Monday, March 28, 2011

Nevada Wine Industry Gets Huge Boost from UNR's Grant Cramer

I've been getting updates from the University of Nevada at Reno's intrepid Dr. Grant Cramer for a while. He is leading the charge in the wine industry there, with test plots in Reno and a series of tasting/educational seminars in the pilot winery on campus. Sadly, due to Washoe County's restrictive alcohol-beverage rules, the wine from there can't be sold in the county. If it could -- wow, a nice few vintages would hit the local markets!

A while ago, I reviewed some of these UNR Estate wines on my blog, winebiznews. Click here to take a look at that review. And here's the latest dispatch from Dr. Cramer: "Just a reminder that we will hold a Nevada Wine tasting class this Tuesday at 5 pm at the UNR Valley Road Greenhouse Complex. The first half hour we will continue a series of lectures on vineyard plant, management and pruning. We will also continue our training on aroma analysis of wine. At 5:30 PM we will be tasting the UNR Drought-Stressed White wines (an assortment). Last week's UNR Drought-Stressed Red tasting was very good! Hope to see you there. We will go out to the vineyard to look at the vines how they have survived the winter, so be there on time. There is a $10 class fee (cash or checks) Checks can be made out to the Board of Regents."

He also blogs at

Dr. Cramer is officially a Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology,University of Nevada, Reno, but somewhere along the way, his love of wine led him to spent part of his time investigating the prospects for the wine industry in Nevada. I was lucky to participate in a session a while ago when he and his wife had just returned from a summer's holiday in Burgundy. Many local wine lovers attend these Tuesday afternoon classes, and the enthusiasm is palpable.

His longtime assistant in this venture is Kitty Spreeman. You can get on the newsletter list by emailing to cramer (at) If you are interested in Nevada wines, it's a good thing to do.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Rhone Rangers ride The Sierra and Its Foothills: San Francisco Tasting Lassos Them In

For lovers of Rhone varietals, nothing can be more ecstatic than the annual Rhone Rangers tasting at Fort Mason in San Francisco. (That’s assuming you don’t follow the organization around to its many tastings elsewhere, of course. ) But for a devotee of Sierra and Its Foothills wines, it’s a pleasure to taste so many flagship wines all in one place.

That “flagship” wine question is one I always ask, and yesterday I asked it of these wineries: Clos Saron, Crystal Basic Cellars, David Girard, Holly’s Hill, Miraflores, Prospect 772, Sierra Vista, Skinner, and Terre Rouge. Here’s what I heard (and tasted):

Clos Saron (Yuba County).
Winemaker Gideon Bienstock is most fond of his Pinot Noir, but he does have a lovely hand with his 2010 Syrah rose. The 2010 Tickled Pink is a lovely dry and food-friendly rose.

Crystal Basin Cellars ( El Dorado County).
Their 2008 Mourvedre, El Dorado Reserve, uses grapes sourced from Fodhla Vineyard and Spanish Creek Ranch. Their winemaker refers to this as “the Merlot of the Rhone.”

David Girard Vineyards (El Dorado County).
The 2009 Coda Blanc is a white blend of Rousanne, Grenache Blanc, Rolle, Marsanne, and Viognier. The 2008 won a Silver in the 2010 San Francisco Chronicle competition, and this newer vintage is lovely too.

Holly’s Hill Vineyards (El Dorado County).
Their landmark wine, said the pourers, is BOTH of their Patriarche blends: the 2009 White Blend, Patriarche Blanc, and the 2008 Red Blend, Patriarche.

Miraflores Winery (El Dorado County).
The 2009 Viognier is a slightly sweet late harvest wine. Only 54 cases were produced, so hurry!

Prospect 772 (Calaveras County).
The 2008 The Brat is a 60/40 blend of Grenache and Syrah. “We called this wine “The Brat” because it is based in Grenache and Grenache is a temperamental grape,” they note.

Sierra Vista Winery (El Dorado County).
The 2008 Syrah, Estate, Red Rock Ridge is a new feather in winemaker John MacCready’s cap. “very reminiscent of a Cote Rotie,” he says. Yum.

Skinner Vineyards and Winery (El Dorado County).
The 2007 Syrah, Stoney Creek Vineyard, Fair Play, has a touch of Viognier. Grapes were grown on a ridgetop that ranges from 2,610 to 2,740 feet in elevation.

Terre Rouge (Amador County).
2007 Terre Rouge L'Autre Grenache Syrah Mouvedre Blend is their top Rhone varietal blend. “This is a dead ringer for a top Southern Rhône like a Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Gigondas,” says winemaker notes.

And then, there are these final words...

Sierra Foothill Wines Featured on Menu of Outstanding Sacramento Restaurant: The Kitchen

Those fortunate enough to snare a reservation for the fantastic Kitchen Restaurant in Sacramento had an even better reason to dine there in March... two good Sierra Foothill wines were selected for pairing with two of the courses on their exquisite menu.  Each month The Kitchen prepares one set menu with a suggested wine pairing flight. 

The multi-course dinner is a true performance, with all dishes prepared and assembled in the spotless open-kitchen format of this 55-seat restaurant.  Chef Noah Zonca and Executive Chef Randall Selland create wonderful recipes that are a pleasure as both cuisine and works of art.

The first Sierra Foothill wine on the pairing flight list for March is the 2009 Skinner Grenache Blanc, Stoney Creek Vineyard, Fair Play AVA.   It was paired with “Act III – Second Plate”, a warm salad of Sanger lamb sausage with good egg, artichoke, blood orange, frisee and brioche. 

Tasting notes on the menu say: "We've picked a unique and memorable wine for your second course pairing this month. Since the (salad) dish has rich, bright, and crisp elements, we feel this wine has just the right versatility, body and character to make for a great pairing."

In a discussion with The Kitchen’s Chief Wine Steward, Doug Nitchman, he said, "I do a tasting every week, and when the winemaker from Skinner Vineyards, Chris Pittenger, brought in his 2007 Grenache Blanc, I fell in love with it.  When that happens, I always hope that the chef will develop a recipe that will pair ... but as in every good restaurant, the food leads.  So when I heard about the salad with artichoke and wine, I thought:  "Yes! Perfect for the Skinner Grenache Blanc. It seems I discovered this wine at about the same time everyone else did, and now it's sold out.  So we feel lucky to have it," Doug said.

The 2005 Renwood Vintage Port, Sierra Foothills, was paired with “Act VII- Dessert Is Served.”  This gourmet dessert delight included a bittersweet chocolate tart, sweet lime custard, candied pecan ice cream, and strawberry cream.  Tasting notes on the Renwood Winery port on the menu:  “We don’t do a lot of Ports, but we couldn’t resist this beautiful example, which pairs so well with the bittersweet chocolate and lime flavors. “  Doug Nitchman’s further notes are that the 2005 Port was made from the traditional Portuguese varietals Alvarahao, Bastardo, Souzao, Tinta Cao, Tinta Roriz and Touriga.

The Kitchen Restaurant is located at 2225 Hurley Way in Sacramento, CA.  For more information,  take a look at their website,  which has a video of the dining experience.  Warning: reservations fill up a few weeks in advance!  It is worth the wait!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Sierra Foothill Winery Briefs: Skinner Vineyards, Laraine Winery

I like to refer to the Sierra Foothills as “the next Napa”, but in some ways, that may be giving too much credit to Napa.  Don’t get me wrong, I like Napa wines and winemakers; however, I find it increasingly hard to look beyond the Disney-like atmosphere that happens in Napa on weekends and during Napa winery events. 
Last summer, I drove many miles to visit wineries and winemakers in the 11 counties that comprise my expanded version of the Sierra and its Foothills wine region:  Amador, Calaveras, El Dorado, Mariposa, Nevada, Placer, Sierra, Sutter, Tuolumne and Yuba in California, and Washoe County, Nevada.  Sierra County has yet to produce a vineyard or winery, but it won’t be long before it joins the other 250+ wineries.
Where to start?   I’m going to tell you about a few wineries that are high on my list, and one wine from each.  Get out your GPS, and visit them.  Much of this information below is drawn from their websites, by the way.  Until you visit these wineries physically, why not visit their websites?

Winemaker Chris Pittenger, left,
and Ryan Skinner, General Manager

In El Dorado County, Skinner Vineyards has a wine industry heritage tracing back to the Gold Rush days. Its  2008 El Dorado “Eighteen Sixty-One” is a blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Syrah, and is patterned after the wines of the Southern Rhône. The fruit is sourced from five high-altitude vineyards in El Dorado County which range in elevation from 2,700 to 2,850 feet. This complex blend combines aromas of black cherry, blueberry, and ripe strawberry with elements of Asian spice, forest floor, and leather. Modest tannins and ample acidity create a pleasant, balanced finish for this medium-bodied wine.    Bottle Price: $30
ABOUT THE WINERY:  Skinner Vineyards is committed to producing exceptional wines that reflect the unique spirit of the Sierra Foothills, using some of the same Rhône varietals that were grown by the Skinner family 150 years ago.  The new 12,000 square foot winery and tasting room at 2700-feet elevation in the Fair Play AVA of El Dorado County is solar powered and  incorporates many greentech/environmental features.   After mid-May, visit them at their absolutely spectacular tasting room, located in their Stoney Creek Vineyard, 8054 Fairplay Road, Fair Play, CA 95684.  Call for hours:  (310) 996 0220.  You can see Pyramid Peak from the top of their mountain vineyards, where the tasting room is located.
Laraine Winery, atop the rolling hills of Calaveras County, produces an explosive fruit-forward wine,  the  Scarlet Harlot.  Named after winery owner David Gerber's B-17 Bomber in WWII, it's a blend of estate grown Syrah, Merlot, Sangiovese, and Petite Sirah.  Robust with notes of currant, rhubarb, dark chocolate and blackberry preserves, it has polished tannins and lively structure.  Bottle price:  $22.
ABOUT THE WINERY:  Laraine is, in part, a Hollywood story.  Laraine Winery originally began as Gerber Vineyards, a small family-owned vineyard in 1989. Throughout the years, Laraine and David Gerber would escape their industry paced life in Hollywood by spending time in the idyllic township of Murphys, California. In the 1960's, David, along with some college friends from nearby UOP, bought the historic Murphys Hotel, and in the 1980's he chose the area as the location of his television series Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. It was during this time that David and Laraine purchased a beautiful historic estate situated in an isolated valley outside of Murphys in the Sierra Foothills.  Now it  boasts the largest vineyards in Calavaras County offering award-winning estate Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Sangiovese.   Their tasting room is located at 3675 Six Mile Road, Vallecito, CA 95251.  Call (209) 736.4766 for hours.

Next in this series:  a few other wonderful El Dorado wineries: Boeger, C. G. DiArie  and Madrona .  More to come!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Corkage Fees and Deep Deep Snow: The Sufferings of Mountain Restaurateurs

"Too much snow," declared my friend H, who owns a restaurant at Tahoe that has a wonderful wine list. "That, and so many people bring their own wine now."

I'm fortunate to have my finger on the pulse of on-premise wine sales in this high-income resort area of California, by virtue of my weekly wine column in The Tahoe Weekly.  A glass of wine, a loaf of bread, and a look at the wine list late at night when most customers have gone home: that's the dynamic that lets those risk-takers in the restaurant industry let their hair down a bit and tell you what's really going on.  I don't care what bean-counting firms follow wine offtake in the bar and restaurant business, their numbers can't give you the accurate up-to-date reading that such chats allow.

So the restaurants and ski lodges are packed on snowy weekends this winter.  Except if there is too much snow.  Snow like the snow last weekend, and black ice, which caused that truck to jack-knife on Route 80 and crush a car and its occupants.  That will keep the skiers away!   And it did.

Regardless of snow ice traffic and so on, H's wine list is a wonder to behold.  I've enjoyed food & wine pairings at his restaurant that are astounding. But he says he simply is not buying any wine.  His cellar is full of good wines ... but so many customers bring their own these days.  What's a restaurateur to do?

I understand that the economics of the business are tough.  But my recommendation (which I keep to myself late at night) is this:  Don't mark up your wines so much.   Consumers/diners are not stupid.  And now, with a two-second touch of their smartphones, they can find out what a wine sells for at retail and do the math.  Corkage fees help the bottom line a bit... but that few extra dollars and moving your inventory and thus eliminating your carrying-cost ... simple B-School principles say, REDUCE YOUR PRICES.


Friday, March 18, 2011

225 Sierra & Its Foothills Wineries: Growing in Numbers and Thriving via Quality

In the summer of 2010, I spent months on the mountain roads of the Sierra and its Foothills, visiting 40-50 of the 225 wineries there.  People are always astounded at those numbers -- even those in the wine business who ought to understand the economics and allure of vinifera-friendly land that doesn't cost a fortune (um, Napa and Sonoma come to mind...). 

In the process, I met wonderful people who are truly dedicated to grapegrowing at altitude, and who are producing Mountain wines that are incredible: intense, unique, sometimes even experimental in terms of blends and varietals.  It's certainly not about the numbers here in the Sierra, but in case you are interested, let me answer, to the best of my ability, the most frequently asked question:

So what's the current count?

In alphabetical order by county:
48    Amador
39    Calaveras
74    El Dorado ..   oops, 75
6      Mariposa
20    Nevada
23    Placer
1      Sutter
5      Tuolumne
6      Yuba
3 - Washoe County

So the number is currently 226... and additions are being made all the time.  Let me know of the newcomers, please!

For example, just yesterday, I was talking to Doug Noble, Food and Wine Writer for the Mountain Democrat Newspaper, which circulates widely in El Dorado County.  He was raving about a dinner he'd had recently that featured wines from Nello Olivo.  Don't know how I missed that one, but that raised the El Dorado County winery number to 75.   The new Nello Olivo Wine Tasting Room opened fairly recently.   It is in the historic cellar of the Sequoia Restaurant (the restored Bee-Bennett Victorian mansion) in downtown Placerville.  The Winery is located in Cameron Park. They produce Barbera, Cabernet Sauvignon, Claret, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Primitivo, Sangiovese, Toscanello (a blend that is primarily Sangiovese), and a Super Tuscan.

More about the winery: (a few remarks cribbed from their website,
The Olivos have chosen to grow old-world style grapes—particularly those common to regions of Italy, Nello's ancestral home—which flourish in the California Sierra Foothills terroir and climate.

"A lifelong dream of mine," says Nello, "has been to grow my own grapes and produce my own wine. That's exactly what my grandfather did who came from the old country. It's a passion in me. It's probably in my blood. When I'm doing that, I feel like a happy little kid!"

Rancho Olivo Vineyards is a true boutique winery, producing less than 100 cases of each varietal annually. This makes Nello Olivo wines true sought-after treasures by those who have discovered its qualities.


Malbec Release: Bodega Del Sur does it Right

There is a lot of buzz about Malbec, and that's all good. It gets even better when a progessive small winery like Bodega Del Sur, Murphys, CA (Calaveras AVA), produces a nicely balanced wine and a lot of hoopla to introduce it.

The '08 Malbec created by winemaker Chuck Hovey uses grapes sourced from the new Alta Mesa appellation in the Silvaspoon Vineyards. It's fruity, smooth, and pairs wonderfully with traditional Argentine BBQ.

Bodega Del Sur owners Victor and Evelyn Reyes-Umana chose to debut their Malbec at Villa del Sol restaurant in South San Francisco. A great idea, since the restaurant brought out platters of BBQ beef, pork and poultry done in the authentic style... accompanied by live music, a Bondolon musician and Victor himself crooning a few Latin American ballads.

At the event, Evelyn presented the new 2008 vintage of Carmesi , a red blend with a purpose. Portions of the sale of each bottle of Carmesi are donated to charitable organizations that assist needy women and their children. This year, The Resource Connection of San Andreas has been chosen to receive the donations from the sale of the 2008 vintage of the Carmesi.

About the winery (a nice backstory in their own words): Bodega del Sur is the culmination of a dream of Evelyn and Victor Reyes-Umana. Victor began his love affair with wine in his native El Salvador. Moving to California and later in life, traveling around the world, solidified his appreciation for wines and increased his curiosity for the various wine styles of the different regions of the world.

While visiting some friends in Chile in 1993, Victor and Evelyn had the great opportunity to visit many of the small, family owned wineries, and it was then that Victor uttered the fateful words, "This is what I would like to do when I retire". His remark took Evelyn completely by surprise. She thought it was a pipe dream, and mentioned something about him being out of his mind. After all, Victor was already a successful electrical engineer in California's Silicon Valley, and Evelyn was busy raising their sons, Victor Manuel and Luis Edgardo, with a full-time job teaching Spanish at Saint Matthew's Catholic School in San Mateo, CA. What did they know about making wine? But this "nutty" idea started to flourish.

During their visits to Spain and France in 2004 and 2005, they visited various wine regions, spending some significant time in La Mancha, where wines and dreams come together. They spent time talking to the winemakers and gathering information on the production of fine, elite wines. Then, in the spring of 2007, the opportunity arose to purchase a winery in Calaveras County, and they decided to take the plunge. This was the perfect location. Not only was it near their summer home in Arnold, but also, Victor realized the grape growing region of the Sierra foothills mimicked those of Chile, Argentina and Spain, among others. Through the years, Victor had learned to appreciate and admire the wines the region produced, and particularly liked the consistent quality and style of the wine produced by Chuck Hovey for another local winery. It was through Chuck's wines that Victor learned that great wines could be made from Spanish varietals grown locally. It was an incredible thrill for Victor and Evelyn to be able to team up with Chuck, to produce the Bodega del Sur wines. Truly a dream coming true.

On a personal note, I was delighted to help Evelyn and Victor celebrate their new vintages. They are among some of the most interesting winery people I've met while doing research for my forthcoming book, Mountain High Wines: The Sierra and Its Foothills. Drop me a note if you'd like to be on the book party release list! (barbara at winebizpr dot com)