Final Day: August 5
Oh Sonoma. How do I love you? Let me count the ways …
I love your unique microclimates. I love your laid-back-yet-serious-about-wine ways. I love the roots of farming and sustainability that you hang on to. I love your beautiful surroundings. I love your wonderful downtowns of Healdsburg, Sonoma, and Geyserville. And I love all your family wineries.
As you might have guessed, I have a thing for family wineries. I love the commitment, I love the stories and traditions, I love the connectedness. Again, wine started out being all about farming. And throughout history, farming and family have gone together hand in hand. So family vineyards and wineries tend to feel good to me, which is why visiting Foppiano has been something I’ve been eager to do.
You see, Foppiano Vineyards is run and operated by the fifth generation of Foppianos to do so. The winery was founded in 1896 by Giovanni Foppiano and is one of Sonoma’s oldest continually-operated, family-owned wineries. It even survived Prohibition—by selling home winemaking kits. Pulling from their years of experience in the Russian River Valley (Foppiano Vineyards is one of the founding members of the RRV AVA), this family continues to produce solid wine. And while rooted in tradition, they’re not afraid to branch out and try new ideas. It’s this mix of old and new that really shows in their wines.
Today we met with Natalie West—Foppiano’s winemaker since 2008—a young, up-and-coming winemaker who has already brought new ideas to the winery including changing the barrel program to include new French and Hungarian oak. Natalie works closely with vineyard manager, Paul Foppiano, and between the two the process from vine to bottle has a beauty that is hard to ignore.
In talking with Natalie, we saw immediately not only her passion and knowledge for the wine she makes and the family she represents, but also a traditionalist at the core of this modern-day winemaker. She has a fondness for the old winery, and it really showed. New facilities, she explained, are great in regards to design and implements that are all about efficiencies and the latest and greatest. But working in an old, historic winery—where wine is made in some ways similar to the way it was 70 years ago—brings one back to wine roots. West noted that when you work in an older winery, you discover the key elements to making wine and realize what you truly need and what you don’t. “If it takes 20 minutes to complete in a new winery, it probably takes us 35,” she stated. But in her world that’s not a bad thing. It’s a way to stay grounded in tradition and history while continuing to make wine that also represents science and knowledge that we have now.
Our other stop today, Hopkiln, also had links to the past. The winery, which has been producing wines since 1976, is literally in an old hop kiln, where hops were dried over a century ago. The building is on the National Historic Register, and the winery has kept as much of the old building as possible. They’re about proprietary blends like Thousand Flowers and Big Red (which both have a cult following), but have begun to develop a HKG (Hopkiln Grown) line due to estate replantings. These estate grapes, in four distinct plots of land in the Russian River, are beginning to deliver and will only continue to grow and develop new nuances as they age. While HKG wines aren’t available in MN yet, I can only imagine that it’s a matter of time. At around $30 retail, they’re already well worth it.
Day 3: August 4
We then left for Napa. First stop: Mason Cellars
We met with VP Grant Hemingway (I didn’t ask if there was any relation, but boy was I wondering … especially after enjoying Midnight in Paris recently) and owner/winemaker Randy Mason, a Napa star who’s been making wine for thirty years. We started with their budget-friendly Three Pears Pinot Gris (around $11 retail), which brought out flavors of not just pear, but also stone fruit and apple. We then moved to Pomelo Sauvignon Blanc (also around $11 retail), which is all about the grapefruit. It’s a big seller at our store and available in stores and restaurants around the city. It’s one of the better summer sippers I can think of, and a great wine for the cost.
Randy and Grant were wonderfully kind and accommodating, but before we got too comfortable, we had to head to our next appointment: Honig Winery.
Honig, which focuses solely on Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon, is, like many of our stops, a family-run winery. We know the wines from this winery well, so our visit today was more informal. While we had a mini-tour, the bulk of our visit was joining Stephanie Honig (wife of winery owner, Michael Honig) and assistant winemaker Brett Adams for lunch at the winery. What stands out to me about this winery (besides their wine) is its sustainability practices and the winery's dedication to helping others find their way within this field. Because of this, my questions mainly surrounded this focus. I used to think of sustainable wines as wines created using organic practices without the official designation (an organic designation takes time and a whole lot of money after all), but Honig and Adams explained how much more it truly is.
August 3: Day 2
Today started with brunch at Fox and Goose, an English style pub that serves killer breakfasts. The additional bonus for me? They have an awesome vegetarian selection including the Vegan Pub Grill made with a tofu scramble. It was delish.
After brunch we headed to Lodi, an appellation just south of Sacramento whose Mediterranean climate yields some distinct California wines. This area, home to just 8 wineries a decade ago now boasts 80. We had only one winery, however, on today’s agenda: Michael David.
As we were a bit early, we spent a couple hours in downtown Lodi, which is sort of like a smaller scale Stillwater. We found a neat cheese shop, Cheese Central, which yielded a nice selection of cheeses and a fresh baguette for later.
Then, after milling around and playing with gadgets in fun kitchen store, we ended up at the Lodi Beer Company for a quick local brew. Brewmaster Peter York was on duty and the beer was great.
At 3:00, we made our way to Michael David Winery. The winery was created by the Phillips family 25 years ago after more than a century of farming in the Lodi region. At that point, the vineyard and winery were small as the bigger focus (as in 90% focus) was on the many fruits and vegetables they grew and sold in farmers markets and stands around the area.
And this is what I’m always reminded of when I travel for wine: no matter what mystique or glamour surrounds wine, the reality is that for the most part, wine is about farming. David (half of Michael David) Phillips was kind enough to spend the afternoon with us, and I loved hearing his stories of working the fruit and vegetable stands growing up and then later driving to San Francisco to sell his heirloom tomatoes to restaurants. Because good wine comes from good grapes. And good grapes come from good farming.
Over the past fifteen years, the Phillips farm has undergone a transformation in what they farm. The predominant part of their land is now vineyard with a small part reserved for their traditional farming. The winery, originally named Phillips after the family name and farm, changed to Michael David (the names of the two Phillips brothers) after concerns from Phillips Spirits over name infringement. While, David told us, they were concerned that changing the name would be devastating to their brand, it didn't. I'm not surprised: wine history has shown that solid grapes and wine techniques can carry one through lots of adversity.
Now known for such labels as 7 Deadly Zins, Earthquake, and Petite Petit, this winery creates big, bold, in-your-face New World wines using both New and Old World grapes. And now they also source grapes from other growers—requiring sustainable farming practices to match their own. And, unlike many other wineries who buy from multiple growers, Michael David keeps each growers’ grapes separate in tank and through fermentation. They get to know and understand each growers’ grapes and how they convert to wine, then—I love this—they invite the growers for a special night where they can taste the wine from each of their plots. Each grower gets bottles of the vino that their particular grapes created, and the experts at Michael David help them understand what their grapes taste like. This may not seem like a big deal, but for growers who only source out their grapes it can be difficult to understand final product. Their grapes are often tossed with other growers’ grapes and are never heard from in their purest form again. This is cooperative growing and vinting at its best.
Michael David wines are not wines for the faint of heart. You’re talking big wines. As in 16% alcohol wines. As in stain your teeth wines. As in yuuuummmmm wines. Although Michael David works with multiple varietals (including a killer Syrah), especially fun today was trying three of their “sin series” Zinfandel wines side by side. These wines were created to really showcase geography and the ways in which different regions can create different flavors. Lust, their Lodi Zin, is all raspberries and caramel with pumpkin bread notes. Gluttony, their Amador Zin, is about brambly blackberries and vanilla. And Sloth, their Mendocino Zin, is all chocolate-covered cherries with spicy cinnamon, clove, and white pepper. I loved finding out that one of the next to come out, Greed, is based on Napa Zin. You gotta love a winery with a great sense of humor.
Beyond the tasting room, there is a bakery and café, a fruit stand (where you can get fresh produce from the remaining Phillips farm land), and gorgeous grounds. We also got to visit the “lab,” where they were experimenting with different tannin and sugar levels as well as trying wine from cask to make sure they were still stable and developing as hoped. Now THAT’S a lab I wouldn’t mind working in.
As our time at Michael David came to a close, we weren’t quite ready to say goodbye to David. So we had dinner together at a great Mexican restaurant, Alebrijes, where the table side guacamole, roasted tomato salsa, and wonderful entrees brought us to our knees.
Tomorrow ... Napa!
So in a departure from my regular blogging, I’m going to be doing a post a day for the next few days while I’m in California for a wine trip. There are many ways to do a California wine trip—and no right way to be sure—but the one I’m on has me in the Sacramento area today, Lodi tomorrow, then Sonoma and Napa for the last two days. For me, traveling for wine also means traveling for food and this trip will be no different. Also (again, every person is different), I tend to like to do my wine trips with one, two, or three wineries a day compared with trying to hit as many wineries as possible. That way my palate doesn’t give out and I really get to focus and know a particular winery well. I hope to give you a virtual trip and take you along on what is sure to be a terrific ride!
August 2: Day 1
We arrived in San Francisco today, grabbed a rental car and headed right to Berkeley for lunch at the famed Chez Panisse. Chef and founder Alice Waters started this bistro in 1971 and has truly championed the farm-to-table phenomenon that has (finally!) begun to catch on. With organic ingredients sourced from local farmer and fishermen and made with great attention, we knew the lunch would be great. We were not disappointed.
After a fulfilling lunch, we got back in the car and headed to Clarksburg, not far from Sacramento, to visit one of our favorite wineries, Bogle (pronounced Bow-gull). Bogle is great in its own right but, in my world, made even more fantastic by the fact that the company focuses on stellar budget wines. Family owned and run since they started with 20 acres of grapes in the late 1960s, the vineyard and winery are welcoming, really showcasing a feel of a small winery even as they continue to grow.
Jody Bogle herself led us through the tasting, but this wasn’t unique to us. She can be found in the tasting room and office on most days and happily takes customer calls. Really. Her brother, Warren Bogle, is the vineyard manager, watching over the acres of beautiful vines. Her other brother, Ryan, is the control and accounting guy. Want to meet one of the two winemakers? With many wineries that’s a difficult and unlikely request, but not here. In fact, even though as a wine store owner I have some extra perks on a wine trip, any Bogle visitor will be treated to this. It’s the way they do wine. And I love this. I also love the wine.
We tried 11 (count ‘em, 11) Bogle wines today, three of which are only available in the tasting room:
My favorites of the moment were the Sauvignon Blanc (around $10 or $11 retail) and the Petite Sirah (around $14 retail). The Sauvignon Blanc is all grass and pineapple and grapefruit with a perfect dryness and crispness that just screams for consumption on a warm day. The Petite Sirah, a long-time favorite of mine, is about being big, bold, plush, silky, and lush. Think liquid velvet. Ripe, blackberry and plum velvet. Yum. I also enjoyed trying some of their limited releases that only are available in the tasting room or to wine club members. Today’s sips of the Petite Sirah Rosé and 2007 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon were remarkable. In fact, I’m probably going to join the wine club so that I can try such limited options again.
Oh yeah, about the wine club ...
Their wine membership also comes with member-only special events, such as a recent “create your own wine” day where guests worked with a Bogle winemaker to taste through specific lots of wine, created their own blends, then bottled their creations to take home. Granted, events are more likely to be attended by local members, but still, I love this.
Eventually it was time to leave Jody and her family vineyards and head into Sacramento where we were settling in. Settling in, however, didn't mean ending the night completely. It meant …
1) Cocktails at Ella, where their custom drinks are not to be missed:
2) Dinner at Biba, restaurant of noted chef and cookbook author Biba Caggiano. My spinach and ricotta gnocchi with wild mushrooms was incredible, and so, apparently was Paul’s seafood stew.
To add to the California mystique, sitting at the table next to us was KC of KC and the Sunshine Band. Seriously. And while not why we chose the restaurant, it turns out that it was a favorite of Patty Bogle, the Bogle family matriarch who recently passed away after a long fight with leukemia. We toasted Patty, then, at the end of our meal, our waitress brought out two desserts even though we had declined due to being so stuffed. "Patty wouldn't want you to leave with dessert," she stated. Despite our earlier refusals, we inhaled them before I could take a picture. Like everything else on this day, they were perfect.
Note: This is a reprint of an article I wrote a few years ago for Imbiber magazine, but tis the season!
Okay. I admit it. I used to drink White Zinfandel. And I liked it. I can give excuses like, “I was so young,” or, “It was before I really knew wine,” but the reality is I don’t think this pre-oenophile indiscretion needs an excuse. The great thing about White Zinfandels or any easy-drinking wine is they present an opening into the wine world.
For me, it was Sutter Home White Zinfandel, bought for the “fancy” dinner my roommates and I were making in our dorm kitchen. In hindsight there is much to cringe at as I think back upon this meal:
1. We considered it gourmet because we made asparagus as a side.
2. Did I mention we were drinking White Zinfandel?
3. Asparagus is one of the hardest foods to pair—although Gruner Veltiner works great—but at the time, my three roomies and I agreed the wine was a perfect match.
Despite these faux pas, however, I can say that this meal remains on my top-ten-best-meals-ever list. My wish for everyone is that they have one of the fabulous meals in their past—or future—as well.
You see, wiine drinking tends to be circular. When we start, we often begin with an accessible wine like White Zin. It’s like drinking coffee with lots of sugar and cream before you tackle espresso or PBR before you learn the nuances of Belgian ales. I moved on from pinks to whites. Rieslings, Pinot Gris’, Chenin Blancs, and Chardonnays entered my palate and vocabulary. As I became more adventurous, I moved into that “I only drink reds” stage, believing that bigger and bolder was somehow better. Savouring meaty Cabernets, I thought I’d met the apex of my well-developed palate. The one day, by happenstance, I ended up with an unwanted glass of white. For me it was at a neighbor’s home. Maybe for you it was handed off to toast a bride and groom. Maybe it was pored at a dinner. But whatever the case, most of us are taken aback as we realize nuances to the white that we missed the first time. Our interest in white wine renews, and the circle begins again.
That circle, however, often skips our introductory wine. We look back with shame upon that first bottle we enjoyed so many years ago, be it Sutter Home White Zin, Franzia Chillable Red, or Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill. Reisling? That’s fine. Chianti? No problem. But there are just some wines we don’t want to revisit. And while in many cases that might be a good idea, it does present a bit of a trap. You see pink wine—often associated with those entry wines—has gotten an unfair and bad rap. The lone bottle of rosé at the party gets passed over like the Spam dip at the potluck, and the person who brought it pretends it isn’t his or tries to brush it off as a joke. But rosés go far beyond first blush; they are serious wines and deserve that second chance.
Made from a wide variety of grapes including Syrah, Mourvédre, Sangiovese, and Tempranillo, the primary process of creating the telltale pink of rosés comes through a maceration process. Red-skinned grapes are crushed, and, after a desire hue is presented, the juice is separated from the skins and ferments like a white wine. If the juice stays on the skins for six to twelve hours, the rosé is referred to as “wine of one day.” If the maceration process is longer (usually around 24 hours) the wine is referred to s a “wine of one night.”
Another method, Saignée, utilizes the process of “bleeding,” and is employed when winemakers don’t want an entire vat of grape juice to become rosé. Like the maceration method, the grapes are crushed with their skins. Once an hour, a predetermined amount of juice is drawn off, or “bled.” When the winemaker is pleased with the color of the drawn juice, it is fermented into a rosé. The remaining juice stays on the skins and becomes a red wine.
But that’s the mechanics. What’s the result?
Well, like with all categories of wines, you can expect great variety. Rosés come from France, Spain, Italy, the U.S., and beyond. Their colors range from light orange to deep violet. And as you might expect, the flavors vary as well. The good news, however, is that quality rosés won’t give you the hints of bubble gum and cotton candy that many fear. Instead, they range from extremely dry to semi-sweet, from acidic to fruity, from still to sparkling, from simple to complex.
Regardless of these ranges, however, most rosés have a decent level of acidity—making them excellent food wines. They also tend to have alcohol levels that range from low to medium—making them great sippers. Rosés can have a high level of complexity, can develop in the glass, and a few can even be aged.
So how do you find a great rosé? Like all wines, what matters most is your own palate. You may prefer a sweeter rosé or drier one. One with less alcohol or one with greater. If you’d like to happen upon what is typically considered a good pink, look for a rosé that is drier and more acidic with less than 13% alcohol. And keep in mind that like many whites, most rosés tend to lose their aromas and nuances as they age. Because of this, make sure the vintage is no more than a year old (and also note that this means as a rule you shouldn’t cellar your pinks). When in doubt, France still remains king of the rosé world. While this by no means guarantees a good bottle, consider looking at Provence or the Loire and Rhone Valleys.
I believe that many of us face wine drinking as a circular experience. It’s part of why I love wine. I’m constantly rediscovering a grape or wine I thought I knew or was bored of. And while drinking White Zin may not be in my forseeable future, I’m not ashamed that it’s in my roots. It is, after all, the vino I first enjoyed sipping with friends on a hot summer day. It’s the wine that showed me that wine with food was a good idea. And it’s the wine that opened up the huge world of grape imbibing I am now immersed in. So, White Zinfandel, I drink to you.
How about you? What was your first wine?
Sutter Home Zinfandel photo by Isaac Singleton Photography