Monthly Archives: September 2012

Mendocino County, Part 2 – How to get there, Wineries to visit

Good morning! Mendocino off in the distance

From the mouths of locals, check out the wealth of info provided by the Mendocino County Visitor’s Guide.

Driving Directions: From San Francisco to Mendocino (155 miles)

Route 1: Leave the city heading North on Highway 101.  Avoid the temptation to veer off-course and drink Pinots in Sonoma; rather, continue on to the Cloverdale exit.  From there, take Highway 128 west toward Mendocino.

Route 2: As an alternative to 128, you can drive through the West Sonoma Coast region, where you DO have permission to veer off-course and drink Pinots.  Take Highway 101 to River Road just north of Santa Rosa, CA.  Take a left onto River Road for 17 miles, passing through Guerneville, until hitting Historic Highway 1 along the coast, then head North up to Mendocino.  This is a slow, scenic route.

Good fences make good neighbors

If you take Highway 1, I am deadly (almost) serious when I suggest you try to incorporate Hirsch, Peay or Flowers into the itinerary.  All three are exceptional West Sonoma Coast wineries that are generally difficult to visit due to their far-flung location, so seize the opportunity.  Appointments are a must, however, so call in advance. If you didn’t call ahead, you can always try my technique of showing up at the door.  Winemakers seldom refuse you, but don’t say I sent you…

Where to Taste:  Highway 128 leads straight through the Anderson Valley, starting with Yorkville, a blip on the map.  Then 128 leads past the, comparatively speaking, larger towns of Boonville and Philo, before hitting the dramatic tunnel of redwoods that leads to the coast.  The majority of the wineries begin after Boonville.  Most are within sight off Highway 128, with a few up in the Greenwood Ridge along Greenwood road.

If you got an early start out of San Francisco, say 8 AM for a perfectly timed 11 AM arrival right as the wineries open, you can start tasting immediately!  Below is a list of both tastings from my trip, plus other recommended wineries I didn’t have time to visit.  The wineries are listed in geographical order from South to North through the Valley, assuming entry to the region on Highway 128.

Map of Anderson Valley Wineries

Londer Vineyard — Didn’t taste, didn’t visit. Was recommended by locals and has received press for their Pinot Noir and Gewürztraminer.  They sold off the vineyard to their neighbor, but still produce wines from the Londer site, as do many other winemakers.  Tasting room located inside the John Hanes Fine Art Gallery, across from the Boonville Hotel.  Thursday to Monday, 11 AM to 5 PM (summer hours).  Call for off-season 707-895-9001.

Elke Vineyards and Winery— We didn’t have time to visit or taste, but heard Mary Elke is not only making great Pinot from Donnelly Creek Vineyard but a reasonably priced American “grower” sparkling wine at $20.  She sells grapes off to the sparkling houses Mumm and Roederer, but decided to make a few bottles of her own. Her wines are reasonably priced for the region.  Friday to Monday, 11 AM to 5 PM.  No appointment.

Tasting through the Breggo line-up

Breggo— My first stop of the trip.  Humble tasting room, excellent wines.  Disappointed to know that Cliff Lede bought them out (the purist in me likes family wines to stay in the family), but the juice was still high-quality.  The Alsatian varieties and the less expensive Anderson Valley Pinot were highlights. Daily 11 AM to 5 PM.  No appointment.

Goldeneye — Charming, country tasting room, with outdoor picnic tables and tableside tasting service; found the wines to be lacking in character, particularly for the prices.  Owned by another major player, Duckhorn in Napa.  Daily 10:30 AM to 4:30 PM, reservations suggested.

Elegant tableside tasting service at Goldeneye

Drew Family Cellars — One of the highlights of the trip and the reason I fell in love with the region.  The wines are savory and earthy with notes of the forest floor; a rarity in Cali Pinot these days. Loved the FogEater and Weir Vineyard. This is a do not miss.  The tasting room is located inside The Madrones.  Open 11 AM – 5 PM, but not every day.  Call ahead.

The Madrones (multiple tasting room facility) — While in the building tasting Drew, you can check-out Lula Cellars and Bink.  Lula has a friendly proprietor and approachable if uneventful line-up of wines.  Bink wines are made by two women from the Yorkville Highlands, including a lovely rose.  I originally stopped in to taste their Weir vineyard Pinot, but found it less interesting than others on offer.

Berridge — Intense, aromatic Pinots; another favorite of the trip. However, the vineyard designates are a $100 a bottle.  Production is miniscule, so if you can afford it, you are one of few with the privilege.  Budget for a bottle (two if you’re rich), but wait to purchase at the end of your trip in case you find others you like for less.  Tasting room at The Madrones building.  Open Seasonally, Friday – Monday, 11 AM to 6 PM, or with an appointment in off-season.

Phillips Hill Estates— Toby Hill, a formally trained artist now winemaker, samples and sells his wines in this country-chic tasting room off the highway.  Each bottle label features his artwork. I enjoyed the Gewürztraminer at $18, as well as the Oppenlander and Wiley vineyard Pinots.  Daily 11 AM to 5 PM.

Toby Hill’s original art on every Phillips Hill label

Toulouse Vineyards— Former fireman turned winemaker, and beloved by everyone in the region, Vern Boltz produces a handful of balanced Pinots, a rose and a few Alsatian varietal whites.  Daily 11 AM to 5 PM.

Phil Jr. at Baxter’s Greenwood Ridge Winery

Baxter — Love the elegant, pure Pinot Noir fruit of Baxter wines.  Another regional favorite! They make an unusual Carignan as well.  Brand new tasting room opening in downtown Philo in October/November 2012.  See my winery profile for more on Baxter.

Navarro — Didn’t visit, didn’t taste, but they are one of the better known wineries of the region. Daily 9 AM – 5 PM, 6 PM during summer.  No charge, no reservations.  This is a good one to catch on the way out of town, or for an early start to the day, since they open at 9 AM.

Black Kite — Didn’t visit, but tasted the wines on recommendation after returning from trip.  Wow.  Pinots are intense and profiles varied, depending on the vineyard. Would definitely seek an in-person visit on a return trip.  Small, family winery focusing on artisanal Pinot.  No tasting room open to public; email info@blackkitecellars.com or call 415-923-0277 to ask for an appointment.

Standish Winery (their website isn’t working, so link is to another informational site) — Recommended by locals, Standish is located in a 2-story apple dryer from the late 1800’s.  Extremely limited production wines; as a result, on the pricey side.  Only tasted one or two, as they were out of many bottlings at time of visit.  Worth a look for the atmospheric digs alone.  Daily 10:30 AM to 4:30 PM, Friday-Saturday until 5 PM.

Standish Winery tasting room in an old apple dryer

Lazy Creek — Well-known, older winery as far as Anderson Valley recognition goes.  Excellent white Alsatian varietal wines made here.  Brought several back, which is saying something considering the limited space in my wine shipper.  New winery under construction, so tasting room temporarily closed.  Check their site for updates.

Husch — Didn’t visit, didn’t taste.  Recommended by locals.  Tasting room in an old pony barn with outdoor picnic tables.  Daily 10 AM – 5PM, summer until 6 PM.

Roederer Estate— Didn’t visit, but have had the sparkling wines in the past.  Focus is on bubbles, a nice change from all the Pinot drinking.  (Strangely, website is not functioning, so I don’t know tasting room hours.)

Exotically themed decor of Handley’s tasting room

Handley — Interesting tasting room featuring international folk art, but wines overall came too generously recommended, although I appreciated the RSM and Zin.  They have a big line-up of styles and varieties, from whites, reds and sparkling in a range of price points, so tasters might find a gem or two.  Daily 10 AM to 5 PM, summer until 6PM.

Esterlina Vineyards — Located in the smallest AVA in the country, Cole Ranch, Esterlina has a dramatic ridge top perch offering sweeping valley views.  Tasting room, however, is a little rough around the edges.  Perhaps expectations were set too high based on all the praise, but I found the wines underwhelming for the price point.  Tasting by appointment only.

Claudia Springs — Didn’t visit, didn’t taste.  Recommended by locals.  Call the tasting room for hours: 707-895-3993

Next up: Where to stay!

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Magical Mendocino, Part 1 – Why go?

Mendocino coast at sunrise

Magical Mendocino: Why go? (Part 1 of 3 posts)

If I had guts, I would move to Mendocino County, California.  People believe it takes a lot of nerve to live in New York City, but it is in fact easy for those of us used to urban life. Building superintendents handle household repairs; the city takes out our trash; maids clean the apartments; and bars, restaurants and bodegas are open when you need them (and when you don’t).  Someone is always there to manage the details of our lives while we work hard to pay for it all.

To live in Mendocino, one needs to be a self-starter to succeed.  Jobs at banks, ad agencies and PR firms don’t exist, and money ebbs and flows into the region with the seasons.  During the summer, tourists flock to the wineries of the Anderson Valley and the town serves as a popular seaside retreat.  When winter arrives, it feels as empty as an abandoned fishing village off the coast of Newfoundland.  It takes guts to survive, but the lifestyle payoff is enormous.

Mendocino is the antithesis of the more populated, cultivated counties found further South (Sonoma, San Fran, L.A.).  The scenery is moody and romantic, wild and at times empty; and the landscape is split between coast and country. The setting changes so dramatically during the ten-mile stretch from ocean to valley, that in the late 19th century the ranchers and farmers of Boonville, feeling a sense of (if not real) isolation, devised their own dialect called Boontling. Meant to discourage outsiders with their secret lingo, they took to calling those from the coast Fog Eaters.  And fog they eat.

Along the shore each morning, vaporous plumes roll off the pounding surf of the Pacific, and over the rocky beaches to swallow the streets of Mendocino like a scene from Stephen King’s The Mist.  In contrast, the valley is filled with dense forests of towering, ancient redwoods; misty mountain peaks; and sunlit valleys filled with farms and vineyards.

The enchanted forest, where mushrooms taste like candy

But what do people do here?  I posed that question to the owner of the Glendeven Inn where we were staying (see post #3).  His reply: “they do what we do, they own a B&B or an Inn.”  Of course, someone must also own the seasonal restaurants in town or the nearby grocery.  I also discovered another local career path involves foraging mushrooms, specifically Candy-Caps, which taste like maple syrup and are used in cookies and ice cream!  For me, however, the most intriguing work is done by those making the wine.

Having spent many years drinking Pinot Noir from all over California, I was growing tired of the wines trending towards an over-ripe and heavily oak-influenced profile.  I wanted to taste purity of fruit, but also the dirt. The wines of Mendocino County capture the qualities that originally drew me to Pinot.   Many of them offer balance and grace, berries and soil, and a sense of place in this remote region. I had found my fairy-tale in this enchanted land of maple candy fungi and wines offering a drink of the forest floor.

Getting to this beguiling place is easier than it sounds.  As undeveloped (for California) as it feels, Mendocino is a surprisingly easy 3-hour drive from San Fran, considering New Yorkers travel 3+ hours to the Hamptons every summer weekend.  Maybe Mendocino County receives far less traffic, and therefore development, because the road North along 101 is dense with distractions.  From a tourist perspective, that is a very good thing.

Coming soon, Part 2: How to get there and Wineries to Visit

Andrew Wyeth could have painted here

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What I Drank – Domaine de Cébène, Les Bancels, Faugères 2010

Domaine de Cébène–a rising star!

No matter how many wines regions I try, there is always another waiting to be discovered, and France is particularly replete with appellations.  Take Faugères in the Coteaux du Languedoc in the South of France.  The appellation has only been around since 1982, but Faugères is now considered an unofficial cru of sorts for the region (meaning some think it is better than others), known mostly for its reds made from Mourvedre, Syrah and Grenache.

This small appellation due north of Béziers is only about 5000 acres, and it would have been a blip on my radar, had not a local restaurant been willing to take a chance and serve this little-region-that-could by the glass.  What makes Faugères unique is that it sits on a schist-load of rock. No, seriously, the soil is 350 million year old schist (a metamorphic rock derived mostly from clay, that flakes and breaks easily). For winemakers, particularly the French, this translates into terroir.  Another attribute of Faugères, so I read, are the like-minded, quality-driven winemakers that dominate production.

Enter Domaine de Cébène.  The founder of the winery is Brigitte Chevalier, a former export manager in Bordeaux, who began making wines from others’ grapes, before purchasing her own vineyard in Northern Faugères.  First, let us applaud that Brigitte is a female owner/winemaker. I hope one day we needn’t give special kudos to women in the biz, but as it stands, there are a lot of dudes dominating the industry. Second, her wines have received a lot of acclaim in a short amount of time–a woman who knows her schist.  

Brigitte produces several wines, one of which is the Les Bancels, or “terraces”, made from Mourvedre, Syrah and Grenache. I purchased the 2010 vintage from Garagiste for $18.99, after a write-up promising I would be in-the-know for this rising artisanal star.  Honestly though, I had kept an eye out for anything Faugères, after drinking that first, intriguing glass a few weeks prior. How did it go?

Les Bancels tastes like a dance through the wild herb-strewn, summer fields of the South of France, where blueberries, cherries and bramble fruit ripen from the endless sunshine.  Lots of ready-to-be picked fruit up front, with a spicy, peppery finish and minerality (the shist terroir?) throughout. The wine is balanced by good acidity and smooth tannins.  There is a little alcoholic heat that can be tempered by an ever-so-slight chill on the bottle.

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Unscrewed: Ladies, the Wine Industry is Courting you!

If you missed my Unscrewed article in the Village Voice on marketing schemes that blatantly pander to the female wine drinker, here is your second chance…

Considering women now buy more than half the wine that ends up on the American table, a few companies have devised marketing tricks to capture “her” dollars. I submit the following evidence:

Exhibit A

Pretty in Pepto Pink!

The wine purse. No, there aren’t pockets for your cell phone, mirror, and gloss. That might make the packaging useful as opposed to merely silly. No, this wine “purse” only holds wine in a bladder inside a cardboard handbag. There are two companies perpetrating this stunt. Volere, from Italy, is selling Pinot Grigio, Merlot-Pinot Noir (???), and Rose in knockoff Chanel bags that are, what? Meant to fool the casual observer? Vernissage, from Sweden, offers a Canal Street-worthy L.V. design filled with French Chardonnay/Viognier, Syrah/Cabernet, or Rose.

My issue is not with boxed wine (which is actually bagged wine in a box). Boxed wine should be a good idea — it is environmentally friendly, easy on the wallet, and good for large groups (see keg wine). However, most boxed wine is bad because good wine isn’t (usually) boxed.

Exhibit B

Which wine defines your style, Ladies?

Little Black Dress Wines. This offering is a strange amalgam of single-varietal, no origin wines, and LBDs coupled with party tips. Not sure how they go together, other than the company’s attempt at likening its wines to the reliability of the LBD — it is stylish, always there for you, and there is one for every occasion. Seems like a tenuous comparison.

The Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, is of unknown origin (read: a blend of red wine from nameless vineyards selling off their excess), and has the following description:

“Sometimes a little drama in life can be good, particularly when it’s as tasteful as our Cabernet. This red wine has spice and oak flavors that say it’s okay to be bold. There’s nothing indecisive about this label. It makes quite a statement, just like you in that little black dress…”

Does this really entice women to buy this bottle? Wine is not Mountain Dew; it is a complex product that people spend years making. Are these companies dumbing wine down for women, or merely demystifying it with playful products? Is there a place in the market for these wines, or are you insulted that Merlot and Pinot Noir were actually blended together, and then packaged in a handbag they assumed you would buy because you’re a girl and it’s cute?

I haven’t tasted these wines, so I can’t comment on the quality, but I can make an educated guess.

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Where I am going – Wine Riot in NYC

The Wine Riot is coming!

As a frequenter of wine tastings, I am always intrigued by new, original ways of presenting wine to the public, particularly when the tasting is on the weekend with a DJ and features a mobile app in place of tasting notebooks.  The Wine Riot, coming to New York this week, is an offering of 300+ domestic and international wines that has traveled to 6 cities this year, having originated in Boston in 2009.

The Riot, although welcoming of all wine lovers, does try to fill a void in the marketplace by catering to a younger, social-media reliant crowd that lack a high degree of wine knowledge and are antsy to learn more without reading a 900-page tome or taking a $1200 course.

This newest generation of wine drinkers, or “Millennials” as referenced by the wine industry, should have access to events that are fun, hip and educational; that showcase good, easy to find wines at reasonable prices; or so believe the founders of Wine Riot, Tyler Balliet and Morgan First. With this in mind, Tyler and Morgan are determined to change the landscape of wine events, starting with the Riot:

“Wine Riot will feature over 300 wines from the Loire Valley and Burgundy in France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, South Africa, Austria and Australia. Guests can personally chat with vintners from around the world at interactive booths to learn about wines that are mostly under $30 a bottle. Wine Riot also offers 20-minute Crash Courses where guests can sit down with producers to taste their way through Portugal or learn all about German Riesling in the free seminars.”

A mobile app will let guests upload all the wines featured at the event, allowing them to keep track of favorites without having to carry a pen and notebook around, like the old-timey days.  Guests will also be able to order favorites post-Riot, should they find a bottle they can’t live without.

Will the crowd embrace the format? Will the wines be good?  I will report back next week, but at the very least, it should be a fun party!

Event Details:

Wine Riot, hosted at the 69th Regiment Armory (68 Lexington Ave.) in Manhattan, kicks off with a special opening evening on Friday, September 21 from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.; tickets are $60 per person. The two Wine Riots on Saturday, September 22 are from 1 p.m. – 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.; tickets are $50 per person/per event. All wine is included in ticket price.  For tickets and more information visit: http://secondglass.com/wineriot/

A little ham with your wine?

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Unscrewed – Wine on Tap

 

wine_on_tap2.jpg
Not your parents’ keg party!

If you missed my Unscrewed article covering wine in kegs, here is your second chance…

The practice of serving wine from a keg or cask has long been a tradition in Europe, where what grows together, goes together. Imagine sitting down to a plate of Coq au Vin in a little village in Burgundy and being offered a glass of Chianti — l’impossible! Your glass would be filled with the local stuff, out of the cask in back.

But in New York, the notion of regional eating and drinking has only recently taken hold.

Fueled in part by the New York market’s embrace of the locavore lifestyle, as well as by young drinkers who aren’t prejudiced towards non-traditional bottling and varietals, the trend of local, tapped wine is catching on.

In 2010, the Gotham Project, a wine-keg company from the Finger Lakes, made inroads into the NYC restaurant scene by introducing a New York Riesling. With the success of the Gotham Project has come the next wave of regional winemakers selling their drink in keg. Paumanok, Channing Daughters, Raphael, Shinn and Red Hook winery, to name a few, are embracing this effort. Wineries and restaurateurs are realizing cask wine makes environmental and economic sense, and offers value to us.

wine_on_tap1.jpg
Wine taps at Southfork Kitchen

Just think about the reduction in cost to the winery: no more corks, labels, foils, bottles, and packing materials that add a few bucks on to each bottle; and the same reduction in restaurant waste, having to no longer recycle or throw all that material out. The cost savings, sometimes as much as 25%, is then (hopefully!) passed on us.

Also, the flexibility of a keg program allows restaurants to sell wine in different sizes, guarantees freshness using inert gas, and most importantly, allows us to buy a glass for $8-$10, rather than for what seems like the going rate of $14 in Manhattan these days. Sounds like a win-win, right?

If you’re looking to get a taste of local wine on tap, you can visit The Breslin, The John Dory, Terroir, DBGB, Burger and Barrel, and City Winery, all in Manhattan. In Brooklyn, check out Arthur on Smith, Buttermilk Channel, or Seersucker. And the list keeps growing: Swine, a new spot in the West Village, emphasizes locally made and sourced goods, and is dedicated to all things porcine and vinous. Can’t think of two things I love more.

Now if only our antiquated alcohol laws would take another cue from Europe and let us fill our growlers with wine instead of beer. That would be tres magnifique!

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The Winery Report – Baxter Winery, Mendocino, California

The Winery Report: Baxter Winery

By Lauren Mowery

Phil Jr. at the “wine-cabin in the woods”

Who: Baxter Winery.  A small, family affair. Phil Baxter Sr. heads up vineyard management and finances, having been in the biz since ’69, which includes a 10-year gig as head winemaker for Rutherford Hill.  Phil Baxter Jr., Baxter winemaker, earned his winemaking creds first from UC Davis; then later in Burgundy at Domaine de La Vougeraie, Domaine Raymond Launay and several spots in Napa.  His wife, Claire Baxter is the marketing brains behind the team, with seven years PR experience.

Wine: Small-production, single-vineyard Pinot, with a Rosé, Carignan and Zinfandel to round out the portfolio. Their top of the line Pinot is expensive at $60, but quality is high and only 150 cases of the Oppenlander were produced.

When: Founded in 2002.

Where: Mendocino, California. The winery is perched on a ridge-top above the Anderson Valley, a glorious 4-mile stretch from the Pacific Ocean.  Grapes are sourced from vineyards throughout the region including Oppenlander, Run Dog, Langly and Caballo Blanco.

Why: Winemaking is their life, their trade. They are the antithesis of the uber-rich who scoop up land to erect temples and bottle egos.   They live where they work, and are humble, young and cool. They are having fun, but take their wine seriously, and they care for their wines as much as their neighbors whom they depend upon to grow much of their fruit. They prove multi-million dollar facilities aren’t required. They make it a pleasure to drink wine because it is pure and simple and good.

How (to visit and buy): The winery isn’t open to the public. Call for an appointment.  Wines can be purchased online or through their Club Baxter Membership.

The Comedy Cellar with Phil Jr.! Two shows a day, folks. Except during harvest.

The Visit:

Driving along Greenwood Road in Mendocino County, the path lifts us higher into the dense and lofty redwoods; sunlight periodically glimmers through breaks in the trees, stamping holes through the veil of shadows. I finally spot glimpses of the ridge’s famous clouds, pooled between the mountain valleys, creating islands out of peaks.  Although we are mere miles from the pounding surf of the Pacific, the drive feels like a scene from Twilight.  Yet we are on a hunt for wine, not RPatz (or his action figure), and we’ve been told to follow this path.

I called Phil and Claire Baxter about a visit, having heard through the proverbial grapevine that they were making some special juice, tucked away in a “cabin in the woods.”  Their wines, not surprisingly, if they are in fact made in a cabin, are produced in small amounts with limited distribution. I hadn’t come across them on the East Coast, so I wanted to sample them while in the region.

When we arrived, I was bemused to be greeted by a young, married couple, maybe late 20’s (I have been in NCY too long), who seemed fit, happy and smiling—these weren’t your typical Napa/Sonoma vintners. Their home nearby was a 120 year old farmhouse, and their winery was a converted redwood building (cabin!), once a cabinet maker’s shop.  Their set-up was a recluse’s dream, yet they were outgoing and eager to share their story. I thought that I should like to BBQ with these guys.

Phil Jr. had been in the business about 10 years, and his time making Pinot in France helped solidify his winemaking style: “don’t mess with it.” The couple was working with Phil’s dad, Phil Sr., who came to Baxter with 40 years of experience.  Together, they bought the property on the Greenwood Ridge—about 24 acres—and founded the winery before they even had a grapevine planted.  Their mutual winemaking philosophy was low-intervention: allow native yeast fermentation, use neutral oak barrels, no fining or filtering of the wines, and let the grape and terroir speak louder than the winemaker.

Their winemaking philosophy certainly felt on point after tasting the wines.  The fruit was fresh and vibrant, tannins soft and silky.  We went through their current releases, some barrel samples and an off-the-books Syrah I hope to see bottled.  Baxter is a keeper in my opinion, and one to seek out if you are in the region. The drive to the winery is worth the trip, let alone the outstanding wines and the chance to recreate your Team Edward fantasies among the trees.

Nearby redwoods. They don’t live THAT deep in the woods!

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