Wrap-up: Santa Cruz Mountains

Qualifying appellations tasted: 2 (Santa Cruz Mountains at nearly every winery and Central Coast at Regale).

Lessons learned:

  1. Bring a notebook. We both realized we had nothing to write on when we were halfway to the wineries. I took notes on my trusty Android, but Mike had nothing to take notes with (which is why he’s been so uncharacteristically silent in these posts).
  2. Write down people’s names. We got great photos with so many tasting staffers and a few fellow wine tasters, but we don’t have anyone’s name! We were both disappointed. We’ll do better next time.
  3. Have business cards to hand out. We ordered personality-packed MOO cards that will soon be winging their way to us. If you want to order your own ultra-cool MOO cards,  get a 30% discount between now and 1/31/11 by using the code FZVUD7. (Full disclosure: we’ll get a MOO card case if you do this, but we’re not doing it just for that; we wish we could’ve gotten a deal like this when we ordered ours!)
  4. Talk to people. This is something we had forgotten we enjoyed so much about wine tasting. When we talked to people and told them about our project, they were by and large really interested and enthusiastic. Everyone had recommendations on where we should go (not that we were able to write many of them down; see point #1 in this list).
  5. Winery limit: 4 per day. Both of us found we were hitting palate fatigue hard at Poetic Cellars (and it would have been worse if Loma Prieta Winery hadn’t had a nice little spread of cheese and crackers laid out). Perhaps if we do two before lunch and three after, we could do five, but that’s truly our limit.

Poetic Cellars: Santa Cruz Mountains part 4

Poetic Cellars
5000 N. Rodeo Gulch Road, Soquel, CA, 95073 (link to map)
Phone: 831-462-3478

The drive to Poetic Cellars, another winery on the great Summit To Sea Wine Trail, is along twisty roads through beautiful (and during our visit, rain-laden) redwoods. Your GPS won’t help you out here; you’ve reached a Land Without Mobile Reception. Fortunately, the staff at Poetic have signs posted along the way to help you find their winery.

When we arrived at Poetic Cellars, we met some friendly fellow wine tasters who we’d previously seen at Burrell School. Unlike us, they’ve done a thorough investigation of most of the Santa Cruz Mountains wineries. They encouraged us to make our way over to Los Gatos and Saratoga. So much good wine, so little time!

We didn’t know until we visited Poetic Cellars’ website today that our wine was poured by winemaker Katy Lovell herself! Her son also poured some of our wine.

The Wines

2008 Livermore Viognier: It smells like nectar and tastes like fruit blossoms and perfumes. (Okay, I admit it — I’m a sucker for Viognier.) Mike noted a grapefruit hit at the end.

2006 Livermore Mouvedre: Dark chocolate and oak in the nose. Very astringent finish. Mike liked this a lot, noting a smoky flavor that was quite appealing.

2007 Merlot: Smells delightfully of chocolate and honey. Tastes like toffee and plum skins. Rich and absolutely delicious.

2006 Stanza Vineyard Syrah: Full of cherries. It had a tasty ash overtone, like Humboldt Fog cheese. It made me wonder if the vineyard had been in an area near one of the California wildfires.

Chant Royale: Gosh, I wish I hadn’t hit palate fatigue right as she pulled out this port-style wine! This sweet, cherry-filled wine would be perfect under most circumstances, but my dead tongue was overwhelmed by alcohol.

Poetic Cellars

From left to right: winemaker Katy Lovell, one of our wine tasting buddies, Mike Rainey, Nikki Gustas, and another wine tasting pal.

After the tasting, Mike stopped to admire the view from the parking lot.

On the drive home, Mike noted that one of the most enjoyable aspects of the wine tasting experience is that you meet great people along the way. We were lucky enough to strike up conversations with two separate great groups of people, and also got wonderful information on wineries around the country to visit from the tasting room staffs that we met.

On our ride home, we saw a rainbow above Highway One. Mike would call it a weather pattern. I like to think of it as a good omen for our Appellation Trail project.

Loma Prieta Winery: Santa Cruz Mountains Part 3

As we drove up the hill to Loma Prieta Winery, another winery on the Summit to Sea Wine Trail, the road got narrower and windier. Just when we thought things couldn’t get any tighter, we saw a sign. “Road narrows.”

“What, are we going down to a half-lane?” I gasped.

The roads in the Santa Cruz Mountains perform their own sobriety checks, kids, and the penalty for going over the limit is going offroad, and potentially down a pretty steep and long Thelma-and-Louise kind of drop.

The rewards, however, are the views, and there is no view more stunning than that from Loma Prieta Winery. Or, at least, we assume the view is stunning.

It’s pretty high up there, and from the clouds beneath us we could tell there were a couple of big valleys on either side. However, note that bit about the clouds? On a clear day you can see straight to Monterey Bay. This was not one of those days.

Regardless, I still wanted to run up to the tasting room spreading my arms and singing, “The hills are alive with the sound of music!” And I don’t even like that movie.

The entrance to Loma Prieta Winery

The winemaker’s home is next to the tasting room, requiring prominent signage to keep confused wine lovers from stumbling into the living room.

We ran into several friendly people on our way in who recommended that we visit David Bruce Winery and try the pinot. We didn’t get there Sunday, but we swear, it’s on our list!

The tasting room staff is backed up by one friendly and non-threatening dog. I am frankly terrified of most dogs both large and small, and even I would have been happy to pet this one. That is, if I weren’t so allergic that it would have rendered me incapable of tasting!

The Wines

2009 Lodi Viognier: This wine tastes like Chanel No. 5 smells. (Thank goodness Chanel No. 5 doesn’t taste like it smells, or I’d have a very expensive perfume habit.) There was a floral element and a hint of vanilla. In my tasting notes I wrote, “Flowers and butterflies.” What can I say? This swept me away.

2008 Pinot Noir: The fruit for this Santa Cruz Mountain wine was grown in Aptos. The smell was a mix of cherries, chocolate, pepper and wood, while on the palate it was a smooth balance of cherries and alcohol.

2007 Cabernet Sauvignon: This Gilroy-grown wine starts with a little bit of berries, but has a fascinating cinnamon finish, so much so that I kept sipping to make sure it was really there. The tasting room manager brought out some chocolate, encouraging us to sample it and see how it changed the flavor of the wine. The chocolate made the berries deeper and the finish sharper.

2008 Amorosa Vineyard Lodi Pinotage: Pinotage is a grape that is not well-known around these parts, but Loma Prieta has committed to giving it a place at the table, so to speak. The smell is silky with notes of chocolate, gasoline, and wet asphalt. The taste is chocolatey, like having your tongue wrapped in a warm blanket. Someone else described it as “like a really aged zin.” The finish is unusual and very hard to describe. It’s angular, like having the pointy tip of a triangle land on your tongue. Reading it in my notes makes me remember exactly what that tasted like, but dang if I can express it any more skillfully.

Port: Mike described this as having a “chocolate covered caramel scent.” To me, it smelled like toffee, chocolate and blackberries. From what the tasting room manager said, it’s excellent as a glaze for duck (something a vegetarian like me is unlikely to make use of, but things change!) Mike thought it tasted like a chocolate covered cherry, while I felt it was more like candy and chocolate mixed together.

Mike and Nikki outside Loma Prieta

Mike and Nikki in front of the Loma Prieta Winery. The sound of the shutter once again made Nikki blink!

Regale Winery: Santa Cruz Mountains Part 2

Regale Winery and Vineyards
24040 Summit Road, Los Gatos, CA (map link)

Regale Winery is beautifully sited on a hillside looking out toward Santa Cruz. On a clear day, the view must be breathtaking. Heck, the valley was thick with fog and it was still gorgeous when we visited.

Regale Winery

It’s a photo of Nikki taking a photo of the Regale gates! How meta!

The grounds are very thoughtfully laid out; it’s clear the owners were focused on the tasting room as an event venue just as much as a spot at which to taste wine. They certainly put one in the mood for love, as you can see from this photo of Mike.

Mike plights his troth to Regale's statue

Mike plights his troth to a Regale statue.

Regale Winery is located right next to Burrell School Winery, but was mysteriously not included in the Summit to Sea Wine Trail. The reason became clear when we got a look at their tasting list; not one of these wines is made from Santa Cruz Mountains grapes.

We were thrown off our stride by the tasting fee. In Monterey County, we’re used to a $5 ceiling on our tastings, so it shocked our little wine-loving wallet to pay $10 apiece at Regale. But the staff was warm and friendly, so how could we say no?

The Wines

2008 Russan River Valley Sauvignon Blanc: This wine was a disappointing start, thin and tasting more of oak than of citrus.

2006 Central Coast Chardonnay: Now we’re getting somewhere. This chard was a little nugget of butter wrapped in a warm, fuzzy swaddling cloth of oak. A little more fruit up front and it would be perfect!

2007 Pinot Noir, O’Neel Vineyard, Russian River Valley: Soft and drinkable. Like warm velvet on my tongue.

2007 Napa Valley Sangiovese: Oh no! I think my palate just died! All I could taste was woody bitterness, as if someone had juiced some acorns and served it to me in a glass. I ambled off to sample some of their divine bread and olive oil (sadly, neither was for sale).

2007 El Dorado County Barbera: This is a berry wrapped in several layers of grape skin. There was a dry texturalness to this wine.

2006 Cabernet Sauvignon: Chocolate and berry skins.

Finale: Their desert wine is made from zinfandel grapes and fortified with an everclear-type alcohol the winemaker made from wine grapes, giving this a pure grape flavor. It’s like drinking a dark chocolate with a zinfandel filling. Good, but a strong alcohol finish at the back of the palate.

Posing with Regale's tasting staff

We pose with our friendly tasting room pourer. No, Nikki’s not drunk; the sound of the shutter clicking just makes her blink.

The Central Coast AVA tasting made this our second appellation covered in this day. (For why the other wines didn’t count toward our total, see The Rules.)

Burrell School: Santa Cruz Mountains part 1

Burrell School Vineyards & Winery
24060 Summit Road, Los Gatos, CA (map link)

We decided to hit the ground running — or, more to the point, drinking — on January 2 with a trip to a nearby wine destination we’d yet to explore, the Santa Cruz Mountains. These wineries are an easy drive both from our hometown, Monterey, and from Silicon Valley. Plus, it’s an area that’s easy on the eyes, making it a perfect Sunday outing.

As soon as we made that decision, I hit the web for some ideas as to where to go. My first stop was the Santa Cruz Mountain Winegrowers Association website. I immediately felt at home there due to its striking resemblance to the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association website, a site where I spend a not-insignificant amount of time.

I browsed their listings and immediately latched onto Burrell School Vineyards and Winery. A winery? Located in a historic schoolhouse? Which has the slogan “I promise to sip my wine. I promise to sip my wine” written in chalk across their website? My little former-15-year-old truant heart (ssssh! Don’t tell Mom!) filled with glee.

Another big plus was the big “Location” button on the website. Do you have any idea how many wineries list every bit of data about their tasting room on their “Tasting Room” page, except its location? It’s as if the location of many wineries is a closely guarded secret.

Tip #1 to Winemakers: If you want people to visit, make sure you list your address on the “Tasting Room” or “Location” page!

Fortunately, Burrell School had already taken this tip to heart. They became the axis around which I planned our first Appellation Trail trip. (They even had a link on their site to the Summit to Sea Wine Trail, which became our roadmap for the day’s tastings.)

Burrell School Vineyards and Winery

We took a back road to Burrell School, driving up (and up, and up) Soquel-San Jose Road to Summit Road. The drive, through misty redwoods, was breathtaking.

The turn onto Burrell School’s driveway, however, was a sphincter-clenching hairpin turn. Note to others visiting: come up Summit from Hwy. 17 – you’ll be happier.

Burrell School

The front of Burrell School Vineyards & Winery. Tasting is done in an adjacent building that once was a carriage house.

The Tasting Room Theme: A+

Burrell School gets an A+ for follow-through on their theme. Tasting information is written on chalkboards around the tasting room. Small wood-framed slates (about the size of an iPad) sit next to each bottle of wine on the roster, each with chalk notes about the vintage. Even the wine names follow the theme, with sobriquets such as “Principal’s Choice” Pinot Noir and “Detention Red” Zinfandel (a name that absolutely appeals to a rebellious zin lover such as myself).

Burrell School Vineyards and Winery

The whimsical school theme touches every aspect of this winery.

If the theme was playful, the tasting staff was all business. They’re serious about wine, and it shows. The couple who staffed the wine tasting bar (sadly, I do not remember either of their names, but I do remember she’s born on February 3 and he’s just a couple of days away from that) were very focused. He was kind enough to give me tips on several wine apps for my brand-new Android phone.

The Wines

If Burrell School’s wines were being portrayed by an actor, they’d be portrayed by the legendary Brian Blessed. As you drank the wines, you’d hear him say, “My friend! I have been FERMENTED in OAK! Feel my OAKINESS EXPLODE upon your TONGUE!” If you love oak, this is your place.

2007 “Teacher’s Pet” Chardonnay: I found this wine to be oaky, with some butter up front, but in the end more astringent than I wanted. For me, this wine would be perfect with a thicker layer of fruit in the middle. Mike found it more lively than many other chardonnays though, and liked it for this reason.

2006 “Principal’s Choice” Estate Pinot Noir: Yummy and full of cherries, again with a strong oak finish.

2006 “Dean’s List” Cabernet Sauvignon: Smelled deliciously of chocolate and raw wood. The oak was up front on tasting, the fruit a very mild-mannered presence underneath.

2007 “Honor Roll” Estate Reserve Merlot: There’s a smell that certain wines get that make me want to wear them as perfume for a sultry night out. This is one of those wines. It was loaded with berries and had a hard oak finish, almost as if the wine were slamming the door on my palate.

2006 “Detention Red” Zinfandel: A name after a girl’s heart. Sweet cherries at the front, hard oak at the back. This wine was the lone Amador County wine in a tasting full of Santa Cruz Mountain appellation wines.

2007 “Spring Break” Syrah: Gorgeous smell; the taste was like having Brian Blessed do a little “Oak! Oak! Oak!” dance on my tongue.

Late harvest “Chaperone” Chardonnay: There’s a particular note in the smell of skunk that I actually like. It’s pretty buried and I’m not sure anyone out there can smell it but me. But this wine had a hint of that, and I consider that a positive. Syrupy but not overwhelming, like Semillon without the saffron finish.

Late harvest “Probation” Zinfandel: The scent was full of tobacco and leather, absolutely delectable. The flavor was sweet, tart and complex, with a hint of leather. If Burrell School’s other wines are Brian Blessed, this wine is Brian Blessed as a biker in Easy Rider. (I know, I’m reaching…but I’m committed to this metaphor, darn it!) Mike thought that this wine would be one to reach for on a cold, blustery night while wrapped in a blanket listening to the weather.

“Deportment” Zinfandel port: This wine seduced me with its name, and the flavor finished the job. If you made a Zinfandel Jolly Rancher, it would take like this. I like both Zinfandel and Jolly Ranchers, so I’m a big-time fan.

Burrell School Vineyards and Winery

Burrell School Winery is just one of the wines on the Summit to Sea Wine Trail. The trail is worth seeing both for the wines and the views!

40 wine appellations in one year? You drunks!

We prefer the term “Wine fans” to “drunks,” thankyouverymuch!

What’s The Appellation Trail?

“The Appellation Trail” is the theme of our vacations for 2011.

No, we didn’t misspell Appalachian. We can’t take 3 months off work right now to hike up the East Coast Besides, Bill Bryson already definitively and hilariously covered the Appalachian Trail hike.

The Appellation Trail is a journey through America’s wine appellations. Over the course of the year, we will experience 40 wine appellations.

40 wine appellations? Isn’t that a lot?

Initially, we were going to aim for 20. Then we remembered that our county alone (Monterey County) has nine wine appellations and California has over 100. Frankly, 20 wine appellations felt like wimping out.

Plus, it’s Nikki’s 40th birthday, so it seemed like a good number.

So, you’ve got nine down…

Nope! Monterey County doesn’t count. It felt like cheating. We’ve left ourselves an out, though. If it’s December and we’re desperate, we can use Monterey County to fill in a last couple to make our total.

We have several other rules, just to make sure everything is on the level.

Why this project?

In 2010, we realized that our daily lives were getting in the way of the three things we love most in the world: drinking wine, traveling, and spending time together. For 2011, we’ve made a commitment to focus on these things with the Appellation Trail project.

Appellation Trail: The Rules

  1. In honor of Nikki’s 40th birthday year, we will experience 40 wine appellations in the year 2011.
  2. “Experience” is defined as tasting wines from that appellation in as close proximity to those appellations as possible.
    1. We will taste wines at the winery tasting rooms or at the winery’s designated tasting location (for example, certain smaller wineries may only offer tastings through bars or wine visitors centers).
    2. If a winery produces wines from multiple appellations, each appellation tasted at the tasting room qualifies.
    3. Exception: Tasting rooms for large wineries (such as Robert Mondavi) that are producing from multiple large geographic areas don’t qualify toward the total appellation count, though they may be considered part of an “exhibition class.”
  3. Monterey County wine AVAs do not count toward the total (unless we’re desperate and it’s December).
  4. In case of a designated driver situation, only one party needs to taste the wine in order for it to count toward the Appellation Trail total. Both parties must be present for it to count toward the Appellation Trail total.
  5. On each trip, we must get someone at one tasting room to take a photo of us with the person pouring.
    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.
  6. 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.

Note: Rules modified on 2/15/11; see our post.