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We have good friends who have a lovely home and vineyard in Healdsburg, and their gracious invitations allow us to visit many of the local wineries, including the following:

Amista Vineyards

Although I was told that I’ve been here before, it seemed like the first time to me.  It was most likely just after lunch, when winetasting is dissolved in the aftertaste of too much food. 

2005 Morningsong Vineyards Dry Creek Valley Chardonnay at $22 is a very fruity, crisp, full and grassy chardonnay.  It doesn’t have the buttery taste from much malolactic fermentation, but neither does it lack the complexity like some steel chardonnays. 

2003 Morningsong Vineyards Dry Creek Valley Syrah at $24 is a very nice full flavored syrah with good fruit in abundance.  This wine is big enough to enjoy with some very rich foods.

2005 Saini Farms – Gene’s Block, Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel at $28 is less sweet and seems to have a brighter fruit taste to it than other Saini Farms wines I’ve enjoyed.  It is very food friendly and has a strong finish.

2003 Dry Creek Valley Cabernet Sauvignon at $26 is listed on their menu as “approachable”, which is a pretty good word for it.  I found it to be a lighter, very smooth Cabernet, with good fruit and (dare I say it) a bit of leather mixed in.  My wife will like this one a lot with lamb, rather than the typical beef I’d usually pair with a Cabernet Sauvignon.

The two people at Amista were very nice to get to know and made this a fun stop.  They knew their stuff and were very easygoing and friendly.

Amista Vineyards is located at 3320 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, CA 95448, Phone 707-431-9200. www.amistavineyards.com

Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves

If you don't think you can enjoy magnificent facility built in a cave cut into the side of hill, don't go here. When we went the first time, it was 106 degrees outside and inside the cave it was cool and comfortable. When they weren't busy, they spoiled us as we sat at a table and they brought wine to us, but I wouldn't expect that luxury any more as they've been discovered.  Oh, and they have some pretty good wines too...almost forgot that part.

Dry Rose, 2007 ($20.00). I called it a "Sangria for grown-ups". It is not very dry, but it doesn't have a sugary jammy taste either. It was a very pleasant start to our tasting at Bella.

Rose, 2008, ($22.00). At their "Pink Out" event 4/4/09, we had to start with this newly released Rose. The cave people were dressed in various outfits of pink, from a toga to fuzzy pink chaps.  This new Rose has a nice strawberry and grapefruit taste that is very refreshing and pleasant. It is semi-dry and perfect for those upcoming summer parties.

Dry Creek Zinfandel, 2006 ($25.00). My notes say, "Read the description- Bullseye down the middle but not at all whimpy. Very nice now. 2 years will make it smooth and flourish." The description says, "classic expression of old-school Dry Creek zinfandel balanced, old-vine-style: big fruit and not overpowering."  We're both right.

Lily Hill Estate Zinfandel, 2006 ($36.00). Big, but only 14.9% alcohol. Made right under the caves. I don't get the berries that they use in their description, but I taste a very nice black ripe cherry flavor. This is a 90 year-old vineyard. The previous vintage scored 94 points.

Lily Hill Estate Zinfandel, 2007 ($40.00). A spicier Zinfandel with more weight to it and more fruit forward taste.  It has just a little bit of an edge to it, but it was just bottled about six weeks before we tried it (bottled 2/18/08) so I think another year or two in the bottle will balance it out well.

Syrah, Sonoma County, Lily Hill and Sonoma Coast, 2006. ($28.00). Whoopee! Bright fruit-forward but crisp.  I was looking for prosciutto & pasta. Very good!

Lily Hill Estate Syrah, 2007 ($40.00). This is a Syrah with 15% Grenache blended in. It has a dark cherry nose and taste. Quite dry with controlled tannins and well balanced fruit. It is not a heavy Syrah; I'd call it middle weight with a nice spicy finish.

Zinfandel, River Ranch, 2005 ($18.00 375ml). Nice fruity, not huge, but it has fruit all of the way from the start through the finish.

Bell Canyon Zinfandel, 2005 ($35.00). Hey! It's a 2006 and should be rough, but it's not much at al. Hit me again because I didn't get it the first time. Big fruit, no jam. Give it a couple of years and hit me again. This is a great balanced Zin.

Two Patch Zinfandel, Todd and Big River Vineyards, 2006 ($35.00). This one has the deepest, darkest fruit. It is not bright, but has a structured depth. It is super smooth for its age. Yummy, not gummy.

Two Patch Zinfandel, 2007 ($38.00) This Zinfandel starts with a floral and berry nose . It is moderately rich and fruity, but also very smooth. They say violets and boysenberry start off and lead to strawberry and vanilla.  It has a very long finish that I was still savoring a minute after my last sip.

Late Picked Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley, 2006 ($32.00). This didn't get sweet enough to label as a late harvest dessert wine, but it is a sweeter and richer Zinfandel than normal. I found it similar to the derriere series from LVC and was craving some Bleu Cheese or Blueberry Pie to lock myself in the cellar with.

Late Harvest Zinfandel, 2007 ($24.00). Need chocolate...gasp.  Not thick, but quite sweet. Great fruit. Sort of port light.

Late Harvest Zinfandel, 2008 ($25.00)With 12% residual sugar, this late harvest wine has a pretty significant sweetness to it, but it is not at all overweight or sticky. The 14.5% alcohol is completely hidden by the rich fruit. The finish is long with just a little hint of maple syrup.

Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves can be found at 9711 West Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, CA 95448, Phone 707-473-9171. www.bellawinery.com

Benziger Family Winery

These guys have some very nice and attractively priced wines year round, but even more so when they do their big sales. We went up there pick up a ton of wine (okay, maybe more like 600 pounds but it felt like a ton) and while there decided to indulge ourselves in tasting more than a few of their selections.  We were hosted by a lovely lady, Kat Stephens, who was both pleasant and spirited. I also got to meet two of the Benziger family, Bob, who is in charge of customer relations and Joe, who is the winemaker at Imagery. We had a chance to chat, and through it all, you realize two things: These folks know wine and they love wine.  It shows in their product. They also love the environment and our health, as they produce both organically farmed grapes and biodynamically farmed grapes.  These special selections are available only at the winery, and it's worth the trip. To appreciate the terroir of Benziger Family Winery, you need to visit the winery and take a look at an aerial picture. Their estate vineyards form a terraced bowl that is unique amongst all I've seen.

Sauvignon Blanc, Shone Farm, Russian River Valley, 2007 ($29.00).   This wine is fermented in stainless steel. My first impression reminded me of an old Kung Fu show with "Oh Grassapple, you've learned well." The bright crisp flavor of green apple with a little grassy taste was very entertaining. It is bright, fruity, and well balanced.

Chardonnay, Carneros Reserve, ($32.00). It starts with a vanilla-apple nose. This chardonnay is rich, but not at all heavy. I sensed an almost caramel finish with just a touch of sweetness.  This one took a Gold Medal at the Harvest Fair

Merlot, Sonoma County Reserve, 2005 ($42.00). Another Harvest Fair Gold Medal winner, this is also another very well balanced and very smooth wine. This Merlot is rich with moderate fruit and a long finish with just a touch of astringency. I like it a lot today and expect to love it in a couple of years.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Stone Farm Vineyard, 2005 ($40.00). A classic dry Cabernet Sauvignon. It still has a lot of tannins with moderate dark fruit It is complex enough while still being a pretty straightforward Cabernet Sauvignon.

Bordeaux Blend, Oonapais, Sonoma Mountain, 2005 ($50.00). Fresh blackberry nose. This is not a little wine. It is a big mouthful with a lot going on. It is complex and well balanced with an ample flourish of dark berry fruit.

Bordeaux Blend, Tribute, Sonoma Mountain, 2005 ($80.00). Having scored 94 points and being chosen by Wine Enthusiast as one of the Top 100 Best Wines to Cellar, I feel almost unworthy to comment on this one, but I will. It's awesome with a rich blackberry and cocoa taste. The finish is long and complex with enough tannins to sharpen it up a bit and let you know that it is only going to bet better in the cellar.

"Tusca Brava" (Proud Tuscan), 60% Sangiovese, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon (Puma Springs, Dry Creek Valley) 2007, (No price, not bottled yet). Joe Benziger robbed a barrel for us and came out with what is sure to become one of my very favorite wines. This is a superb, crisp, spicy, and balanced Tuscan blend. Italians are great, but Tuscans are better. The spice of the Sangiovese with the depth and richness of the Puma Cabernet Sauvignon is a great marriage.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Puma Springs, Dry Creek Valley, 2006 ($50.00). I got a dry cherry nose (not mine, the wine). This wine proves that tannins and fruit can be good friends. It has a little chocolate and tobacco thrown in for balance and complexity. I taste a lighter cherry, like a Queen Ann more than a Bing. This Cabernet Sauvignon is quite nice now and is sure to get better after a couple of years.

Port, Sonoma County, Petite Sirah from Merlot Vineyard, Syrah from Dragonsleaf Vineyard-Sonoma Mountain, 2006 ($35.00/500ml). I am such a neophyte that I've never seen a porto sipper before. It looks like something akin to a tiny and fragile Aladdin's lamp with a small sipper stem that comes from the bowl up to the top edge. The plan is to induce a vacuum by sucking around, but not on the stem, which introduces almost a mist of the port into your mouth. This port tasted very nice with good dark fruit and enough sweetness to be port without being sticky. I am also reading my notes through what looks like a mist of wonderful port because it took a few sips to get the hang of the sipper. I'll just have to suffer through trying it again.

Pinot Noir, Giusti Vineyard, Russian River Valley, 2006 ($49.00) Bada Bing Cherry nose. The first sip seemed plain, but the second picked up the dark cherry and cinnamon underlying the dull thud of a truly dry Pinot Noir. Dry fruit is a unique and wonderful experience and after the first taste, it was all there.

Pinot Noir, San Remo Vineyard, Russian River Valley, 2006 ($49.00). I found this one to have a raspberry/blackberry nose. It is a bit more fruit forward and astringent enough to have a touch of tannins. It is spicier than the Giusti and I found myself in need of a cheese pizza.  It was a Friday during Lent, so that wasn't a bad idea.

Pinot Noir, De Coelo, Terra Neuma Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, 2006 ($67.00) This Pinot Noir is wonderfully balanced with a rich taste of cherry and oak. It is truly rich, fruity and smooth as silk.

Chardonnay, Sangiacomo Vineyard, 2006 ($29.00). This Chardonnay greets you with a fruity vanilla nose. The taste is a crisp and rich apple. Granny Smith would be proud of the long finish on this crisp Chardonnay.

Winemaker's Claret, Sonoma Coast, 2006 ($38.00). Nice tannins balance the dark fruit and light coffee taste of this young wine. It's ready for a year or two in the bottle and should pick up some more complexity and smooth the mild richness now hidden a little by the tannins.

Zinfandel, Bruschera Vineyard, 2005 ($40.00). This Zinfandel has a nice light spice and moderate fruit that I taste as raspberry. It is down the middle of the road in weight and is exceptionally clean.

Petite Sirah, Caton Vineyard, 2005 ($42.00). Dark, but not quite ink grade. It is dry and straightforward with dark berry fruit. Quite nice with a rich and lingering finish.

Benzinger Family Winery is located at 1883 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen, CA 95442, (707) 935-3000. www.Benziger.com

B.R. Cohn

Once again unaccompanied, our trusty British steed pointed its sleek nose toward B.R. Cohn Winery. Sometimes I think the car is smarter than I am because it seems to find some real gems. Some days you get really lucky because you walk up to the counter and find someone like Anthony Dicarlo, who is the winery's recently installed general manager, helping out with the crowds on a very rainy but still very busy Saturday 3/31/12.  He's obviously got a great handle on the hustle and bustle of a busy tasting room. Anthony played very well with us as we worked our way through a tasting of eleven different wines and we wish him the very best in his new home. He also pointed us toward their other facilities so we took home not only wine but Olive Oil and some nice Vintage Cigars.

Pinot Gris, Clarbec Vineyard, 2011 ($20). Made in a fairly small lot of 300 cases, this Pinot Gris has a bright grassy nose with a nice citrus taste. It is bright but not at all obnoxious. This will be a super fun on the patio wine for hot days.

Chardonnay, Robledo Vineyards, 2010 ($35). Another small lot at 400 cases, this Chardonnay has no butter up front, but it's there on the finish. It is barreled in all new French (Burgundian) oak and completely barrel fermented. This is a very smooth and lighter style Chardonnay that we found to be very pleasant.

Primitivo, Shumahi Vineyard, 2008 ($32). I got a nose of currants and raspberries. This Primitivo starts off as very dry and quiet up front but expands in your mouth to finish big. It has much darker fruit than the Barbera that follows. It is a rich, full and spicy wine.

Barbera, Mendocino County, 2009 ($35). This really surprised me because I detected almost no nose at all. It seemed very dry to smell, but the taste was bright and spicy with lots of bright red fruit. I think it will be great with a nice marinara sauce or maybe a pepperoni pizza.

Red Blend, "SyrZin", Sonoma Valley, 2008 ($32). This is a 50/50 mix of Syrah and Zinfandel. I got a little cocoa on the nose. It has a really nice balance of raspberry and cherry flavors with just a little astringency from the acid. I'd keep this around for three to five years and it will be a keeper.

Red Blend, "SyrCab", Sonoma Valley, 2009 ($32). This has a dryer nose than the SyrZin. Mac the wife was looking quizzically at me and finally said, "Hang on, it's still going." This blend has nice dark red fruit and a finish that lasts forever. It screams for ribeye steaks done simply without a lot of heavy seasoning. This is good now and should be great in about two years. We both liked it a lot.

Petite Sirah, North Coast, 2008 ($38). This is a dryer style Petite Sirah with a medium dark color done in a lighter style. It has good fruit and is not a big jammy inky Petite Sirah. Think of having this with a nice pork roast or use it as a substitute for a Merlot or Syrah.

Cabernet Franc, Sonoma Valley, 2009 ($45). This has a gorgeous pure ruby color and the nose seems like you should expect a semi-sweet cherry taste. You would be wrong (as I was) to expect that. This is a dry fruit bomb with nice spice. It was way bigger and dryer than I thought it would be. I think I'd love this with a nice pepper steak and there aren't a lot of wines that can stand up to that like this Cabernet Franc can.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Olive Hill Estate, 2005, Magnum ($130). I am such a sucker for magnums and even more so when the wine is really good. This is a bullseye Cabernet Sauvignon that is not going to be confused with anything else. The balance is superb with just a tickle of acid at the finish. It's pretty, it's moderately dry with good dark raspberry/blackberry fruit, and it followed me home. In a magnum, I'd expect it to age well and I will probably be grabbing this to drink in about four more years.

Late Harvest Semillon, 2008, 375ml ($40). This Semillon has a peach nose and a nice clean apricot flavor. It is not a syrupy late harvest, so it is very pleasant to drink alone or you could enjoy it as a dessert wine with anything from vanilla ice cream to some lighter cheeses.

Cabernet Sauvignon Port, Olive Hill Estate, 2008, 375ml ($40). Much like the Late Harvest Semillon above (only red, right?) this Port is a lighter style but still has a very nice solid fruit taste. It is easy enough to drink that I'm going to wish it came in bigger bottles. It has darker fruit but still stays light enough to avoid being gummy at all. It was very pleasant.

B.R. Cohn Winery is located at 15000 Sonoma Highway, Glen Ellen, CA 95442, (800) 330-4064, www.brcohn.com

Camellia Cellars

If you show up late on an event weekend after they've been busting their rumps all day, you might not expect vintners to be happy to see you, but that didn't seem to quash Bruce and the gang's enthusiasm.  We found this winery a few years ago, and I enjoyed their "Lost Barrels", which came with a story of their bonded warehouse losing a number of their barrels for some number of years and then demanding the long term rent instead of admitting their mistake. We started buying their "Diamo Grazie" a few years ago, and it has become a very solid element in our collection. Prices range from $22-$50, with most from $22 to $30. Looking at their website today, I saw that they have discounted a lot of wines; some over 50%.

Zinfandel, Lencioni Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley, 2005 ($27.00). A very smooth Zinfandel with moderate fruit and spice. It is a classic that has no bite now, but will only become smoother if you don't enjoy it right away.

Zinfandel, Lencioni Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley 2006 ($30.00). A dryer Zinfandel that has a nice plum fruit flavor. Very well rounded.

Sangiovese, Merlo Vineyard, 2006 ($27.00). A nice fruity and moderately spicy Sangiovese.

"First Kiss", Aromatic White Table Wine, 2006 ($22.00). This is fresh and light, but with good apple fruit taste.  Very tasty.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Laurel Springs, Dry Creek Valley, 2005 ($45.00). Wow! I wrote something almost professional sounding in my notes. "Superb balance of fruit overwhelms structured tannins to produce a smooth and rich Cabernet Sauvignon."  That sounds pretty good.

Diamo Grazie, 2001, 2002, ($50.00). The 2002 took a Gold Medal at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair. I don't know why the 2001 didn't. These are proprietor's blends in various combinations of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petite Sirah, and they are  mightily delicious. They are big, rich, and fruity, but not sweet. From the first blush of black cherry (okay, more than a blush) through the long structured finish, these are some very fine wines.

Camellia Cellars is at 57 Front Street, Healdsburg, CA 95448, Phone 707-433-1290. www.camelliacellars.com

DeLorimier (was Mosaic)

We had a very nice afternoon at Mosaic/DeLorimier, having been greeted as always with their friendly hospitality. There are changes taking place to which I am not privy, but I think the name will be changing back to DeLorimier and they will still be making the very solid and delicious wines that they have made for years.  This winery is now part of the Wilson Family of wineries, along with Mazzocco Winery.  One thing I do know now is that their wines under the Mosaic label, which are very well crafted, are being sold at deep discounts.  I don't know how long the deals will last, but all good things must end. In the meantime, you can enjoy savings by the case that reduce their normal prices substantially.

Sauvignon Blanc, 2005 ($12.00). A very fresh grassy Sauvignon Blanc.  I called it "totally harmless, but not without pizzazz." This is very pleasant with a unique mineral finish.

Sauvignon Blanc Reserve, 2005 ($20.00) Very much like the one above, but a little smoother and richer, and without the mineral finish. More refined and richer, but without losing any of the pizzazz of its little sibling above.

Chardonnay, 2005 ($16.00). Very nice apple and light butter flavors. Tasty, smooth, and very nice.

Chardonnay Reserve, Alexander Valley, 2004 ($25.00) [For some reason it shows $12.00 on their Winter price list]. This is an elegant Chardonnay with the flavor of pears and soft caramel with lots of butter.  

Zinfandel, Francis Vineyard, 2005 ($25.00). This is their first Zinfandel and it is already ready to drink now. It is a nice medium weight fruit-forward Zin.

Sangiovese, 2005 ($24.00). "Mac loved it" and I love her, so I better write nice, which isn't a problem with this very nice Sangiovese. It is not a fruit-in-your-face wine, but has very nice fruit in the middle and finish. Very good structure.

Malbec, 2005 ($25.00). This is a classic Malbec with a big fruit berry punch up front and really good structure.

"Stone Ranch" Zinfandel, 2005 ($25.00) Give this one a couple of years in the bottle to develop everything it's got. It is a very fruit-forward Zinfandel with pretty strong tannins. Cellar until wonderful. I think it will be.

Red Meritage, 2003 ($40.00) A lot going on here; too complex to separate the different fruit flavors. It has a good fruit up front, but retains a structured depth through the finish. Although it is well drinkable now, it has a lot of time left to mature.

When the sales are over and the final form of the winery takes place, we'll just have to force ourselves to go up again and enjoy another visit.

Delorimier Winery is located at 2001 Highway 128, Geyserville, CA 95441, Phone 707-85-2000 http://www.delorimierwinery.com

F. Teldeschi Winery

This winery was new to us, and it is a place that we will certainly be going back to. 

1998 Terranova Dry Creek Valley Red Wine at $27 is a complex, smooth, ready to drink now wine with very nice fruit up front that carries through with a richness that remains pleasant to the end.  They also had a 1997, 1999, 2000, and 2001 that I didn’t taste.  What can I say? I was driving.

2003 Pedroni Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley Cabernet Franc at $34 was still a little rough to me, but settled down very nicely after a bit of bite up front.  This is a wine that would be great with some pretty substantial food, especially with something spicy. 

2004 Zinfandel is a big one. (oops I forgot the price)  With 15.9% alcohol it retains a big fruit taste without being jammy at all.  This was one of my favorites.

2004 Merlot at $24 was a wonderful fruity yet smooth Merlot.  They mention Cherry Coke in their notes on it, and that is as good a description as anything.  It is smooth from start to finish, but doesn’t lack anything at any stage of the taste.

F. Teldeschi Winery was a real pleasure to visit.  The winemaker, Dan, was there, and his love of the wines was as obvious as his friendly demeanor. Not wanting to waste any wine to the ravages of air, he pours the open bottles into smaller screw top (like little medicine) bottles and pours the tastings out of those little bottles.  There was nothing I tasted there that I didn’t like a lot.  This was a great find.

F. Teldeschi Winery is at 3555 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, CA. 95448, Phone 707-433-6626

Hawley Winery

This was my first trip to Hawley and we enjoyed it a lot. The proprietor, John, has been joined by his two sons, Paul and Austin, and this family affair is putting out some nice wines at reasonable prices. Somehow, they have found time for a little cinematography, so we ended up leaving with a DVD of "Corked", which is a fun and very irreverant view of winemaking in the area.

Sauvignon Blanc, Dry Creek Valley, 2009 ($19.00). I got citrus and melon that was very fresh and fruity. This Sauvignon Blanc is quite a mothful of nice fresh fruit.

Viognier, Sonoma County, 2008 ($23.00). When I stuck my nose in the glass, I smelled vanilla and custard. The taste wasn't at all what I expected. Whatever happens if you take the fuzz off a peach and juice it has found its way into this bottle. Mac loves Viognier, and this is no exception.

Chardonnay, Smith Ranch, Dry Creek Valley, 2007 ($24.00). Arrow on my notes points and says, "Very nice." It has a good vanilla and toasty oak flavor. This is a really solid Chardonnay.

Pinot Noir, Oehlman Vineyard, Russian River Valley, 2007 ($33.00). This is a solid but lighter weight Pinot Noir. It has a really light color; sort of a crystal pink. Flavor goes into a little leather and a very nice finish. If you want a lighter style, you'll like this.

Zinfandel, Ponzo Vineyard, Russian River Valley, 2008 ($26.00). My notes start off with "Oh poopy!" which isn't normally part of the wine vernacular, but when I see why I said it, it makes sense. This is a really nice, smooth Zinfandel that could be enjoyed right away, but I own about 400 bottles of Zinfandel. Oh, what the heck, it's good, with nice dark cherry and a little strawberry to brighten it up.

Merlot, Dry Creek Valley, 2003, ($25.00). Maybe Miles would like this one. It is a heavy, complex Merlot with strong structural elements. Not a wine for neophytes, but those who like big Merlots will find this fits the bill.  BBQ some pig parts with good spice and enjoy a bottle.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Hawley Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley, 2006 ($32.00). This will be very nice in 3+ years. It has good structure and should balance out very nicely. I'd speculate that taking a gamble on this wine at this price will pay off in spades in about three years. It is big, ripe, strong, and has an underlying richness that should come to the surface.

You can find Hawley Winery at 36 North St., Healdsburg, CA 95448 (707) 473-9500. www.hawleywine.com   

 

Imagery Estate Winery

After spending time at Benziger and meeting Joe Benziger, the winemaker at Imagery, you know where we had to go next. If you are into Roman architecture, you must be familiar with the Parthenon, and if you are familiar with the Parthenon, you'll enjoy the labels of Imagery.

Sauvignon Blanc, "Wow Qui", 2007 ($27.00). They added a little Muskat to this Sauvignon Blanc and came up with a very fruit forward apple/grass wine that is crisp and clean. Another one of those wonderful summer sippers.

White Burgundy, 2007, ($29.00). This is a blend of Pinot Meunier (ok, I had to look it up to spell it-I'm a hack), Pinot Blanc, and Chardonnay. It is very refreshing with the taste of pineapple. I never thought that a wine that I taste as pineapple could be dry, but it is dry and crisp.

Sangiovese, 2005 ($29.00). This one won Best in Sonoma County at the Harvest Fair. It is very rich for a Sangiovese . It is still bright, but not at all obnoxious. The balance of fruit and depth is well done.

Malbec, 2005 ($37.00) The first thing you notice is the pretty dark ruby color. It has a light and dry nose. Balanced tannins support a big wine with a great mouthfeel. Dark Satsuma plums dominate the tastebuds. Bob Benziger called it "steak in a bottle." I want to find a real steak and see which one wins.

Petite Sirah, 2005 ($42.00) This is very close to ink grade. It is quite dry with good blackberry fruit. Imagery's Petite Sirah can certainly be a good reason to visit this winery. This wine is always well done and is something you'll be very glad to have around with a spicy rack of ribs or other grilled meat.

Lagrein, Paso Robles, 2005 ($40.00). Native to the Trentino Region in Northern Italy, this was a new varietal to me. There are reportedly less than a hundred acres in production in California. The wine was very pretty' dark red but crystal clear ruby. It has a nice fruity nose, with bright, almost hard fruit. I'd have guessed that it was younger than a 2005. Langrein has a new and very interesting berry flavor that has a lot of character and is quite tasty.

Imagery Estate Winery can be found at 14335 Highway 12, Glen Ellen, CA 95442, (707) 935-4500. www.ImageryWinery.com

Kaz Vineyard & Winery

One of the smaller wineries that have a full time tasting room, Kaz is an exercise in individualism. The proprietor would most likely be adjudicated nuts in any other profession, but he and his staff (mostly family) are absolutely delightful. Kaz is a winemaker, but also an artist, and a showman, and a radio personality, and who knows what else.  There are no holds barred on his blends, and he has come up with some really good wines.

Hooligans Grenache, 2005 ($36.00) A very classic and full Grenache, not to be confused with a rose. This one is dark but not black with good fruit.

Spar Zinfandel, 2003 ($26.00) A lighter Zinfandel with very bright fruit. Very clean taste. A great summer drinker.

Plunge Sangiovese, 2005 ($36.00). Great smooth and spicy wine with good fruit. It has really nice depth and balance.

Outbound Cabernet Franc, 2005 ($40.00). This one has a very nice chewy mouthfeel. It is moderately rich but not heavy.

Mary Tauge, 2003 ($50.00). This is a big, rich wine with a fruity cherry taste that evolves to a long and tasty finish. I guess it might help to know that it is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot.

Champs Cabernet Sauvignon, 2004 ($51.00). Great and bright fruit; unusually fruity for a Cab S. It will stand up very well to a big steak with pepper and spice.

Zesco, Barbera, 2005 ($45.00). Nice fruit, clean and full, but spicy. Very nice finish.

Return Trip, 3/31/12

I think we were the first ones in on this rainy Saturday. Kaz had a bottle in his hand as we lighted from our trusty Jag and he offered to serve us in the car. Remembering something about a violation call "drinking in or about a vehicle," we decided to join him in the tasting room. For about ten minutes we were all alone with Kaz, which is truly a pleasure. He warned us that there was a party of ten coming in. A party of six came in, and then the party of ten (batchelorette party), and then another party of six came. We found the tasting to be not only very good but also very cozy.

Chardonnay, "Slide", 2011 ($30). This Chardonnay has no sulphites, so those who get headaches from such things can enjoy this one. It is very fresh and clean. It has a richness that made me think "oak" but it is done in al steel.

Syrah, 2007, from the barrel, bottle your own ($25). This has been in the barrel for over four years now and has a HUGE oaky nose to it. The big bold fruit begs for hearty BBQ and you don't need to be bashful about the seasonings. This big Syrah will stand up to any big spice or sauce you put up against it.

Petite Sirah, 2009 ($35). Another nice nose full of oak. This Petite Sirah has nice cherry fruit with oak that is substantial but not overbearing. It is dark, but not inky and is very pleasant.

Red Blend, "Mary Tauge", 2005 ($40). "Mary Tauge" is a blend of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon. It has a raspberry nose (I'll bet you didn't know raspberries had noses) and abounds with crisp dry fruit.

Alicante Bouschet, "Intrepid", 2004 ($20). This took me back a few years to when LVC made two Alicante Bouschets, Yin and Yang. Yin was done in a lighter style off the skins and Yang was the opposite as nearly black. This is a Yin style and really lets the natural fruit of the Alicante Bouschet show it's bright pleasant flavor.

Merlot, "Stomp", 2010 ($35). Don't read the label because it says 13.3% alcohol. I thought it was in the 14-15% range but rumor has it that it fermented itself into the 16.3% range. That being said, it is still very smooth and not at all hot. Mac loves it and that's good enough for me to know that it's a real winner. Find a pork chop and don't drink the whole bottle yourself.

Nebbiolo, "Tinto Rouge", 2007 ($30). This is a bright, spicy, raspberry/cherry bomb (that's a good thing = big). Mac the Wife liked this one a lot. Nebbiolo is a greatly underestimated Italian varietal and this is a very good example of one. Think pasta in a spicy red sauce and this wine is likely to have you attempting to sing opera.

Cabernet Sauvignon, "Champs", 2008 ($42). Anything from Kaz is going to be be bright, but this is definitely a Cabernet Sauvignon from sip one. Although it is very smooth with nice oaky fruit, it's just brighter and a little spicier than most of its compatriots.

Red Port, 375ml ($36). This not your Portuguese Granma's port. I don't know how you get a big bright nose on a port, but it fits in with the whole "Kaz" thing. He said it has more acid. It drinks great and is very pleasant. Very (extremely) smooth with just a little sweetness.

Nebbiolo Port (blush), 375ml ($32). Once again, Mac likes it a lot (this is getting expensive!) This is a little sweeter than the Red Port with just a touch of syrup without getting sticky.

White Port (Chardonnay Port), 375ml ($32). This is the lightest of Kaz's three ports but remains silky smooth and is very pleasant. I have a note at the bottom of my page of notes that says, "Need all 3 ports in bigger bottles because these won't last long."

Kaz Vineyard and Winery is worth finding at 233 Adobe Canyon Road, Kenwood, CA 95452, Phone 877-833-2536. www.kazwinery.com

Kendall-Jackson

Ok, how many people would guess that I'd be writing about Kendall-Jackson? I've always thought of them as one of the big mass-production wineries, which they are, but I never saw the other side of the highly crafted smaller production wines until we stopped in. We had a great tasting and Mac the wife bought a bottle of their most expensive wine. I was surprised on both accounts. You'll find a bunch of medals and some 90+ point ratings in several of these wines.

Malbec Rose, Grand Reserve, 2008 ($21.00). Fresh strawberries and some mellon make this a great hot day sipper by the pool or on a picnic. It is just a little sweet and very refreshing.

Sauvignon Blanc, Grand Reserve, 2008 ($20.00). Something similar to a ripe lemon hit me on the nose and then turned into grapefruit with a lttle tart berry on the palate. They say this wine is handcrafted from the top 1% of their Sauvignon Blanc lots, and it is certainly not the grocery store variety.

Chardonnay, Highland Estates, Camelot Highlands, 2007 ($30.00). Wow, it says "creamy lush rich palate" in their notes. Mine just say "Creme brulee meets fruit." It is a luscious caramel vanilla taste with nice fruit and a little oak on the finish.

Chardonnay, Highland Estates, Seco Highlands, 2007 ($35.00). More of a citrus taste than the Camelot above. They say it "imparts a Muskat/Gewurztramier nose," which describes a little spice and fruit to me. This is a good, solid Chardonnay that will go great with any of the heartier white fish (bass, sea bass, halibut, etc.).

Pinot Noir, Highland Estates, Los Robles, 2007 ($35.00). If you like cherry cola and you like Pinot Noir, you need look no further than this wine. It is moderately rich with good fruit and a lot of different tastes. Still, cherry cola seemed to be the best descriptor I could agree with, and I love cherry cola.

Red Wine, Highland Estates, Trace Ridge, 2006 (75.00). This is still young, so it's going to mature some. I got almost no nose, but was then surprised (can't say shocked, see below) that it had a HUGE structure with strong tannins. It is rich and big and the folks at Wine Enthusiast gave it a pretty unequivocable 97 points. I agree that it is magnificent; almost like a turbo-Rockpile.

Stature Red, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec, Mostly Mt. Veeder with some Stagecoach, 2004, ($120.00).  Wow! Like the one above, this red has almost no nose. It is very dry. Then you take a taste and realize that it is humongous (that's bigger than huge). It is still young but can lasso it's own steer, grill the steak, and stand up to the best beef you can find. For those of you who don't know Mac the wife, she is the conservative spender in our family. The only thing that blew me away more than this wine was her insistance on buying it. The winemaker was there and signed it proudly. He's got a right to be proud of this boomer.

Kendall-Jackson has their Healdsburg Tasting Room at 337 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg, CA 95448 (707) 433-7102 www.kj.com

Kokomo Winery

This was my first trip to Kokomo, but it won't be the last. We didn't ask for anything special but were still offered tastes of fourteen different wines. I took a pass on a few because I was driving and this was not our first stop. Eleven were enough. They range in price from $16-$48, with most in the $25-$30 range. The quality of the wines for the price was very good, certainly above average, which is saying a lot in Sonoma nowadays.

Sauvignon Blanc, Mendocino County, 2006 ($16.00). An almost buttery, not bright Sauvignon Blanc with a taste of pears and butterscotch. Not a typical Sauvignon Blanc, but excellent.

Pinot Noir, Peters Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, 2006 ($48.00). A very classic Pinot Noir. Mid-weight, unfiltered and very clean.

Pinot Noir, Windsor Oaks Vineyard, Russian River Valley 2006 ($36.00). A bit lighter than the Peters Vineyard with less intensity but still unmistakenly all Pinot Noir.

Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley (Mounts & Perotti Vineyards), 2006 ($27.00). An older style very friendly Zinfandel. Reminiscent of Zinfandel before the industry decided they had to blow them up into monsters. At 14.2% alcohol, it is a midweight but no hint of jam or sludge.

Zinfandel, Sonoma County, 2006 ($20.00). A deeper color, a bit more sweetness, but not over the top. It reminds me of a Saini Farms, one of our favorites.

Syrah, Green Pastures Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley, Gold medal winner. Good fruit up front that stays through a smooth finish without losing anything in the middle. First rate.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Dry Creek Valley (Mounts & Bradford Mountain) 2006 ($29.00). Covers all of your tastes at once and sprinkles into a finish of dry fruit. Another really first rate wine.

Petite Sirah, North Coast, 2005 ($27.00). Moderate fruit for a Petite Sirah. Great dark but not inky color. This is a great Petite Sirah for lighter palates.

Zinfandel, Pauline's Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley, 2006 ($32.00). A smooth, complex Zinfandel with overwhelming components of currant, cherry, blackberry contributing to a very full taste.  Top notch.

Cuvee, Bela Sonoma County 2006 ($20.00) 50% Cabernet Franc, 40% Petite Sirah, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. Complex and full flavors of the Cab Franc are balanced very nicely by Petite Sirah and given just a little bit of an edge from the Cabernet Sauvignon.  

Malbec, Windsor Oaks Vineyard, Chalk Hill, 2006 ($36.00) Great fruit with balance depth. Malbec is an up and coming varietal and this is an excellent example of it.

Second Time Around, November, 2009...

We were greeted and wonderfully accommodated by the lovely Becky, who shall forever forth be known as "Badgeless Beckomo". She set up a delightful tasting for us and was both informative and just darn friendly.

Grenache Rose, Dry Creek Valley, 2008 ($22.00). They were already almost out of this one, and I can see why. This is not a "Barbie" rose. It only spent an hour on the skins, yielding a dry rose that is not at all typical with a nice melon fruit taste. I don't usually like rose, but this one followed us home. It is very nice.

Pinot Noir, Peter's Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, 2007 ($48.00). A big nose of leather and lace. This Pinot has good structure with solid tannins and will only get better. 91 points from Wine Spectator.

Pinot Noir, Windsor Oaks Vineyards, Russian River Valley, 2007 ($36.00). Less nose than the Peter's Vineyard with less fruit. It has a deeper flavor and a smooth berry balance.

Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley, 2006 ($27.00). This is a dry Zinfandel with moderate berry fruit and a sophisticated balance. It is ready to drink now or hold for a year or two. It has some number of gold medals, so people who know these things like it a lot.

Zinfandel, Mounts Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley, 2007 ($30.00). I've liked the products from Mounts Vineyard for a long time, and this one is no disappointment from pretty high expectations. It is young and bright with good raspberry/berry fruit that is solid but not at all jammy or overwhelming. Give it a year or two in the bottle and I think you'll be even more impressed.

Syrah, Dry Creek Valley, 2005 ($27.00). This is one of those rare wines that is deep and rich and smOOth with capital O's. It is eminently drinkable now and a real pleasant big wine. No surprise that it took a double gold.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Dry Creek Valley, 2006 ($29.00). A pleasant light-moderate weight Cabernet Sauvignon that is already very drinkable. If you put it anywhere near chocolate, both the chocolate and this wine will disappear in short order.

Petite Sirah, Dry Creek Valley, 2007 ($27.00). I called this a "sneaky" wine. It is medium weight but dark with a great mouthfeel. It has almost a little astringency to it to remind you that it is a true Petite Sirah.

Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc, Dry Creek Valley 2007 ($28.00/375ml). Whoopie! Moderately sweet with a wonderful pear-apricot taste. It just rolls of the sides of your tongue. I was dreaming of pie and ice cream to accompany this very nice and fun wine.

And back again in March 2010...

Is it the wine or Beckomo that beckons our return to Kokomo? It's got to be a combination. I got to see Riley the Boxer-Whippet pup who barked his nose off at me. I must smell like a cat to him. He's a neat little guy and we ended up getting along just fine. We tasted a lot of the wines that we had tasted previously, including the 2007 Windsor Oaks Pinot Noir, the 2007 Mounts Zinfandel, the 2007 Dry Creek Petite Sirah, and the 2007 Peter's Pinot Noir. A couple of those followed us home. New wines we tasted were:

Carignane, Tollini Vineyard, Redwood Valley, 2007 ($28.00). Bright and fruity with a nice red cherry flavor. It is pretty in the glass and on the palate. This will be a great spaghetti wine.

Merlot, Pauline's Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley, 2007 ($28.00). Just over the middle of the road in weight-richness, but not at all sticky. Good fruit that is a little lighter and not musky like some other Merlot.  

Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc, Dry Creek Valley, 2008 ($28.00/375 ml). This is really a nice dessert wine; even if you have nothing other than this wine for dessert. I got a big buttery nose that led into a smooth, semi-sweet wine tasting of vanilla with melon. When Mac the wife says, "I want that one," it goes home with us.

Sauvignon Blanc, Timber Crest Vineyards, Dry Creek Valley, 2009 ($16.00). Kokomo does this varietal as well as I've ever seen (tasted?) it done. When we were there, it was just put in the bottle and wasn't released yet, so it was flaunting its youth. They said it wasn't quite ready yet. This is a refreshing grass-apple fruit bomb that lights up your taste buds. I enjoyed it prematurely and found it to be great, but it will get better. I don't know how much of this, but you'll notice that it is missing from my 2009 notes because it sells out for good reason. 

Kokomo Winery is at 4791 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, CA 95448, Phone 707-433-0200. www.kokomowines.com

Ledson Winery and Vineyards

So, we are tooling around Sonoma unaccompanied by anyone with a clue and we see a sign for Ledson Winery and Vineyards. We decided to check it out and the first thing we noticed is that which just cannot be ignored. This is a beautiful, magnificent facility. It looks like a scene that should be on a post card. They have three tasting rooms and a large market place that sells winery stuff as well as sandwiches and other food. Upon entering, we first wondered "where do normal people go" but they had someone there who pointed toward an open spot at one of the tasting areas and we staked out our place. Ledson had 72 different wines on their wine list, not including the 26 large format bottles. We tried nine, and based upon those, we'd like to go back another 7 times (let's see that makes 8 times 9 = 72. I got the math right!) As I look at my notes on their list, I realize that we skipped all of the Merlot (they had 12), Cabernet Sauvignon (they had 6), Cabernet Franc (they had 3), and Zinfandel (they had 9). Those who know me know that I like all of these wines, but Ledson had so many others that we wanted to try that I skipped many favorites. Based upon what we tasted, a repeat trip is definitely on the agenda.

Sauvignon Blanc, Russian River Valley, 2009 ($26). Admittedly, when I see three Sauvignon Blancs, I will probably pick the first one with a gold medal. This had a 2011 North of the Gate Wine Competition Gold. This Sauvignon Blanc had a flavor of pear and lemon as opposed to the grapefruit of many others. It is dry and very pleasant and easy to drink.

Chardonnay, "Tre Frais", Russian River Valley, 2009 ($32). Another gold medal; two actually from the Sonoma County Harvest Fair and the 2010 World Wine Championships where they got 91 points. This Chardonnay is done in all steel with no oak. Even so, it has a very nice honey-butter flavor with light vanilla added in. I would have guessed that it was 100% malolactic fermentation and a long time in once-used oak, but I'd be wrong on both counts. This is really nice.

Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, Reserve, 2008 ($68). If you are looking for a bigger and more substantial Pinot Noir, here you go. This Pinot Noir presents a big mouthful of smoke and leather. It is big, rich, and pretty heavy. Think smoked turkey or other food that is looking for a complimentary wine that is not at all bashful. No wimpy chicken breasts with this one.

Barbera, Lake County, 2006 ($34). Mac the wife said, "Wow!" That told me this one was going home and I'm glad it did. As I type this I think I want to go dig it out of the wine cellar and have it with a spicy pasta this weekend. This Barbera has what I called "huge chocolate smoky spice." It is almost "ink grade;" very dark and simply a superb Barbera. I always look to Barbera as the most substantial of the Italian varietals, and this one center-punched that view.

Sangiovese, Knights Valley, 2008 ($40). The Barbera was a hard act to follow, but this Sangiovese held its own. It has nice spicy fruit with a red cherry / berry taste. The balance is great with substantial weight (rich) without being jammy. This is a really good Sangiovese, and I even gave it a little star on my notes.

Malbec, Lake County, 2007 ($38). The first thing you notice is the dark ruby color. This is a very fruit-forward Malbec with fresh raspberry up front. It is a lighter style but still has a nice long finish without getting too heavy in the middle like some Malbec tends to do.

Mourvedre, Contra Costa, 2007 ($36). This one got its gold medal from the 2011 San Diego International Wine Competition. It is a medium weight Mourvedre with light and dry cherry flavor. I wrote "no steroids" which means that the winemaker didn't try to make something out of this Mourvedre that would be bigger than the grapes. This is what a Mourvedre is supposed to be instead of pushing it into a heavier wine by harvesting it later and pretending it is a Syrah. If you want to taste a bullseye Mourvedre, this is the ticket. I recommend holding this one for at least two years and it will (I think) become very smooth.

Petite Sirah, Sonoma Valley, 2008 ($44). Ink grade. You haven't seen that here for a long time. I didn't say "almost ink grade," I said "ink grade." This is one of the best Petite Sirahs I have ever had. The nearly black color is only a tease for how substantial this Petite Sirah is. It is deeply rich and completely fills your mouth with substantial yet dry fruit. The balance is great and I think it will be even better in two years and absolutely superb in five years.

Red Blend, Sonoma Valley Caudalies, Reserve, 2008 ($52). This is a blend of 70% Petite Sirah and 30% Zinfandel. In the glass you will notice right away that it is dark and gorgeous. You can smell the slightly spicy Zinfandel but then the taste is more like a big Petite Sirah. Our friend Jane would like this one a lot. It is a great blend and you'll taste a little more fruit up front than the Petite Sirah alone.

Ledson Winery and Vineyards is located at 7335 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood, CA 95409. (707) 537-3810. www.ledson.com

Manzanita Creek Winery

This winery is in a warehouse building right around the corner from our friends' vineyard, and I don't know how many times we just drove by before we finally stopped in.  The day that we stopped in was also the day that Jeanine started working for them, and she proved to be a delightful hostess. We were her very first tasting visitors. The owners' family name is Salerno, which is the same as my godparents, and in the small world department, it turns out that the two brother-partners, William and Jack lived in San Jose for much of their lives. They accepted us as friends and neighbors and we enjoy the people almost as much as the wines. These guys are doing a great job.

"Stealth" Zinfandel, Alexander Valley, 2005 ($55.00).  Might as well start with the boomer. This is huge, but not overbearing with big fruit and rich flavor. If you want a big classic Zinfandel to show off, this'll do. This is one of those 16% Zinfandels.

Zinfandel, Old Vine Alfonso Vineyard, 2005 ($26.00). A nice cherry fruit starts off a Zinfandel that is spicy and still pretty big and rich. I taste more pepper spice in this one and it will serve well with a lot of well seasoned dishes.

Zinfandel, Three Vines, Dry Creek Valley, 2006 ($27.00). This is a big black cherry Zinfandel with a lingering finish. It reminds me of a Saini Farms Zin with a little more sweetness and slightly heavier fruit.  

Zinfandel, Addor Vineyard, Mendocino Coast, 2005 ($21.00). A medium weight Zinfandel with complex fruit and spice flavors. A good sipper and very food friendly. Less dominant thatn the ones above.

Zinfandel, Carreras Ranch, Dry Creek Valley, 2005 ($38.00). They call if "bold and beautiful". I can't disagree. It has a sweeter nose than most, but is not syrupy. It doesn't need food to enjoy as it is very pleasant and big enough to stand on its own.  This is a great sipper but will still go great with a prime rib or steak.

"MC2" Zinfandel, 2006 ($14.00). A mix of Zinfandels from Lodi, Paso Robles, and Healdsburg. This is a very pleasant Zinfandel with good fruit and balance. It is food friendly with enough spice to stand up to a nice marinara sauce.  Look at the price and smile. It's a great deal.

Pinot Noir, Irene's Vineyard, Sonoma Coast 2003 ($55.00) The own we had was open for a week which may have mellowed it out to be more like a smooth mourvedre, and then they opened up a new one that was much more of a classic Pinot Noir taste. This one has super cherry-berry fruit up front and is very bright and full flavored. Big, full, nice.

Petite Sirah, Handel Vineyard, Alexander Valley, 2005 ($42.00). There is an awful lot going on in the first sip of this medium weight Petite Sirah. Then you take a second sip and realize that you still have a lot ot learn about it.  It's not a heavy inky one, but it is very complex and quite rich.

Petite Sirah, Old Vine, Hales Vineyard, 2004 ($41.00). Still in the mid-range as far as weight, but this is lighter than the Handel Vineyard above. It hit me as more typical of a syrah without the heavy weight of the bigger Petites. (is that an oxymoron). I think I'd like this a lot with my BBQ'd brined pork chops.

Muscat of Alexandria Novella, Madera County, 2004 ($25.00 tall split). A very nice dessert wine that is sweet without any yucky syrup.  I was dreaming of cream brulee but Mac the wife says she wants hers with biscotti.

"Scarlett", Late Harvest Syrah, Alexander Valley 2003, ($25.00 tall split). My brief notes are pretty clear. "Wonderful-sweet full fruity-deep blueberry". And I put a star next to it. (I love blueberries!)

Manzanita Creek is at 1441 A & B Grove Street, Healdsburg, CA 95448, Phone 707-433-4052. www.manzanitacreek.com

Martin Family Vineyards

So, we’re driving down the road, see the sign, realize we’ve never b4 een there, pull a U-turn, and go in.  Martin and Stonegate (Napa Valley grapes) are in the same tasting room.

2005 Red Rooster Dry Creek Valley Old Vine Zinfandel at $28 had nice fruit up front and a mildly punchy finish (oops, that’s a hack term for “good tannins support a rich finish” or something like that). I found myself wanting lasagna.

2005 Rattler Rock Russian River Valley Old Vine Zinfandel at $28 was a favorite of my wife.  It didn’t have the big fruit up front, but carried a lot of fruit all of the way through the finish.

2005 Estate Dry Creek Cabernet Sauvignon at $25 was very smooth and one of the few 2005’s that I could enjoy now, even though it’s really young.  I didn’t find it to be a big Cab, but it was amazingly pleasant.

2005 Estate Dry Creek Valley Syrah at $16 was tough for me to describe.  I called it “quaint” in my notes and referred to it as “classy, smooth, sneaky fruit.”  I suppose in English that means that there is a lot of there there without getting smacked getting there.  We’d enjoy it all by itself anytime.

2004 Estate Dry Creek Valley Syrah at $16 got noted as “exquisite”.  It has a very smooth, yet full taste.  It’s got another year under its belt versus the 2005 and it’s spent that year well.

2005 Russian River Valley Zinfandel Port at $35 (split) was blended with Petite Syrah Brandy and Alicante Bouschet.  It is a lighter, less syrupy port than most, but still has all of the flavor I’d want. 

2004 Stonegate Reserve Napa Valley Wappo Vineyard Petite Verdot at $60 is a very rich, complex wine.  I have to say that the price point hurts on a budget like mine, but I also have to say that this wine is worth it.  As more winemakers are bottling this great varietal instead of blending it, I’m getting to like it a lot.

The tasting room was manned (okay womanned) by their “Head Cheerleader” who really knew her wines and was very good at sharing her knowledge in a friendly manner.  She opened one that they had very little of left (20 bottles), which was a good thing because we bought it.

Martin Family Vineyard is at 5610 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, CA 95448, Phone 707-433-9545. www.martinfamilyvineyards.com

Matrix Winery

This is part of the Wilson winery group, along with Mosaic/deLorimier, Mazzocco, and Wilson wineries. They produce very high quality wines that are a little pricey but worth it when you take the time to taste what's in the bottle. Prices range from $21-$45.

Chardonnay Reserve, Alexander Valley, 2006 ($36.00). Butterscotch with an edge. There is a fig flavor, but it is dry. This is a fairly heavy Chardonnay that is not at all bashful. It is the buttery style that my Healdsburg host likes the most.

Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, 2005 ($35.00). This Pinot Noir is dry and toasty. I wished I had it for last Thanksgiving because its dry and toasty flavor would go great with our smoked turkey.  It is a gorgeous color.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County, 2004 ($21.00). Lighter color but still has the prominent fruit and a little bit of a bit to it up front. The mid-palate is lighter and I have to describe it as leather. It is very interesting and has a nice finish that lingers.

Matrix, Bordeaux Blend, Dry Creek Valley, 2003($40.00). Very pretty color again. Not much of a nose, but in the upper-moderate range of fruit up front. Good depth and superb balance. Clean finish and beautifully crafted blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc.

Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley, 2006 ($45.00) At first I thought I'd call it "soft", but realized that I was wrong. It just has a balance to it that keeps any element from tasting at all abusive and masks how big it is after tasting more dilligently. This is a very nice Zinfandel of the highest quality.

Syrah, Sonoma Coast, 2005 ($35.00). This wine has the biggest nose of the ones we tried at Matrix. It is still young with lots of potential. It is big enough to be close to a crossover into what I'd call a blend of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. It is rich and bright with a dry finish.

Matrix can be found at 3291 Westside Road, Healdsburg, CA 95448, Phone 888-884-1288. www.matrixwinery.com

Mauritson Family Winery

This was a planned stop, as we’ve been there before, but not for quite a while. I tried five of the eight wines they had available for tasting. 

2006 Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blanc at $17 had what I thought of as a smart fruity and crisp taste.  The fruit was prominent without being too strong, and this wine ended as well as it finished with a very nice balance.  It seemed more complex than most Sauvignon Blancs.

2005 Rockpile “Buck’s Pasture” Red Wine at $45 is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon 34%, Cabernet Franc 34%, Malbec 24%, and Petite Verdot 8%.  They are all there. It didn’t have the punch (nor the bite) that I expected from a big boomer up front, but the flavor carried all of the way from start to finish very nicely.

2005 Rockpile Cemetery Vineyard Zinfandel at $39 was a bit more of a boomer to me.  It had good fruit up front and finished even stronger.  I think this is going to pick up more complexity and age quite well.

1999 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel at $29, is obviously in limited supply.  It is ready to drink now, but certainly not over the hill.  It is a full tasting Zin without being jammy. 

2001 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel at $29 was bit spicier than the other ones we tried, but it was not at all obnoxious.  I think it would go great with spicy food, including standing up well to our perennial favorite.

The staff at Mauritson was very friendly and accommodating.  Between the two people working in the tasting room, they knew their wine well and made us feel very comfortable.

Mauritson Family Vineyard is located at 2859 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, CA 95448, Phone 707-431-0804. www.mauritsonwines.com

Meeker Vineyard

Oops, I forgot to write this up after our last trip, which usually means that I lost my notes. I now have new notes from our 4/4/09 trip, so we'll just have to go with that.  Meeker is named for Charlie and Molly Meeker, two delightful people who seem to really enjoy making and marketing wines. The are joined by Matt Blankenheim as winemaker and formulate some very interesting and good wines. We are a member of their "Tribe", which is the name of their wine club. They started in a giant teepee and are now in an ancient bank building.

Sauvignon Blanc, Lucas J. Cellars, Knights Valley, 2007 ($22.00). This is a big and rich Sauvignon Blanc. Grapefruit and butter jump out and stick with you. For this varietal, it's huge.

Zinfandel, 12th Rack, Sonoma County, 2006 ($16.00). A medium to big sized Zinfandel. It is complex with a bit of tannins. Give it a year or two and enjoy it with a nice spicy pork or lamb dish.

Carignane, Forchini Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley, 2005, ($26.00). A lighter and sweeter wine than I expected for a Carignane. It would be a great substitute for a Pinot Noir and has a lighter cherry flavor with moderate fruity.  Pretty tasty.

Syrah, Sonoma County, 2005 ($32.00). Hmmm, smoke and berries is what hit me. This is a nice food wine that is of moderate weight for a Syrah.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Gold Leaf Cuvee, Sonoma County 2003 ($14.00), Cherry is the prominent flavor of this classic style Cabernet Sauvignon. It is a mid-weight and is already aged well enough to take home and enjoy with a ribeye steak tonight. At this price, you can still afford the steak.

Merlot, Winemaker's Handprint, Sonoma County, 2005 ($39.00). Big is good and this is both of those pork tenderloin beckons for the full and rich cherry flavors with a hint of chocolate. The handprint refers to the way cool paints that the winemakers dip their hands into and imprint upon the bottles by..well hand.  I am saving a 2001 Jeroboam of the handprint for a special occasion (Jeroboam = 4 bottles or 3 liters).

Cabernet Sauvignon, Kelly's Mendocino County, 2004, ($32.00) Kelly (meeker daughter) is young and wonderful, so it made sense to name this Cabernet Sauvignon after her. It is a lighter style that will still stand up well to a simply grilled steak with flavors of cherry and coffee.  

Red Blend, Blankenheim's Frankenstein III, NV, ($26.00)  A monster lives in the bottle.  I don't know what the blend is, but I think they've used dozens of different varietals to craft this rich and full-bodied monster.  It is very fruit forward with dark cherry and plum flavors. If you can determine any ten of the varietals, you'll be ahead of me, but if you can name ten varietals, they're probably in here anyway.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain, Kiss Ridge Vineyard, 2004 ($85.00). 95% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Cabernet Franc, 2% Merlot, and 1% Petit Verdot. You wonder sometimes what a perfect Cabernet Sauvignon should taste like, and you might point and say "like this" to this rich cherry/currant flavor. It is a spicy and full bodied Cabernet Sauvignon, and although the price may drive you to save it for a special occasion, you'll be waiting for the opportunity to pop the cork on this wine. It is ready to drink now, but should hold on for at least a few more years.

Zinfandel Dessert, Fro Zin, 2004 ($24.00 split). We loved this the first time we tried it and continue to love it now.  A little sweetness and an almost melon smoothness. It is a wonderful dessert wine, and a split is never enough.

Until they build a newer and bigger teepee, you'll find Meeker at 21035 Geyserville Ave., Geyserville, CA 95441. 707-431-2148. www.meekerwine.com

Peterson Winery

These folks should have been here a long time ago, but notes don't always make it to where they should be, and my first set just disappeared. Oh me, oh my, what to do but to go back and have to taste all over again. What terrible punishment....NOT! This time we got to spend time with Jamie, the son of the owner Fred Peterson, and the winemaker since 2006. Jamie is obviously doing a great job with the wine and it was a pleasure having him help us in our tasting. My notes say something about "fun and approachable", which fits well into my "no wine snobs" motto.  We tasted eleven different wines this trip, which is more than I usually try since I have to take off a shoe to keep count.

Sauvignon Blanc, Timber Crest Farms, Dry Creek Valley, 2008 ($16.00). A little grass, a good deal of citrus fruit. Fresh and refreshing, but not really light. Very pleasant, or as I put in my notes, "pretty darned nice."

Carignane Red Table Wine, "Zero Manipulation", 2007 ($15.00). Their flyer says it has a small percentage of other varietals, but I wrote down 100% Carignane, so one of us may not be 100% correct. Whover it is, I found this winde to be mellow, fruity, smooth; like a well aged Syrah. I like this underutilized varietal and hope we get to see a lot more of this wine which epitomizes Peterson's "Zero Manipulation" concept of "low tech, yet high touch."

Zinfandel, Bernier "Zinyard", 2006 ($27.00). Very pleasant and drinkable now. This is a medium weight Zinfandel that has good berry fruit to it and just a touch of spice. It is not one of those jammy monsters and is more of what I consider the old style before Zins started going overboard.

Zinfandel, Dry Creek, 2006 ($22.00). This Zinfandel is enhanced with a blend of 10% Petite Sirah and 6% Carignane which rounds it out quite nicely It is spicier than the Bernier, supra (oops, snooty word that means "look up above") but not enough to bite. Fred Peterson, the owner of this fine winery suggested that this should be our Taco Bell wine. I can't disagree because it's big fruit and moderate spice should stand up well to what is truly the favorite meal of my friend Ray and me.

Zinfandel, Tradizionale, 2006 ($28.00). Bigger, stronger, more powerful, but still not jammy. This Zinfandel has lots of fruit and a big structure that will let us put it down for a couple of years to let it balance out and become what should be a big-time winner. Tradizionale is Peterson's field blend with some Petite Sirah, Mataro, and Carignane mixed in. There are even some white wine varietals mixed in; a true traditional field blend.

Zinfandel, Bradford Mountain, 2005 ($32.00). This Zinfandel has prominent fruit with a nice medium level of spice. The spice works well with the dark berry flavor. I like this one a lot.

Sangiovese/Cabernet Sauvignon Blend, "Il Granaio", 2006, ($28.00). "Il Granaio" means "the Barn". It is Peterson's Super Tuscan style blend and produces a rich spicy flavor of dark cherry, blueberry, and a surprising underlayment of chocolate. I didn't actually expect to see a blender and a box of cherry cordials, but they must infuse that taste somehow. This one will age for quite a while.

Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon Blend, "Shin Bone", 2006 ($26.00). You have to see the label to appreciate this because it's just fun. It is a pretty dark ruby color with a nice cherry nose that goes into a blackberry fruit flavor. This is huge with great mouthfeel. It is very rich and will store well for years. A beast, but very pleasant.

Cabernet Franc Blend, Agraria, Big Barn Red, Bradford Mountain, 2002 ($60.00). This is one of those wines that you taste and you immediately like because of the well balanced fruit of cherry-berry. Then you taste it again and get another layer, maybe with a little more acid. Sip three and the spice seems to pop up. There is a lot going on with this wine, and all of it is good. My final note on it was "This is a very nice wine ++++."

Syrah, Graivity Flow Block, Bradford Mountain, 2006 ($45.00). DARK in capital letters for a Syrah. It has a dark nose and a taste that puts a lot of nice leather (nice, not like boots) over a very nice and hearty Syrah.

Petite Sirah, Dry Creek Valley, 2007 ($30.00). Oh thank you for being so reasonably priced, because we love a good Petite Sirah and this is one. It's got 13% Carignane and 6% Syrah, and is very dark; beautifully dark. It's got big fruit without being jammy. It has what I called "young fruit" on top that will smooth out into more depth. There is a lot going on, and I think in about three years when I open up my stash of this Petite Sirah, we'll have a lot of good things to talk about.

Peterson Winery is located at 4791 Dry Creek Rd., Healdsburg, CA 95448 (707) 431-7568. www.petersonwinery.com

Preston of Dry Creek

We had only been here once before and liked what we tasted a couple of years ago. Since we've drank it all, it seemed like a good time to go try it again. The staff was very friendly and informative. They told us that the winemaker likes to produce wines that he can drink now, so you'll find a few that are ready to drink in spite of their young ages.

Viognier, 2007 ($28.00). Mac the wife missed this trip, and she loves good a good Viognier. She would love this one. This is light and crisp, especially given its underlying richness of citrus flavors.

Madam Preston White Blend, 2007, ($31.00).  You have to love the label that says "Madam Preston, Grape Wine."  A blend of 55% Rousanne, 26% Viognier, 12% Grenache Blanc, and 7% Marsanne, it has a light citrus nose and is super smooth. Pretty complex for a white. It reminded me of a classic well aged still white burgundy.

Barbera, 2007 ($32.00). Gorgeous dark red color. Bright and spicy fruity up front. Balanced pretty well now, but give it a year (I was going to say two, but our pourer reminded me of the winemaker's goal to drink soon) and I think it should smooth out very nicely.  It is a contender for our favorite restaurant and has a long finish.

Zinfandel, 2007 ($32.00) I didn't think red got much darker or prettier than their Barbera, but I was wrong. This is also very nice to look at.  One of our friends probably said it best, "Wow! It's a fruit bomb." It has lots of cherry fruit and is very nice.

L. Preston Red, 2006 ($34.00) A blend of 55% Syrah, 20% Carignane, 20% Mourvedre, and 5% Cinsault. It starts with a deep rich, dark berry nose and has a lot of fruit up front. The taste is a complex of red and dark berries with a little spice.

Petite Sirah, 2006 ($30.00) It seemed to have a rather light and dry nose, so the big cherry fruit up front was surprising. It is a full mouth full of flavor and has sufficient tannins to support a very long and dry finish.

Return trip March, 2010...

We trundled back up the road to Preston to see what we could see and taste whatever they let us. We already know we liked what we had in previous years, so we weren't surprised to find that the newer vintages held true to form, if different in the ways that only winemakers and nature can conspire. This trip was absolutely worth making again.

Sauvignon Blanc, 2008 ($22.00). This is one of those big grassy apple Sauvignon Blanc's that I like so much. It is nice and fruity with a fresh and full mouthful of flavor. It has more apple to linger on the finish. (that's aftertaste to the rest of us).

L. Preston Red, 2007 ($37.00). This is a blend of 60% Syrah, 25% Cinsault, 10% Carignane, and 5% Mourvedre. It is full and rich and the blend allowed it to be what our friend R called "big" (quite a compliment) while still being very smooth.

Syrah-Sirah, 2006 ($34.00). Before I break out in an ear-damaging redition of "Que sera sera," I should point out that this wine is 90% Syrah and 10% Petite Sirah. It is big and rich with lots of dark berry fruit. It is still a little tight and a couple of years should improve it from the wonderful mouthful of richness that it already is.

Petite Sirah, 2007 ($32.00). What is it with the color of a good Petite Sirah? This one is almost what I call "ink grade," which means that it is very dark.  My notes say, "Yowsers! Wonderfully full without being jammy. Good, dark, dark, dark cherry fruit. 2-3 years and this will be superb." But what do I know? Mac the wife (that's the brains of this outfit) said simply, "That's incredible." Deep, dark, and beautiful. This is special.

Preston of Dry Creek is located at 9282 West Dry Creek Rd., Healdsburg, CA 95448 707-433-3372. www.PrestonVineyards.com

Route 128

Route 128 is where the vineyard is, so the name seemed a natural to Pete and Lorna Opatz, the proprietors. We had the opportunity to meet them both with Lorna pouring these very nice wines for us. We were there late in the day, at a time when most tasting room folks are pretty tired, and Lorna's friendly and apparently tireless disposition was refreshing. Pete and Lorna's excitement about their winery shows in their enthusiasm in discussing the wines, and we very much enjoyed our time tasting with them.

Viognier, Opatz Family Vineyard, 2006 ($26.00). Light citrus/grapefruit taste that is fresh and bright with a nice butter taste. Very nice Viognier.

Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, 2005 ($30.00)  I wrote, "Fast ball right down the middle of the plate." This is a classic Pinot Noir that is not too big, not too light, not too dry, not too sweet. It is everything you want in a Pinot Noir without being obnoxious or overbearing in any way.

Red Blend, PeLu Rouge, Opatz Family Vineyard, 2005 ($34.00) Named for Pete & LuLu (aka Lorna), this is a blend of 65% Syrah, 25% Zinfandel, and 10% Viognier. Rich Syrah based wine that is already ready to drink now. Smooth and rich, this blend is a winner.

Zinfandel, Opatz Family Vineyard, 2005 ($26.00). A large berry nose leads into a spicy Zinfandel with lots of berry fruit. A pretty significant mouthful of wine.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley, 2005 ($30.00). This one got my instant attention after the Zinfandel that preceded it. If you ever wonder about whether you can tell one from the other, try this straight and classic Cabernet Sauvignon after a spicy Zin.  This all Cabernet Sauvignon and somewhere there is a filet mignon with its name on it.

Syrah, Opatz Family Vineyard, 2005 ($32.00). Red berry of some sort with good up-front fruit. The fruit carries through to a rich and smooth finish not at all disturbed by tannins.

Route 128 is located at 21079 Geyserville Avenue #2, Geyserville, CA 95441. 707-696-0004 www.route128winery.com

Sbragia

At the top of their tasting list, I wrote, “A wow winery.”  The winemaker/proprietor, is Ed Sbragia who is still listed as Winemaker Emeritus at Beringer, where he made a number of superb private reserve and other wines.  Sbragia’s website states that Ed has had one foot in Sonoma and one foot in Napa, and his winery now has excellent vintages from both regions.  Sbragia’s wines range in price from $20-$75, with only one on my short list of six that is over $35.  Sbragia is in a beautiful facility on a hillside overlooking a valley full of vineyards.

Sauvignon Blanc, Home Ranch, Dry Creek Valley, 2007 ($20.00). Great fruit, with a lot of citrus and tropical flavors. Probably the longest finish I’ve ever seen in a Sauvignon Blanc. This will stand well with fish and cheese; I’m thinking grilled halibut with parmesan.

Chardonnay, Home Ranch, Dry Creek Valley, 2006 ($26.00). Buttery smooth but still with good fruit and vanilla. Quite an unexpected depth.

Merlot, Home Ranch, Dry Creek Valley, 2004 ($25.00). Medium fruit and depth with a black cherry nose and taste. Hard to tell how this will change in the next few years, so drink it now and enjoy a nice piece of pork or veal.

Zinfandel, Gino’s Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley, 2005 ($28.00). A moderate fruit up front blossoms into a mouthful of cherry/berry with a little spice. I thought it had a fairly tannic finish and would put it away for a year or two.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Andolsen, Dry Creek Valley, 2005 ($35.00). This is a beautiful dark ruby colored wine with excellent structure and balance. The fruit and tannins are in harmony and I think two more years in the bottle will put it at the top of a lot of lists in this price range.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Cimarossa, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley, 2004 ($75.00). Okay, let’s admit that the price is more than casual for most of us, but if you can afford it, you will not be disappointed. This is a well balanced, classic Cabernet Sauvignon that I think any expert, not a hack like me, would call superior.

Sbragia is located at 9990 Dry Creek Rd., Geyserville, CA 95441, Phone 707 473-2992. www.sbragia.com

Seghesio Family Vineyards

Okay, first I have to disclose that we are club members here, so we get invited to events that are not open to the public except as guests of other members.  This weekend, we went to their crab cioppino dinner and cigar lounge.  The food was splendid and wonderful, with lots of the extended Seghesio family working hard all day to prepare it.  After the event, we retired to the outdoor canopy that protected us from the rain long enough to enjoy some more wine and cigars. We probably shouldn’t have left our wives in the car as long as we did after they got bored and left us. That error will undoubtedly cost us.

Had I been paying more attention, I’d be able to tell you which year and which vineyard the Pinot Noir and Zinfandel came from, but I didn’t, so all that I can say is that they were both great with the cioppino.  I was surprised that the Pinot Noir stood up so well to it, but as a 90 point Pinot from a winery that has made their reputation on Zinfandel, it was pretty substantial. 

I don’t think Seghesio makes a wine that I don’t like.  They were serving their Omagio (means “homage”) blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese with dessert and at the smoking lounge, and it proved as always to be a rich and smooth wine that is a luxury any time.  They also had a port without labels yet that was delightful, but the star of the night was when somebody snuck out a bottle of 2004 Venom, their big Sangiovese from Rattlesnake Hill on their Home Ranch.  This is one of my favorite varietals and they do it as well as the better Brunello di Montalcinos of Italy.

Next time I go, I promise to take notes.

So....I went again. We are members and it is one of our favorite places, so this time I took notes.

Pinot Noir, Costiera, 2007 ($42). I got a big leather nose that leaves absolutely no doubt as to this being a big Pinot Noir. It is pure, straight-up and strong. A big, well crafted wine with a long and strong finish.  

Chianti Station, Trebbiano, Sangiovese, Malvasia, Canaiolo, and Nero, 2006 ($40.00). A very soft blend with a pleasant cherry nose. Nice for a summer sipper. This is a classic old-style field blend that you can concentrate on and find more than you think at first taste.

Zinfandel, Rock Pile, 2007 ($36.00). I love Rockpiles and this one is no exception. It got 92 points for a reason. It is a big fruit-forward rockpile flinty-slate Zin. The fruit goes all of the way from the beginning to a long strong finish.

Zinfandel, Old Vine, 2007 ($36.00). It has a very dry nose and proved to be a super dry Zin. It has good depth, but it is so dry as to sneak up on you with more fruit at the finish than at the beginning.

Petite Sirah, San Lorenzo Vineyard, 2005 ($45.00). Cassis and dark berry abound. It is a nice dark ruby color and demonstrates moderate fruit in a dry and very tasty Petite Sirah.

Dionigia, 1/3 each Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel in a Port Style $40.00/375ml. This was a lot dryer than I thought it would be with the raisin-fruit nose I got. It is only moderately sweet and represents a more mature style port. Very substantial without getting at all gooey.

Seghesio Family Vineyards is at 14730 Grove Street, Healdsburg, CA 95448, Phone 866-734-4374. www.seghesio.com

Selby Winery

We got there fairly late in the day and were pretty well tasted out by then, so I will have to come back again to try more wines instead of just the three I tried on this trip. I did have the honor of meeting Susie Selby, the owner who's dream it was to produce and sell first class wines.  She's made her dream come true.

Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma County, 2007, ($15.00) I'm getting to like Sauvignon Blanc more and more, and this one is a good reason why. I get a little pineapple/citrus fruit taste and found it to be very easy to enjoy.

Syrah, Sonoma County, 2005, ($24.00). Dry but still pretty fruity. Very clean flavors and medium weight. I found myself getting hungry for a nice slice of prime rib or other nice juicy beef.

Pinot Noir, Calegari Vineyard, 2006 ($35.00) Well crafted to display a very nice red berry fruit while remaining very dry to my palate. It is brand new and quite young, so a couple of years should make it even smoother than it already is.

Selby Winery is located at 215 Center Street, Healdsburg, CA 95448 707-431-1288. www.selbywinery.com

St. Francis Winery and Vineyards

We’ve been members here for several years, so you think I’d have better notes, but I don’t have real particulars on many of their wines that I’ve tasted, but do have my general notes on our last trip.  We consistently enjoy the wines, special events and staff at St. Francis. They are big and produce dozens of wines priced from $15-$75, with most in the $22-$40 range. 

Claret Sonoma County, 2005 ($22.00) Such a deal.  This is a big fruity, robust wine with depth and balance. It is rich but not too heavy.

Chardonnay, Behler, Sonoma Country, 2006 ($26.00). Behler has been one of our favorite Chardonnays for years. This one is smooth, not quite sweet with a rich and long finish and velvety mouthfeel.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Lagomarsino, Russian River, 2004 ($45.00). This is a lighter color with less fruit to it. I’d say it would pair better with a great cheeseburger than a heavy steak, and I love a good cheeseburger.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Wild Oak, Sonoma County, 2004 ($38.00).  This Cabernet Sauvignon defies its fairly aggressive nose with a smooth balance.

Malbec, McCoy Vineyard, Sonoma County, 2004, ($35.00). It still has a bit of astringency from the tannins and will probably benefit from a couple of more years in the bottle to smooth out and take advantage of the wonderful complexity of this very nice wine. It is top notch.

Merlot, Wild Oak, Sonoma County, 2004 ($45.00). Rich and big fruit, but not overboard.  A nice full-flavored Merlot.

Mourvedre, Pagani Vineyard, Sonoma Valley, 2005 ($45.00). I’m not sure I should be allowed to comment on any Mourvedre, because I like just about every one I’ve every had.  This is one of the best. It has a lot going on from the first taste through the finish with a dark cherry, rich and full flavor.

Port, Sonoma County, 2005 ($30.00). Still their same fine, semi-sweet and velvety smooth Port that doesn’t let you forget that it is made from fine wine. 

Petite Sirah, Dry Creek Valley, 2005 ($45.00). This is a brighter Petite Sirah with nice fruit. It is not inky or jammy, but has a chewy mouth feel. It is going to be a lamb lover and I found it to be similar to some of my favorite St. Emilion Gran Cru.

Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma County, 2007 ($19.00). This Sauvignon Blanc has a grapefruit nose with a melon fruity taste. It is very smooth and clean.

Viognier, Catie’s Corner, Russian River Valley, 2006 ($22.00). My nose said pear, and my taste buds agreed for once.  This is super smooth with a little sweetness that balances nicely back into the pear fruit. Mac the wife loves it.

Zinfandel, Wild Oak, Sonoma County, 2005 ($38.00). This Zinfandel starts off with big fruit and then settles down into a rich fullness.  It is balanced and toasty. I wonder if the word “malty” can be applied to a wine.

St. Francis Winery and Vineyards is at 100 Pythian Rd. at Hwy 12, Santa Rosa, CA., Phone 1-888-675-9463. www.stfranciswinery.com

Thumbprint Cellars

Scott and Erica first greeted us on a day that had to be 110 degrees outside, so we snuck into their lounge and have made it a regular stop on our trips to Healdsburg.  I’ve yet to taste a wine at Thumbprint that I didn’t like, and they are doing a good job of crafting some very fine wines.  For those so inclined, all of the wines on their current tasting list are vegan.  They range in price from $21-$49.

Viognier, Preston Vineyard, 2007 ($29.00). This has all of the depth of a good Viognier with no bite. It is very smooth but still retains that large flavor and finishes with a lingering butter.

Pinot Noir, Schneider Vineyard, Russian River Valley, 2007 ($45.00). This is an excellent Pinot Noir. It has good and complex fruit with nothing distracting from a very nice grape.

Three Some, Dry Creek Valley, 2005 ($43.00). This is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. It is complex and rich with superb fruit. It has a cherry and toasty flavor with a lingering finish. My notes say, “All gain and no pain.”

Four Play, Sonoma County, 2005 ($40.00). Sneaky people…I don’t know the varietals.  The first crisp taste was totally unexpected. It is a little brighter (I think) than the Three Some and should pair wonderfully with a nice steak or anything off the grill.

Climax, Sonoma County, 2005 ($49.00). Wait a minute, is there some innuendo in these wine names?  The cherry/berry fruit in this wine is very prominent up front. It is neither dry nor noticeably sweet. I have to say that it is both simple and complex at the same time and an excellent wine.

Zinfandel, Ramazzotti Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley, 2006 ($42.00). This is big, dry, bright Zinfandel with big fruit (oops already said big) up front that keeps it rich right up to a nice crisp finish.  We like it.

Go taste "Thumb" more in March, 2010...

I still have no idea how vegan wines differ from regular wines, they are certainly very high quality and infinitely enjoyable. We usually get here late in the day because it is right in town and they stay open later than some of the other places, so they get stuck with us near closing. Any time we can fit in one more tasting, this is a great place to do it.

Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, 2007 ($26.00). This is an all-steel Chardonnay with no oak at all (I guess that's what all steel means). It has very pleasant apple and orange flavors. Just because it's not oaked doesn't mean it's not full. This remains a nice rich Chardonnay.

Viognier, Dry Creek Valley, 2008 ($29.00). This is a fuller Viognier with pear and peach flavors that will stand up to a lot of food that you might otherwise be looking for a red wine to go with. Think smoked turkey and you'll have a match.

Dry Rose, Dry Creek Valley, 2008 ($18.00). I keep saying that I don't like Rose wines, but then I keep saying "except maybe this one." Okay, it's official, Rose wines can be pretty tasty. This one is very pleasant and easy to drink. It's still a Rose, but a fun one with a lot going on in the glass from watermelon to bright berry flavors.

"Four Play" Red Blend, Sonoma County, 2006 ($40.00). this is a blend of 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Merlot, 17% Cabernet Franc, and 10% Syrah. It is nice smooth blend that brings in a little spice, some berry, and even some cocoa. There's a lot to this blend, which Mac called "Really good."

Syrah, Ramazotti Vineyard, Alexander Valley, 2006 ($45.00). This is all Syrah and is a big full and still dry one. It has a dry cherry flavor that I liked a bunch. Wines like this go so well with my steak (can I say that about a vegan wine?) that my collection of Cabernet Sauvignon is not shrinking as it should.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Gallaway Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley, 2006 ($45.00). This is one of those that you don't even need to drink to appreciate. The nose is great. I like dark cherry and it's all there. A good balance of tannins and dry fruit will put a smile on your face, and a couple of years will only make it better.

Pinot Noir, Schneider Vineyard, Russian River, 2008 ($ no price yet). I never thought I would like what I can describe as leather. If you take the idea of light leather and wrap it in silk, you'll have a decent impression of this very nice Pinot Noir.

Zinfandel, Ramazzotti Vineyard, Alexander Valley, 2007 ($ no price yet). Pepper and fruit come together beautifully to make a nice full, but not heavy spicy Zinfandel. This wine has a very bright future.

Thumbprint Cellars is located at 36 North Street, Healdsburg, CA 95448, Phone 707-433-239. www.thumbprintcellars.com

Toad Hollow Vineyards

When you take an old biker bar owner and pair him with a sophisticated winemaker, something unusual is bound to happen, and from those roots came Toad Hollow. Dr. Toad (Todd Williams) teamed up with Rodney Strong and together they started Toad Hollow which makes very good wines at very reasonable prices. When I first met Dr. Toad, I knew he was an extraordinary guy and we had a lot of fun on the few occasions we got to sit around after hours and hoist a few.  When our son was graduating from Chico State, he asked me if he should go by his formal full name "Daniel Francis Phillips," or his shortened "Dan F. Phillips," or ??? I told him I thought the full name was the most proper and formal for such an august occasion as his college graduation. Imagine our faces when he started across the stage to "Daniel Francis Williams." There was another student behind him named Williams that the dean calling the names knew and anticipated the name. I had a video of it that I played for Dr. Toad, and at the same time told him he better pony up with the 23 years of child support. He first accused me of doctoring the video and when he finally was convinced it was real, he wrote "To Daniel Francis 'Who's your daddy.' Todd Williams" on a bottle of their finest Rod's Pride Pinot Noir for Dan.  

We lost the wonderful Dr. Toad in 2007. He will be remembered as a magician of wine and good friend of all.

Sauvignon Blanc, "Askew", Paso Robles, 2006. A light and fruity, very refreshing Sauvignon Blanc. It has a very nice citrus nose and taste and finishes crisply and cleanly. A great summer sipper. I went back and tried this one again, and called it "1/2 grapefruit and 1/2 light vanilla" on the palate. It is fresh and crisp; a delightful Sauvignon Blanc.

Red Blend, "Erik's the Red", Paso Robles. If you can figure out all of the complexities of this wine, you should win a prize. It is blended from 18 different varietals, starting with Cabernet Franc, Petite Sirah, and Zinfandel, blended with some smaller amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Mourvedre, Refosco, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Primitivo, and Rubired with a touch of Barbera, Petit Verdot, Syrah, Counoise, Chardonnay, and Sangiovese. If you'll notice, I only got 17, so both I and their website are missing one.  This is a very nice fruity and rich blend that will stand up to almost any red meat.  

Pinot Noir Reserve, "Rod's Pride", Russian River Valley, 2006. Rodney Strong would have been proud of this one. He was stricken in the middle of the project to bring this big and robust Pinot Noir to market. The vineyard was planted with six clones on four different root stocks and the best area was reserved for this reserve. It worked.

Sparkling Wine "Risque" Methode Ancestrale, NV.  This is one of our favorites and will be served at our son's wedding in October It is a lighter style sparkling wine that is a bit like a good Asti but with a little more fruit and is one of the most refreshing bubblies we've ever had. Apple is the predominant flavor. It is a little sweet but light enough to handle that very well. Alcohol is only 6%, so you can enjoy a bit more of it than most others.  I still have a little confusion with the moniker "Methode Ancestrale", which sounds to me very much like "The way we've always done it." It even comes with a cool ceramic plug that locks into place to save for another day once opened. I don't know that we've ever had any left to save.

I'll get new prices when I next visit. You'll find them to be well worth the money.

Toad Hollow Vineyards is located at 409A Healdsburg Avenue, Healdsburg, CA 95448, Phone 707-431-8667. www.ToadHollow.com

Topel Winery

This was a pleasant find on our April, 2009 tasting weekend. We were fortunate to meet the winemakers, Mark and Donnis Topel, and they brought out a variety of wines to taste, both from the current selections and a couple of wines yet to come.  The tasting room was bustling with people, but that didn't keep Donnis and Mark and their crew from giving personal attention to everyone there. It's a nice place to visit, and if you are a wine lover, you'll be taking some home.

Sauvignon Blanc, 2007 ($28.00). This comes from a certified organic orchard. It is crisp and clean with a little grassy taste and nice fresh citrus taste. There is a little tingle on the finish that makes it seem almost effervescent.

Pinot Noir, 2007 ($28.00) Wonderful berry fruit and a lingering finish make this a favorite of one of the owners, and without telling which one, I agree with her. At this price point it's hard to compete with.

Pinot Noir Reserve, 2006 ($45.00) Berry's abound in this big Pinot Noir. It is quite a mouthful; bigger with more fruit than most Pinot's.

Gamay, 2007 ($22.00) Wonderfully pleasant and full enough to scare a chicken.  I think it would be the perfect wine with our Thanksgiving smoked turkey dinner.

Mark's Blend, Super Tuscan, 2005 ($22.00) This is a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Sangiovese, 5% Petite Sirah and 5% Syrah. It has a minerally nose and the taste goes from cherry to berry and back to cherry again. It is moderately fruity, but fairly rich and full. I'd call it something between a Cabernet Sauvignon on steroids or a Sangiovese that went to finishing school.

Cabernet Sauvignon, 2004 ($28.00). Another finely crafted classic. This is dry, fruity, and full bodied.

Meritage, 2005, ($32.00). This is a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 12% Petit Verdot, and 8% Cabernet Franc. This Meritage packs a big fruity punch up front with almost no trace of tannins. It is ready to enjoy today.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain 2007 (no price yet). 97% Cabernet Sauvignon and 3% Merlot.  Rich cherry taste that is smooth and delicious. It's not even released yet and is already one of the smoother Cabernet Sauvignons. It's rich without being a monster.

Orange Muskat 2008 (no price yet). They used no malolactic fermentation. It has an orange/nectarine flavor that is very light and pleasant. It is 2 1/2% residual sugar, giving it a nice sweetness that is not at all gummy.  A nice dessert wine with fresh fruit and vanilla ice cream.

Topel Estate Blend, 2006 (no price yet). 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% Syrah, 5% Petit Verdot, and 5% Merlot. We tasted this out of a bottle not yet bottled and found it to be pretty darned good. It has a blackberry taste that follows from the start to a rich and long finish.  

Topel Winery is located at 125 Matheson Street, near the plaza in Healdsburg, CA 95448. 707-433-4116. www.topelwines.com

Unti Vineyards

This was my first trip to Unti and I was impressed. There wasn't anything that I didn't enjoy and I have to say they are well crafted across the board. The staff were very friendly and let offered everything they have to taste. I only tried five wines this time, but I will be back.

Barbera, Dry Creek Valley Estate 2007 ($26.00) The nose tells you there is big fruit coming and it's not wrong. They use the word "racy" for this bright cherry/berry Barbera and it fits well.  There is just enough tannins to crispen up the finish with a nice touch of pepper spice.

Grenache, Dry Creek Valley Estate, 2006 ($30.00). 77% Grenache Noir, 17% Syrah, 6% Mourvedre. This is not the light rose wine that most of us think of with Grenache, but is the darker and richer Grenache Noir. It is dry with nice fruit, but not at all punchy like a rose would be. It reminds me very much of an Alicante Bouschet done lightly with the skins; the Yin of the old Yin and Yang for you Livermore folks.

Syrah, Benchland, Dry Creek Valley Estate, 2005 ($35.00). Very dark, almost ink grade . It is intensely rich and fruity and rich again with a blackberry and smoky flavor that is nice and spicy. An awesome mouthfeel and it should have a very long shelf life or is ready to enjoy now.  A magnum ($75.00) followed me home.

Red Blend, Cuvee Foudre, Dry Creek Valley Estate, ($50.00) The name "Foudre" refers to the giant 620 gallon barrels in which this wine is aged. It is 65% Grenache, 25% Mourvedre, and 10% Syrah. It has a nice blackberry nose and is rich and complex. The Army would like this to go with their slogan "Be all you can be," or you can just think of it as liquid steak.

Syrah Reserve, Dry Creek Valley Estate, 2005 ($50.00) This wine is fermented in bulk clusters, so it picks up a little more spice and complexity. It has a very nice berry fruit tasted and is very well balanced with a long and silky smooth finish.

Unti is located at 4202 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, CA 95448. 707-433-5590. www.UntiVineyards.com

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