Tuesday, May 31, 2011

ON THE ROAD AGAIN IN SONOMA-Pt.7-Fritz Underground Winery

Part Seven
Fritz Underground Winery

Before I write about our last meal in Sonoma, I want to back-up a couple of days and tell you about Fritz, a sustainable winery carved right into a mountain… literally.  

The view was stunning. 

The picnic area lovely. 

But it was the massive white facade on the side of the mountain that intrigued me.  Built in the late 70’s by founder Jay Fritz, the “Gaudi-style” underground winery and tasting room from the outside is made of what appears to be white stucco w/ stunning,  modern glass doors leading into its tasting room. 

The entrance to the underground winery and caves is separate, w/ the winery insignia proudly displayed high on the door.  

Because this winery is underground, it maintains a constant temperature of 58 degrees, so there’s no need for air-conditioning.  How cool is that?!  Refrigeration is required only to cool the fermentation tanks.

Much to our disappointment, however, we were too late to tour the caves, but there was the tasting room to cheer us up.

Bob Cuozzo, the Director of Retail Operations, was our barista and, as we chatted, I detected a New York accent.  Naturally, I asked and, not only was he from New York, he was from Woodside, Queens – right next door to my very own hometown of Bayside.  So we played Queens geography as we sipped these princely wines. 

Our first pour on the $10 Estate Flight was the 2009 Vino Valpredo Bianca Mia ($14) – 50% sauvignon blanc and 50% chardonnay.  This was a refreshing, crisp, fruity wine (a bit of grapefruit along w/ some apple) that had a little lemon custard to its finish.  Stu, my ‘sauvignon blanc lover’ friend would like this wine (and its price).

Next up was the 2008 Estate Zinfindel ($25) w/ all the color, aroma and taste bells and whistles of berries and spices that really rang true. 

The 2007 Dry Creek Valley Syrah ($30) had bold flavors w/ that hint of chocolate and cocoa powder. This, of course, is not a dessert wine – but hints of chocolate and cocoa powder in anything are always welcome.

And, tasting the 2008 Late Harvest Estate Zin ($35) made me think of red meat and blue cheese… Translation:  I liked it.

However, my favorite wine in this flight was the 2007 Estate Reserve cab ($50) aged for 20 months in French oak barrels.  The aromas of cherries, plums and cola filled my nose as the flavors of fruit and spices w/ soft tannins filled my taste buds.  This was a wine I wanted to revisit again and again.

Moving onto the $15.00 Reserve Flight, we began w/ a lovely 2008 Reserve Chardonnay ($50) aged in both new and old French oak.  Oaky.  Buttery.  Yet, fruity.  Definitely my kind of chardonnay.

The 2007 Reserve Pinot Noir ($50) is naturally fermented in open tanks then aged for 11 months in 80% new French oak.  Again, not a dessert wine, but I felt I was drinking chocolate covered cherries in a wine glass.

Our next taste was the 2008 Estate Reserve Zin ($50) – my favorite Fritz red.  Aged for nine months in 40% new French oak barrels, this is a wine you can drink now or save in your cellar for a rainy day or a sunny day or a cloudy day or any day!

We ended the flight w/ the 2007 Estate Reserve Cab ($50) –  aged for 20 months in French barrels – this is a lovely wine that opens up w/ scents of flowers and plums and tastes of red fruit and spices.

I had an Aunt Fritzie I often called Fritz – she was like a second mother to me and I still miss her...

me & Fritzie

...this wine did her name proud.

Fritz Underground Winery
24691 Dutcher Creek Road
Cloverdale, CA 95425

Cave tours are by appointment

Friday, May 27, 2011

ON THE ROAD AGAIN IN SONOMA-Pt. 6- Truett-Hurst Winery


Part Six
Truett-Hurst Winery

Woman (or man) cannot live by wine alone – or so said my growling stomach!  So, when our merry wine-tasting band (my brother Bob, his wife Nguyen, Richard and I) pulled into the Truett-Hurst Winery, we found a spectacular place for a pre-tasting picnic.    Nguyen had packed a picnic lunch and I couldn’t wait to unpack it.  We quickly made our way thru the beautiful flower garden

to the winery’s picturesque picnic area alongside a babbling brook

and staked out our site at a grouping of red Adirondack chairs.

We ate.  We mused.  We listened to that babbling water.  We ate. We soaked up nature. 

This is one of the joys of tasting in Sonoma.  The natural surroundings are so breathtaking, yet so soothing, providing more than just a series of tasting rooms.  And the Truett-Hurst tasting room was built to fit into its lovely setting.

The first things I noticed upon entering the large, airy room, much of it made from eco friendly materials, were the drum chandeliers. 

 I don’t know how eco friendly they are (the ceiling was), but I just loved them.  One red wall had an interesting display of art, aged wood (carrying that recycle wood theme down from the ceiling) and wine bottles… 

and then there was a birdhouse made of wine corks.  

OK, I have friends who collect wine corks – Richard even collected wine corks for a while.  And, I’m the first one to admit I collect things – McCoy pottery, bone china, Wallace Nutting hand-painted photographs… but corks?  And, I’m all for recycling… but corks?   I finally gave Richard’s cork collection to dear friend Kyle, who cleverly ‘recycled’ them into a fabulous cork wreath I display at Christmas.  Thankfully, that put a cork in Richard’s cork collecting.  But, when I saw that birdhouse, I said a silent prayer…  Dear Lord please don’t let this be a sign from the heavens that Richard should start collecting corks again… but I digress…

As Nguyen explored the winery, Bob, Richard and I saddled up to the bar and our tasting began… in wine glasses made to tilt ‘just so,’ allowing you to savor every last drop.  That’s a considerate winery!

Sal Curreri, our knowledgeable barista told us that the winery’s founders, Messrs. Truett and Hurst, met and worked together at the Fetzer winery before forming their partnership for the Truett-Hurst Winery in 2007 which consists of 26 acres of zinfandel and petite syrah vineyards, five acres of gardens and that creek where we just picnicked which has Coho salmon and steelhead trout swimming free.  Did I mention the sheep?  Yup, there are sheep grazing in a nearby pastoral pasture… just like in one of those Wallace Nuttings I love to collect.

Our first pour was the 2010 Swallowtail chardonnay ($20) aged in new oak for two months and stainless for three.  Nothing recycled about this wine w/ its fresh apples and pears taste.  You might not be able to compare apples to pears – but mix the two tastes together and you get a lovely balanced white wine.

The 2010 zinfandel rose ($15) had ‘lively’ fruit tastes… perfect for a hot mid-summer night’s dream.

Moving on to the reds, we started w/ the 2009 Rattler Rock zin ($29) – I didn’t ask Sal to explain the ‘rattler’ handle and what rock it crawled under because I didn’t want to spoil the luscious jammy, clove-y, strawberry-y tasting experience.  I really hate snakes!

The next zin was the 2008 Red Rooster ($29) – now there’s a handle and living creature I can crow about, just as I can about this deliciously decadent wine w/ hints of boysenberries, plums, tea and spices.

It was time for the 2009 Luci zin ($29) – spicy w/ flavors of black cherry and pomegranate thrown in… it’s a Luci in the sky w/ diamonds.

Still in a zin frame of mind, we sipped the 2009 Southdown ($29) – north, south, east or west you won’t find a better zin for the price.  Layers of blackberry and cassis w/ some cracked pepper and vanilla wafers.  I really could taste the wafers.  Honest.

Following the zins was the 2008 Burning Man (I can only imagine) petite syrah ($33) – I gave this wine a bunch of stars in my notes… Figs (I love figs) and dark chocolate gave this wine a wonderful confectionary flavor.

Last, but definitely not least, was the 2009 Dark Horse Vineyard red ($40) – a Grenache blend that I rated a 5 star wine.  It was just plain delicious.

Grazing sheep in green pastures, fish swimming in a babbling brook, beautiful gardens, lovely picnic area, fine wines …  I could live there.  Well, at least hang out for a few days.  I think you’d agree.

Truett-Hurst Winery
5610 Dry Creek Road
Healdsburg CA 95448

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Part Five
Rodney Strong & Kokomo Wines
w/ a bit of Olive Oil

After our amazing wine/food pairing at Kendall-Jackson the day we arrived, Bob, Nguyen, Richard and I (w/ friend Paul) went to the beautiful Rodney Strong Vineyards winery.

As Ray, our friendly barista (and keeper of the bottle) told us...

... Founder Rodney, and his wife, Charlotte, were Broadway dancers during their 1950’s first incarnation.  As an ex-dancer myself, I thought that was cool.  Since 1989, however, Tom Klein has been this “carbon neutral, all sustainable” winery’s owner.  All 1,000 acres are Sonoma County vineyards which take great care of the ecosystem in ways that preserve and replenish resources, a la drip irrigation, covered crops, composting, etc.

Unfortunately, a good number of the wines were disappointing after that Kendall-Jackson experience.  However, I did like the 2007 cabernet sauvignon reserve ($45) and the 2007 Symmetry, red Meritage (California’s version of Bordeaux) ($55) which received 94 points from Wine Enthusiast.  Also good was the 2007 Brothers Ridge cab ($75) made w/ grapes grown at high elevation which received 93 pts. from Wine Spectator.  High marks from highly regarded arbiters – proving, once again, that taste (and tasting) is subjective.

On our last day, we four wine musketeers found ourselves once again driving on Dry Creek Road (Healdsburg’s ‘winery row’) where we discovered the Kokomo Winery, founded in 2004 by Eric Miller of Kokomo, Indiana…. not the Beach Boys' Kokomo off the Florida Keys - but, of course, that didn’t keep the song at bay… If I could have blasted out a fanfare, I would have, because we were soon to learn that we had hit the grape mother lode, but the Beach Boys musical vibrations were still ringing in my head.

Inside, the fun and funky tasting room....

...delightful Becky was our barista.  She started us with the 2008 Sonoma Coast pinot noir, reserve, Gopher Hill ($38).  The wine sang us a Kokomo tune of rose petals and red apple-skin.  The wine got 92 pts.in the Pinot Report… Lovely to look at… delightful to hold (sing it!).

Sipping the 2007 Dry Creek Valley zin, Timber Crest Vineyard ($32) w/ its jammy raspberry flavor and hints of cherry, pepper and vanilla again made me want to break out in song, but I didn’t want to scare the little dog that guarded the door!

Next up was the 2007 Dry Creek Valley merlot, Pauline’s Vineyard ($28) – great aroma.  I love merlot and this was so good it could sing its own praises.

The 2008 Dry Creek Valley petite syrah ($27) was not petite at all, but filled w/ big, syrupy wild berry flavors, w/ smooth, ripe tannins.  An aria of a wine.

All in all… very nice wines for a mere $5.00 tasting fee that’ll put your taste buds in Kokomotion…

As we were leaving, we noticed a little shop next door called Dry Creek Olive Co. 

We all love olives so we thought we’d check it out.  Dry Creek Olive Co. we soon discovered makes olive oil.  Entering the fresh and pretty ‘shop,’ we were engulfed in wonderful aromatic scents from the company’s on-site mill and tasting room.   

Yup.  The ‘shop’ had a tasting room.  So, why not?  Can’t have wine all the time, right? 

After a peek at the mill...


... we settled in for a little 'extra virgin' tasting.

Chris, our Dry Creek Olive Co. host, told us that all their olive oil is made from their own trees.  

We dipped pieces of bread into vanilla olive oil… then soaked up the Meyer lemon, the tangerine (my favorite) and the lime flavored EVOOs as well as the Tuscan blends tempered w/ Spanish Arbequina.  All delicious w/ that fresh, clean taste that good olive oils have.  But I “revisited” the tangerine oil so many times, Chris was running out of bread.  Told you it was my favorite!

Oh, did I mentioned the vinegar?  More bread dipping into Barrel-Aged California Balsamic.  Oh, my – it was like tasting port… And then there was the Pomegranate – white wine vinegar made w/ California pomegranates bursting w/ sweet, fruity, delicious flavor.

Though there was no Dry Creek Olive Oil Co. song to play in our heads, we left singing its praises.  But that delicious olive oil and vinegar soaked bread awakened all our hunger pangs.

It was time for a picnic.

Rodney Strong Vineyards
11453 Old Redwood Highway
Healdsburg CA 95448

Kokomo Winery
4791 Dry Creek Road
Healdsburg CA 95448

Dry Creek Olive Co.
4791 Dry Creek Road
Healdsburg CA 95448

Sunday, May 22, 2011

ON THE ROAD AGAIN IN SONOMA-Pt. 4-Amista Vineyards

Part Four
Amista Vineyards
Making Friends

As Bob, Nguyen, Richard and I continued our wine tasting road trip just outside of Healdsburg town proper, we discovered a winery that became one of my favorites: Amista Vineyards.  “Amista” loosely translates to “making friends” – and, that’s not only the slogan for this relatively new winery, but what proprietors Vicky and Mike Farrow practice.  They’ve made friends with the people of Healdsburg, its customers, animal lovers, the ‘earth,’ and they made friends with us.  And to top it off, their wines are user-friendly..

The winery itself is a big barn affair w/ welcoming rustic charm

that includes over-stuffed leather furniture, and walls covered w/ vibrant art hung in gallery fashion by Sonoma artist Carole Rae Watanabe. 

One of Amista’s proudest achievements has nothing to do w/ wine.  It’s the 2010 Amista Dog Day which raised money for CCI, Canine Companions for Independence (assisted living).  A book to commemorate the event is on display in the tasting room.  The winery has stayed committed to this worthy organization and so has artist Watanabe who donates part of the money she makes from each painting to CCI.

As we began our tasting flight, Clayton, our adorable barista, told us that all Amista wines are made from grapes grown “in the neighborhood” making it, like many wineries in Sonoma, a sustainable one - always important to the local economy and the environment as it decreases its carbon imprint.

We lounged.  We admired the art.  We took pictures.

  I took notes.  And, of course, we tasted.

Our first pour was a 2008 chardonnay from Morningsong Vineyards ($25).  This was a crisp, fruity chardonnay. No oak.  No butter.  Think green apples and Meyer lemons, but w/ a soft mineral finish.  Our friend Stu is not a chardonnay lover, but he would love this wine.  The suggested pairing on the tasting menu: sautéed shrimp in lemon butter and shallot sauce over linguine.  You listening Richard???

The 2009 “Rose of Syrah,” also from Morningsong grapes ($17), had a hint of rhubarb giving the wine a tangy acidity.  This wine, the menu told us, goes well w/ steamed mussels, grilled oysters, BBQ shrimp or a Thanksgiving turkey.  Chill it and bring on the mussels and oysters!  Shucks!

Next was the 2007 zinfandel from Saini Farms-Gene’s Block ($34).  This is an elegant  wine w/ rich, full-bodied fruit flavors and a subtle white pepper finish.  Yum.  Food suggestion: fresh seafood cioppino or braised beef over polenta.  A win-zin situation.

On to the 2005 syrah, again from Morningsong Vineyard grapes.  A silver medal winner at the Harvest Fair ($30), it’s described as a “muscular” wine.  I agree.  It was robust and smoky and would go well w/ grilled lamb or beef bourguignon, as stated on the tasting menu.  Where’s my plate?

Then came the tasting of the 2006 cabernet sauvignon, from Francesca’s Terrace ($42)…  this was a gold medal winner at the San Francisco International wine event… a classic cab w/ a deep red color and hints of black cherry and exotic spices.  Start grilling that filet mignon and, as suggested, serve w/ a crumbled Point Reyes blue cheese.  Oh, my… be still my heart.  Loved the wine – loved the food pairing suggestion.

Clayton then offered us two “off the tasting menu” tastes.

The first was a 2010 sparkling syrah ($30) – loved it.  He didn’t make any food pairing suggestions – but I’d definitely serve this bubbly on a warm summer evening, sitting out by the pool w/ Richard as the sun sets, sharing a few light appetizers or a crisp green salad.

The second off the menu taste was my favorite Amista wine… the 2007 syrah ($28) – it was so good, I’d drink it w/ any food or no food at all. 

By this time, Bob was so taken by the wines that he joined the Amista wine club right there on the spot.  That’s what friends are for!

Back to the tasting menu… our last pour was Illusion, a non-vintage wine, and the only blend that the winery makes.  It’s a port style wine made from half syrah and half zin grapes ($24) and a silver medal winner at the San Francisco Chronicle.  The pairing suggestion:  a flourless chocolate torte… or all by itself as a way to end the perfect meal.  Sweet!

Amista Vineyards
3320 Dry Creek Road
Healdsburg CA 95448

Carole Rae Watanabe

Thursday, May 19, 2011

ON THE ROAD AGAIN IN SONOMA-Pt. 3- Sbragia Family Vineyards

Part Three
Sbragia Family Vineyards

You know that old joke – How do you get to Carnegie Hall?  Practice!  Well, my goal is to practice my way to the Carnegie Hall for wine tasters… So right after Richard and I left the delightful tastes and tasting room of Thumbprint Cellars, we made our way up Dry Creek Road to the Sbragia Family Vineyards winery and tasting room to continue my practice.

The large modern winery structure sat near the top of the mountain...

... w/ imposing views from the terrace of the vineyards and rolling hills below.

Inside, the tasting room was bright and airy, with colorful art on the walls.  My taste buds were ready.

As Sally, our wine specialist, poured our flights she told us a little bit about this family owned vineyard.  Ed Sbragia is a third generation vintner.  His grandfather immigrated from Tuscany in 1904 and worked at the Italian Swiss Colony winery.  But, Ed earned his bones as the wine master for Beringer Vineyards in Napa.  Then, in 2001, he decided to create his own label.  The family winery facility and tasting room opened in 2006.  So, Sbragia is a relatively new arrival on the block.

Our first flight started with a white…

A 2009 Schmidt Ranch sauvignon blanc – Dry Creek Valley ($24).  Rated 91 by Robert Parker and 89 by Stephen Tanzer, I’d split the difference and give it a 90.  It had a great beat and was easy to dance to!

The 2008 Home Ranch chardonnay, also from Dry Creek Valley vineyards ($26) is aged for ten months - half in new oak barrels and half in old (once used) barrels.  Another 89 from Stephen Tanzer and the Wine Spectator, this wine did not race to the finish, but lingered pleasantly, like the end of a satisfying first date when you’re waiting at the door for that good night kiss.

My favorite Sbragia chardonnay was the 2008 Gamble Ranch wine from Napa Valley vineyards ($40).  Aged in all new French oak, this was a luscious oak-y wine w/ hints of apples and vanilla.  And that oak flavor?  Like a French kiss.

Time for the reds in this flight…

We started off w/ the 2008 Home Ranch merlot – Dry Creek Valley ($25) which won the silver medal at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair.  I like merlot.  I liked this wine w/ its subtle tastes of black cheery and brown spices… dark, but not too dark.  Call it dusk.

Next up was one of Richard’s favorites at Sbragia, the 2008 Gino’s Vineyard zinfandel – Dry Creek Valley ($30).  This wine was rich and husky w/ strong aromas of blackberry and cherries.  The ‘husk’ came from a hint of pepper which turned this into a real pepper upper.

The 2008 La Promessa zin – Dry Creek Valley ($32) was rated 90 by Robert Parker and its taste of ripe raspberries had a soft, smooth finish that conjured up visions of sinking into a goose down, velvet duvet, glass of wine in hand. 

The second, higher-end flight consisted only of cabernet sauvignons…

First up, the 2008 Andolsen Vineyard cab – Dry Creek Valley ($38)… deep in color, it smelled of ripe fruits, cassis w/ some roses and herbs thrown in, giving us our first taste of a day of wine & roses...

The 2007 Monte Rosso cab from Sonoma Valley ($50) rated 92 by Tanzer and 91 by Parker had delicious flavors of berries and cherries and spices… Oh my! 

A high mountain grapes wine, the 2007 Ranch Del Oso cab from the Howell Mountain in Napa ($75) was rated even higher… 94 from Parker and 92 from Tanzer.  Rich w/ flavors of black fruits and cherries, this was the winery favorite for both Richard and me.

The 2007 Cimarossa cab, again from Howell Mountain/Napa Valley ($75) also received high marks… 92+ from Parker and 91 from Tanzer… Filled w/ aromas of dark fruit and exotic spices, I closed my eyes and imagined sipping this wine on a galleon in the high seas... perhaps with Jack Sparrow… though Richard might’ve chosen Penelope Cruz... just to discuss the wines, of course!

Last, but not least, we sipped the 2007 Wall Vineyard cab made from grapes from Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley ($75) w/ almost off-the-chart ratings of 96 from Robert Parker, 93 from Stephen Tanzer and 93 from J. Laube of the Wine Spectator.  It had a lot to live up to and it did.  Another truly delicious wine that left a hint of cocoa powder lingering in my mouth. 
Sbragia Family Vineyards may be one of the new kids on the block, but they’re definitely a great neighbor.

My practice over for the day, I looked forward to continuing my journey to the wine tasters’ Carnegie Hall.   

9990 Dry Creek Road
Geyserville, CA 95441

Tasting Room open daily: 11am – 5pm
Tasting fee:  $5.00, and $10.00 for the cabs