Grands Amis Winery: In Love with Lodi

We’d planned to hit the wineries hard at 10am, but what with cleaning up our rented house and packing the car, we didn’t hit the road until 11am. After a few false starts, we headed to the Lodi Wine and Visitors Center, only to see the Douchenberg, the Jersey Short Bus and Thomas the Tanked Engine all pull up at the same time. “Abort! Abort!” Mike shouted, pulling a quick U-turn.

And thus…we arrived at Grands Amis.

Grands Amis Winery

Grands Amis was a pleasant place to start the day. It’s tucked into a little brick one-story office building, with a cozy setting and friendly staff.  It’s clearly geared toward fewer people than were there with us, but the staff handled it with aplomb, even taking a photo break (see above).

After two days of tasting, I felt in need of a wine critic’s thesaurus. My adjectives are weak and redundant and whimpering after far too much use.

2009 Pinot Grigio: It tasted of mineral and citrus with a little earth. A refreshing way to wash the coffee aftertaste out of my mouth.

2009 Chardonnay: This wine was also citrus with a mineral edge. It was a blend of stainless and barrel aged wine, which gave it a nice softness. Also, it was a Borden Ranch AVA wine, which gave us yet another appellaiton!

2008 Merlot: This wine smelled of rich cherries and had a fruit-forward flavor backed by oak.

2007 Old Vine Zinfandel: This enjoyable wine smelled like a wine perfume and tasted like it had been caramelized.

2006 Zinfandel: This had a musky scent, with a flavor of tart cherries and raisins.

2008 Barbera: The musk scent was even heavier with this one, with a gamy meaty taste.

2008 Premiere Passion: This smelled like lightly candied plums. The flavor was astringent and oaky with a hint of currants.

2007 Petite Sirah: As soon as Mike put his nose into the glass, he said, “That smells nice!” It had a juicy raisin smell with a taste of sweet plums and prunes and a moment of candy on the finish. And one more AVA added – the Jahant AVA!

2006 Petite Sirah: This had a complex scent. Mike said, “It’s almost like there’s a little toasted sugar in the nose.”

Port: This smelled like nectarine and clementines as well as grapes. It was so sugary that it seemed like the sugars were precipitating out, giving the wine a powdered sugar texture. There was a burst of high alcohol at the finish.

D’Art Wines: In Love with Lodi

There was still a half hour left before tasting hours concluded. Carissa demanded port. And I wasn’t willing to give up on tasting just yet. So we pulled up at a winery that came highly recommended by many sources, including the owner of the house we were renting (more on that later), D’Art Wines.

D’Art Wines is both a play on the word “art” and on the name of the owners, Dave and Helen Dart. The tasting room itself is very spacious, but not quite enough for the crowds that were thronging it. The tasting room staff looked weary, but kept smiles on their faces as they served the last several hundred stragglers.

Clearly I, too, had hit the limits of my endurance; I never once broke out my mobile phone to photograph our experience at this tasting room. I thought I would have palate fatigue at this point, but these excellent wines cut through and made me realize there was something worth noticing. It’s definitely a spot to revisit, and not just for the photo ops.

2009 Garnacha: It smelled like chocolate frosting and tasted creamy and deep, like a tart Red Velvet cake with a hint of cinnamon.

2009 Tempranillo: Earthy spicy scent and fruity spicy flavor. This is the sort of wine that Mike loves, but by this time he was far too palate-fatigued to be a good judge. Someday I’ll bring him back so he can taste it again.

2007 Cabernet Sauvignon: This smelled of intense fruit and spice. It had deep, rich fruit on the palate as well.

2008 Cabernet Sauvignon: Our tasting room pourer said, “This is bolder, chewier and more fruit forward.” I noticed a scent like perfume and a musky fruity taste.

Dog Day Red: The website describes this wine as “a pure mutt.” We saw the adorable dog that appears on the label running through the tasting room as we sipped this. It had the exact scent that you’d subtly spray around an LA wine store to make visitors want to buy. It was dry enough to drink with steak but sweet enough to have with cheese, or maybe even certain desserts. But there’s an even better candidate for dessert…

Port: This was what port should be. There was no bitter edge on the finish. It was all just smooth, sweet pleasure.

We were lucky enough to get some barrel tastings after the port, but all the wine must have gone to my head, because I put my notebook away and just enjoyed the wine. Sorry, loyal readers (all two of you), but you’ll just have to imagine what those barrel tastings were like.

Klinker Brick Winery: In Love with Lodi

Friends: still tipsy, but willing to start throwing down again. Mike: still Mr. Palate Fatigue. Me: at the winery tasting room I’d most wanted to taste from, on what was apparently its first day open ever. Clearly, from the crowd, a quarter of the people attending Lodi Wine and Chocolates Weekend felt the same way about Klinker Brick.

Klinker Brick
It looks less crowded than it was because everyone's out of frame at the cheese table

My palate by now was getting a bit overextended, but I wasn’t going to let a silly thing like that stop me. Fortunately, Klinker Brick had brought in an outrageously good cheese maker to offer samples at the event, so my whimpering taste buds got a chance to restore themselves with something not made of grapes. Thus fortified, I was able to make some scant notes on what I tasted.

2008 Farrah Syrah: It smelled of cherries and plums, tasted like plums and raspberries, and got a “yum” from me — quite an accomplishment at this point in the day!

2008 Old Vine Zinfandel: Even the palate-fatigued Mike said “mmm” when he smelled this. I can’t blame him – it smelled of sun dried tomatoes and pepperoni. It tasted like cherries and pepper, with some cinnamon on the finish. It would be great both for a classy party and to go with takeout pizza. Of course, all my classy parties involve takeout pizza, so I may be biased. (Mokelumne River appellation.)

2008 Old Ghost: The vines these grapes are sourced from are just three years shy of being termed “ancient.” There was nothing ghostly about the flavor – it tasted of syrup and pepper. (Mokelumne River appellation.)

After our tasting, we got an unsuspecting member of the crowd to take our photo.

Klinker Brick
Left to right: Kevin, Carissa, me and Mike (happily ignorant of his terrible hair)

Vicarmont Vineyards and Winery: In Love with Lodi

Vicarmont Vineyards and Winery
16475 N Locust Tree Rd. Lodi, CA 95240 (map link)
(209) 481-3386

So by this time, two members of our party were tipsy and one had hit palate fatigue (I’ll leave our audience to do the math on that one), which left me as the Last Palate Standing. It was a heavy burden to bear, made lighter by the spectacular wood-fired pizza Vicarmont was serving as part of Lodi Wine and Chocolates.

Before we pulled in, both the Douchenberg (a stretch limo loaded with way-too-slick folks) and Thomas the Tanked Engine (a mini-bus loaded with way-too-drunk folks) had arrived. We quailed in fear — well, those of us who weren’t tipsy quailed in fear — but the owner of Vicarmont had set up great crowd flow for the event.


One of the two tasting areas at Vicarmont. Notice how it’s not a mob scene? Despite the two clown-car-packed vehicles that pulled up just before we arrived? Yeah, that’s some crowd control.

Though there was quite a crowd, the two tasting bars were set up at some distance from each other, one in the barn and the other on the patio. The jeweler and the sweets vendor attracted attention, but not so much that motion-clogging crowds formed. Apparently, the bar setup was an afterthought. When the man running the show wheeled by (we assume he was owner Vic Mettler, but we’ve been wrong before), he told us he’d switched where the bars were located at the last minute. Good choice! It really improved our enjoyment of the venue and the day.

2008 Sauvignon Blanc: Enjoyably drinkable, tasting of grapefruit and minerals and clementines.

2009 Eclectic Pink Rosé: If you think that white zinfandel is too sweet and traditional rosé is too dry, then you’ve found your wine right here. It had a cotton candy smell and a taste that found the sweet spot, no pun intended, between Beringer white zinfandel and snooty rosé. If you have a friend you’re lookin’ to wean off the sugary stuff and on to real wine (you know who you are), this is the wine to do it with.

2007 Merlot: Cinnamon and pepper nose, and peppery on the palate. According to Gross Out Wine, which has a much more detailed review, the 2008 rendition is available at Grocery Outlet for $5. Cheap at twice the price, I say.

2008 Zinfandel: The nose on this was simultaneously sweet and savory, like a steak with a jammy glaze. It was tangy and peppery on the tongue; very enjoyable.

Housley’s Century Oak Winery: In Love with Lodi

As we would rapidly discover over the course of our visit to Lodi during Wine and Chocolates weekend, the problem with visiting wineries during an event that attracts over 5,000 people is that you rarely have intimate tasting experiences. (No, not that kind of intimate. Get your head out of the gutter!) So many people are swarming the wineries that it’s often difficult to even get close enough to the wine bar to get a tasting, let alone some good conversation.

Housley's Century Oak Winery
Mike really thought his hair looked better than that when we left the cottage

Fortunately, Housley’s Century Oak Winery wasn’t like that. Though it may have gotten swarmed late in the day, you can see from our photograph above that we got a little personal attention from the tasting room staff. We also got a few winemaking insights, including…

2009 Chardonnay: “Chardonnay is a bitch,” our tasting room staffer said, then hastily apologized to the women in the group. As we sipped this lemony-smelling, textural, salted-grapefruit wine, he went on to explain that chardonnay is a very sensitive grape, likely to fail if it’s too wet, dry, sunny, cloudy, cold or warm. Sounds like the ficus we adopted from the trash area, but I digress.

2008 Zinfandel: “This is not a massive zin,” he said as he poured it to us. It’s true. The scent made me think of what a wine air freshener would smell like. As I tasted it, I detected delicate tannins and mellow fruit, with an almost tequila finish.

2006 Cabernet Sauvignon: Every member of the party said “mmmm” as we smelled this one. It had a very fruity nose, which made the flavor all the more surprising to me. You could really taste the grape skins in this one, more than I generally prefer.

2006 Adam Cabernet Sauvignon: This wine was a mix of the Reserve and Estate Cab. It smelled of caramel and fruit and had a strong overlay of oak on the tongue.

2008 Cabernet Sauvignon: This wine has medalled at every competition it’s been entered in. For our purposes, it was also a medal, as it was a Mokelumne River appellation wine, making it the second appellation we tasted on the trip. (Hooray!)

The Rules, they are a-changing

Though Mike and I are both the sort of people who are rarely willing to admit we’re wrong (if you’ve seen the 30 Rock episode featuring Liz and Carol’s epic battle on Carol’s plane, well, we could see ourselves going down that path if we’re not careful), after a few wine outings we’ve determined that we were mistaken in a couple of the rules we made. We need to make some modifications.

Rule 5: On each trip, we must get someone at one tasting room to take a photo of us with the person pouring.

This is a great idea, but it’s simply unworkable in certain situations.

For example, Lodi Wine and Chocolate. One of the winemakers told us that over 5,000 tickets were sold to the event. The folks that were pouring were doing a great job making the teeming hordes feel welcome and well-cared for, but in many cases we felt that asking them to take time to indulge our photographic whims would have been too much.

Also, some people just don’t like to have their photo taken. We don’t want to ruin someone’s day by pushing them to get their photo taken with us.

We’ll keep this rule, but add two clauses:

  1. In an overloaded tasting room situation, we will forgo the photo.
  2. When a tasting room employee clearly does not want their photo taken, we will forgo the photo.

Rule Six: We will write about our experience, including our stays and each tasting, in this blog. Entries will go up within 48 hours of our experience. Ideally, posts will happen during our experience.

BWAAAA-HA-HA-HA-HA! Oh, we were so naive with this one. There’s two problems with this idea.

First, if we visit five wineries on a trip, that’s usually five posts going up in one day. It’s like forcing people to sit through your vacation slides; it’s just too much at once.

The second problem is that we’re usually too busy during our experience to write about it. We can take notes, but the real writing happens at home. I have a full-time job; Mike has a full-time business. If we try to plow through all our posts in one sitting, then we get the writing equivalent of palate fatigue and the last winery that we’re writing about gets the short end of the stick.

So, Rule Six Revised: We will write about our experience, including our stays and each tasting, in this blog. Entries will go up within one week of our experience.

So, do you think we’re cheating? Are we loosening the rules too much? Is there a rule you want to see us add? Tell us in the comments!

Dancing Fox Winery: In Love with Lodi

The Dancing Fox
Winery, Bakery, Eatery
203 School Street, Lodi, CA 95240 (map link)
(209) 366-2634

When we walked up to Dancing Fox Winery, in the middle of lovely downtown Lodi, we were confused. The front room was packed with people eating. Was this really a winery?

Well, yes — but it’s also a bakery and a restaurant, and every table in the restaurant was full. Always a good sign. The intrepid Carissa walked in and asked if they were still pouring. They were, so we went back to the wine bar for a taste. Our tasting experience was as close to perfect as one can have.

Dancing Fox Bakery

The tasting room entryway. Notice the fox hidden in the wood.

The archway we walked under in order to enter the tasting room set the tone. Both the art and the general interior design give the impression of stepping sideways into a fantasy world, without hammering it home so hard that you feel like you’re at Disneyland. The art on the label, all designed around a fairy tale posted on the winery’s website, reinforces this sense. Just stepping through the doors is an escape from the everyday.

We were lucky enough to have our wine poured by owner/winemaker Gregg Lewis himself. Lewis is reserved yet utterly charming. He exudes a shy warmth that set the tone for our amazing tasting.

Dancing Fox Winery

Lewis is the good-looking one on the left. I’m the dorky one in the middle. Mike looks wary of my mobile phone camera’s bad handling of low light conditions.

Lewis has been making wines for many years. He started, as many in Lodi did, by growing grapes for the Big Three: Gallo, Mondavi and Delicato. As Lewis explained, each winery wanted him to grow his grapes in a specific way to bring out certain aspects for their wine. Lewis absorbed this information over many years; from the great wines he served us, it’s clear that this was a years-long master class in winemaking.

Lewis’ wife, Colleen, has studied baking for years, honing her craft in bakeries all around the Bay Area. For years she’d told him “Well, if you get to open a winery, I get to open a bakery.” Then a building became available in downtown Lodi that could house both, and Dancing Fox Winery and Bakery was born.

Gregg’s sons all work in the bakery/restaurant. “They prefer working here instead of in the vineyard because of all the girls that stop by,” Greg laughed.

We sampled some of Colleen’s amazing ciabatta while tasting our wine. It was the sort of bread that needs no butter, olive oil or any other garnish; it is simply delicious on its own. We have a lot more to say about the food, but that’s a topic for another post.

2010 Chenin Blanc: This had a tangy grapefruity taste with a higher alcohol finish than I was expecting.

2007 Chenin Blanc: Unlike the 2010, this was aged in oak. The oak served to soften the harsh edges of the grapefruit flavors, creating a well-rounded wine. Yum!

2007 Firedance: A girl could get into a lot of trouble with this wine…and enjoy every minute of it. This blend includes French colombard, a grape I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of before. One sip left me wondering why more wineries aren’t making wine out of this grape. This wine was sweet and tart and alarmingly drinkable.

Red Zorro: Lewis said this was a blend of temperanillo, grenache, merlot and “whatever else we got left around here.” It had big fruit in the front and a strong tannic finish. This wine could stand up to some food.

2008 Temperanillo: This wine is slow to reveal itself on the tongue, but when it does, boy is it yummy! It’s earthy and peppery and oh so drinkable.

2007 Zinfandel: The grapes for this wine come from 122-year-old vines in the Royalty vineyard at Jessie’s Grove. It smells of dark cherries and chocolate. On tasting, it had more tannins than I expected with some raisin and a hint of citrus zest.

2009 RumplestiltZin: This thick, plummy, delectable wine was so pleasant to drink.

2008 Merlot Reserve: There was a hint of vanilla to the flavor, but in general this was very fruity, with overtones of cherry and plum. It runs close to 16% alcohol.

2008 Reserve Cabernet Franc: It smelled of chocolate and cinnamon and tasted of cherries and spice. There was a little hint of something ashy at the end, but when I say that I mean yummy Humboldt Fog ashy, not OMG-Mount-St.-Helens-buried-my-car ashy.

Petite Sirah Port: It smelled like sugar encrusted fruit with chocolate drizzled on top and tasted like a chocolate lemon syrup. In other words, perfect with dessert.

Cherry Nectar Port: Lodi is a serious cherry-growing area; Lewis decided to work with the fruit on hand to make an unusual dessert wine. It smelled like chocolate covered cherries and tasted like a less-sweet version of the syrup that surrounds the cherries in chocolate-covered cherries.

Viaggio Estate and Winery: In Love with Lodi

Viaggio Estate and Winery
100 East Taddei Road, Acampo, CA 95220 (map link)
Phone: 209-368-1378

Since November, we’d planned this weekend trip to Lodi with our friends Kevin and Carissa. Nikki booked our lodgings, Carissa built up a list of wineries and plotted them on a map, and the boys made sure we were fully packed and stocked with food for the weekend.

We rolled into Lodi around 5pm on Friday. We thought we wouldn’t be able to visit any wineries, but the Lodi Conference and Visitors Bureau official guide informed us we were wrong! There’s a handful of tasting rooms open into the evening. Most are downtown. One, however, is located in the middle of vineyards and listed as “Viaggio Estate on the River.” It sounded far too glamorous to pass up.

Viaggio truly lives up to the “Estate” sobriquet. As we turned off the road onto their property, we drove past first one enormous building, then another. The light was low, the parking areas seemed abandoned, and we were worried. Had we entered onto private property after it was closed?

Then we rounded a corner and everything burst into light. A large gate opened on to a brick-paved pedestrian road (it’s far too large to call it a walkway) called “Main Street.” Perfectly groomed plants line both sides of the walkway, which leads after a substantial meander to the tasting room.

Viaggio Estate & Winery
Mr. Clock says "Time for wine!"

The light was low (as you can see by our terrible mobile phone photos) and the huge, elegant space was full of people eating lovely dinners as they were serenaded by a saxophonist. The room was large enough that the sax player actually required an amplifier. It was like entering a converted Italian manor house. The hallway was full of display cases packed with memorabilia and toys that the boys enjoyed.

Viaggio Estate & Winery
"Please don't touch?!?" Cruel, Viaggio. Cruel.

We thought for a moment we’d stumbled onto the wrong place. But no — at the other side of the huge room was a very, VERY long marble tasting bar.

As soon as we sat down, tasting room employee Nicole was on the case, moving quickly and efficiently through the array of wines available for tasting. In some ways she was a little too efficient; she poured and walked away so quickly that we could never get a solid look at the labels to get as much data as we wanted on the wines.

Pinot Grigio: Many Pinot Grigios qualify as “grapefruity” because of their acidity and because of a hit of bitterness at the back. This was grapefruity because of the acidity but also because of a tangy, fruity flavor. It was much more fruit than I would ever expect from a Pinot Grigio.

Chardonnay: The smell had a hint of caramel, and though the flavor profile was similar to the Pinot Grigio, the finish on this had a rich flavor, almost a hint of creme brulee.

Petite Sirah: This wine was my first “yum” of the night. It was loaded with figs, caramel and chocolate.

Cabernet Sauvignon: Kevin said, “The flavor is all in the front.” It’s true; this cab had fruit, a hint of pepper, a little wood and a little astringency, but all the flavors hit at the front of the mouth.

Ancient Vines Zinfandel: The vines this wine is made from are over 120 years old. I will admit, I was not knocked out by this wine. It felt like the vines had lost their potency with age. I tasted a little fruit at the beginning followed by a bitter, astringent flavor.

Zinfandel Dessert Wine: While many dessert wines are fortified with alcohol, Nicole assured us that this wine was 100% unfortified zin. Carissa said, “This reminds me of cheesecake.” I tasted chocolate and cream, but the finish had a bitter hit I did not enjoy.

Sparkling Wine: This was the find of the visit. Viaggio Winery makes their sparkling wine from chardonnay. Rather than turning overdry or cloyingly sweet, the light bubbles in this case just seemed to emphasize the fruity aspects of the chardonnay.

Mike said, “You couldn’t go wrong with any of these wines.” It’s true (except for that zin, but perhaps I had palate fatigue). If you brought any Viaggio wine to a party, you could be assured that everyone would enjoy your choice.

We’re going on a Southern Central Coast wine road trip! Got any tips?

It’s time for our first — but hopefully not last — wine road trip!

On our upcoming wine road trip we will be visiting:

  • Paso Robles. Paso was our first stop on our very first vacation together, all those years ago. Our visit to Paso gave us the first inkling that our relationship would actually be a threesome: me, Mike, and wine.
  • The wine country around San Luis Obispo (Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley).
  • Santa Maria wineries. We know nothing about these other than that they’re on the Wine Country This Week map.
  • Santa Rita Hills and Santa Ynez Valley, around Solvang, Buellton and Los Olivos. These were the wine areas that were heavily featured in that I’m-mystified-at-its-popularity film, Sideways.

Clearly, this will be one epic wine-tasting road trip!

However, we’re going in blind to this adventure. Once we get south of Paso, our familiarity with what the region has to offer extends solely to the Firestone Walker Brewery in Buellton and the exits off the 101 that have In ‘n Outs. (For the record: Cathedral Oaks exit at Goleta, South Bradley Road at Santa Maria, San Anselmo Road at Atascadero.) And we’re sure that Paso has changed as well; it’s been over a year since the two of us have been there together.

Have you been? Do you live there? Do you make wine there? Do you love the area? Where should we go? What should we taste? Give us your recommendations!