Italy in Sonoma

Sangiovese, barbera, primitivo…the classic Italian grape varieties most cultivated across Italy. But grown in Sonoma, California?

Read my full article on Palate Press, the online wine magazine.

New Favorite Wine Gadget: The Wine Finer

In Healdsburg, California last month on our Sonoma Wine Country Weekend, we stopped into the great little home furnishings store, Lime Stone (owned by Charlie Palmer’s wife Lisa), and found my new favorite wine gadget, The Wine Finer.

This 4-in-1 wine accessory is a brilliant design from Marcus Vagnby and Nuance, a Danish kitchen appliance, home and barware company. It does everything you need:

  • Wine Aerator: With 32 aeration and filter vents, it decants a whole bottle of red wine in 30 seconds. You can hear it as you pour the wine into each glass. Aerating red wine is good as thorough oxidation brings out the best tastes (I’ve also used it on whites).
  • Fine Strainer & Filter: An inner stainless screen filters out any sediment as you pour it into the glass.
  • Non-Drip Wine Pourer: Just insert in the bottle, pour and no drips!
  • Wine Stopper: Made of solid silicone, it fits tightly in the bottle and serves as a stopper for drinking later.

It was only $29.95! Now also in a deluxe version. No need to decant a full bottle at once…you can do it one glass at a time.

Cheers to the perfect wine gadget!

Sonoma Wine Country Weekend: Hot Air Ballooning Over the Vineyards

WOW! sums up my first hot air ballooning experience. My husband surprised me for my birthday with the trip during our Sonoma Wine Country Weekend. What a way to see wine country!

It was an early morning start but so worth it. We met the Up & Away crew at the Sonoma County Airport. Conditions were perfect so we headed over to an area on the runway to prep for take off. It was a chilly clear morning (dress in layers) but we warmed up quickly as we assisted the crew. It starts out slowly…laying out tarps, unrolling the balloon, cold inflating with a giant fan…then they fire up the burners and things literally heat up.

Our balloon, Sonoma Star, was inflating nicely just as the other two balloons going up that morning were. We were lucky enough to be in a private ride with our pilot Jimmy. Then the winds started to shift and our balloon started to blow sideways. The crew rushed to try to keep it inflating evenly. There was talk of having to start over. The other balloons were almost done. When the wind shifted again, Sonoma Star started to rise as we all held onto the basket to keep it down. Jimmy instructed us to jump in the basket… and we were off. Suddenly it was quiet and we were floating up into the air looking at the other two balloons below us. Incredible… this must be what it feels like to fly!

For the next seventy-five minutes we floated where Mother Nature took us…winds driving us south to Santa Rosa. It was a quiet still Sunday morning, not a cloud in the sky, it warmed as the sun rose in the sky. The only noise came when Jimmy fired up the burners. We floated over houses, waved good morning to people, scared a few horses and cows, and just enjoyed the majestic views of the vineyards, many still full of color, the mountains in the distance with the fog laying close yet to burn off.

The crew stayed in touch and tracked us on the ground. Then came the fun part…where to land? We couldn’t quite make it to our destination as the winds calmed so we wound up landing in a nice open field. The crew caught up with us to help. And then two other ‘crews’ who had been following us showed up…two cars full of little boys insisting their parents follow us for the last thirty minutes. 🙂 Jimmy brought us down safely and the boys helped pack up the balloon.

After all the excitement we headed over the Kendall Jackson Winery Estate for a champagne brunch in their vineyards. Mike, owner of Up and Away, was there to greet and thank us.

Everyone, including our hotel The Farmhouse Inn, recommends Up and Away. They do private balloon rides, groups (one of the balloons up with us held about 10 people) and even do weddings in the balloons!!

Put this on your lifetime MUST GO list. It’s a phenomenal experience!

Visit the gallery for more great photos from the trip.

Sonoma Wine Country Weekend: Day Three at the Wineries

For the last day of our Sonoma Wine Country Weekend, we headed into northern Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley, known for Cabernet Sauvignon, and Dry Creek Valley, known for Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc produced from its warm days and morning fog off the Pacific Ocean. These two wine areas definitely feel different than the Russian River Valley…more hills, warmer, lots of colorful leaves still on the vines.

Jordan Vineyard & Winery

Jordan is a gorgeous 1,300-acre estate in the Alexander Valley with a stunning 18th century chateau replica sitting at the end of its winding driveway. Of all the wineries we visited on the trip, this is the biggest (70,000-90,000 cases per year) and most easy to find wine in your market (now available in all fifty states and thirty countries). I began a conversation with Jordan last September during the #CabernetDay virtual wine tasting event. Very impressed with the Cabernet Sauvignon education they gave me that day, I thought it a good place to visit so we booked a tour.

Jordan started in 1972 when Tom Jordan, a trained geologist in the oil and gas business from Denver, bought this property. Tom and his wife, great lovers of European wine and food, actually tried to buy Château Margaux in the late 1960s until the French realized they were American. Then one night after enjoying an incredible California wine from Georges de Latour’s Beaulieu Vineyard made by André Tchelistcheff they decided to build a winery in California. Now run by Tom’s son John, Rob Davis, their winemaker for thirty-five years (mentored by Tschelistcheff), leads production of their Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.

The winery tour was a treat… worth booking in advance and the $30 per person fee. Maribel greeted our small group of six and lead us on an educational grounds and chateau tour, stopping along the way for lovely wine tastings paired with delicious nibbles from Jordan’s chef Todd Knoll. The property is beautiful and the wine facilities state of the art including their own irrigation system. The Barrel Room is impressive with 4,000 barrels stacked high and the Library full of old wines and artifacts. Our last stop was the Cellar Room, revealed behind a secret door in the Library, where we enjoyed a sit down wine tasting paired with yummy artisan cheeses and the Jordan Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

We tasted their ’09 Chardonnay Russian River Valley, ’00 Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County, ’03 Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley and ’07 Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley. My favorite…

2003 Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley

  • Grape Variety: 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 2% Petit Verdot, 2% Cabernet Franc
  • Aroma: Blueberry
  • Taste: Rich blueberry and cedar
  • Price: $59
  • My thoughts: Delicious blueberry forward wine with a slight hint of cedar…my kind of Cabernet Sauvignon…bold but not too overwhelming!

Jordan wines are definitely worth picking up to try at home and if you’re in Sonoma, they are worth booking a visit. The team was extremely welcoming! When you book a tour you’re automatically enrolled in their Jordan Estates Rewards Program where you accumulate points for exclusive experiences with Jordan. Also check out their website and follow them on Twitter (@jordanwinery).

UNTI Vineyards

In planning our trip, Unti was on my list to visit. But as they are by appointment tastings and I hadn’t made an appointment in advance, I didn’t think we’d get to them. In route to Dry Creek Valley and our third stop, I saw Unti’s sign on the side of the road so we decided to pop in. So glad we did!

Down the dirt road through their vineyards, we parked and went into their rustic tasting room. Gina was there to greet us and invited us in for a tasting. It was Monday and they had plenty of time.

Unti Vineyards is a family affair started by George Unti and his wife Linda in 1997. Their son Mick manages operations and winemaking. Gina is their daughter. George’s family roots go back to Tuscany where his father was from. After years in the grocery business, George got into wine and now they have sixty acres of grapes growing eleven different varietals. Here’s a great map of their vineyards.

Dry Creek Valley’s climate is ideal for growing classic Mediterranean grape varieties. Unti’s goal is to make the best and most interesting wines from their property in partnership with Mother Nature. French Sebastian Pochan has been their winemaker for eight years.

Gina tasted us through their ’10 Cuvee Blanc, ’08 Grenache, ’09 Segromigno, ’08 Zinfandel, ’08 Syrah, ’07 Syrah Benchland and ’09 Petit Frere. My favorite and what we brought home…

2008 Segromigno

  • “This wine is not a traditional Tuscan blend, rather more like a Rosso Piceno from Le Marche where it can be any blend of Sangiovese and Montepulciano.
  • Grape Variety: 92% Sangiovese, 8% Montepulciano
  • Aroma & Taste: Bright cherry, chocolate and dried herbs 
  • Price: $26
  • My thoughts: I love Sangiovese and Montepulciano, classic Italian varietals. Unti has does a great job growing and blending them in California. Unti is the only vineyard in CA growing Montepulciano.

A fun laid back experience awaits you at Unti and some fantastic wines!! Definitely make an appointment to stop by or as they are small production, around 7,000 cases, you can also buy them online.

Michel-Schlumberger Wines

We found our way up into the Dry Creek Valley for our last winery visit…the gorgeous Spanish mission-style estate of Michel-Schlumberger. Another Twitter connection (@M_Schlumberger and @sonomawineguy), I thought it would be fun to stop by to say hi. I tried and loved their Pinot Blanc over dinner at Zazu a few nights before so wanted to taste more of their wines.

The estate was founded in 1979 by Jean-Jacques Michel from Switzerland and originally named Domaine Michel. In the early 1990’s Jacques Schlumberger, who’s family had been making wine in the French Alsace for four hundred years, joined Jean-Jacques and his business partner Ridgely Bullock creating the current name. Known for their excellent Bordeaux varietals they concentrate on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Chardonnay. Winemaker Bryan Davidson develops wines that are imprinted with the terrior and nuances of each vintage.

We sat outside on the gorgeous patio looking out onto the vineyards for a fun tasting with Laurie, their wine educator…’10 La Nue Unoaked Chardonnay, ’09 Le Fou Pinot Noir (they are the only Pinot Noir in the Dry Creek Valley, made in true Burgundian style), ’07 Le Sage Merlot, ’08 La Cime Cabernet Sauvignon and ’09 La Source Syrah. My favorite…

2007 Le Sage Merlot

  • “Le Sage,” French for “The Wise,” describes this wine that expresses the terroir of their estate.
  • Grape Variety: 95% Merlot, 5% Malbec
  • Aroma: Aromatic dried flowers and fruit 
  • Taste: Fruity, floral with a spiciness
  • Price: $35
  • My thoughts: While I’m usually not a Merlot fan, I really liked this wine for its many layers…fruit, floral and spice.

We bought a bottle of the Merlot to bring home. And as a birthday gift Jim and Laurie were sweet enough to give me a bottle of their Pinot Blanc! 🙂 The winery offers a variety of tasting options and tours all by appointment.

That wraps up the three days of winery tours. Lastly I’ll share details on our exhilirating hot air balloon ride and delicious dining!

Visit the gallery for more great photos from the trip.

Sonoma Wine Country Weekend: Day Two at the Wineries

On the second day of our Sonoma Wine Country Weekend, after an exhilarating early morning hot air balloon ride over Sonoma County vineyards, we visited wineries in the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Valley…Martinelli Vineyards and Winery, VJB Vineyards & Cellars and Muscardini Cellars.

Martinelli Vineyards and Winery

Our first stop was in the Russian River Valley just off River Road at Martinelli’s historic old red hops barn home to their tasting room and winemaking facilities. Now in the families fifth generation of winemakers, it all started in 1860 when Giuseppe and Luisa Martinelli came to California from Tuscany, Italy where Guiseppe had been a winemaker. After two years of working in Forestville they purchased their own land on a 60 degree slope planting Zinfandel and Muscat Alexandria Vines. This slope became known as Jackass Hill Vineyard, when in the early 1900’s the family told son Leno, who had taken over the farming when Guiseppe passed away, that only a jackass would farm a hill that steep. Today this land remains the steepest non-terraced vineyard in Sonoma County and is home to some of the region’s best single vineyard designate Zinfandel.

Leno’s son Lee Sr. took over and in 1973 expanded the vineyards to include Uncle Tony Bondi’s apple orchards replanting with grapes. Lee and his wife Carolyn started the winery on its current site in 1987. In 1993 they brought in the county’s most talented winemaker Helen Turley, Winemaker of the Year from Food & Wine in 1999. She still consults with current winemaker Bryan Kvamme while Lee Sr and his two sons farm, own and operate the business. The family sells 90% of the fruit they grow keeping the best 10% for their wines producing X cases.

Judy greeted us on a rather quiet morning and took us through an incredible tasting of their wines along with the journey of the Russian River Valley. Judy has worked with the Martinelli’s for thirteen years and is extremely knowledgable. All Martinelli wines are 100% varietal from their vineyards and made the same way…handcrafted, un-fined, un-filtered, neither cold nor heat stabilized. So what you taste is the terroir, the land and soil. It was an incredible tasting… ’07 Martinelli Road Chardonnay, ’08 Zio Tony Ranch Chardonnay, ’08 Lolita Ranch Pinot Noir, ’08 Moonshine Ranch Pinot Noir, ’08 Zio Tony Ranch Pinot Noir, ’07 Terra Felice Syrah, ’08 Vigneto di Evo Zinfandel and ’09 Jackass Hill Muscat Alexandria. My favorites…

Pinot Noir Tasting

  • ’08 Lolita Ranch Pinot Noir, ’08 Moonshine Ranch Pinot Noir, ’08 Zio Tony Ranch Pinot Noir
  • Grape Variety: 100% Pinot Noir
  • Aroma & Taste: Lolita Ranch was blueberry and spicy. Moonshine Ranch was dark berry and smoky. Zio Tony Ranch was molasses, cherry, vanilla.
  • Price: $60 each
  • My thoughts: Tasting these three side by side was extremely educational in illustrating the terroir impact on the grapes. As Judy said Pinot Noir “is a grape that talks!” All Pinot Noir grapes from their vineyards in the Russian River Valley, all made the same way but all taste different and unique.

2008 Vigneto de Evo Zinfandel

  • Grape Variety: 100% Zinfandel
  • Aroma: Caramel
  • Taste: Blackberry, fig, apricot
  • Price: $30
  • My thoughts: I loved the way Judy described this wine, “a friendly pizza zin with a long finish so it goes with food.” I’m usually not a Zin drinker but this one is excellent. Comes from vineyards directly below Jackass Hill. Bought a bottle of this to bring home.

We also bought the 2009 Bondi Home Ranch Pinot Noir which comes from the Green Valley AVA, an area great for Burgundian varietals. Judy highly recommended it. And we liked the 2009 Jackass Hill Muscat Alexandria, made from 100 year old vines on Jackass Hill, a sweet honeysuckle floral wine that as Judy said “you gulp down like a shot. It turns lumpy people alive again after a big Thanksgiving dinner.”

The tasting room is open 10am to 5pm daily with a $5 tasting fee.

VJB Vineyards & Cellars 

Next we headed south into the Sonoma Valley. Just off Sonoma Highway in Kenwood, we found one of our favorites of the trip, VJB! Stepping into their tasting room was like stepping into a little Italian cafe. They were on my list of stops as their focus is old style Italian wines. They grow classic Italian varietals in Sonoma like Sangiovese, Barbera, Primitivo, Aglianico (only one to grow in the U.S.) as well as Sonoma varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay.

VJB is a small family owned winery run by father Vittorio and his son Henry Belmonte. Vittorio and his wife Maria came to the U.S. in 1963 from their hometown of Bonito, Italy south of Naples where Vittorio worked on the family vineyard since age eight. After settling on the east coast they moved to Kenwood in 1976. Maria opened a small cafe and then a restaurant in Santa Rosa in 1987. The family made wines for home and their restaurant. Then in 1999 brothers Victor and Henry evolved that wine making into VJB Vineyards & Cellars. In 2003, they closed the restaurant and opened their current tasting room.

Vittorio welcomed us as he stood behind the big wooden bar pouring wines on this Sunday afternoon. He had me at “buon giorno”! 🙂 We tasted through their ’10 Gabriella Ranch Chardonnay, ’08 Estate Sangiovese, ’09 Mendocino Barbera (won Gold Medal at 2011 Denver International Wine Competition), ’06 V’Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, ’09 Sonoma Valley Primitivo, ’08 Dante (85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Sangiovese), ’09 Nero d’Avola, ’08 Estate Anglianico and ’08 Chardonnay Port. My favorites…it was so tough to decide so we joined the club and shipped home a case including their Prosecco they import directly from Italy! But if I had to pick out of what we tasted that day…

2008 Estate Sangiovese 

  • Grape Variety: 100% Sangiovese
  • Aroma: Red fruit and cedar
  • Taste: Soft, strawberry and black cherry
  • Price: $28 (sold out)
  • My thoughts: I love this grape, a classic in Tuscany. Was very cool to try it grown in Sonoma and tasted just like the ones I love!

2009 Primitivo 

  • Grape Variety: 100% Primitivo
  • Aroma: Blackberry, baking spices
  • Taste: Smooth jammy blackberry
  • Price: $26
  • My thoughts: I got to know this grape in Puglia, Italy last summer. Excellent example of what this grape gives you in a wine and its grown in the U.S.!

Overall their wines are very smooth, easy and approachable with great price points. They produce only 5,000 cases per year, sold through their tasting room, wine club, online and a few restaurants. Their Club Enoteca wine club is free to join and you chose from three bottles a quarter, one case in May and November, or one case a quarter. It also gives you access to their small productions and 20% savings on all wines.

The tasting room is open daily from 10am to 5pm with a $5 tasting fee. Just next door their NEW Tasting Room & Marketplace is under construction and looks just like an Enoteca you’d find in Italy.  Opening is planned for spring so mark your calendars!

Muscardini Cellars 

Our last stop of the day was just down Sonoma Highway at Muscardini Cellars tasting room, shared with Ty Caton Vineyards. There was quite the party going on with a large group when we arrived, but it broke up shortly after and we had a nice visit with Randall as his last customers of the day.

Michael Muscardini is owner and winemaker for this very small production winery, approximately 1,500 case per year. Michael’s grandfather came to San Francisco from Italy in 1892 and eventually started St. Helena Napa Valley Wine Co., where he sold specialty bulk wines. In 2000, Michael came back to his roots and planted his first Sangiovese vines. While they grew he learned winemaking.

We tasted the ’10 Barbera, ’09 Sangiovese, ’10 Rosato Sangiovese, ’09 Zinfandel and ’08 Fortuna. My favorite…

2010 Rosato di Sangiovese

  • Grape Variety: 100% Sangiovese
  • Aroma & Taste: Classic crisp strawberry, grapefruit finish
  • Price: $19
  • My thoughts: Was great to try not only a rose wine from Sonoma but one made from Sangiovese!

Tasting room is open daily 11am to 6pm with a $10 fee (covers Muscardini and Ty Caton wines).

Next I’ll take you on our final day at the wineries…Jordan Winery, Unti Vineyards and Michel-Sclumberger.

Visit the gallery for more great photos from the trip.