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J Winery
Korbel
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Unusual Wines
Diversity in Wine
Northern California
Wineries 2002
Page 2



Day 12

    

Phoenix Vineyards
Napa Valley
www.phoenixvineyards.com

     We had an appointment with Aaron Bader, the winemaker at Phoenix Vineyards and maker of Pinotage. Aaron Bader in Phoenix cellar The winery on Dry Creek Road in Napa isn't open to the public and thus we missed the small sign and had to turn around. We parked next to a wooden barn bright yellow with new wood. Aarons father, David, moved to this location when they outgrew their first vineyard. Land is at a premium in this area and the Bader's have deals with friends and neighbours to plant vines on their spare land. They lost one vintage when the land on which they had planted a vineyard was sold and the new owner harvested the grapes for himself. Even the driveway was lined with grapevines.

     Inside the winery we stood in what will be, when Aaron has finished building it, a tasting room. Behind barrels were tightly packed into all available space. Aaron likes to experiment with less common varieties, and was intrigued when I told him about the English wine made from the Phoenix grape variety. Phoenix currently make Zinfandel, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, a Bordeaux blend and Sangiovese, as well as olive oil, but it was the Pinotage I had come to taste. They have been growing Pinotage since 1990, using it in blends until their first varietal bottling in 1998.

Pinotage 2001 - Barrel sample
Black purple colour, sweet fruits, chocolate minty flavours, clean fresh with some mid-palate acidity. Excellent. Aaron will rack it and bottle it in August. He made three barrels and one will be blended with Sangiovese.
Pinotage 2000 13.5%
bottled 6/2001 Unfined, unfiltered. Almost black colour, fruit upfront, fuller mid palate with a herby minty tang. Lovely warm spicy and mouthfilling, slight alcohol warmth at end. Excellent
Pinotage 1998
bottled 3/1999 Unfined, unfiltered. Has 10% Zinfandel. Lighter colour, browning some, peppery nose. Starting to thin, more elegant - a good dinner wine. It's a matured red wine, slightly winey.
Pinotage 1994 (barrel sample stored in half bottle)
Unfortunately Aaron opened this to sample when we phoned to arrange our visit a couple of days previously . Some oxidation, browning, good depth and length with tannins, some fruit but rather like an aged Rhone.
     Pinotage was created when Dr Perold crossed Cinsault and Pinot Noir, and Phoenix's back label carried that information on their 1998 vintage. But the authorities said that if the grape varieties were mentioned then the proportion of each had to be shown. So the 2000 vintage now carries
A Haiku for Pinotage

Doctor Perold, friend
Pea, know. No War. Sand sew. Joined
Happily, we quaff

Gundlach-Bundschu

     In the afternoon we visited Gundlach-Bundschu because I'd been told they made unusual varieties. The most unusual one was

Kleinberger 2001 12% $14
This variety is known as Ebling in Luxembourg where its widely grown and makes a pleasant sharp light wine. Water white, floral nose, bland and inoffensive. Had 1% residual sugar.
Gewurtztraminer 2001 13% $18
Floral nose and taste, fat mouthfeel with some acid drops.
Tempranillo 1999 $26
Good dry red with plum stone flavours. But I couldn't stop thinking what else I could get for 19 quid - that'd buy some serious wines.
Zinfandel, Morse Vineyards, 2000 15.7% $18
Sweet plum nose, tasting of strawberries with black pepper. But I could have done without the sour aftertaste.
    
Folie a Deux winery
Napa Valley
www.folieadeux.com

     Along the way we'd been given free tasting coupons for Folie a Deux winery. We knew nothing about it but it was nearby so we called in. The winery had been set up by a married couple, one a psychiatrist the other a psychologist and the name is a psychiatric condition meaning a shared fantasy. The label has a roarsch test like dancing couple and the winery name in rainbow colours refer to the gold at the end of the rainbow. We thought our tasting coupons would be an unnecessary gimmick, but they were taken away and rung through the till and we were given a receipt for $0. Others were being charged $10 each.

Sangiovese 1999 15.3% $22
with 4% cabernet franc. Cherry bright colour, woody nose, tannic, dries out throat and bright acids pick at ones gums. Needs food.
Zinfandel, Eschen Vineyards, Fiddletown, 1998 13%
86 year old vines. Light red colour, warm pepper nose, light mouthfeel, strawberries and tannins, long aftertaste.
Grande Folie, Harvey Vineyards Amador County13.5% $44
Black red colour, full deep mouthfeel, smooth complex. Berries and plums, smoke and bacon fat with spices. Long aftertaste. Excellent
Zinfandel Bowmans Vineyard 1999 $26
Blacky red colour, watering at edge. Acidic upfront, red berries and rhubarb, white pepper, medium bodied, medium aftertaste. Good
Zinfandel Harvey Vineyard 1999 $28 Old Vines
Port smell, porty taste. Burnt alcohol, acid and tannins without enough fruit to balance. Not for me, the nose is offputting.
     By now the end of our holiday seemed to be approaching fast. As we caught in the traffic heading back to our hotel we passed the Merryvale Winery.
Merryvale Winery
Napa Valley

     There was just time to visit. I've never seen Merryvale wines before. Large impressive wood lined tasting room in an old stone structure. A $10 tasting fee got us

Cabernet Sauvignon 1999 $26 13.5%
Contained 18% Cabernet Franc. Black red colour, muted nose, very pleasant but rather lacking character. Like an good supermarket wine at a third the cost.
Merlot Reserve 1999 $45 14.5%
Beautiful warm inviting nose. Good acid levels, pleasant and drinkable with a medium lengthed aftertase. Very Good.
Profile 1998 $80 Cab Sauv 76%, 17% Merlot, 4% petit Verdot 3% Cab Franc
Black Ribena colour, warm very prominent nose full of blackcurrants, but disappointingly lacking in flavour. Natural yeast fermentation was used and this wine got a 96 rating in Wine Enthusiast. But if I were going to spend fifty quid on a bottle of wine, I'd want more than this offered.
    

Day 13

J Winery
Sonoma

     Northwards of Healdsberg to J Winery. Rumour has it they make Pinotage. We miss the entrance sign and end in a winery carpark asking directions of a worker who doesn't speak English. Entrance to J Winery As we pull into the J Winery car park I get the feeling we'll be unlucky. All the other California Pinotage wineries have been small scale, but this has the look of something with serious money behind it. A low modern stone building fronted by ornamental lakes and lots of plants. We stop to look at red dragonflies skipping above lilypads.

     Pushing open the doors to the tasting room we see what looks like an exclusive shop in London or New York. There are bottles artfully displayed and at the back counter in front of wall art comprising a huge steel sheet with chunks of glittering glass like huge diamond. There's one couple being served a tray of small snacks to accompany their wines. J Winery specialises in the Champagne varieties, making sparkling wine from them and still varietal Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. But no sign of Pinotage. Well, we've come all this way, so apologetically explain our reason for calling to Ron Clark who is behind the counter. "Yes, we do make Pinotage" was his amazing reply. We ask to taste it and are told it has all gone, all they have left is their library stock. I show Ron my Pinotage Clubcard and explain my special interest. After some phone calls they bring out a bottle of Pinotage. I ask to buy it unopened, but they insist on opening it for me to taste there.

Pinotage Russian River 1999 13.5%
This is their first vintage. They have 3 acres planted and they made only 80 cases. The 2000 is released in August 2002, they'll be making 200 cases (and if anyone coming to London could manage to bring a bottle or two for me I'd be very grateful). Light red purple nose, sweet fruit, spice and dry ground peppercorns. Morello cherry/raspberry and blueberry flavours with medium tannins and a long long aftertaste. This is a serious Pinotage, with Californian dimension. Lots of complex fruit flavours, approachable tannins, reminiscent of a ripe Burgundy. Excellent.
     J's wine bottles have a large sweeping letter 'J' imprinted on them, and Jo, thinking this is a sign buys a smart fluffy logo embroidered sweatshirt.

     Ron kindly recorked and gave us the bottle to takeaway with us. We took it to Hunters Steakhouse for dinner later that night. By now our waitress was becoming used to us bring in wines she'd never heard of.

Foppiano Winery
Sonoma
www.foppiano.com

     We're now heading towards Dry Creek, whose Zinfandel we had so enjoyed in the Hilton's restaurant on our first night in Santa Rosa, but we pass Foppiano winery and pull in. It's a name I half remember and I'm hoping the Italian name may indicate an long established winery making gutsy wine from some of the less usual varieties.

     There's a railway carriage in the car park and a warm welcome inside the tasting room where we are invited to taste, free, more than we choose to.

Zinfandel 2000 $15 14.9%
Purple red colour, dusty nose, spicy medium bodied with light fruits. Good
Syrah 'Riverside' 1997 $9
Has warm nose and spicy flavours, but very light with little aftertaste At this stage in our California journey this wine seems dirt cheap, but $9 equates to £6 and I can get good Cotes du Rhone back home at that price.
Sangiovese 2000 $17.50
Bright red colour, spicy upfront fruit, great with pasta
Petite Sirah 2000 13.5%
Blackcurrant colour, cherry brandy liqueur chocolate smell. Deep round complex with berry fruits flavours, and that dusty brambly edge you get when picking blackberries. Very dry, tannin finish. Excellent
Zinfandel Reserve (Valera Vineyard) 1999
Truly excellent Zinfandel, with luscious sweet ripe fruits, good balance and length.
     I take details of the UK importers, but regret I didn't buy a bottle of the Petite Sirah. Foppiano publish the Petite Report, a newsletter 'dedicated to the appreciation of Petite Sirah.'

     At Dry Creek we taste several Zinfandels, and buy an Old Vines Zinfandel but I left my tasting note book in the car and I've mislaid the piece of paper I used. But good wines.

Fetzer Winery
Mendocino

     We push on north, aiming to lunch at Fetzer, a well known name in the UK whose wines we've often enjoyed. Had a rather disappointing lunch in their café, where we were the only diners, but that was compensated by the warmth of the greeting from Bob Meadows at the tasting counter.

Fetzer Syrah Barrel Select 1999
bright light colour, smooth soft with long tangy - but somewhat astringent - aftertaste
Bonterra Syrah 1999
Warm, rougher edged fruit, thus more enjoyable than the Fetzer. Excellent
Fetzer Zinfandel Barrel Select Mendocino 1999
Very good, mouth fill, round spicy, all one could ask
Fetzer Sangiovese 1999
Light refreshing red, smooth and soft
Bonterra Muscat 2000
Sweet fresh upfront nose, but little body and little aftertaste. Doesn't live up to promise
Bonterra Zinfandel 1998
Strawberries, spicy zinfandel aftertaste with alcohol burn Bob kindly took across a courtyard to unlock the Reserve Wines tasting room, where we selected
Fetzer Zinfandel Mariah Vineyards Mendocino 1999
Fat mouthfeel, smooth warm with spice on the tongue and aftertaste, but also a rather muddy aftertaste.
     I was rather underwhelmed by the above Fetzer/Bonterra wines I tasted at the winery July 2002

Domain St Gregory/Grazziano Family
Mendocino

     When we were talking with Bob about unusual wines he recommended we visit the Domain St Gregory tasting room. This was in a row of wooden clapboard shops in the town of Hopland. They tell me they're changing the name used on their wine to Grazziano Family, replacing several current brand names. We tasted

Enotria Arneis Mendocino 13.5%
Straw white/yellow with an honey almond nose. Light taste, medium sweet feel. Arneis is a not common Italian variety I had for the first time last year at Lake Maggiore, Italy, and is now on the list of my local pizza restaurant. I reckon the variety could become popular, but I prefer a my Arneis made drier than the Enotria.
Dolcetto 1999 14.5%
Another Italian variety offering plums, with a tannic follow through and alcohol edge
Parducci
Mendocino

     Having gone this far I insisted we push up past Ukiah to visit Parducci, another name I remembered from the past. I also had been given a ten year old Charbono by Jamie Goode in London. Well, they no longer make Charbono, but we tasted

Sketchbook Grenache. 14%
Pale red, faint flowery nose, very light body and a taste of roses, Medium aftertaste. Grenache is one of Jo's favourite red varieties, but this was a shadow of what it could be.
Hidden Cellars Syrah 14.7%
Flowery nose, but flat middle,
Hidden Cellars Zinfandel Old Vines 14.5%
Light red colour, very light fruity with strawberry tones and medium aftertaste.
Petite Sirah Eagle Point Ranch 13.5%
Dark black/red colour, very smooth with sweet black fruits.
Zingaro Zinfandel 1999 15%
Great colour and sweet strawberry flavours. A bit light tasting for the alcohol, and not particularly typical for the variety.
Zingaro Zinfandel Reserve 1999 15%
Good colour and spicy fruity flavours; good.
    

Day 14

Korbel
Russian River

     Jo wanted to visit the coast again and we decided to combine this with a visit to Korbel "Champagne" Cellars; we'd passed this on our way back from Fort Ross previously. I had an ulterior motive; I wanted to buy some more wine from Topolos Russian River Vineyards, which I did. Then we arrived at the impressive creeper covered headquarters of Korbel in time for a tour.

     The tour started with a video, then we progressed through the cellars and ended at an outside tasting counter. Our guide had been with Korbel only two months but gave a detailed and Korbels automatic riddling racks interesting tour. Korbel was founded by a political refugee from Europe, who came to San Francisco working as a cigar maker. He realised there was a shortage of cigar boxes so started making them, he needed more wood so he bought redwood forests along the Russian river. In order to get the wood to San Francisco he bought a ship, then became a shipping owner, and he constructed a railway from his forest to San Francisco. Cigar boxes need labels, so he bought a printing press and then started a political magazine and newspaper. When all the trees were chopped down he grazed cows to make cheese, but the Limburger style he made wasn't popular, so he planted vineyards and made sparkling wine. And Korbel has been making methode champenoise sparkling wines ever since.

     We were entranced at this tale of grabbed opportunities, and their wine is excellent. An automatic riddling table invented by Korbel intrigued me. Decades before the gyro-pallet Korbel could riddle hundred of bottles with minimal effort by pressing a button on an electric motor.

    We finished the tour with a tasting of their excellent sparkling wines, but I didn't take notes. We had lunch at Korbel but their lunch counter was a disgrace to the company. Slow, incompetent order taking, lost orders, missed ingredients and a 'couldn't care less' attitude. It was just like being back home.

Day 15

    Our last day. Calistoga geyser We take the morning easy, going to Calistoga to visit their geyser. It spurted every 12 minutes and it was pleasant waiting looking at the backdrop of mountains till a sound like an approaching underground train indicated the water was about to shoot. The owner reckons she can forecast earthquakes based on the time between geyser spurts and she automatically records the time of each spout.

Summers Winery
Calistoga, Napa Valley

     Next to the geyser is Summers Winery, so we pulled in. This was to be our last winery and it was a good one. They grow Charbono, Dolcetto and some other interesting varieties and have a few rows of each by the tasting rooms. We tasted

Charbono Villa Andrianna Vineyard Estate Reserve 2000 13.5%
Red purple colour, mild flowery nose. Very smooth red wine, sweet fruits with acid balance and medium aftertaste. Very good
Zinfandel 2000 13.4%
Light purple colour, medium spices, a bit light for me.
Chevalier Noir 1999 65% Cabernet Sauvignon 35%Merlot
Dark black colour, flowery nose, flat middle palate with a dry finish.
     We head back to San Francisco International. The date was 4 July - a national holiday in the US - and we'd enquired at the hotel whether the roads will be busy or quite and got a 'maybe' answer, so we allowed extra time, but the roads were quiet. We had time to walk along the cliffs in San Francisco before checking in. The airport doesn't seem very busy, and we were surprised as someone on a bicycle cycled fast by us in the departure hall, and see it's a policeman in shorts, his belt sagging with a gun, handcuffs, clubs etc.

     The papers were full of anticipated terror attacks on this American holiday, and there's a TV crew doing interviews with the brave travellers in our check-in queue. The security man asked if I bought anything electrical. I pointed to my wristwatch. "Did you get it from a respectable source?" he asks. "Walmart" I reply "Does that count as respectable?" "In this case, yes" he replies, smiling.

     I checked in a case of assorted wines, which the check-in agent covered with 'fragile' stickers. I was worrying that maybe we'd go over our baggage allowance or they wouldn't take the wine in view of security alerts, but no problems. That just left one -Jo feared customs stopping us back home.

     As the plane starts boarding I'm away down the corridor looking at a TV monitor by a bar. The barman turns up the sound. A shooting at Los Angeles airport has caused it to be closed and incoming flights are diverted, nothing's taking off. I don't tell Jo, but am fearing SFO will also close. Luckily we take off on time and as we circle over San Francisco Bay I looked down and see the yellow and green hills in the distance where we'd had a wonderful time.

     I'll have to come back. We never got to Louis Martini, or Robert Mondavi.

     We settled back to Virgin Atlantic's care. The best airline food I can recall, more movies and TV programmes on the seat back screen that there's time to see, but ordinary plonk poured from a big bottle into small glasses. I look through details of duty free allowances in the inflight magazine and assure Jo that even if customs do stop us, we are well within the limits, with just a case of wines. "What about the ones in our suitcases" she asks. "Even with them", I reply.

     And so our bags arrive quickly on the carousel at Heathrow, the box of wine un-scratched and we walk through the green customs channel and do not even see a single customs officer.

Notes:

  • Styrofoam wine boxes are excellent insulators. Wine in styrofoam in the boot (trunk) of a car remains cool throughout even on the hottest day.
  • We didn't intend to taste every wine made by a winery, only those that interested us. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay don't. We were looking for Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Sirah, and less usual varieties. Accept that Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are good, but can get them from anywhere. We went to some wineries and left without tasting anything, including Robert Sinskey, one time makers of The Adventures of ZINSKEY. Unfortunately they now only make wines from Burgundy varieties.
  • It seemed to us that price was too often equated with quality, and for a wine to be seriously considered the winery has to charge a lot. Of course, I don't think the wineries have any objection. Luckily there are wineries making good wines are reasonable prices.
  • Jo did win at blackjack, but not enough to merit hotel security which isn't offered when winnings are in single figures.
  • Whether wineries charge for tasting seems to depend on their proximity to San Francisco. We didn't object to paying, as we knew we couldn't buy, and it saved any possible embarrassment at walking out without purchasing. A number of wineries waived their tasting fee when they learned we only wanted to taste a couple of wines rather than all those on offer. All the same, tasting costs soon mount up and need to budgeted for.
  • The people working in the pouring rooms deal with amazing good humour with a never-ending stream of people asking the same dumb questions. I don't know how long I could do the job and keep smiling. I've named some in the above, and there were many others who went out of their way to make our visit to their winery special whose names I didn't record. Thanks to them all.
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1 February 2003
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