chardonnay

Ah, Burgundy! The name alone sounds so romantic. Even the French, Bourgogne, though almost impossible to say properly, is magical.

stunning rooftop at Hôtel-Dieu des Hospices Civils de Beaune

stunning rooftop at Hôtel-Dieu des Hospices Civils de Beaune

view of part of the famous Burgundian Côte-d’Or

view of part of the famous Burgundian Côte-d’Or

Château de Cîteaux La Cueillette as seen from across the vineyard

Château de Cîteaux La Cueillette as seen from across the vineyard

Last month, Hegui and I met some friends at a stunning resort in a refurbished château nestled in the village of Meursault, part of the famous Burgundian Côte-d’Or, or “gold coast.” Kay and Pascal live in a small city adjacent to Geneva, Switzerland, so visit this famous wine region often. It’s only a few hours car ride on the French autoroute for them. Since we’d never been, we let Kay plan the weekend of relaxation.

To start, everything is really pretty. All those lovely towers, castles, vineyards, colorful rooftops and gorgeous churches made Hegui a maniac with the camera. Our resort, Château de Cîteaux La Cueillette, was absurdly beautiful, situated as it was on a vineyard surrounded by gentle hills, a quaint view of the village, etc. Even the pillows were wonderful! Look for yourselves.

beautiful courtyard at Hôtel-Dieu des Hospices Civils de Beaune

beautiful courtyard at Hôtel-Dieu des Hospices Civils de Beaune

Château de Cîteaux La Cueillette

Château de Cîteaux La Cueillette

cute car parked in Beaune

cute car parked in Beaune

La Moutarderie Edmond Fallot

La Moutarderie Edmond Fallot

pillows from Château de Cîteaux La Cueillette

pillows from Château de Cîteaux La Cueillette

Meursault from the back of our resort

Meursault from the back of our resort

Despite the frequent, unseasonable rain, we did lots of nice things. Hegui and I were enchanted by the Hôtel-Dieu des Hospices Civils de Beaune, where they have that famous wine auction every year. We bought tasty souvenirs at La Moutarderie Edmond Fallot. Naturally we ate a lot of French pastries, cheeses, butter, breads, and so on. One evening we drove to Dijon for dinner. I was really struck by how tiny this most famous of wine producing regions seemed. We went slowly, in the rain, through all the various world-renowned villages, like Nuits St. Georges, Vosne-Romanée and Gevrey-Chambertin, yet made it to Dijon in less than 45 minutes. Small!

enjoying my apple tart, baguette and cafe au lait at a small patisserie in Beaune

enjoying my apple tart, baguette and cafe au lait at a small patisserie in Beaune

Hegui slicing a country loaf with what looks like a machete

Hegui slicing a country loaf with what looks like a machete

the front yard at our resort, Château de Cîteaux La Cueillette

the front yard at our resort, Château de Cîteaux La Cueillette

more cool cars in Beaune

more cool cars in Beaune

Of course, we tasted some Burgundian wine, too. Kay arranged for us to visit the lovely Château de Meursault and Château de Cîteaux Philippe Bouzereau, the later, right across from the resort. Wine tasting in Burgundy was fun and seemed very glamorous. I was a bit underwhelmed by the wines themselves, sadly. Sure, we tasted reds and whites from the celebrated 2009 and 2010 vintages, plus a few older ones here and there. Don’t get me wrong. These were okay. The whites, with a single exception, tasted a lot like “new” low oak California chardonnays. The reds, generally, seemed too acidic and prickly to really enjoy. Perhaps they need more time? Maybe I’m a Burgundy rube? My real worry is that my Burgundian wine “a-ha” moment might be a lingering sense of mild disappointment. Alas.

an enjoyable, if forgetatable white from Château de Cîteaux Philippe Bouzereau

an enjoyable, if forgetatable white from Château de Cîteaux Philippe Bouzereau

me with our friends wine tasting in Meursault

me with our friends wine tasting in Meursault

posing in front of the world famous Chambertin vineyard

posing in front of the world famous Chambertin vineyard

Hegui and I wine tasting in the caves at Château de Meursault

Hegui and I wine tasting in the caves at Château de Meursault

Burgundy was an amazing experience and going there has completely changed my perspective. Now it remains to be seen exactly how.

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My aunt Mary Ann, came for a short visit last week. She lives in New Hampshire and has been overwhelmed by the brutal winter they’re having back East this year. Blizzard after blizzard would make anyone long for sunny California.

my aunt and I on the back porch at Michael Mondavi Family Estate

my aunt and I on the back porch at Michael Mondavi Family Estate

She’s only about 13 months older than me, so really we grew up together, almost like brother and sister. Unfortunately until last week, we hadn’t seen one another for about eight years. So this visit was a real treat. Since she had never been to the West Coast, there was a lot to do. In her four day visit we went to the Golden Gate Bridge, Muir Woods, touched the waters of the Pacific, admired the view from Sausalito, wandered through Chinatown, lunched in North Beach, dined at The Slanted Door and many other things. Of course a visit to Napa for wine tasting was de rigueur.

a winery worker pruning the dormant grapevines

a winery worker pruning the dormant grapevines

winemaking apparatus at Michael Mondavi Family Estate

winemaking apparatus at Michael Mondavi Family Estate

We started out at Artesa mainly for its gorgeous modern appeal. Then by chance drove by Michael Mondavi Family Estate, just down the road. The Estate has been there since its founding in 2004. Michael is the famous brother of the famous, now deceased, Robert Mondavi.

I tried learning more about the winery part of the Estate but had some trouble finding specifics. It sounds like it is a family run enterprise with Michael, his wife, Isabel, and two adult children, Rob Jr. and Dina. Aside from wine production, the family operates Folio Fine Wine Partners, an international wine importing concern (follow this link for an interview with Michael and Rob Jr. about Folio)and various members seem to offer winemaking consultation. Again, I’m a bit confused by it all so if any of you readers know more, please write in!

They produce an affordable line called Spellbound which I’ve seen locally in various supermarkets and wine shops, plus various more boutique labels.

do they still use this thing or is it only for show

do they still use this thing or is it only for show?

various wines produced by the Michael Mondavi clan

various wines produced by the Michael Mondavi clan

The winery itself is small and comfortable. We sat inside though they’ve a stunning back porch overlooking one of their estate pinot vineyards. We had perfect weather that day, so it might have been fun, but the porch had a large and somewhat rowdy crowd already. Two different tastings were offered: the Heritage Selection and the Gallery Selection. We tried one of each and shared them all.

Both of us really liked these wines. We impulsively joined two of their wine clubs on the spot, which is always a fun way to remember wine country.

Isabel Mondavi Carneros Chardonnay 2011

Isabel Mondavi Carneros Chardonnay 2011

Isabel Mondavi Carneros Chardonnay 2001: This had a golden color with some oak on the nose. We detected some fruit and vanilla with a mildly buttery finish.

Isabel Mondavi Estate Pinot Noir 2009: This was a gorgeous red color with some red fruit and exciting earthy notes. It was smooth with a lovely almost bitter finish. Very different from the more fruity Russian River Valley pinots, I particularly enjoyed this wine.

Emblem Oso Cabernet Sauvignon 2008: The grapes for this wine come from Howell Mountain in Napa. In a word, delish. This dark wine was rich and lush, with lovely fruit, and a supple texture. Mmmmm.

Oberon Hillside Reserve Napa Cabernet Sauvignon 2008: I understand that this is blended from grapes grown at three nearby vineyards. It had an intense cedar forest floor nose with refined tannins.

Spellbound Petite Sirah Reserve 2007: This is a Napa wine. The nose was rootbeer. It was very tannic and clearly needs a lot more time in bottle. Nevertheless, it too was quite enjoyable.

tasting the white wine at Michael Mondavi Family Estate

tasting the white wine at Michael Mondavi Family Estate

Oberon Sauvignon Blanc 2012: Pale with a citrus nose, it was crisp and good.

Spellbound Chardonnay 2010: Also quite pale with lovely yellow fruit.

Oberon Napa Valley Merlot 2009: Red with blueberry and chocolate, this was supple and very drinkable.

Oberon Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2010: I only wrote “fruit, tannins, chocolate, bitter” in my notes. You get the idea.

Spellbound Petite Sirah 2010: A deep color with a blueberry nose, it tastes like sweet ripe blueberries, too.

Needless to write, we had a great time here. No appoint necessary. If you have the chance to visit Michael Mondavi Family Estate sometime, I would definitely go.

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Hanzell Vineyards, Sonoma County

by Stevie on October 17, 2012

beautiful reproduction of a building in the Clos Vougeot in Burgundy

beautiful Hanzell reproduction of a building in the Clos Vougeot in Burgundy

I’ve been longing to visit Hanzell for ages! Really after I read Matt Kramer’s fabulous, New California Wine. He describes Hanzell as “Aesthetically, …one of the most elegant wineries in the state” and concludes his mini-history of the place:

It is difficult to over-praise Hanzell, as it has stood the test of making great wines continuously for decades. Few California wineries have so lustrous a track record and fewer still deserve to be called a true grand cru. But that’s what Hanzell really is, California’s first authentic and proven grand cru.

After all that fanfare, how could anyone wonder that a trip to Hanzell was a high priority?

view across the valley from the first Hanzell estate vineyard

view across the valley from the first Hanzell estate vineyard

a lone cluster of Hanzell chardonnay grapes on the vine

a lone cluster of Hanzell chardonnay grapes on the vine

modern art on the Hanzell property

modern art on the Hanzell property

Located in the Mayacamas Range on the Sonoma side, the site truly is marvelous to behold. We were in awe by the sheer natural beauty of the place. We had a super-individualized tour: just Hegui and me. Ryan Hortum was our Estate Educator. He was really pleasant and seemed genuinely to adore Hanzell and its wines. I thought it was awesome that we got to ride in a Land Rover to visit some of the more far-flung vineyards. I’d never done that before.

Hanzell produces mainly chardonnay and pinot noir though it sounds like in the past, they grew some cabernet sauvignon and recently they’ve replanted some more. There’s a smaller-scale though still quite grand reproduction of a building from the Clos Vougeot that the first Hanzell owner, James Zellerbach, found particularly captivating on a tour of Burgundy.

The name, Hanzell, derives from Zellerbach’s wife’s name, Hana. The winery has a long history that you can enjoy learning about on your tour or at their site, linked above, or in Kramer’s book. Strangely, there didn’t seem to be that many wines to try— only two chardonnays and a pinot. Somehow I had thought with all of the different vineyards, that they’d have individually designated wines to showcase the different micro-climates, but not so. These are blended estate wines. We preferred the chardonnays over the red here, which is odd for us.

Hanzell wine cave interior

Hanzell wine cave interior

modern winemaking facility

modern winemaking facility

amazing valley view from the balcony of the original Hanzell winery

amazing valley view from the balcony of the original Hanzell winery

a selection of Hanzell library wines

a selection of Hanzell library wines

ready to taste some yummy wine

ready to taste some yummy wine

The 2011 Sebella was crisp bordering on sharp, though pleasant. I liked the 2010 estate chardonnay as it seemed more well-rounded with the right balance of fruit and mineral notes. The 2009 estate pinot noir didn’t have much fruit though showed a lot of exotic spices with a lovely long finish.

Visiting Hanzell was great fun. This is the kind of romantic destination perfect for people in love and for dreamers of all ages.

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This was a first: we went to a Williams Selyem pick up event and it didn’t rain. It wasn’t cold either. In fact, it was so sunny and warm that I wore shorts and sandals comfortably. The car said that the ambient temperature at the winery was 91 degrees. Ah, miracle! I love Indian summer.

Jasmine standing at the vineyard's edge with two empty Williams Selyem wine glasses

Jasmine standing at the vineyard's edge with two empty Williams Selyem wine glasses--it's almost too sad--empty glasses!

If you’ve been following us at all, then you know that I’m a little pinot noir crazy, at least in the past few years. Strangely, I didn’t really enjoy the stuff before. It seemed so watered down and sharp compared to hearty zinfandels, syrahs or even cabs. I guess I’ve changed. So often I feel overwhelmed by powerful zins and cabs these days. Don’t get me wrong. They’re fun to drink, sort of like having a big slice of cherry pie à la mode. But I can’t eat big desserts too often and, in any event, they don’t usually work as a side dish to the main course. Pinot noir shines with food, and they’re even tasty all by themselves.

Jasmine and I went last Friday. It was way less crowded than the usual Saturday scene. The volunteer staff kept remarking how “Friday’s the day” and urged us to come on future Fridays. One even said while he poured us some of the vin gris that Wms Selyem has trouble getting volunteers for Saturdays due to the throngs of thirsty people.

Williams Selyem estate vineyard with mountains in the background

Williams Selyem estate vineyard with mountains in the background

Like previous visits, several current releases were available for tasting. Plus there were a number of local vendors of other artisanal food products on hand, offering tastes and things for purchase. Since Hegui couldn’t come (he worked instead—poor thing!), I got a bottle of Dry Creek olive oil for him, as he really enjoys it. After we sampled the wines once or twice, Jasmine selected a lovely sour dough round which we had with cheese in the shade. We talked, sipped a bit more wine, and really enjoyed the marvelous sunny warm day in wine country. What could be better than that?

Wine Spectator poo-pooed the 2010 pinot vintage and it’s true that these wines were less “wow” compared to last year. Nevertheless, we enjoyed them all and a few, like the Central Coast and Westside Road Neighbors pinots were memorable. Jasmine is particularly creative in her wine descriptions, which made tasting even more delightful.

we saw several of these warning poison oak rattlesanke signs thorughout the winery

we saw several of these absurdly unwelcoming warning poison oak rattlesanke signs thorughout the winery

2010 unoaked chardonnay: a transparent yellow diamond color with a nose of dried apricot and tropical fruit that led to more apricot with a citrusy finish.

2011 vin gris: this is a rosé of pinot noir. A transparent salmon pink with aromatic strawberries and Maraschino cherry, it tasted of sour cherry and mineral with a lovely pink grapefruit finish. Mmmm!

2010 Central Coast pinot noir: ruby with plum, smoked bacon, and eucalyptus leading to rich, plum filled peppery flavors. Jasmine says, “Kinda elegant.”

2010 Sonoma County pinot noir: a darker ruby with raspberries and blackberries and was that a hint of sage? It was fruity but less focused than the Central Coast. The finish was long and creamy. Comparing the two, we preferred the Central Coast overall. J: “It was drama all the way. If it was a woman, she’d have long black hair and be very dramatic.”

2010 Sonoma Coast pinot noir: ruby with some earth and fruit—sort of like “straw with berries underneath.” Full bodied with red fruit, Jasmine thought it was “very good like grape juice.” “It’s a party wine,” not too complicated but fun.

enjoying the Friday crowd at Williams Selyem

enjoying the Friday "crowd" at Williams Selyem

2010 Russian River Valley pinot noir: deep ruby with a subtle nose of berries, floral and smoky notes. Richer still, smooth and with more depth, this full bodied wine has ample red fruit, lots of pepper, hints of caramel and a nice finish.

2010 Westside Road Neighbors pinot noir: ruby with rich fruit and floral notes, some eucalyptus and a bit of vanilla. This was delicious! It grabs hold of your mouth and won’t let go. We detected red and blue fruit esp. sour cherry and plum, with a great mineral earthy component.

2009 Forchini Vineyard “South Knoll” zinfandel: opaque reddish purple. The nose was blackberry and fruit compote. This was “over the top jammy” “something that you’d put on waffles.” It overwhelms your senses before you even take a sip. Fat, it was so full and rich, with loads of fruit and a mild peppery finish. This was a “stand alone” wine, perhaps best suited for grilled beef or maybe breakfast.

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Clos du Val, Napa Valley

by Stevie on April 11, 2012

the Three Graces

the Three Graces

We’ve been to Clos du Val in Napa Valley many times over the years and always had fun. Most recently we had a lovely wine tasting and picnic event with some marvelous fellow bloggers from the Bay Area and Sacramento. Actually, Hegui selected this place for our picnic as we have such fond memories.

The facility is gorgeous Napa. A huge ivy covered building surrounded by vineyards with the romantic mountain range in the background boasting stunning rocky escarpments. This visit I had time to really look at the display vineyard in front where they demonstrate numerous styles of vine training: spur, head, cane and cordon spur all with various spacing. It was quite interesting though I wonder how one actually decides which training style works for their vineyard? With so many options available, it must be an art.

Inside the tasting room is spacious and elegant. We had called ahead so had a large table in the adjoining “Pinot Room,” at least I think that’s what our charming host, Linden, called the place.

The winery has what for Napa is a long and prestigious history. Founded in 1970 by John Portet, they had a bottle of their 1972 cabernet sauvignon (their first wine ever released) selected for what became that famous Paris Tasting in 1976. The web site is splashy and to me at least seemed a bit over-the-top with the various oversized fonts, blinking images and statements with all the intense bullet points. Certainly it doesn’t reflect how I feel about Clos du Val, which is more elegant and almost homey. That is if my family lived in an opulent mansion in wine country. Here’s an example of what I mean from their “vision” page:

It has been said that we at Clos Du Val ‘march to the beat of our own drum’, and if our founding principles of individuality, independence and expressionism are a bad thing, we respectfully disagree.

To someone like me visiting this winery, who is not an expert on cabernet of any stripe, identifying the “individuality, independence and expressionism” is tough, as the place seems like grand old-school Napa to my naïve eyes. But ultimately I have to agree with them, that’s not “a bad thing.”

a lovely garden wraps around the trellis demonstration at Clos du Val

a lovely garden wraps around the trellis demonstration at Clos du Val

Clos du Val trellis demonstration

Clos du Val trellis demonstration guide

the grand vine-covered tasting room

the grand vine-covered tasting room

We tried two tastings, a mix of reds and whites and another red-only reserve tasting. Overall the group really liked these wines. I bought a couple bottles and even impulsively joined their club when Linden gave me a discount and waived all of our tasting fees. Since I liked the wines, it seemed to make sense at the time.

another group of three graces

another group of three graces

2010 Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley: Very pale yellow with a citrusy nose, esp. grapefruit. It was crisp, had good body and as expected lovely citrus and even some tropical flavors.

2009 Reserve Chardonnay: A transparent golden color with green apple leading to lovely yellow fruit and mineral notes with a good finish.

2009 Pinot Noir, Carneros: Ruby red with rich spices leading to red fruit, loam and minerals, well balanced with good body and finish. This is quite different from the Russian River Valley, but delightful just the same.

2008 Reserve Pinot Noir, Carneros: This one spent 14 months in oak. Also ruby with vanilla, spice, red fruit. This is smooth, with medium body and a long finish. If I understand correctly, this wine is not made every year.

2009 Merlot, Napa Valley: Black color with rich red fruit, good body and finish, everyone enjoyed it.

2008 Three Graces: A Bordeaux style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (90%), Merlot (6%) and the rest split between petit verdot and cabernet franc. Linden claimed that it is his favorite in the line-up. These three daughters of Zeus are sort of the mascots for the winery and appear on all their labels. They’re supposed to represent independence of mind, body and spirit.

The wine itself was a dark red with a rich nose of red stone fruit, tobacco, forest floor, and toffee. It had ample fruit and exciting spicy notes on the good finish. Only 10 barrels were produced.

2007 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District: This is 94% cab with the rest, merlot. This was my favorite. An almost black color with lots of dark fruit, vanilla and spice with supple tannins and bursting with flavor on the long finish, it doesn’t get any better than this.

2007 Clos du Val Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon

2007 Clos du Val Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon

2000 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon: 88% cab, the rest, merlot and is it cabernet franc? This one was offered to get a sense of how the wines age. It was black in color. The nose had green bell pepper, dirt and tobacco, spice and perhaps that V-8 juice quality that I sometimes detect. This led to red fruit, full body with supple texture and a long finish.

1997 Cabernet Sauvignon: this is 100% cab. Red to black in color, Hegui thought that it smelled of “dirty socks.” Certainly it did have that green pepper and earth nose. The fruit’s still detectable with a good finish. The wine had an interesting mineral/metallic flavor we enjoyed.

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The Pivot vineyard was pivotal for the establishment of Littorai in this spot

The Pivot vineyard was pivotal for the establishment of Littorai in this spot

Littorai barrel room

Littorai barrel room

We’ve been talking about taking the tour of Littorai for months. Really ever since we went last fall for their members event. Now that we’ve done it, it is funny to think about how naïve I’ve been. For example, I didn’t actually know that Littorai embraced organic and biodynamic practices as part of their wine production philosophy.

I took a mini-break just now from writing to look at the labels on a bottle of the 2009 Littorai Les Larmes Pinot Noir Anderson Valley. It doesn’t mention biodynamics. So perhaps it isn’t that odd that I didn’t know about it until the tour, though probably I shouldn’t have been surprised as biodynamics has received a lot of traction and, though sometimes mixed, generally positive press in recent years.

On the day of our visit it was overcast and threatening rain. Margie Truter was our delightful, well-informed guide. We arrived about 20 minutes early but were greeted cheerfully just the same. It was only the two of us for the tour, which made me feel like we were celebrities or something. I liked it.

We started in front of the wine production facility but quickly turned toward the newly installed organic gardens near The Pivot vineyard. (It’s called The Pivot, English accent please, because this is the hill that convinced Heidi and Ted Lemon to buy the property. This “pivotal” hill with its proximity to the Ocean and its southern exposure apparently enchanted the couple with its winemaking potential.)

flowers were everywhere

flowers were everywhere

I like the purple ones a lot

I like the purple ones a lot

dandelion flowers are cultivated for their health benefits for the vines

dandelion flowers are cultivated for their health benefits for the vines

the chamomile flowers were marvelously aromatic

the chamomile flowers were marvelously aromatic

The garden had flowering chamomile and dandelion, stinging nettle and some other plants (or in some cases things that my mother would probably call “weeds”) that are either composted with manure from organic cows, chipped grapevine cuttings and other plants from the grounds; or are dried and put into huge sacks which get used as giant “tea bags.” Sometimes the plants are put into pots and buried for a year or so, then added to the rest. This Littorai-made compost gets spread in the various vineyards and the “dandelion tea” is sprayed at various times on the vines. They believe that these plants contain various essential minerals and nutrients that aid in grapevine development and health.

here Margie is telling us about the various minerals and nutrients to be found in the garden plants

here Margie is telling us about the various minerals and nutrients to be found in the garden plants

Littorai uses the cane method of pruning their vines

Littorai uses the cane method of pruning their vines

the red trees seemed so cheery and welcoming on this overcast day

these red trees seemed so cheery and welcoming on this overcast day

Down the hill lie a small creek and a wood. Unfortunately we didn’t see these. Apparently there are certain reeds, I think they’re called horsetail, that the staff use as a natural fungicide.

We did troop through part of The Pivot vineyard and saw several small hills of organic compost in a meadow nearby. Margie referred to them by their year of production (2010 or 2011) just like vintage wine. I suppose there might be something to that. It seems that they allow these hills to sit for a year or two to fully develop. I picked up a sample of the 2010 which seemed more like a rich soil than poo. (Of course I washed up afterward!) They turn it only once, so it isn’t that much work once you’ve gotten started. They’ve this cool window onto the 2011 pile that allows you to see how the compost changes over time.

chamomile on a drying rack

chamomile on a drying rack

rock samples from The Haven vineyard

rock samples from The Haven vineyard

they use these large sacks of stinging nettle like tea bags to fertalize the vineyards organically

they use these large sacks of stinging nettle like tea bags to fertalize the vineyards organically

carpenter bee hives

carpenter bee hives

These folks recycle their own water in reed filled lakes near the old building where they dry the nutritive plants. We saw numerous lovely free range chickens and some adorable ducks there. They had some geese until quite recently but eliminated them after they started getting aggressive. The team actively cultivates honey and, is it carpenter? bees, as they’re both very productive pollinators. Some of the flowering plants like the French lavender are there to keep the bees happy year round.

The idea of biodynamics is that everything on earth and in the universe is interrelated in a literal as well as a mystical or spiritual sense. That second part is where you start to lose some people. In our post-modern age, there’s frank hostility to most stuff that science, or perhaps social media, cannot explain.

Personally, I’m of two minds on the matter. Preserving the environment makes perfect sense, which in an agricultural setting translates into exactly what you find at Littorai: reduction of waste, composting and recycling, avoiding toxic chemicals, and eschewing monoculture. And there’s no reason to disbelieve that plants contain essential nutrients. Think vitamin C in citrus fruits for example, or for you real diehards, “medicinal marihuana.” As to the more um… abstract parts, well, to each his or her own. Personally, I think that it is rude to find fault with others’ spiritual practices, don’t you?

rock samples from Hirsch vineyard

rock samples from Hirsch vineyard

side view of Littorai winemaking facility

side view of Littorai winemaking facility

a happy stain on this barrel

a happy stain on this barrel

Biodynamics does raise some interesting questions beyond the metaphysical. First off, before the rise of mass automated agriculture in the late 19th and Twentieth Centuries, wasn’t this more or less how everyone farmed? I do wonder about biodynamic grape and wine production in the context of Northern California merely because we’re talking pinot noir, a plant from Europe. And for that matter, are chamomile, stinging nettle, etc. native? In that sense biodynamics and the locavore movement are not related, despite getting blurred together at times.

2010 Littorai Sonoma Coast and The Pivot pinots noir

2010 Littorai Sonoma Coast and The Pivot pinots noir

In any event, the farming practices at Littorai sound like they are minimally harmful, which is a good thing. Certainly the wines that the Lemons produce following them are marvelous. We tasted several that day: the 2010 Thieriot chardonnay, the 2010 Hirsch and The Pivot pinots, 2009 Cerise and Savoy pinots, and the 2010 Sonoma Coast pinot blend. Sadly I forgot my pen in the car, so didn’t write down our tasting notes to share here. The chardonnay was wound tight with lots of fruit and mineral notes, and as always the pinots were all delicious yet each beguilingly different from one another. I splurged a bit that day as you might imagine. I suppose that we’ll just have to return to Littorai soon to share our tasting with you, our faithful readers.

Hegui and I in the Pivot vineyard

Hegui and I in The Pivot vineyard at Littorai

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welcome to David Bruce Winery

welcome to David Bruce Winery

David Bruce is sort of a mystery winery, nestled in the Santa Cruz Mountains between San Jose and, you guessed it, Santa Cruz. I write “mystery” even though the WC tasting crew recently enjoyed a lovely afternoon there simply because I’m struggling to learn more about the winery and its practices for this post. For some reason, my browser won’t open their official site page, which is how I usually cobble together all the random facts that I throw into stories like this. Wikipedia is back and says fairly tersely that the place was founded by a dermatologist, David Bruce MD, in 1961, that they were one of the wineries to have a bottle of their chardonnay selected for the now famous French v. California wine tasting event in Paris in 1975 (it finished last), and that these days, they’re mostly known for pinot noir.

Well, that’s a bit dry, don’t you think?

David Bruce vineyard in winter

David Bruce vineyard in winter

We dared the treacherous mountain roads to visit David Bruce because we’ve had and enjoyed numerous bottles in the past. I’ve seen the wine at local grocery stores and our great friend, John, has even been given some as corporate gifts. (That’s fabulous, isn’t it?) So we like the stuff. Plus we’re fairly unfamiliar with the Santa Cruz Mountain winery scene, so starting with something familiar sounded like a good way to go.

The winery tasting room itself was pleasant if a bit non-descript. We arrived towards the end of the day, so had the place virtually to ourselves. Two very enjoyable staff, Blake Upton and Michael Beck (I wrote their names down when we were there) helped us. What seemed particularly unusual were the wines that got poured. These were old. I mean “old” in quotations I should clarify. None of them were from the latest vintages—usually 2009s at most places right now, with some 2010s and 2011s, especially whites, making an early showing.

David Bruce tasting room

David Bruce tasting room

The 2004 Estate Chardonnay was particularly surprising, and delightful. In fact, they were having a promotion on their older wines. Should you buy a half case of mixed pinot noirs or their syrah/petite sirah blends from three older vintages, they’d give it away at half price and throw in a matching half case of 2003 chardonnay. Many of the other wines were half off per case. That’s quite a sale and we were perplexed. It almost made me think that they wanted to dump the wine because it was junk, though when we tasted, we liked it a lot. Blake, or maybe Michael, told us that the winery was in the process of refocusing and wanted to reduce inventory and in future produce smaller volumes. Something like that.

So it’s a good time to visit David Bruce for their super deals on unusual and exciting wines. I’m constantly hearing about the pleasures of aged California wine, and here’s your opportunity to try it without the pain of cellaring the stuff yourselves for years on end.

some really aged David Bruce

some really aged David Bruce

2004 Estate Chardonnay: a golden yellow with a powerful nose of peach and apricot jam, the ample and rich yellow fruit were balanced with some mineral notes, a hint of butter and a long finish. This was an amazing wine.

2007 Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley: a beautiful ruby with strawberry notes, red fruit, particularly cherry, with hints of earth and tobacco, this was medium to full body.

2007 Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley: A deep red, almost purple color, we detected Spanish moss and forest floor with some red fruit. Fuller than the RRV with lots of red and purple stone fruit—think plum and cherry—it was a bit spicier with lots of mineral. Good.

2005 Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley, Bien Nacido Vineyard: A rusty red with truffle, barnyard and mocha notes leading to strawberries, sour cherries, and caramel, this had brisk acidity and a long finish.

2002 Estate Syrah/Petite Sirah: Opaque purple with a cherry and leathery nose, this wine was nice and dense. Full bodied with red and purple stone fruit and graphite, it had a good finish and an almost creamy texture.

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black pepper fettuccine in chardonnay cashew nut sauce with asparagus, red bell pepper annd spinach

black pepper fettuccine in chardonnay cashew nut sauce with asparagus, red bell pepper and spinach

I spotted this recipe in the latest edition of Vegetarian Times magazine. The recipe is part of a funny article inviting loving couples to come spend their time and money at the Stanford Inn by the Sea for Valentine’s Day. The Inn’s renowned vegetarian restaurant, Raven’s, is run by Chefs Sally Owens and Merlyn Alvarado. I’ve checked both the hotel and restaurant (on-line) and they look sublime! These two local “celebrity” chefs have paired together to create vegetarian recipes with aphrodisiac properties just for the holiday. Everything uses locally and organically grown vegetables from Mendocino.

Among the several recipes, I was particularly excited by the creamy fettuccine with raw cashew nut sauce. It is completely vegan: no dairy at all! However, the name of the recipe in Vegetarian Times (“Black pepper fettuccine with chardonnay sauce and grilled asparagus”) omits the cashews, which is a major component here. I wonder why? We all know that black pepper for the most part comes from India and it’s been part of our culinary experience for so long that we don’t even think of it as a foreign ingredient. So why mention it and leave out the somewhat more exotic cashew? In Indian cooking cashew nuts have been used to thicken soups forever, or at least since the cashew plant made its journey from South America to India a few hundred years ago… And why praise the grilled asparagus over the more commonplace red bell pepper and humble baby spinach? Hmmm. Certainly it isn’t because the name becomes crazy long, as they’ve plenty of room for that in VT. So to prevent hard feelings among the lovely ingredients, I have renamed this dish accordingly. ;) lol

VT has adapted the recipe from the original and I have done the same, readapting it to my tastes. The proportion of each ingredient didn’t seem right to me so I modified them a bit. I have made dishes from VT in the past and have found that sometimes things are a bit off. I wonder if they have a test-kitchen? VT here’s a suggestion from me: test before you publish, like we do.

fettuccine in black pepper chardonnay cashew nut sauce with asparagus, red bell pepper and spinach

2 cups raw cashew nuts
2 cups chardonnay
2 tbsp nutritional yeast
Juice of a large lemon (~ 3 tbsp)
1 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
1 lb fettuccine cooked per package instructions
2 cups baby spinach
1 bunch asparagus bottom tips peeled
½ red bell pepper cut into fine strips
Kosher salt

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Pre-heat oven to 400F.

Add enough water to cashews to barely cover them in a small bowl. Microwave for about 2 minutes. Remove and let rest a bit. Transfer cashew nuts and water to food processor and whiz until nuts have turned into a smooth paste. Do not skip the microwaving part otherwise the paste will not become smooth and glossy.

Place the wine in a saucepan and bring to near boil, turn temperature to low and simmer for about 10 minutes. Add cashew nut paste, lemon juice, black pepper, kosher salt and whisk to combine, taste and adjust flavors. It should be creamy, tangy and a bit peppery. Add more warm water if too thick.

Place asparagus and red bell pepper on two different baking trays, sprinkle with a tiny amount of salt and black pepper and tiny drizzle of olive oil. Roast in the oven for about 8 minutes. Remove from oven and keep warm.

Meanwhile cook pasta following cooking instructions from package, put spinach leaves in toward the last 30 seconds. Drain.

Transfer pasta with spinach to a bowl. Toss with half of the sauce, scatter asparagus spears and red pepper slices over and serve.

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Robert Young Estate Winery, Sonoma County

December 21, 2011

We were originally turned onto Robert Young by our good friend, Ben. We went for a wine country excursion there about six or seven years ago. He recommended them as it was our first trip ever to Healdsburg and Anderson Valley and we didn’t know what to expect. Robert Young really made an impression. Sadly, […]

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Stephen & Walker Trust Winery Limited, Sonoma County

December 7, 2011

Stephen & Walker Trust Winery Limited is a totally different kind of wine country excursion. Located on the Plaza in downtown Healdsburg, this is more like visiting a bar/shop than “wine country” per se. In that sense, it is less romantic and visually stunning than the typical weirdcombos tasting adventure. Nevertheless, this is a place […]

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