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Category Archives: St. Helena

Gallo’s Jewel: Louis M. Martini

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There are lots of family-owned wineries in Napa; some of them are independent and some of them have been bought out by larger companies like Constellation. There is one wine family that has managed to scoop up some of the best vineyards in California, and has stayed family-owned for over 80 years: E.&J. Gallo.

Ernest and Julio Gallo started their winery in 1933, right on the heels of the Prohibition repeal. Self-taught and with a starting capital of only $6,000, the two brothers launched what would turn out to be the largest family-owned winery in the United States. Since their origin, they’ve purchased over 50 other successful brands, including Barefoot, Turning Leaf, Red Bicyclette and one of my favorites, Louis M. Martini.


Louis M. Martini was purchased by Gallo in 2002, but the winery’s history also goes back to 1933 when Louis built his winery in St. Helena and started purchasing vineyard land in Sonoma and Napa Valley. His most influential purchase was the Monte Rosso Vineyard in the Mayacama Mountains of Sonoma, which had Cabernet and Zinfandel vines dating back to 1890. Monte Rosso is among the most highly regarded grape growing sites in California, and the winery still produces Cabernet that was originally planted at this vineyard in 1938.

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I was lucky enough to sample some Monte Rosso Cabernet at Louis M. Martini a couple of weeks ago. Starry introduced me to her friend, Ben that works at the tasting room, and he set up a lovely private tasting and tour for myself and two friends. We were poured side by side tastes of the 2010 Cellar No. 254 Napa Valley Meritage, 2008 Monte Rosso Cabernet Sauvignon, and the 2011 Cellar No. 254 Petite Sirah along with a plate of cheese, almonds, olive oil and fresh bread. I loved all the wines, but the Monte Rosso Cabernet definitely stood out to me!


Ben led us to the entry hall of the winery where he gave us some history on the winery, and how Louis M. Martini became a staple winemaker in Napa Valley. There is a fantastic photo of Louis and his brother with other prominent early winemakers and business men of Napa, including the Christian Brothers, Freemark Abbey, Peter Krug, Robert Mondavi, and Fred Beringer (pictured above).

Ben poured us some brand new 2011 Monte Rosso Gnarly Vine Zinfandel (to be released this weekend), and we ventured down into the cellar. On display was an example of one of the gnarly vines, as well as an old school Italian meat slicer. After sampling some freshly sliced Finocchiona, Ben brought us back upstairs to finish off the tasting with their 2010 Monte Rosso Mountain Red and a little bit of Port. I loved the Mountain Red – very smooth with great dark berry flavors and a hint of spice. It is slightly more affordable than the Monte Rosso Cab, and almost as delicious – so my friend and I each bought a bottle.

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Ben provided an in depth and memorable experience for us at Louis M. Martini, and I would strongly suggest scheduling an elevated tasting at the winery during your next visit to St. Helena – with Ben if he’s available!

I am truly impressed by both the Gallo brothers and the Martini family. It’s wonderful to see these two families still growing and thriving after three generations in winemaking and producing, and I look forward to see what they come out with next.

SFBW: Chardonnay

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Last summer I started a casual wine club with GGD and some other wino friends. I called it San Francisco Bragging & Wining (SFBW), as a nod to my father’s wine club that he created back in his early days in San Diego: La Jolla Bragging & Tasting. We would get about 12-15 people together once a month, and I would assign each person what to bring (table wine, blind wine, or food). After getting our palates wet with some table wines, we would taste 3-4 wines blind, discuss them, then reveal. There were some very successful (and very intoxicating) meetings, but it wasn’t quite moving in the direction that I had originally envisioned.

After some brainstorming with GGD, we decided to restructure the club so that it would be more focused and organized, attracting people who are invested in learning more about wine. Instead of assigning contributions to everyone, we choose the wines that are most representative of the topic being discussed, buy some cheese and other food items to pair, and charge everyone a ticket price ranging from $18-28 (depending on how much we spent on wines) – limiting the amount of attendees to 12 people. So far, it’s been pretty successful and our attendees have learned a lot!

Our meeting last week was focused on Chardonnay, specifically Unoaked vs. Oaked and American vs. French. Here was the line up:

Starter: Sparkling Chardonnay

Set 1: Unoaked California vs. France 

Set 2: Oaked California vs. France

Set 3: California vs. France Blind Tasting


Unoaked Chardonnays

Unoaked Chardonnays

Oaked Chardonnays

Oaked Chardonnays

With the exception of the Mumm and Hunnicutt, I bought everything at K&L Wine Merchants in San Francisco with a budget of about $100 (the total came out to $108.66). I had a pretty good idea of what I was going to purchase from California, but I definitely needed help with my French selections. The staff at K&L are incredibly friendly and helpful, and one of the guys spent 45 minutes with me selecting wines that would best represent each category.

GGD purchased all the food from Trader Joe’s the day of the tasting: smoked salmon, green apples and pears, soft goat cheese, triple cream brie, Iberico cheese, buttered popcorn, crackers and sweet waffle cookies. We selected food that would pair well with certain flavors in the wine, whether it highlighted the creamy component of oaked Chardonnay, or brought out the citrus fruit in a brighter Chardonnay.

Another friend of mine, who shall be known as Sabrina from this point forth, created an epic Powerpoint presentation with information on Chardonnay origins, taste profiles, types of oak that are used, and regions where it is grown. I supplemented this with printed handouts on descriptions of the wines being tasted, an aroma wheel, and a deductive tasting grid (primarily used for the blind tasting). We wanted to provide enough information to people to taste with reasoning, but not too much so that people were overwhelmed. I think we struck a good balance!

tasting table

As for the tasting component, each person received a small glass and a large glass so that they could taste side by side and notice the differences between the wines in each set. For example, the La Crema had that thick, buttery taste that some Chardonnays are known for, while the Saint Romain was slightly more crisp because of the cool climate and rocky soils in Burgundy. The idea was to give people enough tasting experience with California and French wines, oaked and unoaked, so that they could make an educated assessment when the blind tasting was given at the end of the evening.

Sure enough, nearly everyone was able to ascertain that the wines were made in French oak, with most people agreeing that it was less new oak than aged. Two girls were able to distinguish between the Chablis and the Hunnicutt, and the other eight attendees mixed up the two (I didn’t participate in the blind portion because I was the one that concealed them). This may have been because Hunnicutt makes their wine in a Chablis-style, and both wines exhibited flavors of citrus and wet stone. It was a tough call, indeed!

Chablis vs. Hunnicutt

Chablis vs. Hunnicutt

We finished off the night with some Cabernet, socializing and planning the topic for our next meeting: Pinot Noir. I’ve already started to make selections of which wines we will taste from Sonoma Coast, Russian River, Santa Barbara, Willamette Valley, and Burgundy. I can’t wait to taste the wines with everyone else!

If you live in the Bay Area and you’re interested in attending a wine class, please contact me to get more information or to be added to our email list. Cheers!


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I’m constantly on the hunt for new wineries to visit in Napa Valley – not necessarily new to the valley, but new to me. I have my “off the beaten path” staples that I make repeat visits to (i.e. Saddleback Cellars, Casa Nuestra, Failla), but after visiting St. Helena this past weekend I can add a few more to my list of favorites.

Justin Stephens started making wine under the HUNNICUTT label in 2001, and purchased the land in 2008 in St. Helena where the winery now sits. The tasting room opened to the public in 2011 after several years of requiring permits, constructing the caves, and managing drainage issues – but it was worth the wait! The winery includes beautiful caves with a private tasting area, a large patio for picnics and outdoor tastings, oversized rocking chairs, and a mid-century modern indoor tasting room with floor to ceiling windows.

Hunnicutt wines

Sara and Mo host the tastings, which are appointment only – though we did see them accommodate a club member that walked in without notice. Mo greeted us when we arrived and poured us a taste of Chardonnay as we waited for Sara to prep the tasting room. Everyone in my group loved the 2012 Chardonnay, a 91-point Chablis style wine from Coombsville. The wine has aromas of stone fruit and lemon zest, with a palate of apple, lemon cream and a touch of custard. It’s a very elegant wine, and priced at $45 a bottle – a little steep but worthy of the price.

On to the reds… next was the 2011 Merlot, followed by the 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, 2011 CUTT Fearless Red, 2010 Reserve Cabernet Franc St. Helena, and the 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon 9-3-5. Nearly all of the wines we tasted are from their new release, and not yet available on their website. My favorite two reds were the CUTT Fearless Red and the Cabernet Franc, their Premier Napa Valley offering. The Fearless Red was smooth and fruit-forward, very easy-drinking with a medium body. The Cab Franc on the other hand was bold and smokey, with flavors of blackberry and cassis lingering on the palate.

Entrance to the wine caves

Entrance to the wine caves

Inside the cave

Inside the cave

As we sipped on the 9-3-5 Cabernet, Sara gave us a tour of the wine caves where most of their barrels are stored. There’s also a small room cut out in the center of the cave where they can host special tastings, and part of the back wall reveals the original rock. It’s a very cool place (literally and figuratively) to enjoy the tasting experience – as long as you’re not claustrophobic!

Tasting room in the cave

Tasting room in the cave


We thoroughly enjoyed our experience at HUNNICUTT, and I walked away with a bottle each of the Fearless Red and the Cabernet Franc. The tasting room is modern yet cozy, and the staff are fun to taste with and very accommodating. I would recommend making an appointment for the reserve tasting so you get to taste some of their higher end wines – it’s definitely worth the $10 difference (and waived with the purchase of three or more bottles). I look forward to my next visit to HUNNICUTT, and I’m excited to see what they come out with next!

Spicy Asian Soup

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I have been eyeing the cover of the January issue of Bon Appetit for a few weeks now, and when it showed up in my inbox as “recipe of the day” from Epicurious, I knew it was a sign that I had to take a crack at it! After glancing over the recipe, I decided to substitute the spiced ground pork with some Thai Curry Chicken Sausages from Falletti Foods that I had in my freezer (if you can’t find uncooked sausages like these, you can mix ground pork or chicken with the spices suggested in the original recipe). I went to my local farm stand to pick up the rest of the ingredients and discovered that they did not have any mustard greens but did have dandelion greens, which are pretty similar so I grabbed those.

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Spicy Chicken and Dandelion Soup with Rice Noodles (serves 4)

  • 1/2 lb Thai Curry Chicken Sausage, casings removed
  • 1 tsp grated ginger
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 TB vegetable oil
  • 4 cups low sodium chicken broth
  • 2 bunches (about 4 cups) of dandelion greens, torn into smaller pieces
  • 4 scallions, thinly sliced
  • 1 tsp fish sauce
  • 2 TB low sodium soy sauce
  • 8 oz wide rice noodles
  • 1/4 tsp sesame oil

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In a large pot, heat vegetable oil over a medium flame. Add sausage, ginger, salt and pepper and sauté until meat is browned, about 8-10 minutes. Add chicken broth and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 10 minutes to blend flavors.

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Meanwhile, set a separate pot of water to boil. While waiting, soak rice noodles in warm water for about 10 minutes, flipping the noodles half way through so all parts are soaked (or just use a bigger bowl than I did!). Once the water is boiling, add rice noodles and lower the heat to medium-high, then cook for 8-10 minutes or until they are fully cooked. Drain and rinse with cold water, then toss with sesame oil to prevent from sticking together.

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When the broth is ready, add dandelion, scallions, fish sauce and soy sauce and stir to combine. Keep heat on low, and cook for 6 minutes, or until greens are wilted. Laddle soup into deep bowls and top with a portion of rice noodles.

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The flavors in this soup were delicious! The Thai Chicken Curry sausage worked perfectly as a substitute for the pork and spices, and the extra bit of ginger definitely went a long way. I loved the slight bitterness in the dandelion greens, and the noodles were the perfect addition to soak up the spices. I was a little hesitant to add so much soy sauce, but it was the perfect amount (and be sure to use low sodium broth and soy sauce, otherwise this dish would be way too salty).

This soup would pair very well with a German Riesling with mild sweetness, such as Kabinett or Spätlese. Alternatively, you could pair with a nice Viognier from Northern California or the Rhone region of France. The floral aromas and slightly sweet flavor in Riesling and Viognier will off-set the spices in the soup, providing a good balance to the meal. My favorite Viognier is from Freemark Abbey in St. Helena, and I plan to pair that wine with this recipe the next time I make it!

The Hunt for Red Zinfandel

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Dad: if you’re reading this, stop now. Close the window and read in three weeks. Got it?

As part of my father’s Christmas present this year, I’m putting together a variety pack of wines from Northern California – mostly from wineries that don’t distribute to NY, where he lives. I want a good representation of varietals in the gift, and Thanksgiving weekend I was determined to find a Napa Valley Zinfandel that could be included. Success!

A few wineries kept coming up in my search for the best Napa Zin, including Brown Estate, Elyse, Chase Family Cellars and Storybook Mountain. I tried getting an appointment at Brown Estate, but they were closed for the holiday. And I had already gifted some Storybook Mountain Zinfandel to my father last Christmas, so that left Elyse and Chase to be visited.


Tasting room and cottage at Elyse

The day before Thanksgiving, Annie P. and I stopped by Elyse on our way up to St. Helena. The tasting room is in the Oak Knoll District, just off Highway 29 on Hoffman Lane, and features gardens, a cottage-style tasting room, a winemaking facility and a really cute Portuguese Water Dog. The tasting room is pretty small, and there was only one other group of three present so we had a lot of opportunities to talk to the tasting room host, Luke.

Madison, the Portuguese Water Dog pup

Madison, the Portuguese Water Dog pup

Some non-Zin highlights of the Elyse tasting were the 2008 Le Corbeau from Hudson Vineyard, the 2008 Jacob Franklin Cabernet Sauvignon from the Hoffman Lane estate vineyard, and the delicious 2006 Elyse Cabernet Sauvignon Port from Napa Valley. Le Corbeau is an easy drinking blend, and the Jacob Franklin Cab had hints of mint and eucalyptus with a chocolatey finish. As for the Zinfandel, Luke had two different bottles open: 2009 Elyse Zinfandel from Morisoli Vineyard and the 2010 Elyse Zinfandel from Black-Sears Vineyard. I had a hard time choosing between the two; the Morisoli Vineyard from Rutherford was very smooth and had a good balance of fruit and acid, and the Black-Sears Vineyard from Howell Mountain had more pepper and fresh strawberries. In the end, I went for the Morisoli Vineyard because it had better aging potential (and Morisoli sounds like an Italian version of Morrison, my last name!).

The line up at Elyse

The line up at Elyse

For the Friday after Thanksgiving, Annie P. and RayJay and I stopped by Chase Family Cellars after our lunch at Redd. To my surprise, we were greeted by my favorite Skyler White look alike, who recently moved from Biale to Chase. We took a seat outside, overlooking the estate vineyards in the unseasonably warm weather, and started off our tasting with some 2012 Sauvignon Blanc from St. Helena and 2012 Rose of Zinfandel. Both were light and tasty, but I was excited to dive into the red offerings.

The patio at Chase Family Cellars, overlooking the Hayne Vineyard

The patio at Chase Family Cellars, overlooking the Hayne Vineyard

We tasted the 2010 Hayne Vineyard Zinfandel, 2010 Hayne Vineyard Reserve Zinfandel2010 St. Helena Cabernet Sauvignon and 2010 Calistoga Petite Sirah. We also got a little taste of the 2009 Hayne Vineyard Zinfandel , which is made from Old Vines and blended with their 1988 batch – which also happens to be my brother’s birth year. All the Zinfandels were very elegant, with bold fruit, balanced acids, and a touch of earthiness. Even though I already accomplished my mission at Elyse, I couldn’t resist buying a bottle of the 2009 Hayne Vineyard Zinfandel – but who will be the lucky giftee?

"Hi Horsey. Want to take a selfie with me?"

“Hi, Horsey. Want to take a selfie with me?”

The visit to Chase Family Cellars was made even more special when a pair of horses (and owners) strolled on up to the patio to say hi. I took a selfie with one of them; of course, I asked permission first.

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