Woodinville Wine Party, Part 1

We agreed after our visit to Lodi earlier this year that visiting wineries during a big event weekend wasn’t an ideal situation for our purposes. In general, during big event weekends wineries aren’t necessarily pouring their best wines, and the tasting staff is just doing their best to get wine tasters out the door rather than create an intimate experience. Plus, there’s normally a huge press at the tasting tables, which drives Mike nutty.

However, we’d been talking about visiting Woodinville with our friends Shawn and Matt for a full year. The weekend we planned to visit Seattle was, coincidentally, the same weekend as the gigantic St. Nicholas Festival in Woodinville. We decided to take a chance — and we had a great time. The people staffing the shuttle buses and the tasting room staffs we encountered were upbeat and positive. If anyone was feeling overwhelmed by the crowds, it was not apparent. The other tasters getting on and off the buses and coming and going from the wineries all seemed to be in good spirits (no pun intended – or was it?).

One part of the great time, for me, is that Shawn did all the research. She picked up our passes, worked out the logistics and even brought snacks for all of us. My job was just to get us there; Shawn did the research on the best wineries and pulled together a short-list that combined her favorite Woodinville tasting rooms with several tasting rooms that she’d found had great reviews.

From the bus stop, Mike and I had a lovely hike along the Tolt Pipeline Trail and met Matt and Shawn at the shuttle stop. The trail was mostly downhill from where we picked it up. While the views over the fog-shrouded valley were dramatic and beautiful, we were very glad our hike was not a round-trip. Shawn pulled out her shortlist, and we began our excursion.

Matthews Cellars

Of course we started at Matthews Cellars; how could we pass up a tasting room named after the Matthew we were traveling with? (I will resist the urge to make an Uncle Travellin’ Matt reference.) The wine tasting room was decked out with holiday lights. We managed to stake out a table and tasted the white and red they had to sample.

Matthews Vineyards
There may have been a few hockey checks involved in staking out that table.

2010 Blackboard Sauvignon Blanc (Columbia Valley): Shawn described this as “kinda lemony.” I tasted tart apple, grapefruit and lemon pith. It was very crisp and highly acidic.

2009 Blackboard Red (Columbia Valley): I smelled velvet and sage. It had a nice oak shell with a chewy fruity center, but as we sipped the tannins became more apparent, overwhelming the fruit.

Goose Ridge

Goose Ridge was decked out for the holidays. As would happen with a number of wineries we visited this day, we somehow managed to arrive just as a gigantic crowd of people were leaving, and finished our tasting just as another big crowd was entering. Go us, I say!

Goose Ridge
Matt looks WAY more cheerful in person.

2009 G3 White (Columbia Valley): This had a peachy scent. I tasted pineapple, kiwi, and a little unripe blackberry. (Mike, Matt and Shawn, all natives of blackberry country, looked at me like I was nuts on that last flavor.) It also had a slight buttery mouthfeel.

2008 G3 Red Blend (Columbia Valley):  This wine is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. I smelled fruit, but Shawn smelled bitterness. There were heavy tannins surrounding the fruit on this wine, which I think may have led to the bitterness that Shawn smelled.

2007 Merlot: This smelled of truffled cherries and tasted fruity, but with hints of cacao nibs.

2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley): The aroma reminded me of frosted grapes. The flavor was gentle, with soft tannins warming and mingling with the fruit.

We’d hit two wineries, and yet we hadn’t managed to sample one wine that passed the Appellation Trail test. Though Woodinville was located square in the middle of the Puget Sound appellation, not one winery was pouring Puget Sound wine! Would we ever manage to taste a Puget Sound wine, or would the entire day be for naught? Stay tuned…

Skinner: The Road to El Dorado

The folks at Holly’s Hill had given us many recommendations for tasting in Fair Play, but one name stuck with us: Skinner. Dick gave us fantastic, precise directions. And thank goodness for that; it’s easy to get lost in Fair Play. Deliciously, deliciously lost.

Lunch in Fair Play: Bocconato

These directions took us past a restaurant called Bocconato, at which we had one of the best meals of our life. Seriously, it was one of those kinds of meals that makes me want to force everyone driving within 100 miles of the place to eat there, especially since the restaurant will be closing down on December 31.

Bocconato is part of the Slow Food movement, so it’s not the kind of restaurant that you go to expecting to be in and out in 15 minutes. There’s no menu. They have different courses written on the chalkboard (salad, pasta, entree, etc.); you tell them which courses you want and what foods you don’t eat, and they surprise you with a fantastic meal. I had the best lasagna of my life – I had no idea they could make noodles that thin! – and Mike had chicken cacciatore that he said tasted like the way you always imagine chicken will taste but it never actually does (except, apparently, here).

Unfortunately, many of the people who came in seemed to be confused by the concept and annoyed by the leisurely pace; I think this could have been overcome by setting their expectations the moment they walked in the door and explaining the concept. If Mike hadn’t spotted the Slow Food sticker in the window, I might have been frustrated as well; instead, I knew what to expect and now I want to go back — which has become our refrain for the Sierra Foothills.


Just a short drive away, we turned off for Skinner. As we drove up the road, nature slowly unveiled breathtaking views.

Skinner Vineyards
This is just the kind-of-scenic bit.

The Skinner website’s Tasting Room page says they have “the most breath-taking tasting room in all of the Sierra Foothills.” That’s no lie.

Skinner Vineyards
That mountain in the distance? That's Holly's Hill!

A Skinner ancestor started a winery here in 1861. The Skinner family has placed historic items around the winery, featuring informative plaques that explain the items. As a history buff, I was thrilled.

Skinner Vineyards
Breathtaking views + history = my kind of place.

This tasting room absolutely wins the “Most Picturesque” award of the year. The views were astounding and the building itself was also gorgeous.

Skinner Vineyards
The tasting room, thoroughly modern, references architectural elements that existed in the original building.


Okay, so the visuals were exquisite. Could the wines possibly live up to the views?

Skinner: The Wines

2009 Stony Creek Viognier (Fair Play):  It smelled of clementine blossoms and had a flavor like evaporating flowers. Really interesting! Mike tasted grass, pear and wood and found it complex with a warm finish.

2008 Seven Generations (El Dorado):  This blend of roussanne, marsanne and viognier had a scent with notes of honey, grapefruit and pears. The flavor was very complex, with elements of both nougat and citrus pith.

2008 Eighteen Sixty-One (El Dorado):  This blend, named after the year the winery was founded, uses grenache, mourvedre and syrah. It smelled like a winter evening gathered around a Christmas tree in front of the fireplace. When I tasted it, I got a hit that reminded me of the acid flavors in kiwi and pineapple, and also a strong hint of plum.

2007 Syrah (El Dorado): I tasted acid at the beginning, blueberries in the middle and a hint of unsweetened chocolate at the finish. Mike enjoyed a perfume quality in the aroma and though the finish had a nice spiciness.

2007 Stoney Creek Vineyard Syrah (Fair Play): It smelled like vanilla that had been sitting in oak. Mike thought the aroma had a berry component as well. The flavor had those elements as well, plus pepper, tannins and toast.

As we drove into the sunset our day ended with the happiness of enjoying some great wines in a stunning location. Our only regret was that we didn’t have another day or two to spend. We’ve already added El Dorado and the surrounding country to our short list of places to visit again soon.

Holly’s Hill Vineyards: The Road to El Dorado

We were sure that we would look back on Miraflores Winery as the high point of our day. We were positive no other winery could come close to touching what Miraflores did.

We were so, so very wrong.

We headed up a long, winding road, driving past horse farms and people walking enormous dogs that looked like they could be used as steeds if anyone saddled them. (Side note: why hasn’t anyone ever bred dogs up to be a riding animal? Is it the tendency toward hip displaysia, or the tendency toward face-licking that isn’t shared by horses?) Pavement turned to gravel, the fresh air filled with the scent of trees, and Mike looked around and said, “What is this, Wine Tasting State Park?”

The Wine Tasting State Park picnic area. Ants optional (we left ours at home).Â

Folks who we thought were tasting room staff were chatting outside the door. (Later, we figured out they were Holly’s Hill fans, complete with logowear.) We raved over the view, and one said, “If you think that’s good, come out back!”

Holly's Hill Vineyard
If it were any more picturesque, they'd make a jigsaw puzzle out of it.

Breathtaking setting: check.

We eventually sidled up to the tasting room bar next to an incredibly friendly Holly’s Hill fan named Gayle Brown. There’s a lot of choices on the Holly’s Hill tasting menu. Mike dubbed Gayle our “wine sherpa” as she led us through all her favorites. It didn’t trim down the choices by much; if Holly’s Hill makes a wine that is less than excellent we sure didn’t experience it.

Holly's Hill Vineyard
Mike, winemaker Josh Bendick, awesome tasting room associate Dick Tipton, and me

This is not to say that we didn’t also receive guidance from the tasting room associate. Dick Tipton was friendly, knowledgeable and very willing to share his opinions. He was laid back and unintimidating, exactly the kind of tasting associate I like.

Photobombing Holly's Hill Vineyard
They don't charge extra for the photobombing.

Dick wasn’t the only one willing to share an opinion. This wasn’t one of those tasting rooms where everyone keeps to themselves. We mentioned we were going to Napa and the entire room chimed in with their recommendations, both for the best tasting rooms and the most pretentious. We told Dick and Gayle the name of the winery we were planning to visit in Fair Play and I thought they and a few of the other patrons were going to throw themselves bodily in our paths in order to get us to change our minds. Their recommendations put us on the right path.

But, you may ask, how were the wines?

The Wines

2010 Viognier (El Dorado): This smelled like delicious buckwheat honey poured over tangerines. On the tongue, it burst into effervescent, crisp peach flavors. Yum!

2009 Patriarche (El Dorado): Winemakers Carrie and Josh Bendick created this blend with 60% Mourvedre, 23% Syrah, 14% Grenache Noir and 3% Counoise. (I really want to know how they figure out the percentages to that degree, and despite the fact that Josh Benedick was standing three feet from me I never did ask. Dang it!) It had a scent of woodsmoke barbecue and a delicate woodsmoke and unsweetened chocolate flavor. “This is unreasonably good,” I said on my second sip.

2009 Petite Patriarche (El Dorado): This changes the proportions used in the Patriarche and uses just a taste of Petite Sirah to round out the flavors. At first sniff, it smelled musky and meaty, but every time I inhaled, the scents changed, sometimes fruity, sometimes smoky. On the palate, it was very fruit forward with just a hint of oak.

2009 Mourvedre Classique (El Dorado): It had a fruity plummy scent and just the right soft kind of tannins on the palate. “It’s like a cozy fruity fleece blanket around my tongue,” I wrote. It’s the kind of wine that’s made for cold winter nights snuggled up at a snow lodge in Tahoe. Clearly, Mike and I will have to get it the next time he goes skiing. It can keep me company in the lodge.

2009 Estate Mourvedre (El Dorado): This was also fruit forward but I tasted more alcohol. (That doesn’t mean there was more alcohol, but I did notice it more.) It’s a really good wine, but the Mourvedre Classique still holds the number one place in my imaginary Tahoe ski lodge.

2010 Estate Counoise: It’s a good thing that Mike and I both took notes; I was so busy ecstatically writing about this one that I didn’t get the name down! It smelled like deep caramel and unsweetened chocolate and tasted like caramelized A-1 sauce and steak (yes, you carnivores, I still remember what that tastes like). “So very good!” I wrote in my notes, with a triple underline.

2009 Late Harvest Roussane (El Dorado): The nose was caramelized saffron. The flavor was sweet and light, simple without being boring, and it had a rich viscosity that left it clinging to the palate.

Mourvedre-Syrah: This was a beautiful port-style dessert wine. It had a hint of saffron on the nose and a stewed plum flavor that was sweet without being too sweet.

At the end of our tasting, Gayle gave us a bottle of the Mourvedre Classique I’d swooned over! We had to commemorate the moment. We collared the photobomber and made him take a shot of all of us.

Holly's Hill Vineyard
Mike, Gayle and myself. Thanks, Gayle!


Miraflores Winery: The Road to El Dorado

My coworker Jenna has been recommending the Sierra Foothills non-stop since we started this project. We just hadn’t managed to make it out there, and I thought there was no way it could be as great as Jenna said.

I hereby renounce any doubts I had. Jenna, you were right. Ah, the Sierra Foothills, where the views are amazing, the wine is spectacular and the tastings are free! I had began to feel jaded about the wine tasting experience and less interested in wine, but this trip reminded me why we started this project in the first place – as an excuse to drink great wines and visit beautiful places we otherwise might not go.

Sure, "beautiful" works.

I’d mentioned that our trip to the Southern California wineries was not very thoroughly planned.  This trip was even more spontaneous; we didn’t even decide we were going to Placerville until about 24 hours before we arrived at our hotel room. We’d actually intended to go to Mendocino after our Thanksgiving dinner in San Francisco, but a three hour windy drive in the dark sounded less than optimal. We looked for a wine region that was a little closer to San Francisco and a whole lot cheaper than Napa, and poof, there the Sierra Foothills were!

How We Found Miraflores Winery

Where to start our tastings? Fortunately, The Wine Travelers have a post called “Placerville Wineries – Three not to be missed.” We figured we’d start with some of those and rely on recommendations from the people we met to get us through the rest of our trip.

Joe glowed about Miraflores Winery in his post, saying that “we found the wines here to match any wines we have tasted in all of California. Yes, that includes the Napa Valley.” It couldn’t be that good, could it?

Our Visit to Miraflores

Well, we haven’t been to Napa yet (that’s going to be our grand finale in mid-December), but we can safely say that Joe was not lying. Every aspect of Miraflores, from the stellar wine to the great tasting room staff to the incredible decor and ambiance were all top-notch.

Miraflores Winery
Vampires would hate this tasting room.

Miraflores Winery: The Experience

The tasting room setting is beautiful. It’s perched on a hill but backed by even larger hills, some full of grapevines, others still thickly wooded. There’s an air of serenity and calm that is just wonderful.

These birds let us get right up to them!

Though the tasting room is a new build, it incorporates salvaged materials and antiques from all over the world, which give a sense of tradition and permanence. Massive wood beams that were once part of the Port of San Francisco run from wall to wall.

I think these beams exceed code requirements.

The sink is an old stone horse watering trough from France. (As in a watering trough made from stone, not a trough for stone horses.) The rusted iron doors are from the gold rush period in Placerville. Architecture journalists, write this one up!

I'm guessing that's custom.

Though there were no purse hooks at the tasting bar, there was a conveniently located shelf below the bar itself, which worked just as well. The shelf also held plenty of materials to guide us to other tasting rooms.

Julie, our tasting room associate, was fantastic. She was cheerful, positive and had a thorough knowledge of the wine at hand. (She also reminded me of Christine Baranski.)

Julie and Angie of Miraflores Winery
Julie, our awesome tasting room associate, and Angie, who is also an awesome tasting room associate (but not ours).

We’d said we weren’t going to buy any wines this day, but we walked out with several. I’m experiencing the opposite of buyer’s remorse, however; I’m regretting only the fact that we didn’t take home more.

The Wines

2010 Sierra Foothills Chardonnay: The scent made me think of vanilla blossoms (I don’t know if vanilla plants actually flower, but if they did, they’d smell like this). The flavor was crisp, with notes of tangerine pith. It’s the sort of wine that would be excellent for a summer day on the porch. For those at home keeping score, this wine is Appellation #34.

2010 Sierra Foothills Pinot Grigio: It smelled of honeysuckle and berries. The taste reminded me of very dry, very good mead. I find many Pinot Grigios too acidic; this wine did not fall into that trap.

2009 Sierra Foothills Barbera: The scent reminded me of a historic library; it was oaky, leathery and cozy and made me want to curl up with a weighty tome in a leather chair by the fire. The flavor ended on a strong sour raspberry-cherry note.

2006 El Dorado Zinfandel: This had a rich flavor with just enough oak to provide structure and the sort of smoothness that comes with age. (And ding! We just hit appellation #35.)

2007 El Dorado Zinfandel: There was a commonality that ran through the two Zinfandels that wasn’t just because they were from the same grape. At the same time, this Zin was very distinct from its older sibling, from the chocolatey fruity scent to the tart astringent taste.

2005 El Dorado Syrah: I noticed that pastilles aroma I often comment about, a sort of light dusted powdered sugar scent lingering over everything. The fruit was intense, with wood running through it in a way that didn’t quite work for me; it felt more like having wood chips in the middle of my wine than having an oak backbone holding up the fruit.

2006 El Dorado Syrah: I liked this a lot more than the ’05. It was still very astringent, but the wood tones played more nicely with the fruit.

2009 El Dorado Estate Methode Ancienne: This is a wine with a fascinating story. Every year, Miraflores invites their friends to physically foot-stomp the grapes for these wines. Wild local yeast is used in the fermentation process. This smelled of wooded blackberries. Mike found notes of cocoa and raisin in the aroma, while the flavor added elements of wood smoke, cedar and pepper. Just a slight tinge of Meyer lemon added to the mystery.

2006 El Dorado Petite Syrah: The scent for this wine was incredibly rich and deep. Mike got a hint of yeast on the nose. In the flavor he got hints of pepper floating over restrained fruit, with a nicely balance tannic finish.

2009 El Dorado Petite Syrah: This had an additional cherry note to the scent. I tasted more fruit in this than I did in the ’06. Mike’s super-sniffer was reminded of cake batter, plus a faint hint of coffee. The flavor put him in mind of plums, mellow but with just a touch of brightness. The finish was warmth, grape peel and soft tannins.

2008 Muscat Canelli: It smelled of honeysuckle and apple blossoms, a crispness rather than a sickly-sweetness. It walked a fine line, sweet enough to have with a fruit plate but dry enough to be perfect with a spicy Indian meal. I keep returning to this wine in my mind, even days later; it was one of my two favorites of the day. (And yet somehow, we did not go home with it. I can’t figure out how that happened.)

Principe NV Port:  Many ports just hammer you over the head with one-note sweetness. This one, on the other hand, had many layers. I tasted caramelized plums, sweet cherries and nougat at the finish.

2008 Botricelli: I’m a sucker for a good Sauternes. This is not a Sauternes, as it’s not from the Bordeaux region of France; however, it uses the combination of Semillon grapes and botrytis to create a flavor that holds its own against the best of the noted French dessert wine. It tasted like the Platonic ideal of what a Semillon should taste like. Julie gave us a small chunk of bleu cheese to try with the wine, and it transformed the flavor of the Botricelli, adding rich caramel notes.

In summary: my socks, they were blown clean off. By the end of our tasting, Mike and I were already plotting our next trip to Placerville just so we could visit Miraflores.

But would the rest of our tastings live up to this experience? Stay tuned…

Cordiano Winery: San Diego Sojurn

Sheila at Orfila recommended two other wineries to us, one of which was Cordiano. “Make sure to get the pizza!” she said.

On paper, Cordiano didn’t look that far away, but it couldn’t have felt more distant. We drove down a narrow, twisty road, past palm tree farms and along the edge of steep drops, with the kind of vistas you only get in the hills of Southern California.

The place that had the best views, however, was the back porch of Cordiano Winery.

Cordiano Winery
On a clear day you can see forever - and on a cloudy day, you can still see into the next county.

The weather had taken a turn for the cold and windy as we drove up to Cordiano, and ominous rain clouds threatened. The throngs of visitors drinking wine on the expansive back patio of Cordiano didn’t seem to notice. We’d arrived in the middle of an intersection between a party bus and a wedding reception, and the crowd was in a festive mood. The vibe reminded us strongly of Malibu Wines in LA.

Cordiano’s outdoor pizza oven, located next to the tasting counter, was going like gangbusters. Every visitor was digging in. The smell of the pizza was deliciously overwhelming on the back patio.

Scent and the Wine Taster

Unfortunately, the smell was so overwhelming that we couldn’t smell the wine. As we tasted, our palates imparted the pizza flavors we were smelling to the wine. Anxious to get a better assessment of the wines – and get warm, since neither of us had dressed for the sudden chill – we moved into the lovely indoor tasting space.

We couldn’t smell the pizza oven inside, but that was because the fragrances from the large scented candles placed on the tasting bar overwhelmed any lingering aromas from outside. Again, the scent overrode our palates, lending every wine we tasted a strange apple-Jolly Rancher taste, not what I’d expect from a cabernet sauvignon.

I had always heard how important scent was to the wine tasting experience. Friends who are serious wine snobs have told me that if I wear perfume while tasting, it will affect the flavor of the wine. I had shrugged this off, but my experience at Cordiano really brought this home. I don’t feel I can give a real assessment of their wines because my taste buds were so strongly affected by the non-wine smells I experienced.

Cordiano’s ambiance is great, and they throw one heck of a party. I’d like to go back there sometime on a warm, sunny day, kick back on their patio, and see if I can get a better assessment of their wines.

Orfila Vineyards and Winery: San Diego Sojourn

Orfila Vineyards and Winery
13455 San Pasqual Road, Escondido, California (map link)

Many boutique wineries are started by people going into a second career. Few, however, can claim a first career as exotic as Orfila’s founder Alejandro Orfila. He served in numerous diplomatic posts on behalf of Argentina including service as Ambassador to Japan and to the US, as well as serving two terms as Secretary General of the Organization of American States. Photos in a section of the tasting room show him with dignitaries such as Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan, as well as with Jacqueline Kennedy and the Pope.

Orfila Winery
The photos are, of course, inside a giant wine barrel.

Not content with merely guiding and influencing world affairs, Orfila’s appreciation of wine ultimately led him to establish a winery in Escondido. And we’re glad he did! Orfila took over a winery that was one of only two in Escondido that had survived Prohibition.

Do these overalls make my feet look big?

The grounds are beautiful, with grapevine-covered rolling hills leading the eye to spectacular vistas. The estate, which is located on the same agricultural preserve as the San Diego Zoo Wild Animal Park, has plenty of room for weddings and other events. A large mixed-use building serves as a tasting room as well as housing barrels as far as the eye can see. Nikki adds: And the tasting room bar has purse hooks!

Nikki described Sheila, who poured for us, as a wine geek's dream. I agree!

The tasting room staff was friendly and knowledgeable and managed to give personal attention even though the room was quite busy. They pour for the love of the wine. Sheila, our tasting room associate, actually works full-time at the San Diego Zoo but took up pouring at Orfila because she liked the wine so much. We enjoyed our visit a great deal.

The Wines

2008 Viognier (San Pasqual Valley): This had a very mild aroma and an amazingly rich taste. A little sweet, smooth, with a touch of bitterness that holds it all together. Nikki says: It tasted like drinking orange blossoms; I could taste a hint of orange essence and a floral overtone.

2010 Viognier (San Pasqual Valley): A light crisp nose, with citrus and apple. This one’s rich like the ’08, but with more prominent fruit, particularly pear and apple. Nikki says: It’s like someone cranked the flavors in the ’08 up to 11!  Sheila described the richness as custard. I finally have a name to put with that flavor!

2008 Sangiovese (California): Dark in color, aroma and taste with notes of cedar and cherry, nicely structured with just the right amount of tannins. Nikki says; It smelled like the tannic parts of A-1 sauce. I really like A-1 sauce, so this is a compliment.

2009 Montepulciano (California): This was an enchanting swirl of cherry and licorice. Aromas of wood smoke and leaves imparted an autumnal quality to this wine. Nikki says: It tasted like frosted tannins!

2006 Estate Syrah (San Pasqual Valley): This Syrah was pretty tightly structured with a bit of bite. I found a nice cherry flavor in the fruit. I think this one would be great with bold dishes.

2006 Coastal Cuvée Syrah (California): The aroma brought to mind filet mignon on a cedar plank. The flavor was round and rich, with good tannic support. I really craved a nice steak after tasting this one. Nikki says: So did I – and I’m a vegetarian!

2008 Ambassador’s Reserve Estate Syrah (San Pasqual Valley): The grapes used in the ’08 Ambassador’s Reserve were growing during a nearby fire in 2007. The wine does seem to have been influenced. The aroma is earthy, with cedar and herbal notes. The flavor combines cherry and grape, with a nice tannic finish.

2008 Estate Petite Sirah (San Pasqual Valley): I detected holiday spice aromas and cherry in the nose. The flavor was fruity enough to be jammy, pulled together by an expert application of tannins.

California NV Tawny Port: The aroma was just what you hope for in a tawny port. Layers of prune and caramel with just a whiff of alcohol. The mouthfeel was incredibly rich and unctious. The flavor revealed prune, raisin and chocolate, and the intriguing finish was marked by an almost savory sensation of smoke, maybe even burnt gunpowder.

Orfila does it right. Great wines served in a fun, relaxed atmosphere amid beautiful surroundings. Yay!

Wiens Family Cellars: San Diego Sojourn

Wiens Family Cellars
35055 Via Del Ponte, Temecula, CA (map link)
888-98-WIENS (888-989-4367)

I wasn’t expecting the Wiens Family Cellars facility to be quite so large – from the name I was expecting a smaller mom-and-pop kind of operation. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but at first glance its size and style brought back memories of the bad experience we had in Livermore at the winery that shall not be named. Happily, the similarities were all superficial. Wiens Family Cellars shows how a winemaking family can take their enterprise to the next level while maintaining a charming, inviting space in which friendly, knowledgeable staff can show off their wonderful wines.

Wiens Winery
Not to be confused with Ween, although you might find some chocolate and cheese here

The interior is spacious without feeling cavernous. The layout, style, materials and colors are well-chosen to create a warm, traditional wine-tasting atmosphere.

Wiens Winery


Wiens Winery

The scale of the facility and the presence of employee nametags create a slightly more businesslike feel at Wiens than at many other wineries we’ve visited, but once we met the associates who poured for us that quality was superseded by a very personalized experience. Chris, who poured for us, was very knowledgeable and engaging.

Nikki adds: Full disclosure – I was not quite as knocked out by this place as Mike was. This is why we each take our own notes. This is not the first time that one of us has been ecstatic where the other was merely satisfied, and it won’t be the last.

Some wines are miserly with their aromas, but all the ones we tasted at Wiens had amazing fragrances. I suggested they offer wine sniffings in addition to wine tastings, that’s how satisfying the aromas were.

Wiens Winery
Plus, delightful label art!

While Wiens offers wines made from grapes from other appellations, the ones we tasted are sourced from Temecula Valley grapes unless otherwise noted.

The Wines

2009 Infinite Perspective (Riverside County): “Oh, wow!” was really the only response appropriate upon smelling this wine. It’s a blend of  Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Verdot and Cabernet Franc. The aroma was gregarious and inviting, with a hint of yeast. Nikki adds: I found the scent tart and smoky. The flavor starts out bold and fruity with just the right acidity for brightness. Mild tannins and a hint of spice create a nice finish. I’d be happy sipping this on its own, but it would be a great pairing with just about any kind of boldly-flavored food.

2008 Sangiovese: Another “Oh, wow!” aroma. I was reminded of the rich sweetness of cake batter. Nikki adds: I was reminded of unsweetened, spicy chocolate. The flavor was rich and mellow with notes of vanilla and berries. I wrote “Friendly!” in my notebook.

2009 Reflection “Super-Tuscan”: [Sniffs wine, looks in thesaurus for another way to say “Oh, wow!”] Zounds! Another nose-pleaser. It’s Tuscan because of the Barbera and Sangiovese, made Super by the addition of Petite Sirah, Syrah and Petit Verdot. The aroma floated a very light yeast scent over vanilla and fruit. The flavor was bold and fruity, but not overwhelming or jammy. The darker tones are balanced by a nice acidic brightness, and the entire flavor is elegantly framed with light tannins. Again, this would be delightful by itself, but it would also complement (and not get overwhelmed by) just about any bold foods you’d care to enjoy it with.

2009 Domestique: Ah, GSM, my old friend. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Guy walks into a wine tasting room, sniffs the wine, says “Oh, wow!” Sorry if that’s getting old, but I blame Wiens. They’re the ones making their wines smell so amazing! This blend also put me in mind of delicious baked desserts with a hint of yeast and plenty of vanilla in the aroma. The flavor is soft and vevety, rich and mild. Perfectly balanced tannins support an array of fruit including cherry and black plum. The faint yeast creates a finish reminiscent of rustic bread.

2010 Merrytage: It’s not a Meritage, it’s a special blend released for the holidays. And sharing it with friends would impart merriment indeed. Merrytage is mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, with Sangiovese and Zinfandel. Wiens really brings out the vanilla notes, especially in the nose. This one is (Oh, wow!) no exception. I also sensed a faint perfume quality. This wine feels very smooth, with flavors of raisin, caramel and a hint of grape skin.

2010 Barbera: Quiz: What did I exclaim upon smelling this? Yeah, that’s right. This had that wonderful cupcake scent – vanilla, sugar, cream – present in many of the wine aromas here with an added quality that I have yet to adequately describe. It’s a sharper component that sometimes seems metallic (in a good way) or mineral-y, or sometimes like cedar. It triggers a specific scent memory but I can’t quite put my finger on it (which is good, because that would require me to put my finger in my nose). I also was reminded of sour cherry. The flavor had both tart and sweet elements with a definite taste of underripe blackberry amid the fruit. I also got cedar and even a whiff of hops!

Amour De L’Orange: I sniffed it, I said it. I’m not ashamed! This is Champagne enhanced with a touch of natural orange flavor. The orange aroma and flavor are perfect complements to those in the wine. The orange draws attention, but then redirects it back to the Champagne. The flavors are distinct but not separate, creating a seamless experience. It’s a masterful example of how different flavor elements can interact to create an energetic sense of motion on the tongue. This was the kind of delicious that could get you in trouble if you had a few bottles on hand.

In summary, Wiens manages to create wines that consistently bear signature elements in flavor and aroma, while maintaining each wine’s distinct character.

Longshadow Ranch: San Diego Sojurn

I’ve been very busy with work lately. Since I am the planning member of our relationship, that means we went into this winery trip without a plan. Fortunately, the day before our outing, I saw my colleagues Devian and Carmella, and they immediately recommended legions of wineries to us. This was one of Devian’s two “YOU MUST GO!!!” recommendations. And when he says, “YOU MUST GO!” I go.

Longshadow Ranch

Devian said the winery was gorgeous, and he wasn’t lying. We drove down a narrow, winding road, bracketed by horse corrals on one side and vineyards on the other.

Longshadow Ranch
Horses? Check.

The facility has two potential tasting spaces: an outdoor tasting bar and a large indoor space. We rambled inside to see that half the building was set up for a recent or future function, and I could see just how it would be perfect for a wedding or business event.

Longshadow Ranch
Nothing makes you feel more welcome than the staff cheering your arrival.

The two tasting room staffers, Mikey and Tommy, were young, hip and enthusiastic. They looked like the sort of guys you’d expect to see drinking beer, but they sure knew a lot about wine. And their taste in music, based on what came out of the sound system, was impeccable. They made me want to hang out all day.

Longshadow Ranch
And they even posed for a photo with us!


The Wines

All wines are from the Temecula Valley AVA.

2009 White Feather Chardonnay: This smelled of pineapple and clementine rind with a hint of musk. The flavor had hints of sweet apple; the taste was one that I would normally equate with a Riesling.

2010 Sauvignon Blanc: The apple element continued in this wine; there was a Granny Smith note to the scent. The flavor had a certain level of crispness.

2008 Estate Cinsault: I’ve never had a cinsault before, but it’s apparently a breed of grape known for its heat tolerance – especially important in sunny inland SoCal. This smelled like cherries and sage and had a sweet-savory taste with a hint of oak. It was not complex, but it was enjoyable.

2008 Temperanillo: The smell reminded me of Slim Jims. That may not sound positive, but I’ve always liked the smell of Slim Jims, so I considered it a plus. It was very astringent, but had a nice fruit structure backing up the astringency.

2009 Sangiovese: This smelled like frosted wood smoke. The taste was more tart and astringent than I could handle at that moment, but it would definitely go well with food.

Travessia Urban Winery: Mass Appeal

When we said we planned to go wine tasting in Massachusetts, reactions ranged from disbelief to pity to offers for mental counseling. Comments ranged from a polite and cautious “It’s not what you’re used to” to a disparaging “Well, I know a few of the wineries are using grapes from California, so they’re OK.” We didn’t want to taste wine made with grapes from California, however; we wanted to taste wine made with New England grapes.

As we discovered, with skill and a possibly insane amount of determination, considering the growing season, winemakers can make some pretty good wines out of those New England grapes. One of those winemakers, it turned out, was in a most unexpected place.

“You’re going wine tasting in New Bedford?” my mom said as if she was trying to make sense of my sentence. I couldn’t blame her; when I was growing up New Bedford had a bad reputation (and I grew up in Brockton, which would not earn a spot on anyone’s “safest cities” list). When we pulled into downtown, however, we discovered that this former whaling village still has plenty of historic buildings and New England charm.

We wanted to explore, but our schedule was constrained, so we hustled immediately to our destination, Travessia Urban Winery. Travessia has had a storefront in downtown New Bedford and is owned by winemaker Marco Montez. Like many in this region of Massachusetts, Montez is originally from Portugal. He grew up surrounded by small-scale winemakers first in Portugal and then in America, where his uncle made wine in the family garage.

Travessia Urban Winery
The Travessia tasting room. The grapevine tiles are all original and date to the early 1900s.

Travessia has achieved enough success that they’re expanding into the next storefront. When we arrived at the current tasting room, tasting room manager Edson Pereira was just putting the finishing touches on the paint job in the new space, connected to the current space by an interior door.

When we say “finishing touches,” we really mean it. When Pereira isn’t pouring wine or helping to make it, he’s used his hard-earned carpentry skills to build out the new tasting room, which may be open right as you’re reading this!

Travessia Urban Winery
Travessia's wine bottles have a graphic design we really liked.

All wines are from the Massachusetts appellation. Normally a state appellation is less narrow than a regional appellation, but in this case it’s more restrictive. The Southern New England appellation includes Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, while the Massachusetts appellation means that Travessia uses only Massachusetts-grown grapes.

2010 Unoaked Chardonnay: The scent was very light and bright and a perfect prelude to the flavors. This had a nice grapefruit and clementine flavor and finished on a grapefruit pith note. It was a fine, easy-drinking wine that would be perfect for a summer’s day.

2010 Oaked Chardonnay: Edson told us as he poured that this wine is unfiltered. The toasty citrus scent made me think of Little Penguin’s chardonnay. The flavor was also toasty, with a hint of the grapefruit (but none of the clementine) that I tasted in the unoaked chardonnay.

2009 Vidal Blanc: We’d never tried Vidal Blanc before we came to Massachusetts, and here we were on our second in a row! Vidal Blanc has some flavors in common with Riesling, but also has a sour element that gives it an intriguing flavor all its own. This wine had both sweet and tart elements in perfect balance; it was really enjoyable.

2010 “The Bastard” Rosé: Unlike the nose on the chardonnay, the nose on this wine couldn’t have had much less in common with the flavor. It was surprisingly sweet, with left me awaiting with dread the taste of a white zinfandel. I was instead pleasantly surprised to find that it had an effervescent and dry flavor.

2010 Pinot Noir: Something about the nose of this wine seemed a little off, but it was very enjoyable on the palate; the oak and fruit layered nicely.

While Edson wasn’t ready for his close-up (and we can’t blame the hardest working man in wine for that!) he was kind enough to take our picture.

Travessia Urban Winery
I swear, we didn't drink the whole vat!

Running Brook Winery: Mass Appeal

We didn’t get very much summer in Monterey, but we had high hopes for our trip to Cape Cod. The forecast was warm and sunny! We should know by now that inclement weather follows us whenever we visit New England, and this trip was no exception.

Running Brook Winery
Running Brook (Drizzling Rain)

But you can’t claim to be from Seattle like me if you can’t handle a little rain. So we trekked on out to the deep South Shore of Massachusetts to see what kind of wines were being made with local grapes. Our first stop was Running Brook Vineyard and Winery in Dartmouth, Massachusetts.

Using only Southeastern New England AVA estate-grown grapes, Running Brook produces a nice handful of varietals. Running Brook’s tasting room is located inside their all-on-one facility, which exudes a rustic feel informed by a New England practicality.

Running Brook Winery
I totally don't remember the direct sunlight.

Pat, who poured for us, was charming, friendly and quite knowledgeable about the region’s unique grape-growing context. Nikki adds: Pat created an experience that was the exact opposite of that terrible wine tasting experience we blogged about several weeks ago. She made us feel welcome and important, and was a fantastic host. She mentioned that Running Brook was part of the Coastal Wine Trail of Southeastern New England. If you’re planning a trip to the area, check out their Passport program for a convenient way to plan a tasting route. We learned that Running Brook’s founders include one of the first people to successfully start a vineyard in New England, Owner and Vineyard Manager Manuel Morais.

The area is a cool grape growing region. As a result, Southeastern New England winemakers offer a higher ratio of white wines to reds than their Pacific coast counterparts do.

The Wines

2010 Unoaked Chardonnay: This had a fruity aroma with just a hint of sugar. The flavor was nice and clean, with elements of apple and pear. There was also a charming warmth on the finish which I wasn’t expecting in an unoaked chard.

2008 Chardonnay Blend: This was a blend of 60% oaked and 40% unoaked chardonnay. As you might expect, this had a warmer quality throughout than the unoaked 2010.  It also had those apple and pear flavors, but they emerged a little later in the flavor, almost as though the 2010 had raw fruit and the 2008 blend had fruit that had been baked in a pie.

2008 Pinot Gris: If you drew an arc from the 2010 Chardonnay through the 2008 blend, the Pinto Gris would lad right in that arc, with an even warmer quality than the previous two wines. The fruit was also evident here, but with less specificity.

2008 Vidal Blanc: Here’s a varietal we never encountered before. Vidal is a cool-climate grape that produces a wine most akin to Riesling or Gewürtztraminer. It’s very aromatic and floral on both the nose and palate, and it has a noticeably more viscous mouthfeel. There’s a light but definite taste of alcohol that combines with the floral notes to  pleasantly suggest perfume.

2010 Vidal Blanc: This was similar to the 2008, but with more of a grapefruit essence in the aroma and flavor. Quit a refreshing wine, this would make a great summer sipper.

2010 Red Blend: Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petite Verdot combine to provide a smoky, earthy aroma. This wine had a lighter body than I expected. The flavor revealed dark fruit followed by smoky tannins.

2007 Auslesen Dessert Wine: The aroma was sweet with a suggestion of honey. The flavor delivered on that suggestion – the unmistakable essence of honey layered over a golden raisin flavor.

2010 Frost Wine: The aroma of this one was sweet with a hint of grapefruit and just a trace of yeast. The flavor was deep and sweet with an almost savory quality, and a nice, viscous mouthfeel.