Eagle Ridge Vineyard: Livermore

Our visit to Eagle Ridge Vineyard was exactly the kind of experience we were hoping for on this trip, and it restored our hopes for the area after our less-than-stellar experience at the first Livermore winery we visited (which shall remain nameless).

We rolled up the gravel drive and parked next to a row of grapevines a minute or two before the posted opening time for the tasting room. We kicked back, watching a red-tailed hawk gliding by about 10 feet above the vines. Then a friendly woman walked over from the house. We stammered an apology for getting there so early; she smiled and said, “Come on in!” We learned that this was Cheryl Perry, co-proprietor of Eagle Ridge along with her husband Jim.

To hear Cheryl and Jim tell it, they got into the wine business by accident. They’d moved to Livermore and bought a large piece of land to build their house on. Unfortunately, the land had a lot of weeds. Cheryl says that a friend told them, “Just plant some grape vines! That’ll take care of the weeds.” They did…and by the end of the growing season they had enough fruit to produce 300 cases of wine. Since then they’ve taken classes in order to ensure they’re producing the best wine they can, and boy are they ever.

The tasting room looks like a regular metal-clad farm building from the outside, but the inviting patio tables and festive yard-art in front hint strongly of the building’s true purpose. On the inside the tasting room is spacious, with racks of barrels at one end, a retail/merch area in the center and the bar on one side near a big rolling door in front. The back bar looks like a wonderful antique, rescued from some elegant establishment. When we remarked on its splendor Cheryl told us it’s actually a new piece, made by a local woodworking firm. The whole area was filled with curios and antiques – a child’s pedal tractor, Hardy Boys books, old board games and much much more. Jim and Cheryl both mentioned they were relieved to open a tasting room – they finally had someplace to put all their stuff!

Antique Livermore map at Eagle Ridge
Stuff like an antique map of Livermore!


Eagle Ridge tasting room
Of course the best stuff is in the bottles just peeking out...

We were happy they opened a tasting room too, but for a different reason, namely, their wines are fantastic!

There are a couple of characteristics common to virtually all the wines we tasted here, so I’ll mention those up front. One is, the wines all have multiple layers. There’s not a monolithic wine among them. The second is that the layers all present themselves on the palate in a fairly rapid sweep right away, which to me seemed exhilarating. Initial tastes were a little like hearing an overture to a musical, with introductions to the themes that will be developed later in the show. I’ve never experienced that kind of rush in a wine before, and I liked it.

The Wines

All Eagle Ridge wines are made from grapes from the Livermore Valley AVA.

2010 Pinot Grigio: Lovely, clean aromas of pear and star fruit. The flavor contained those, with just a little acidity. There’s an unexpected richness here too. It was like a hint of lightly toasted marshmallow overlaid with the type of buttery flavor one might find in a Chardonnay. Nikki adds: This was fruitier than I expected but with a nice tart edge, kind of like a wine Sweet Tart but more complex.

2006 Cabernet Sauvignon: Love at first sniff. This has a very juicy nose, but without any suggestion of jamminess. The scent reminded me of plum hard candy with a trace of toasted sugar. There are a lot of layers welcoming the palate to this wine, including a unique minerality, restrained fruit and esters. There’s a slight astringency that is framed in nicely by the minerality. This tasted sophisticated and mature without the austerity often associated with such wines. Nikki adds: The scent reminded me of gravy for red meat, and the flavor made me think of meat roasted with a tomato sauce and dusted with a little bit of sugar.

2007 Cabernet Sauvignon: This was off the list – they only had three bottles left. But we were so enthusiastic about the ’06 that they decided to pour a taste for us, and we are sure glad they did. The aroma here had fruit and caramel, contained more structured aromas of tobacco and minerals. On the tongue this wine first revealed a wonderful, estery richness, followed by fruit, then some smooth, balanced tannins. The finish is long and retains that warmth from the very beginning. I wish I had better words to describe what I’ve referred to as minerality above – it’s not that ashy character that tannins can often provide, but something different with a sharper peak near the center of the tongue. It stopped short of being metallic and had a savory quality. For some reason it strongly evoked images of the sea in my mind. I’ve never tasted that specific flavor in wine before, but I hope to again. Nikki adds: I could drink this all day.

2006 Zinfandel: This isn’t the type of bold, fruit-forward style we’ve tasted so often – this had a lighter body, and while there was plenty of fruit it was rich without being jammy. (Nothing against jammy, btw, I like jammy too.) On the nose this has a hint of vanilla, fruit and a whiff of perfume. That perfume quality is present on the palate as well, seeming to emerge from the fruit and providing an elegant finish. Nikki adds: I tasted plums, cinnamon and A-1 sauce. It sure doesn’t taste like the high-alcohol wine that it is!

2005 Petite Sirah: This one has a much bolder, fruitier aroma than the previous wines with elements of toasted sugar, fruit and spice. The first flavor is a rich estery taste which then yields to a nice acidity. There are perfume overtones and a definite grape flavor restrained by mild tannins. On the finish, the fruit emerged as raisins. This wine also had that unique savory mineral taste I so eloquently described above.

2006 Petite Sirah: The aroma here was also fruitier than the earlier wines, but with a gentle, soft quality. The flavor is anything but soft – this wine is assertive right away, with a cascade of flavors: mustard seed, fruit, lacquer, tannins and bread. The assertiveness is welcome, and this wine emerges as exuberant, friendly and complex. Like me! Nikki says: It was spicy, savory and so enjoyable, with a hint of prune…like Mike!

2005 Mad Lyn Port: The aroma has plenty of sweet fruit, but also a distinct scent of coffee. The flavor is round and sweet with a very rich mouthfeel. Tannins, wood and earth keep the sweetness from stealing the show and provide a nice, well-balanced structure. Nikki adds: I tasted candy, candy, candy, but in the best possible sense.

Ripken Vineyards & Winery: In Love with Lodi

Ripken Vineyards and Winery
2472 W. Sargent Road, Lodi, CA 95242

The folks at Ripken had things figured out. First of all, there was a theme – “PS – I Love You.” PS in this case stands for Petite Sirah, Ripken’s specialty. Second, they placed tasting stations all around the facility so that visitors could progress through their wines in a specific order. Despite these specific elements, the folks pouring and staffing the event were casual and easygoing, and seemed to be enjoying themselves and their guests quite a bit.
Ripken Vineyards and Winery
The tasting route took us first around the right side of the building to a tasting table for the first set of wines. Next it was on to the back of the building where there were more tasting tables, guest seating and a fire pit. The concrete patio was thoroughly enscribbled with sidewalk chalk, which visitors were encouraged to use to express their own artistic impulses. We heard rumors of S’mores, but we were there late on the last day of the weekend and I think they had run out.

Winery co-owner Richard Ripken was pouring at the table in back of the building, and he explained some of the issues and decisions grape growers and winemakers must consider in order to develop fruit with the specific flavor attributes they want. Richard’s admonition was to resist the temptation to water too early.

Proceeding from the back around to the other side of the building we encountered a table full of silly wigs, hats and novelty sunglasses that Elton John would consider garish. We learned that this was not some perverse sobriety test – the props were actually for a photo booth the staff had set up. In exchange for your email address, Ripken would send you a link to a strip of four photos featuring you and your companions in crazy get-ups. I put on a wig resembling Slash’s hair (from Guns and Roses) and was told it was an improvement over the styling of my real hair.

After photo fun it was on to the inside of the building to taste dessert wines.

The Wines

All the wines we tasted at Ripken were Petite Sirah except as noted.

2004 “Wedding Wine”: Fruity, jammy and warm with a taste of grape peel at the finish. Exuberant. Nikki says: I noticed a candied plum scent and a tangy plum taste. I also noticed that my adjectives seemed to have become limited to “prune,” “plum,” “candy” and “caramel” by this point in the day.

2005 “Wedding Wine”: Similar to the ’04 but with a hint of pepper and some cherry flavors. Nikki says: It seemed less harshly sour at the finish to me.

2004 “Rhonealicious”: Higher acidity made this lighter-bodied wine brighter, and the aclohol was more apparent.

2004 “Idyllwild Station”: I noted that it had a scent of raspberries, then when I reached for the glass for a second taste it was empty! I’m going to have to get Nikki to share her thoughts on this wine here. Nikki says: Ally my notebook says is “Chocolate coated plum scent.” On the bright side I’d found a fifth adjective; on the down side, I had no tasting notes.

2005 “Rhonealicious”: Definite notes of cherries and raspberries with a warm character. Nikki says: I tasted tart blackberries, like blackberries taste when they aren’t quite ripe.

2007 “Rhonealicious”: This wine is 5% Tannat and 5% Malbec. It’s jammy and fruity with berry flavors, and just enough spiciness on the finish.

2008 Petite Sirah: This double-gold winner was intense with fruit flavor, nicely balanced with the alcohol.

2008 Late Harvest Viognier Dessert Wine: A beautiful creamy mouthfeel. Grapefruit in the aroma but less so on the tongue. Rich, caramel-butter finish. Nikki says: My notes say “CANDY CANDY YUMMY CANDY! I WANT MORE!” As you may have noticed, I liked it.

2005 Port: Cherries, wood, alcohol and licorice make this a dessert wine that demands to be taken seriously.