ARCHIVE FOR April, 2014

How to Be Savvy with a Wine Label

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We recently attended a tasting of Santa Barbara County Chardonnays, where everybody brought a bottle.

The question on everyone’s mind was this—how can you tell by the label what the wine’s level of quality?

There are plenty of things the label won’t tell you, and that is one of them.

However, there are two indicators of quality we always look for:

1.  Estate bottled and produced:  This means a real, working winery grew the grapes and then made the wine at their own facility.  And that means there was a greater level of control, and likely, of care, that went into that bottle.

2.  An appellation name on the label:  Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Maria Valley or another federally designated appellation name means that 85% of the fruit had to have come from that region.  If you are looking for a high quality wine, that is a good start.

Do you have any “reading wine label tips”?

We Applaud This…

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California State Assemblyman Wes Chesboro of the North Coast (including parts of Sonoma and Mendocino counties) has proposed new legislation that would allow the state’s certified farmers markets to offer wine tasting.  His bill would also permit students who are majoring in winemaking or brewing, at least 18 years old and attending a “qualified” school (UC system, community colleges), to taste wine or beer.

There’s a catch—they can’t swallow… and this is rich material for comedians, but at least Mr. Chesboro is on the right track … how can you study something if you can’t experience it?  And wine tasting at farmers markets would be a big boost to small wineries who get bumped off the shelves by the big wine conglomerates.  A toast to thinking out of the bottle…

Do you have any news of other creative ideas out there in favor of wine?

Get Ready for A California Wine Museum

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A 15,000-square-foot California Wine Museum is planned in Santa Rosa.  The venue would be  “a blending of the Academy of Sciences and The Exploratorium” by Lindsay Austin, who is the chair of the non-profit driving the museum.

We wish them good luck.  We remember Napa’s consumer wine education center COPIA that had a very short run before it closed.  COPIA may have been ahead of its time. With today’s growing number of wine lovers, the California Wine Museum could be a big hit.  What do you think?

California’s Sustainable Viticulture – A Salute to Earth Day

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April 22nd is Earth Day, and California wineries can be proud of the fact that they have led the way for sustainable practices in Golden State agriculture.

Working to conserve water and energy, recycle wastes, protect air quality and use alternative fuels have been growing trends in California wine country for many years.  Solar panels often provide a major source of energy for today’s winery facilities, and the creation of underground caves further reduces energy needs.

It is rare for us to visit a winery and not learn of something they are doing to protect and enhance the environment, whether it is raptor birdhouses in the vineyard or composting grape pumice.

It is the earth that gives us the vines that make the wines that bring happiness.  We hope to see even more efforts on the part of the wine industry to protect her.

Have you seen or read about some notable winery effort at sustainability?  Let us know!

What Makes An Upper Level Wine?

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Someone told us about an article by a fellow who said  that after researching all the expenses related to producing a bottle of wine, he concluded no bottle of wine should cost more than $17.

Where do begin with this one?  We wonder where the grapes came from – and if they were estate grapes – because costs can be very high for viticulture, if it’s done right and if the vines are planted in a place that allows the wine to speak of its place of origin.

We wonder how the wine was made.  Any extra time taken with cold soaking, selecting yeasts and determining fermentation time?  What about the use of good (and expensive) oak barrels?  What of the winemaker’s expertise, how does that figure in?

And when the bottle’s uncorked, if it was carefully hand crafted with all the extra time, care, and expertise that involves, it will show this with layers of flavor that far surpass anything a mass-produced wine can offer.

$17 maximum for a great bottle of wine?  What do you think?

Easy to Eat Well (and easy on your pocketbook too) in Wine Country

2We’re constantly delighted by the quality and affordability of restaurant fare in so much of California’s wine country today.  Two terrific examples bordering Sonoma square:  HopMonk (www.hopmonk.com) and The RedGrape Pizzeria  (theredgrape.com).

The HopMonk Samosa appetizers were out of this world,

as was Red Grape’s pizza –any pizza!

Check ‘em out.

Is “New World Wine” Having All the Fun?

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Talking with Jeff Ketelhut, founder of tiny Los Robles Hills Winery in the Santa Monica Mountains of Southern California, we were once again reminded that New World wineries are having too much fun.  How so?

Well, for so long California and other parts of New World wine country was often reminded that the Old World had it over us, because it had dialed in all its terroir.

The result?  The Old World knew exactly where to plant which varietals in every inch of wine country.

But guess what?  The Old World has very little exploring left, while the New World is still pretty much wide open. Which brings us back to Jeff and his Los Robles Hills Winery in the Santa Monica mountains.  His two acres is in Thousand Oaks, about 10 miles from the ocean.

Cool marine air funnels through to moderate temperatures, creating a unique microclimate for winegrowing. Jeff is winning awards for his red wines. It’s a new place for wine in California and no doubt, there will be many more CA terroir discoveries in the coming years.

So, a toast to the New World!

Looking for Hollywood in California Wine Country

It’s there, in little doses. You’ll find scenes from Sideways in Santa Barbara’s Santa Ynez Valley. Bottle Shock was filmed in Napa Valley and at Chateau Montelena, where you can take a “Bottle Behind the Scenes Tour”. Napa’s Beringer Winery and Duckhorn Vineyards hosted A Walk in the Clouds. Staglin Family Vineyard was the scene of The Parent Trap. Apocalypse Now features many Napa Valley vistas shot by Francis Ford Coppola.

What we are amazed at is how few movies are filmed in California wine country. Such gorgeous country, all fixed up and ready for a close-up. Maybe it needs an agent.

California’s Wine Countries – all distinctive

If Napa Valley is the first stop for out-of-state wine lovers, they might get the impression that touring wineries in the California is a piece of cake. After all, Napa offers a tidy, 30-mile long valley, with wineries of extraordinary quality lined up right and left.

As the old saying goes, it’s a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. You can’t miss.

Temecula is another easy-to-digest slice of wine country. Just drive up its main road off interstate 5, and in a few minutes you’ll find vineyards marching across the hillsides and premium wineries around every bend. It, too, is a compact experience, and getting kudos for its great Rhone wines.

But then, our wine tourists decide to visit Santa Barbara, Paso Robles, Monterey County, Mendocino the Sierra Foothills or Santa Cruz Mountains appellations. Now, travel gets really interesting…

• In Santa Barbara there are only four recognized appellations spread across 50 miles.

• In Paso Robles, you could drive miles without encountering a winery, so you’ll need to know which areas to visit.

• Monterey County wineries are concentrated in tiny Carmel Valley (11 or so wineries), and the Santa Lucia Highlands, where a few wine tasting rooms are nestled below the Santa Lucia Mountains. The vast expanse of the Salinas Valley, however, is pretty much winery-less.

• In the Sierra Foothills, you’re facing 2.6 million acres. Don’t count on serendipity to find a winery. Get a map!

• Wineries exist in the Santa Cruz Mountains, but distances between them are sometimes great and involves driving twisting mountain roads.

So, a word to the wise: plan your trip with an eye to topography in California wine country.

A Coming Drought? A Winery Strategy…

Drought will be part of the pour in California wine country this year, and wineries are preparing.

Don Sodaro, founder of Sodaro Esate Winery in southern Napa’s Coombsville appellation, shared how his winery is approaching the water situation:

“We monitor water. We have three meters: one for the whole property, one for the vineyard and one for the winery. We keep an Excel spread sheet on how much water we use. Our strategy with less water available is this: the vines get everything, and the landscaping will sacrifice. We’ve got too much invested in those vines, so we’re protecting them at all costs. We just had a good soaking rain, and that’s a good turn of events, so we are keeping our fingers crossed.”