Friday, September 7, 2007

Gary Farrell Vineyards: Tasting Review

Just around the corner from the folksy shack-cum-tasting room at Porter Creek Vineyards, the elegant hilltop surroundings at Gary Farrell Vineyards could not provide a sharper contrast.

The Gary Farrell name has been synonymous with high quality pinot noir for more than two decades. The vineyard currently produces a line that also includes sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and a Bordeaux blend called Encounter. Pinot noir is still the star and it will always be the wine that is closest to winemaker Farrell’s heart.

In 2000, the vineyard opened a new facility that sits on a ride flanking the north side of the Russian River Valley. The tasting room has sweeping views to the south and feels more Napa than Sonoma – almost like a cross between an art gallery and a small corporate retreat.

Much to my surprise, my wife and I both thought the sauvignon blanc was the best of the bunch. It is a complex, rich, oaky wine, with nicely balanced citrus flavors, a silky mouth feel and a long finish. This is a very solid food wine as well.

Try Cellar Tracker for some tasting notes on the Gary Farrell wines.

Tasting Overview:

Wine: B+

Experience: B

Setting: A


Overall: B+

Pros: Spectacular setting. Consistently high quality wines across the board.

Cons: Wines are a little pricey, though it is hard to argue with the quality. While the setting is top notch, I was disappointed that the grounds are not picnic-friendly.

Bottom line: Gary Farrell is a true pinot noir legend and any excuse to taste his wines should not be missed.

Quick Facts:

  • Winery Location: Healdsburg, California
  • Apellation(s): Russian River Valley
  • Production: 18,000 cases
  • Wines
  • Map and Directions

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Porter Creek Vineyards: Tasting Review

If you like to get off the beaten track a little and sample some superb wine in an intimate, friendly setting, Porter Creek Vineyards is just about the perfect destination.

Porter Creek Vineyards is a very small operation, easy to miss, with a “tasting room” that is more of a large shed, located around the corner from the main house. This feels more like Anderson Valley than Napa. My last visit was about five years ago, when they were offering superb pinot noirs from two vineyards that flank the tasting area, in addition to a crisp chardonnay. The pinots and chards still have the dominant position at Porter Creek, but the addition of syrah, carignane and viognier makes for a much richer tasting portfolio. I found all five wines to be excellent examples of each varietal; based on a barrel tasting of the forthcoming syrah, it looks like things are poised to get even better.

A large part of what makes tasting at Porter Creek one of the best tasting experiences around is the host, who has perfected the craft of mixing pouring with story-telling and light entertainment, all the while providing the customer with as much or as little information about wine as they desire. I also get a sense that the tasting menu is whatever suits the fancy of the host and makes sense for the customer. This is my kind of place.

Tasting Overview:

Wine: A-
Experience: A
Setting: B+
Overall: A-

Pros: High quality wines, in an interesting assortment. While syrah is becoming more popular in the area, carignane is an inspired choice for something different, the viognier is among the best I have tasted of that varietal recently, and blending 10% viognier with the syrah softens some of the edges and adds some mystery to the nose.

Cons: None to speak of, unless you prefer the high end, corporate wine experience. These wines are not inexpensive, but you they are definitely a good value. Finally, Porter Creek is off the beaten track, but that is a plus for me.

Bottom line: One of my favorite Sonoma tasting experiences – and improving. Great wine; great fun.

Quick Facts:

  • Winery Location: Healdsburg, California
  • Apellation(s): Russian River Valley
  • Production: 3,500 cases
  • Wines
  • Map and Directions

Friday, May 18, 2007

Iron Horse Vineyards: Tasting Review

For several years I was a member of the wine club at Iron Horse Vineyards, eventually opting out because the backlog of sparkling wines in my wine cellar quickly started to outstrip my ability to consume them at the pace they arrived. Now I know that sparkling wines don’t require that they be accompanied by a celebration, but when we started pretending to celebrate, the second Tuesday in June, the arrival of a new moon, and fractional wedding anniversaries, it was obvious that it was time for us to call it quits. For what it’s worth, our pourer at the winery advised us that the wine club now has multiple membership options, including one that limits shipments to still wines.

Since it had been about 5 years since I had last tasted at Iron Horse, I was curious to see how other things had changed. What stuck in my mind about tasting at Iron Horse were four things:

  • The beautiful setting, with almost Tuscan rolling hills falling away from the winery
  • An outdoor tasting experience that takes advantage of the setting
  • This was the place where I first had the first American sangiovese that bowled me over
  • A wide variety of consistently high quality wines

So how did the present compare to my recollection?

Tasting Overview:

Wine: B
Experience: B+
Setting: A-
Overall: B

Pros: The setting and the outdoor tasting are intact, making for the perfect pairing with a sunny day. I also liked that I had the opportunity to taste still wines only or sparkling wines only. There is still an excellent selection of wines, including a recently added viognier and sauvignon blanc blended with 10% viognier.

Cons: The sangiovese was undistinguished. The rest of the wines may have been better than average, but not compelling enough for us to start filling up a case box. Finally, I was stunned to see that the $10 tasting fee would not be applied to any purchases. Is this an idea that has been borrowed from Napa?

Bottom line: This was one of the few times I can recall not purchasing any wines when I tasted at the winery. Part of my disappointment was clearly the result of high expectations. Despite my experience, I would still highly recommend this winery for an opportunity to taste a wide variety of very good wines in a top notch outdoor setting.

Quick Facts:

  • Winery Location: Sebastopol, California
  • Apellation(s): Green Valley, Russian River Valley
  • Production: 38,000 cases
  • Wines
  • Map and Directions

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

What Makes a Good Tasting Experience?

Before I get into the evaluation of the various tasting rooms I recently visited, I thought it would make sense to provide some insight into my thinking about what goes into a good tasting experience.

Let me break down the elements of a tasting experience in this way:

A. Wine (50-75%)

  1. Wine Quality
  2. Wine Value
  3. Wine Variety/Innovation
  4. Wine Availability

B. Tasting Experience (20-25%)

  1. Host/Pourer
  2. Tasting Fees
  3. Customization of Experience

C. Winery Setting (5-20%)

  1. Tasting Room Setting/Ambience
  2. Crowd Factor

D. Extras (0-15%)

  1. Tasting Room Amenities (food, etc.)
  2. Integrated Outdoor and/or Picnic Opportunities
  3. Other

An Unscientific Method: The Problem With Repeatable Experiences

It is important to note that two people can visit the same winery on the same day and have completely different experiences. Two elements of the experience are highly variable and can significantly impact the experience: the host/pourer and the crowd factor. A third factor is also often in play and is usually a result of these two: the customization of the experience. By customization of the experience I mean that if a winery is crowded and the taster is deemed indifferent (i.e., displays a preference for consumption of alcohol in general over any attempt to learn the particular merits of various offerings) the host will tend to say very little and seek only to fill glasses for the standard wines and hope that the taster moves on sooner rather than later.

On the other hand, if the winery is not crowded, the host is empowered to do what he or she wishes, and the taster demonstrates significant knowledge and interest in the wines, then suddenly premium wines not on the standard tasting list will magically appear, barrel samples may be offered, tasting fees may be waived, the winemaker may come out and say hello, and you might even be invited in to meet the owner’s family. It all depends on where you are, how you present yourself, and whether you happen to be there on the right day. As you can imagine, if you are a wine club member, show up on a Tuesday afternoon in February, and engage the host in a discussion about the subtle differences between what your tasting and the three vintages of the same wine you have in your cellar at home, the odds of something good happening will be in your favor.

In summary, some of the elements of a tasting experience are fairly standard from one tasting to the next (setting, quality of the wines, fees, gift store amenities), some vary a little each time (wines available to taste, customization of experience, etc.), and some can vary a great deal from tasting to tasting (the host/pourer and the crowd factor, in particular.)


What is a great tasting experience? For me, it starts with great wines. Ideally, these wines are free to taste or if there is a fee, it is applied to any purchase you make (a practice that appears to be on the decline, I am sad to say.) It also helps if you can taste everything, including the single vineyard premium wines, so you are not just sampling the mass production runs while the good stuff sits under lock and key. From the list of wines to taste, there should be a balance of pricey and affordable wines, so you can take home whatever fits your budget. I like to see a solid mix of red and white varietals, but this is not a requirement. What is important is variety and what I refer to above as ‘innovation.’ If every winery in a ten mile radius offers pinot noir and chardonnay, then I’m not going to be impressed by a winery that offers only those two grapes (even if the winery is Kistler.) What I like to see are some unusual varietals, some interesting blends and maybe some grapes that are purchased from a good distance away so that the winemaker can experiment with something that will not be available down the road. It may just be me, but I prefer an innovative near miss to a carbon copy hit.

Tasting Experience

The host can be merely a glass filler or a tour guide and story teller who can unlock the secrets behind what you are drinking – and more. Ultimately it is the host who decides whether or not to try to customize your experience and how much liberty to take with throwing some extras your way. As noted above, it is important for you to make it easy for them to do so. It won’t always happen, but you need to leave the door open for them. Finally, if you’ve been lucky enough to strike up a good relationship with the host, don’t be shy about asking their opinions about other wineries to visit. The best way to discover those hidden gems is by asking a local who knows exactly what you like and can point you in the right direction: the host. Had it not been for a host at Balletto, for instance, I would never have discovered Harvest Moon.

Winery Setting

The winery and tasting room setting will provide the context for your experience. Iron Horse likes to pour outside so you can drink in their Tuscan vistas; Gary Farrell sits on a hill with a sweeping views of Russian River; and Lynmar has an inviting open patio where you sit almost on top of the vines. Of course, all this can be ruined by crowds. If you see a tour bus outside the tasting room, you are usually better served to come back another time. Most wineries with a well known brand name will generally be too crowded for my taste on weekends; this is where it pays to know some of the smaller wineries that require appointments and/or cater to a more discerning crowd.


On some days it is nice to be able to grab some food and have a picnic outdoors. Some wineries oblige in the food department; others provide spaces to relax and eat outside. The problem is that most of the wineries that have the best amenities are also those that draw the largest crowds and the most tour buses.

So now that you know most of my biases, it is time to turn to the wineries themselves.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

March 2007 Wine Tasting in Green Valley and the Russian River Valley - Overview

Two weekends ago, my wife and I made a trip to Green Valley and the Russian River Valley. We only spent one night in the wine country, be we managed to pack in a fair amount of fun and exploration. I will soon be posting reviews of all our stops, along with some additional commentary on some other favorites that we skipped over this time around.

Here is a quick listing of some the places we visited:

Wineries / Tasting Rooms:


Food – Restaurant:

Food – Deli / Market:

Cultural / Other

Monday, March 26, 2007

Robert Parker Channeling My Pinot Tastes?

Maybe he's merely trying to curry favor with me, but am I the only one who finds a little to much overlap for comfort in Robert Parker's recent listing of his favorite California pinot noir producers?

Our short lists both include Hartford Court and Martinelli; he is also a fan of Rochioli, which I include in my list of Russian River tasting suggestions. Herein lies the one crucial difference between Parker and yours truly: access to great wines from the small superstar producers. You can taste some of the larger production wines at the Rochioli tasting room, but, last I checked, they had a waiting list of six years to get access to their premium wines. Parker's two other Russian River favorites, Kistler and Marcassin, are similarly difficult -- and expensive -- to come by. If you have $300-525 lying around and want to take a flyer on Marcassin pinot, you can find some of them on the Web, if you search diligently.

Unlike Parker, I am still waiting for an invitation to taste 16 Marcassin wines at one sitting.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Zinfandel Ports

Since it is Valentine's Day, it seems appropriate to talk about something sweet.  Sweet zins and pinots you ask?  Yes, actually.

From time to time over the past decade or so since I first discovered them, I have enjoyed sampling some California zinfandel ports, along with an occasional port made from petit syrah, merlot and other grapes.  Zins seem to work best among the California varietals for this purpose.

It is difficult to keep up with what is going on in this space as these wines receive very little press, but I did find a place where you can keep track of the recent port medal winners, including more than a handful of zin ports:

In addition to the recent medal winners, I would like to highlight some of my favorite zin ports, roughly in order of preference, but most of which I have not tasted in the current vintage:
  • Hartford Family Winery -- available only to wine club members, I believe, at the moment
  • Rosenblum Cellars -- currently has three different zin ports available
  • Eric Ross Winery
  • Trentadue -- also offers an excellent petite sirah port, as well as viogner (!?!) port that I have not tried, but sounds intriguing
  • Lolonis -- I haven't had any zin ports from Lolonis in awhile, but it looks like they may have upgraded their offerings -- or at least their price points
  • Ficklin -- a California port pioneer

Note to repeat readers: I have repaired all the broken links which may not have been working on previous visits.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Anderson Valley Wine Country Suggestions: Wineries

Like the Russian River Valley, the cooler climate in Anderson Valley means some exemplar pinot noirs and chardonnays, in particular. Inland (Hopland, Ukiah, Redwood Valley and Potter Valley) is a top zin producing area. For more info on wineries in the Anderson Valley region, the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association is a great place to start. Some suggested stops:

1a) Navarro -- one of the best value high quality wineries in the state. Great selection for a small winery. In addition to the obvious pinot and chard, try some of the best California gewurztraminer and riesling (including the late harvest dessert wines), our favorite California pinot gris, as well as their Navarrouge red blend, a perfect everyday wine. Heck, try them all!

1b) Roederer Estate -- incomparable sparkling wines. Make sure you try the still wines too, if they are available.

2) Greenwood Ridge Vineyards -- next to Navarro, also with an extensive variety for a relatively small winery.

3) Goldeneye – a recently opened pinot palace, owned by the folks at Duckhorn.

4) Lazy Creek Vineyards -- get out your map and drive the back roads to this boutique producer of pinot, chard and a fascinating dry gewurztraminer. You may want to call ahead for an appointment just in case.

5) Esterlina Vineyards -- If you really want an off-road, back woods winery experience, call Esterlina and make the trip up dirt roads to the top of the valley to this low volume producer. Perhaps known most for their pinot, but high quality all around.

6) Londer Vineyards – After a trip there in the summer of 2006, this small winery jumped some heady competition to become my favorite Anderson Valley winery. They have since become somewhat of a cult winery and while they do not have a tasting room, it may still be possible to make an appointment with the owners for a tasting in their house. Incomparable pinots and a superb dry gewurz.

7) If you're still sober, you might also consider Handley, Brutocao and Husch.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Anderson Valley Wine Country Suggestions: Hotels/B&Bs

When it comes to wine country destinations, I feel strongly that Anderson Valley is a special place -- and much more genuine than the other, well-trodden alternatives. Some thoughts on Anderson Valley, which is probably my favorite wine country place to visit:

While the Boonville Hotel is a good choice in town, for a more luxurious oceanfront stay, which can sometimes be 20-30 degrees cooler than Boonville on a hot Summer evening, try the following:
1) The Harbor House Inn in Elk (on the ocean, perhaps a half hour from the Anderson Valley tasting rooms, located in one of the most picturesque locations on the entire West Coast) is an excellent B&B. These are top notch accommodations in an intimate setting, with high quality meals in a dining room opening up to unmatched views, and off the beaten track. To properly set expectations: the view from the front lawn was on the cover of Sunset Magazine in 2006.
2) Elk Cove Inn and Spa. If you stay here you still should reserve at least one meal at the Harbor House, just up the street.
3) Any of a number of B&Bs in the Mendocino area, perhaps 45 minutes from the tasting rooms. There are quite a few to choose from. I recently had a good experience at the McCallum House and Stevenswood Lodge, but others that come highly recommended include Joshua Grindle Inn, Brewery Gulch Inn, Little River Inn, Albion River Inn and a bunch of others. Thanks to Mendocino, there are also several good dining options in the area.

Sonoma Wine Country Suggestions: IV - Tasting - Russian River

5b) Many of my favorite wines just happen to be clustered in wineries located on or near to the Russian River (western Sonoma county). Unlike the wineries above, which can be a little like running a gauntlet on a straight road, these are tucked away off the main roads, with lots of lush greenery and rolling hills. These are scattered somewhat, but if you do the River Road tour, you can find an excellent concentration of wineries. Most tend to specialize in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. My favorites include:
* Lynmar -- with a great patio to sit and sip on
* Hartford Court

* Iron Horse
* Martinelli
* Marimar Torres
* Gary Farrell
* Rochioli
* Porter Creek -- a little hole in the wall, worth stopping at for the off-off-wine-country experience

5c) If you decide to do the Russian River tour, plan to stop at Korbel, grab something at their upscale 'deli' and eat outside there.

Sonoma Wine Country Suggestions: III - Tasting in Sonoma-Kenwood

5a) There are many wineries for tasting-only purposes. A good deal of your selection process should be based on the varietals you enjoy most. Check with your concierge for tips but these are some of my favorites to bring visitors to and are located in the same general area (Sonoma-Kenwood, aka southern Sonoma county), listed roughly in order from glitziest to most unassuming:
  • Chateau St. Jean -- opulent and showy estate, but with a good selection of wines and a great place to walk around
  • Ledson Winery -- fun place with an interesting selection of wines. Looks touristy but tucked away off the beaten track; good tasting experience
  • Benziger -- pretty, hilly location; good wines
  • Ravenswood -- a mecca of sorts for zinfandel lovers
  • Gundlach Bundschu -- if you're going to Ravenswood, this one is around the corner in a picturesque, woodsy setting. Nice wines, with a Germanic flair to boot.
  • The Wine Room -- a co-op for a half dozen or so smaller wineries where the winemakers are often present to pour the wines and tell you all about them. High quality wines, great prices, fun atmosphere, and a different type of experience, etc.
  • Locals -- this one is a bit out of the way, in Geyserville, near Chateau Soverain, but if you like the idea of co-ops like The Wine Room but you want more wineries, smaller vineyards, more pourings, and a nearly infinite amount of wine to consume in one sitting, this is the place to go. Consider a designated driver for this place, if not all the others.

Sonoma Wine Country Suggestions: II - Food

3a) For food, my #1 suggestion is the Farmhouse Inn. It is a B&B and a fine place to stay, but not up to the luxury/pampering standards of the Sonoma Mission Inn, Healdsburg Inn and Carneros Inn described below. They feature absolutely amazing California cuisine, an intimate/romantic setting and perhaps the best cheese course in the United States. Last time I checked, they were rated a 28 by Zagat, and unlike some wine country destinations, will not require a second mortgage.

3b) In the town of Sonoma, you should definitely check out Cafe La Haye and The Girl and the Fig, which is also a great lunch stop. Walk around this town a little too. Just north of the town of Sonoma, I like Kenwood (in Kenwood) -- not a lot of flash, but a good choice for lunch or dinner.

3c) Napa has a bunch of superb restaurants and most people put French Laundry at the top of the list. The trick is getting in to this Yountville restaurant. Also, here is where the second mortgage will come in handy. Bistro Jeanty is another excellent Yountville choice, with a French flair. Terra in St. Helena and La Toque in Rutherford are two other "can't miss" choices. Mustard's Grill in the town of Napa is a great choice for lunch.

4a) Two hybrid winery/food suggestions merit a mention:

Sonoma Wine Country Suggestions: I - Lodging

Some thoughts from someone who lives in Marin and spends a lot of time in the wine country:

1) Go for Sonoma over Napa -- not as built up and touristy, more peaceful and romantic, fewer tasting fees (one of the "innovations" we've seen in the last 25 years since I first visited)

2a) The best luxury/spa hotel is the Sonoma Mission Inn, which is a Fairmont hotel and may have the best spa in all of the extended Bay Area. It is hard to argue with either the Wine Country suites or Mission suites. Keep in mind that this is a 'resort' hotel, so there is nothing of interest in walking distance. The food at their Sante restaurant is very good.

2b) For a more European and modern hotel, also luxurious and right near one of the nicer wine country towns, check out the Hotel Healdsburg. Their Dry Creek Kitchen restaurant can be highly recommended. I might give this place a slight nod over the Sonoma Mission Inn, but my wife and most other wives who have tried both would vote for SMI and their spa.

2c) Can't decide on Napa vs. Sonoma or want to do both? You can hedge your bets by staying at the Carneros Inn, which is technically in Napa, but is really halfway between the destination points in either county. This luxury inn is only a year or so old and has been getting rave reviews. It is a more rustic location and is also a good choice if you want to feel away from the (nearby) hustle and bustle.