Thursday, October 29, 2009

Napa Valley - Day 3

Another clear day greeted us as we started our final day in Napa. Our first appointment was at Pride Mountain Vineyard at the north end of the valley. It's a long and winding road to the top and although there are quite a few wineries along the way, there was signage to remind us that there was not, in fact, a winery at the end of every driveway.

We finally made it to the top, and arrived about 5 minutes before our scheduled appointment. After the rest of the folks on the tour arrived, we were served a taste of the 2007 Merlot. Pride is well known for their Merlot, and it was absolutely wonderful - structured and fruity with a depth that is rare for Merlot. We then headed outside where Russell, our guide, explained a little about the property and the winery. The boundary between Napa and Sonoma counties runs right through the property, so parts of the vineyard are in Napa and parts in Sonoma. They even have 2 different winemaking facilities, one in Napa and one in Sonoma, so that they can label their wines with the appropriate appellations. The two facilities are separated by the crush pad which is split down the middle by the county line.

We then headed out to the crush pad. Because they are at a considerably higher elevation than the valley floor, they generally pick a few weeks later than the wineries in the valley, and harvest was still in full swing. We saw Cabernet Sauvignon fermenting in bins and got to punch down the cap. We also saw some stainless fermenting tanks that had been drained of the free run juice and were being emptied in preparation for pressing. A big bladder press was in the process of pressing the skins and we got to taste this wine too. What fun! We then headed into the caves for a little more tasting: a big (really big - 17.1%) but well-balanced Syrah, and a barrel sample of the 2008 Merlot. Both were very nice. As we left the cave, they'd started processing the next batch of grapes. In addition to sorting the clusters before being de-stemmed, they also did some sorting of individual berries afterward.

We then headed out into the vineyard. They seemed to be about halfway done with harvest - some sections of the vineyard had been picked, while others were still heavy with fruit (which we sampled heavily). Pride employs a team of vineyard workers full time - about half live on the property, while the other half live in St. Helena. Having a full-time crew allows them to be very selective about when and how much they pick. Some days, they may only pick a few rows, while on other days they might pick several blocks - it just depends on how much is ripe.

After a long walk through the vineyards, we returned to the tasting room to sample some Cab and the 2006 Merlot. It was all amazing. Yesterday we had decided that maybe we didn't need to go on any more tours, but today's tour was absolutely wonderful. I'm sure much of it was timing, as we got to watch every aspect of the harvest and crush, and it was fun to see how a really high-end winery works.

After Pride Mountain, we headed south on Hwy 29 and stopped at Beaulieu Vineyards, another historic property in Napa. Founded in 1900 by Georges de Latour, BV was one of the early Napa pioneers. It was the first stop in 1938 of the French wine maker André Tchelistcheff who would become another icon of the Napa Valley. It's a big place right on the highway, and as we looked for a parking space in the large parking lot, we had a hard time finding the tasting room. We finally ended up parking right in front of the door. However, after looking at the tasting menu, I didn't see the wines I expected, so I asked about them. The pourer told us that we'd find those wines across the parking lot in the Reserve Room. After wandering around the parking lot a little more, we finally found the right building, complete with a statue of André Tchelistcheff, and went in. The standard tasting room and been huge and crowded, but we were the only people in the much smaller Reserve Room. We tried a couple of single vineyard Cabs, the Tapestry Meritage, and the 2005 Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cab. All were quite nice, but not spectacular. I think we'd been spoiled by Alpha Omega on the first day. We also tasted an older Georges de Latour from the early 90's which despite the funky nose, was really nice.

By this time we were getting pretty hungry, so we headed to the original Oakville Grocery (in Oakville) for sandwiches and a tasty Brussels sprout salad. While the food was excellent, they are right on Hwy 29, so there was quite a bit of traffic as we sat on the front porch eating. Oh well, it was fun anyway. After lunch we headed to Goosecross Cellars. I've been listening to their Napa Valley Wine Radio podcast for about a year, so I was eager to taste their wine. They had also been recommended to us by the couple that we met the first day on the Mondavi and Del Dotto tours. The tasting room is a small, homey place in a small building behind the owners' home. Unfortunately the two pourers were engaged with other groups there, and we really didn't feel like we got much attention. As much as I wanted to like their wines, they were just so-so. They did have a nice Cab Franc that we liked.

After Goosecross, we had about 45 minutes before our tour at Robert Sinskey, so we looked at the map for someplace close that we might like. When Rachel suggested Domaine Chandon, I thought she was kidding. They are known for sparkling wines, and she generally can't stand sparkling wines. But she was serious and thought it might be fun, so we headed toward the winery. After a short drive (and having to wait for the Napa Valley Wine Train to pass) we arrived. It's a big operation and we were guided upstairs to the tasting room where there are about 4 different flights you can try, optionally paired with lots of food. I think next time we're in Napa, we'll have lunch there. We decided to each get a different flight of bubbly and share. In an unexpected turn of events, we both liked most of the wines, and even bought a bottle. It was a really fun experience, and we want to take the tour next time also.

We got done at Domaine Chandon at about 2:40 and headed to our 3:00 appointment at Robert Sinskey Winery. I took a look at my spreadsheet to double check, and found to my horror that our tour was not at 3:00, but had been at 1:00. Oops, I'd blown it. We had to be in San Jose that evening, and briefly considered just heading out early. Instead, we drove back north on Hwy 29 and stopped at Rubicon Estate. We'd meant to stop here on our first day, but the timing didn't quite work. After driving past it (poor signage) we finally found it. By now it was about 3:10, and there was a tour going at 3:30, so we decided to go for it. We're both very glad we did. The tour was not so much a winery tour as an historical tour.

The story of Rubicon Estate is both sad and joyful. It starts in the late 1800s with Gustav Niebaum, who, having made a fortune in the Alaskan fur trade, decided to settle down and make wine. He wanted to make wine that rivaled the best in Europe, and eventually started the Inglenook Winery. Many of us may remember Inglenook as cheap jug wine, but it didn't start off that way. Niebaum's wines won awards around the world. After Gustav's death, his wife continued to make high quality wine, and eventually passed the winery to her great grand-nephew John Daniel Jr. Daniel had the same commitment to quality and led the winery through prohibition. In fact refused to bottle any wines that didn't meet his high standards. However, financial pressures eventually led him to sell the winery to the corporate giant Heubleine, who transitioned the winery from top quality wines to cheap jug wine. John Daniel felt that everything his family had worked so hard for was now lost, and he died a broken man.

In 1975, Francis Ford Coppola was looking for a quiet place to raise his family and bought the mansion and some of the vineyards that had been part of the Niebaum estate. He originally had no intention of making wine, but a meeting with Robert Mondavi changed all of that. As Mondavi related the story of Inglenook winery - the history and passion that went into it, and the current sad state of affairs, they shared a 100 year old bottle of Inglenook Cab from the mansion's cellar. Coppola was hooked. When the winery itself eventually came up for sale, Coppola bought it, reuniting all of the original properties. He has since worked to re-establish the winery's original tradition of no compromise, world class wines.

After this moving story, we went into the tasting room to try the wines. One of the great things here is that all of the levels of tastings include their cask fermented Cab and the flagship Rubicon wine. In addition, we tasted a wonderful Chardonnay, a Merlot, and a Syrah. All were great, but the Rubicon just blew us away. It was smooth, rich and deep - every bit as good as the Alpha Omega from the first day, but different. It was a huge high note to finish on. I'm sure the wines at Sinskey would have been great, but we were both very happy that we ended up at Rubicon as the last winery on our trip.

With smiles on our faces, we drove to the wine shipping store in Napa to have our collected purchases shipped home for us before fighting the traffic into San Jose. Even though the traffic was bad, we got to see a nice sunset, and listened to game 2 of the world series.

What a great time we had over the 3 days we were there. As a reminder to ourselves for our next trip, here are a few learnings and observations:

  • A lot of pourers were on autopilot and didn't engage with us. They didn't seem interested in the wine or their customers, and there's just no excuse for that. We didn't see much of this in Sonoma last year, and we rarely see it in Oregon. Maybe it's a Napa thing.
  • We liked the wine better when we had a better experience with the pourer/tour guide. I'm sure it's the same wine either way, but our perception of the wine was generally better when we were comfortable and engaged with our pourer or tour guide.
  • Don't over-book yourselves with tours. We enjoyed most of the tours, but having set times limits you in terms of the other wineries you can visit during the day.
  • Skip the standard tastings if they offer a high-end tasting. We know what mid-range wine tastes like, and really don't need any more of it. We want the good stuff.
  • Seen one cave, seen 'em all. Enough already! OK, I really like wine caves, but I think we've probably seen enough unless there's really something special about it.
  • Shipping costs are often offset by not needing to pay sales tax. They have an almost 9% tax rate, so you may be better off having the wine shipped home to Oregon (no tax), especially if you take it with you from the winery (and pay tax) and then just end up shipping it to yourself (pay shipping). Let the winery ship your purchases to you and save the tax.
  • There's a lot of mediocre wine out there! Related to the statement about the high-end tasting, there's only so much really top shelf wine out there. Most is merely good to mediocre. Go for the best stuff if you can do the research and find it. Of course you won't really know until you taste. In our case, we shouldn't buy it unless it's really special.
  • Rachel should bring a warm jacket. It gets cold in the evenings in October.
That's it for this year - off to Sonoma next year!

Napa Valley - Day 2

Rachel was up early and headed off to work out at Curves. One has to stay in shape for all that wine tasting! Pretty much whenever we travel, she gets a travel card and finds the local Curves. I slept in (after not having slept well during the night).

After breakfast we were off to our first appointment for the day. Although we never met Gary Andrus, we know him through his wine. After starting Archery Summit in the Dundee Hills of Oregon, he started a little winery near Cornelius called Gypsy Dancer, and we've enjoyed both their Pinot Noir and a wonderful crisp Pinot Gris. He was also the winemaker for Dukes Family Vineyards and made some wonderful Pinot Noir for them. Sadly, Gary passed away earlier this year. Our first stop of the day was Pine Ridge, the winery that Gary founded before coming to Oregon.

Upon entering the tasting room, we were offered a taste of their Chenin Blanc/Viognier blend - a delightful light white wine with tropical fruit and good acid. This is their only wine that's not made at the winery and uses grapes sources from near Clarskburg and Lodi. It's a great value and they make a lot of it. We then started the tour in their demonstration vineyard where they show off the various grape varieties planted on the estate as well as a number of different trellising techniques. Our tour guide was pretty good, and gave us the rundown on grafting, ripening, and harvesting. We then walked around into the working area of the winery. They have a very clever racking system for their barrels in which each barrel is mounted in a couple of metal loops with rollers so that the empty barrels can be easily rotated for cleaning and draining.

We then got to tour the barrel cave and taste one of their Chardonnays. The Chard was quite nice, and the cave looked pretty much like any other barrel cave. Near the back, they have a nice event space with some strange glass artwork. They also had their tasting table setup where we sat down to taste through several of their estate reds paired with some nice cheese. We had a good fruity Merlot, a Cab Franc, and a nice Stag's Leap District Cab Suav. We then went back to the tasting room and tasted Fortis, their Bordeaux blend, and their Oakville Cab Sauv. All the reds were quite good, although we liked the Cab Suavs better than the Fortis.

After Pine Ridge, we had some unscheduled time, and Rachel had suggested that we go to Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, the winery that Warren Winiarski started back in 1970 and whose Cabernet Sauvignon topped all of the other reds in the famous Paris tasting of 1976. The tasting room was in the middle of being remodeled, but were still pouring at the tasting bar. The wines were quite good, but the pourer was a bit of a cold fish, and I never really felt comfortable. The wines were quite good - a very nice, lightly oaked Chardonnay, 2 single vineyard Cabs, and their Cask 23 Cab - a selection of the best fruit from their 2 vineyards. All were very good, and the Cask 23 bordered on exceptional, but was not worth the $195 they wanted for it.

Our next stop was the iconic Robert Mondavi Winery. The Mondavi family, and particularly Robert, played a pivotal role in the development of today's California wine industry, and their story is well chronicled in several good books (I particularly liked The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty by Julia Siler). The story has a sad ending when Robert became over-extended and had to sell out to Constellation, a giant corporation that has bought up many wineries throughout the world. Fortunately, Constellation seems to be letting the winery continue its focus on high quality wines - at least for now.

I had toured the winery in February of 2007 (the first winery I'd ever visited) and somehow managed to get a personal tour when no one else had signed up for the tour. This time there was one other couple on the tour, and it felt much more scripted and less interactive than last time. But our guide was pretty good anyway, and did a nice job explaining the variations in grape growing and wine making that lead to the many subtle differences in the individual barrels of wine that eventually get blended. He also talked about some of the innovations that Robert Mondavi brought to wine making such as jacketed stainless steel tanks, and the extra care taken in the wine making at the winery. The facility itself is quite impressive: over 50 giant oak fermentation vats, hundreds of new french oak barrels for every vintage, and 2 giant hydraulic basket presses. At the end of the tour, we tasted 3 representative wines from their estate-level collection: a buttery Chard with a bit too much oak for my taste, a Carneros Pinot Noir (decent, but no Oregon Pinot), and their Oakville Cab.

We decided we should probably get some lunch next, so we drove a short distance up hwy 29 to Dean and Deluca for some tasty sandwiches which we enjoyed sitting outside in the warm sun. This is really the best lunch during a day of wine tasting - something fast, but not fast food. I wish we had someplace like Dean and Deluca or the Oakville Grocery in the northern Willamette Valley.

After lunch we drove south for our 3:00 tour at the Del Dotto wine cave. I had taken the tour when I was here about a year and a half ago and really enjoyed it. Unfortunately it suffered from second time syndrome for me, both because I had built it up in my mind from last time as well as the fact that our guide this time wasn't that good, and the tour group was too big. I thought they limited it to 8 people, but we must have had at least 12 (2 of whom were the couple that had been on the Mondavi tour with us earlier in the day) . The wines are pulled directly from barrels in the cave and ranged from a very nice smooth Sangiovese, a pedestrian blend, several good Cabs, and a really huge Cab that Parker had rated a 94 (a big fruit bomb that was really quite good, but I'm not sure I would have wanted a whole glass of it). After the cave, we were poured several bottled wines including another Cab, a Port, and something they called a Pinot Noir (I'm not an Oregon Pinot snob, am I?). All in all, it was a letdown.

Once again, we found ourselves finished at around 5:00 and wondering what to do next. We'd driven by Peju several times during the day and they had a sign that said they were open until 6:00, so we headed there. Walking past the various art objects outside, we entered the tasting room and found ourselves in the middle of a gathering crowd that was being whisked back through several tasting rooms into the VIP room. We looked for a way to escape, but the pourer was herding us all back, so we decided reluctantly to go with the flow. We ended up at a long bar with about 10 other people. In the end, we figured that this was how they handled the 5:00 rush when most of the other tasting rooms close and everyone who still wants to taste shows up.

Our pourer took the group through a tasting of what seemed like about 100 wines, most of which were surprisingly good. Usually when a winery has so many different wines, we worry that they don't do a great job on any of them, but that wasn't the case here. The reds were better than the whites, and they had several good Cabs, as well as a Merlot, Syrah, Cab Franc, and some blends. In the end, it was a pretty good tasting experience even though it was a strange beginning.

We headed back to the hotel for a short rest before heading into Yountville for dinner. Yountville is home to the famous French Laundry as well as some pretty nice looking inns, which we may look into staying at during our next visit. We arrived at Hurley's just before 7 and were immediately seated. Since we had tasted so much wine during the day, neither of us felt up to a full bottle of wine with dinner, but their extensive wine list included a number of half-bottles and since we were both looking at seafood for dinner, we ordered a half bottle of Dry Creek Vineyards' Fumé Blanc (we had tasted last year's vintage during our Sonoma trip last year). For food, we started with a crispy mix of fried calamari, shrimp, cauliflower, red onion and fennel. For our salad course, I had a warm asparagus salad with prosciutto, pine nuts, manchego cheese and a lemon anchovy vinaigrette and Rachel had (I think) a salad of mixed baby greens with candied walnuts and goat cheese. For our main course, I had seared scallops with gnocchi and Rachel had grilled mussels with chorizo, leeks, garlic, tomato and red wine as well as a small order of very tasty crab cakes. Had we not just been to La Toque the night before, it would have been a great meal. As it was, it was well prepared but predictable food. I hope we haven't been spoiled for life! For dessert, I had a warm chocolate brownie with caramel sauce and ice cream (yum) and Rachel had a scoop of gelato and a scoop of sorbet. She had debated about the cookie plate, but of the 5 cookies, she didn't care for 2 of them. Interestingly when her dessert and coffee came, they was accompanied by the 2 cookies that she didn't like. Oh well.

It was a good day, but in some ways a letdown from yesterday. The food and wine were good, but just didn't quite live up to what we had yesterday. But, tomorrow is another day, and we have a busy schedule.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Napa Valley - Day 1

Every year about this time I head down to San Jose to attend the Advanced Imaging Conference. For the past several years, I've gone down a few days early to visit wineries in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. This year Rachel and I spent 2 and a half days in the Napa area.

In the past, we flown into San Francisco and driven to wine country. It's about an hour if the traffic is light, but unfortunately bay area traffic is almost never light. This year, we discovered that Horizon Airlines has a direct flight from Portland to Santa Rosa, so we decided to take it. The plane itself is a good sized turbo-prop and was fairly comfortable. The approach into Sonoma gives you a great view of the vineyards, and the fall colors on the grape vines were beautiful. The Charles M Shultz airport in Santa Rosa isn't exactly set up for commercial flights, but it works. Upon landing, you stand around "baggage claim", a small tent set up over a metal rack, and eventually you can see the baggage truck drive over from the airplane. The driver then unloads the baggage into the rack, and you take what's yours. We picked up our rental care (a nice Nissan Altima hybrid) and headed north on 101. Within 2 minutes we were driving past acres and acres of grape vines.

Our first stop was the Healdsburg UPS store to purchase a wine shipping box with a styrofoam insert. This not only allows us to ship back 12 bottles of wine, but keeps the wine we purchase during the day from getting too hot in the car. We then grabbed a couple of sandwiches at the Healdsburg branch of the Oakville Grocery; the original Oakville grocery (in Oakville) is a Napa valley landmark for lunch. Our first winery stop was Mazzocco, just north of Healdsburg. We had visited them last year and fell in love with their Zinfandels. They are one of the very few wine clubs that we belong to, so we felt we needed to stop to taste some old friends and make new ones. We tasted through their entire lineup, which included a nice crisp Chardonnay, a nice Cab Sauv, about 150 Zinfandels (OK, maybe 6 or 7) and a light and fruit-forward Petite Sirah. Don't worry, I was spitting.

After Mazzocco we continued north (after Lee, our GPS, messed us up - a recurring theme this trip) and then crossed over into the north end of the Napa Valley. Our first stop in Napa was Summer's Estate Winery - chosen because they claimed to be a small family winery, about 10,000 cases a year. Where we come from, that's not small! They had a so-so lineup of wines, including a Charbono, which we had never tasted before. We were somewhat disappointed, and left in search of better things.

Our next stop was Sterling Vineyards. When I was researching where we'd visit this trip, one of my criteria for choosing a winery was the tour experience. The winery at Sterling was built at the top of a hill, and while they truck the grapes up from the valley to the winery, visitors make the trip in an aerial tram! Rachel and I paid our tour fee (with the Reserve Tasting upgrade), boarded a gondola, and up we went. Josh would not have liked the ride, but it was smooth and quiet, and we enjoyed it. At the top, they'd set up a very nice self-guided walking tour around the winery. It's designed to remind one of the Greek island of Mykonos with white stucco walls and bell towers. The walking tour takes you along walkways, indoor corridors with windows that look into various parts of the working winery, and a beautiful rooftop terrace. At several points along the way, there's a tasting station for their whites. We had a decent Pinot Gris, and a big Chard that was everything we don't like in a Chard - big butter and oak. After the walking tour, you're guided into the tasting room for a sit-down tasting of the reds. Visitors are seated at private tables as in a restaurant, and one of the pourers leads your through the reds at your own pace. We had a very enthusiastic pourer who gave us a nice description of each wine. Our tasting included a nice Merlot, a very workman-like Napa Cab, an excellent reserve Cab, an wonderful complex reserve Bordeaux blend with a super-long finish, and a rather bitter sweet white at the end. Up until we hit the reserve reds, we were getting worried about finding good wine in Napa, but these were quite nice. We rode the aerial tram back down with smiles on our faces.

By this time, it was about 4:45, so we figured that this was our last stop of the day since most Napa wineries close at 4:30 or 5:00. However, on the drive back down hwy 29 to the hotel, we noticed the sign for Alpha-Omega that indicated they were open until 6:00. Our friend Rhonda had told us about this winery from her time on the world cruise - a passenger had brought a case or two of wine from Alpha-Omega on the ship and had generously shared it. She raved about it, and said it was one of the best wines she'd ever had. Well, with a recommendation like that (and the fact that it was one of the few wineries still open), we had to stop. I'd actually looked on their website after hearing about it from Rhonda, and I knew that their wines were expensive, so I really wasn't planning to buy, just taste. As we drove to the parking area in back, we had to dodge forklifts full of grapes - it was great to see that this was a real winery!

We were warmly greeted as we entered the tasting room, and were given the tasting menu. They had run out of the Sauvignon Blanc listed first on the menu, but were substituting an older (2005) Chardonnay. This one was everything we like in a Chard - crisp acid with light oak. This was followed by their 2006 Napa Cab - a technically well made wine with personality, and the creatively named "Proprietary Red", a good Bordeaux blend with smooth tannins and nice fruit. Then our pourer, Vinnie, poured their flagship 06 Era wine - wow, an incredible bd'x blend with deep complexity, structure and earthiness. We also got to taste a barrel sample of the '07 Era which had similar depth as the '06 but was somewhat smoother and fruitier due to the higher percentage of Merlot. Finally, we tried their rosé - not bad if you like those things... Sadly for our bank account, we liked the wine a lot. As we were arranging shipping, Vinnie poured us a taste of their late harvest Sauv Blanc/Semillon, a nicely balanced dessert wine. What a lot of really exceptional wines! We were concerned that we may have just hit the peak of our wine tasting trip, and it was only day #1. As far as the wines went, this was close to true, but little did we realize that our socks were about to be blown off.

Rachel teases me about having the trip completely planned out weeks in advance, including a spreadsheet showing which wineries we had appointments at, which wineries I wanted to visit, and of course which restaurants I had made reservations at. On the other hand, she took my spreadsheet and entered all of the addresses into Streets and Trips on her netbook PC so we could map out our travel; I guess we're both geeks. Anyway, tonight's dinner reservation was at La Toque in Napa. It looked like an interesting menu and wine list on their website. It's inside the Westin Hotel, and one is always a little suspicious of hotel restaurants for "fine dining," but to make things worse, when you walk up the steps to the restaurant, you pass underneath a giant lighted toque. Hmm, I could see that Rachel was getting concerned.

We went in and were seated immediately. The space itself is fairly typical of California restaurants - high ceilings and a fairly large elegantly furnished single room. The menu is prix fixe, but you can choose the number of courses (2-4) and can select from several different items for each course. You can also get wine pours specifically selected for each item you order if you want (and I *did* want). We each chose 3 courses, I had the wine pairing with all 3 of my courses, and Rachel choose to pair with just one of hers. After our waiter took our order, we were served an amuse bouche of pork confit along with some other incredible flavors. This was a shot fired across the bow that this wasn't going to be just another nice restaurant - there was some creativity here that we hoped would continue through the meal. Next, one of their 2 wine stewards came by to deliver the wine that would accompany my first course - seared fois gras and quince. However, instead of just dropping off a glass of wine, or pouring it from a bottle and leaving, he explained why he'd chosen this wine ("normally a Sauternes would be served with fois gras, but the presence of quince on the plate really called for something with a little more acid..."), then poured a generous amount into my glass, then corked the bottle and left it on the table. We assumed it wasn't so that we could pour ourselves more , and enjoyed reading the label on the Royal Tokaji. It was a perfect pairing - sweet enough to be a foil for the rich fois gras, but with enough acid to complement the quince. Rachel had an unbelievable beef carpaccio with a smokey aioli and crispy grilled trumpet mushroom slivers.

After we finished that, two more wine glasses arrived - one for me and one for Rachel. My next course was a ricotta chick pea ravioli in a Parmesan wild mushroom broth that was paired with an amazing restrained and slatey 2005 Nuits Saint Georges. Rachel had a very creative warm lobster and sweet potato salad paired with a 2008 white Rhone blend from Pelerin Wines in Carmel Valley, CA. She didn't like the wine by itself, but was a perfect match with the salad. Heading down the home stretch, it was time for some California Cab to go with my sliced rib eye (rare, of course) with cheddared pearl tapioca and an amazing red wine reduction. The big cheesy tapioca balls were a little strange, but very tasty. Rachel had lamb loin with cumin scented carrot purée and chick pea fries which went quite well with my Cab also.

Dessert? Of course! Do I remember what I had? No, but I do remember the wine that was paired with it. Pedro Ximénez (aka PX) is an intense dark dessert wine made from white wine of the Pedro Ximénez grape that is pretty much sherry or port on steroids. This was a 1979 (I think) and had such an intense deep woody sweetness such as I've never tasted before. I may never drink port again. Wow! Rachel had dessert too, but I don't remember it either. I remember that they were both pretty good, but the PX just eclipsed everything else. It was probably the best dinner that either of us had ever had, just going to show that you can't judge a restaurant by the size of the lighted toque!

Back to the hotel, full and happy. We didn't stay up too late since we wanted to be well rested for a full day of tasting tomorrow.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Antinori Winemaker's Dinner

Rachel and I just got back from an overnight trip to Astoria where we attended a winemaker's dinner with the wines of Antinori Family Wine Estates. The Antinori family has been in the wine business for 26 generations in Tuscany, Italy, and were one of the first producers of the so-called "Super Tuscan" in the 1970's. Antinori wines are imported into the US through Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington, and we had the US brand manager on hand to talk about the wines with us. The dinner itself took place at The Cellar on 10th, a wonderful wine shop in Astoria, and was catered by The Silver Salmon restaurant.

We arrived slightly before 6:00, but were the last ones there (apparently it was an early arriving crowd). We were greeted with a glass of Scalabrone Rosato - a rosé made from Cab Suav., Merlot, and Syrah from the Guado al Tasso vineyard on the Tuscan coast. It was bright and fruity without the bitterness that some rosés have. At that point, the Antinori representative told us a little about the family and their vineyard holdings. Rachel and I had listened to an interview with Alessia Antinori on Grape Radio on the drive to Astoria, so we actually knew quite a bit more that the rep. was telling us. While we were standing around listening, they brought out the appetizer course - Jamaican seared scallops in puff pastry with a lime chive aioli. This was paired with Vermentino, a white varietal that tasted a little like a bright, acidic, lightly oaked Chardonnay. We were surprised to learn that it as done in 100% stainless because it had some vanilla overtones as if it had seen some oak.

After the appetizer, we went into the cellar room to be seated for dinner. The entire wine shop is underground, but they have a separate climate controlled cellar room where they keep many of their high-end wines. At the center of the room is a long table with seating for 14. It's really a very nice environment for a dinner like this. The next course was an incredible tomato, pancetta and gorgonzola soup served in an acorn squash which had been topped, hollowed out and roasted. One could scape a bite of squash along with the soup and it as just wonderful - smokey and comforting. It was paired with the 2007 Il Bruciato, a red wine from the Guado al Tasso vineyard made from the same varieties as the rosé - Cab, Merlot, and Syrah. This was fruity, with dark cherries and a slight toastiness.

We were then served a palate cleanser of lemon sorbet with crushed pink peppercorns. I wasn't sure about pepper in sorbet, but it was light and refreshing without being too sweet. The two wines chosen to accompany the entrée were a couple of Chiantis - the 2004 Marchese Antinori Riserva Chianti, made from Sangiovese and a little Cab grown on their Chianti Classico estates, and the 2001 Badia a Passignano, 100% Sangiovese from their estate in the town of Passignano. This wine was a lot darker and bigger than the first. The entrée was smoked beef ternderloin with sautéed Crimini mushrooms and onions, served with a green pepper demi-glace accompanied by sun-dried tomato polenta and balsamic green bean sauté. It was very good, but not spectacular, and Rachel was sad that the chef took a perfectly good tenderloin and masked its flavor by smoking it. The pairing however, especially with the second wine, was amazing. Without food, nearly everyone preferred the first Chianti (except for me) - it was more approachable and perhaps smoother. However, when paired with the meat, the second Chianti shined - its boldness and complexity were a perfect match for the smokiness of the meat.

After the entrée we were served a small cheese plate with a selection of several nice cheeses, including Oregon bleu cheese, parmigiano reggiano, and others. This was the second night of the dinner, and apparently last night they had served Tignanello with the cheese. This was one of the first Super Tuscans, and we had really hoped to taste it tonight. Unfortunately, it had been so popular last night that they sold out. Instead, we had a Guado al Tasso, the flagship wine of that vineyard. It can be thought of as the big brother to the Il Bruciato that we had earlier. It was smooth as silk and went well with the cheeses.

Finally for desert we had a gingerbread and peach cream torte with creme Anglaise and raspberry scented whipped cream. It was OK, but Rachel and I both thought that it was too many flavors thrown together. This was accompanied by Muffatto, a dessert wine made from Sauvignon Blanc, Grechetto, Traminer and Riesling affected by botrytis. It was a nice well-balanced wine, but nothing special (although I do love wines with botrytis!).

It was a wonderful evening and we both had a great time. Our table mates were fun, the wine was great, and the food was better than we were expecting. This was the 330th winemaker's dinner that the Cellar on 10th has put on, and they did a nice job. The wine pours were generous and the food portions were about right, so we were full, but not stuffed. We headed back to our room at the Red Lion and enjoyed the view of the boats in the marina outside our window. Not bad, not bad!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Harvest 2009

We all know the sure signs of fall - the leaves start to turn brilliant red and gold, there's a crisp chill in the air, the beautiful harvest moon seems to hang in the sky all night, and you just can't get the purple stains off of your fingers. Well, that last one is certainly the case here in Oregon wine country. After a few real hot spells during the summer, the end of the growing season shaped up very nicely. We had a little rain in late September, but not enough to adversely affect the grape crop.

Harvest started early in central Washington, and like last year I got 100 lbs of Merlot grapes from the Tri Cities area in the Columbia Valley. The fruit looked good, but the acid was a little low, so we added some during crushing. While the wine pretty much made itself last year, it's looking like I'm going to need to develop a little more skill as a wine maker this year. I got the grapes home and made a yeast starter. That night the starter was foaming nicely and I added it to the must. Fermentation got going in earnest about 18 hours later.

A week later we started harvesting at Purple Cow Vineyards. Faithful readers will recall that I've had the good fortune to work with Jon and the other great folks at PC in various capacities over the past few years. On Sept. 27th we harvested a couple tons of Pinot Noir, and smaller quantities of Marachal Foch and Tempranillo. Jon and Galo have been making incredible Tempranillo from California grapes for several years, and are on the verge of having enough estate fruit to make an Oregon Tempranillo. Can't wait! After harvesting the grapes, we take them about 20o yards across the road to Apolloni Winery where Jon makes his wine. Cheryl and I went over to the winery a little early to help set things up. This included making sure the equipment was clean, positioning the crusher/de-stemmer under the sorting table, getting fermenting bins sanitized and ready, and a variety of other jobs.

Once everything was setup, we climbed up onto the sorting table and the fruit was dumped into one end. Now the sorting table isn't really a table, but a 10 foot conveyor belt mounted about 9 feet in the air with platforms along both sides where people stand and inspect the fruit as it goes by. We're looking for leaves, bugs, green berries, moldy clusters, etc. Basically, if we don't want it in the wine, we pick it off the belt. At the end of the belt, the fruit falls into the crusher/de-stemmer. This is a rotating drum with counter-rotating fingers in the middle that strip the berries off of the stems while gently breaking open the skin of the fruit. The drum has many holes that the grapes fall through, while the now empty stems come out the end of the drum. The grapes then fall into a big plastic bin where they will spend a week or 2 fermenting. Depending on the wine and the winemaker, several chemicals are added to the must (that's what the grapes and juice are now called) such as potassium metabisulfite to kill off undesirable yeasts, bacteria, etc., enzymes to break down the grapes, acid, and/or yeast food. The bins are then covered and set aside for a period of time before yeast is added.

Earlier that same day that I was at Purple Cow, Rachel and Tim drove into Hillsboro to pick up 100 lbs of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes for me, again from central Washington. So, when I got back from Purple Cow that night, I had to deal with my own grapes. The acid level was good, but the sugar level was a little high. This requires dilution, but if you just add water, you'll drop the acid level, so I had to add a little tartaric acid to the water to bring the sugar level down without messing up the acid. I had already made my yeast starter before leaving for the vineyard in the morning, so I was able to add it that night, and again, fermentation got started about 18 hours later.

During the fermentation of red wines, the grape skins form a cap over the top and rise up above the liquid. This cap needs to be "punched down" or pushed back into the liquid at least twice a day. Big wineries use something that looks like a large toilet plunger, but I use the back of a plastic serving spoon. About 2 days into fermentation of the Cab, I started to get slight whiffs of rotten egg smell. Jon says that you can pretty much know exactly how your fermentation is going just be smelling. This rotten egg smell may have been the beginning of a hydrogen sulfide problem usually caused by a combination of sulfur on the grapes and not enough nitrogen for the yeast. I added some DAP (a yeast nutrient) at that point and the smell quickly went away.

Once fermentation has reduced the sugar to about 2% or less, the grapes must be pressed to extract the juice from the skins and pulp. The Merlot was ready first, and the Cab about a week later. This involves scooping the juice along with the skins and pulp out of the plastic fermenter and putting it into a wine press. The juice is collected and poured into glass carboys to finish fermenting. Tim and Rachel helped with the Merlot, and Josh and Tim helped with the Cab, and I now have 3 carboys of wine slowly bubbling away in the winery (aka darkroom).

Meanwhile, back at Purple Cow, we harvested Muscat on Oct. 4th. Many of you have probably had a sweet desert wine made from the Muscat grape, but Jon makes a wonderfully crisp dry Muscat. This is one grape variety that tastes like nothing else. You know a Muscat grape when you taste it, and the wine tastes just like the grape. After harvesting a couple of tons of grapes, they were hauled over to the winery again. However, unlike red wine which is fermented on the skins, grapes for white wine are loaded immediately into a press where the juice is extracted and pumped into a closed tank. Yeast is then added to the tank and fermentation proceeds. The press we used looks like a big metal cylindrical tank lying on its side. The tank is prodigiously perforated to allow the juice to escape. There are doors along the top through which the grapes are loaded and a large inflatable bladder in the middle. Once the grapes are in, the doors are closed and air is pumped into the bladder. This squishes the grapes against the tank, and causes the juice to go through the holes. There's a big trough below the tank which catches the juice. It looks like a grape juice waterfall coming off the tank and into the trough, and it smells incredible! From there the juice is pumped into the fermenting tank.

Pressing white wine takes a long time because after you're done with the first press, you deflate the bladder and rotate the drum to re-distribute the grapes. You then re-inflate the bladder to get more juice. We did this about 5 times to squeeze out every bit of juice that we could. I think Jon was estimating about 250 gallons, but we ended up with nearly 300 - not bad!

The next Friday (Oct 9th) Rachel and I worked at Kramer Vineyards in the afternoon. I attended a few phone meetings from home in the morning, then we headed up to the vineyard. They had been harvesting Pinot Noir all morning and had picked about 7 tons. Rachel and I worked the sorting table for probably close to 5 hours (not counting a lunch break). Unfortunately we had to leave a little early to get Tim from the pool after swim practice. It was great fun as usual. Keith and Trudy's daughter, Kim, recently completed the winemaking program at Chemeketa, and it was fascinating to listen to Kim and Trudy discuss various aspects of winemaking during the course of the day.

The next day (Saturday) was the final day of Harvest at Purple Cow. We had already harvested everything except the Dijon 60 Pinot Noir which just wasn't quite ready on our other harvest days. Now it was finally ripe and ready to bring in. We had a good sized crew (maybe 10 people) and the work went fairly quickly. At around 11:00, Jon mentioned that Alfredo and his crew could use a little help over at the winery, so Doug and I headed over to see what we could do. Chuck put me to work moving barrels and Anne had Doug pump out the fermented must from the red wines that were ready to press. We then helped with crushing of some of the Apolloni fruit (I weighed out the chemicals and added them along with dry ice as the crushed grapes fell into the fermenter), and also helped with the pressing of the reds after we'd gotten most of the liquid pumped out. It was great fun, and I learned a lot as usual. Unfortunately, the forklift was having problems, which delayed things quite a bit (you need the forklift to load grapes onto the sorting line and into the press). First, the alternator died. Fortunately, one of the volunteers on the Apolloni crew was a mechanic, so after a quick trip to the local auto parts store, they had that fixed. Later, however, a hydrolic line broke so that the forklift could not tilt. This was a bigger problem, and took the better part of 2 hours to get fixed. During that time, we all did whatever odd jobs needed to be done around the winery under Chuck and Anne's direction.

Finally, around 5:00pm or so, we were ready to do the Purple Cow pinot that we'd picked in the morning. By this time, most of our picking crew had gone home, but the Apolloni volunteers were more than happy to stay and help. We finished ours and did a few more bins of Alfredo's, when he decided that they could finish in the morning and sent us all home. It was almost a 12 hour day and I was sore and tired, but very happy. I really enjoy my time in the vineyard and the winery, and as long as I keep learning, it stays interesting.

Finally, I just picked up the last of my own grapes this morning - 100 lbs of Sangiovese. These have been crushed and are waiting to have the yeast added tonight. I'll probably follow up with another post as these grapes go through the process.

It's been a great harvest, and I'm looking forward to following this wine through the various stages over the next year or so.