Orfila Vineyards and Winery: San Diego Sojourn

Orfila Vineyards and Winery
13455 San Pasqual Road, Escondido, California (map link)

Many boutique wineries are started by people going into a second career. Few, however, can claim a first career as exotic as Orfila’s founder Alejandro Orfila. He served in numerous diplomatic posts on behalf of Argentina including service as Ambassador to Japan and to the US, as well as serving two terms as Secretary General of the Organization of American States. Photos in a section of the tasting room show him with dignitaries such as Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan, as well as with Jacqueline Kennedy and the Pope.

Orfila Winery
The photos are, of course, inside a giant wine barrel.

Not content with merely guiding and influencing world affairs, Orfila’s appreciation of wine ultimately led him to establish a winery in Escondido. And we’re glad he did! Orfila took over a winery that was one of only two in Escondido that had survived Prohibition.

Do these overalls make my feet look big?

The grounds are beautiful, with grapevine-covered rolling hills leading the eye to spectacular vistas. The estate, which is located on the same agricultural preserve as the San Diego Zoo Wild Animal Park, has plenty of room for weddings and other events. A large mixed-use building serves as a tasting room as well as housing barrels as far as the eye can see. Nikki adds: And the tasting room bar has purse hooks!

Nikki described Sheila, who poured for us, as a wine geek's dream. I agree!

The tasting room staff was friendly and knowledgeable and managed to give personal attention even though the room was quite busy. They pour for the love of the wine. Sheila, our tasting room associate, actually works full-time at the San Diego Zoo but took up pouring at Orfila because she liked the wine so much. We enjoyed our visit a great deal.

The Wines

2008 Viognier (San Pasqual Valley): This had a very mild aroma and an amazingly rich taste. A little sweet, smooth, with a touch of bitterness that holds it all together. Nikki says: It tasted like drinking orange blossoms; I could taste a hint of orange essence and a floral overtone.

2010 Viognier (San Pasqual Valley): A light crisp nose, with citrus and apple. This one’s rich like the ’08, but with more prominent fruit, particularly pear and apple. Nikki says: It’s like someone cranked the flavors in the ’08 up to 11!  Sheila described the richness as custard. I finally have a name to put with that flavor!

2008 Sangiovese (California): Dark in color, aroma and taste with notes of cedar and cherry, nicely structured with just the right amount of tannins. Nikki says; It smelled like the tannic parts of A-1 sauce. I really like A-1 sauce, so this is a compliment.

2009 Montepulciano (California): This was an enchanting swirl of cherry and licorice. Aromas of wood smoke and leaves imparted an autumnal quality to this wine. Nikki says: It tasted like frosted tannins!

2006 Estate Syrah (San Pasqual Valley): This Syrah was pretty tightly structured with a bit of bite. I found a nice cherry flavor in the fruit. I think this one would be great with bold dishes.

2006 Coastal Cuvée Syrah (California): The aroma brought to mind filet mignon on a cedar plank. The flavor was round and rich, with good tannic support. I really craved a nice steak after tasting this one. Nikki says: So did I – and I’m a vegetarian!

2008 Ambassador’s Reserve Estate Syrah (San Pasqual Valley): The grapes used in the ’08 Ambassador’s Reserve were growing during a nearby fire in 2007. The wine does seem to have been influenced. The aroma is earthy, with cedar and herbal notes. The flavor combines cherry and grape, with a nice tannic finish.

2008 Estate Petite Sirah (San Pasqual Valley): I detected holiday spice aromas and cherry in the nose. The flavor was fruity enough to be jammy, pulled together by an expert application of tannins.

California NV Tawny Port: The aroma was just what you hope for in a tawny port. Layers of prune and caramel with just a whiff of alcohol. The mouthfeel was incredibly rich and unctious. The flavor revealed prune, raisin and chocolate, and the intriguing finish was marked by an almost savory sensation of smoke, maybe even burnt gunpowder.

Orfila does it right. Great wines served in a fun, relaxed atmosphere amid beautiful surroundings. Yay!

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.

Dascomb Cellars: 40th Birthday Road Trip

Deciding you’re done tasting is something of a challenge in Solvang. There’s always one more tasting room enticing you to taste a little more, one more place that comes highly recommended. It can be hard to resist. If tasting in Solvang teaches you anything, it’s that the folks here make incredible wine and it would be a shame to miss any of it.

That’s how we wound up ending our day at Dascomb Cellars. We had pretty much decided we were done, but we had received a strong recommendation while we were at Lucas and Lewellen. Dascomb was mere steps away, so we decided to tough it out (sigh) and pay them a visit.

We’re glad we did. Our pourer (whose name I shamefully failed to put in my notes) was charming and shared her deep knowledge of the area, its history as a winemaking region and the history of the Dascomb family.

The Dascomb family planted the area in 1974. The winemaker grew up on the vineyard, and crafting these wines has been a lifelong passion.

The valleys in the larger growing region are unusual in that they are traverse – that is, they run east-west instead of north-south. This channels cooler ocean air inland and results in a wide range of microclimates suitable for many different types of grapes.

Dascomb’s tasting room had a classic feel, with a dark wood bar placed at a slight angle along one side, with a couple of additional seating clusters where visitors can enjoy their tastings while giving their feet a break.

The Wines

2009 Pinot Gris: This mellow white had hints of saffron, citrus and a hint of oak. I also got a mild but definite hit of bleu cheese.

2008 Roussanne: The aroma of this wine was intriguing and complex. Nikki was reminded of incense. I found the scent to be bold, with toasty sugar elements and a hint of lipstick aroma. Nikki noted a kola flavor and I sensed an herbal overlay. I generally like Roussanne but usually find it not-terribly-complex. This one demonstrated that Roussanne can be more.

2005 Pinot Noir: I was delighted to get a strong scent of toasted marshmallow hovering over the fruit here. The flavor shows fruit in a lighter-bodied wine. Nice, gentle tannins finish the flavor.

2007 Sangiovese: Nikki’s notes say “Hint of port. Smells like the blood in The Vampire Lestat.” I have no idea what she means – I hope the blood in that novel smells like delicious wine. Says Nikki: If you’ve ever read the way Anne Rice describes blood from Louis or Lestat’s perspective in her Vampire Chronicles books, you know exactly what I mean. If not, smelling this Sangiovese to find out is probably faster than reading the books. There was an energetic ensemble of flavors evident here – blackberries and cream, a hint of tobacco and multiple fruits including cherries. It’s bright and acidic so it would be a great accompaniment to Italian food.

2003 Cabernet Sauvignon: Tasting this immediately put me in mind of chocolate covered cherries. Nikki was reminded of port. It’s bright with good acidity and light tannins.

2005 Cabernet Port: 100% cab port, fortified with triple-distilled wine brandy. Nikki’s super-sniffer got caramel, plum and toffee while I sensed chocolate covered raspberries in the aroma and flavor. After enjoying an actual chocolate covered raspberry offered by our pourer, the chocolate notes in the port emerged to the point that I could think of nothing else but a rich, dark, fresh chocolate souffle with raspberry sauce.

It’s becoming a common refrain: This is an area that deserves a whole weekend from tasters. Solvang is a lovely town to stroll around and spend time in, the wine tasting is fabulous and abundant and the people are friendly. We’ll be back.

Lucas and Lewellen: 40th Birthday Road Trip

Lucas and Lewellen Vineyards
1645 Copenhagen Drive, Solvang, California 93463 (map)

From Mandolina, we walked straight down the block to Lucas and Lewellen. The tasting room is beautiful and elegant, with an extremely long bar that can handle many people.

Tommy and Judy, the friendly, lively tasting staffers, are more than up to the task. They kept the conversation going and gently joked with everyone in the tasting room, creating a very enjoyable atmosphere. It was like being at your friendly, charming friends’ home, if your friend had a 30-foot dark wood tasting bar and an endless supply of amazing wine.

2011-02-21 17.09.24

2006 Sparkling Wine: I’m not normally a huge fan of sparkling wines, but this is one I would be glad to give a good home to. In my belly! The smell had notes of toffee and caramel and the taste was warm, a little tangy, with a hint of savory caramel at the end.

2008 Rosé of Pinot Noir: This smelled more like a white than a red, with a hint of honeyed tangerines. It tasted of lemons, underlined with caramel and blackberries.

2009 Riesling: Mmmmm. This smelled like strawberries and perfume. It tasted like strawberries and cream with a hint of cucumber on the finish.

2009 Viognier: This was surprisingly syrupy, with flavors of peaches and pears.

2005 Sommeil en Barrique: This Sauvignon Blanc smelled tart, but there was no tartness in the flavor; it tasted of caramel and pears.

Silver King port: They served this port in a dark chocolate tumbler, just a little smaller than a shot glass. It smelled yummy, savory and deep, like a really great flan. It tasted sweet and savory at the same time, and had notes of tobacco as well.

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Me, tasting room staffers Tommy and Judy and Mike, whose halo is showing.

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.