Bent Creek: Livermore

Bent Creek Winery is located in the scenic rolling hills of the Livermore Valley. It’s adjacent to several other winery tasting rooms, making it a convenient destination when you’re tasting around here.

View from Bent Creek Winery
Those hills are rolling, right? It's not just me?

The tasting room experience here was the exact opposite of the one at the unnamed, unwelcoming winery. The unnamed winery’s tasting room was large, nearly empty, and we couldn’t get any attention from the (at best) indifferent staff. Here, the tasting room is on the small side, it was overflowing with people, yet we felt very welcome and got personal service from the outstanding staff. It was a festive, fun experience.

Bent Creek Winery Tasting Room
It's actually bigger on the inside. (I'm the Doctor.)

Bent Creek has a deep list of wines for tasting, including three (three!) dessert wines.

The Wines

These are from Livermore Valley AVA, except as noted.

Note: As my palate gets fatigued it gets more sensitive to tannins. I’m not really sure if Bent Creek’s offerings are actually more tannic than the other wines we tasted today, or if I was just more sensitive to them at this point (it was our last tasting of the day). In any case, the tannins were never overwhelming in these wines, they were well-matched with the other flavor components. I just thought I should mention it, since tannins appear in my notes for every red we tasted here.

2009 Sauvignon Blanc (Mendocino County): An ideal summer sipper, this wine had an abundance of tropical fruit on the nose and tongue, including pineapple, guava and citrus, but with a little warmth to temper the bright flavors.

2009 Chardonnay: This has a lovely pear scent and flavor and a hint of oak, with a rich character. I detected a note of coffee in the aroma which I found intriguing.

2008 Cabernet Franc: My note upon sniffing this: “Tanninberry!” I’ll admit, I haven’t learned to love Cab Franc yet, but in Bent Creek’s the tannins are well-matched to the fruit, and there were pleasing notes of tobacco and earth.

2007 Syrah: I got a whiff of lipstick here, in addition to mild fruit. If I had been blind tasting I would have guessed this was a Pinot Noir – it wasn’t as bold or spicy as many Syrahs. It was a nicely structured wine with a good balance of tannins and fruit.

2007 Cabernet Sauvignon: Toasted sugar greeted my nose then gave way to an aroma of red fruit. The tannins are evident again here. I’d call this a medium-bodied wine, with mild fruit and a slightly malty flavor.

2008 “Red On Red” Blend: Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah play nicely together in this blend. There’s an aroma of toasted sugar, and the flavor is dark with notes of tobacco, grape and tannins. This is a pretty bold wine and would be excellent paired with meats or spicy foods.

2007 Zinfandel: An enticing aroma leads into a more fruit-forward flavor enhanced with spice and framed by tannins with a toasty character.

2008 Petite Sirah: The fruit on the nose is almost cranberry. This has a richer, darker flavor than many of the other reds here, with tannins that provide solid structure without overpowering the fruit.

2007 Port (Amador County): This offers a lovely sweet, rich aroma. The first flavor to present was alcohol, followed by sweetness, then more alcohol. I felt the alcohol flavor was too dominant here.

2007 Petite Port: I got a rich, fatty aroma here. On the palate this has a very creamy mouthfeel. Sweet fruit is mated with tannins and minerals.

2007 (or 2009?) Zinfandel Port: I wrote this down as a 2009, but the Bent Creek website lists a 2007. I most likely wrote it down wrong. Just thought you should know. Anyway, the aroma of this port was sweet and raisiny, reminding me strongly of Viognier dessert/ice wines I’ve tasted. Based on aroma alone, that’s what I would have guessed it to be. I would have changed my guess upon tasting it though. It was very much like a liquid version of brandied cherries in chocolate. This was my favorite of the three ports.

We send our thanks to the staff and winemakers of Bent Creek Winery for an excellent experience tasting wonderful wines!

Charles R: Livermore

I had a sense even before we began rolling down the driveway to Charles R that we were going to like the place. Why?

Charles R winery gates
We have ARRIVED!

Awww, yeah. Not only is it a wrought-iron arch with the name of the winery, but the R is a knockout, showing blue sky. Clearly, I thought, someone involved with this winery has excellent taste.

We walked in the door, and I got more confirmation that I was going to like the place.

Charles R tasting room
A woman's outfit is made by her accessories: one lovely purse and a man with a cute butt.

Yup, that’s my purse, on a purse hook, right next to Mike’s adorable butt. If you’ve read a couple of posts on this blog, you know that purse hooks are a thing for me. I always take note as to whether they’re there, and it’s always a big selling point when they are. We later learned that Charles R. and his son had built the structure themselves, so kudos to them for including this critical detail.

Item number three in their favor: the staff. The young lady who was our tasting room associate (and, darn it, I did not write down her name!) was lovely. Plus, there was a handsome older gentleman at the end of the bar who had tons of interesting things to say. Later I learned that the gentleman was Dick, otherwise known as the Charles R that the winery is named after!

The bachelorette party we’d run into earlier was having a lovely meal out on the terrace, with another tasting room associate lending her assistance. Another group was enjoying a picnic meal on the front porch. After our experience earlier that day, we would have expected to be neglected. Instead, the staff at Charles R made us feel warmly welcomed, and like they cared what we thought about their wines.

Charles R tasting room
Normally we have to ask...but they suggested that we get a shot behind the bar with them!

As seems to be common among Livermore Valley wineries, all of these wines were in the Livermore Valley AVA.

The Wines

2009 Chardonnay: This was very tart, with a little bit of oak on the nose. Mike noted creme brulee in the aroma and flavor. He found the acidity to be just right, and liked the rich finish.

2009 Pinot Noir: The scent was spicy, sultry and reminded me a little of an after-shave my dad used to wear (in a good way). This tasted like a high-alcohol wine; I also tasted strong wood overtones. Mike detected a hint of toasted marshmallow and found that the tannins imparted a velvety feel.

2007 Syrah: This Syrah was savory and tannic, the sort of thing that would be perfect with a steak or even some ribs. There was a hint of bell pepper here.

2007 Cabernet Sauvignon: The scent was fruity, with a hint of raisin. Mike also found some cherry and pepper in here and felt the flavor had some warmth. The flavor was surprisingly sour, with a sharper edge than I’m used to in a cabernet sauvignon.

2007 Zinfandel: This had a soft raisin scent and tasted of frosted raisins with a tannic edge to balance it out. Mike described it as warm toasted sugar and felt it had a slightly austere quality which he liked. These red wines were all the sort of thing that would go well with red meat, and made me wish there were a vegetarian version of red meat.

2008 Petite Sirah: This wine had a meaty quality with plenty of fruit – blackberry mostly – plus toast. The fruit took center stage, but tannins gave it the right amount of structure and kept it from being jammy.

2006 Vino di Amor: Lives up to its name – I love it! It was sweet, like milk chocolate with a hint of cinnamon. This would make the perfect end to the night. Mike noticed the tanginess of tamarind followed by marshmallow in the aroma. He described the flavor as “sweet fruit, then toasty tannins.” Mike was also a big fan of the homemade brownies they served as an accompaniment to the vino and felt their chocolate flavor worked better than the dark chocolate many places serve with their red dessert wines.

In summary, item number four in their favor was the wines!

Our terrible experience at a nameless Livermore winery

I hate slamming wineries on the Internet. I really do. But our first tasting in Livermore was, without a doubt, the worst wine tasting experience we’ve had in the entirety of the Appellation Trail project.

Every time we go out tasting, Mike and I wonder whether the tasting room experience affects our palates. Our experience at this Livermore winery suggests it does, and it certainly affects our likelihood to buy. While I won’t name the winery in question, I think it’s worthwhile to detail the factors that made this our ultimate terrible tasting experience.

Anatomy Of a Terrible Tasting Experience

From the outset, it seemed like the tasting room associate who served us (let’s call him Grump) really wished we were somewhere else. Grump seemed to wish he was somewhere else, too, rather than pouring wine. Grump treated the few other customers in the tasting room with equal dislike, so at least we know it wasn’t just us. The other tasting room staffers we saw seemed to share the same malaise, save for one associate who was working a bachelorette party on the patio.

I understand when a staffer is curt because they are slammed, but when we started tasting there were four tasting associates and only two couples in the large tasting room, which is a one-to-one ratio of staff and clients. The staff, however, more often than not had their backs turned or adopted a 20-yard stare and wouldn’t make eye contact with customers. When a third couple came in another staffer reluctantly poured for them; the other two staffers continued to ignore the customers.

Early on in our tasting Grump poured Mike’s wine and took the bottle away before Mike had the chance to take notes. We politely said, “Excuse me, sir.” He looked at us but when we began to ask if we could see the bottle he simply turned and walked away, ignoring us. We said “Excuse me,” again, trying to get Grump’s attention.

It is unlikely that the issue was that we were too quiet. Anyone who knows me can tell you: I’m not quiet. I have one of those voices that is politely described as “carrying.” I grew up in a loud family and one of my biggest problems in life is bringing my volume of speech down to normal human levels. Mike spent years in theater and knows how to make his unamplified voice heard over large distances.

Other staffers also clearly heard us – they looked up and made eye contact, then shrugged and looked away. When the couple tasting next to us prompted Grump, pointing out that we had a question (probably because they were tired of our ever-louder “Excuse me!”s) Grump looked over and gave us an annoyed “wait a minute” gesture with an attitude that clearly conveyed the extra message “You are not a prority.” When he brought the bottle back for us to look at, he treated it as if it was a burden and he was doing us a special favor.

Grump did converse with the couple tasting next to us, but what started as his diatribe about how people don’t know how to swirl wine properly became, out of the blue and apropos of nothing, a monolog forcefully expressing his political views. It was clear from their evident discomfort and lack of eye contact that the couple either didn’t agree with Grump’s politics, or perhaps they just didn’t enjoy being bombarded with politics when they were out trying to relax and enjoy themselves. Though we could read their body language loud and clear, Grump didn’t seem to notice, and it looked to me like he lost a sale out of it.

I took many notes on the wines I tasted, but I feel that any write-up I would do of the wines would not be giving them a fair shake. I felt so unwelcome that I think it literally left a bad taste in my mouth; all of the wines tasted flavorless and bland to me. Mike felt the wines were agreeable but not memorable, but his most emphatic tasting note is “DID NOT FEEL WELCOME.” Given the attitude in the tasting room he says it’s unlikely he will be giving them another try. We both agree that our experience was overshadowed by the generally unfriendly air of the tasting room. It felt very much like an impersonal corporate entity providing poor customer service because the employees have no stake in the company mission, and the executives and managers have failed to set appropriate expectations for the staff.

Tasting Rooms, Beware

If someone has a negative experience like we did, they might post it on Yelp – or they might just tell all their friends coming to your area to stay away. I plan to send an email to the winery in question because I think it’s only fair, but I don’t foresee myself going back and I have no desire to ever buy their wine.

If you can’t afford to hire a secret shopper, find a friend or relative that’s not known to your tasting room staff and send them in to do a covert wine tasting operation. You might be surprised, and not in a good way, by what you find.

Eagle Ridge Vineyard: Livermore

Our visit to Eagle Ridge Vineyard was exactly the kind of experience we were hoping for on this trip, and it restored our hopes for the area after our less-than-stellar experience at the first Livermore winery we visited (which shall remain nameless).

We rolled up the gravel drive and parked next to a row of grapevines a minute or two before the posted opening time for the tasting room. We kicked back, watching a red-tailed hawk gliding by about 10 feet above the vines. Then a friendly woman walked over from the house. We stammered an apology for getting there so early; she smiled and said, “Come on in!” We learned that this was Cheryl Perry, co-proprietor of Eagle Ridge along with her husband Jim.

To hear Cheryl and Jim tell it, they got into the wine business by accident. They’d moved to Livermore and bought a large piece of land to build their house on. Unfortunately, the land had a lot of weeds. Cheryl says that a friend told them, “Just plant some grape vines! That’ll take care of the weeds.” They did…and by the end of the growing season they had enough fruit to produce 300 cases of wine. Since then they’ve taken classes in order to ensure they’re producing the best wine they can, and boy are they ever.

The tasting room looks like a regular metal-clad farm building from the outside, but the inviting patio tables and festive yard-art in front hint strongly of the building’s true purpose. On the inside the tasting room is spacious, with racks of barrels at one end, a retail/merch area in the center and the bar on one side near a big rolling door in front. The back bar looks like a wonderful antique, rescued from some elegant establishment. When we remarked on its splendor Cheryl told us it’s actually a new piece, made by a local woodworking firm. The whole area was filled with curios and antiques – a child’s pedal tractor, Hardy Boys books, old board games and much much more. Jim and Cheryl both mentioned they were relieved to open a tasting room – they finally had someplace to put all their stuff!

Antique Livermore map at Eagle Ridge
Stuff like an antique map of Livermore!


Eagle Ridge tasting room
Of course the best stuff is in the bottles just peeking out...

We were happy they opened a tasting room too, but for a different reason, namely, their wines are fantastic!

There are a couple of characteristics common to virtually all the wines we tasted here, so I’ll mention those up front. One is, the wines all have multiple layers. There’s not a monolithic wine among them. The second is that the layers all present themselves on the palate in a fairly rapid sweep right away, which to me seemed exhilarating. Initial tastes were a little like hearing an overture to a musical, with introductions to the themes that will be developed later in the show. I’ve never experienced that kind of rush in a wine before, and I liked it.

The Wines

All Eagle Ridge wines are made from grapes from the Livermore Valley AVA.

2010 Pinot Grigio: Lovely, clean aromas of pear and star fruit. The flavor contained those, with just a little acidity. There’s an unexpected richness here too. It was like a hint of lightly toasted marshmallow overlaid with the type of buttery flavor one might find in a Chardonnay. Nikki adds: This was fruitier than I expected but with a nice tart edge, kind of like a wine Sweet Tart but more complex.

2006 Cabernet Sauvignon: Love at first sniff. This has a very juicy nose, but without any suggestion of jamminess. The scent reminded me of plum hard candy with a trace of toasted sugar. There are a lot of layers welcoming the palate to this wine, including a unique minerality, restrained fruit and esters. There’s a slight astringency that is framed in nicely by the minerality. This tasted sophisticated and mature without the austerity often associated with such wines. Nikki adds: The scent reminded me of gravy for red meat, and the flavor made me think of meat roasted with a tomato sauce and dusted with a little bit of sugar.

2007 Cabernet Sauvignon: This was off the list – they only had three bottles left. But we were so enthusiastic about the ’06 that they decided to pour a taste for us, and we are sure glad they did. The aroma here had fruit and caramel, contained more structured aromas of tobacco and minerals. On the tongue this wine first revealed a wonderful, estery richness, followed by fruit, then some smooth, balanced tannins. The finish is long and retains that warmth from the very beginning. I wish I had better words to describe what I’ve referred to as minerality above – it’s not that ashy character that tannins can often provide, but something different with a sharper peak near the center of the tongue. It stopped short of being metallic and had a savory quality. For some reason it strongly evoked images of the sea in my mind. I’ve never tasted that specific flavor in wine before, but I hope to again. Nikki adds: I could drink this all day.

2006 Zinfandel: This isn’t the type of bold, fruit-forward style we’ve tasted so often – this had a lighter body, and while there was plenty of fruit it was rich without being jammy. (Nothing against jammy, btw, I like jammy too.) On the nose this has a hint of vanilla, fruit and a whiff of perfume. That perfume quality is present on the palate as well, seeming to emerge from the fruit and providing an elegant finish. Nikki adds: I tasted plums, cinnamon and A-1 sauce. It sure doesn’t taste like the high-alcohol wine that it is!

2005 Petite Sirah: This one has a much bolder, fruitier aroma than the previous wines with elements of toasted sugar, fruit and spice. The first flavor is a rich estery taste which then yields to a nice acidity. There are perfume overtones and a definite grape flavor restrained by mild tannins. On the finish, the fruit emerged as raisins. This wine also had that unique savory mineral taste I so eloquently described above.

2006 Petite Sirah: The aroma here was also fruitier than the earlier wines, but with a gentle, soft quality. The flavor is anything but soft – this wine is assertive right away, with a cascade of flavors: mustard seed, fruit, lacquer, tannins and bread. The assertiveness is welcome, and this wine emerges as exuberant, friendly and complex. Like me! Nikki says: It was spicy, savory and so enjoyable, with a hint of prune…like Mike!

2005 Mad Lyn Port: The aroma has plenty of sweet fruit, but also a distinct scent of coffee. The flavor is round and sweet with a very rich mouthfeel. Tannins, wood and earth keep the sweetness from stealing the show and provide a nice, well-balanced structure. Nikki adds: I tasted candy, candy, candy, but in the best possible sense.

Malibu Wines: SoCal Sojourn

We made a trip to LA to visit some friends and see some plays. Of course, we had to find some wine along the way. Nikki did some research and found a place where it seemed we could rack up another couple appellations with a slight detour from our path back home.

View of the street by Malibu Wines
And here we are!

Malibu Wines? Malibu Family Wines? Saddle Rock Winery? Semler Winery? We’re not sure which organization is in charge here or if they’re just different names for facets of the same organizations. What we do know is the name on the big wooden gate says Malibu Wines and they serve both Saddle Rock and Semler wines. And there’s a Malibu Family Winery page which has an entirely different design and different text but is promoting the same venue. Confused? We were!

We’ll pick one name and stay with it. Malibu Wines, located in the namesake Malibu Hills, is a lovely oasis that greets visitors after a twisty drive through the canyons of Southern California. There’s a large lawn/picnic area filled with umbrella-shaded tables nestled between rolling hills lined with rows of vines. We got there only an hour after opening; throughout the afternoon, people flooded in.

Several of the tables have heat lamps next to them them; we saw someone dragging one over to their table to warm themselves against the terrible chill of the 77 degree day. Clearly, these people would never survive a Monterey summer.

Picnic area with flowers in foreground
Apparently there's no deer problem here.

The tasting bars line the exteriors of old-southwest-style stacked-rock buildings, giving it a feel that mixes surfer attitude and a Wild West vibe.

Stacked-rock building with wine tasting bar
Gimme two fingers of yer best Chardonnay.

The arrangement is simple: you’re welcome to hang out there and have a picnic, and they encourage you to buy a tasting or a bottle of wine (or three) to accompany your meal. They also provide the glasses, which were refreshingly heavy and robust. We had made arrangements to meet a friend there on the fly and never managed to book a picnic. So sad for us! Fortunately, the folks at the neighboring table were willing to show theirs off.

Malibu Wines picnic
A picnic worthy of a photograph.

You’d think this fabulous picnic was unique, but all around us, groups of people were unveiling fabulous gourmet meals. Then they’d walk up to the tasting bar and get a bottle of wine, safely ensconced in a kid’s beach bucket filled with ice. It’s a perfect combination; if I still lived in LA I’d probably go here every weekend. While the wines themselves aren’t the best I’ve ever had, they’re perfectly pleasant and the ambiance is amazing.

Along the edges of the central lawn are a live music stage, a shaded gazebo and a handful of beautifully restored vintage trucks.  Firepits here and there plus strings of lights overhead suggest that this would look magical at twilight.

I direct your gaze to the gazebo.
Vintage Chevy truck
Old red truck with hill in background
Old wooden wagon

A jazz band took to the stage during our stay and added yet another nice touch to a most excellent visit.

Jazz band on outdoor stage
Cabaret Sauvignon?

The winery is located in the Malibu Hills, and as mentioned before, the roads are both narrow and winding. It takes a while to get there. We were panicked because we were late, but lucky for us, Nikki’s old friend Magnus was even later.

Mike had carefully decorated his shirt with strategically placed coffee before this photo.

Visitors can park on the street, and valet parking is also available. Because it wouldn’t be L.A. without valet parking.

There are two labels offered here, Semler and Saddlerock.

The Wines


09 Sauvignon Blanc, Saddle Rock Malibu AVA: Not too strong on the nose (kind of faint actually). Pineapple and citrus; tartness swells, then gives way to a warm finish. “Bright and sour – a great brunch wine,” Nikki says.

09 Rosé, Saddle Rock Malibu AVA: Strawberry or even kiwi on nose. Flavor is bright yet warm. Very gentle acidity that peaks in the middle, then fades to warm candy finish. Nikki tasted hints of cranberry as well.

06 Cabernet Sauvignon, Saddle Rock – Malibu AVA: Amazing aroma – cedar, leather, earth. Warm fruit. Smell matches look of structures here. Flavor matches aroma but with a bit more fruit and rich lacquer. Tannins are a bit sharp but perfectly appropriate in this context. As it breathed the aroma of candied fruit became more prominent in aroma and flavor.

02 Cabernet Sauvignon, California AVA: Aroma has that distinctive quality I can’t quite find the adjective for but that I associate strongly with older european wines, with a little fruit peeking through. Tastes mature. Hints of lipstick, cherry, plus very present tannins. Very bold wine, I think this one really needs food to reveal its highest potential.


10 Chardonnay, Central Coast: Inviting aroma. Starts very mellow & gentle, develops into a subtle oakiness. Nikki felt it was lemony and a little oily, with a hint of lime.

07 Pinot Noir, Central Coast: Mellow fruit aroma, very appealing. Makes you want to dive right in. grape up front that then yields to strawberry. Only a suggestion of tannins before a warm finish. Not a great wine, but perfectly enjoyable. Nikki felt that the scent wrote checks that the flavor failed to cash.

09 Cabernet Sauvignon – Aroma is predominantly fruit with a whiff of alcohol. Nikki smelled raisins, cinnamon and a hint of saffron and cumin. Hint of lipstick. Flavor is fruit followed by assertive but not aggressive tannins. Tastes young. Nikki tasted something plasticky.

09 Syrah – Aroma is blackberry perfume, fading into berries and cream. Nikki smelled candied raisins. Flavor matches aroma, adds nice tannic hit at end for structure plus tobacco.  Nikki thought it tasted like a tart raisin syrup. At very very end perfume quality sneaks back in.

NV Saddlerock Sparkling, North Coast AVA: Yeast scent. Flavor leans slightly to the sweet side, with a slight perfume component and just a suggestion of honeydew melon. Nikki tasted candied almonds and said that while it didn’t have the hard acid finish that she finds unpleasant, it also didn’t have deep layers. It was pretty and perfectly pleasant.

We did encounter one problem here that occurs when a tasting venue is lucky enough to be busy, namely tasters lingering and monopolizing the tasting bar. Patrons often don’t realize that the function of a wine tasting bar is different than that of a regular bar, and they linger and do their whole tasting at the bar rather than getting a pour and moving to another area to make room for others to get a pour. It’s not a problem if the bar is big enough or the crowd is small enough, but often – as in this case – it makes it quite difficult for others to get to the bar to get a pour. I know it can be uncomfortable to encourage patrons to be considerate of others, but the responsibility falls to the pouring staff to gently encourage tasters to make room. If I have to stand there for several minutes waiting for a clearing when the pourer has clearly seen me and my empty glass, I become much less inclined to purchase that bottle I was considering.

Smiley-face balloon next to a wine barrel
Despite that, we left with expressions like this on our faces.

Léal Vineyards: The Secrets of San Benito

Léal Vineyards was a little farther away than the other wineries we visited on our San Benancio trip, but it absolutely worth the extra mileage. And to be honest, it wasn’t that far from the others.

We saw their sign and turned up what looked like a little residential side-street. After cresting a gentle hill we saw Léal’s front gate and immediately realized “Yeah, there’s a winery there!”

This is the tasting room floor, not the front gate.

The main building has a rather utilitarian look, befitting its function. The attached tasting room has an elegant patio in front (complete with a fountain) and the front wall of the room is pretty much absent, creating an open, welcoming feel. The tasting room itself, with its black stone floor, dark wood tones and wine bottles smartly arrayed, has the feel of a swank, opulent nightclub.

The only things missing were velvet ropes and a line around the block.

And look! Purse hooks!

Nikki loves purse hooks.

Léal is also set up for weddings and other events, with a spacious pavilion on a rise above the tasting room.

Scads of seating and social area to the left and right of this picture.

They even have a bocce court!

Gotta love a game you can play with a wine glass in your hand.

We were delighted but not surprised to encounter a group of people whom we had seen at every other winery we visited that day. This social aspect of wine tasting is something I really enjoy.

Owner and winemaker Frank Léal is involved with every element of the business from the grape-growing to the décor and presentation in the tasting room, and his care and vision have produced something to be proud of.

The Wines

2010 Viognier (San Benito): The scents of tropical fruits and peaches wafted off this delightful Viognier. The flavor matches the aroma, adding an unexpected but welcome tartness with a distinct lemon character. The tartness seemed mellower on subsequent sips. This wine presents a classic dilemma – it’s a wine you want to show off to friends, yet you feel like having it all to yourself!

2008 Pinot Noir (Central Coast): There was a meaty quality to the aroma of this wine which put me in mind of charcuterie and buttered bread. Nikki noted that this is the kind of wine you want to have with a great steak. The flavor opens with an earthy, ashy quality which transitions into a swell of mellow fruit. The flavor closes with a rich lacquer taste. In many wines the tannins come all at the end, but in this wine they’re apparent earlier in the arc and provide structure and balance throughout.

2007 Estate Threesome (San Benito): The three players in this drama are Syrah (72%), Grenache (21%) and Mourvedre (7%). Nikki again noted a meaty quality (with a sugary edge) to the aroma which carried into the flavor. My palate parsed the richness differently – I got a swell of tannins that dissipated to reveal berries and cream. Again, I found the tannins to be at just the right intensity, providing a stately frame and keeping the sweeter components from seeming frivolous.

2006 Estate Merlot (San Benito): My first impression upon sniffing this was of chocolate-covered raisins (my favorite movie treat BTW). If I didn’t know what it was, I might have guessed Port from the aroma. Nikki detected a hint of fava bean in the smell. We both found raisin and plum in the deep, rich flavor. I also got some definite cacao notes and (again) just the perfect application of tannins.

2007 Carnavál (San Benito): Here we have a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot, 11% Cabernet Franc and 6% Malbec. Nikki was getting palate fatigue, but she noted “Just good – can’t get precise about it.” Let me try: The aroma was nicely layered, with currants, milk chocolate, and strawberry Pop-Tart (both the filling AND the crust!). The flavor presents the fruit first, followed by a crescendo of tannins that tails off into a toasty finish. This is expertly blended – the blend yields layers and definition that reward attention rather than being a gregarious but shallow crowd-pleaser as blends so often are. It’s like a good book that you like the first time you read it, which rewards subsequent readings with new details and insights.

I’d like to give Léal special praise for what I can only describe as precision in how tannins are implemented in the flavor profiles of their wines. Never overwhelming, they always seemed to contribute to the flavor rather than dominating it and they emerge in the flavor just at the right time.

Léal, we raise a glass to thee.

Calera Wine Company: The Secrets of San Benito

Calera Wine Company is named after a calera, or limekiln, that is located on the property from the time when it was a limestone mining operation. The book “The Heartbreak Grape,” about owner Josh Jensen’s drive to create the perfect Pinot Noir, was written in the early 1990s, showing just how inspirational their wines can be. And the views? They’re pretty inspirational, too.

Just one of the amazing views from Calera Wine Company.


Notably for our project, Calera Wine Company is the only area winery currently producing wines from the Mt. Harlan AVA. It’s fascinating to me that micro-appellations like this exist, especially when I visit other wine regions and find what seems like hundreds of wineries all clustered in one appellation. Two other single-winery appellations in the area are Chalone (in the Chalone AVA in Monterey County) and Lime Kiln Valley (owned by Enz Winery, which according to the folks at DeRose has ceased producing wines for the time being).

The friendly bunch at Calera Wine Company.


When we rolled into Calera, we discovered that we’d already shared a tasting with most of the people in the tasting room. Some had been at Pietra Santa, others at DeRose. I guess that’s what happens when there are four wineries in town and three of them are located within a three mile radius of each other. As we moved forward with our tasting, even more people we’d seen on our journey arrived, making it feel like old home week.

A face only a winemaker could love.


The tasting room is located in a very industrial space, although Calera has added unique decorating touches that give the area a flavor all its own. Proprietor Josh Jensen himself, as well as a very friendly female tasting associate we sadly did not get the name of, poured this great tasting for us.

The Wines

2009 Chardonnay (Central Coast): I tasted hits of soda pop and saffron, while Mike tasted toasted marshmallow and vanilla. We both agreed: yummy! Then the woman tasting right next to us said she thought it tasted like Two-Buck Chuck, which just goes to show – everyone’s palate is different.

2009 Viognier (Mt. Harlan): Mike smelled Froot Loops and noted its fruity sweetness, which we agreed were well mediated by a hint of bitterness and dry tannins.

2002 Viognier (Mt. Harlan): Now this wine is what I expect from a Viognier! The smell reminded me of paella, with a strong hint of saffron. It tasted of saffron, oak, a hint of vanilla and blackened toast. I actually burn my toast on purpose because I like the taste, so this was a flavor combo that really worked for me.

2010 Vin Gris of Pinot Noir (Central Coast): This is Calera’s take on a Rosé, made with Pinot Noir grapes. It smelled like sugar and tangerines to me, but was dryer when I tasted it, although there was still that hint of tart tangerines. If I’d had my eyes closed, I would have been sure it was a red. Mike tasted ruby red grapefruit and toasted sugar.

2008 Pinot Noir (Central Coast): This smelled of sugared plums and had a rich, savory taste. It reminded Mike strongly of a German raspberry syrup that his mother used to buy to make soda out of, with a hint of tannins and just a touch of bell pepper.

2001 Pinot Noir, Mills Vineyard (Mt. Harlan): It smelled like tart raisins, and both of us could taste an edge of alcohol in this wine.

2007 Pinot Noir, Ryan Vineyard (Mt. Harlan): I still got that alcohol edge on this one, with a taste and texture on my tongue like powdered grape skins. Mike described it as “more stately than the 2001.”

2008 Pinot Noir, Mills Vineyard (Mt. Harlan): Both of us found the flavor profile on this to be very similar to the other two, with perhaps a few more tannins. This could be a sign that Calera has a wine groove, or a sign that our palates were getting burnt out.

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.

Pietra Santa Winery: The Secrets of San Benito

Spectactular? Why yes! Yes, it is.

Just a short drive down the road from De Rose, Pietra Santa Winery came into view. And what a view! The winery, which looks like a historic mission but was actually built in 2005, is surrounded by steep hills that were lush and green due to California’s unusually rainy spring.

The eyes get to enjoy some tastings of their own out here.

A road between the rows of grapevines led to the massive front door, which is bracketed by two tall palm trees.

Jimmy Stewart would have freaked out if he saw this.

To our surprise, the parking lot was packed. Wine drinkers sat at all the tables by the entrance, enjoying a picnic.

Rarity and intrigue aren't limited to the barrel...


...although we're pretty sure not all of the cars we saw are daily drivers.

As we walked in, we discovered the reasons for the throngs; it was wine club pick-up day, and members filled the downstairs area. The clink of glasses echoed around the large room. As non-club members, we were sent upstairs to enjoy our tasting.

While the downstairs area is stripped down and geared toward wine storage and production, a long wooden stairway leads up to a lushly paneled room that looks like a men’s smoking room from the Victorian era. Beautiful stained glass fills the windows; doors on either side of the window lead to lovely balconies where tasters can bring their glasses in order to enjoy the wine and the view simultaneously.

We can't show all the woodwork - some of it is NSFW.

The view was great, but we wanted wine. The tasting room associates made sure we felt welcome as soon as we stepped in. Though the tasting bar was very crowded, we did manage to carve out a spot for ourselves. “It’s not normally this busy,” tasting room associate John told us as he poured our first selection.

The Wines

2009 Rosato (Cienega Valley): Pietra Santa’s Rosato is made from 100% Dolcetto grapes. The scent was tart, and the flavor was lightly tannic with a strong hit of tart unripe strawberries. Mike found that the flavor, while tart, stopped short of sour and was mediated by a richness.

2009 Signature Collection Amore Pinot Grigio (Cienega Valley): This was crisp and tart, with flavors of grapefruit and lightly sugared lemon rind. Mike tasted a hint of pear, and thought the flavor had hints of bubble gum.

2008 Signature Collection Chardonnay (Cienega Valley): Good luck getting this one – according to the website, it’s all sold out. I detected two distinct scents, grapefruit and sugar; the two were very separate. On the palate, the oak provided some backbone to the wine, and there was enough butter to it to take the edge off the tartness. Mike tasted hints of vanilla as well, and described it as “round.”

2008 Gewürtztraminer (Cienega Valley): John’s pouring partner magically made this off-the-list wine appear in our glass, and for that I will be forever thankful. As soon as Mike smelled this, he said, “It smells like happiness.” The smell reminded me of orange soda, but the taste was much drier than I expected, with flavors of orange blossom and lemon zest. Mike tasted a hint of vanilla and noted there was something almost effervescent about it. He also tasted a hoppy, yeasty flavor like an apricot ale.

2009 Pinot Noir (Cienega Valley): The smell reminded me of moist clay. The flavor was rich and hard to define. I wrote, “I could drink a bottle of this (and enjoy it) trying to name all the flavors.” Mike said the flavor was “big, warm, brandied cherries and vanilla with a perfect amount of tannins to wrap it up.”

2009 Sangiovese (Cienega Valley): We don’t see a lot of Sangiovese in Monterey County; in fact, I’m not sure we’ve seen any. It’s Mike’s favorite varietal, so we were delighted to get a chance to taste this. To me, it smelled like sweet cherries and leather. I tasted tannins, cranberries and a hint of cherry. Mike tasted lemon as well, and called it “fruity but not jammy.”

2007 Zinfandel (Central Coast): This blends Zinfandel from Pietra Santa vines that date back to 1905 with fruit from other Zinfandel vines in the area. It smelled of sweet raisins, and tasted like raisins and unripe berries with a hint of A-1 sauce. Mike tasted grape with a hint of cherry.

2004 Veche (Cienega Valley): The Veche is a blend of 85% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon. I smelled the french oak immediately. It tasted like currants and tart blackberries and had a nice oaky backbone. Mike noted the tannins as well but pronounced it “balanced” with a “sophisticated flavor.” He continued “This doesn’t taste like other blends, which are usually big, ‘accessible’ and don’t need food. This is a bit more austere and doesn’t lose its structure like other blends.”

2005 Signature Cabernet Sauvignon (Cienega Valley): I found this to be very tart and a little astringent. Mike agreed, but said “the fruit emerges victorious.” It’s still quite tannic, and Mike noted that it may get even better as it ages.

Armida Winery: Savoring Sonoma

I first discovered the wine Poizin while visiting Luke and Mary while they still lived in Sonoma. We were dining at the aptly named Zin Restaurant at the time. I fell in love with it then, and somehow managed to score a few bottles on sale. Then friends gifted me with some, and I decided to make it my birthday wine. Each bottle I had would only be opened on my birthday.

Boy howdy, what a view.

This year, for my 40th birthday, I drank the last bottle of that Poizin. It was as amazing as I remembered. As soon as we decided to go to Sonoma, I determined I had one goal: I wanted to go to the winery that makes it, Armida Winery.

A really terrible picture of the Armida tasting room.

The staff at Armida, Kristina and … boy, I think it was CJ, but my notes are unclear [Edit: nope, that handsome man was Nick, and I should have my wine taken away for a week for that error!]…were incredibly friendly, helpful and warm. The tasting room was uncrowded, which I understand is a rarity. And, as many people have said, the winery has one of the most epic views in Sonoma County. But I wasn’t here for any of that. I was here for the wine.


The Wines

Sauvignon Blanc, Russian River Valley, 2010: This wine was grapefruity and had a strong mineral element. Mike found it crisp and refreshing and noticed pineapple in the aroma and the flavor. We were clearly getting to the end of the day, because I forgot to take down the year; fortunately, Mike took care of that for me.

Antidote Pinot Gris, Russian River Valley, 2009: If you have Poizin, you have to sell the Antidote, right? This had a soft tangy smell. It tasted of candied lemons and tangerines with a hint of saffron at the finish. It was clearly the end of Mike’s day, too, because his tasting notes say “Grapey.”

Pinot Noir, Bacigalupi Vineyard, Russian River Valley, 2008: There was something in the nose that reminded me a little of skunk – but as I think I’ve said before, there’s a particular note in the skunk smell that I find not at all unpleasant, and that’s what I was getting here. Mike was getting candy, so either we got something entirely different out of the smell or he’s eating some strange candy. It tasted of velvety, rich grapes, with a nice raisin-y edge. Mike agreed, but tasted some more spice than I did.

2008 “Silkscreen” Poizin: Armida makes two Poizins. The first is the “silkscreen” version, which I gather is their more “mass-market” version (if you can call a place that makes only 10,000 cases a year mass-market). Much like I can’t describe my love for Mike, I also can’t describe my love for this wine. It is my personal Platonic ideal of a zinfandel. I know it may not be for everyone, but I just love it. Mike describes it as mellow, soft and rich.

Zinfandel, Maple Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley, 2008: This had a velvety prune nose with a hint of candy. On the tongue, it tasted of raisins with the skins left on. All in all, very good. Mike said it had a deep, dark flavor with a nice, squared-off finish. (Mike often describes flavors in terms of shapes. I don’t, perhaps because I failed geometry and thus have PTSD when I hear the word “isosceles.”)

Zinfandel, Tina’s Block, Maple Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley, 2008: Nick showed us the map of this vineyard, and it had a grid on it showing where vines of various types are grown. It had a velvety raisin scent, but I was not knocked out by this wine, as is evidenced by the fact that I don’t have a single note on the taste. Mike described it as having more tannins on the front and spicier. Then he wrote “Mapleier?” Clearly, we were hitting the end of a long day.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Stuhlmuller Vineyard, Alexander Valley, 2006: This smelled of plum, tobacco and leather and tasted of leather and plum with a nice chipotle finish. (Chipotle as in the actual pepper. It didn’t taste like a burrito, I assure you.) Mike also detected the chipotle, so clearly I was on to something.

Pinot Noir, Durrell Vineyard, Sonoma Valley, 2008: This was where the palate fatigue hit — or perhaps it was adjective fatigue. I knew I liked this one, but I couldn’t write anything specific about the flavor. Mike felt it was soft, fruity and accessible.

Well, I hadn’t been planning to walk out with their super-duper reserve Poizin, but then Nick brought out this bottle:

I've found my new love. Sorry, Mike.

I was so, SO tempted to walk out with that gigantic hot-pink laser-engraved bottle of reserve Poizin, but alas, it was even harder to justify spending $500 on that bottle than it was to justify spending it on an iPad. If I’ve resisted buying an iPad so long, clearly I could resist this.

But, it turns out, they had smaller reserve bottles. And each one came with its own coffin! Even if you don’t like their wine for some bizarro reason, you have to hand it to them for going all the way with their marketing.

Nothing comes between me and my Poizin!

It was very hard for me to justify purchasing this wine, but somehow I did it. What I didn’t know was that the super-sneaky Luke and Mary had snuck off to buy me a bottle as well!!!

Back at the farm...
Back on the farm. Clearly, I'm the luckiest girl in the world.

I feel very lucky to have gone on this trip with Luke, Mary and Mike. We had great wine — but more importantly, we had great company full of fun and great stories.