Appellation Trail wrap-up

We decided to do the Appellation Trail for a few reasons. We love wine, it was an excuse for us to go to places we’d never been, and we figured it would be inexpensive and give us an opportunity to see lots of our friends. So how’d that work out for us?

Loving Wine

I can’t speak for Mike, but I love wine more than ever. I feel like my palate has become much more educated than it was when I began this journey. I also am much more aware now of how much I have to learn than I was when I began this project. Continue reading “Appellation Trail wrap-up”

Jessup Cellars: Napa Valley – In Search of Snobs

Once again, we’d gone into our trip without very much pre-planning. After all, with over 400 wineries in Napa, we figured we were sure to stumble onto something good even if we just went door to door until someone let us in and poured for us out of their liquor cabinet.

But I’m a hardcore planner at heart, and I couldn’t bear to go to Napa without a few sure things in my back pocket. I posted to Twitter asking for winery recommendations. To my surprise, my Twitter stream instantly filled (and my Klout score went up by eight points in 24 hours). Patricia_eddy, who had previously effused about Charbay on Twitter (read more about our Charbay visit here), recommended we visit Jessup Cellars.

Might I just say — Patricia bats 1000 when it comes to winery recommendations. Continue reading “Jessup Cellars: Napa Valley – In Search of Snobs”

Napa Valley Toffee Company: Napa Valley – The Search for Snobs

Once upon a time we would have visited five wineries in a day, but after two we felt like our palates couldn’t fairly judge any more until they’d rested for a long time. We headed back to our hotel for a while, then decided to poke around downtown Napa in search of Clementine’s, a rumored-to-be fantastic Italian takeout joint in the back of Val’s liquor store. (Spoilers: delicious AND cheap! Best meal of the weekend! Don’t miss the malfatti!)

During our Napa explorations we saw a sign for Napa Valley Toffee Company. I love toffee, so when we saw the lights were still on despite the late hour (7pm) we were sure as heck going in there. To our surprise, they didn’t just do toffee; they also poured boutique wines! This is one of the great things about Napa; there seem to be a million friendly little places offering wines from multiple wineries. Needless to say, we immediately sat down for a taste. Continue reading “Napa Valley Toffee Company: Napa Valley – The Search for Snobs”

Silenus Vintners: Napa Valley – In Search of Snobs

As part of our aforementioned fabulous LivingSocial deal (this is not a product placement! I swear! It was genuinely fabulous!), we received a free tasting at Silenus Vintners. We made an appointment for the earliest time we could, 10am. We got there about 15 minutes early, which gave us some time to poke around the grounds.

Silenus Vintners
The clear skies and bright leaves made me feel like I was experiencing a New England autumn.

Continue reading “Silenus Vintners: Napa Valley – In Search of Snobs”

Napa Valley: In Search of Snobs

It’s been an entire year of tasting wine, and we didn’t go up to Napa until late December. Why? We’d been avoiding it.

Neither Mike nor I had ever been to Napa. But we’d heard all the stories. Napa people are snobby, the wine tasting rooms are snotty and mean, the food is way overpriced, the tastings are overpriced, and on and on. Everything we heard made us feel like Napa would be a place that was Not Us, and so we visited every other wine tasting region we could. Mike sez: Nikki and I are inherently “root for the underdog” types, and Napa is anything but when it comes to wine destinations.

At some point, however, we finally decided we had to see it for ourselves and find out how snobby it really was. Maybe it was the raves we heard about this winery or that one. Maybe it was the friendly Napa bloggers and Tweeters who asked us, “So when are you going to come up here?” Maybe it was because we wanted to see just how pretentious a wine area really could be. Continue reading “Napa Valley: In Search of Snobs”

Woodinville Wine Party, Part 3

Writing about a big multi-winery event is tough, and not just because the crowds jostle your elbow and make it difficult to take notes. Most wineries are pouring only a couple of wines, and they’re usually not the winery’s best. The format is designed so that wine tasters will move through the tasting quickly rather than linger; after all, there’s thousands of customers flowing through during the day! Rather than giving a detailed write-up of each winery, here’s our quick hits on what we saw.

Brian Carter Cellars

Brian Carter Cellars is one of Shawn and Matt’s favorites. Carter focuses on making blends that highlight specific flavors he’s trying to draw out of the wines, with a focus on Iberian-style grapes. The view from the back porch, over lines of pastures that go straight out to the mountains, was very pretty and would be even more beautiful on a day where the sky was not so ominous.

Admiring the view from Brian Carter Cellars
Though the sky threatened all day, it didn't rain while we were out.

The moment we walked in, we were hit with the delicious aroma of truffled popcorn, which permeated the tasting room (and explains why we don’t have any scent notes on the wines; everything smelled like popcorn!) Sadly, the winery wasn’t pouring any of Shawn and Matt’s favorites that day, but we did get to try two tasty wines.

Brian Carter Cellars
Shawn, Matt and Mike enjoying the popcorn.

2008 Corrida (Columbia Valley): This had a nice, savory flavor loaded with plums, prunes and tannins.

2007 Le Corsier (Columbia Valley): Fabulously fruity start with a nice oaky finish.

The Warehouse District

From Brian Carter, we took a shuttle to an area in Woodinville called “The Warehouse District.” This cluster was like the Lompoc Wine Ghetto on steroids. While the Lompoc Wine Ghetto has 16 tasting rooms, the Woodinville Warehouse District has 40. There was no way we would hit anywhere close to a majority of these wineries.

Many of the tasting rooms were very small, and all were very busy, making it impossible to take notes. We do have some basic impressions, and clearly we want to go back here the next time we’re in Woodinville!

Not all 40 Warehouse wineries were participating in St. Nicks, but several were drafting off their proximity to participating wineries, holding events of their own.

Convergence Zone

Convergence Zone is named after a weather phenomenon in the Puget Sound area. The winery references the phenomenon by creating a “convergence zone” in wine with their grape blends. The wines are all named after weather events (“Drizzle,” “Squall Line” and “Storm Front”), and were all very enjoyable.

Michael Florentino

In order to maximize space, Convergence Zone and Michael Florentino were both pouring out of the same room. I did not get to taste these wines, but the rest of the crew did, and I heard a lot of “yum.” That may also have been from the great food that the two wineries rolled out for the event.

Des Voigne Cellars

Des Voigne channeled a whole lot of elegance into the tasting experience; despite the crowds it felt very relaxed and enjoyable. We tasted several wines, but the one that stood out for me is the Solea, which had nice chewy fruit wrapped around a strong tannic core.

Eye of the Needle

Eye of the Needle isn’t listed on the Warehouse site and they weren’t part of the event. However, their window dressing looked gothy and the tastings were free, so how could we pass it up?

Unlike most other wineries, Eye of the Needle doesn’t grow their own grapes. They find surplus juice from other wineries and then blend it into low-cost, extremely drinkable wines. And drinkable they were! These were the wine equivalent of comfort food, and well worth our time.

There’s no question why these wines regularly make the “Pour Fool” wine column in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The wines are readily available in stores throughout the Pacific Northwest; I just wish we could get some of them here.

Page Cellars

This was the last stop of our trip, and despite the fact that it was the end of the day the party was still in full swing, with a great band playing, fun activities and tons of wine being poured. Page is known for their “Lick My Lips” Syrah, and were looking for a new lip model for this year’s label. Tasters could put on some lipstick and kiss a piece of paper; the best lips will be on the next vintage.

Woodinville: We’ll Be Back

Woodinville has an overwhelming number of wine tasting rooms, and its proximity to Seattle makes it a great way to experience Eastern Washington wines without the four-hour drive. We had a great time, and we know we’ll have an even better time when we’re not chained to our self-imposed “if we’re not within 50 miles of the AVA it doesn’t count” rule. Keep the light on for us, Woodinville; we’ll be back next year.

Hollywood Hills: Woodinville Wine Party

On Shawn’s 20-winery shortlist (yes, Woodinville has so many amazing tasting rooms that 20 constitutes a “shortlist”) was a winery called Hollywood Hills. Mike and I met in Hollywood, so clearly there was no way we could pass up a winery with that name. Shawn and Matt cheerfully tromped with us through the misty, cloudy cold to the little cottage by the side of the road.

Amazingly, we managed to hit Hollywood Hills during a lull. As we came in, a group of people were exiting, and we had the place almost to ourselves for a few minutes, an amazing feat at an event of this size.

Hollywood Hills
This is what post-lull looked like.

Hollywood Hills seemed like a family-run operation. Everyone staffing the facility were cheerful and friendly, making us feel welcome despite the crowds. In addition, they had created several different tasty noshes designed to pair perfectly with the wines on hand. The meat-eaters in out party declared Hollywood Hills the undisputed winner in the food category for the amazing sausage bites they had, and the vegetarian overindulged in the yummy cheese.

Hollywood Hills
After his snack, Matt decided I was ready for my close-up.

The staff told us that they were the only winery in the region that created wine from locally grown grapes; unfortunately, they weren’t pouring their Woodinville wine for the event. Mike and I were traumatized. Doom! DOOOOOOOM! Our entire tasting experience would be for nothing!

Fortunately, the Hollywood Hills staff rescued us from our despairing state. They smuggled one bottle of their wine produced from locally sourced grapes out of the back room, tucked it into a corner, and slyly served us a unique Woodinville flavor. Thanks, Hollywood Hills — you made our day!

The Wines

2010 Rattlesnake Hills Viognier: I love viognier. It’s frequently floral, to my palate. This viognier, however, was unique in my experience. It was simultaneously floral and fruity, as if the viognier had hooked up with a chardonnay for one delectable late-night tango. It was like tasting nectarine flowers with a hint of the juicy fruit backing it up. Yum!

2009 Puget Sound Regent: OMG, a local wine — and a grape we’d never tasted before! This fruit originated in Germany, making it perfect for a cool climate like the Woodinville area. The fruit is grown with no pesticides or spray, but one heck of a lot of flavor. It reminded me a lot of Pinot Noir and a little of Grenache, full of fruit with a nice solid oak backbone.

2009 Horse Heaven Hills Grenache:  A 100% Grenache? It’s a rarity, but Hollywood Hills makes it work. The smell was spicy and deep, with a taste of deep red fruit and stewed tomatoes. Mike found the tannins to be quite prominent, but expertly handled. He also got some esters and a note of oil paint.

2009 Aperture F-Stop: Aperture is a side label of Hollywood Hills (Aperture — cameras — get it?). This wine blends two different Hollywood Hills Syrahs. I smelled a lot of alcohol; the acid edge of the fruit erupted on my tongue, solidified by the deep tannins. Mike liked it. He thought the tannins framed the flavor and provided some focus, and he commented that the f-stop might open up more with exposure to air (see what he did there?).

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!