Dorianne and I have just spent 2 weeks on Crete, the largest Greek Island. We stayed at a large resort, The Rimondi Grand Resort and Spa, on the central north coast of the island. We did not visit the two largest cities, Heraklion and Chania, but did visit Rethymnon, a small city near our resort.
The local restaurants featured very good food at low prices and served the wines of Crete, worth exploring, have a rich history (LINK), and are almost all at price points under 10 euros. As you might imagine, whites dominate in the climate and soils here with reds (the ones we tasted anyway) struggling for identity. For an in-depth look, here is a link to a good article (LINK).
Our resort had local wine on tap, or bottles for sale. We found a few indigenous white grapes that we liked, Vidiano, Dafni, and Plyto. There are others, such as Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat grown here as well. The primary red grape is Liatiko, used to make rosés also. The versions I had were light, similar to Pinot Noir, but lacking much of a fruit presence.
Aside from a couple of wine shops, we visited two places where wine is made, one being the Monastery at Arkadi where the wines are still made by the monks. The other was the Kourkoulou Winery located near the center of the island. We had a proper tour of the vineyards, production area, and a tasting at this small production facility (18K bottles per year).
In a building which is about 5 years old, the production facilities are in the basement, the wine shop on the ground floor, and tasting room on the 1st floor. All nicely appointed. The family farms about 40 acres of vineyards in small patches throughout the valley, producing 3 white grapes, Vidiano, Thrapsathiri, and Muscat; plus the red Liatiko (also called Ziatika).The wines tend to be high in alcohol – 14% and above. I was told that is due to the warm climate, but I sense it is more of a preference. Cretans drink the whites and rosés without food often, including taking them to the beach.
In the tasting, the Vidiano stood out with very nice mouthfeel and a balance of fruit and acidity. The rosés, both made with the red grape, were unusual. One was lighter in color due to only about 30 minutes of skin contact. It was very dry with more minerality than fruit on the palate. The other was darker due to 8 hours of skin contact, and had more fruit on the palate, a more pleasing wine to me. The ABV on these was 14 & 14.5% respectively. The red, called Ziatika at this winery, was light in color and very dry, with hints of red fruit, but nothing special.
I’ve been a fan of Assyrtiko, the white grape from Santorini for some time. We bought a bottle at a wine shop during our first week here and it was excellent (and cost 20 euros). I was, therefore, pleased to find a local Assyrtiko from the Heraklion area of Crete. It was at an excellent restaurant in old town Rethymno called Avli Kriti (some images below). The wine was light and acidic, which paired perfectly with our food.
Some other wines we have had include a nice blend of Muscat of Alexandria and Chardonnay from Kanenas Wines (A Myth in a Bottle!) on the Peloponnesian Peninsula (taking one of those home) and a Thrapsathiri as well as a Vidiano from Domenico Wines near Haraklion. There were also house wines from our hotel (on tap from casks) and some other restaurants, none of which we were able to identify.
My sense of the wine scene on Crete is that it is a place for very good whites, some unusual rosés, and reds which can be unpredictable (we did not order reds often as we were eating mostly seafood; we had the red at our hotel when we had lamb, but it was from the cask.). If you can find them where you are, the whites, at least, are worth a try.
To my delight, I have discovered an épicerie spécialisée with Greek products not far from our Lyon neighborhood. I will be checking them out soon!
First of all, I want to acknowledge the huge amount of damage to the vineyards of France and much of central Europe by the frosts of the past week, which continue as I write this. It is possible that a majority of the 2021 vintage may be lost. The damage runs from First Growth Bordeaux to Chablis, to Champagne to everyday wines. It is tragic and will be felt for a long time.
I haven’t posted on this blog in quite some time – since November 2019, in fact, during those pre-COVID halcyon days of bliss. The main reason for my absence from these pages, while not from wine, has been that since I have been living in France for 3 years or so now, my experience with wine has changed. It has become more of a relationship with a smaller number of mostly unpretentious and unspectacular wines consumed, for the most part, with meals. If anything, COVID cemented this relationship, as our restaurants are closed and the occasional “special bottle” with a restaurant meal has not been in the mix. When I last wrote about our wine experience living in Lyon (LINK), I was new to the area and just beginning to learn.
While Dorianne and I have extended our pricing for “everyday wines” from an upper limit of about 12€ to about 16€, putting a few second labels from Burgundy in range. Despite this, our average expenditure is likely under 10€ per bottle. This is because I have found a number of labels in the 7€ range that are good enough to drink just about every day. I will list and describe these wines later, but I am not sure that they can be found outside of France. Suffice to say, that for 16€ and under, you can find very drinkable wines from just about any region in France (even Burgundy!). Equivalent wines in the US, in my experience, tend to cost upward of $25.
Another change is that our social circle here is not so wine-centric as the one we left behind in California. The French, with some exceptions of course, view wine as a grocery item. One French friend who loves to drink wine and visit wineries, seldom spends more than 4€ for a bottle. There is a bit more wine talk among the English-speaking expat community here, but not all that much.
Our diets have gotten lighter here and we drink more whites and rosés, especially in spring and summer, but also in winter with fish, salads, and soups.
My purchasing habits here in Lyon are different than they were in the US. I have gradually expanded outward geographically, as each wine shop (cave) here is unique. Each shop has one or two (or more) very good French wines at lower price points; each shop has different wines from the various regions. Most larger supermarkets have some very nice wines on their shelves. Some have more international choices – I get good Spanish, Italian, and Middle Eastern varieties at an Armenian grocery store; Port wines at a Portuguese bodega near the Portuguese consulate; South African wines at a major chain grocery; and even some Penfold’s from my local wine shop.
I have begun to buy more wines online from the producers – wines from Lirac, Tavel, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Pommard, Beaune, and the northern Rhône Valley. When we can, we visit wineries and co-ops nearby in Mâcon, Pouilly-Fuissé, also in Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, and Fleurie in the Beaujolais.
Since we have not been back to the US for over a year, our cave has about 6 bottles of California wines left. But it is fully stocked with other wines, about 90% are French, many purchased at the fall wine festivals (LINK) which I hope return this year.
About half the time, we drink wines which are under 20€ and we consider “everyday wines.” I will do another post featuring those wines soon.
As promised, here are our go-to everyday wines for ten euros or less. Le Versant is a favorite. They make other wines as well, but these are the ones available near us. These are wines that I would share with anyone who visits, as they represent their regions well. They are not of premiere cru quality, but they don’t have to be. I would say that each is worth 2 to 3 times what they sell for.
Le Versant Syrah 6,99 €
Le Versant Cabernet 6,99 €
Château Junayme, Fronsac Bordeaux blend 6,35 €
Château Etang des Colombes, Corbières Red Blend 7,40 €
La Bastide St. Dominic, Côte-du-Rhône Red Blend 7,99 €
Le Versant Chardonnay 6,99 €
Le Versant Sauvignon 6,99 €
Le Versant Viognier 5,60 €
Les Orfèvres du Vin, Mâconnaise Aligoté 7,50 €
So that’s what Dorianne and I are drinking most nights with dinner. France offers a wealth of very drinkable wines at very good prices, once you learn what to look for. As we all hope that the local vignerons manage to survive these frosts, let us be grateful for the French wines that we can enjoy today.
REFUSE TO BE INTIMIDATED. The world of wine is populated with a few, well, snobs. There are people whose income depends on you, the consumer, feeling like you don’t know enough to order a wine you will like. There are some whose income depends on getting you to buy a wine whether you like it or not. There are also few who want to make you feel uncomfortable just for their own ego gratification.
That said, there are also lots of folks who can and will help you feel more comfortable. These can include wine stewards or waiters in restaurants, employees in wine shops and at large retailers like Costco, tasting room employees, and, yes, wine bloggers like me. Take advantage of their knowledge and willingness to help. Even with the first group, you will usually find if you ask a couple of clear questions and let them know what you like and what you are willing to pay, you will get what you desire.
2. BE AN EXPLORER. Try some unfamiliar wines. Even if after doing so, you become a drinker of one kind of wine, you will at least know that you aren’t missing something better for you. Again, wine retailers and restaurant employees can be helpful. Like Malbec? Try something close, like a Barbera or a Tempranillo. Traveling? Try the local wines. (LINK to my post WHAT KIND OF WINE DRINKER ARE YOU?)
3. AVOID REALLY CHEAP WINES. The issue here is not so much about price or quality as it is about additives. Most new world (that’s everyplace but Europe) wines under $10 to $15 are laced with additives of various kinds. There are no labeling requirements, so you don’t know which ones or how much of them are in your wine. Some additives are benign, some are not. Many people who eat only organic food buy cheap wines filled with chemical additives – unknowingly, of course. (LINK to my post on ADDITIVES)
There are three main reasons that cheaper wines have more additives than more expensive wines: One, consumers of cheaper wines tend to want their wine to taste the same every time. They are not interested in seasonal variation – the kind based on weather which affect wine grapes from just about everywhere. So, additives can mask changes – and in cheap wines, the issue is not seasonal variations; most are bulk wines, made from whatever grapes or juice are available at that moment from any location. Second – additives can make a rough product taste smoother, smell better, look better. In other words, mask problems. Third – there are economic reasons to use additives in some products, and your health is not one of them.
4. NEW TO WINE? TRY A STARTER CASE. I blogged about this a while back. If you are new to wine or have someone, like in my case, my daughter, who is new to wine, consider a starter case. This is a mixed case of wines for them to try to learn about. Then, when returning to the wine retailer, you or they can say what you liked and would like to get more of, or maybe explore a bit with something like what you enjoyed previously, but different. (LINK to my post on STARTER CASE)
5. LEARN HOW TO SHOP FOR WINE. I often go into wine shops without intending to make a purchase – just to look around, familiarize myself with the kinds of wines available, the labels, the price points. I may engage someone in the shop in a conversation about a specific wine, or a wine region that they feature. And, truth be told, much more often than not, I walk out with a bottle or three.
Many reputable wine writers and bloggers will tell you to ask questions when shopping for wine. Wine shop employees will generally enjoy helping you (with the possible exception of the Holiday rush). For example, you might ask for a wine in the $20 range to go with a lamb roast, or something to take as a special gift to a lover of Argentinian Malbec. (LINK to my post on SHOPPING FOR WINE)
6. LEARN HOW RESTAURANT WINE WORKS. There are a few things to be aware of when ordering wine in a restaurant. One is the pricing structure. The norm is to mark up a bottle two to two-and-a-half times retail cost. Many restaurants are offering wines at a lower mark-up (in Europe it is often the same as in a wine shop). Wine is a significant part of the profit structure at many restaurants. For others, it is an afterthought; the wines may not even go with the food offered.
There are myths about ordering wine in restaurants. Most are false or only partly true. The reality is that if wine is a serious consideration in a restaurant, the wine list will have been chosen with care based on what is important to that restaurant’s management. It might be by region – focusing on Italian wines in an Italian restaurant; or by type of food served – an emphasis on white and rosé wines in a seafood restaurant; or it may be wines selected for the specific items on the menu. Some say that the best buy is the 2nd cheapest wine on the list. This is almost never true. If it is good value you are seeking, a good choice is to order a bottle of one of the wines they are selling by the glass. These wines are usually a good value and they are sold by the glass because they are well-received.
Again, don’t be afraid to ask the waiter, wine steward, or sommelier for guidance – and DON’T forget to give him or her your budget! I have never had a negative experience with wine in a restaurant when I have been given guidance (I don’t always ask for it). (LINK to my post on ORDERING WINE IN A RESTAURANT)
7. REMEMBER CORKAGE. In many places, you can bring your own wine to a restaurant. Normally, a corkage fee will be charged, to cover the cost of using the glasses and having the wine open and served by the restaurant staff. This is a good option if you have a special bottle to share with family or friends that will go well with the restaurant meal. Some etiquette – if you don’t know, check in advance on the corkage policy of the restaurant; don’t bring a wine the restaurant has on its wine list; don’t pay $20 corkage on an $8 bottle of Yellow Tail to save money. And, if the wine is corked or otherwise bad, don’t try to send it back for another bottle! (LINK to my post about corkage)
8. LIFE IS TOO SHORT TO DRINK BAD WINE. I know you have a budget, which, like mine, is limited. And maybe you don’t have an educated palate to justify really expensive wine. However, as I noted above, just about all of the really cheap wines are filled with additives and are bad for you. So, think about how much wine you drink and what it would take to get the average cost per bottle up to $15 or more. At that price point, generally speaking you are drinking wine, not just a mixture of random grapes made in bulk. You will notice qualities like minerality, or terroir – the effect of the soil on the wine. You will begin to tell varietals apart ($7 Cabernet Sauvignon tastes surprisingly like $7 Merlot). And you will be drinking a more healthful beverage.
Also, if you buy a decent bottle and it’s bad (corked or chemical tasting for example), don’t drink it! Pour it down the sink, or if it’s not too bad, save it for cooking. If you get a bad bottle (meaning there is a flaw of some kind) at a restaurant, let the staff know. They should replace it. If they disagree with you, let them know that you may not be an expert, but you find the wine undrinkable. They should replace it with another bottle. If the first one was bad, you will taste the difference in the new bottle. It is bad form to ask for a different wine in this situation. Maybe you will get lucky and that will have been their last bottle of that kind in stock! (LINK to my post on EXPENSIVE WINES)
9. WINE ENJOYMENT IS SUBJECTIVE. No matter what the experts tell you, for 95% of wine consumers – the ones who haven’t trained their palates for years and taken rigorous certification classes – wine enjoyment is subjective. You either like a wine, have a “meh” reaction, or don’t like it at all. Robert Parker can’t tell you if you will like a wine. I try to look at tasting notes only after I have tasted a wine, to see if they got it right for me. There are things to know about specific wines, but, let’s be realistic, most who drink wine will never invest the time and energy to learn more than a few of them.
Wes Hagen, currently of Central California’s J. Wilkes Wines (LINK), shares his way to taste wine for most consumers:
Swirl the wine in the glass and look at the color; put your nose to the glass and sniff the bouquet; if it smells like something you want to put into your mouth, take a sip; if it tastes like something you want to swallow, swallow it; notice the finish.
If you begin from there and add some knowledge as you go, you will never get to a point where Wes’s advice doesn’t hold true.
10. HAVE FUN WITH WINE. Wine is both a beverage and, for some, a lifestyle. I love sharing a good bottle with friends and family, and almost never have an expensive (say over $30) bottle when alone. Dorianne and I used to have wine dinners, where we would ask our guests to bring a special bottle, like the one they’ve been saving for a special occasion for ten years, and a dish to accompany it. At the dinner, each guest will tell the story of their wine as everyone shares it. Or bring a bottle from a trip and share the story of the trip.
Go wine tasting when you travel near wine country – there are hundreds of “wine countries” these days. We have tasted in Mexico, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, England, and in Michigan, Maryland, New York, Virginia, and Texas, to name a few outside of the normal wine destinations. You will meet some great people in the local wine industry, and fellow tasters are often interesting as well.
I am sure that there are other guidelines for enjoying wine. These are my top ten and I hope you find them of value!
I spent the last ten days in Hungary, attending a conference, doing some touring, and tasting quite a few Hungarian wines. As in the past, the experience was uneven – but, like many places, things are looking up. The overall quality of the wines I tasted on this trip indicates a general improvement in the wine making process. As in the past, with the wines of Hungary, whites are a better bet than reds; and rosés are a gamble.
Dorianne and I took one of those touristy wine tasting cruises on the Danube last Friday. Interestingly, the wines we sampled were, overall, the best we had during the entire visit. The cruise was interesting – 90 minutes long and we were alone in wine tasting. We were accompanied by 50 Dutch high schoolers on a trip before graduation (who were not drinking alcohol). The kids were very well-behaved, spoke excellent English, and about a dozen hung with us for conversation and a bit of a lesson in wine.
Benedict was our young tour guide and wine steward, and he had clearly been schooled in the wines we were tasting. Hungary has lots of limestone soils, and grapes are grown all over the country.
As I said, the wines we tasted on the cruise were very good, except the rosé. And Benedict poured us full glasses of each wine! We had to create our own dump bucket using a water glass so we could walk the kilometer or two back to our hotel. Here are the wines:
The first wine, a Tokaji Furmint Grand Selection from the famous Tokaji-Hegyalja region, was dry (most Tokaji wines are sweet): fruit-forward with a soft, rich mouthfeel – reminiscent of an unoaked Chardonnay. We had a number of Furmints on the trip, and all were good. The Bárdos Pinot Grigio had pleasant notes of citrus and would make a great summer wine. The Juház Kékfrankos Rosé had a slight effervescence and herbal notes – I was not a fan of this one.
The selected reds were actually quite good, especially the young Hilltop Premium Merlot, which showed medium tannins, dark fruit, was chewy, and was well-balanced. It should age well over 3-5 years. The Bodri Szekszárdi Civilis Cuvée red blend (Gamay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zweigelt, and Kadarka) had dark fruit flavors, a lighter consistency than the Merlot. It was a bit harsh, but, given time, may even out. Of the two Tokaji sweet wines at the end of the tasting, the Göncöl was rich and balanced; the Megyer was overly sweet for our tastes.
What we expected to be a touristy lark turned out to be a rather serious tasting and a very good experience. If you go, you can’t expect 50 bright, intelligent Dutch teens to be your companions, but you never know . . .
Since moving to Lyon, France this past summer (LINK to Post About Moving to France), much of our time has been spent attempting to learn French (definitely a work in progress), finding our way around town (easy as Lyon is a very walkable city with great public transportation), and traveling back and forth to the US (which will become increasingly less frequent).
I will do another post as a sequel to the one about moving to France soon. For now, let’s talk wine.
Lyon is located in the Rhône-Alps Department (there are 100 departments, or states in France), in the upper part of southeastern France. We are just north of the Rhône Valley at the confluence of the Rhône and the Saône Rivers. A few kilometers to the north, Burgundy begins with the Mâcon region; to the west, Beaujolais is a few kilometers outside the city; to the east, the underappreciated Jura region is a short drive away. Wines from all these regions and more pour into Lyon, a city of about 500K with 2.2 million in the metropolitan area.
There are only two large supermarkets in the city limits, both at malls. Big box stores are restricted to outlying areas, meaning that mom & pop businesses thrive. Every neighborhood has multiple small boulangeries, boucheries, fromageries, green grocers, and wine caves. Small grocery stores have wine departments featuring representative wines from the surrounding regions, mostly from larger producers. The caves (wine shops) have more wines from smaller producers and a few higher-end bottles, but almost all the wines are reasonably priced and would qualify as “everyday wines.” (LINK to @EricAsimov column on Everyday Wines from the NYTimes). We are drinking these wines for the most part with our lunches and dinners at home – spending an average of 10 to 12€ per bottle (top shelf at these stores) – sometimes much less – and enjoying most of them very much. This is why I have not been blogging and Tweeting as much about the wines I am drinking – they are, for the most part, not stand-out wines, but they are good!
My admittedly limited personal research thus far has revealed an interesting fact: THE FRENCH DON’T LIKE TO SPEND A LOT OF MONEY ON WINE.
I don’t know why this surprised me – but I just have not encountered the kind of wine conversations that I had with friends in California. It is more likely to encounter a boxed wine at a dinner party than a higher-end Burgundy or Châteauneuf du Pape. And, by the way, I have had some very drinkable boxed wines here. But I was a bit surprised that the Mecca of fine wine is largely populated with folks who prefer to spend under 10€ a bottle (and 3€ can get you a very nice rosè from Provence). Even when higher-end wines are served at dinner, the conversation is not about the wine. Perhaps a quick recognition of whoever provided it (usually the host), but that’s about it.
Dorianne and I eat at restaurants once or twice a week. Lyon is a gastronomique capital – many of the great Parisian (and New York) chefs train in the many cooking schools here. Lyon has more Michelin Star restaurants per capita than any other city, so food is a big thing here. And this extends downward from the Michelin restaurants all the way to the Bouchons (think bistro but serving Lyonnaise cuisine) and comptoirs. It is difficult to find a bad meal here, and some very nondescript looking places are working magic in their tiny kitchens. And as for wine, once you get out of the Michelin range, the wine lists tend to be fairly modest, featuring value-priced bottles and vins de la maison, usually from a tap or box. The wine list prices are usually at regular retail or just a bit above.
So, my everyday wine experience here in Lyon has been mostly with everyday wines from the wine regions surrounding the city. I will say that French wine producers seem to understand that the French don’t like to pay a lot for wine. The 13€ Burgundy Pinot Noir I get at the local wine cave tastes equivalent to a $30 or $40 bottle of Burgundy purchased in the US. We are enjoying very good wines for very reasonable prices – and feeling very grateful in the process!
I recently spent a couple of days in the Santa Rita Hills (LINK to Prior Posts), located north of the city of Santa Barbara and west of the cities of Santa Ynez and Los Olivos in Santa Barbara County. The unique geography and geology of the Santa Rita Hills AVA (the mountains and valleys run west to east allowing cooling Pacific winds and moisture to come further inland), make this an excellent location for Burgundian grapes, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. There is also a decent amount of Syrah grown here, along with a few other varietals in smaller lots.
Over two days, we visited five wineries and stopped at a sixth just to buy some wine. I am going to feature four, Ampelos, Foley, Hilliard-Bruce, and Pence Ranch.
Pence Ranch Vineyard & Winery (LINK): I visited here last year, when they were relatively new as a tasting room operation (LINK). At that time, I was told that their plan was to open the tasting room for regular hours in the future. When we stopped without an appointment, I was told that they were back to the appointment system, but there was availability. Jake, took us via a large golf cart to a part of the property where an outdoor tasting room area had been created. We had a very nice experience tasting the Pence wines, and then got a tour of the vineyard portion of the property. The Pence Ranch is relatively narrow and runs nearly two miles deep off Route 246 between Buellton and Lompoc. The front of the property is where the vineyards and wine tasting rooms are, the back is an equestrian center and a working cattle ranch. The winery is in Lompoc.
At Pence, you taste the Pinot Noirs before the Chardonnays, the former being elegant in style, the latter being more pronounced, if not the traditional butter-bomb California Chardonnay. Their wines are uniformly well-crafted and made to enjoy with food. This year, we also tasted a Gamay wine, which is young and crisp but very complex. I plan to take a bottle back to France to share with my friends used to drinking Beaujolais. So, make an appointment to visit, or order their wines from their website – you are not likely to find Pence Ranch Wines at your retailer.
Foley Estates Vineyard (LINK): Foley has been making great wine in the Santa Rita Hills for decades. Their tasting room is nicely appointed, next to the huge “barrel room” where special events can be held. Like all the SRH wineries with some history, Foley makes very good Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. They also make a very good Syrah. Their blended Chardonnays, Pinots, and the single vineyard versions of these varietals each have their own characteristics. We particularly liked the 2015 “T-Ranch” Chardonnay and the 2015 “T-Ranch Pinot Noir (there are also 2013 and 2014 Pinots available currently), but all were good. Foley is worth a visit when you are in Santa Barbara County. You can also order wines from their website.
Hilliard Bruce Vineyards (LINK): A smaller, boutique producer, Hilliard Bruce Vineyards occupies 101 acres (21 under cultivation) to the west of storied Clos Pepe Vineyard along Route 246. This was my first visit to Hilliard Bruce and you have to be impressed with the beautiful grounds, architecturally striking winery/tasting room building, and the vineyards of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. The wines do not disappoint. Four 2014 Pinots from their Earth, Sun, Moon, and Sky vineyards, each have nuances that separate them from the others, yet all are clearly in the same family. Spicy, peppery, soft and velvety Pinots will go well with food.
The Chardonnay is also made to go with food, as the bottle we bought to have with our picnic lunch showed. Well-structured, with a hint of buttery mouthfeel, the 2014 Chardonnay is classic Santa Rita Hills in style and should drink well for several years. We did meet John Hilliard during our visit – he was most cordial and, like almost everyone in the wine industry, liked to talk about his wines and his property. Hilliard Bruce is open by appointment; their wines are available via their website.
Ampelos Cellars (LINK): Full disclosure – my wife has known Peter and Rebecca Work for a few decades, having worked with them years ago when they were all with Price-Waterhouse. But Dorianne was not with me on this visit, and Peter and Rebecca, sadly, were not at the tasting room in Lompoc’s Wine Ghetto when some friends and I visited recently. I have enjoyed their wines for years.
Ampelos uses biodynamic and organic farming practices (LINK) and produces a range of wines, some of which are atypical for the Santa Rita Hills AVA. These include their Viognier and Grenache (bottled as a single varietal and blended with Syrah for their Syrache red blend). Viognier and Rose of Syrah constitute the lighter end of their offerings; two Pinot Noirs in the mid-range; and Grenache, Syrah, and Syrache at the heavier end. Of course, none of these wines are really big wines like you would find in Napa Valley or Paso Robles these days. Ampelos focuses on balance and elegance, putting them well within the Santa Rita Hills style in this regard. The vineyard is down the 246 a way; the winery is also in Lompoc. Wines are available for order at the website, and you will find them at better wine shops here and there.
I also stopped at Ken Brown Wines in Buellton to buy some Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on our way out of the area. Brown is one of the pioneers of the AVA and produces some amazing wines in the Burgundian style. I frequently tell my friends in France about the Santa Rita Hills with their east-west mountains and valleys and their Burgundian style Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. Now I will have a few to take back and share with them.
I was directed to Dirty Laundry Vineyards (LINK)(LINK) by a friend from Southern California who hails from the Okanagan Valley area; her husband, also a transplanted Canadian, does the graphic design for the operation. It is a winery with a story.
Located in Summerland, about an hour south of Kelowna on the southwestern shore of Okanagan Lake, Dirty Laundry stands out, less for its wines (which are very good), than for its marketing and story. The first thing you see as you approach the tasting room and patio area is a life-sized cutout of my friend’s daughter, Skyeler, who has modeled for the winery (she’s also on the website and area billboards).
It seems that the main building that now houses the tasting room and offices was formerly a laundry on the first level and a bordello on the second. The winery has taken that story and run with it – in spades. The extensive gift shop has lots of bordello/saloon-related items along with the usual wine-related gifts. Tasting room staff are women in period clothes who regale customers with the story of the place as they pour complimentary tastings. There is a large patio overlooking the vineyards and the lake with an outdoor tasting counter, a beer bar, and an area for live music.
After our tasting (more about the wines in a bit), we met with co-owner HermanTeichtmeister, who asked if we had 20 minutes and spent two hours showing us around and telling the story of the vineyard and winery operations, the marketing plans, the graphic art that is so important, etc. It was one of the most thorough winery tours I have ever had – and we never entered the vineyards.
As one of nearly 200 wineries (some put the number as high as 285) in the Okanagan Region, Dirty Laundry has had an aggressive growth plan, moving from under 10,000 cases to about 35,000 in eight years. The plans are to get above 50,000 in the near future. The challenge, of course, is to do that while maintaining quality and finding more customers. Winemaker Mason Spink’s focus will be on the quality, while HermanTeichtmeister and fellow owners will focus on expanding the market.
Dirty Laundry produces 17 wines. While that is not all that unusual for a growing Okanagan winery, it offers many challenges in terms of consistent quality. I tasted 6 of the wines, and in my opinion, the quality ranged from average to very good. This makes sense in terms of the size and nature of the operation – they are looking for a wide audience of consumers, not the aficionados.
The 2011 Bordello Blend, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc, brings a Bordeaux blend to their lineup. The clever packaging adds to the experience. The label contains images from the bordello days, and one needs a magnifying glass to see what they are.
The 2014 Woo Woo Vines Gewürztraminer is a complex wine, nicely crafted, and stands up well to the best in the Okanagan, where Gewürztraminer is the king of white wines.
Dirty Laundry Vineyards is a great place to visit to have fun, be entertained and refreshed, and get something to eat. If you see their wines in the store (in Canada for now), you should give them a try.
Dorianne and I are spending three weeks in Southwest Oregon, and wine tasting will be part of the experience (of course!). We were here just about a year ago (LINK).
Our first two winery visits were to 2Hawk Winery (LINK) in Medford and Ledger David (LINK) Wine TastingRoom in Central Point. Both are part of the Rogue Valley AVA (LINK).
2Hawk was within walking distance of where we were staying for the weekend in Medford. The tasting room, winery, and the family home are all on the 23.5 acre estate, where many of the grapes are grown – others are sourced from other vineyards in the area. The tasting room, completed in 2012, is very nice, following historic California architectural styling and using a variety of rustic building materials, both local and imported.
When we arrived, the two “flagship” estate wines were sold out. We tasted their 2015 Viognier and Chardonnay – the Chardonnay is estate grown. Both showed good balance and nice fruit from the nose through the finish. The Viognier was especially nice – in the French style. The reds, a Malbec and a blend, were less impressive, and made us wish those flagship reds had been available, especially their Tempranillo. We also tried their rosé, made from Grenache. A very nice wine. We purchased bottles of the Viognier and Grenache Rosé.
Later in the week, I visited Ledger David Cellars tasting room without Dorianne, but with three friends. The tasting room is a small, but nicely appointed space in Central Point, a small town north of Medford that does not appear the be the central point of anything.
At Ledger David I had one of those amazing experiences where pretty much everything turns out beautifully. A good group of friends, a nice atmosphere, a very high caliber staff, and some amazing wines constellated in that couple of hours – along with some very nice chocolates!
Let’s cut to the chase – the wines. At worst, the Ledger David wines I tasted were better than average. At best, they were superb; all are estate grown just north of Ashland. Production is just 3500 cases, 11 varietals, on about 40 acres of vineyard (some fruit is sold).
White varietals: Chenin Blanc, Malvasia Bianca, Viognier, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc
Red varietals: Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Malbec, Sangiovese, Tempranillo and Petit Verdot
We explored beyond the basic tasting list and were ably guided by Scott Oakley, something of a tasting room legend in the Rogue Valley, and a relative newcomer to Ledger David. Scott is one of those people who was born to work in the hospitality business, and would be equally at home in a Michelin Star Restaurant. Our experience was made more amazing because of his efforts to ensure that we had the best possible experience. But I digress.
The wines, whether white or red, were superbly crafted, well-balanced, and each had its own character. The 2015 Sauvignon Blanc, as an example, fell somewhere between French and New Zealand Sauv Blancs. It was grassy, but neither heavy on citrus nor on green fruit. There was a hint of minerality and a generous mouthfeel. A nice wine for summer and it will be excellent with oysters. The 2016 Viognier was very nicely crafted, with hints of pear and apricot and a floral nose. This is a very impressive white wine – the winemakers of this area are doing very nice things with Viognier.
The reds at Ledger David were varied. We tasted six reds, and each was unique – to me a good sign of a relatively light touch indicating the winemaker lets the fruit speak for itself. If I were a 100-point scale person (which, as a rule, I am not), I would place all of these wines in the 89-95-point range. I have not checked to see if anyone has done this. One of the wines, a 100% Petite Verdot, was nearly gone, down to 6 bottles (4 when we left), so I won’t critique it other than to say it was unique, full bodied, and cried out for a rack of lamb.
The other reds, mostly blends, were excellent. I purchased a few bottles of a wine called Epitome of Three – Tempranillo, Sangiovese and Syrah – an Old World tour, that was very nice. It’s only available at the tasting room.
Reds that are available via the website include a 2014 Dark Night blend, a 2014100% Tempranillo, a 2014 100% Cabernet Franc, a 2013 Orion’s Nebula blend (did not taste this one), a 2013 Sangiovese, and a 2014 Sublimus blend. Of these, the Cabernet Franc and the Sublimus blend stood out for me.
We left with a number of bottles and will enjoy these wines over the next few weeks (I can’t take more than a couple with me to our next stop!).
The Rogue Valley area wines are showing some maturity, a very good sign that the wines produced here will take their place among Oregon’s best over the next few years.
Recently, Dorianne and I visited two very impressive wineries in Santa Barbara County with friends. The purpose of the trip was to scout locations for a wine tasting tour to benefit a non-profit organization. We tagged along to be of any possible assistance!
The first winery, Presqu’ile Vineyard & Winery(LINK), is located in the Santa Maria Valley AVA(LINK) near the Bien Nacido vineyard in northern Santa Barbara County. A family run operation set on a beautiful 200 acre vineyard property and boasting some amazing architecture, Presqu’ile (pronounced press-KEEL; it means penninsula) focuses on Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. The beauty of the tasting room, cave, and winery seem beyond what one finds at a vineyard & winery operation producing only 1600 cases per year.
Matt Sobczak, the Tasting Room Manager, conducted our tasting. The wines that we tasted were very good, even exceptional in the case of the Chardonnays; and the Pinot Noirs were a close second. The Sauvignon Blanc was also very good. The 2013 Steiner Creek Vineyard Chardonnay was particularly good, with a rich mouth feel, ample green fruit on the nose and palate, and a pleasant finish. We bought a bottle to share with some cheese and snacks after the tasting, and several of us bought more to take home.
The 2014 Presqu’ile Vineyard Chardonnay is also beautifully crafted and should please those who love the traditional California-style Chardonnays in a slightly less oaky, more modern form.
Dieter Cronje is the wine maker at Presqu’ile. We did not meet him, but I will laud his talents in crafting Burgundian-style wines with a California influence. Presqu’ile wines can be ordered from their website (LINK) and the winery is worth a visit and not far from other wineries off the 101 Freeway.
Our next stop was Pence Ranch Vineyards & Winery (LINK), along Route 246 West in Buellton, California in the Santa Rita Hills AVA (LINK). As I have noted before (LINK), the Santa Rita Hills AVA is unique in that the mountains and valleys run east to west due to a geological anomaly – the AVA is on land not connected to the North American Tectonic Plate. The Pence Ranch property is relatively narrow and runs north from Route 246 West, just west of the part of Buellton made famous in the film, “Sideways.”
Josh Hamilton was on duty in the small, but nicely appointed tasting room (open only by appointment for now). There is also another area adjacent to the tasting room that can accommodate more visitors. Pence has a relatively small production, under 1500 cases, and is expanding into a second label for restaurants. The Pence labels represent depictions of images of freedom and coins from the founding of the United States.
For our tasting, Josh poured the Pinot Noirs first, then the Syrah, and only then the Chardonnays. The reason for this is that the Pinots are elegant by California standards, as is the Syrah. The two Chardonnays are rich and fuller-bodied, yet still retain a sense of elegance. So, this unconventional tasting pattern – reds first – makes sense at Pence Ranch Winery.
The wines at Pence are exceptionally well-crafted. The Pinots are a bit spicy and peppery, but hold their soft fruit on the nose and in the mouth. They are very well-balanced and will work sipping alone, with light cheeses, or with foods such as salmon or vegetarian dishes.
The Chardonnays, both single-vineyard as are the Pinots, are rich yet very smooth. There is an oakiness present, but it does not dominate. The mouthfeel has a nice viscosity and there are many layers to both wines – great complexity here. All the Pence wines(LINK) are well-crafted. Get your hands on some if you can! We took away several bottles.
I am a huge fan of Santa Rita Hills wines, where the Burgundianstyle has been carried forward by such local legendary labels as Sanford, Clos Pepe, Ken Browne, LaFond, and others. Pence is establishing itself among those names – they produce Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays that reflect the Santa Rita Hillsterroir very well.
I really didn’t find anything to complain about at either winery. The price points are a bit high, but they make sense when you understand the size and the quality of the operations at both vineyard/wineries. Both Presqu’ile and Pence are wineries worth your time if you are in the Santa Barbara County wine regions. And if you can’t visit, you can order their wines to enjoy at home.
Earlier this week, Dorianne and I spent a couple of days in the California Central Coast Wine Country with friends. We stayed at the KonTiki Inn, a mid-20th Century gem in Pismo Beach. Don’t try to reserve a room at the KonTiki online – you can’t. They have a website (LINK), but you can’t reserve there or on the other online hotel sites. It’s very retro, very well maintained, very inexpensive, every room has an ocean view, and it’s very comfortable.
On Monday, we drove up to Paso Robles and visited three wineries. The first was Peachy Canyon (LINK)on Paso’s West Side. The tasting room is picturesque – they have been around for a while, since 1988 – and their wines are very drinkable. There is a nice selection of clothing and wine stuff in the tasting room shop. The $10 tasting fee is waived with a two-bottle purchase. Peachy Canyon is known for their Zinfandels, but their whites are also worth a look, as well as their other reds.
Next, we went over to Paso Robles’ East Side, to Sculptera Winery & Sculpture Garden (LINK). This was my first visit to Sculptera, even though I have been to Paso Robles many times. The first thing that you notice about Sculptera, after passing through the vineyards, is the amazing front sculpture garden. Here is a sample of what is there – there is another garden behind the tasting room.
Inside, the tasting room is nicely appointed, with more sculptures, including miniature versions of some of the larger sculptures. At this point, my suspicions were aroused – how often does an impressive winery and tasting room that clearly cost millions of dollars produce mediocre and overpriced wines?
Well, Sculptera is not in that category. The wines were uniformly excellent – so much so, that all three couples – all knowledgeable about wine – ended up joining the wine club. As I write this, two cases of their wines are on the way to our temporary residence, Roam.co (LINK), in Miami. And the tasting room staff was knowledgeable and very good at what they do. Their wines are priced from the low $20’s to $60.
Several of the wines on the tasting list (8 wines) were exceptional, including the first one poured, the newly-released 2015 Viognier, one of those whites that hits your palate and you instantly know that it is exceptional; it has everything you want, a rich bouquet – floral with hints of minerality; a slightly viscous mouthfeel; lots of green fruit and levels of complexity; and a smooth and very pleasing finish. At $26 retail, this wine is a bargain. Other highlights were the 2013 Pinot Noir, which was peppery and earthy, but the fruit held its own (yes, a good Pinot Noir from Paso Robles); the 2014 Primitivo (and the 2013 Primitivo Reserve, which was not on the list, but was poured for us), a big wine that also showed complexity and balance; the 2012 Merlot, also nicely balanced; and the two blends we tried, 2013 Figurine (45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 42% Primitivo, & 13% Merlot), and the 2013 Statuesque (38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Syrah, 28% Petite Syrah). There is also a second label called Héroe Wines, which are also very good as well, and they honor the workers who produced it on the labels, front and back. So many good wines.
Our final stop was at Cass Winery (LINK), where we had lunch from their excellent kitchen. We did not do a tasting here, but had glasses of wine with lunch. Cass produces very good Rhône-style wines, and their whites – Rousanne & Marsanne and the blend they make with them are superior. It is a great lunch spot with indoor and outdoor seating and a very convivial atmosphere in the tasting room.
Paso Robles is one of the most interesting wine regions in California right now. There are some wineries that have been around long enough to develop some great wines, there are some who are very nearly at that point, and there are a lot of very innovative things happening with interesting varietals and new viticulture and wine making techniques. A great place to visit.
The next day, we drove south to the Bien Nacido area and the Santa Rita Hills AVA to visit two very interesting wineries – more about that in the next post.