Tag Archives: California

Sweetzer Cellars tasting room Lompoc

California’s New Urban Tasting Rooms

by Xochitl Maiman  August 8, 2017

California wineries are taking their tasting room experience out of the vineyard.

California is home to some of the most beautiful wine regions in the world, boasting over 600,000 acres of wine grape vineyards. A winery’s vineyard is often an integral part of their tasting room experience, providing the backdrop for tasting, touring, dining and entertainment.

Sweetzer Cellars tasting room LompocBut there is a new tasting room experience emerging in California, with nary a vineyard in sight. The garagiste movement, having taken a strong hold in the state, especially in the Central Coast regions of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties, created the need to come up with new ways to attract wine tasters without the lure of the vineyard setting, as many of these small production wineries do not actually own any vineyard acreage. Now communities of tasting rooms, some in industrial park settings, are providing the inquisitive wine consumer with the unique opportunity to taste these limited production wines, most often with the winemakers themselves, in tasting room settings that often reflect their own unique personalities.

The Lompoc Wine Ghetto

Santa Barbara County, home to Sta. Rita Hills and 5 other prestigious wine grape growing regions, now has a quickly growing community of tasting rooms in Lompoc, just a 20 minute drive west of Buellton, off the 101 freeway. With over 2 dozen tasting rooms to choose from, there is no shortage of exceptional wines to be tasted.

3 to visit:

Artisan Uprising – David and William Vondrasek, two brothers from Reseda, California, began making wine “for family enjoyment” in 2001. Their passion evolved and the 2012 vintage became their first official bottling under the Artisan Uprising label. In 2016 they moved into the Wine Ghetto where they have created an intimate, inviting and laid-back environment in which to enjoy their wines and their company. You can generally find both brothers on the weekends pouring wine and chatting up guests while inviting them to pick out their favorite vintage vinyl to play on the turn table. Whether it’s Cat Stevens, the Beatles or the Monkees you choose, don’t miss out on their chocolate and wine pairing featuring truffles from Ethel M.

Wines: Rosé of Malbec, Merlot, Malbec, Tempranillo, Petit Sirah

Case production: 700-800 annually

Artisan Uprising Lompoc Tasting Room

Sweetzer Cellars – Lisa and Michael hail from the neighborhood where I grew up, West Sweetzer Cellars tasting room LompocHollywood, California, where they began to make wine in their white-carpeted apartment in 2008. By 2013 they had turned their hobby into “what they do”, producing uniquely styled wines using grapes sourced from the Santa Maria Valley, Sta. Rita Hills and Paso Robles. Lisa’s exuberant personality shines through as she presents each wine in the two tasting flights offered.

Wines: Chardonnay, Grenache, Syrah, Pinot Noir, including a number of single vineyard bottlings.

Case production: Approximately 1000 cases annually

Ampelos Cellars – Peter and Rebecca Work named their winery after the Greek word for vine – a tribute to the vineyard and their close ties to Greece, where they were married. Their Sip-Certified vineyard is maintained through organic and biodynamic farming methods, exemplifying  the Work’s respect for the environment and their desire to produce wines that reflect the terroir from which they come. This environmental respect is also evident in their comfortable tasting room which features many “up-cycled” design elements.

Wines: Viognier, Rosé of Syrah, Syrah, Grenache, Pinot Noir

Case production: Approximately 5,000 cases annually

Ampelos tasting room Lompoc

Tin City in Paso Robles

Tin City Paso Robles Tasting Room

In the last three years, this urban hub of tasting rooms has become home to over 20 small local producers of wine, hard cider, beer and spirits. Names that are quickly becoming synonymous with artisan quality like ONX, Clos Solene, Cordant/Nelle, Brian Benson and Nicora, just to name a few. Many of these tasting rooms are open only on the weekends or by appointment, so check ahead – it’s definitely worth the extra bit of effort. Tin City is located just east of the 101 Highway, just a few minutes from Downtown Paso Robles.

Downtown Paso Robles Wineries

Asuncion Ridge Wines Paso RoblesThe charming and historic Downtown area is the place to go for shopping and dining, with restaurants featuring just about any kind of food you’re craving after a full day of wine tasting. The area is also a wine tasting destination in and of itself. Just park your car and stroll the area stopping in at any of the over 20 tasting rooms, each with its own unique atmosphere and friendly tasting room hosts, often the winemakers themselves. Taste the diversity of wine Paso Robles has to offer – Spanish, Italian, Rhone and Bordeaux varietals – everything from Albariño to Zinfandel.

Music plays a big part in the Downtown tasting scene, with many of the tasting rooms offering live performances by local talent on the weekends. In fact, if you’re a musician as well as a wine enthusiast, don’t miss the vintage guitars at Gary Kramer Guitar Cellars, the movie music memorabilia at D’Anbino Cellars, or a tasting with musician turned winemaker, Denis Degher, at Domaine Degher.

If historic buildings are your thing, visit Derby Wine Estates in the circa 1922 “Almond Growers Building”, or Anglim located in the train station.

Frolicking Frog Cellars is located in a jewelers shop in case you’re looking for a little something shiny and special to take home along with your wine. Seven Oxen is located just inside the entrance to Thomas Hill Organics, one of the area’s most popular restaurants.

So next time you plan a wine tasting trip to California’s Central Coast, day trip or extended vacation, leave some room in your agenda to visit and experience these urban tasting areas. I’m sure you’ll come home with a trunk full of new favorites – I always do.


Putting in a Good Word for California Pinot Noir

Xochitl Maiman – November 10, 2015

If you ask me what wine intrigues me the most, that would have to be Pinot Noir.

I’m often asked what my favorite wine is.  My usual answer is, “depends on what I’m cooking”.  With that said, my “go to” wine is Syrah, simply because it goes well with many of the foods I like to cook. Hearty pastas, risotto, braised or roasted meats all compel me to reach for a syrah or syrah blend.

However…if you ask me what wine intrigues me the most, that would have to be Pinot Noir. My experience with these wines was rather limited until about 10 years ago when I attended my first Pinot Days event in Los Angeles. Spread out before me was an entire airplane hangar full of nothing but pinot noir from many of the best pinot producing regions of the world. After a couple of hours tasting there, and a pinot noir pairing dinner the night before, it became apparent to me that the stylistic differences from region to region, vineyard to vineyard and winemaker to winemaker,were vast. Nuanced expressions ranged from light, earthy and elegant, to lush, full and fruit forward, and much in between. There began my fascination with pinot noir and my quest to taste new pinots at every opportunity. At this point in my pinot “education”, the wines with the earthy, peppery qualities seem to be my favorite. But I also enjoy the brighter, fruitier styles – again, it depends on the way I will be drinking it and with what food, if any. Great acidity in these wines makes many of them a perfect pairing for myriad foods, including the eclectic collection of tastes and textures that is the Thanksgiving table.

While I have a long way to go in my quest to taste the Pinots of the world, what I have discovered for sure is that there is beautiful pinot noir for every palate being produced in  a number of American wine regions with tremendous success. So it was with some offense that I read David Lynch’s recent statement in Bon Appetit Magazine (Everybody Wants Some – November 2015), “Look to Oregon’s Willamette Valley for the best American Pinot terroir.” I admit, I’m not fully versed on the Pinots from the Willamette Valley and I know there is wonderful wine bring produced there. But I felt this statement was too exclusive. What about California??

So in all fairness, I’d like to give a shout out to three California wine regions that are turning out stellar pinot noir, and I hope you’ll consider exploring them a bit, experiencing the different terroir, pairing with your favorite foods, and coming to your own conclusions. (Tough challenge, right?)

Three California Pinot Noirs to Try

California Pinot Noir

Santa Lucia Highlands – The esteemed vineyards of this area are located on the hillsides of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range overlooking the Salinas Valley. They are cooled by the fog and breezes coming off the Monterey Bay, making this an ideal area for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

One to try: Lucienne 2013 – Hook Vineyard – $50.00 – During my initial tasting of this wine, I was intrigued by its complex tannins and look forward to tasting again on its own and paired with food.  Wine spent 14 months in French Oak, (40% new) (Hahn Family Wines)  –  221 cases produced

Sta. Rita Hills – Located on California’s Central Coast in Santa Barbara County between the Santa Rosa Hills and the Purisima Hills – the east-west coastal valley vineyards of this area are cooled by the breezes coming off the Pacific ocean. Poor marine-based soils limit vine vigor and crop yield, intensifying grape flavors.

One to try: Weatherborne 2012 – $35.00 – (grapes sourced from the John Sebastiano and Melville Vineyards) – 225 cases produced .  When I first tasted this wine, early summer 2015, owner/winemaker, Cris Carter, was also pouring his 2013 vintage. Among the tasters I was with, it was pretty much split down the middle on which vintage they preferred. I found the 2012 a bit lighter and earthier and the 2013 brighter and fruitier. Both were well made and quite delicious in their own way, and I look forward to future endeavors from this label.

Russian River Valley – Sonoma County  – Morning fog coming through the Petaluma Gap from the Pacific Ocean cools the vineyards, but burns off during the day creating a large diurnal temperature variation.

“There are very few common Pinot Noirs in the Russian River Valley. Certainly, given the number of producers (in the hundreds), the level of quality is extraordinarily high…” – Steve Heimoff

One to try: Fog Crest Vineyard – 2012 – Estate Bottled – $55.00 – This wine blends the elegance and earthiness qualities I enjoy with beautifully integrated dark fruit, cola and spice.                 600 cases produced.

I hope you’ll join me on my journey to taste the pinot noir of the United States and of the world, and with so many choices, this could take a while. A great place to start would be the upcoming Pinot Days event being held in Los Angeles November 21st. (other cities hosting event in 2016)


Wine Pairing Dinner in California’s Gold Country – The Independent Restaurant & Bar

by Xochitl Maiman – July 2015

The sun was setting in spectacular fashion over the Sierra Foothills of El Dorado County, which meant it would soon be time to head over to the evening’s scheduled wine-paired dinner at The Independent Restaurant & Bar in Placerville.

Sunset over El Dorado Wine Country, California

Day 1 of a recent trip to El Dorado’s Wine Country in the Sierra Foothills of California ended, also in spectacular fashion, with a wine-paired dinner that showcased half a dozen of the beautifully crafted Rhone wines of the area, from three different wineries.  The winery owners/winemakers were present at the dinner, which gave us, (a small group of wine writers), an opportunity to learn more about their stories as their wines were poured. The location was The Independent Restaurant and Bar in Placerville, expertly managed by Ben Carter, who was our gracious and doting host for the evening.  The food was “white tablecloth”, but the atmosphere of The Independent is comfortable in a chic, rustic, neighborhood favorite sort of way – a “go to” restaurant for any occasion.

Our winery hosts for the evening were Josh Bendick of Holly’s Hill Vineyards, Carey Skinner of Skinner Vineyards and Winery and David Girard and his wife Sandy Raney of David Girard Vineyards. I was especially happy to meet Josh as I had tasted his Rhone varietal wines a number of years ago and have been an ardent fan ever since. In fact, all the wines that evening were of Rhone varietals, which thrive in this area – all elegantly crafted with great varietal characteristics. After introductions all around, we sat down to our first course and wine pairing…..

Winemaker dinner menu at The Independent Restaurant and Bar - Placerville, CA

First Pairing: Holly’s Hill Vineyards 2013 Grenache Blanc

Holly's Hill Vineyards Grenache Blanc

Eggplant Bruschetta - The Independent Restaurant and Bar Eggplant Bruschetta: Chinese Eggplant, Cherry Tomato, Shallot, Basil

Notes: Holly’s Hill has 11 Rhone varieties planted and produces between 4000-5000 cases per year. The Grenache Blanc vineyard is 6 years old. 2013 Grenache Blanc has a full mouthfeel, opening up to good acidity with some baking spice in the finish.

Second Pairing: 2013 Skinner Vineyards & Winery – Seven Generations Walnut Prawn Salad - The Independent Restaurant and Bar

Walnut Prawn Salad: White Tiger Prawn, Mixed Greens, Avocado, Candied Walnuts, Orange Wedge, Walnut Vinaigrette

Notes: With vineyards as 1400 feet and 2200 feet elevation, each with different soil composition, Skinner’s Rhone varietal wines take on unique characteristics indicative of “place”. The “Seven Generations” is made from 52% Grenache Blanc, 21% Roussanne, 17% Marsanne, 9% Viognier, 2% Picpoul Blanc. Full, luscious mouthfeel, balanced with minerality and acidity.

Third Pairing – 2013 Holly’s Hill Viognier Steamers at The Independence Restaurant and Bar - Placerville, CA

Steamers – Manila Clams, Mussels, White Wine Garlic Shallot Broth

Notes: This ripe, crisp Viognier was just lovely with this dish – ‘nuf said.

Fourth Pairing: 2011 David Girard Coda Rouge – 46% Mourvedre/36% Syrah/15% Grenache/3% Counoise

Notes: Most of David Girard’s 36 acres of granite vineyards, planted in 1998, are dedicated to Rhone varieties.  This red blend was light on the palatte, but with great fruit and a bit of baking spice on the finish.

Salmon and Risotto at The Independence Restaurant and Bar - Placerville, CA

Honey Almond KIng Salmon – Grana Padano & Leek Risotto

Fifth Pairing – 2012 Skinner Mourvedre

Filet Mignon at The Independence Restaurant and Bar in Placerville, CA

Certified Hereford Filet MIgnon – Grilled Asparagus, Peppercorn Demi Glace

Sixth Pairing – 2010 David Girard Syrah

Chocolate Cheesecake with David Girard Syrah at The Independence Restaurant and Bar Placerville Ca

Chocolate Truffle Cheesecake

Needless to say, the evening was enjoyed by all – each course a culinary delight, and another great opportunity to focus taste the wines from the El Dorado wine producing region – a region offering tremendous diversity, (50 grape varieties planted) and worthy of further exploration. With over 70 wineries in the region, this could take some time….

Special shout out to The Independent’s culinary team: Ryan Montgomery, George Fechter, Andrew Starr and Michael Moreno for an outstanding menu!


Family Winemakers of California – Pasadena – 2012

With all the wine tasting events held each year in California, Family Winemakers of California is always a favorite of mine. First of all, the event is all about exactly what the name implies. It truly celebrates family owned wineries, big and small. But mostly small. And every year there are so many new wineries to get to know, winemakers to meet and wonderful wines to try. What’s not to like?

With close to 200 wineries represented, some pre-event planning is definitely called for. This year I pulled the exhibitor list off the website with the site map and highlighted the tables I would give priority to. While there were so many old favorites I wanted to visit, I tried to choose those wineries I had heard about over the last year, but had yet to try.

Family Winemakers of California Pasadena 2012

Somewhere in the vortex of the internet I had heard about  A Cellar Full of Noise, operated by two charming young men, James Judd and Eric Alvarez. Their reds, made from Paso Robles area fruit, were rich and full, the Cab and Malbec with their other label, James Judd & Son, being standouts.

Just prior to the event I had received an invitation to taste from BX of Napa Wines. Her label logo is BX, and since those initials are near and dear to my heart, I was intrigued. I also liked the fact that she was a one woman show producing only 100 cases of wine in her inaugural release. This release was comprised of 3 wines, a Syrah, a Chardonnay, and the only 100%  Ruby Cabernet in America! I loved the Chardonnay and the Ruby Cab is a light, fruit forward red which would make an easy sipping wine with summer bbq’s. Owner/winemaker Bex Bishop is charming, knowledgeable and passionate and I really enjoyed meeting her.

Bex Bishop of Bex of Napa Wines

Bex Bishop of BX of Napa Wines

I first tasted the Chardonnays and Pinots of Fog Crest Vineyard at last year’s event, so this year I was anxious to try their just about to be released 2010 Pinots and say hi to James Manoogian, owner and passionate force behind these fine wines. (Daniel Moore is their winemaker). The 2010 Estate Pinot Noir , Russian River Valley,  (200 cases produced),  is a beautifully balanced wine with long lingering fruit, and upon release I’m sure will be a hit with Pinot lovers.

James Manoogian, owner, Fog Crest Vineyard

James Manoogian, owner, Fog Crest Vineyard

I really enjoyed the wines from Harrington Wine, a new find for me this year. They are producers of an extensive line of Pinots, but they had brought with them this year their new releases which included a  Grenache Blanc and their 2011 Fiano, a white varietal I hadn’t heard of before. Fiano was a popular grape in ancient Rome, now primarily grown around the town of Avellino in the southern Italian region of Campania. The wine was similar to a Pinot Grigio, crisp and clean, but with a lusher, fuller mouth feel. I’m generally not a fan of Pinot Grigio, so this Fiano would be a welcome summer white at my house.

Getting back to reds, I really enjoyed those of Muscardini Cellars. Their Zinfandel was big but not jammy, their Syrah, lush, and my favorite was the “Tesoro“, a Super Tuscan style blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

Some old favs visited were Buttonwood Winery, Cass (never want to miss an opportunity to say hi to co-owner Ted Plemons), Les Deux Chats (love their Roussanne and Viognier), Eberle, and Tercero, where I found owner/winemaker Larry Schaffer almost unrecognizable with a new, way shorter haircut.

Ted Plemons, co-owner, Cass Winery, Paso Robles

Ted Plemons, co-owner, Cass Winery, Paso Robles

Eberle wines

Larry Schaffer, owner/winemaker, Tercero Wines

Larry Schaffer, owner/winemaker, Tercero Wines

The wonderful whites of Les Deux Chats

The wonderful whites of Les Deux Chats

Hope your own tasting adventures have led you to some delicious new finds, and I totally recommend you seek out and try some, (or all), of the wineries I mentioned here. Support family owned business… of any kind – it’s a really good thing. Cheers!


Rankin Ranch – Like Going Home

There are few places on this earth “that never change, the trees just get taller”. So says Bill Rankin, the patriarch of the Rankin family and the dearest cowboy I know. He and his equally endearing wife, Glenda, along with 4th,5th and 6th generation Rankins live and work on their historic California cattle ranch, continuing a tradition of cattle ranching that began in 1863.

Bill’s father, Leroy Rankin, died in 1954 leaving Bill’s mother, Helen, in charge of making the decisions on behalf of the family’s ranch. A precarious position for a woman of that era. Nonetheless, her “frontier” heritage and considerable fortitude allowed her to not only maintain the ranch, but pilot her family’s future with a strong and confident hand. In 1965, in an effort to diversify her agriculture business and ensure her family would be able to continue to live and work on the ranch, she added the guest ranch to her cattle operation. The Rankin’s beloved Helen passed away in  2003, but her legacy lives on.  Rankin Ranch and the wonderful family that runs it and the guest ranch, now in it’s 44th year, is a place where others  now come to make their own history…cowboy style.

My “history” at Rankin Ranch started in September of 1993.  A two hour drive brought me, my friend, Robin, and her young son, Adam, to the small farming town of Arvin, at the base of the Tehachapi Mountains in Kern County. From there it’s a half hour drive up the mountain, under the curious scrutiny of small herds of white faced Herefords, and then down into Walker Basin, the parcel of land where Rankin Ranch was founded by Walker and Lavinia Rankin in 1863.

Walker Basin

Walker Basin

Very little has changed since 1863, except that now guest cabins, built in the 60’s, can be seen along the driveway lined with giant lilac bushes. In fact, very little has changed since 1993, providing me on each of my subsequent visits with the familiar and comforting feeling that I have “come home”. The first indication that perhaps Rankin Ranch is some kind of portal to the past happens as you drive down the dirt road past the cabins, and there on the right is the large old barn, still standing and very much a part of Rankin’s charm and identity. Countless pictures adorn the walls of the dining room and activities building featuring that barn with various gatherings of Rankins, old and new, posed outside its tall doors on one occasion or another. Only the garb of the people in those images indicates the passing of time, the barn never changes.

rankin-ranch-041s rankin-ranch-042cs

As you walk onto the guest ranch property, serene and quiet, past the activities building, the ranch gift shop/office and Lightner Square where guests gather before dinner, you see the original home of Walker and Lavinia that was built in the 1870’s. Helen Rankin occupied this home until her death, and now I believe it is being readied for 5th generation Rankins to move in to. The dinner bell still stands in the square, just the trees have grown and now hide the uppermost portion. Continuing the stroll past the tree shaded pool and the expansive lawn, down a few steps….and there it is in all its cowboy glory. Confirmation that indeed you have traveled back to a time when cattle was king, ranches were vast, and cowboys were the real action heroes. The meadow stretches on until it reaches the surrounding mountains. The corral where guests gather to  start their trail rides is in the foreground, and cattle graze lazily on grass and yellow sage. The air smells of dirt and grass and  Robin inhales deeply and smiles.  What you won’t see is a cell phone tower, vetoed by Bill years ago. As he put it, “would you want to see that thing every day on our mountain top?” Indeed, as the sun sets slowly over the meadow, and darkness encroaches, there is an unobstructed 360′ view of the mountain ridge with stars making their appearance on cue, until the sky is a dazzling display of pinpoints of light.




The Rankin family is like our family, warm, glad to see us, and welcoming us home on our most recent visit. Besides the Rankins there are the smiling familiar faces of the cowboys, the cooks, (Rudy has been head cook for over 30 years),even the gardener –  all happy to have us with them once again. We get caught up on the news of  who’s gotten married, who’s had children, and who has passed on. We were sad to learn of the passing of  the square dance caller and his wife who had been coming up to the Ranch every Saturday night during guest season for the last 42 years.


Girlfriends shared wedding dress 42 years ago and still celebrate their anniversaries together with their husbands

Loyalty, family and history – that is the legacy of Rankin Ranch – a legacy that is passed down not only to the family members themselves, but to the guests who visit the ranch to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, family reunions and myriad other of life’s milestones. On this particular trip there were two couples who have celebrated every one of their 42 wedding anniversaries together – each year going somewhere new. In honor of this occasion, the traditional Rankin Ranch cake was made and presented to them after dinner and we all sang and shared in their special day.

Another couple and their grown son, who had visited the ranch many times when the boy was younger, were their after a number of years away. They were celebrating life. She had just finished chemotherapy and her son had suggested a family trip to a place that had brought them so many good times together as a family in the past. Robin and I couldn’t remember how many times we had visited the ranch, but we spent hours recalling happy times spent there with so many of the people we love. There were multiple girlfriend trips, trips with mom, trips with kids, and the most memorable trip of all  when we celebrated Robin’s 40th birthday there with a surprise party like no other.


Girlfriends - April 1995

For Robin, however, this trip held special significance. It was at Rankin Ranch so many years ago that the seed for her non-profit organization, El Dustberry Ranch, was first planted in her heart. Her dream of owning horses and a ranch and helping sick kids with those horses did become a reality, but 9 years later, it was time to move on and fulfill the next dream. For Robin, this trip brought her full circle. She would be moving on from her beloved El Dustberry to a new venture in helping children.

So many traditions have been started at Rankin Ranch, inspired by the many traditions that are Rankin Ranch. Besides the people, the meadow and the cabins, the food holds much familiarity to those who re-visit. Three hearty meals a day to satiate the hungry appetites of the cowboys and the guests who have been hiking or riding in all that fresh air. Beef, obviously, is a mainstay and the tri-tip barbeque in the meadow is always a highlight. Guests cozy themselves in the back of a trailer full of hay and are driven out into the meadow where the cooks have prepared a lavish spread of tri tip with amazing bbq sauce, beans, corn, rolls and gingerbread. After dinner and lively conversation, the guests are put into teams and a game of horseshoes is played until the sun sets.  Then the relaxing ride under the blanket of stars back to the ranch for an evening of fun and games in the activities building. The walls inside the cozy wood paneled building hold  testament to the many celebrations held at the ranch, and looking at all the photographs connects you to those that came before.

In the meadow for tri-tip bbq

In the meadow for tri-tip bbq


Amanda Rankin

As final photos are taken, e-mail addresses exchanged, and good-byes made all around, I get my final good bye and giant bear hug from Bill along with a quick bit of philisophical advice. I feel that bond strengthen once again, and  I just know that when it’s time for me to return, everything will be the same – the trees will just be taller.


Girlfriends sharing more history at Rankin Ranch - 2009

RANKIN RANCH- www.rankinranch.com – (661) 867-2511


Rosenblum Napa Valley Reserve Syrah – Holbrook Mitchell Vineyard – 2005

Some friends shared this bottle with us last night. “Wow” was my exclamation as the inky colored wine poured into my glass. This wine tastes like luxury in a glass. Smooth and voluptuous, holbrookmitchell_vyd_rsv_syrah_nvvelvetty and perfectly balanced. Black currants, blueberries and vanilla flavors. This wine is a hedonistic pleasure and lovely to drink.

2006 currently available at $45.00