Miraflores Winery: The Road to El Dorado

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

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

Sure, "beautiful" works.

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

How We Found Miraflores Winery

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

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

Our Visit to Miraflores

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

Miraflores Winery
Vampires would hate this tasting room.

Miraflores Winery: The Experience

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

These birds let us get right up to them!

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

I think these beams exceed code requirements.

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

I'm guessing that's custom.

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

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

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

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

The Wines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cordiano Winery: San Diego Sojurn

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scent and the Wine Taster

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

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

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

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

Longshadow Ranch: San Diego Sojurn

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

Longshadow Ranch

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

Longshadow Ranch
Horses? Check.

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

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

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

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

 

The Wines

All wines are from the Temecula Valley AVA.

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

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

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

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

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

Travessia Urban Winery: Mass Appeal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

View_from_Calera_Winery
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).

Calera_Tasting_Room
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.

Calera_Boar_Head
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.

Pietra Santa Winery: The Secrets of San Benito

Pietra_Santa_Approach
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.

Pietra_Santa_View
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.

Pietra_Santa_Tower
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.

Pietra_Santa_Auburn_02
Rarity and intrigue aren't limited to the barrel...

 

Pietra_Santa_Truck
...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.

Pietra_Santa_Stained_Glass
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.

Armida
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.

Armida
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.

”]Armida

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:

Armida
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.

Armida
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.

Unti Vineyards: Savoring Sonoma

Mary and Luke used to live in Sonoma; in fact, Mary cooked at a fabulous little restaurant in Healdsburg called Bovolo. While she was there, she got plugged into the wine scene in a big way, and learned about many of the smaller wineries that are less well-known, and often not open to the public. As we had lunch on Bovolo’s porch, Mary and Luke decided they would take us to their favorite, secret winery, a place called Unti Vineyards.

Tasting at Unti is by appointment only, but Luke charmed them with a phone call and got us on the list. After a winding, beautiful drive, we wound up at the tucked-away tasting room nestled in the middle of the vineyard.

Unti Vineyards tasting room
This tasting room is much more like what we're used to.

Mike and I immediately felt at home in the tasting room; it was comfortable and as unpretentious as you could get. The laid-back atmosphere was really underlined when we finally introduced ourselves to the gentleman pouring for us; it was George Unti himself!

The wines were also tasty, although sadly the one we wanted most hadn’t been bottled yet. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

The Wines

All wines were from the Dry Creek Valley Estate.

Grenache, 2007: This smelled like sugared cherries and had a juicy plummy flavor. I got a hit of oak on the second taste, which spoke to the complexity of this wine.

Zinfandel, 2007: The nose on this one was full of sweet plums with a high alcohol, which left me expecting a taste of plum pudding. Instead, the flavor was one of plums drenched in chocolate syrup; not exactly what I was expecting, but tasty!

Syrah, 2007: This clone comes from the Northern Rhone. It smells of cinnamon-spiced fruit. Mr. Unti says they leave the stems on when they make this wine and you could really tell; there were also a lot of heavy tannins here.

Syrah Benchland, 2007: This wine spends 15 months in the barrel, as opposed to 18 months for the first Syrah we tasted. I recognized the difference instantly. It was less astringent and I could really taste the fruit. I liked the second sip of this more than the first, but Luke found the exact opposite. But the fact that both of us found such a difference from sip to sip really pointed up one element I liked about Unti’s wines; they evolve on the palate. Drinking these wines is like watching a complex movie.

Syrah Benchland, 2006: Mr. Unti warned us at the outset that this wine was “less approachable,” but we all agreed that we liked it more. It smelled of velvety cinnamon. I could taste the blackberries and tannins.

Zinfandel, 2008: Unti is best known for their Barbera, but they don’t make a Barbera every year. This Zinfandel is 18% Barbera, giving a nod to the Italian grape. It had a blackberry and raspberry nose and a blackberry fruity taste that I really liked.

After all those tastings, George Unti gave us the piéce de resistance: the 201o Rosé.

Unti Winery
I realized after the fact that this photo made it look like a urine sample. It's not, I swear!

2010 Rosé: The Rosé is usually bottled in March, but due to a few scheduling conflicts it is being bottled just as this post goes live. 1350 cases will be bottled. If you’re up in Sonoma or planning to go up, I strongly recommend that you stop by Unti to pick up a bottle if not a case. It smelled like I would expect a Sauvignon Blanc to smell, and tasted like a dry strawberry wine with a little tannin edge to it.

Unti Winery
Drinking all this Unti wine is a hard job, but someone has to do it.