Tag Archives: Wine Festival

Experience Alexander Valley, Day 1 – Medlock Ames and Stonestreet

It was with eager anticipation that we set off on our journey to the first annual Experience Alexander Valley. We’d been invited as guests of Alexander Valley Winegrowers*, and based on all we’d heard about this new event, we knew we were in for something special. We wrote a couple of preview pieces, which if you missed them and want to catch up, you can read here, and here. But the previews don’t come close to capturing the magic and adventure that Experience Alexander Valley delivered.

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* As guests, our event admission was complimentary. We received no other compensation or incentive. All descriptions, opinions, and reviews are our own.

Like many wine country events, this was a two-day adventure. Unlike many wine country events, rather than racing from winery to winery, guests got to choose two Experiences per day. Since we were invited as bloggers, to cover and promote the event, Robyn and I wanted to participate in as many Experiences as possible…to a point – we do enjoy each other’s company! So we decided “divide and conquer”, at least for a couple of Experiences. We each selected one Experience per day to fly solo, and one to attend together.

Saturday dawned clear and bright. And warm.  Weather forecasters predicted highs near 103F, and they weren’t far off. This meant that many outdoor Experiences had to be canceled or at least modified. Nevertheless, we were undaunted and headed from our hotel to Robyn’s first destination, deLorimier Winery. I’ll let Robyn tell the story of her Experience herself. Watch for her blog post in a few days.

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I had a bit of a drive to get to my first Experience, at the Medlock Ames Winery. Though they have a tasting room on the valley floor, they wanted to treat guests to a Sustainable Winemaking Experience at their vineyards and production facility. The drive was beautiful, along the east side of the valley, then up Chalk Hill Road. The thing that struck me most: No Traffic! I was virtually alone on a Saturday morning in Wine Country.

Turning onto a single lane road, I started to get a little nervous that my trusty Google Maps might have failed me. It was a paved, single lane road, so that was hopeful. Alas, my trust in Google ran out two hilly ridges in. I turned around, beginning what would be a 30 minute detour that ended up taking me right back where I was. Around a curve about 100 yards beyond where I’d turned around was the entrance to Medlock Ames. Sigh. I’d done it to myself, and was almost 45 minutes late!

Fortunately, friendly Isabella saw my plight and left her post in the tasting room to rescue me. She came out into the already 90+ degree day, and caught me up with the small group on the outdoor tour. Isabella handed me off to Chelsea, who was leading the two other guests, Jimmy and Maryanne, on a tour of the grounds.

Medlock Ames is a sustainable, organic winery, and includes a one-acre vegetable garden, and a one-acre fruit garden. Due to the heat, we were not able to walk to those gardens, but still got a brief overview of the property and history. Chelsea led us to the shade of a large tree at the edge of a vineyard. There she told us that the two acres of vines were looking at were nearly ripped out when owners Chris Medlock James and Ames Morison purchased the property in 1998. The vineyard had been planted by the previous owner, a sheep rancher, and nobody knew what variety they were. Ames, the head winemaker, was hesitant, however, and decided to walk the vines before excavation. He found a tag on a vine, from a nursery in New York. After a call to the nursery and some research, and they found the answer: Merlot. But not just any Merlot. These vines are Jefferson clones; descendants of vines that Founding Father Thomas Jefferson brought from France to his Virginia estate! With that kind of pedigree, the former Tulane University roommates decided to leave the vines in.

All Medlock Ames are made from 100% organic, estate grown fruit. The winery is fully solar powered. Of the 338 acres on the estate, only about 55 acres are farmed, leaving the rest of the land to its native flora and fauna. There are more than 800 olive trees, five retention ponds for irrigation, and at least 50 barn owl boxes on the property. To help conserve energy, the barrel room is underground, below the production facility.

Speaking of the barrel room, where better to continue the tour on such a hot day? After a brief visit among the fermentation tanks upstairs, we ventured down into the 55 degree cellar to meet Ames, and enjoy some barrel tasting.

The beauty of the Experience Alexander Valley event is that the three of us had about 30-45 minutes of interrupted time with the head winemaker. (I was enjoying myself too much to keep track of time.) We could ask whatever questions we wanted, and he took the time to answer in a way we could all understand. You don’t get that on a party bus tour!

Ames is clearly passionate about what he does, and is very knowledgeable. He thieved us samples of their 2017 Lower Slope Chardonnay, the 2017 50 Tons Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2017 Kate’s & B’s Cabernet Sauvignon, and the 2017 Secret Ingredient Malbec. Each of the wines has a nick-name, and a story. The Kate’s and B’s is named after Chris and Ames’ wives; Kate is Ames’ wife, and B (stands for Bradley) is Chris’ wife. They chose the very best grapes from the very best vineyards to make the wine with their wives’ names on it. Smart men!

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From the cellar, we walked back up to the tasting room where Chelsea hosted us in a wine and cheese pairing. The cheeses are all local, Sonoma County artisan cheeses, and paired each of the wine amazingly! I’ll let the pictures tell the story here.

As we were finishing up, I got Robyn’s text letting me know her Experience was over, and she was ready for me to come get her. So I didn’t have time to explore the preserves, marmalades, and olive oils they make with estate fruit. No worries though; that gives me something to look forward to when I bring Robyn on our next visit!

After a quick lunch break, we headed to our next Experience, this time together. Turning up the tree-lined drive to Stonestreet Estate Vineyards, we were taken with the beauty of the property. Here, we were to enjoy a chocolate and Cabernet Sauvignon tasting. Originally scheduled outdoors on their beautiful patio overlooking the valley and nearby Mayacamas Mountain range, they thankfully relocated the tasting indoors, in their air conditioned tasting room.

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We were greeted by DTC (Direct to Consumer) Manager, Michelle, and our host and guide for the day, Tasting Room Manager, Samantha. Having never heard of Stonestreet before, we were in for a bit of a surprise.

Video credit: Stonestreet Estate Vineyards

Stonestreet Estate Vineyards owns a large chunk of the Mayacamas Mountains we had admired as we entered the property. 5500 acres, to be more specific. Yet of those 5500 acres, only 800 acres are planted to vines. Committed to sustainable and environmentally friendly winemaking, when the owners purchased the land in 1995, they conducted wildlife studies; migration patterns, breeding grounds, etc. and planted around those areas so as to not disturb the native wildlife. This also helps to keep the critters out of the vineyards. But that wasn’t the biggest surprise. Stonestreet Estate Vineyards is part of Stonestreet Farms, located in Kentucky. Stonestreet Farms breeds thoroughbred race horses, very successfully, including such standouts as Rachel Alexandra (depicted in the beautiful statue on the grounds.) The founder of Stonestreet Farms was Jess Stonestreet Jackson. Jess Jackson. Yes, the Kendall-Jackson Jess Jackson! Surprise! Who knew?

Now on to the chocolate and Cabernet pairing. Some might think that it is difficult to pair chocolate with Cabernet Sauvignon, and it can be. The wine is often too tannic to work well with the creaminess of the chocolate. But Stonestreet sent samples of the wines for the pairing to the local pastry chef they’d commissioned for the event. She, in turn, created the chocolate confections to match each of the wines. It was exquisite! While it was hard to select a favorite, if forced, I’d say mine was third from the left, the Chocolate Budino with huckleberry compote. Robyn fell in love with the Opera Cake (second from left) made with dark chocolate genoise, espresso cream, and topped with a sprig of lemon thyme. Each of the single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons paired perfectly with the chocolates.

Running a little ahead of schedule allowed Samantha to give us a brief tour of the barrel room, and some photo ops. We also had a chance to sample their Meritage, Bordeaux-style red blend. Made from all five of the noble grapes, it was amazing!

 

And that’s it. Just two Experiences per day. I’ve prattled on long enough for now, and we’ll cover Sunday later. Robyn will write about her solo Experiences in separate post, too. Oh sure, there was the fantastic blues concert at deLorimier Saturday evening, but Robyn will write about that in her first Experience post.

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The biggest takeaways for us on Saturday were these: One, Alexander Valley is a hidden gem; a peaceful wine oasis mere minutes from the crowds and bustle of Napa. There was virtually no traffic all weekend, and no crowds, either. Sure, the heat may have kept some away, but Sunday was much cooler and yet no more crowded.

The other takeaway was this: though the lack of crowds was nice, Experience Alexander Valley was noticeably under-attended. Experiences had capacity for up to 24 guests. Of the four I attended, two had only three guests, one had four, and one had seven. Intimate to be sure, but really, folks, come out next year and let’s make this an event, an Experience, worth repeating! You’ll remember your Experiences forever.

Cheers!

  • By Kent Reynolds, with Robyn Raphael
  • Photos by Kent Reynolds and Robyn Raphael, unless otherwise noted.

El Dorado Passport Weekend 2018

Off again on another exciting wine tasting weekend! This time we were headed to El Dorado County, for the El Dorado Passport Weekend. El Dorado County is right in our back yard, just about an hour from home. As guests of the El Dorado Winery Association, who provided us with complimentary VIP passes to the event, we were looking forward to a deeper exploration of the region. While we’ve lived nearby for many years, quite honestly, our ventures to the land of gold discovery had been few.

 

El Dorado Winery Association represents nearly 50 wineries. About half were participating in the annual Passport Weekend. With so many wineries to choose from, we had to map out our strategy. Compounding the mathematical quandary was the fact that we had only Saturday to attend. We had other commitments on Sunday! Clearly, we needed a plan.

El Dorado County is located east of Sacramento, and runs from the valley floor all the way to the peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains. In fact, the town of South Lake Tahoe is in El Dorado County. The highway that one travels from Sacramento to South Lake Tahoe is U.S. Highway 50, part of the historic Lincoln Highway. As it happens, Highway 50 bisects El Dorado wine country, with the Apple Hill area wineries on the north side, and Pleasant Valley, Mount Aukum, and Fair Play regions to the south. Of these regions, Fair Play is perhaps the most well-known, at least in the area, and is the part of El Dorado County we’ve explored the most. With that realization, our plan was established. We would delve into the Apple Hill area, on the north side of Highway 50, and visit wineries that were completely new to us! Well, mostly, as you will read.

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Image Credit: El Dorado Winery Association

The El Dorado Passport Weekend actually spans two weekends. We attended the second. The first weekend was met with sunshine and unseasonably warm temperatures. The second weekend was, well, more seasonable. It was overcast and chilly, with an often biting wind at outdoor venues. Nevertheless, even cold weather would not prevent us from enjoying the day and sampling some fantastic El Dorado County wines.

High elevation wines are what sets El Dorado Wine Country apart from other California regions. The growing region varies from 1,200 to more than 3,500 feet above sea level! That’s some serious altitude! Some 50 grape varieties thrive here, from Gewürztraminer to Cabernet Sauvignon, to Barbera, to Chardonnay, to Zinfandel, and many others. Rhône and Bordeaux varietals do especially well here. There are many soil types, including volcanic rock, decomposed granite, and fine shale, each providing its own influence to the terroir.

El Dorado Grape Varieties

Image Credit: El Dorado Winery Association

From here, please enjoy the photo montage along with brief descriptions of each winery we visited. We quickly learned that El Dorado Winery Association knows how to host a party, as each winery had food pairings for almost all of their wines. We did not go hungry!

Our first stop was Fenton Herriot Vineyards. Perched atop a hillside with spectacular views, Fenton Herriot is located just outside Placerville, a quaint Gold Rush era town. The wines were as amazing as the views, and we enjoyed the catered food pairings as well. As part of the VIP experience we were invited to a three-vintage vertical tasting of their Sangiovese.

 

 

Next was Lava Cap Winery. This is the one I intimated above; we’ve been familiar with Lava Cap for years, because their production is such that they can be found in Sacramento area restaurants and even grocery stores. Don’t let this dissuade you, however, their wines are first-class! As part of our VIP experience, we tasted a flight of library wines, including a 12 year old, oak aged Viognier. Yes, you read that right – a 12 year old Viognier! It was spectacular!

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Moving on, we stopped at Madroña. Established in 1973, Madroña is one of the oldest El Dorado County wineries. I even remember them being there when I visited Apple Hill as a child! Here was tasted a flight of Cabernet Sauvignon including a 1985. That’s the year my daughter was born! The wine has aged and mellowed as much as my daughter has. Amazing! They also have a red blend, El Tinto, composed of 25 different grape varieties. Delicious!

 

 

Next we stopped at Via Romano Vineyards. Via Romano specializes in Italian varietals, and they do them exceptionally well. Check out the Pinot Grigio paired with mango, peach, and apple bruschetta! Simply ethereal!

From there, we stopped at Bumgarner Winery. Any San Francisco Giants fans in the audience? Owner Brian Bumgarner did some genealogical research, and found at least a distant relation to starting pitcher and future Hall of Famer, Madison Bumgarner. Even if baseball is not your thing, stop on by their rustic tasting room for some rich, full-bodied red wines.

At the recommendation of one of the staff at Bumgarner, we next ventured just south of Highway 50 to Chateau Davell. There we were reunited with owner and winemaker, Eric Hayes, who we had met at the Wine Bloggers Conference a few months earlier. Eric is a skilled winemaker, and also an accomplished painter. Each label is adorned with a portrait of a family member, lovingly painted by Eric himself.

As you can imagine if you’re keeping score, by now we were getting palate fatigued. Nevertheless, we had some time to kill before we would be meeting friends in Placerville. So we forged on to one last winery, Sierra Vista Vineyards and Winery. Another early pioneer in El Dorado Wine Country, established in 1979, Sierra Vista was also on the forefront of the Rhône movement in the area. Their dedication to the craft is evident in each sip.

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With a renewed fascination and enthusiasm for our backyard wine region, we are determined to return soon and continue our adventure of discovery. If you are planning a trip to Northern California, perhaps to the more famous wine regions like Napa, Sonoma, or Lodi, you owe it to yourself to plan a little detour to the east, and come discover the fantastic wines of El Dorado County.

Cheers!

  • By Kent Reynolds and Robyn Raphael
  • Unless otherwise credited, all photos by Kent Reynolds and Robyn Raphael

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

Farm-to-Fork Legends of Wine

Among other things, Sacramento, California is known as America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital. Each year, the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau hosts several Farm-to-Fork events, celebrating the region’s agricultural heritage and commitment to farm-fresh, local dining. This includes not only food, but wine as well. This past Thursday, we were fortunate to attend the annual Farm-to-Fork Legends of Wine event.

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Held on the front steps of the California State Capitol building, the Legends of Wine event features wine tastings of several local wineries from the region. Attendees had the opportunity to sample the some of the best wines produced in the Lodi, Sierra Foothills, and surrounding areas, and enjoy small bites like lamb sliders, gourmet cheeses, fresh-baked bread, and gelato. Many winery owners and winemakers were on hand to pour and answer questions about their wines.

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Darrell Corti, left, and David Berkley, right. Dude taking a picture, in background.

Sacramento’s wine legends Darrell Corti and David Berkley help to prepare the event by selecting the best wines and wineries. One of Mr. Corti’s claims to fame is the long-running Corti Brothers market. Originally opened in downtown Sacramento in 1947, and relocated to its current East Sacramento location in 1970, the store features an authentic Italian deli and one of the best independent wine shops in the region. So beloved is Mr. Corti and the Corti Brothers store that, in 2008 when on the verge of losing the lease, Sacramento’s top celebrity chefs turned out in support and helped keep the market open.

David Berkley started his journey in wine as a part-time wine merchant at Corti Brothers. He went on to open his own wine and specialty-foods store in Sacramento, which sadly closed after 25 years in business. Yet, his story doesn’t end there. Mr. Berkley has served as a wine consultant for the White House, serving President Reagan, both Presidents Bush, and President Clinton.

After several weeks of scorching heat, the weather cooperated and graced us with a perfect, late summer evening. Clear skies, and temperatures in the low-80’s at the start of the event, created a delightful atmosphere for tasting, noshing, and mingling. I lost count, but there were well over two-dozen wineries present. We tasted several old favorites from wineries we know, and found a number of new favorites. Our weekends will be full over the next few months, visiting all the new wineries and winemaker friends we met at the event.

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Unintended cool photo effects when the flash accidentally went off.

If you happen to be in the Sacramento area in a future September, check out the Legends of Wine event. Perhaps we’ll see you there!

Cheers!