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Monthly Archives: October 2016

Lesser Known AVAs: Shenandoah Valley

My how time flies! It’s been almost a year since my first post on the Sierra Foothills AVA. When I wrote that piece, I had the grand idea of showcasing each of the five sub-appellations that comprise the Sierra Foothills: North Yuba, El Dorado, Shenandoah Valley, Fiddletown, and Fair Play. Alas, such is the life of a hobbyist blogger. Work, family, and life in general get busy, and grand ideas get set aside. It has taken some time, but I was finally able to make it to Amador County wine country recently to conduct some “scientific research” for this continuing series. It was arduous, but I’ll do whatever it takes for you, dear reader, to provide what I hope is interesting content.

As I lamented in my earlier post, the Sierra Foothills area is, in my opinion, an underrated and underappreciated wine region. Often flying under the radar of major wine publications, the wineries here are producing wines that rival bigger, better known producers and regions. Fortunately, the Sierra Foothills received some recent exposure when nearby Lodi hosted the 2016 Wine Blogger’s Conference. Although I was unable to attend, I’ve read some great posts from fellow bloggers on the field trips that were offered to the foothills. Several of the winemakers and owners I spoke with on my recent daytrip also commented on the visits, and appreciate the attention the conference gave to the region. Still, it is with some trepidation that I go on; for fear that too much exposure will spoil the tranquil, picturesque wine region located in my own back yard. Nevertheless, I wish nothing but success for these amazing wineries and wines, so I must shout my praises from the rooftops. Well, at least from my living room.

Amador County is home to two of the five Sierra Foothills sub-appellations; Shenandoah Valley and Fiddletown. These two neighbors adjoin one another, and while I did briefly venture into the Fiddletown AVA, my focus this day was the Shenandoah Valley.

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The Shenandoah Valley is perhaps the best known Sierra Foothills wine region. It is the most easily accessible, and perhaps not coincidentally, is home to some of the larger and better known Sierra Foothills wineries. Many producers in the Shenandoah Valley, like Renwood and Montevina, have grown large enough to distribute their wines nationally, and perhaps internationally. In fact, some time ago I opened a Costco-branded Kirkland Signature Amador Zinfandel, and was surprised to find the Renwood Winery logo on the cork. That’s a testament to success!

Just outside historic Plymouth, a gold-rush era town, Shenandoah Road intersects State Highway 49. A short drive up Shenandoah Road, and around a hilly curve, and you are greeted by lush vineyards and stunning views. The majority of the wineries in the Shenandoah Valley AVA are located along Shenandoah Road or Steiner Road, which loops off Shenandoah Road, meeting it again a little further up. There are some 31 wineries located in the Shenandoah Valley AVA. Most are small, family owned operations, and it is not uncommon for the winemaker to be the owner, or the owner’s son, daughter, or other relation.

sunny-vineyards

Since the early days of the California Gold Rush, this area has produced wine. Originally, vines were planted by enterprising emigrants to supply alcohol to the thirsty miners who came to strike it rich. Zinfandel vines were found to thrive here, so that became the dominant varietal. Today, some individual vines can be traced back more than 150 years to those pioneering days. Other varietals have since been added to the region; mostly Italian and Rhone grapes that thrive in the warm, dry climate. The west slopes of the Sierra Foothills afford abundant sunshine during growing season, and summertime temperatures that can hit the low 100’s help to create ripe, fruit-forward wines.

Like all of the Sierra Foothills wine regions, the Shenandoah Valley AVA’s natural beauty equals, or dare I say, even exceeds that of the more famous California regions. Certainly Shenandoah Valley lacks the crowds, traffic, and commercialization of those internationally recognized destinations. Many wineries still offer complimentary tastings. Those that do charge generally limit it to $5, and that is waived with the purchase of just one or two bottles. (Many Napa wineries are now up to $30 or more, and waiver requires signing up for the wine club, a commitment of several hundred dollars per year.) Even the bottle prices are much more affordable, typically less than $30 for spectacular, award-winning wines.

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Photo Credit: helwigwinery.com

Winemaking here waned as the Gold Rush petered out. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that the potential for this region was noted, and commercial wineries established. Early wineries such as Deaver Vineyards and Sobon Estate are still going strong, and are joined by relative newcomers like Andis (est. 2010) and Helwig (est. 2011). The growing popularity of wine among the younger generation, and the trend away from exclusivity and pretentiousness in wine has driven the rise in popularity and demand.

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Deaver Vineyards

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Sobon Estate

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Helwig Winery

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Andis Winery

The atmosphere at the wineries in this area vary from traditional, down-to-earth, and intimate, to state-of-the-art, hip, trendy, and vibrant. Some offer tours, including a Farm-to-Glass Vineyard Tour at Vino Noceto. Click the link to read my post on my recent experience and learn more. To attract even more people to the area, including non-wine-drinkers, Helwig Winery built an amphitheater along with their winery. They host a summer concert series each year, attracting some big name performers and plenty of fans, who are introduced to the beauty, and deliciousness, of the area. No matter your preference, you are sure to be greeted warmly, and will taste some underappreciated, world-class wines.

If you are thinking of visiting, the closest airport is Sacramento (SMF). Check out the Amador Vintner’s Association website amadorvintnerlogofor trip planning help and tips. Come to the foothills, check out the wines and history, and enjoy the stunning scenery. You’ll be glad you did!

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Farm-to-Glass at Vino Noceto

Many wineries have tours. Visitors get to see the crush pad, fermentation tanks, and barrel room on the way to the tasting room. I have been on several of these tours, and always enjoy them. There is something enlightening in learning more about the processes that go into making this wonderful, enjoyable beverage. Still, I’ve often felt there was something missing in these tours: the vineyard. What goes on out there? I long to walk the rows, taste the berries straight from the vines, and learn more about the agricultural part of the process. Wine is, after all, the end result of months of patient and backbreaking farming. Then I learned about the Farm-to-Glass Vineyard Tour at Vino Noceto. I signed up immediately.

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Vino Noceto is a family-owned winery in the Sierra Foothills. More specifically, they are in Amador County, in the Shenandoah Valley AVA, a sub-appellation of the Sierra Foothills AVA. Located in the rolling hills about an hour east of Sacramento, Vino Noceto is a fun, friendly, and inviting destination.

The Farm-to-Glass tour is often led by either the winemaker, Rusty Folena, or owner Jim Gullett. For my tour, a small group of just three of us, Jim was our guide, providing us with intimate details and insight into the history of the winery. It was fascinating to hear Jim relate his personal journey from just starting out; to the successful operation he leads today.

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Jim Gullett, owner and tour guide extraordinaire!

Jim and his wife Suzy purchased the land, formerly a walnut grove, in 1984. The name, Noceto, reflects a part of Suzy’s history. Suzy is from the city of Walnut Creek, in the east Bay Area of Northern California. Noceto is Italian for walnut grove. It is also the name of a town in Italy, located in the province of Parma. Noceto, Italy is the sister city of Walnut Creek, California.

In keeping with the Italian connection, Vino Noceto specializes in Sangiovese, the main grape used in Chianti. Vino Noceto is one of the leading producers of Sangiovese in California. This is quite a departure for a winery in a region known for Gold Rush-era Zinfandel vines, and the Rhone varietals many of their neighbors are producing. Still, Jim and Suzy had a passion, and they pursued it.

The tour began in the tasting room; just long enough to each receive a glass and a generous pour of Vino Noceto’s Clarksburg Pinot Grigio. Light, crisp, and delicious, this was a great way to start off! Jim grabbed his bottle caddy – more tastes awaited us along the way – and we headed off to the vineyard.

The next wine we tasted was the flagship Sangiovese Originale. We tasted the 2013, but the first release of this Chianti-style wine was in 1990. Light, ruby color in the glass with flavors of raspberry and cherry, and lively, balanced acidity. This wine is delightful on its own, and would pair exceptionally with a variety of foods. Jim said his vision was to create a “Chianti with California sunshine.” He didn’t want to simply imitate Chianti; he’s in California, and he wanted to allow the California influence to shine through. Mission accomplished, Jim!

Many of Vino Noceto’s Sangiovese vines can be traced back to nine original cuttings. These were obtained from a neighboring winery that had procured them some years earlier, but decided to go a different direction with their production. Other vines came from various other sources, all of which can be traced back to Italy. Some of these other cuttings had originally been brought to the U.S. from Chianti via (ahem) a briefcase import in the 1970’s. So the Vino Noceto vines have some pretty prestigious, if shadowy, heritage.

The original vineyard plot is called Dos Oakies, because of two large oak trees that stood watch over the vines. One of these sentinels fell in a storm a few years ago, but the other remains, providing shade and shelter for vineyard tourists and wildlife alike.

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Dos Oakies, minus one.

As we walked through the vineyard, Jim informed us that Vino Noceto is a Certified Sustainable vineyard. After harvest and crush, the grape pressings are returned to the earth to help fertilize for next year. They also reclaim the water used in production. In addition, their winery and tasting rooms run completely on solar power, and investment that has already paid for itself.

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Moscato Pressings back to the earth.

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Harvesting the California sunshine.

Harvest was already complete on the day of my tour, but some fruit lingered on the vines. This enabled us to sample some of the berries. We tasted Trebbiano and Malvasia, both white grapes, and Sangiovese, Canaiolo Nero, and Aglianico, the latter two used as a blending grapes in Italian wines. It was interesting to note the differences in flavor, texture, and tannin, right there among the vines that produced the fruit.

One the way to the winery building itself, we sampled two more wines; the Dos Oakies Sangiovese, a single vineyard bottling from that original vineyard block; and the Hillside Sangiovese. Both were stunning, and had the classic Chianti stylings, with that extra pop of California sunshine. The Hillside Sangiovese has just a hint more oakiness, giving it a fuller feel and flavor. Perhaps that is why it has won so many awards and high scores!

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Don’t forget the wine, Jim!

At the winery, the tour included a stop at the crush pad, where Jim explained the processes from harvest, to sorting and de-stemming, to crush. Then we moved into the fermentation room and barrel room. Jim detailed the processes, including such decisions as which yeast to use in fermentation, and the level of toast required for their barrels.

Though Sangiovese experts, Vino Noceto is a Sierra Foothills winery. Therefore, they also produce a Zinfandel. Using his wine thief, Jim got us a barrel taste of the 2016. It is already coming along nicely, and when released in a couple of years, will be a superb Zinfandel. As we left the winery, Jim poured us a taste from their current release, 2012 OGP Zinfandel, made with grapes from the Original Grandpère vineyard. Unlike many jammy, powerful Zins, this is a lighter, more restrained Zinfandel that really allows the fruit to show its stuff!

Normally when you hear “cult wine” you think of big, bold, in-your-face Cabernet from Napa. Would you believe: a cult white wine? Yes, Vino Noceto makes a Moscato blend called Frivolo. Slightly effervescent, and completely refreshing and delicious, Frivolo has a cult following, and its own wine club! That’s right, a club for a single wine. Members receive one shipment per year, in December – a case of the newly released vintage. While the 2014 is long sold out, the day of my tour the 2016 was undergoing cold stabilization. Naturally, as a good host, Jim got us a sample from the tank. Ice cold, but still delicious and flavorful!

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Cult White Wine!

The tour ended back in the tasting room, where Jim said his goodbyes and left us in the care of the friendly, helpful staff. There, we were offered more tastes of wines we didn’t try on the tour, plus opportunities to re-try those we had. Like so many Sierra Foothills wineries, tastings at Vino Noceto are complimentary.

If you are in the area, I highly recommend the Farm-to-Glass Vineyard tour. Tours are held daily at 11:00 a.m.; free for club members, $10 for everyone else. Money well spent! You can book online here, or call Vino Noceto at (209) 245-6556 x2.

Saluti!

Smile – #MWWC28

What’s the longest word in the English language? Smiles. There are only six letters, but there’s a “mile” between the first and the last!

Monthly Wine Writing Challenge

This is my entry for #MWWC28. As the winner of MWWC27, Beth, The Traveling Wine Chick earned the honor of selecting the next topic. She chose “Smile.”

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The first thought that comes to my mind when I hear the word “smile” associated with wine is: “Of course. Wine makes me smile.” But that makes for a pretty short blog post. Instead, I’m going to step outside my comfort zone, and try a little creative writing.

Steve had it all. He was the high school football quarterback, homecoming king, and just to complete the cliché, he dated the head cheerleader. With straight A’s and a league football championship his senior year, he received a full-ride scholarship to the prestigious university of your choice. Steve was no slouch.

After college, Steve accepted a position at a major investment firm, and was quickly working his way up the ladder, earning a fat paycheck plus commissions. Yes, he married his high school sweetheart, the cheerleader, and they started a family. Steve’s life was picture perfect, and his future looked bright.

One year, his company holiday party was held at a local winery. Steve had never been a wine drinker. Sure, he’d had a glass from time to time, but never really got into it. In fact, he had never been much of a drinker at all, preferring to focus on his personal goals and lifetime achievements. He felt that drinking could become a distraction, and he would lose his focus. Still, the winemaker herself was at the party, pouring her best wines. Steve enjoyed a few minutes chatting with the winemaker, but asserted that common argument: “wine gives me headaches.” The winemaker assured Steve he would not get a headache from her wine. He agreed to give it a try, and she poured him a glass. At the first sip, a smile emerged on Steve’s face. This wine was delicious! Steve had a hard time describing it, but he knew it was different, and better than any wine he’d had. He was hooked immediately.

With a fresh appreciation for the wonders of a finely crafted wine, Steve started a small collection. He began exploring varietals, regions, and styles. He joined clubs, and went wine tasting with his wife on the weekends. Pretty soon, Steve found himself planning vacations around wine regions, and he enjoyed exploring the beautiful landscapes of Bordeaux and Burgundy, Tuscany, Alsace, Rioja, and others. Over the years, Steve tasted hundreds of wines from regions the world over. He loved to share his love of wine, hosting dinner parties, and donating bottles to charity auctions. Whenever a friend or family member needed a wine recommendation, Steve got the call.

Then one fateful day, Steve’s phone rang. It was bad news. Cancer. Steve’s mom had been his biggest supporter; driving him to practices, mending his torn uniforms, tutoring him on those hard subjects. She was there for the good times and the bad. Now she needed him. Even those whose lives appear perfect from the outside can suffer life-changing tragedies. Our lives can change in an instant with a phone call or conversation. Steve’s world was rocked to the foundation. Cancer is something that happens to other people, not Steve and his mom. But it did happen; is happening. Steve was comfortably well-off, but cancer doesn’t discriminate between rich or poor. You can’t buy your way out of this.

Steve caught the next flight home and went to stay with his mom. The prognosis was not good. The cancer had spread quickly and by the time the doctors caught it, it was too far gone. They gave her only 30 days. Steve was with her for the duration. He drove her to doctor’s appointments, and helped arrange for the best hospice care in the area. In the end it was peaceful, surrounded by loved ones.

Steve returned home a changed man. The grief and pain had sucked the life and joy out of him. He found it difficult to smile at much of anything. He was a strong man; a survivor; so he knew intellectually that he would eventually heal. But at times, the emotional pain was crushing. Even his passion for wine waned. He’d still have a glass or two with dinner, but it wasn’t the same. He was careful with his drinking, because he knew that self-medicating his pain could be dangerous, so he regulated his consumption. Weeks passed, then months, and slowly the hurting became less intense, and he knew he was starting to heal.

A few weeks later, Steve was working late. The custodian, Jeff, came into Steve’s office to clean. Steve had worked late often enough that he knew Jeff, but they had never talked beyond pleasantries. Still, something in Jeff’s demeanor told Steve something was wrong. Steve inquired, and Jeff confided that his father had just passed away. Instantly, corner-office Steve and custodian Jeff were on level ground. A friendship was born out of mutual heartache and pain. Through Steve’s friendship and caring, Jeff walked through his grief and was soon feeling like his old self. But the friendship didn’t end with the end of the crisis. Steve and Jeff remained committed friends, and their families became inseparable.

On a bright, clear Saturday morning some weeks later, Steve took Jeff winetasting. They spent the day exploring the local wine region, tasting wine and enjoying the peaceful beauty of the vineyards. That evening, Steve cooked dinner for the two families, and opened a bottle of his favorite wine. It was a perfect ending to a perfect day. As they savored the meal and wine, Steve, Jeff, and their wives all shared happy, contented smiles.

And they lived happily ever after.

This is a work of fiction. The characters and events are made up. Except for the part about the holiday party when Steve first discovers quality wine. That really happened, and is how I got started on my wine journey. Nevertheless, although fictional, the emotions and feelings are real. When going through a rough time, stay focused on the things that are really important in life. Even in times of tragedy and pain, if you look for them, you can find things that can, from the depths, evoke a genuine smile.

This post has been therapeutic for me. Although not death, cancer, or any other illness, I have been walking through a very difficult time, and have had difficulty finding smiles. Writing this fictional story has helped me to realize the truth underlined above. If you are going through a painful time, my hope is that my words are helpful to you, and that you, too, can find a smile.

Santé!

Review: Mascota Vineyards Unánime 2011

Sometimes a wine comes along that is special in ways that transcend the quality and ratings. Unánime 2011 is such a wine. Sure, Wine Enthusiast gave it 93 points. That’s impressive all on its own. Yes, it’s the Total Wine & More No. 1 red wine of 2016. All those customers and store associates can’t be wrong, so there’s that. Accolades certainly generate interest and drive sales, and that’s always a good thing. However, what makes this bottle special is the circumstances by which it ended up in my hands, and its contents in my glass.

Sometimes life throws you a curveball. Not long ago, I found myself facing a particularly difficult pitch. Fortunately, I have a great coaching staff around me, so I was able to swing and make contact. Circumstances arose that required we sell our home, and quick. As luck would have it, my brother-in-law, Todd, is a realtor, so we engaged his services. Through a combination of his professional talents and 11 years of loving care of our home, we accepted an offer after just 7 days on the market. The entire process ran smoothly and, thanks largely to Todd’s influence, the 30-day escrow closed on time.

I can’t begin to adequately express my appreciation for Todd’s help and expertise throughout this very stressful process. So imagine my surprise this morning, when I answered a knock at my new door, and there stood Todd, gift bag in hand. I should be buying him gifts, and yet as a “thank you” for allowing him to serve us, he brought me a gift of Unánime 2011.

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As it happened, I was planning to grill a New York steak for dinner tonight – my first grilling experience after several weeks in transition. It was to be a simple, but special dinner. I was debating what wine to open with my steak, but as soon as I pulled the bottle from the bag, I had my answer.

As I mentioned, Mascota Vineyards Unánime 2011 is the Total Wine & More No. 1 red wine of 2016. I’ve wanted to try it for some weeks, but just haven’t had the time. Todd solved this problem for me. From the back label:

UNANIME, from the Latin “Unanimis” refers to a group of people sharing the same opinions or views; being in complete harmony or accord.

This simple word summarizes this special project. When we were finishing the harvest 2005, both our Winemakers and Agronomists agreed that it was the time to start crafting a superior red blend, a “Gran Vino Tinto”.

We wanted to reflect the great wines Argentina can offer when exceptional climate and passionate people come together in harmony.

A blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Malbec, and 15% Cabernet Franc, from the Uco Valley in Mendoza, the 2011 spent 20 months in French oak. Here’s what I thought about it:

Inky doesn’t begin to describe the color. Nearly black in the decanter with deep violet rim. Early aromas of ripe blackberry, black cherry, chocolate, and soft oak. On the palate, this is a big, bold, chewy wine with flavors of ripe blackberry, black currant, black pepper, spice, and black cherry. Full bodied with massive tannins, even after 3 hours in the decanter. The finish is long, with black pepper, spice, and dark chocolate. When paired with a juicy New York strip steak, spectacular. This wine will age well for the next 5-10 years.

4.5 stars, 92 – 94 points

$24.99 at Total Wine & More

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NY Strip Steak and Baked Sweet Potato. The salad was on the side. Honest.

Argentina and beef are synonymous, and this wine is a natural complement to a juicy cut. Grab a bottle of Unánime 2011, fire up the grill, and enjoy the magic.

Cheers!

 

Review: Chateau St. Jean Bijou Chardonnay 2014

Once upon a time, I was an ABC’er – Anything But Chardonnay. This stemmed from my general dislike for the California Oak Bombs popular in the 90’s and early 2000’s. As much as I appreciate the influence of oak in wine, I prefer that oak is an enhancer, rather than the dominant flavor. If a wine tastes like I’m licking the inside of a barrel, I’m going to take a pass.

A couple of years ago, I took a leap of faith and started exploring Chardonnay again, but only the Unoaked style. Crisp and fruit-driven, I gained a new appreciation for this, the most popular white varietal in the world. Once I understood the grape, sans oak, I have slowly ventured into oaked styles in the hopes my palate would expand to the point where I could include all styles of Chardonnay in my wine repertoire.

While strolling the wine section of my local Trader Joe’s the other day, I had to do a double-take. A lightly oaked Chardonnay, from notable producer Chateau St. Jean, for just $6.99? Without a second thought, into the cart it went!

The Bijou Chardonnay is part of Chateau St. Jean’s California collection. This is their entry level line, carrying the general “California” designation. This means that the grapes may have come from anywhere in the vast Golden State, rather than from a specific, smaller American Viticulture Area (AVA). Thus, there is not going to be a concentrated expression of terroir, but rather, a more general blend of what Chardonnay has to offer. Nevertheless, I found this to be a remarkably well balanced Chardonnay; fruit dominant, with subtle oak influences and crisp acidity.

Here’s my review, posted on Vivino:

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For an entry level wine, this is a remarkably well balanced Chardonnay. Golden straw color in the glass. Aromas of pear, white peach, and browned butter. On the palate, flavors of pineapple, pear, peach, and tropical fruit mingle with toasty oak and just the right amount of zippy acidity. Medium body with a long, zesty finish. If you don’t like Chardonnay, try this lightly oaked version! It could open doors for you, and at just $7, you can’t go wrong!

4.0 out of 5 stars (88 – 91 points)

$6.99 at Trader Joe’s

At the risk of repeating myself…which I’m going to do anyway…if you are an ABC’er, give this wine a try. It’s only $7, so you really have nothing to lose, and an appreciation for this iconic grape to gain. What are you waiting for? Trader Joe’s closes at 9 p.m. Go!