEland and Alexander Valley for the Barrel Tasting, please join me or plan you own journey to Sonoma County Wine Country. To make the most of these events, I highly suggest a plan of action and some good friends to share the experience.

#TheWineRoad #WineRoad #WFA2014 #AWineandFoodAffair #DryCreekValley #AlexanderValley #RussianRiverValley #Healdsburg #Wine #Wineries #Winemakers #Winetasting