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Category Archives: Healdsburg

Spicy Lamb & Sweet, Sweet Zinfandel

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I spotted a non-holiday recipe in the Thanksgiving issue of Bon Appetit last week that made my mouth water: Lamb Patties with Nutty Garlic Sauce. First of all, I love anything with lamb, and especially on a pita. Secondly, I already had on hand nearly all of the ingredients in the recipe, making it the perfect quick weeknight meal for me and my new foodie friend, who shall be known as KJ from this point forth. Best of all, it was healthy and delicious!

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Spiced Lamb Patties with Nutty Garlic Sauce (serves 4)

  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • ¼ cup almond butter
  • 4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, dividedcabbage salad
  • tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • kosher salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 pound ground lamb
  • ½ medium onion, finely chopped
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
  • ½ teaspoon dried oregano
  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • cooking spray
  • ½ small head of red cabbage, thinly sliced
  • ½ cup thinly sliced English cucumber
  • radishes, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup crumbled feta
  • 1/2 tsp paprika
  • 4 pita breads
  • Fresh mint for serving

To prepare nutty garlic sauce, chop garlic in a mini food processor. Add almond butter and 2 TB lemon juice and process to combine, then add 2 TB oil in a slow, steady stream while the motor is running. Season with salt and pepper, then set aside.

In a large mixing bowl combine lamb, onion, parsley, oregano, cumin, salt, pepper and 1 TB oil. Mix with your hands, then form into small slider-sized patties. Heat a large non-stick pan over a medium-high flame and coat with cooking spray. Cook patties for 4 minutes per side, then transfer a wire-rack set inside a rimmed baking sheet (or a paper-towel covered plate) to drain excess oil; let rest for 5 minutes.

lamb meatballs

Meanwhile, combine cabbage, cucumber, radish, feta, 2 TB lemon juice, paprika, salt and pepper in a medium bowl. Add 1 TB oil then toss to combine.

Serve lamb patties on pita bread, then top with cabbage salad, sauce and fresh mint.

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At my request, KJ brought over a bottle of Zin – specifically the 2012 Ridge Ponzo Zinfandel. I tasted this wine only a few days earlier when we visited the Ridge tasting room in Lytton Springs, so although it’s a relatively young wine I was sure that it is drinking well now. Not only did it taste delicious but it went perfectly with the spicy lamb dish. With flavors of blackberry and spiced vanilla on the nose, the palate highlighted notes of pomegranate and dark cherry, with a long, smooth finish. These elements provided the perfect fruity balance to the nuttiness of the meal, and complemented the sweetness of the cabbage salad.

All in the Family

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As some of you know, I tend to gravitate towards small production, family-owned wineries. There are several reasons for this preference: a) small production lends to a higher standard for quality control, b) privacy makes for a more personal visitor’s experience, and c) the sense of authenticity that you feel when each member of the family is doing their part for the winery. I’m constantly seeking out wineries that fit into this category, and some areas of Northern California wine country are more plentiful than others in this regard. For example, Russian River Valley and Dry Creek Valley provide many opportunities to go off the beaten path, whereas you need to dig a little deeper in Napa Valley. Perhaps this is due to the cost of land, or simply the way the history of wineries has evolved in different areas. I’m hesitant to share my list of favorites with the blogosphere if only so that these places can maintain their low-key status, but I’ve vowed to support these little wineries in every way that I can. So here are just a few of my recommendations from my two favorite Sonoma County appellations.

Dry Creek Valley

A. Rafanelli – I’d been hearing about this place for the last year or so, when GGD mentioned that a former co-worker was part of the Rafanelli family. Then when I was in Dry Creek with my parents in February, they saw a sign for the winery and we tried to go, but could not get an appointment at such late notice. So this was one of the first appointments I made when I planned my recent trip to Healdsburg with GGD, Starry and J³. Not only did we get to meet Shelly, the fourth-generation winemaker, but also her father, David, who coined himself the “winemaker emeritus”. It was his grandmother that started the winery with her husband, Alberto Rafanelli, in the early 1900’s when they settled from Italy. After prohibition, their son Americo (David’s father) took on the winemaking duties and moved the winery to where it is today, planting Zinfandel and beginning to sell the wine commercially in the 1970’s. The winery is very private, with a gate code that is given to you upon making an appointment. And it’s no wonder because Shelly lives on the property with her husband and four-year-old son. During our visit they did not have many wines available to taste because most were sold out, but we did get to sample a delicious Cabernet and their upcoming Zinfandel that had just been bottled. Our host, Bob also gave us a tour of the facility and the wine caves, including their event room where Shelly’s son had constructed his own mini vineyard made of wine corks and plastic play trucks – indeed, it runs in the family.

The mini vineyard, built by Shelly's son

The mini A. Rafanelli vineyard, built by Shelly’s son

The wall of family photos at A. Rafaenelli

The wall of family photos at A. Rafaenelli

Preston of Dry Creek – This is a new favorite of mine, and I have a feeling it will continue to be for a long time (especially since my father is a new wine club member). Preston focuses on estate grown Rhone varietals, sustainability and farming. They even make their own olive oil and bread that is available for sampling (and purchase) in the tasting room. The property features beautiful picnic grounds, farm animals, artwork, and some very friendly outdoor cats. The tasting room is brightly colored and artfully decorated with a long bar, usually staffed with 3-4 people, all of whom do a great job providing attention and friendliness during your experience, even when the tasting room gets crowded on the weekends. All of these elements make it a great place to spend the afternoon, but it’s the wine that keeps bringing me back. Their list changes frequently based on what is available, but be sure to sample their Vin Gris (if it’s not already sold out), Rousanne, Grenache Blanc and Madame Preston of the white varietals. As for the reds, my favorites are the Cinsaut, Barbera, Carignan and L. Preston. It’s certainly a nice change of pace to sample such unique varietals in the midst of the more common Cabernet, Zinfandel and Pinot Noir that are abundant in this area.

The Preston tasting room

The Preston tasting room

A selection of Preston wines

A selection of Preston wines

Nalle – Open by appointment only during the week, and to the public on Saturdays, Nalle produces small-lot Chardonnay and Zinfandel. The land has been in the family since the late 1920’s, and is the winery is run by husband and wife duo, Doug and Lee Nalle along with their son and winemaker, Andrew – all of whom live on the property. I have only been to the tasting room when it was open to the public, but I imagine a private appointment is a more personal experience. That being said, I did get to talk with Andrew and Lee during my visit, both of whom were very friendly and informative about the history of the winery and the land surrounding them. The atmosphere is casual and rustic; the wines are served inside a converted barn with a living roof, at a long card table covered with a colorful table cloth, and cases piled up in the backdrop amongst an old basketball hoop mounted on the back wall. As for the wines, I particularly enjoy their Reserve Chardonnay and Vinum Clarum.

 

Russian River Valley

Scherrer Winery – It was J³ that introduced me to this winery when we attended the Spring Release Party. You would hardly know this place existed if it wasn’t for Google maps, and even they can point you in the wrong direction if you’re not careful. The warehouse space is located at the end of a dirt road off of Ross Station Road in Forestville (the same road that takes you to Iron Horse). On the day we went – probably because there was an event – there was a sign directing us to parking and entrance around the back of the warehouse, though J³ said this wasn’t there the last time they visited. Scherrer typically does tastings by appointment only, hosted by the winemaker, Fred. But they also host four release parties a year, where guests get to sample new wines, tasty bites, and mingle with the family. Fred’s father, Ed was hopping back and forth between two pouring stations of Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, while Fred’s wife handled all the administrative duties. I believe their teenage son was helping with packaging the wines that guests purchased, while Fred’s mother was showing and selling beautiful watercolor paintings and cards. Not only do I love how family-oriented this operation is, but also that Fred and Ed both make themselves so accessible to guests. As Fred tells it on their website, he is at the winery every day doing nearly all of the work, with some help from friends and family here and there. And it certainly pays off! Their wines are elegant and true to form; particularly delicious are the Helfer Vineyard Chardonnay, King Family Vineyard Pinot Noir, Old and Mature Zinfandel, and Scherrer Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. The experience at Scherrer is warm and authentic, and I am so happy to add them to my list of favorites.

Ed and Fred taking a break to pose for a family photo

Ed and Fred Scherrer taking a break to pose for a family photo

Joseph Swan – My father introduced me to this winery many years ago when I first moved to the Bay Area. I remember being the only ones in the barrel room (also acting as tasting room) on a Spring Saturday morning. Fruit flies floated around us while we tasted multiple consecutive vintages of Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Syrah. Although their wines are some of the best in the valley, there are no pretentious vibes or fancy frills here – just real good wine served by real friendly people. As Joseph Swan said it himself, “there are few more Civilized pleasures in life then good company, good food and good wine.” When he began this winery, he believed passionately that small wineries were the best kind of wineries. Since the wine carried his own name, he insisted on overseeing every aspect of fermentation to bottling, and considered himself personally responsible for every aspect of production. As a pioneer of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, he paved the way for the current winemaker and co-owner, Rod Berglund, who is married to Joe’s daughter and co-owner, Lynn. When visiting the winery, it’s likely that you will get to sample an older vintage of Syrah or Zinfandel, and you will taste the depth of ageability that comes from small crops and persistent care.

Their logo is taken from a Thomas Bewick engraving

The Joseph Swan logo is taken from a Thomas Bewick engraving

Porter Creek – Last but not least, Porter Creek is ultimately my favorite winery in Russian River Valley. Whether it’s the friendly conversation with Jonathan (a fixture in the tasting room), the excellent and affordable Pinot Noir and Carignan that I can’t seem to get enough of, the outdoor deck where the sun is always shining, the award-wining chicken coop that’s tended to by the owner’s granddaughters… how can you not love this place? The winery is run by father and son, George and Alex Davis. George started the winery back in 1977 and handed the reins over to Alex twenty years later. Committed to the growing conditions in Russian River Valley, Porter Creek focuses on hillside grown, vineyard designated wines of Burgundian and Rhone varietals. Their Estate Pinot Noir is, to me, the best valued Pinot in Russian River Valley, and their Carignan is available at several restaurants and wine bars in San Francisco, which is convenient for my palate. Fortunately, they do not require an appointment for small groups, so you can pop in the next time you’re driving down Westside Road. Tell Jonathan I say hi.

The tasting room at Porter Creek

The tasting room at Porter Creek

So there you have it. Some of you serious wine collectors may have heard of a few of these places, and I encourage you to visit them the next time you’re in the area. Bring some new friends, especially if they like small wineries as much as you and I. I’ve intentionally left a few other favorites off this list, but I would be thrilled if you posted some of your favorite family-owned Northern California wineries in the comments section. And soon enough, I’ll let you in on some of my favorite Napa Valley hidden gems. Until then, keep supporting the small guys!

 

Slow Cooking Solution

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This past weekend was, in a word, magical. Six months ago I booked a stay at the VML Cottage in Healdsburg; staying at the vineyard in this cozy cottage is one of the many perks that come with being an original member at VML Winery (they no longer offer this perk to new members). Naturally, I invited three of my favorite wine-loving ladies – GGD, Starry and J³ – and planned a blissful weekend of wine tasting. On Saturday we visited A. Rafanelli, Preston Vineyards, Truett Hurst, Portalupi, and attended the MacPhail release party before finishing off the day sipping Rose on our porch at VML. On Sunday we drove South and tasted at Copain, Scherrer, Marimar and Red Car. There were many highlights of the weekend, and I was especially excited to check out some wineries I had not been to before (namely, Scherrer and Red Car). Stay tuned for reviews on these fine wineries…

Dusk at VML

Dusk at VML

We knew we wouldn’t want to go out to eat after a day of hopping between tasting rooms, and we wanted to take advantage of our prime accommodation. And while the cottage was clean and cozy, the kitchenette was not the ideal venue for cooking a big post wine-tasting meal. So at the suggestion of the VML staff, I brought my slow-cooker and set it up before we headed out on Saturday. By the time we got back to VML, the aroma of slow cooked pork was wafting through the cottage. I even did some homemade vegetable pickling last week, and brought those up to go with the tacos. I also made a zucchini and herb salad and GGD made a mango-avocado salsa. With some gourmet tortillas, chopped cilantro and crumbled Cotija cheese, we were good to go! And I must say, it turned out to be quite the epic feast.

Quick Pickled Vegetables 

  • 2 jalapeños, sliced crosswise
  • 1 large carrot, peeled, sliced lengthwise, and cut into 3 inch pieces
  • 4 radishes, thinly sliced
  • 1 TB brown mustard seeds
  • 1 tsp whole black peppercorns
  • 1/2 cup cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup champagne vinegar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 TB kosher salt

Pack the vegetables in a glass jar fit with a sealed top (I did the jalapeños in a separate jar from the radishes and carrots so as not to get everything too spicy), leaving about 1 inch of room or more at the top. To make the brine, toast the mustard seed and peppercorns in a small saucepan over medium heat for about two minutes. Add the remaining ingredients and stir until the sugar and salt have dissolved, and bring to a boil. Immediately pour the brine into the jars, making sure to cover the vegetables completely. Allow the mixture to cool to room temperature, about 1 hour. Seal the jar with a tight fitting lid and shake to evenly distribute the brine and spices. Store in the refrigerator for at least 1 day and up to 1 week before using. The pickled veggies can be kept in the fridge for up to 1 month.

Zucchini and Herb Salad (serves 4)

  • 2 zucchini, thinly sliced lengthwise with a mandoline
  • 1 head frisee lettuce
  • 1 head radicchio
  • 1/4 cup loosely packed basil leaves, coarsely chopped
  • 1/4 cup loosely packed mint leaves, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced with a mandoline
  • zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 TB Dijon mustard
  • 1 tsp anchovy paste
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 TB olive oil

Sprinkle zucchini evenly with salt and place in a small colander in the sink for about 5 minutes. Rinse the zucchini under cold water and lay out on a clean dishtowel. Carefully fold the towel over the zucchini and roll to squeeze out the excess water and let sit. In a small food processor, combine lemon zest, lemon juice, Dijon, anchovy paste and black pepper. Process to combine, and add oil in a slow, steady stream. Assemble the frisee, radicchio, herbs, and onion with the zucchini. Toss with dressing right before serving.

tacos

Mango-Avocado Salsa (makes 2 cups)

  • 2 manilla mangos, peeled and cubed
  • 2 avocados, chopped
  • juice of 2 limes
  • salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and toss to combine.

Slow-Cooked Pork Tacos (serves 4-6)

  • 3 garlic cloves, unpeeled
  • 1 whole pasilla or poblano chile pepper
  • 2 whole Anaheim chile peppers
  • 1 whole serrano chile pepper
  • 3 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
  • 1/2 medium white onion, roughly chopped
  • 3 TB extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 TB honey
  • 1 TB Champagne vinegar or cider vinegar
  • 1 TB kosher salt
  • 2 tsp dried oregano
  • 3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 2 bay leaves
  • pinch of cinnamon
  • 3 lbs boneless pork shoulder (untrimmed), cut into a few chunks
  • freshly ground pepper and salt

Since I wasn’t sure what the VML Cottage kitchenette would be supplied with, I made the sauce for the pork at home in San Francisco and brought it up to Healdsburg with all the other groceries (now that I mention it, I also pre-made the salad dressing and brought my mandoline with me… high maintenance chef? Maybe). Not only did this make the process a lot easier, but I think letting the sauce sit for a day really helped to meld the flavors.

In a small microwave-safe bowl, add the garlic and whole peppers with 2 TB of water. Microwave on high for 2.5 minutes. Peel the garlic. Remove the stems from the peppers and slice down the middle. Run under cold water to cool, removing the seeds, then chop into 1 inch pieces. Transfer the garlic and peppers to a food processor fit with a steel blade. Add the chipotles, onion, 2 TB olive oil, honey, vinegar, 1 TB salt, and oregano to the food processor and puree until smooth.

Heat the remaining 1 TB of oil in a large, deep skillet over high heat. Add the sauce and fry, stirring, until thick and fragrant – about 8 minutes. Pour in the chicken broth and reduce until slightly thickened. Add the bay leaves and cinnamon and stir to combine. Transfer to a large container and store in the fridge until ready to cook the pork.

Season the pork all over with salt and pepper, then transfer to a large slow-cooker. Pour in the sauce, then cover and cook on high for 5 hours. The meat can sit and stay warmed for up to 3 hours after that. When ready to serve, shred the pork with two forks. Serve with corn and flour tortillas, pickled veggies, mango-avocado salsa, Cotija cheese and any other toppings you desire!

I have to say, this is the best slow-cooker meal I have ever made – but I must give credit where credit is due. The recipe for the pork was adapted from Food Network, and the pickling recipe came from CHOW. I only made a few changes, mostly due to what ingredients were available to me. The pork was tender, spicy and so flavorful, and the pickled vegetables made the perfect topping, providing just the right amount of crunch to the soft tacos. The zucchini salad made for a refreshing and delicious green side dish, and is one of my favorite spring salads. The girls and I agreed that it was the perfect meal on top of a perfect day.

cheers

We paired the tacos with a selection of Chardonnay, Rose and Pinot Noir: Cuvaison 2012 Vin Gris of Pinot Noir, Trefethen 2012 S.I.N. Rose of Pinot Noir, Porter Bass 2012 Estate Chardonnay, and VML 2012 Floodgate Pinot Noir – all of which were brought with us to the cottage, with the exception of the VML Pinot Noir. All of the choices paired excellently with the spicy tacos, but obviously I preferred the pink wines. After dinner, we took a sunset walk around the vineyard and promptly went to bed – preparing our minds and bodies for another day of glorious wine tasting in the Russian River Valley. Life is good.

The Ultimate Ridge Experience

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There’s no doubt that one of my father’s favorite wineries is Ridge Vineyards. Since I can remember, I’ve seen the all-too-familiar rows of block lettering on the countless bottles of Ridge he has served at dinners past. For his 60th birthday last year, my family gifted him 6 bottles of 1995 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon in the original wooden crate (purchased through a collectors sale on Invino), and I’ve never seen him more excited. And I’ve certainly heard him proclaim more than once that he “has had over 500 bottles of Ridge in the last 30 years and never had one bottle that was corked.” To my father, this is one of the highest forms of complimenting in the wine world, and he was sure to mention it (at least twice) to the staff at Ridge during our epic visit last month.

My father waiting for the Ridge gates to open (we were a little early to our appointment).

My father waiting for the Ridge gates to open (we were a little early to our appointment).

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My father is not typically one to enjoy tours during visits to wine country, but when I mentioned that Ridge offered an Estate Tour and Tasting (including their legendary Monte Bello) at their Lytton Springs Estate in Healdsburg, he agreed that it would be worth it. And, was it ever!

Side view of the Lytton Springs Visitor Center

Side view of the Lytton Springs Visitor Center

We visited on a Friday in February when the winery wasn’t too crowded, and luckily we were able to have a private tour and tasting with David (which usually accommodates up to 10 people). He took us on a guided golf-cart tour of the estate, driving through gnarly rows of old-vine Zinfandel, and circling around various ponds and hilltops. David not only explained the history of the Ridge winery and its vineyards, but also gave us an overall history on the geography of Northern California, and what makes Lytton Springs so special for growing Zinfandel. But before I get into that, let me tell you how it all began…

In 1885 San Francisco Doctor, Osea Perrone bought 180 acres on Monte Bello Ridge in the Santa Cruz Mountains – now one of the most highly regarded wine growing regions in Northern California. After planting some vineyards and contracting the winery at Monte Bello, the vineyards were abandoned during the prohibition era. It wasn’t until 1949 when William Short replanted the Cabernet Sauvignon on Monte Bello, as well as first time plots of Chardonnay. Ten years later, three scientists from Stanford University’s Research Institute purchased the property from Short and made a small amount of wine from the ten year old Cabernet vines. In 1962 they formed a partnership that became Ridge Vineyards and began to produce wines for commercial sale. In 1969, Paul Draper joined Ridge as their winemaker, and it was his 1971 Monte Bello that won fifth place among French and California wines at the 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting. Thirty years later, there was a “Judgement of Paris 30th Anniversary Wine Tasting” in London and California, and the Ridge 1971 and 2000 Monte Bello won first place in both the original vintage wine and new vintage wine categories.

A poster in the tasting room, describing the results of the Judgement of Paris

A poster in the tasting room, describing the results of the Judgement of Paris

While Ridge is primarily known for their Monte Bello property, Lytton Springs is much easier to get to and also has quite a bit of history. The winery was purchased in 1991, along with the old vineyards surrounding it, and expanded to the western portion of Lytton Springs in 1995 when they purchased more land. In 2004 Ridge completed construction of the new winery and tasting room at Lytton Springs with a focus on sustainability and the production of Zinfandel. The 100+ year old Zinfandel vines that cover the hills of Lytton Springs thrive because the foggy mornings are balanced by warm, sunny afternoons and breezy late evenings. The soils are made up of gravelly clay, providing moisture retention and ensuring that the grapes ripen at a slower pace. In essence, it’s a wine growing area with perfect balance, which is made even more balanced by the foundation of their sustainability practices.

Old Zinfandel vines of Lytton Springs

Old Zinfandel vines of Lytton Springs

After our exciting and information-packed tour with David, he took us up to a private tasting area in their winemaking facility. We tasted side-by-side pours of 2009 Mazzoni, 2011 Geyserville and 2011 Lytton Springs Zinfandel, as well as the 2010 Perrone Merlot and 2010 Monte Bello Cabernet. Included in the tasting was a plate of cheese, spiced almonds and bread, as well as a water glass, dump cup, note cards on the wines, and a blank chart and pen for us to make our own notes. I’ve been to other tastings like this – where expensive, upscale wines are poured side by side in an intimate setting – but this one was different. There was no ostentatiousness or stuffiness, but rather an air of intrigue and enthusiasm; this can mostly be credited to David’s laid-back personality and unpretentious knowledge of Ridge Vineyards.

As for the wines… well, they were spectacular. David told us that all the wines had incredible aging potential, but they tasted pretty great in the moment (he opened them about three hours before we tasted). Of the Zinfandels, my favorites were the Geyserville and Lytton Springs. The Geyserville was very elegant with rich fruit flavors, while the Lytton Springs was a little more complex with notes of licorice and olives. The Perrone Merlot was very good, and it was interesting to compare it to the Zinfandels and the Monte Bello. The Merlot had bright cherry fruit with a good balance of acid and oak, and was very pleasing to the palate. My father’s notes simply read, “AWESOME!!!”. He noticed right away when he smelled the Monte Bello that it was blended with the Perrone Merlot, which was confirmed by David. The Monte Bello was of course the highlight of the tasting, and we went a little nuts over it. It’s hard to say what makes this wine so special, but I think Antonio Galloni puts it best when he says,“dramatic and towering in style.”

tasting setting

After we finished off the last sips of our glorious Monte Bello, David led us back downstairs to the main tasting room where he poured us some samples of other current releases, including the Carignane and Syrah. The assistant winemaker popped his head out to pour a blind taste of something he was currently bottling. I’m ashamed to say that I was a little clueless, but my father immediately guessed that it was the Petite Sirah; and in fact, it was the 2012 Lytton Estate Petite Sirah. I guess I have a lot to live up to when it comes to blind tasting!

If you’re planning a trip to Russian River Valley or Dry Creek Valley, I highly encourage you to schedule a tour and tasting at Ridge Vineyards. Even if you decide to skip the tour, be sure to stop in for a tasting – though, I think David’s tour really enhances the overall experience and is totally worth the money considering the cost of the wines that you’re tasting. Our experience lasted a total of 2 hours and 15 minutes, which runs a little over the usual 90 minutes, but time flies when you’re tasting great wines with even greater people.

MacPhail Knows Pinot

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One of my favorite visits during the Morrison Family Wine Weekend was to a spot I hadn’t been to before, but came highly recommended to me by the folks at Barrique (perhaps because their brother is assistant winemaker William Weese). MacPhail Family Wines is tucked back along a dirt road off of Westside Road in Healdsburg, and they host groups of up to 12 people by appointment only for $20 per person.

MacPhail

My parents and I had a 1pm appointment but were running a little late because our tasting and tour at Ridge went over two hours (no complaints!). I called Lauren in the tasting room to let her know we were running a bit behind schedule, and she nicely said it was not a problem and she would see us soon. (Take note, dear readers. If you’re going to be running late to an appointment, even just 10 minutes, always call in advance to let them know.)

mom and dog

My mom was thrilled to see a winery dog on the premise when we arrived – a friendly Bernese mountain dog named Zuni. As my mom played with the dog and my father looked at the wines, the tasting room manager showed me the plans for the new tasting room at The Barlow in Sebastopol. After a few minutes, Lauren led us over to the tasting table, surrounded by fermentation tanks and barrels of wine.

Tasting room plans for Sebastopol.

Tasting room plans for Sebastopol.

We started off with the 2012 Gap’s Crown Vineyard Chardonnay from Sonoma Coast, a creamy yet fruitful wine with hints of honey and green apple – a great balance of oak and fruit.  Next was their 2012 Rose of Pinot Noir from Sonoma Coast, which was simply sublime. The strawberry fruit flavors mingled with the acid perfectly, making for a dry Rose that would go perfectly with spicy Asian food – or by itself! Immediately my parents suggested buying three bottles – two to be paired with our Saturday night dinner at B*Star, and one for keeps. They’ve since moved on to their 2013 vintage, and I can imagine it will taste just as amazing!

rose

Onto the reds… Lauren poured us four side-by-side glasses of a selection of their Pinot Noir: 2012 Wightman House Vineyard Anderson Valley, 2011 Dutton Ranch Russian River Valley2011 Gap’s Crown Sonoma Coast, , and 2011 Rita’s Crown Santa Rita Hills. All the wines were great, but my personal two favorites were the Dutton Ranch Russian River Valley and Rita’s Crown Santa Rita Hills. I loved the ripeness of the Dutton Ranch, while the Rita’s Crown was very unique with it’s flavors of cola, tart cherry and a bit of licorice.

Pinot Noir line up.

Pinot Noir line up.

Lauren served the wines left to right in the order above, which also happens to be from North to South in terms of the vineyard locations. This was a great way to taste through the wines because it really showcased the range of terroir that the winery is utilizing. For example, Russian River Valley is known for blackberry-like, ripe Pinot Noirs; in part due to the fog layer that blankets the valley, as well as the cool ocean breeze coming over the Sonoma Mountains. The Santa Rita Hills in the Santa Ynez Valley (Santa Barbara county) are also affected by fog and cool breeze, but the soil is more rocky and the elevation is higher so the wines that come from here have more layers and natural acidity.

MacPhail had several other Pinots from various vineyards in Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley, and even Oregon. We only tried the four, but I look forward to tasting some more of their excellent wines when their tasting room opens at The Barlow. Until then, be sure to make an appointment at their Healdsburg tasting room. This is a great small, family-owned winery and the customer service is exceptional – and so is the Pinot Noir!

A Slice of Italy in Healdsburg

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This past weekend was the annual Morrison Family Wine Weekend, which takes place every February somewhere North of San Francisco. Unfortunately my brother was not able to attend this trip, because he had some educational business to attend to. And while he was missed at all the fantastic meals and wineries, I had an incredible time with my parents in Sonoma – beginning with Thursday night at Campo Fina in downtown Healdsburg.

I didn’t make reservations anywhere for Thursday night, because I wasn’t sure what time my family would be getting up to Healdsburg. We stayed at Best Western Dry Creek Inn, which was about a four minute drive from Downtown Healdsburg. After a few glasses of Robert Sinskey’s Vin Gris in my parents Tuscan-inspired suite, we started researching dinner options. There was some debate over price range and cuisine style, but we eventually agreed to check out Campo Fina, a casual Italian pizza restaurant.

Wood burning brick pizza oven

Wood burning brick pizza oven

We arrived and decided to sit on the heated patio in the back of the restaurant, which also features a full-size bocce court that is open for anyone to use, including children. The pizza is made in a wood-fired brick oven that gets up to 800 degrees Fahrenheit. Although there are only 6 pizza options (including a special), they are prepared and cooked to perfection with the freshest ingredients.

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After starting off the night with a few Negroni’s (now my dad’s new favorite cocktail) and castelvetrano olives, we shared a dozen Beausoleil oysters and a large mixed green salad with ricotta salata and white balsamic vinaigrette. My dad then ordered a bottle of Sicilian Nero D’avola to go with our two pizzas: Pizza Campo and the special of the night, a white pizza with braised pork belly. The Pizza Campo had tomato, mozzarella, anchovy, garlic, chili flake, chard, pine nuts, currants and red onions. Both of them were fantastic and so different from each other! The restaurant also served a homemade chili oil that we drizzled over the pizzas – amazing.

Pizza with pork belly and kale.

Pizza with pork belly and greens

Campo Pizza

Pizza Campo

After dinner we took to the bocce court for a game, my mother and I versus my father (she is a beginner so I let her play with me). It was a close game, and we only played to 5 points, but my dad threw the winning shot. Luckily we were able to get on the court because the restaurant wasn’t too crowded on a Thursday night in February, but I’ll bet it gets a little crazy on the summer weekends.

photo 4

The food was delicious and just what we were looking for, but I was particularly fond of the inviting staff and enthusiastic pizza chefs. The atmosphere is warm and energetic with fast and friendly service. You definitely get a family vibe from the place, as also evidenced by several small children running around when we first got there.

I would certainly recommend this restaurant to anyone looking for a casual and fun place to dine in Healdsburg. It’s great for families, large groups or a bunch of friends looking to throw down on the bocce court.

The Other Hawkes

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It’s widely agreed that last night’s Super Bowl was perhaps the most boring football event in history. I was rooting for the Denver Broncos because the Seahawks beat out the San Francisco 49ers a couple weeks ago, but in all honesty I didn’t give a damn who won by the end of the first quarter – and it was pretty clear what the outcome was going to be by the end of the third. So congrats to all my Seahawks-loving friends, but today I would like to tell you about another kind of Hawkes.

In the last month a few different people have mentioned this not-so-new winery to me called Hawkes. Eventually, and after much anticipation, I decided to check out their Sonoma tasting room last week (their winery and other tasting room is in Alexander Valley), and I was thoroughly impressed!

I showed up on a Tuesday afternoon, and lucky for me I was the only visitor during my 2-hour stay. Douglas, the tasting room manager and all-round awesome guy, walked me through the tasting and poured me samples of their exclusive 2012 Home Chardonnay, 2009 Alexander Valley Merlot, and 2009 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – as well as some tastes from the Barrel of their future cabs.

barrels

I looooved the Chardonnay. The wine is aged sur lie for about three months in Hungarian oak barrels (my favorite kind of oak). There is a good minerality and a certain brightness to this wine, which is somewhat unconventional for Chardonnay but is becoming more preferred by winemakers and consumers. They produce only 560 cases and sell it for a mere $20, so it’s no wonder they reserve it for club members only to purchase – it’s a good thing I know two members!

Next was the Merlot, another great wine and a perfect example of how to make excellent Merlot. As some of you may know, Merlot sales plummeted after being bashed by Paul Giamatti’s character in Sideways. But it wasn’t entirely the movie’s fault. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s everyone thought Merlot was going to be the next big-selling red wine because of it’s approachable flavor. So thousands of acres were planted, and unfortunately not in the best locations. In order to produce a complex Merlot, it needs to be grown in good, deep soil with the right amount of sun exposure and timely irrigation. The hillsides and bench lands of Napa Valley and Sonoma are ideal for growing and making great Merlot; such is the case with Hawkes 2009 Merlot from Alexander Valley. The vines are grown on their Red Winery Vineyard, originally planted in 1973. The soil is made of up various types, and the section where the Merlot grows is mostly clay. These conditions make the Merlot vines work a little harder, and thus produce an excellent wine with bright cherry fruit and undertones of baking spice. It was my only purchase of the visit, and I plan to hold onto the bottle for quite some time.

fruit fly trap

After I spent a little too much time savoring the Merlot and helping Douglas concoct a fruit fly trap, we moved onto the Cabernet collection. The first I tasted was the 2009 Alexander Valley Cab, a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon made from fruit of all three of the Hawkes estates: Pyramid, Stone and Red Winery. Aromas of dark plums and dust are followed by a slightly sweet palate of blackberries. This wine certainly has aging potential, but is also ready to drink right now. Douglas graciously poured me some Cabernet samples from their three barrels – one for each estate. The Pyramid was probably my favorite of the three, but each of them were quite unique and showed a lot of potential for future bottling.

map

I have to say, while the wine at Hawkes really stood out, it was my experience with Douglas that really made the visit memorable. His excitement about the wines, combined with his generosity, sense of humor, and general musings on life in the wine industry made him the perfect host. Plus, the convenient location of the tasting room (right off Sonoma Plaza, just next to Girl and the Fig), make the visit all the more seamless. Douglas even drew a little map for me, outlining all the best tasting rooms in the plaza. But because I spent way more time than I planned at Hawkes (no regrets), I will have to reserve his suggestions for another day. Until then, Go Hawkes!

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