V Sattui Winery: Napa Valley – In Search of Snobs

If I had to pick just one winery to have on a desert island, I’d be hard-pressed to think of a better one than V Sattui. It’s not just because the wine is good (which it is). But at V Sattui they also have an Italian deli and market (including wood-fired pizzas), picnic grounds and other amenities. In fact, if I had V Sattui on my desert island, I’m sure I wouldn’t be alone for long.

We somehow failed to take any pictures of the exterior and picnic grounds, so please enjoy this picture of a deer instead:


We made it to V Sattui on our second day in Napa. We drove into the parking lot on our first day, and it was packed. We were at the end of our tasting day and didn’t feel like dealing with a crowd. We tried again the next day, and although the lot was packed again, we found rock-star parking which we took as a good omen. Continue reading “V Sattui Winery: Napa Valley – In Search of Snobs”

Artesa Vineyards & Winery: Napa – In Search of Snobs

In an area with something like 400 wineries, sometimes you choose by careful planning, research and recommendations. Other times, it’s “Look at this ad. Cool building! Hey, it’s nearby. Let’s go there!”

And thus we decided to visit Artesa. The ad we saw showed a starkly geometric window protruding from under a grass-covered hill, with an abstract sculpture out front. It looked interesting and different. Nikki adds: It looked like a spaceport from the best cerebral ’70s science fiction film that was never made.

Dude, I am SO THERE! Are you kidding?

Continue reading “Artesa Vineyards & Winery: Napa – In Search of Snobs”

Charbay Winery & Distillery: Napa Valley – In Search of Snobs

The trip up to Charbay took us on a lovely sunlit drive through St. Helena and up into the hills. The road got a bit twisty, but the occasional views through the trees were stunning. Since the penalty for missing a turn would have been severe (100-foot drop or more), Nikki got to enjoy the views more than I did.

Charbay offers tastings by appointment only. No, it isn’t a manifestation of the elusive snobbery we’d heard about in the area – it’s just that they’re off the beaten path and it’s not practical to have regular tasting room hours. It’s well worth the very small effort it takes to make a reservation. One tip: give yourself 10 minutes more than you think you’ll need to get there. While the drive is lovely, you’ll get to a fairly narrow winding road where caution compels a safer (lower) speed.

The gate magically opens and you are almost there!

Continue reading “Charbay Winery & Distillery: Napa Valley – In Search of Snobs”

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.

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.

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!

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.