Amador County, La Mesa Vineyards, Shenandoah Valley, Wine, Wine Tasting

A Tasting Room with a View: La Mesa Vineyards

It seems that as Amador County wine country receives more exposure and accolades, new wineries are popping up like spring wildflowers. We say this in a good way – since this means more variety and more opportunity to taste some fantastic wines from our favorite day-trip wine region. One such new winery is La Mesa Vineyards, with a recently opened tasting room perched atop a bluff overlooking the Shenandoah Valley, surrounded by its estate vineyards. We’d driven past La Mesa a number of times on our way to another winery where we are members, but with reservations required at most wineries during the pandemic, timing had not worked out to enable us to stop in. Until a warm, spring-like day in February a couple of weeks ago. 

Many visitors to Amador County may not have the opportunity to experience La Mesa, and that is a shame. Like many areas, the Shenandoah Valley has developed something of a “central” area along Shenandoah Road, where the more established, sometimes trendy “destination” wineries are located. Many visitors stop there, unaware of what awaits them around the next bend in the road. La Mesa is a couple of miles beyond that area; you have to keep driving to be rewarded with the stunning views, amazing hospitality, and delicious wines. 

Originally from Montreal, Quebec, vigniron Côme Laguë comes from a long lineage of agriculture; 10 generations to be specific. However, this enterprising French Canadian pursued a career in tech. Still, throughout the evolution of his career, he never lost the passion for wine that he had developed early on. He and his family often traveled through Amador county on their way to camp in the Sierras, and eventually he resolved to purchase land here. When the time came, he found just the right spot; a former walnut farm. As an added bonus, the property also had an established vineyard planted to Primitivo. Rather than rip out the vineyard, Côme decided to try his hand at winemaking. A neighbor helped with the first vintage, a single barrel of wine. That was all it took. Côme was hooked, and after a few more years at the craft, opened La Mesa Vineyards.

The tasting room at La Mesa is a modern, striking building, featuring sweeping views from the floor-to-ceiling glass walls, or the generous patio outside. Much of the wine is produced from estate fruit, with some sourced from nearby vineyards. The estate vineyards surround the tasting room, adding to the allure of tasting a wine that was produced from grapes that grew just yards away. 

It was surprisingly quiet when we pulled in; only a handful of other guests enjoying wine on the patio. As a result, we had the tasting room staff practically to ourselves. They continued to be quite attentive even as more people arrived and filled the patio tables. The standard tasting flight consists of five select wines, with an option of whites and rosés, or reds. You can also customize your flight. La Mesa produces a wide variety of whites, reds, rosés, and sparkling, so it can be hard to select just five. Fortunately, being wine tasting veterans, we knew the drill: We ordered one flight of the whites and rosés, and one of the reds, and shared them.

Our server particularly recommended the Chardonnay, which was included in the whites and rosés flight. She explained that Côme prefers to make his wines in a more Old World style, meaning his Chardonnay saw no oak, and no malolactic fermentation. It is made in the style of a Chablis which, as we don’t prefer the heavily oaked style, was music to our ears!  We enjoyed it so much, we bought a bottle to take home. 

We also were surprised by the Muscat Canelli, which was aromatic and refreshing, but not cloyingly sweet, as some can be. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the whites was the Barbera Blanc. Several years ago, Kent purchased a “White Barbera” from a different winery, and reminiscent of White Zinfandel, that one was sickenly, syrupy sweet. The La Mesa Barbera Blanc, however, was fresh, bright, and refreshing, with zesty acidity. This wine is made from the same Barbera grapes used in the traditional red wine, but the skins are removed immediately after press, so the wine derives none of the red color. We ended up bringing one of these home, too! 

All of the reds were excellent. The two standouts for us were the Primitivo and the Petite Sirah, which was also recommended by our server. The Primitivo was lively and vibrant, while the Petite Sirah was dark and brooding. Kent is rather particular about his Petite Sirah, and this one got the seal of approval. Despite the fact that we only needed to purchase two bottles to waive each of our $15 tasting fees, we left with a few more than that. 

In recent weeks, taking advantage of the unseasonably springlike weather, we’ve done a bit of wine tasting on day trips around our area. We’d begun to notice that at many of the small wineries we were visiting, we would like two or three of the wines, but others we didn’t care for at all. This was not the case at La Mesa. Each and every wine we tasted was tasty and high-quality, including the bonus pours of the Library Primitivo 2014, and La Notte, their fortified Port-style wine. 

We will definitely plan to stop in at La Mesa Vineyards again. If you are in the Amador area, do yourself a favor. Venture just a bit further up the road, around that bend, and up the hill to this wonderful tasting room with a view. 

Cheers!

  • By Kent Reynolds and Robyn Raphael-Reynolds
  • Photos by Robyn Raphael-Reynolds (except where noted and credited.)
Petite Sirah, Sample, Samples, Suisun Valley

Review: Suisun Valley Petite Sirah

Can we talk? 

Let’s get this out of the way up front. Petite Sirah and Syrah are not the same grape. They’re not even spelled the same. However, they do have a few things in common. Both are native to the Rhone,in France. Both go by different names in different parts of the world, most notably, Australia, where Petite Sirah is known as Durif, and Syrah is called Shiraz. What’s more, in 1996, genetic testing determined the Syrah is actually one of the parent varieties of Petite Sirah, the other being the nearly extinct grape, Peloursin

Now that we have that cleared up, let’s talk about Petite Sirah from Suisun Valley. What? Where? Wait, you’ve never heard of Suisun Valley? You’re not alone. But you’ll be hearing that name more and more as this up and coming region makes its mark on the wine world. 

Suisun Valley is located in Solano County, California, which is adjacent to Napa County. Suisun Valley is just a 30 minute drive southeast of Napa, and shares a similar climate with Napa. However, the soils here are more welcoming to what has become Suisun Valley’s signature grape, (drum roll, please): Petite Sirah. 

As a lesser known region, Suisun Valley lacks the notoriety, traffic, crowds, and high prices of its northern neighbor. Instead, small family farms, many of them generations old, dot the landscape. Tasting rooms, too, are family owned and offer a casual and inviting tasting experience. Suisun is also very accessible, just off I-80 in Fairfield, California. (If you’ve been to Napa via I-80, you’ve driven through Fairfield.) There are currently 12 wineries in the valley, with just 3,000 acres under vine. Sounds delightful, no? 

We had the opportunity to sample the wines from five Suisun Valley producers. The Suisun Valley Wine Co-op assembled this sample pack of 2 oz. tasters to tantalize our taste buds and leave us longing for more. It worked.  

The following wines were provided as media samples for review. All reviews, descriptions, and opinions are our own. We received no additional compensation.

  1. Caymus-Suisun Grand Durif Petite Sirah 2018

Inky purple color. On the nose, blackberry, plum, and black pepper. These continue on the palate, with “cabinet spice”, cedar, and tobacco. Full body with vibrant acidity and medium tannins. Long finish with black fruit, tobacco, smoke, and spice. 

  1. Mangels Vineyard Reserve Petite Sirah 2018

Bright purple color with a ruby rim, Nose of boysenberry, blackberry, and black cherry. On the palate, bing cherry, raspberry, and blackberry. Chalky texture and tannins, soft acidity, and a long finish of black and red fruit.

  1. Tenbrink Vineyards Estate Grown Petite Sirah 2016

Deep purple with a ruby rim. Nose of blackberry, green pepper, and jalapeno. On the palate, blackberry and cherry, with a surprise guest: black olive. Full body, edgy tannins, and medium acidity. Nice, long finish.

  1. Suisun Creek Winery Estate Grown Petite Sirah 2017

Inky purple color, with ruby rim. Nose of blackberry, stewed prune, and boysenberry. On the palate, black cherry, plum, and blackberry. Smooth tannins, medium acidity, and as expected, a rich, full body. Pleasing, smooth finish. 

  1. Wooden Valley WInery Lanza Family Petite Sirah 2018

Deep purple color. The nose is vegetal, with notes of blackberry and bramble. On the palate, bright blackberry, Marionberry, black cherry, jalepeno, and our new friend, black olive. Full body with drying, grippy tannins, bright acidity, and a long, smooth finish.

We enjoyed each of these samples, and it was very interesting to experience the diversity of style and character, considering each sample was the same grape, from the same small region. We look forward to the opportunity to visit Suisun Valley to taste more of the wines coming from this emerging region.

  • By Kent Reynolds and Robyn Raphael-Reynolds

Barrel Tasting, Cabernet Sauvignon, Livermore Valley, Petite Sirah, Wine, Wine Festival, Wine Tasting

Livermore Valley Barrel Tasting Weekend: Day 1 – Saturday

If we had to describe our experience at the Livermore Valley Barrel Tasting Weekend in one word, without a doubt, that word would be: Hospitality.

This was our first trip to Livermore Valley Wine Country. We were invited as guests of the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association, and were very eager to attend. In preparation for the event, we did a little studying and learned a great deal about the incredible and influential history of this wine region. You can read about what we learned in our previous post by clicking here.

Livermore Valley Wine Country

As the name suggests, the Barrel Tasting Weekend is a two-day event, Saturday and Sunday, noon to 4:30 p.m. each day. There are more than 40 wineries in the Livermore Valley, and roughly 35 of them were participating in the weekend. Clearly, we had a daunting task ahead of us, trying to make it to as many of these as possible. Yes folks, Wine Blogging has its own, unique challenges and stresses. This is not for the faint of heart. Fortunately, we are willing to do it. For you, dear readers.

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As luck would have it, to add to the challenge, we got a late start on the nearly two-hour drive to the Valley, and didn’t arrive Saturday until around 2 p.m. Having missed out on two entire hours of tasting, our mission looked dire. Like many events of this type, during registration we selected a winery to start our journey, where we would pick up our glasses and wrist bands. Scoping the lay of the land, we decided to start at one of the furthest locations from Livermore, the city, and work our way in. So it was that we found ourselves at the charming venue that is Cedar Mountain Winery & Port Works. There, General Manager Cindy Burnett greeted us with wine thief in hand. She was offering barrel samples of their 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as tasted of their finished and bottled 2015. Next to her was owner Earl Ault, with barrel tastes of their recent NV Tortuga Royale, a fortified, Port-style wine made from Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, co-fermented with 70% Cocoa Powder. Truly one of the most unique flavor experiences we have had in our years of wine tasting! After sampling the very chocolaty barrel sample, which we thought tasted like adult chocolate milk, we got to try the current release from the bottle. Here, the bold chocolate flavors had softened and melded into the wine, creating a smooth, bold, delicious finished product. Really, folks, if you haven’t been barrel tasting, this would be a great place to start! This wine really showcased the differences between barrel and bottle!

So friendly were Cindy and Earl, and the rest of the staff at Cedar Mountain that they invited us to stay for a complimentary tasting of their entire library at the tasting bar. Never ones to be rude, we agreed. Though we didn’t taste the entire library…they have more than 20 table and dessert wines…we did work through many of them, including our first White Port experiences; a Viognier Port, Chardonnay Port, and an Oak Fermented Chardonnay Port! Long story short…we were there for over an hour. So much for our itinerary!

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On to the next stop, we sauntered up the road to Eagle Ridge Vineyard. There we were greeted by Ron, an outgoing Philly transplant with a gruff, East Coast exterior but a great sense of wit and humor. He thieved us tastes of 2014 Petite Sirah and 2015 Zinfandel. Both presented nicely out of the barrel, and will really shine when bottled in a few months. After the barrel tasting, Ron invited us to taste a few more wines from their library. We were beginning to detect a theme here in Livermore Valley! As we tasted, Ron veered off to help some other newcomers, and we were further entertained by another of the amazing Eagle Ridge staff, Bill. Bill continued to pour, describe the wines…many of which are award winners…and generally entertain us with friendly conversation. Finally, it was time to go. There was less than an hour left in Saturday’s event, and we had more wineries to visit.

Down the hill a short distance and we came to what would be our final winery stop of the day, BoaVentura de Caires Winery. Housed in a quaint country barn, adjacent to a century-old farmhouse, BoaVentura specializes in Cabernet Sauvignon. If you clicked on the link at the beginning of this post, and read our preview article, you know that the Napa Cabernet Sauvignon you know and love actually originated in Livermore Valley.  (If you didn’t read our preview, you can do so now. We’ll wait.)  BoaVentura Batista de Caires is the grandfather of proprietor, Brett Caires. BoaVentura emigrated from Portugal in 1915, bringing with him, and passing down, a great love for wine. Brett purchased the vineyard land upon which BoaVentura winery sits in 1999. The influences of the unique micro-climates of this hilltop property produce distinctly different profiles in each vineyard. Many of the Cabernets are single vineyard, and the differences are self-evident with each taste.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Although specializing in Cabernet Sauvignon, the barrel taste of choice this day was the 2016 Petite Sirah; another impressive barrel sample that will shine after bottling. Brett was also pouring samples of their bottled Green Label Cabernet; a luscious and amazing wine! When we mentioned to Brett that we were there for our first visit, as guests of the winegrowers association, he told us to make ourselves at home in the tasting room, and to tell the staff there to “take good care” of us.

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Always the obedient types, at least when it comes to wine, we ventured into the eclectic tasting room where we met Daniel. Daniel is Brett’s nephew, and actually works in the town where we live (did we mention it’s about a 2 hour drive?) Even more, he lives in the foothills beyond our town. No, he doesn’t commute to Livermore Valley every day; just once in a while and for special events. At any rate, we hit it off with Daniel and he was quite generous with the tastings. We tasted the entire flight, up to and including the spectacular Maroon Label. Now, I (Kent) have tasted some cult Napa Cabs before… (remember this amazing day?) I would put the Maroon Label up against a $200+ cult Napa Cab any day, and it’s a fraction of the cost, at just $79!

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Clearly we were impressed by the wines at BoaVentura. But what about that Livermore Valley hospitality with which we started this piece? Well, the event officially ended at 4:30 p.m. At 5 p.m. we were still tasting, and making friends with some of the wine club members who had gathered for a post-event event. By 5:15 these same wine club members had started a fire in the fire pit. We left our glasses on the tasting bar and meandered out to warm ourselves by the fire for a few minutes on our way to the car. A couple of minutes later, Brett Caries came out of the barn and walked over. He noticed that we had no wine glasses in our hands. We explained that we left them on the bar on our way out. He said, “well go back in there, grab some glasses, and make sure they pour you whatever you want.” And so it was that we finally left close to 7 p.m., after enjoying wine, laughs, and new friends.

A side note if you get hungry. Everywhere we went, when we asked for dinner recommendations, to a person, the response was “Zephyr Grill & Bar.” So we went. Robyn had the Eggplant Parmesean; ½ inch thick slabs of eggplant cooked to delicate perfection and served with sinfully delicious garlic mashed potatoes. Kent had the Duck Confit, which was also perfect; not greasy and not dry. Perfect! We’re not food bloggers so we didn’t think to take pictures, (We only managed to snap this shot of the wine glass) but the dishes were definitely worth writing home about. Service was exquisite, local wines aplenty, and we went back to our hotel completely satisfied. Check it out when you visit!

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Thus ends day one. Stay tuned for more Livermore Valley Barrel Tasting Weekend Adventures in Part 2: Sunday!

  • By Kent Reynolds & Robyn Raphael
  • Photos by Kent Reynolds & Robyn Raphael
Barrel Tasting, Cabernet Sauvignon, California, Chardonnay, Livermore, Wine, Wine Tasting

Come Barrel Tasting With Us…In Livermore Valley!

When you think of California Cabernet Sauvignon, where does your mind go? If you’re like most people you probably think of Napa, maybe Sonoma. How about that nice, big, California Chardonnay you’re enjoying with dinner tonight? Carneros? Monterey? Napa? Would you be surprised to learn that both Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay have their California roots in Livermore Valley? I know I was surprised!

Livermore Valley Wine Country

Wait. You mean you’ve never heard of Livermore Valley? Don’t feel bad. Many people haven’t. Being from Northern California, I was aware of the area, but never really associated it with wine. Yet, as I started to learn more about this region, I learned that wine grapes have been grown in the Livermore Valley since the 1840’s, and the first Livermore Valley wineries were established in 1883!

Livermore Valley is located east of San Francisco Bay, roughly midway between San Francisco and Stockton, and an easy drive from Silicon Valley. The valley has an east-west orientation that allows coastal fog and marine breezed to roll in, tempering the interior valley’s heat. This results in ideal wine growing conditions, producing exceptional fruit. In fact, Livermore Valley is one of the first regions to receive American Viticulture Association (AVA) status, back in 1982.

Livermore Vineyards

With a long history of winemaking, and innovative pioneers leading the way, it is logical that the greatest wine grape varieties should be linked to the Livermore Valley. Perhaps you are aware that most Chardonnay grapes grown in California come from Wente clones. Well, Wente is a long-standing producer, located in the Livermore Valley. In fact, they were the first winery to produce a varietally-labeled Chardonnay, back in 1936. So you have the Wente family, now in their fourth generation of vineyard management and winemaking in Livermore Valley, to thank for that delicious Chardonnay.

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Similarly, Livermore Valley’s Concannon Vineyards produced the first ever Petite Sirah varietally-labeled wine in 1961. Concannon remains a large Petite Sirah producer; in fact, my first taste of Petite Sirah was a Concannon. What I didn’t know until recently, is that Concannon is more than Petite Sirah. The winery is credited with developing Cabernet Sauvignon clones, which represent approximately 80% of Cabernet grown in California today. In 1965, third-generation winemaker Jim Concannon collaborated with renowned U.C. Davis professor and viticulturist, Dr. Harold Olmo, to develop hearty Cabernet Sauvignon clones. Their work took California Cabernet from fewer than 1,000 acres, to more than 90,000 acres today. The clones they developed can be traced back to the “Concannon Mother Vine” which was imported from Château Margaux, by founder James Concannon in 1893.

Concannon Vineyards

Are you getting excited about Livermore Valley wines? I sure am!

In just a couple of weeks, on the weekend of March 10-11, the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association will host their 10th Annual Barrel Tasting Weekend. Robyn and I will be there, guests of the Association, and we would love to see you there! The event runs from noon to 4:30 p.m. each day. With more than 35 wineries participating, it will be an exciting weekend of samples, thieving, tasting, and eating. Barrel tasting is an exciting way to explore wine as it evolves over time, from vineyard to bottle. If you find something you like, many wineries will be offering futures sales, so you can reserve some exceptional wine at a pre-release discount. In addition to Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Petite Sirah, you can taste varietals you may never have had the opportunity to sample before, such as Primitivo and Alicante Bouschet.

If wine isn’t your thing, there will also be Livermore-area breweries sampling beer, and distilleries offering tastes of their spirits. It’s all included with your wristband, so go out on a limb and try something different!

Want to start your day with something hearty to eat before you get to winetasting? Consider attending one of the Barrel Tasting Brunches at 11 a.m. Each day, two wineries will partner with local restaurants to host fabulous brunches on the winery grounds. On Saturday, you can choose from Garré Winery & Garré Café Brunch, or Las Positas Vineyards & Zephyr Grill & Bar Brunch. Sunday’s offerings are hosted by Retzlaff Vineyards & Salt Craft Brunch, and Ehrenberg Cellars, The Singing Winemaker & Liberation Foods Brunch. The choice is yours you cannot make a wrong decision wherever you go!

For the more artistic in your crew, enjoy the 15 hand-painted wine barrels that will be on display at participating wineries. If you see one you particularly like, you can buy raffle tickets for the chance to take it home.

Painted Barrel
Just one of 15! Photo Credit: lvwine.org

Whether you come for the wine, the beer, the spirits, the food, or just the scenery, the 10th Annual Livermore Valley Barrel Tasting Weekend will be an event to remember. You can get tickets at lvwine.org. We hope to see you there!

Cheers!

  • By Kent Reynolds