DeRose Vineyards: The Secrets of San Benito

We were happy to be making our second day-trip to the Hollister area in as many weeks. Last week we visited Fremont Peak for a camping trip; this week it was for the more refined activity of wine tasting. We’d always imagined that Hollister was a long drive, but it turns out it’s only a half hour from Monterey! It’s just gorgeous out there and well worth the time in the car.

The DeRose Vineyards tasting room is located in a complex that looks like a pre-war factory from the outside.

DeRose Vineyards


By contrast, the inside looks like a pre-war factory.

The tasting room -oom -oom -oom


I asked our tasting associate what the building had been used for originally. I expected him to say it had been an airplane plant during WWII, but in fact it had been purpose-built as a winery and had never been anything else!

This building had been built in 1940, but the winery itself was established a long time ago and was, at the time, located on what was Main Street, Central California. In the 1800s, this spot was on a major stagecoach line, and the area was more densely populated during that period than it is today. The winery was able to survive Prohibition by making sacramental wine for the San Benancio Mission until the amendment was repealed. (Did some of the sacramental wine mysteriously vanish out the back door? We’ll never know.)

The winery changed hands several times over the next 80 years, including a period in the 1950s through 1970s when their grapes were used to produce wine for Almaden. The DeRose folks bought the winery in 1888. They have many interesting historical photos and artifacts, including the original U.S. citizenship papers for Frenchman Theophile Vaché, who established the winery in 1854.

Someone got an "A" in penmanship.




Another interesting aspect of the facility is that is sits directly on top of the San Andreas Fault. If you don’t believe me, believe the US Department of the Interior:

It's all our fault.


And if you don’t believe them, believe your eyes:

That should buff right out.


DeRose may be the only winery that appears in as many geology books as wine publications. College students come from all over California to look at the fault line and take readings from monitoring instruments in the building. A field trip to a winery? Yeah, that’s a selling point for any geology class.

If the proximity of the San Andreas Fault makes you a tad nervous, don’t worry. The tasting area is at least 40 feet away from the faultline.

Let's not forget why we're here.


DeRose is a Green winery (no, that doesn’t mean you can get Vinho Verde there). They dry-farm their grapes, use natural fertilizers and also utilize solar energy.

The Wines

2007 Chardonnay (Cienega Valley): The aroma was fruity with a hint of that Chardonnay richness. Nikki found the scent reminiscent of perfume. I found the flavor to be lightly fruity with a nice mellow warmth. A hint of alcohol, and a light grape flavor on the finish. Nikki got more citrus in the flavor – grapefruit and orange zest.

2007 Famiglia DeRose Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano (Italy): Nikki said she smelled strawberries, pastilles and figs. I just said “Oooohhhhh…” I thought the aroma seemed structured with a slight ashy tannic scent supporting a plum/prune/raisin fruit aroma. The flavor delivered on that promise. The fruit was present but restrained on the palate, and the tannins nicely supported that. I think this wine would achieve its fullest expression with food.

2005 Monte Cinco Malbec (Argentina): On the nose this suggested caramel, plum and berry, and the flavor matched. It was delightfully rich with light but welcome tannins.

2007 DeRose Cabernet Franc (Cienega Valley): I got blackberries and cream both in the aroma and flavor. This wine also had a rich quality that made it almost creamy! The fruit was present but it stopped short of being jammy, with a nice tannic swell at the end.

Hollywood Red, Release #13 (Cienega Valley): This is part of the Car series of reds that DeRose produces. It’s a blend of 7 varietals – 65% Zinfandel, 20% Syrah, plus Negrette, Alicane Bouchee, Rose of Peru, Cabernet Pfeffer and Cabernet Franc. Rose of Peru is related to the Mission grape, and DeRose is apparently the only winery that has it. Only 7 wineries have Cabernet Pfeffer (I’d never even heard of it!).

The aroma was a symphony of fruit, with plum and especially blackberry predominating. Nikki also got strawberries, blueberries and pastilles. The flavor added toasted sugar and a light swell of tannins. Nikki described the flavor as “sugar-dusted plum pudding.” While this blend was fruit-forward and very accessible, it maintained structure and had its own character, in contrast with many red blends that are perfectly drinkable but often lack complexity.

2007 Old-Vine Zinfandel (Cienega Valley): The vines for this wine were planted in 1905. Nikki noted the aroma as sugary and plummy, and described the flavor as caramelized plums. I noticed a slight lacquer aroma (in a good way). The flavor is fruit-forward but with a richness that suggests nostalgia, like a sepie-toned photograph. It’s a big wine, with a nice blush of tannins at the end.

2004 Port (Cienega Valley): This is a Cab Franc Port, bottle-aged for 6 years. I guess Nikki had pastilles on her mind, because here again she noted their presence in the aroma. She described the flavor as highly-sugared dark chocolate. My palate found more fruit. While I did get some hints of chocolate I primarily detected sweet raisins and prunes cloaked in dark, mysterious warmth.

Preston Vineyards: Savoring Sonoma

Preston Winery

We arrived at Preston after a lovely meandering drive through Dry Creek Valley. The tasting room is spacious and low-key, decorated in a country style. Books about biodynamics, grape growing and other topics are displayed on tables along with t-shirts and other merch. There’s also a table featuring samples of olives and olive oil.

Preston Winery
Whimsy galore at Preston


Preston Winery
I guess these fall under the "other merch" designation


All of Preston’s wines are made from their own estate-grown grapes and hail from the Dry Creek Valley appellation.

Our pourer educated us about tannins and how they form shorter and longer molecular chains. Shorter chains are more astringent, while longer chains are softer and smoother on the tongue. Oxygen causes shorter chains to join together to form longer chains, which happens naturally as the wine ages and is accellerated by decanting to let a wine breathe. Cheap mass-producers aerate their wines which produces a short-term softening of the tannins, but it also means those wines won’t age well. I love learning about these kind of things, and I appreciated hearing more about it.

The Wines

2009 Sauvignon Blanc
This wine started with a generous flavor of sweet fruit, pear with a hint of pineapple. The fruit then mellow into a richness at the end.

2009 Roussanne
“Bitter to Butter” is what my notes say. I’m used to Roussannes being a bit sweeter throughout, so I was pleasantly suprised to have this one start with a welcome bitterness that then gave way to a gentle fruit flavor, fading away into a butteriness at the end.

2009 GSM Blend
I was reminded of cotton candy when I smelled this one. The flavor was round and fruity but without becoming heavy. Some nice tannins bring the flavor to a close.

2009 Barbera
This red has a bit of tartness to it, a characteristic common to many Italian wines that helps a wine stand up to the bold flavors in food. The color was very deep, but the wine was not heavy at all. Fruit predominates in the flavor – plum and a little raisin – with tannins on the finish.

2009 Zinfandel
Nicely fruity but with an interesting pepperiness, like the spiciness of olive oil. I also got hints of yeast, and a nicely balanced tannic throughline.

2009 L. Preston Blend
This is a blend of Syrah, Cinsault, Mourvedre, Grenache and Carignane. The aroma reminded me of a perfume counter at a high-end store, with a wafting of berries. The flavor was berry-riffic, with blackberries in the lead and hints of raspberries and even blueberries.

2007 Syrah-Sirah
95% Syrah with 5% Petite Sirah. I noted “Super-Fruit” upon tasting this wine. It was difficult to pick out the components though. I definitely got notes of blackberry and plum, but to my palate the flavors blended into a coherent unity of fruit balanced by a slight astringency.

Preston is a lovely wine tasting destination. It felt like a summer vacation trip to the home of an eccentric uncle – an uncle who makes outstanding wine.

Enkidu Wines: Savoring Sonoma

Luke and Mary, our tasting companions for our Sonoma excursion, are big Enkidu fans so we wanted to make sure to taste there.

Enkidu Wine
Why, that'd be Luke and Mary right there.


The tasting room was uncluttered and inviting, creating a calm, tranquil environment to focus on the wine. Nikki adds: And they had purse hooks! I was pleased.

Enkidu Wine
See? Calm and tranquil.


Patrick, the Tasting Room Associate™ who poured for us, was quite personable and knowledgeable. We enjoyed conversing with him and hearing his insights about the wines. He also clued us in to the story behind the name.

Enkidu Wines is named after a character in the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh. In that story, Enkidu is raised by animals in isolation from humankind. He is a wild man who is eventually civilized by interactions with other humans. This can be seen as a metaphor for the raw grape, whose flavor is “civilized” to become fine wine.

Enkidu Wine
There's Patrick. No, he isn't tiny. He's just farther away.


The Wines

2008 Kick Ranch Sauvignon Blanc – Sonoma County
I got butter and caramel on the nose, and was surprised at the citrusy tartness on my first sip. The second sip tasted mellower. Nikki smelled honeysuckle and strawberries, and tasted Granny Smith apples and unripe strawberries; it was tart, crisp and clean.

2009 Tin Cross Chardonnay – Alexander Valley
Acidity mellow into warm fruit flavor. I noted a little bit of toast flavor on the finish. Nikki adds: I smelled sugar and minerals, and tasted a hint of oak, sharp acid and minerality, but still a slightly creamy mouthfeel. The oak stayed behind, but in a good way; I was left with a nice toasty aftertaste.

2009 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir – Sonoma Coast
Intriguing, earthy scents and flavors of smoke and esters. Nikki adds: I smelled a little bit of hemp, and tasted cherry with a nice herbal finish, and a hint of oregano.

2008 Kiamberell’s Pinot Noir – Russian River Valley
Fruity with a dark, velvety finish. Not overly complex, but friendly and accessible. Nikki adds: I thought the smell was just fantastic; it reminded me of spicy raisins. I tasted dark chocolate, tobacco, leather and peppercorns on the finish.

2008 “Odyssey” Syrah – Russian River Valley
This has a warm, soft berry aroma with a hit of cologne. I got flavors of cherries and chocolate. Our Tasting Room Associate told us this one will open up over time. Nikki adds: This was a sneak preview of a new release. It smelled of chocolate syrup, coffee and blackberry. The taste was a real illustration of what “tight fruit” means; it’s young but will be great in two years.

2008 Diener Ranch Zinfandel – Lake County
Nose has alcohol and fruit, which opens into a toasty sugar flavor. On the tongue, it’s cherries and licorice with wood. A toasty, creamy flavor rounds it out before revealing a smooth, tannic finale. Nikki adds: It was not what I was expecting, but it was very good!

2007 Diener Ranch Petite Sirah – Lake County
Aromas of blackberries and cream. It resembles the Zinfandel above somewhat, with a faster-developing arc and more noticeable alcohol. Nikki adds: I tasted candied plums.

2007 Humbaba Rhone blend – Sonoma County/Lake County/Napa
I didn’t get a lot of complexity from this wine. It seemed like it would be very good with food. Nikki adds: Maybe it was palate fatigue, but I tasted heavy wood and tobacco astringency.

Enkidu offers a nice range of wines demonstrating a broad spectrum of flavors. We were impressed with the wines, the tasting room was lovely and we enjoyed conversing with Patrick. We’ll be sure to visit again.

Dascomb Cellars: 40th Birthday Road Trip

Deciding you’re done tasting is something of a challenge in Solvang. There’s always one more tasting room enticing you to taste a little more, one more place that comes highly recommended. It can be hard to resist. If tasting in Solvang teaches you anything, it’s that the folks here make incredible wine and it would be a shame to miss any of it.

That’s how we wound up ending our day at Dascomb Cellars. We had pretty much decided we were done, but we had received a strong recommendation while we were at Lucas and Lewellen. Dascomb was mere steps away, so we decided to tough it out (sigh) and pay them a visit.

We’re glad we did. Our pourer (whose name I shamefully failed to put in my notes) was charming and shared her deep knowledge of the area, its history as a winemaking region and the history of the Dascomb family.

The Dascomb family planted the area in 1974. The winemaker grew up on the vineyard, and crafting these wines has been a lifelong passion.

The valleys in the larger growing region are unusual in that they are traverse – that is, they run east-west instead of north-south. This channels cooler ocean air inland and results in a wide range of microclimates suitable for many different types of grapes.

Dascomb’s tasting room had a classic feel, with a dark wood bar placed at a slight angle along one side, with a couple of additional seating clusters where visitors can enjoy their tastings while giving their feet a break.

The Wines

2009 Pinot Gris: This mellow white had hints of saffron, citrus and a hint of oak. I also got a mild but definite hit of bleu cheese.

2008 Roussanne: The aroma of this wine was intriguing and complex. Nikki was reminded of incense. I found the scent to be bold, with toasty sugar elements and a hint of lipstick aroma. Nikki noted a kola flavor and I sensed an herbal overlay. I generally like Roussanne but usually find it not-terribly-complex. This one demonstrated that Roussanne can be more.

2005 Pinot Noir: I was delighted to get a strong scent of toasted marshmallow hovering over the fruit here. The flavor shows fruit in a lighter-bodied wine. Nice, gentle tannins finish the flavor.

2007 Sangiovese: Nikki’s notes say “Hint of port. Smells like the blood in The Vampire Lestat.” I have no idea what she means – I hope the blood in that novel smells like delicious wine. Says Nikki: If you’ve ever read the way Anne Rice describes blood from Louis or Lestat’s perspective in her Vampire Chronicles books, you know exactly what I mean. If not, smelling this Sangiovese to find out is probably faster than reading the books. There was an energetic ensemble of flavors evident here – blackberries and cream, a hint of tobacco and multiple fruits including cherries. It’s bright and acidic so it would be a great accompaniment to Italian food.

2003 Cabernet Sauvignon: Tasting this immediately put me in mind of chocolate covered cherries. Nikki was reminded of port. It’s bright with good acidity and light tannins.

2005 Cabernet Port: 100% cab port, fortified with triple-distilled wine brandy. Nikki’s super-sniffer got caramel, plum and toffee while I sensed chocolate covered raspberries in the aroma and flavor. After enjoying an actual chocolate covered raspberry offered by our pourer, the chocolate notes in the port emerged to the point that I could think of nothing else but a rich, dark, fresh chocolate souffle with raspberry sauce.

It’s becoming a common refrain: This is an area that deserves a whole weekend from tasters. Solvang is a lovely town to stroll around and spend time in, the wine tasting is fabulous and abundant and the people are friendly. We’ll be back.

Presidio: 40th Birthday Road Trip

If you’ve only heard of Solvang but never visited, it would be easy to assume its Danish heritage and theme would produce a corny, cheesetastic experience. The reality is quite different. Yes, nearly every building in town is half-timbered and there are plenty of windmills to be seen, but it is a very real place populated by genuine people. There’s a lot to do and see in Solvang and the surrounding environs, and one could easily spend a long weekend in town and still have much left to discover.

Our first stop was Presidio, where a young man named Kyle, who was quite knowledgeable and enthusiastic about wine, poured for us. We enjoyed talking with several of the other folks at the bar there. That’s one of the great things about wine tasting as a social activity – there’s really not much ice to break, and you already have something in common with everyone else who’s tasting.


Nikki adds: Kyle was actually so knowledgeable that I was a little intimidated. He talked a lot about the “brix” of the wine. When I heard it, I immediately thought BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China, the four emerging large economies). This is probably because I spend more time reading The Economist than Wine Spectator (probably not a good thing if I want any wine nerd cred). Brix, as I know now from looking it up, is a measurement of the amount of sugar in a liquid.

Presidio is commited to organic and biodynamic methods and many of their wines are certified as such. Nikki adds: Biodynamic and organic methods are similar but not the same. Biodynamic agriculture involves seeing the entire vineyard as a holistic system, while organic viticulture more specifically refers to the use of natural methods to encourage growth and control pests.

The Wines

2009 Viognier “Artistic License”: Soft, mellow fruit, not very acidic. Even though this wine isn’t oaked, I kept expecting the flavor to eventually go that direction. Of course, it didn’t. A little alcohol on the finish. Nikki noted aromas of Meyer lemons and flowers, and said it has a flavor component that she associates with red wines.

2009 Syrah Rosé: The smell implied a sweeter rosé, but that impression didn’t carry through to the flavor. It had a mellow fruit flavor that was moderated by a richness. Nikki said she might have guessed it was a red if she had tasted it with her eyes closed. To me it had some characteristics of a brighter white wine at the beginning and end, with the middle having more dominant red characteristics.

2009 Gewurtztraminer: I detected peach, apricot, flowers and a hint of bubble gum. Nikki described it as a soda-pop aroma and found apricot and lychee flavors.

2004 Diego Red Cabernet Sauvignon: Sometimes you smell a wine that has notes of blackberry. This one smelled like someone muddled a big ripe blackberry in a glass. On a more attentive second whiff, the aroma promises tannins that would draw back to reveal blackberries, and that flavor delivers that and more. Cherries, licorice and sandalwood all emerge in turn. Nikki detected (in addition to blackberry) notes of beef and charcuterie. This wine had a lot going on, and while cabs often leave me indifferent, this one was quite engaging.

2007 Sangiovese: Everything about this is big – tannins, fruit and a hit of smoke. Nikki noted light fruit and tannins on the nose, with prominent tannins in the flavor.

2006 Syrah “Artistic License”: Big, fruity blackberry aroma. The flavor opens big with fruit, then tannins emerge along with spice. There’s a hint of anise, and a red licorice aftertaste. Nikki was reminded of pepper-encrusted steak in the aroma and detected raspberry, plum and pepper in the flavor.

Taste of Sta. Rita Hills: 40th Birthday Road Trip

Ah, the Lompoc Wine Ghetto. So unassuming outside, so delicious inside.

Sta. Rita Hills is a teeny tiny little appellation located between Buellton and Lompoc, in Santa Barbara County. Some of the wineries there are so small and personal that they don’t have their own tasting rooms. Enter Antonio Moretti and his Taste of Sta. Rita Hills tasting room.

Mr. Moretti is a more than a wine aficionado. Proof? He’s got his own label, Moretti Wine, which you can sample at the tasting room. He also provides an outlet for nine other wineries from the same appellation.

With some excellent jazz playing in the background (another of Antonio’s passions) we tasted five wines from Sta. Rita Hills. It quickly became clear why he’s so enthusiastic about the appellation.

The Wines

2009 Moretti Bianco: This combination of Tocai Friulano, Arneis and Traminer has flavors of apple and pear, and while the fruit is evident it is never too sweet. It’s a bright wine, destined to be enjoyed with food. Nikki also got an impression of citrus and honey and declared that this would be fantastic to have with cheese.

2008 El Rey Pinot Noir: This had a very pleasant and intriguing aroma of oil paint! I know it sounds strange, but there it is. Medium body, good structure from not-too-assertive tannins and an unbelievable dark, smoky character. Some of the flavors reminded me of an artisinal smoked black tea liqueur we have at home. Nikki notes: That liqueur is Qi Black Tea Liqueur by the amazing Hangar One. One of these days our wine travels will bring us to Alameda and we’ll do a whole column or three on Hangar One! There was a lot going on in this young wine, which seemed wise beyond its years. I was quite captivated by this wine, and I’d love to try it after it’s had a chance to mature. I’ll get the chance, too, if you know what I mean. Nikki’s notes indicate a masculine character to the wine – she got hints of leather, tobacco and wood in addition to blackberry, strawberry and patchouli. Nikki adds: It’s no wonder that man of mine would enjoy such a macho wine!

2007 Thorne Estate Pinot Noir: An aroma reminiscent of salami? I’m intrigued. The flavor is one of soft fruit at the beginning, followed by a gentle swell of tannins. There’s a faint but definite flavor of cherries in there too. Nikki noted the fuller body of this wine and a peppery quality accompanying the fruit.

2007 Ken Brown Pinot Noir: The aroma of this one is nice and sweet, full of fruit and just the slightest hint of something savory… dare I say it? A hint of thousand island dressing. Nikki got caramelized blueberries from the aroma. The flavor continues the slightly savory impression with just a trace of sulfur playing off cherries and a delicate layer of oak. The oak hit Nikki’s palate a little harder. This is a full-bodied, complex wine.

2007 Huber Dornfelder: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a wine this dark. It’s almost opaque, and even the thinnest residue clinging to the glass displays a deep red-purple hue. On the nose you get a beautiful fruity impression with a touch of black pepper. Despite the intense color, this is more of a medium-bodied wine, and the flavor is a bit more restrained than the very fruity smell. This would definitely make friends with food. Nikki found figs and a touch of spice in the flavor.

Lodi Wine and Visitor Center: In Love with Lodi

Lodi Wine & Visitor Center
2545 W. Turner Road, Lodi, CA 95242 (map link)
(209) 365-0621

The order of words in the name is telling. It’s not the Lodi Visitor and Wine Center. Sure, that wouldn’t roll off the tongue as smoothly as Lodi Wine and Visitor Center, but it’s more than that. The word order reflects the sequence of discovery you experience when visiting Lodi as a wine lover.

You come for the wine. Then, while you visit, Lodi reveals its many charms.

From the wonderful cottage we shared with friends to the delightful downtown, through every surrounding vineyard and tasting room, Lodi unfolded as a welcoming spot to relax and explore with loved ones and friends.

The Lodi Wine and Visitor Center is the hub of the Lodi Wine and Chocolate weekend. It’s where you pick up your wristbands and maps and any other information you might need to navigate the abundance of venues. That’s not all though – the Center is perhaps the most comprehensive wine tasting facility in all of Lodi. Their website explains that they offer tastings and sales of over 100 wines from the roughly 80 wineries in the area. On any given day they offer 8 different wines for tasting.

We tried to stop in Sunday morning, but as we approached the Center we saw a stretch Crown Vic parked at the curb and a stretch Hummer limo parked in the lot, with a shuttle bus just pulling in from the road. Taking quick advantage of California’s attitude of “anything not forbidden is permitted” we made a (perfectly legal) u-turn and went somewhere else instead. Nikki says: As I recall, we were all shouting, “Abort mission! Abort mission! Retreat!!!” as we turned. Even we have a threshold when it comes to crowds.

We managed to get back to the Center toward the end of Sunday when the crowd was refreshingly sparse. We tasted at their main bar and on the patio, and enjoyed some samples of balsamic vinegar and artisan olive oils in the lobby.

The Wines

We arrived late enough that some of the wines were gone baby gone, but you know what they say – two’s company, three’s a party.

2007 Peltier Station Viognier: Nikki was taken with the scent and flavor of orange blossoms in this aromatic wine. I appreciated how its sweetness peaked at just the right point and I enjoyed the lightly creamy mouthfeel.

2007 Campus Oaks Old Vine Zin: I had a taste of chocolate right before trying this. It was not a good choice for this wine. It had a fairly light body that I associate with a more European aesthetic, but it seemed too acidic through the chocolate aftertaste. Nikki’s notes indicate it may not have been the chocolate that made me feel this way.

2009 Wooden Nickel Petite Sirah: This one was squarely in the California pocket. Fruity and accessible, I’d call it unambitious but gregarious.

I think this is my last writeup for the Lodi trip. As Lodi got smaller in the rearview we felt satisfied but a little sad to be leaving such an endearing place. It definitely belongs on the short list if you’re contemplating a wine weekend in California.

m2 wines: In Love with Lodi

m2 is located in an unassuming building in a business park campus. The incognito quality of their facility is in sharp contrast to the character of their wines.

Normally they might be hard to spot, but on Sunday they had their roll-up doors open and some additional shade structures set up out front. If that weren’t enough of a tip-off, there was a fair-sized collection of people carrying wine glasses mingling about which let us know we were in the right place.

m2 invited Culinary Arts students from The Art Institute of California – Sacramento to create pairings for specific m2 wines. To honor the event’s theme of “Wine and Chocolate,” each dish incorporated chocolate as well. This really set m2 apart from other wineries and made our visit there memorable. The food was all exquisite, and the chefs were on-hand to describe the ingredients they used and their inspirations for the dishes they had created. m2 provided ballots and encouraged visitors to vote for their favorite pairings, but it was just about impossible to choose one over all others because they were all unique and delicious. I was delighted to discover that the pamphlets m2 gave us going in contain the recipes for each of the food pairings.

The Pairings:

2008 Old Vine Zinfandel paired with Tomato Mousse with Basil Oil

The Zin was bold and jammy with a whole range of berry and dark cherry flavors finishing with a hint of oak. The tomato mousse was a perfect savory companion to the wine. It had bright fruity tang to it, tempered by the fragrant basil, peppery olive oil, rich chocolate shavings, and the slight bitterness of the watercress.

2008 Artist Series Zinfandel paired with Duck Confit with Chocolate Cherry m2 “Artist Series” Demi Sauce

In another example of m2 reaching out to other creatives, the labels for the Artist Series wines are created by Lodi-area artists.

The ’08 had plenty of fruit, but stopped short of being jammy. There was a welcome spiciness and just the right amount of oak. The duck confit was rich, succulent and savory. The Zinfandel, cherries and chocolate in the demi sauce gracefully bridged the savory quality of the duck to the fruit in the wine. Absolutely splendid.

Nikki adds: Maybe it’s because I didn’t get to have this with the food, but I found it to have a high-alcohol finish. I enjoyed the molé-cinnamon cherry smell.

2007 Trio Red Blend paired with Chocolate kissed Pork Tenderloin

The Trio Red, a blend of Cab, Syrah and Petite Sirah was warm and inviting, but a bit more austere with the fruit. The flavor developed nicely over time, revealing an array of berries, caramel and licorice all supported by a toasty oak foundation.

Nikki adds: This had a complex scent that included notes of sage. The taste made me think of sour oranges, with a peppery finish.

The chocolate kissed tenderloin reflected the diversity and harmony of ingredients and flavors present in the wine.

These young chefs clearly have refined palates and understand and appreciate the interplay between wine and food.

2007 Petite Sirah paired with Lamb Sliders with Bleu Cheese

My first impression of the Petite Sirah was “Cherries! Yum!” Big, assertive and exuberant. How do you create a pairing that won’t be lost or overwhelmed by such a wine? We have a perfect answer – lamb sliders topped with bleu cheese and an amazing sweet, savory marmalade that includes the Petite Sirah, dark chocolate and brown stock. The bold, meaty, rich flavors of the sliders were lively and assertive, and provided just the right power to accompany the big wine. Nikki notes: This was from the Clarksburg AVA, making our sixth AVA of the trip.

2008 Viognier Dessert Wine paired with White Chocolate Mousse with Lemon Curd

The tears I cried had notes of bitter oak when I learned we were too late to sample this food pairing. I felt a little better knowing that the wine was also paired with the next food offering.

2008 Amador County Viognier Dessert Wine paired with Milk Chocolate and Pink Peppercorn Mousse Gateau

The viognier was highly aromatic and had flavors of pear and melon. Just the right acidity provided a nice brightness. Nikki adds: First I tasted syrup, then saffron, then tangerine. I like all of those flavors, so this was a winner for me. And, since Amador County is within the defined 50-mile radius of the tasting room, we notched another AVA in our belts.

I didn’t know what to expect from a chocolate mousse with pink peppercorns, but I was delighted to discover the peppercorns provided a nice structure to the rich sweetness of the chocolate, the way that oak can provide a sense of structure to an otherwise sweet wine. The interplay between flavors I would not have thought of putting together was exquisite.

All in all I really liked m2’s approach to the event. The wines were outstanding, the food was amazing, and together they elevated my enjoyment of all the flavors being offered.

Ripken Vineyards & Winery: In Love with Lodi

Ripken Vineyards and Winery
2472 W. Sargent Road, Lodi, CA 95242

The folks at Ripken had things figured out. First of all, there was a theme – “PS – I Love You.” PS in this case stands for Petite Sirah, Ripken’s specialty. Second, they placed tasting stations all around the facility so that visitors could progress through their wines in a specific order. Despite these specific elements, the folks pouring and staffing the event were casual and easygoing, and seemed to be enjoying themselves and their guests quite a bit.
Ripken Vineyards and Winery
The tasting route took us first around the right side of the building to a tasting table for the first set of wines. Next it was on to the back of the building where there were more tasting tables, guest seating and a fire pit. The concrete patio was thoroughly enscribbled with sidewalk chalk, which visitors were encouraged to use to express their own artistic impulses. We heard rumors of S’mores, but we were there late on the last day of the weekend and I think they had run out.

Winery co-owner Richard Ripken was pouring at the table in back of the building, and he explained some of the issues and decisions grape growers and winemakers must consider in order to develop fruit with the specific flavor attributes they want. Richard’s admonition was to resist the temptation to water too early.

Proceeding from the back around to the other side of the building we encountered a table full of silly wigs, hats and novelty sunglasses that Elton John would consider garish. We learned that this was not some perverse sobriety test – the props were actually for a photo booth the staff had set up. In exchange for your email address, Ripken would send you a link to a strip of four photos featuring you and your companions in crazy get-ups. I put on a wig resembling Slash’s hair (from Guns and Roses) and was told it was an improvement over the styling of my real hair.

After photo fun it was on to the inside of the building to taste dessert wines.

The Wines

All the wines we tasted at Ripken were Petite Sirah except as noted.

2004 “Wedding Wine”: Fruity, jammy and warm with a taste of grape peel at the finish. Exuberant. Nikki says: I noticed a candied plum scent and a tangy plum taste. I also noticed that my adjectives seemed to have become limited to “prune,” “plum,” “candy” and “caramel” by this point in the day.

2005 “Wedding Wine”: Similar to the ’04 but with a hint of pepper and some cherry flavors. Nikki says: It seemed less harshly sour at the finish to me.

2004 “Rhonealicious”: Higher acidity made this lighter-bodied wine brighter, and the aclohol was more apparent.

2004 “Idyllwild Station”: I noted that it had a scent of raspberries, then when I reached for the glass for a second taste it was empty! I’m going to have to get Nikki to share her thoughts on this wine here. Nikki says: Ally my notebook says is “Chocolate coated plum scent.” On the bright side I’d found a fifth adjective; on the down side, I had no tasting notes.

2005 “Rhonealicious”: Definite notes of cherries and raspberries with a warm character. Nikki says: I tasted tart blackberries, like blackberries taste when they aren’t quite ripe.

2007 “Rhonealicious”: This wine is 5% Tannat and 5% Malbec. It’s jammy and fruity with berry flavors, and just enough spiciness on the finish.

2008 Petite Sirah: This double-gold winner was intense with fruit flavor, nicely balanced with the alcohol.

2008 Late Harvest Viognier Dessert Wine: A beautiful creamy mouthfeel. Grapefruit in the aroma but less so on the tongue. Rich, caramel-butter finish. Nikki says: My notes say “CANDY CANDY YUMMY CANDY! I WANT MORE!” As you may have noticed, I liked it.

2005 Port: Cherries, wood, alcohol and licorice make this a dessert wine that demands to be taken seriously.

Clements Ridge: In Love with Lodi

Clements Ridge was a little farther out than the other tasting rooms we visited, but it was well worth the trip both for the wines and the beautiful tree-lined drive with views of the Snow-capped Sierras.

At first we weren’t sure we were pulling into the right place. Clements Ridge is a family-run produce market, with an attached tasting room. Once we saw the banners proclaiming “Wine Tasting” we knew that we were in the right place.

Clements Ridge
Nikki: "I'm styling your hair with my mind."

The wine room at Clements Ridge reps several local wine labels. To accommodate the higher traffic the Wine and Chocolate event would bring, they had set up tasting stations for a couple of the wineries in the front outdoor seating area. A variety of noshes were offered on tables just inside the main store.

The main distinguishing feature that made Clements Ridge a must-visit was that they were going to be pouring some German-style wines. Wine regions often focus on a pretty specific style of wine – in Lodi it’s Zinfandel, in Monterey it’s Rhone-style wines – so when someone’s doing something different like German or Spanish style wines it’s a nice addition to the roster.

The Wines

Nikki has some great notes/thoughts about the wines we tasted, so when she’s off work I’m going to strong-arm her into adding them to this post. For the time being, you’re stuck with me.

We started our tasting with Mokelumne Glen (, the winery offering the German varieties. They also offered a sampling of German sausage bites which paired well with some of the wines.

Gewurtztraminer: This is my kind of white wine. Very fragrant fruit-and-floral nose, which continues on into the flavor. Notes of pear and peach under a soft floral perfume. Nikki adds: I also tasted the pear, and a hint of grapefruit, plus a little Granny Smith apple. This would make a great summer wine.

Kerner: The lighter, less fruity cousin of the Gewurtztraminer. I think I would have appreciated the Kerner more if I had tried it before the Gewurtztraminer, but because I had it after the Gewurtz it seemed a bit like a toned-down version of that wine. Nikki adds: I tasted Granny Smith and sweet pineapple, so it seemed plenty fruity to me!

Zweigelt: This is a red wine that opens with fruit and closes with tannins. The tannins seem to get harder at the end. I don’t prefer a wine like this as a sipping wine, but I think it would be great with rich-flavored foods.

Dornfelder: Another red. A bit of ash in the aroma. The flavor is marked with notes of ash, earth and tobacco. More accessible than that description might imply – it’s a stately, well-balanced wine. Nikki adds: I think I was hitting palate fatigue here, because it seemed very astringent to me.

We then moved on to the offerings of Costamagna (they do not appear to have a website). Nikki adds: They don’t, but some digging reveals that the Costamagna family own a grape and cherry farm and a company called Delta Packing that sells said fruit. I’m going to see if I can learn more.

Clements Hills
Thoughts, l-r: "I'm hot." "What's up with the hair?" "Dude, seriously." "Yeah, he's mine."

Chardonnay (missed the vintage on this one): Light fruit at the beginning which develops a cascade of butter, caramel, and pink bubble gum. I was pleased to taste such a layered wine – much of what we had been tasting was delicious but lacking in complexity. This was a welcome exception. Nikki adds: I called this a “candy Chard.” It is very easy drinking, and has everything that Mike describes and more.

2008 Barrel-Aged Zinfandel: Fruity, almost jammy with blackberry developing into a rich flavor backed by soft tannins. Nikki says: There was a candied taste to this that I quite liked.

2004 Barrel-Aged Cabernet Sauvignon: Cherries, ash, tannins over a nice warmth. A bit more formal than the Zin. Nikki adds: It smelled like sugar candy in an oak forest and tasted like a candy-coated acorn. Or maybe what a candy-coated acorn would taste like to a deer, because an actual candy-coated acorn would be pretty gross.

Port (Oops, didn’t note the vintage): Unexpected developments on the tongue! It opens with sweet fruit, then crescendos to tannins which then clear to reveal even more fruit, this time with hints of chocolate. It’s like a dessert wine that has its own dessert at the end. Nikki adds: Sweet and tart, but not like a sweet tart. It reminded me of chocolate-covered blackberries.

After Costamagna we moved into the wine room proper and enjoyed the wines of Gatos Locos Winery. They also do not appear to have their own website. More information is available at the Clements Ridge website.

Clements Hills
Carissa and Kevin taking advantage of the photo-studio-quality wall treatment in the tasting room

2007 Chardonnay: A sweet hit of pineapple melting into butter. Nikki adds: This Mokelumne River wine was fermented in stainless steel. It was fruity and enjoyable, with a hint of caramel at the end.

2006 Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir: Tannins up front fade to reveal a richness that has fruit, but is not jammy.

2007 Clements Hills Syrah: Earthy, ashy hints which I enjoyed. Also had a faint taste of fresh-baked bread. Nikki adds: And our third appellation of the trip!

2007 Mokelumne River Zinfandel: This one just hit my palate wrong, and I’m not sure why. I got a taste of plastic up front which then cleared to reveal fruit, then the flavor just dropped off. I’d like to give this a try again sometime to see if it makes a different impression. Nikki adds: This hit my palate right. It smelled of chocolate and cinnamon and tasted of grape, tomato and molé.

Stealth Syrah: We called this Stealth Syrah because it came from an unlabeled bottle. It was essentially a barrel-tasting of a wine slated for release in the summer of 2011. It was dark and velvety despite its youth, and should develop into a real palate-pleaser.

Clements Hills
Debbie, rockin' the winery hat, poured the Gatos Locos wines for us.