Category Archives: Wine Country

Traveling Tuesday’s – Ravenswood Tasting Room

Most of you will know Ravenswood for all the grocery store wines they produce. Sure, they are a great value, but maybe not what you’re looking for in a wine country experience. Fear not. Their tasting room, nestled in the hills above Sonoma, is an inviting environment where I could see myself spending a lazy afternoon sipping great wine while being entertained by the knowledgeable staff.







Look out!







We were greeted initially by one man, then two more appeared as the bar began to receive more guests. I could tell they all had been working together for a long time as they had excellent movement behind the bar and interaction with each other.

First in the glass was an off-dry Guwurtztraminer (one of my favorite styles) followed by a 300 case production Chardonnay. Both were very nice wines that I could find many uses for in my quest for great food pairings every month. A quick stop at Rose of Zinfandel (not White Zin) and Syrah before heading to the bigger red wine offerings.

Ravenswood’s slogan is NO WIMPY WINES! And I would agree with their viewpoint. All the wines stood up and said “HERE I AM”, but in a nice fashion. Many times ‘big’ wines end up being out of balance and are trading their style for winemaking finesse. But here the wines all had unique character from each other (even the five Zinfandel wines they were pouring had distinct flavors). This is no easy feat. It takes a lot of winemaking and grape growing talent to let the vineyard shine as it did with these wines.

And here’s where the experience in the room gets great. They do have some of the wines you find at the grocery store in the tasting room, however, the majority of what they pour and sell there is all small production wines available only there or through the wine club. And it shows. The wine quality is above average for the price points and I wouldn’t kick any of them out of bed.

I couldn’t help but stop and enjoy the view….









Even though it was going to be close to 70-degrees today, it was a chilly morning and the fire was a nice touch….







My pick of the day was the Chauvet Zinfandel from a vineyard in Glen Ellen. It’s a field blend of Zin, Carignane, and Petite Sirah. Field blends are when all the different grapes get blended together as the vineyard is picked or on the crush pad. There’s a small number of them because of the risky venture of blending before fermentation. Once blended, you can’t unblend. This particular one was very tasty and ready to drink. Why wait, right?

Next time you’re in Sonoma, take the short drive up the hill to the tasting room. You’ll be surprised at the number of wines available only in the tasting room as well as the high quality of the juice.




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Sonoma County votes YES on hillside vineyard freeze

The Sonoma County board of supervisors put in place a stay on new hillside vineyards (greater than 15%) that require tree removal. Good for them. Even though it’s only for four months, it’s a step in the right direction.

At first this story seemed to be reported earlier in the week as a halt on just hillside vineyards (with little mention of the tree removal part), but there was already a moratorium on that even if it is flawed. The flawed part is that it was only on hillsides with a slope of 50% or more. Those sites are few and far between and most grape growers don’t want to incur the costs it takes to farm hillsides of that slope let alone the initial planting.

In Napa Valley the cutoff is a 30% grade making a more significant impact on farming. The main thought behind the restriction is to prevent (or at least help prevent) erosion. A good reason if you ask me, but certainly not the only reason.

Tree removal for vineyard sites is not a new topic. Any big wine company that has wanted to clear-cut to plant new vineyards has been met with opposition by environmental groups. In most cases it hasn’t led to stopping the new plantings, so why now?

Well, for starters, there is a new Ag Commissioner as of about a month ago. And there are at least a half a dozen proposed vineyards that require tree removal on the books right now. The largest of which is about 150 acres that Napa’s Artesa Winery is in process of developing.

Of course, that brings up a whole other topic – Why are Napa wineries buying land in Sonoma County? Primarily because of the Pinot Noir craze. Napa’s land suitable for growing Pinot grapes has long been tapped, so they are looking to other areas to propagate this high-profit wine. I can’t help but think that because those grapes will end up with a Napa label on them has something to do with this. It’s no secret that Sonoma County wants to promote Sonoma County wines – I’m certainly a big proponent of that.

But here’s the elephant in the room no one seems to be talking about: Why are wineries / grape growers planting grapes at a time when many vineyards have fallen out of contract and fruit has been left on the vines? The past few years have been pretty awful for some growers, so why create more vineyards with grapes that no one is buying?

It does take about 4 years after planting (and more if you are clearing before planting) to see a crop so maybe these wineries are projecting the need for more grapes. I hope so. It would be great to see an upswing. I already think we’re headed that way, but only time will tell.

I’m also very much in favor of keeping the trees we have left in this county. Not only because of the environmental benefits of having lots of trees around, but because I don’t really think we need to be clear cutting acres of land to plant more grapes. There are better ways. There are other areas to choose. Sure, maybe not with the cache of Sonoma County, but other options exists.

Let’s hope the Board of Supervisors make good decisions about the future of Sonoma County’s grape growing regions. Maybe there is a middle ground that can be reached: a certain amount of trees that can be cut down while making other environmental positives occur like the same amount of trees planted in other areas of the county. Just a thought. Why not make a net zero impact a requirement for new vineyards and possibly even other projects? This could be a great opportunity and I hope the board doesn’t take it lightly.

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Filed under Russian River Valley, Sonoma, Wine, Wine Country

The Fall of Russian River Valley

In my mind, Russian River Valley will no longer have the cache that it once had. Starting on Dec 16th, the Russian River Valley boundaries are being expanded further south to parts of Rohnert Park and Cotati. Gallo has been asking for the past couple of years to expand the territory to include a 350-acre vineyard they own on Cotati grade into this AVA (American Viticulture Area).

Their reasoning is simple. Right now they have to use Sonoma Coast on the label. Sonoma Coast grapes don’t have the following that Russian River grapes have and thus result in lower prices at the wholesale and retail level. But from a growers standpoint, the areas are not alike. And certainly not similar enough to be considered the same.

The first time I saw the signs by the Gallo on the side of Highway 101 saying Russian River watershed, I laughed. I actually laughed out loud and thought, “are you kidding me? This area has nothing to do with Russian River!”. But somehow, I knew there would be trouble. This was one of Gallo’s main points – that they are in the Russian River Valley watershed. Well, so is Petaluma (another hill south) and just about everywhere else in Sonoma County for that matter. Based on that idea, why not include the whole county into the Russian River Valley AVA?

You may be thinking, “Why is this such a big deal?”. The answer is quite straightforward. Russian River Valley grapes have a certain characteristic and flavor and these grapes will be different from that. Well, that’s not so bad you say, different is good, right? Usually. But in this case it’s different enough that it should have its own AVA.  But grapes from a new AVA don’t bring the prices Gallo wants in the market, so they piggy-backed on the existing area with cache. But I know better. And so do most of the Russian River Valley grape growers who strongly opposed this change.

It’s also pulling the wool over the consumer’s eyes. If you have never been to Sonoma County and specifically Russian River (or at least driven along highway 101), then you probably wouldn’t understand. But for those of us who live here, we all know that by going over just one little hill or mountain can change how grapes are grown significantly. And in the case of this particular vineyard it is not only over a hill (south) from Russian River, but has a completely different terrain and climate from the ‘old’ Russian River Valley. But the consumer in Missouri or Texas or New York will probably never know the difference. And that, my friends, is a travesty. And also Gallo’s plan – since they sell over 90% of their wine in the marketplace.

It just goes to show you what money can do. But wait, maybe it wasn’t money. Because Jess Jackson tried to rename a mountain in Alexander Valley and was unsuccessful. Renaming a mountain sure seems easier than extending an AVA. So maybe it wasn’t all money that made this happen. Whatever the pull behind it, it was a bad move and one that, for me, will taint Russian River Valley. Luckily I know the difference and know where my wine comes from. But the average consumer won’t be so lucky and that is a shame.

Cheers (to the ‘old’ Russian River Valley)!

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Filed under choosing wine, Russian River Valley, Wine, Wine Country

Willi’s Wine Bar

Last night I had my first experience with Willi’s Wine Bar. I know, I know I’ve lived in wine country for almost five years – what took me so long? I guess I was just waiting for the right time.

Willi’s is a “small plates” restaurant with a good size wine list. It’s located just off 101 in Santa Rosa, in the eastern part of Russian River Valley. It’s almost located in the center of Sonoma County. Fitting since they offer wines from all over the area. But the wines aren’t just from the area, they also have wines represented from many countries.

I started with this Dr. Loosen dry Riesling from Germany.

This wine was lively, full of stone fruit and paired wonderfully with these truffle fries….

Next came these puppies….

Goat cheese fritters! And this black pepper, sliced peach and prosciutto flat bread….

And then a glass of Porter Bass Russian River estate Zinfandel. Somewhere in here there was curried crab tacos, but the savory plate that topped all of them….

Moroccan style lamb chops with lemon couscous. This was fall off the bone, perfectly prepared lamb. And I know, I did grow up next to a sheep farm.

But there’s more! Of course, there’s more. I can never leave without dessert. Warm Scharffen flourless chocolate cake and olive oil crepes with lavender roasted strawberries and housemade strawberry ice cream…

Everything was very well executed and had tons of flavor. Many times when we go out to dinner, we take wine with us, but with the way Willi’s is set up (you can order tastes, glasses, 1/2 bottles or whole bottles of everything on the list), I don’t think I’d ever see a reason to bring wine  – there are just too many options!

I’m already plotting my return….


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Harvest Update

Here we are on the 1st of September and the only grapes that have been taken off the vines are grapes that will be used in sparkling wines. As mentioned in previous posts, sparkling wine grapes are picked earlier than any other grapes to retain the natural acidity necessary in that type of wine production.

There have been several stories about the “First day of harvest!”. Funny how these news stories spread the span of a week. There was only one winery that had the first picked grapes of the year. Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited that harvest started. And I very much enjoy the wines that are produced from these early picked grapes. But it’s kind of worrisome that we haven’t seen any still wine grapes be picked yet.

Luckily, we’ve been having some nice heat in the afternoons lately, but the mornings are a different story. Just two days ago the fog didn’t lift in Sonoma until the noon hour. It was supposed to be 82 degrees that day, it turned out to be only 74. Every degree counts right now. There is limited time left.

Let me preface the next paragraph with this: I’ve said it before and I’ll continue to say it – I am not a sensationalist.

There are several things that happen as we get further into the season. First, we get less and less sunlight everyday. If that sunlight continues to be blocked by fog in the morning, it could cause some issues. Second, as we get closer to October, the leaves on the vines start to turn colors (beautiful reds and yellows). While they are pretty to look at, if a vine doesn’t have green leaves, it’s not photosynthesizing and the grapes are no longer getting energy. Lastly, if we get early rains it could prove to be devastating for many growers / wineries. All of these things can lead to an even later crop than we already have.

Want the good news? Because despite that last section, I actually am a wine glass half full kind of guy. Late harvest means more flavor. How? The longer a grape hangs on the vine, the more complexity of flavors it develops. Sounds good. In addition, we usually see lower alcohol levels and more balanced wines in cooler, late years. All good things.

There are some vineyard practices that can speed things along. Mostly in thinning the grape clusters. That process is literally cutting clusters of grapes off the vines while they are still under-ripe. This provides more energy to the remaining clusters moving the ripening process along. In years of good crop levels, this is a great practice. In some cases this year’s crop is down 20+%. Although I’ve heard some growers say their crop level is normal. It really depends on the grape and the area, but when your crop level is lower than normal you really don’t want to thin just to speed things along. It’s a tough call.

I did talk with some winemakers this week that mentioned some of their grapes would be ready in the next 7-10 days. So, I think the bulk of the harvest is about to start. But for some growers, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon growers in the eastern facing hills, there’s a long road ahead still.

I’ll keep you updated on the 2011 harvest happenings in Sonoma and surrounding areas as this season continues to unfold.

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Filed under 2011 Growing Season, Wine, Wine Country

Wine and Culinary Smörgåsbord

The last 24 hours have been a wine a culinary smörgåsbord.

It all started late yesterday afternoon with the annual event The Hog in the Fog put on by the Russian River Valley Winegrowers. We were invited by my new employer and how could we turn that invitation down? There was fog (it’s Russian River after all). And there was a hog, several in fact, as well as chicken and beef. The event gets its name from being a pig roast and because it goes into the evening, when fog is usually present, they added the fog. Straightforward and to the point – just the way I like it.

The first 2 hours of this event is a huge wine tasting with over 40 wineries offering up outstanding wines from the cool climate Russian River Valley.This area is mostly known for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but the reality is that there are many other varietals grown there including Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Zinfandel among others. We sampled to our hearts content. Luckily there were a few vendors with food, bread and chocolate to keep us from over-indulging.

Then at 6:00, we feasted on grilled chicken, sliced beef and the most amazing pulled pork in a freshly made tortilla. Do I need to mention there was more wine to go along with the food? We continued to enjoy one of our favorite varietals, Zinfandel. Then to top it all off, there was brick oven baked apple pie a la mode. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any dessert wine.

Then today we drove to Cloverdale and met up with our good friends that live up there. We took a short walk to Ruth McGowan’s pub. Out friends have been wanting to take us to this place since they moved up there. Mostly because they have a Dry Irish stout (think Guinness) that they have been raving about. So, we got a pitcher. And, wow, it did not disappoint.

Back in 2005, my wife’s family and I took a trip to Ireland for about two weeks. We really fell in love with Guinness over there. It’s different because they don’t put all the preservatives in it. This Dry Irish Stout was the closest thing I’ve tasted to a real, true Guinness since that trip. It was awesome.

But wait, this is a wine blog. Ok, we went back to their house and opened a bottle of this….

This is an imported French Champagne that’s sold at Family Wineries in Kenwood. I recently tasted there and picked up a bottle. And because all gatherings need a bottle of bubbly, I thought today would be a good occasion to open it. It contained some of my favorite Champagne qualities: creamy texture with tons of yeasty, bread-y aromas. I love that it has the word Dizy on it. It’s actually a town / region in France, but I like the irony.

Then we fired up the grill and shortly after dove in to these….

That’s no ordinary burger. It was assembled with extra special ingredients and lots of  love. Love in the form of bacon. Our friend cooked up an entire pound of bacon, chopped it up in a food processor and then incorporated it with about 3 lbs of hamburger meat. It was complete and total indulgence and worth every calorie.

To round out our day, we had homemade Maui vanilla bean and Callebaut dark chocolate chip ice cream….

I’m done. I don’t think I’ll ever need to eat (or drink) again. Well, until tomorrow anyway.


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Filed under Real. Simple. Food., Wine, Wine Country, Wine, Food, Sonoma

Box Wine (Okay, it’s a Cube)

Holy cow! I can’t believe that August is a 1/3 over. I’ve been so busy the past 10 days that I haven’t had much time to write. Anyway, on to tonight’s topic.

So, when I first started this blog, one of my colleagues mentioned I should try the box wine from Target and write about it. I think I was posting something about inexpensive wines at the time and she recommended it to me. Well, I didn’t. I really meant to. I just never really got around to it.

Then, yesterday there was an article on the increasing quality of boxed wine and it reminded me that I was supposed to try some a long time ago. Today, I happened to find myself at Target and took a quick look at what was offered and decided that the Argentina Malbec was probably my best bet….

After following the instructions on how to open (which even I couldn’t do without a mistake – the tear between the words wine and cube is not supposed to be there), I poured myself a glass….

Okay, I poured myself a ‘taste’. After all, I didn’t want to rush into anything.

Then, I smelled the wine. There wasn’t much there. So, I swirled and smelled again. It began to come to life. There were some dark berry notes with some floral and spice characteristics too, but overall it was pretty simple. So, I gave it a whirl and took a sip. To my surprise, it wasn’t sweet and I didn’t want to spit it out.

Now, let me be clear. This is no Franzia. Franzia was something that was found in the fridge of friends parent’s houses when we were young. Franzia was so sweet it was difficult to even choke down in college, etc…

I wasn’t expecting much from this 1.5 liter of wine that cost $11.99. That’s just six dollars per bottle! It was actually hard to believe they could put two bottles of wine in this tiny cube, but I guess it’s all about using the space. Here’s the cool thing: Once opened, the wine can last up to four weeks without changing in quality. At least that’s what it says on the box, it wouldn’t last four weeks in my house. Although, I’m thinking about leaving a small portion in there for tasting later to see what really happens.

Another surprise was that the wine wasn’t sweet. So many times with inexpensive wines they turn out sweet. It’s usually a deal breaker for me. I love sweet wines, but usually only the ones that are supposed to be, like late harvest Rieslings.

The grape in the box is Malbec. Something that is generally quite expensive when purchasing local ones here in Sonoma and neighboring Napa. The reason is simple. Malbec grows on the same mountain-sides as Cabernet. It’s often used as a blending grape in Cabernet. Since it’s grown in the same place, it usually demands fairly high prices per ton of grapes which leads to high(er) bottle prices. It’s not uncommon to find Malbecs in the $40-50 range around here. But go to your local international wine shop and you’ll find great Malbecs coming from Argentina that are in the $15-25 range. How do they do it? They grow a lot of it. They discovered the hillsides were great for this grape and have capitalized on this lesser-known Bordeaux varietal.

Well, this one isn’t a ‘great’ Malbec. But it also doesn’t demand even the usual Argentina prices. And it’s one that I have quite enjoyed not one, but two glasses of tonight. And at $1.50 for each glass, I would say it’s likely some of the best value wine that I’ve tried to date. I’m curious about the other offerings from this line of uniquely packaged wines from Target. I think there’s another trip in my future….



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Filed under Box Wine, Cube Wine, International, Wine, Wine Country