Wednesday, February 24, 2010

St. Francis Embraces Social Media and Bloggers

Recently, I accepted an invitation to have lunch with winemaker legend Tom Mackey of Sonoma County’s St. Francis Winery & Vineyards. As if I would have said no. First of all, the man is “The Master of Merlot,” and with 36 years of winemaking at St. Francis alone, he’s an absolute well of knowledge and a genuine soul. I was honored to dine with him at the exquisite Urban Farmer in the swanky Nines Hotel and excited to hear about his impressions of the current state of the wine industry. Also joining the party and bringing their own viewpoint to the table was Mary Cressler of Vindulge, Jim Eastman of The Wine Cyclist and Bernie Gehret and Eva Schmole of

When Tom started with St. Francis in 1983, he admits it was a much simpler time. The winery consisted of a four-man team in a smaller and less demanding market, before the explosion of the nineties hit and small wineries started popping up like prairie dogs in a field. He acknowledges the changes, both in viticulture and winemaking standards, has seen the California sprawl and embraces the winery’s current goal to walk with a lighter carbon footprint (Cheers to that!). St. Francis presently participates in a water collection program and has 90,000 square feet of solar panels that actually feed energy back into the grid! When asked about biodynamics, Tom admitted he was amused by the cult aspect of it, but respectful of the science and the goal for healthy plants and earth. He spoke of their own movement towards organics, but said they’re years from certification.

We talked a little about Merlot, naturally, and of course I had to ask Tom what his thoughts were on the Sideways "phenomenon". I was quite surprised by his answer; the man is as eloquent a speaker as he is a brilliant winemaker. Humbly, he said, “Sideways was just the straw that broke the camel’s back; Miles said what a lot of critics were thinking at the time. There was a lot of mediocre Merlot being produced.” Merlot had been riding the wave Pinot Noir is currently riding. The varietal was relatively new to the American market; it was easy to say and sounded interesting. Unlike Pinot noir though, it was ready to consume and user-friendly. Win, win… until the next trend came along. This of course got me wondering about that wave of Pinot noir; is it leveling out making its way for the next big trend? What is that next big trend?

Tom started lunch off with a taste of his 2007 St. Francis Sonoma County Chardonnay and a fascinating lesson in the history of the winery. He regaled us with stories of how the Chardonnay grapes are harvested at 2:00 in the morning, when the fruit is at its coolest. I could just envision the workers plucking ripe green clusters from the vine they’re tethered to with only the light of the moon to guide them. The grapes are immediately whole cluster pressed and then barrel fermented to reveal a fantastic wine that let delightful citrus and melon flavors of the grapes show through while retaining a precarious balance of rich though not creamy texture and delicate vanilla oakiness. I really enjoyed this wine and wanted to savor it a bit before heading off to the land of the reds, where we were clearly headed.

After tasting some other Sonoma County wines, we arrived at the treasure trove, tasting St. Francis’s limited production, artisan label, Wild Oak—which Tom says consists of the best of their best. Like a winery within a winery, St. Francis has a separate area for processing smaller lots of fruit in a gentle, minimal intervention style to produce wines of greater character expressing the sensational vineyard sites from where they sprung. St. Francis has continued to grow and produce exceptional Merlot year after year and though Tom prides himself on being able to play on the flavors of the vineyards as opposed to making the wine taste the same vintage to vintage, there is still a certain consistency and predictability in his wines.

The 2004 Wild Oak Merlot was outstanding. The wine was every bit as lush and velvety as a Bordeaux-structured Merlot should be. I let the wine open up in my glass for some time before I even approached it. At first sip, it was slightly firm, with chewy tannins that continued to soften as it oxygenated. The Merlot was just starting to reveal its luscious cherry, floral and cocoa flavors while Tom explained how though California is generally picking later than they did historically, this vintage was ripe early and then blended with Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot—a real beauty.

I'm confessing right here, I'm a bit gaga for his 2006 Wild Oak Zinfandel. It was sweet with cherries, blackberries, licorice, pepper and something like mint, menthol or eucalyptus that added a lovely lift on the finish. Lively fruit and juicy acids coyfully played with the smoky chipotle sauce on my chicken sandwich and then, as if reading my mind, Tom told us about how St. Francis was the first California winery to focus on food and wine pairing. They now feature an on-site executive chef and the St. Francis website goes one step further, offering recipes to pair with their wines.

Before I arrived at lunch, I honestly wondered why someone who primarily writes about Oregon Pinot noir (me) was invited to meet with the California Master of Merlot (Tom). Never one to look a gift-horse in the mouth, I had no intention of passing this lunch up. I try to embrace most opportunities that come my way… finding life’s greatest lessons are often learned from some of the most surprising and unexpected teachers. What I really came away with, aside from an even deeper love of St. Francis wines, was an appreciation and respect for how this well-known winery was reaching out beyond traditional press to wine bloggers and Twitterers instead. They could have invited big-name reporters from local publications looking for traditional news articles, but chose to incorporate and utilize social marketing; here’s to the power of the new press and to St. Francis for their forward thinking. Until we sip again…


Photo provided by Mary Cressler, thanks Mary!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Oregon Winemaker Tributes Valentine Break-Up With Nefarious Pinot Noir

You could feel the excited energy stirring about Patricia Green Cellar’s winery, warming up the cold facility rarely open to the public. Guests stood poised to taste her illustrious wines and with an odd twist of irony, I found myself alone on Valentine’s Day afternoon—a day typically spent honoring relationships, love and togetherness—celebrating Patricia Green’s 10-year anniversary punctuating her divorce from Torii Mor instead. In homage of the dispassionate occasion (one of the best break-ups on history I might add) Patty released her wickedly sinful, 2008 Nefarious Pinot Noir.

The 2008 Nefarious Pinot Noir ($85) was as beguiling as it was balanced. The wine opened with a soft fruit and lightly floral nose. In my mouth, blackberries gave way to ripe cherries, a touch of spice and playful acids, which swept across and awakened my sleepy tongue (it was barely noon, but already wine-o’clock for so many). The tannins were firm, showcasing the moderate structure, yet supple enough to provide a lush, velvety feel despite the wine’s youth. It was a nice wine, yes. But was it worthy of its lofty $85.00 price tag? Of that I’m not so sure.

I liked the wine and I loved the name, but for me, it was still missing a key component—a good label to tie it all together. It might seem trite to you, but being a graphic designer and marketing specialist, what it all boiled down to was that I was confused when I looked at the bottle. The wine’s called Nefarious, which means infamous by way of being extremely wicked, but the front label shows a soft, sweet and simple muted oil painting of Patty with her nose in a wine glass—is that supposed to signify nefarious? The label design felt like an afterthought, even more so when I looked up and saw the painting larger than life on the cellar wall… a bit incongruous and disappointing if you ask me. To come up with such a great concept and then fall through on the visuals and packaging felt like an enormous waste of a tremendous opportunity and my mouth was (and still is) literally salivating over the potential of such a campaign. Moving on and off my soapbox now.

The 2008 Notorious Pinot Noir ($70) showed similar themes of sweet and spice as Nefarious, but with more intensity and greater depth. Black fruit and plums immediately introduced themselves to me, while tart cranberries, truffles and a captivating white pepper finish snuck up from behind and made their presence known. I preferred Notorious to Nefarious and actually thought it seemed more wicked, more sinful and more decadent with its seductively ripe fruit and sneaky yet showy spice.

One of my favorite wines of the day was the 2008 Estate Old Vine Pinot Noir ($40) with wild berries, violets, great acid, subtle minerality and a brilliant, long finish. A showstopper in my book; the wine possessed tannins substantial enough to benefit from a little age, but to enjoy a bottle now would certainly be no crime. Patricia Green’s wines are consistently lovely and, if I had generous disposable income, I probably would have been right there alongside the others loading cases into my expensive car to take home and age in the temperature-controlled cellar. But, sadly I don’t… so feeling a bit like I was on The Walk of Shame, I left the winery escorting a lonely bottle of Old Vine Pinot Noir back to my practical Jeep instead… making my own small tribute to Patricia Green and the strength it took her to walk away.

We all know breaking up is hard to do. And in the professional setting, it can be that much harder. Patty’s tumultuous relationship with Torii Mor is one example of some of the unseen and unspoken challenges of working in the “glamorous” wine industry, and how ultimately to make it work to your benefit. Wineries are often small Mom-and-Pop shops, run by very passionate people (often families) with little room and even less stability for outsiders. People can easily become commodities and are far too easily replaceable (the line goes clear around the block, believe me!). Personally and unfortunately, I’ve been witness to and victim of some very unethical treatment in this industry and it’s probably for that reason I hold Patty in even higher regard, admiring her for taking a risk, believing in herself as a winemaker and stepping out on her own—may she serve as a model to us all. As if a message from the wine goddess, I happened to notice the bumper sticker on the car next to me— “Nullum Vinum Flaccidum” —and took note (and a photo) as I reminder to look up later. I learned the expression is Latin for “No Wimpy Wines;” almost poetically appropriate, no? Here’s to strength! Until we sip again…


Friday, February 12, 2010

Getting Intimate with The Winemakers

When three strong women winemakers join forces for a night to show their private label, very limited production wines, people come out of the woodwork. Such was the case this past Tuesday at Alu Wine Bar in Portland, Oregon, where the crowd was thick with those eager to taste wines from Kelley Fox Wines, Ghost Hill Cellars and 1789 and steal a few moments with each of these impressive women.

Kelley Fox of Kelley Fox Wines was pouring her 2007 Momtazi Vineyard Pinot Noir, which sells for $40 retail. Kelley has been making wines for the past decade, most recently with Scott Paul Wines in Carlton, Oregon. In 2007, she purchased fruit from famed Maresh and Momtazi Vineyards to craft Pinot Noir under her own label, producing 100 to 500 cases annually.

Kelley Fox Wine’s 2007 Momtazi Vineyard Pinot Noir was very light, elegant and seemingly delicate in structure. Bright acids were complemented by moderate alcohol in this thin and almost translucent wine. The flavors were well integrated, with cranberries, black cherries, graham and violets composing the primary profile. This wine was classic Burgundian in style, restrained with a genuine expression of fruit and a tribute to minimalistic winemaking techniques. In a word… exquisite.

Next up was Rebecca Pittock-Shouldis of Ghost Hill Cellars with her version of 2007 Pinot Noir. When not making wine for Ghost Hill Cellars, Rebecca also manages the Trappist Abbey Wine Warehouse, is co-founder of Northwest Wines to You and is a Staff Sergeant in the Oregon Air National Guard… unlike a French wine bottle, you won’t see dust settling on her. Ghost Hill Cellar’s name commemorates a spirit from the Gold Rush period who’s said to still roam the land searching for his lost gold. The 2007 vintage (retailing for $38) was produced using grapes from the Bayliss-Bower Estate Vineyard. The wine possessed more intensity than Kelley’s, with darker fruit characteristics, including juicy plums, sweet blackberries and even some currants. This wine seemed to have a higher alcohol level, indicated very ripe fruit, and I detected both earthy and mineral qualities, softened and balanced by a feminine fragrance of rose petals. A deliciously drinkable wine.

The last woman standing was Isabelle Dutartre of 1789 showing her 2007 Pinot Noir from Eastburn Vineyard on Parrett Mountain, east of Newberg. Isabelle has a long history of winemaking in France and the United States, and since 2001, she’s been busy creating the wines for De Ponte Cellars in the prestigious Red Hills of Dundee. The name 1789 is a tribute to Isabelle’s French nationality, referencing the date of the French Revolution, and she said it also reflects her own personal revolution as well. The 2007 1789 Pinot Noir (at $48) was as powerful and graceful as an Olympic gymnast. It was slightly jammy with red raspberries and cherries while layers of Vanilla Coke and truffles came through adding thought-provoking complexity. I enjoyed the broad, velvety mouth as the acids and tannins, in perfect balance, competed for space on my tongue.

Opportunities to explore wines from extremely small producers like these are a rare and special treat; Alu did a fantastic job showcasing them. Alu provided a chic yet friendly tasting space, cozied up with a warm fireplace, low wood ceilings and rustic brick walls. The wines were properly ordered from light to heavy and low to high acid/alcohol, allowing the beauty of each to be revealed without taking anything away from the next. Check out your local wine bars for special winemaker events like these. Besides tasting extraordinary wines not widely available, you get the chance to mingle intimately with the winemakers, gaining a greater understanding of and further appreciation for the wine that filled your glass. Until we sip again…


Photo by Robert Canaga of Oregon Wine and Music Project

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Five Great Reasons to Celebrate with Zenith Pinot Noir

What could Oregon Pinot noir, redneck ski resorts and Washington State possibly have in common? They all came together in perfect harmony to become part of my epic day.

When Zenith Vineyard’s owner Tim Ramey gave me a bottle of his Zenith 2007 Barrel Select Pinot Noir as a gift, hoping to hear my thoughts back on his wine, I put the wine away… waiting for just the right occasion to open it. With plans for a weekend get-away to Washington, I sensed a moment in the making, and like the Travelocity gnome, I brought that bottle of Zenith with me from my home, to my in-laws, to the ski mountain, to the hotel and then to the restaurant, where it finally arrived at its final resting place on my dinner table. I’ll tell you what I thought of the wine, but first let me back up just enough to explain how I ended up beyond my jurisdiction in Eastern Washington… the land of Merlot, Syrah and Bordeaux-style blends celebrating with Oregon Pinot noir.

Headed off for a day’s skiing at Ski Bluewood, my husband Hunter was pulled over for speeding but then thankfully let off with a warning. Reason to celebrate Number One.

We arrive at Ski Bluewood (located 30ish miles from Walla Walla) and I was a little surprised to find it even smaller than my husband implied or remembered. There was basically one noisy, low-speed triple chair lift (quite possibly hand-cranked)… 15 minutes up the mountain, 3 minutes down. If I had to put a label on the place (and I guess I do), I’d call it a beginner’s hick mountain. The crowd consisted mostly of very loud and sometimes obnoxious, novice skiers. But, not a lift line was to be had at the single lift. Ski Bluewood was not the glitz and glamour capital of the ski world, and it didn’t have much vertical drop, but it did have some nice variation (groomed cruisers, ungroomed trees and gullies with lots of jumps that I didn’t take because I’m not 20 anymore) and who could complain about a day in the sun carving pretty turns in soft powdery fluff. Reason to celebrate Number Two.

Following our day on the slopes, Hunter and I checked into our suite at the historic Weinhard’s Bed & Breakfast in Dayton, Washington and popped open a bottle of very lush 2004 Ponzi Pinot Noir Reserve. Though I left the land of Pinot noir miles behind, somehow several bottles of Oregon Pinot still found their way onto my bags. What can I say? I don’t travel light. We soaked away the day’s aches and pains in the whirlpool tub before heading over to the local legend, Patit Creek to fill the empty void in our starving bellies. Reason to celebrate Number Three.

The Patit Creek was founded 32 years ago by husband-and-wife-team Bruce and Heather Hiebert and has gained a reputation for consistent, high quality, classic French cuisine… it didn’t disappoint. Phillip, our charismatic city-boy-come-rural waiter, asked me if I stole my shoes from their bathroom. Very confused and highly intrigued, I had to check out the ladies room and see what he was talking about. Mutual good taste and a penchant for hot shoes is what I discovered… reason to celebrate Number Four.

We started off our very decadent dinner with chevre-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon. The fat and savory qualities played beautifully against the substantial and mouth filling acids in the wine… a match made in heaven. The wine had a broad bouquet of cherry, strawberry and truffle, while the red fruit persisted in the glass with flavors of tart cranberry, raspberry and a subtle spicy and smoky charm. It was well structured, with light-to-medium viscosity and was an excellent pairing with Hunter’s filet, (though my lobster in citrus sauce would have been better suited with a good Chenin Blanc or Chardonnay). We toasted to a day of fulfillment and restoration and reveled in how wonderful a little time away from the kid can be. Reason to celebrate Number Five.

I believe wine should both heighten the meal and elevate the experience, and in this case, the Zenith Pinot Noir did both of those things. Even better though, is how this bottle of wine became a magical part of an idyllic outing. I’m not into numerology, but maybe, it’s all about the numbers or how it all ads up. After all, I had five very good reasons for celebrating, two glasses of fine Oregon wine with one first-rate meal, four sexy shoes, 24 hours away from our child, 99 photos and endless memories of a perfect day in Eastern Washington.You do the math.

If you have a bottle of wine you’d like me to experience, contact me for mailing address and please send it along; I’m always happy to share my honest impressions. Until we sip again…


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

How a Jewish Girl Embarrasses Herself in Church

In response to The Wine Whore’s February 2010 Wine Wednesday Twitter Challenge: My Most Embarrassing Wine Moment. Follow The Wine Whore's Randy Watson on Twitter @TheWineWhore

As I sift through the fodder of my life, I could find many uncomfortable wine moments to share, but can also pluck the very most embarrassing from my feathery brain with the greatest of ease. It came long before I was ever even legal drinking age… and actually didn’t involve getting drunk at all, or puking. In fact, my most embarrassing wine moment occurred in Catholic Church!

Picture me, all alone in my pew, a nice Jewish girl, attending my Catholic bff’s confirmation ceremony and my first ever Sunday morning Mass. A magical moment occurred in the mysterious service and like a well-rehearsed, choreographed dance, I watched everyone rise in unison, forming a line in front of the priest. Not wanting to be left sitting there alone, I got up too. Entranced, as I waited my turn for the treasure the robed man was about to bestow upon me, I didn’t notice my friend’s family frantically waving me back, desperately trying to warn me to get out of line. Mesmerized by the moment, I hypnotically watched the others in line before me make strange motions with their arms, moving them rhythmically across their bodies. When it was my turn in front of the priest, I tried to mimic those gestures (I didn’t want to look stupid) and the priest said something about the blood and the body of Christ… but I didn’t hear him. Simultaneously, I saw his hands coming at me with food and, like a hungry baby bird, I reflexively opened my mouth to receive a very dry wafer on my parched tongue. Then I was handed a tiny cup of wine, which was great, because I was really thirsty and all I really needed was something to wash down that tasteless cracker (endless cookies and wine at Temple were so much better!). After finding my way back to my seat, I noticed the glaring eyes I was receiving from my friend’s family (and the snickers from her brothers) and realized I must done something terribly wrong, but I still didn’t know what embarrassment awaited me.

After the service, the large extended family (and I) set off for TGI Fridays to celebrate my friend… and apparently humiliate me some more. As if I wasn’t embarrassed enough already; a rather boisterous conversation ensued (loud enough for the whole restaurant AND the bank next door to hear) about whether the priest needed to be contacted and a special prayer said for the JEWISH girl who accidently (and rather embarrassingly now) ate the body of Christ and then symbolically drank his blood in wine. Completely mortified, and feeling like the Jew who killed Jesus, I wished I could have hid under my order of stuffed potato skins. It might have scared me off wine completely—if not for all those Passover Manishevitz drunkfests to come! Who would have thought, Manishevitz to the rescue? (Admitting I once drank Manishevitz… perhaps my next most embarrassing wine moment.)