Tag Archives: Pinot Noir

Summer 2016 Wine Tasting in Los Angeles

by Xochitl Maiman – July 4, 2016

It’s summer 2016 and Southern California wine enthusiasts have three great reasons to plan a visit to Los Angeles!

Three of the year’s best wine tasting events are headed to the Los Angeles area to be held at three of the city’s most iconic and diverse venues. The Garagiste Festival, celebrating  the small production artisan winemaker, rolls into LA on July 9th and will be held at the Art Deco masterpiece that is The Wiltern. Pinot-files will be delighted with the Stars of Pinot on July 20th at the famed Sofitel LA in Beverly Hills. On August 6th, enjoy the wines of the Rhone Rangers, winemakers producing wines from the 22 grapes of the Rhone wine growing region of France. This event will be held at the Skirball Cultural Center, with it’s distinct modern architectural design serving as the backdrop for an afternoon of sublime wine tasting.

wine tasting Los Angeles Garagiste FestivalThe Garagiste Wine Festivals are the first and only wine festivals dedicated to the undiscovered and under-recognized artisan ‘garagiste’ producers who are making some of the best, most exciting, handcrafted small-lot production wines in California. Most of these wineries do not have tasting rooms and do not sell their wine in stores. These festivals provide a unique opportunity for the wine consumer to get acquainted with over 60 of these winemakers under one roof and taste their wines and feel their passion for their craft. If it’s variety you’re looking for, the wines poured at the Garagiste Festival represent all your favorite varietals and many you’ve probably never heard of.

Get up close and personal with the garagiste winemakers on Saturday, July 9th at the 2nd Annual Garagiste Festival – Urban Exposure in Los Angeles at the historical and gorgeous Wiltern Theater. This day’s events include a winemaker seminar, Rare and Reserve tasting and Grand Tasting. To preserve an intimate experience for consumers with one-on-one interaction with winemakers, tickets are very limited for the Garagiste Festivals and always sell out.

Details and ticket information.

wine tasting Los Angeles Stars of Pinot 2016

If you are obsessed with Pinot Noir, like I am, then, yes, Los Angeles has something for you too! The Stars of Pinot returns to the Sofitel Hotel on July 20th, and will feature over 200 wines from 60 of the world’s top producers.

Details and ticket information.

wine tasting Los Angeles Rhone RangersHave you heard of Viognier, Marsanne, Counoise or Mourvedre? These are just 4 of the 22 wine grape varietals of the Rhone wine region of France. Perhaps you’ve heard of the famed Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines, but maybe you’re just not sure what grapes are in those bottlings? The Rhone Rangers are a group of 150 wineries dedicated to making wines from the grape varieties of the Rhone and many of these wineries are riding into Los Angeles on August 6th to share their spectacular expressions of these grapes with you. Learn from the winemakers themselves why they love to work with these grapes. Find out what really is in a GSM blend. Taste the difference between cool weather Syrah and the Syrah from the hotter growing regions like Paso Robles.

Join over 50 of the Rhone Ranger wineries at the Skirball Cultural Center on Augustus 6, 2016. The day’s events feature a winemaker seminar and luncheon beginning at 11am and a Grand Tasting beginning at 2:30 pm, with VIP access at 1:30pm.

Details and ticket information.


A Taste of the Sta. Rita Hills

by Donald Sonderling – May 2016

Fess Parker Winery - Sta. Rita Hills

Sta. Rita Hills: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and “Pinks” for Good Measure

The Sta. Rita Hills AVA, located about two hours north of Los Angeles in the stunning wine country of the Santa Ynez Valley of Santa Barbara County, produces world class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the picturesque Central Coast area of California. With a total area of 30,720 acres, the area is home to over 59 vineyards, totaling 2,700 hundred acres planted to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and 18 other cool climate wine grape varieties.

Last month the Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance  hosted their annual “road trip” at the Wine House in West Los Angeles, providing a unique “under one roof” opportunity to taste and compare a vast selection of wines from many of the areas wineries.  Each of the wines were reflective of the myriad terroir and micro climates, and of course the individual expressions of the winemaker.  James Suckling’s comment on the Sta. Rita Hills AVA Pinot Noir couldn’t be more apt:  “I am in love with Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir.  They are bold and rich wines, yet balanced and refined with wonderful freshness and length.”  (Tasting Report:  California’s Sta. Rita Hills).

Hitching Post "Pinks" - Sta. Rita Hills Pinot NoirAlthough Pinots and Chardonnays were the main focus of this event, Hitching Post was pouring their 2015 “Pinks,” a fun, vibrant dry rose blend of 30% Pinot Noir and 70% Valdiguie.  As Hitching Post’s Gray Hartley describes this wine, “this Pinks exemplifies our attitude that we take our fun seriously.”  Indeed, this is a fun, happy wine to pop open, especially on a warm spring or summer afternoon – it will put a smile on your face.

Several of the wineries represented are well known, such as Foxen Canyon, Fess Parker and Hitching Post.  However, also represented was a significant number of small, boutique wineries, including:  Kessler-Haak, Pali Wines, Flying Goat, Longoria, Clos Pepe, The Hilt, Crawford Family Wines, Montemar.

The wineries with tasting rooms are  primarily located in Santa Barbara, Buelton, Los Olivos and in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto.  Los Olivos, over the past several years has grown into a vibrant “Tasting Room Town” and is a wonderful way to easily explore over 40 different wineries from the area.  The same can be said of Lompoc and the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, which is a unique industrial park with close to 20 tasting rooms.  Having the opportunity to try so many wines from so many producers, (many of these wineries either have no tasting room, or their hours are very limited), made this a very special event.

A visit to any of these areas and wineries is a must for the wine enthusiast looking to experience wine that is truly an expression of place.  A Taste of the Santa Rita Hills gave those in attendance an opportunity to do just that.  A special “Thank You” to the Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance and The Wine House  for hosting this event.

Complete listing of the winery members of the Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance


An Afternoon of Tasting at Hahn Family Wines

by Xochitl Maiman – March 6, 2016

The Chardonnay and Pinot Noir of Hahn Family Wines exemplifies the quality of premium wine being produced in the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA of California.

When viewed from above, like from an airplane, the patchwork quilt-like patterns in which agricultural areas are laid out have always interested me. I love the color variations, the vastness of the open space, and the precisely marked out parcels that seem to stretch on forever.view of the Salinas Valley from Hahn Family Wines

So it makes sense that I have viewed many a map of the vineyard locations of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA , 6,100 acres overlooking the Salinas Valley, with fascination and awe. There they are, 50 vineyards sewn in to the hillside’s topography – vineyards like Gary’s, Boekenoogen, Manzoni, Mer Soleil, Pisoni and Doctor’s – where Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes flourish and find beautiful expression due to the fog and cooling breezes coming off Monterey Bay.  Last October, I was finally able to visit the region, and the beauty of the mountainside vineyards and the fertile valley below was truly breathtaking!

As part of a group of wine journalists and bloggers, I had been invited to visit the area’s Hahn Family Wines for a tour of the estate vineyards and wine pairing luncheon. With the gorgeous valley as a backdrop, we were first given a show and tell overview of the region by Andy Mitchell, Hahn’s Director of Viticulture, and a member of the Hahn team since 1998.  He also explained the history of Hahn Family Wines beginning with founder, Nicolaus ‘Nicky’ Hahn’s vision over 30 years ago, of the potential of the area to support world-class vineyards.

Andy Mitchell, Director of Viticulture, Hahn Family Wines

Today, son, Philip Hahn, oversees the four estate vineyards in the area and an additional two in Arroyo Seco , from which are created wines for their three labels: Hahn, Hahn SLH and Lucienne.

ATV tour of Hahn Family Wines estate vineyardsAfter our pictorial overview, it was time to get up close and personal with the estate’s vineyards…and view. To my utter delight and excitement, we were escorted to ATV’s for the ride up..and up…and up to about 900’ in elevation.  An exhilarating ride – so much fun!  The reward for a little blown out hair, ( I refused the branded baseball cap offered – vanity, you know),  was a view not only of the valley, but also of the estate’s vineyards, which cover an expansive 650 acres. Basically, beauty every which way you turned.


vineyard view from Hahn Family Wines

LA Wine Writers at Hahn Family Wines

duck confit tacos at Hahn Family Wines

After the obligatory picture taking frenzy, we then gathered in a pavilion to enjoy duck confit tacos with a cherry reduction sauce presented by Executive Chef Dyon Foster, paired with a line-up of their Lucienne label single vineyard Pinot Noir. Winemaker, Greg Freeman, took us through the wines, explaining the differences in vineyards, elevation and the 4 major contributing factors to differences in the wines: fog, sun, wind and clones. Indeed, each wine was quite different, but all were elegantly styled with great acidity, earthy aromas and bright fruit.

Lucienne Pinot Noir at Hahn Family Wines


Another thrilling ATV ride down the hill brought us back to the viewing deck where luncheon tables had been laid.  The menu looked promising and it would end up being an incredible display of culinary deliciousness!

Hahn Family wines Pinot Gris








Wild Caught Sablefish, Risotto, Beurre Noisette – just amazing!

Hahn Family Wines - SLH Chardonnay


Pork Medallion, Cranberry and Corn Polenta

IMG_3733 IMG_3734 IMG_3737

Turns out making wonderful wine isn’t Greg’s only talent…..IMG_3745

Suffice it to say that a trip to Carmel-by-the-Sea or Monterey County would not be complete without a visit to Hahn Family Vineyards.  Pack a picnic, arrange a walking or ATV tour, and get acquainted with the wines of the Santa Lucia Highlands.

Hahn Family Wines - Santa Lucia Highlands

I’LL DRINK TO THAT! – I would like to express my gratitude to our hosts at Hahn Family Wines for their gracious hospitality and for providing us with a complete, informative and delicious experience while visiting their beautiful estate. 

Related story: Carmel-by-the-Sea: A Weekend Food and Wine Getaway



Carmel-by-the-Sea – A Food and Wine Weekend Getaway

by Xochitl Maiman – November 27, 2015

Carmel-by-the-sea, on California’s Central Coast, is the perfect spot for a wine weekend getaway between holidays.

If you’re still washing dishes and wine glasses from Thanksgiving, but already thinking about the next big celebration, now might be a great time to plan a quickie wine weekend getaway before the next wave of relatives arrives. California offers myriad wine country destination choices, but perhaps not as familiar to some, is the wine region of Monterey County and the gorgeous Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, home to some of the most elegant and delicious Pinot Noir and Chardonnay the state has to offer.

Where to stay…

Carmel-by -the-Sea” is just the place to relax and take some big breaths of clean ocean air to rejuvenate your spirit and energy. But don’t be fooled by the tranquility, this charming European-style village, rated a top 10 U.S destination, has it all including art galleries, unique boutiques, bakeries and dining, gourmet food shops, spas, lodging and plenty of tasting rooms. And the best part is that all this can be enjoyed by foot as the village and shore is within walking distance of many of the area hotels and inns. Hofsas House - Carmel, CaliforniaThe iconic family owned and Bavarian inspired Hofsas House has been offering European hospitality in Carmel for over 60 years. Their “hands on” approach to providing their guests with the best possible service is evident from the moment you check in. You’re greeted like visiting family, and, with the wine and cheese package, you’ll find in your room a bottle of Monterey County wine and a cheese selection from The Cheese Shop – Carmel, for you to enjoy as you warm up by the in-room fireplace. Each of the spacious 38 rooms are unique, offering amenities like the aforementioned fireplaces, balconies, wet bars, kitchens and WiFi. The landmark pink building is located among tall trees and on a hillside with westward views offering stunning sunset viewing while enjoying a glass of wine.  In the mornings, visit the main lobby for continental breakfast and to pick up a map of the village before starting off to explore.

Where to taste…

If this is your first time wine tasting in the area you might consider purchasing the Carmel Wine Walk by-the-Sea Passport which provides visitors with a tasting at their choice of 9 of the 14 village tasting rooms. The concierge at Hofsas House can arrange to have your passport waiting for you when you check in, upon request at booking.  Two standouts on the self-paced tour include Caraccioli Cellars and Wrath Wines.

Caraccioli Cellars Caraccioli Cellars - Carmel, CaliforniaStart your special wine weekend off right with bubbles! Caraccioli Cellars produces a Brut Cuvée and a Brut Rosé that are just the thing to help you toast your getaway weekend, and to take home to share with friends as you toast the holidays and New Year. Winemaker Michel Salgues also produces lovely and elegant still wines with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from vineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands.

Wrath Wines Wrath Wines - Carmel, California Wrath Wines -Sabrine RodemsWhen tasting wines produced in the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, you’re going to hear a lot about clones. Clones are different strains of the same grape, notable for their specific characteristics. Winemakers grow and blend different clones to achieve the finished wine that they envision. Kind of like a spice rack to a chef. You’ll see lots of mention of clones in the names of the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on the tasting list at Wrath Wines. But don’t let that deter or confuse you. Take advantage of all this variety to avail yourself of a comprehensive focus tasting of these two varietals and the many styles of wines they can produce under the guidance of a passionate, talented and creative winemaker, in this case, Sabrine Rodems. Besides all that very interesting and delicious Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Wrath Wines also makes a wonderful Sauvignon Blanc under their Ex Anima label and in the Single Vineyard Series, I loved the San Saba Vineyard Syrah. Note: Need cheese for that wine? The Cheese Shop is right next door!

Where to dine…

While you can easily walk to many fine restaurants in the village, there are also many wonderful and unique restaurants just a short driving distance away.

Located in an 1840’s adobe in Monterey, Restaurant 1833 is an intrigue from the moment you approach its inviting front courtyard. Standing tall and stately over the various candlelit seating areas and fire pits are an odd threesome of old trees – an oak, a palm and a pine tree, the three trees of California, according to our maitre d’.  Once inside, the ambience is warm, dark and a bit mysterious with many different dining areas and bars located in the various rooms upstairs and down. Of course, this old building comes with some ghost stories, but the real story here is the food – while basically American comfort food, the inspired menu consists of dishes made special with unique ingredients and combinations, artistically presented. They get pretty creative with the drinks menu too and pride themselves on their award winning cocktails.

Duck at Tarpy's Roadhouse - Monterey, California

Tarpy’s Maple Leaf Farms Duck over Farro with Rye Glazed Heirloom Carrots, Cherry-Port Compote

Tarpy’s Roadhouse has been an area favorite since 1992, but the history of the name and site is storied and dates back to 1851. Today, however, it’s all about  the food. The menu is varied, but the meat dishes prevail and are combined with tastes and textures of additional ingredients that just tantalize your taste buds to the last bite. If you are a scotch, bourbon or rye fan, try one of their unique cocktails or choose from a good selection to drink “straight up”.

Tarpy's - Carmel, California

Cast Iron-Seared Sea Scallops with coffee-cocoa rubbed bacon, grits, cauliflower, bourbon syrup

So….here’s the takeaway….take some time out for yourself and head to beautiful Carmel-by-the-Sea. It just might become your “special place”.

Note: I’d like to thank Hofsas House for having me as their guest, and for the gracious hospitality at both Restaurant 1833 and Tarpy’s Roadhouse. Special thanks to the folks at Caraccioli Cellars and Wrath Wines for taking the time to share their wines and their stories.

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)


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!


Santa Lucia Highlands

About 40 miles south of Monterey, lies the wine region know as the Santa Lucia Highlands, an area as yet, somewhat undiscovered by the wine tourists. But, thankfully, winemakers know the region and are making  beautiful Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as well as some Syrah. The area provides the weather conditions suitable for both the Bugundian varietals as well as those from the Rhone region, reflecting the styles of the cooler northern Rhone.

Most of the vineyards of the Highlands are planted on the elevated terraces of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range overlooking the Salinas Valley. These vineyards take advantage of the morning sunshine while still experiencing the cooling fog and ocean breezes coming off nearby Monterey Bay and are perfect for growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The slightly warmer, more wind-protected canyons and slopes provide an area more suited for Syrah to flourish.

The area is small with about 46 vineyard properties comprising approximately 5,900 acres under cultivation. The wineries are family owned  and most have a long history in agriculture in the area. Their goals are passion driven with the desire to make small amounts of great wine.  Indeed case production, for the most part, is low, and I found the quality of the wine to be quite high. These producers have a strong sense of the land and are innovators in all areas of production. New clones, trellising systems and farming techniques are constantly being explored, and many are employing sustainable, organic and biodynamic regimens in their vineyards.

This week I attended a tasting event sponsored by The Wine Artisans of the Santa Lucia Highlands. This event not only provided me with the opportunity to taste wines from a region I was unfamiliar with, but I also was able to meet and talk with many of the owners and winemakers themselves. This is where their passion and knowledge of wine making shines, and their enthusiasm is tangible. Dan Morgan Lee of Morgan  excitedly enlightened me about the dozens of clones he is experimenting with and how he farms organically to protect the land.  Joe and Penny Alarid of Tondre lovingly described their family and the multiple generations participating in “the dream”. Chris Weidemann the self-proclaimed “pilgrim” of Pelerin Wines, spoke soulfully of his journey into winemaking. And let’s not forget Gregory Peebles, the wholesale manager representing La Rochelle Winery that day. He speaks about wine with such enthusiasm and passion, that one is compelled to buy whatever he’s sellin’.

And then there is the wine. I was not disappointed on this day. For the most part I was quite impressed with the range of styles represented by the Pinot’s and the quality of all the wines I tried. I’ll list here a few of my favorites, and encourage you to get to your favorite wine store and seek out some of these gems from the Santa Lucia Highlands.

  • August West – Pinot Noir, “Rosella’s Vineyard” – 09 – $42 (315 cases)
  • Boekenoogen – Pinot Noir, “Estate” – 07 – $40
  • Hahn SLH Estate – Chardonnay, “Estate” – 07 – $25
  • Lucienne – Pinot Noir “Lone Oak” – 07 – $50
  • Morgan – Chardonnay “Double L Vineyard” – 09 – $36
  • Pelerin – Pinot Noir, SLH – 08 – $36
  • Pisoni – Lucy Rose of Pinot Noir, SLH – ’10 – $18.00
  • Novy – Syrah, “Garys’ Vineyard – 08 – $33
  • Tondre – Pinot Noir, “Tondre Grapefield” – 08 – $40 (500 cases)
  • Tudor – Pinot Noir, SLH – 06 – $40

I’ll Drink to That!

Rabbi does more than bless the wine, he grows the grapes!

The year was 1981 and we had decided to get married in September of that year. Temple Beth Hillel in North Hollywood, California would be the location, chosen because other family members had been married there and spoke highly of the Rabbi…Rabbi James Lee Kaufman, fondly referred to as just Rabbi Jim. That would be the beginning of a long relationship with this temple and its beloved Rabbi.

Rabbi Jim went on to marry others in our family and preside over all rites of passage including bar/bat mitzvah, baby namings and britot, home blessings, and burials. No matter when we called or what was required, Rabbi Jim was there. At one such event held in our home, after the formalities were over we offered the Rabbi something to drink. He replied that a glass of wine would be nice. I asked, “what kind” and he answered, Cabernet, if you have it. Ah…a “cab guy”, I thought, and went to retrieve the best bottle I had. (Sorry I don’t remember what it was, but he seemed to like it. )

The year is 2010 and the results of the San Francisco Chronicle are in.  Willowbrook Cellars Pinot Noir, Kaufman-Sunnyslope Vineyard, 2008 has been awarded a medal. Kaufman-Sunnyslope Vineyard named after its owner…..In 1994 Rabbi Jim and his wife, Sue, thinking they would like to someday retire in Northern California, purchased a then un-planted 6 acre parcel in the prestigious Sonoma Mountain AVA. They originally planted the site to Merlot, then grafted over to Pinot Noir in 2007. Their first Pinot harvest of 3.5 tons in 2008 was sold to Willowbrook Cellars to be used in a single vineyard designated wine.

Willowbrook Cellars - 2008 Pinot Noir - Kaufman Sunnyslope Vineyard

Rabbi Jim has been a part of Temple Beth Hillel’s clergy since 1973, and although he stepped down from his position as senior Rabbi in 2010, he remains active in the temple community. It is there where I caught up with him to find out more about his passion for wine and how it led to vineyard ownership.

Perhaps that passion is summed up best when he says, “I drink wine because it interests me…I like the way it evolves in the glass”. Indeed, he says that it is the nose of a wine that most intrigues him, and can sit with an empty glass for quite some time enjoying the changing bouquet coming from the residual wine…much to the chagrin of many an impatient waiter hoping to clean up a table. In fact, patience as well, is part of what appreciating wine means to the Rabbi. He marvels at the historical component that wine inherently offers, as so many wines go back to vintages of multiple decades gone by. Patience must be practiced by the winemaker as he conscientiously checks his barrels over the years and holds back bottles for further aging in the cellar. Patience must also be a discipline of the consumer/collector as he buys bottles and lays them down until they reach the optimum maturity. Then, and this is Jim’s favorite part as an olfactory sensitive taster, comes the patience required to just let the wine sit in the glass for a bit to gather its bouquet for presentation. The Rabbi has on occasion used the making of wine as a comparison when conducting marriage counseling, pointing out that both require patience and nurturing to thrive and have the best possible outcome.

Rabbi Jim’s first wine encounter was in 1980 with a bottle of Chateau Montelena 1978 Estate Bottled Cabernet Sauvignon. He began collecting California cabs in 1980, and his collection includes verticals of Gemstone and Garric. While Jim doesn’t necessarily drink wine every day, he really looks forward to opening up an older bottle periodically to see how it has developed. Rabbi Jim has shared his love of fine wine with his five children. One family tradition calls for celebrating a college graduation with a Double Magnum of 10-15 year old Joseph Phelps Insignia. He sighs and says the “kids” have become quite spoiled and when he tries to serve them some of his “homemade” cab they tend to balk and ask for the “good stuff”. Although he doesn’t drink much Bordeaux, he did indulge in a half bottle of ’83 Margaux this last New Year’s Eve and enjoyed a ’70 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild for his 25th wedding anniversary and has another cellared for their 50th.

Rabbi James Kaufman

Rabbi James Kaufman

Kaufman-Sunnyslope Vineyard is located in the North section of Bennett Valley in the Sonoma Mountain area and is planted to two Pinot Noir clones. The influence of the marine layer coming through the Cotati Gap keeps this section cooler allowing for a more exposed grape in the canopy without danger of sunburn. The fruit achieves fully developed varietal characteristics with ripe Brix, low pH , high malic acid, excellent skin color and great aging potential. 2009 yielded about 12 tons of fruit which was sold to Willowbrook, Paro Cellars and Malm Cellars, some of which will be bottled soon. In 2010, due to cold and fog in June and July, the site production was reduced to about 6 tons and was sold to three different wine producers.

The Rabbi and his wife might  build a home on the property someday…when he really does retire.


Pinot Days Grand Tasting – Los Angeles, 2011

This last Saturday was the second annual Pinot Days event held at the Barker Hanger in Santa Monica. The Grand Tasting featured over 90 producers from Pinot Noir regions from California, Washington and Oregon. More than 300 wines were available for tasting representing a wide range of styles. It never ceases to amaze me that in a hanger full of wine all made from just one varietal, that there can be so many different styles and flavor profiles. Something for everyone’s taste – that’s why I love wine!

Lisa Rigisich, Pinot Days event founder

Lisa Rigisich, (center), Pinot Days event founder

This year I had the opportunity to take one of the “regional tours” conducted by a winemaker from each region. I chose the Santa Maria Valley AVA and our tour guide was James Ontiveros of Native 9 Wines. A small group of us gathered as James drew a map and explained all about mountain ranges, coastal climate, rainfall, growing season and alluvial soils that make this AVA good for growing the temperamental Pinot Noir grape. James is a ninth generation Californian, and he and his family have been working the land of Santa Barbara County for a very long time.

James Ontiveros of Native9 Wines

James Ontiveros of Native9 Wines

So with much enthusiasm James then escorted us off to our first stop on the “tour”. We would visit 6 wineries/tables in the next hour and a half, meet with their winemakers and taste their Pinot. Our tour took us to Riverbench, practicing sustainable farming, where I liked all three of their offerings, then on to Native 9 where we also tasted his Alta Maria label. The Alta Maria had more of a fruit forward profile, while the Native 9, which is whole cluster fermented, had a more intriguing and very unique profile with smoke coming through on the finish.  At the Hitching Post table we met Gray Hartley, who is co-owner along with Hitching Post restaurant owner Frank Ostini. Gray talked a lot about barrel influence on wine, which I found to be very interesting, and I enjoyed both of the vineyard designates he poured for us.

Gray Hartley of Hitching Post Wines

Gray Hartley of Hitching Post Wines

Ken Brown of Ken Brown Wines has been in the wine business for 34 years. To quote his website, “Most of my career has been spent pursuing the elusive traits that make great Pinot Noir”. Seems to me he has found them. This man knows his winemaking and the two elegant Pinots we tried that day are testament to that fact.

Ken Brown at Pinot Days

Ken Brown at Pinot Days

Ken Brown wine

Ken Brown wine

Josh Klapper of La Fenetre hardly seems to need any introduction at all. His name and wine pop up at all the tastings, and write-ups abound. And for good reason. This very likable young winemaker has been recognized for quite some time in the food and wine scene and now is  is making some wonderful wine, negociant style, and in small  case production.  As we tasted through 3 vintages of Pinot, the ’05 and ’08 being my favorites, he spoke about how he loves the 2010 vintage, stating that it was great “stem vintage”. Josh was one of the winemakers at this event whose enthusiasm about what he does was surpassed only by his desire to share his wine with others.

Josh Klapper of La Fenetre Wines

Josh Klapper of La Fenetre Wines

Our last stop was with Joe Wagner of Belle Glos Wines to taste  his Clark and Telephone Vineyard Pinot, 2008. This big wine with great concentration of fruit and very soft tannins, offered brown spices like nutmeg and cloves with a bit of vanilla right into the finish.

Joe Wagner of Belle Glos Wines

Joe Wagner of Belle Glos Wines

Our Santa Maria tour was over but the day certainly wasn’t. There were many more tables to visit. Londer Vineyards from the Anderson Valley in Mendocino, an area I also like very much for their Alsatian whites, came through with a couple of elegant Pinots with plenty of soft fruit. Enjoyed meeting and talking at length with Rosalind Manoogian and her husband James of Fog Crest Vineyard and I tasted both of her Russian River Valley offerings including Fog Crest’s  inaugural vintage of their Estate Bottled Pinot. This small production Pinot, (75 cases), had lots of bing cherry and blackberry in the nose, cola and spice nuances and medium tannins.

James and Rosalind Manoogian of Fog Crest Vineyard

James and Rosalind Manoogian of Fog Crest Vineyard

I especially loved listening to Greg La Follette of La Follette . Talk about enthusiasm! He was making the ins and outs of wild fermentation seem fascinating. His offerings from Sonoma and Mendocino were very interesting to me with complicated, yet well balanced flavors including bacon and smoke, which he attributed to the wild fermentation. A lot of information in a very short period of time left me hoping to have more time some day in the future to speak further with this knowledgeable winemaker.

Greg La Follette

Greg La Follette

La Follette Pinot Noir

La Follette Pinot Noir

So much Pinot, so many styles, wonderful group of winemakers – it all makes for a great way to spend a few hours. Thanks to the producers of Pinot Days for bringing us this opportunity to learn, taste and compare. Cheers!

Pinot Days- Winemaker dinner and a tasting

To quote Sid Goldstein, author of “The Wine Lover’s Cookbook”, “Pinot Noir is, in a word, a wonder. It is a mysterious and seductive wine that echoes the smell of the earth from which it comes.”

Sometimes referred to as the “heartbreak grape”,  it is difficult to grow, and demands great attention both in the vineyard as well as the winery. It is the coveted grape of Burgundy, and currently widely planted in Oregon and California. Although I enjoy a bottle of Pinot every so often, I don’t drink a lot of it. Pinot Days, held here in Los Angeles for the first time last weekend, was a real eye opener for me, introducing my palate to many different styles of Pinot ranging from dry and austere to fat and juicy. I was happy to meet and learn from producers from many prime pinot growing areas including Washington, Oregon, New Zealand and California.

My Pinot adventure started with an impromptu winemakers dinner held at Upstairs 2, the restaurant that is, you guessed it, upstairs over the Wine House wine shop. I had received an e-mail from Lisa and Steve Rigisich, the producers of Pinot Days, informing us that they and several of the winemakers in town for the festival were going to put on a small winemakers dinner a few days before the festival and limited reservations would be taken on a first come, first serve basis. Well the dinner sold out in half an hour – we were among the 80 or so lucky ones that secured a reservation.

Each table was set for 8 with a “winemakers chair” at the head of the table – winemakers would be rotating to a different table with each course so we would have the opportunity to speak with a number of them before the night was through.

Our first course was a salad of Arugula, Frisee and Belgian Endive with Duck Confit and a Pinot Noir Lingonberry Dressing. With that we were poured 2007 Inman Family Russian River Valley. Owner, winemaker and all around lovely lady, Kathleen Inman, also shared with us her 2006 Olivet Grange Vineyards Pinot Noir. Both were my favorite style – dry, earthy, elegant and well balanced with bright natural acidity. The second estate wine served with this course was the  Suacci Carciere Wines –  Suacci Vineyard – 2007.

The second course was a wonderful dish of Wild Mushroom Crusted Halibut with a red wine sauce. Mushrooms are so delicious paired with Pinot Noir and the first of two wines served with this course was the Lachini Vineyards Cuvee Giselle – 2007, Chehalem Mountains, Washington. Ron Lachini explained to us the intricacies of  bio-dynamic farming techniques and the reasons he and his wife chose to go that route. Oddly enough his wine had a very strong grassy aroma. Both his and the Willamette Valley Vineyards, Tualatin Estate 07 paired nicely with the fish.

Next up was Grilled Free Range Veal Chops with Herbs du Provence and Veal Demi-Glace.  The first wine poured was a Fess Parker Winery – Ashleys Pinot, Santa Rita Hills 07. This was one of the biggest pinots I have ever had, having even Syrah like qualities.  I figured this one would pair nicely with the chops, but obviously it did not behave like a Syrah and it flattened with the food.  A better choice was the 07 C. Donatiello Winery – Maddie’s Vineyard. Still a bigger and bolder style of Pinot than I normally choose, it held it’s own with the grilled meat and potatoes.

The dessert course was two cheeses served with fig bread and candied walnuts. Ana Keller of Keller Estate joined us at our table for this course and shared with us her family’s history in the wine industry. I enjoyed her 07 “El Coro” , a fleshy wine redolent of cherry, plum and currant flavors mingled with spice and tobacco. Also enjoyed with this course Perception Wines Russian River Valley 07.

This would have been a nice enough event by itself, but it was just a prelude for so much more Pinot yet to come.

Trade tasting gets under way

Trade tasting gets under way

The festival was held at Barker Hangar in Santa Monica, a venue I had visited once before for the Make-a-Wish annual winetasting fund raiser. It’s big and roomy offering plenty of elbow space for thirsty tasters. So much Pinot, so little time as there were over 75 wineries represented and the walk around trade tasting was a mere 2 hours. A quick perusal of the offerings and off we went. A couple of  producers had Chardonnay or Pinot Gris tucked away under their tables and I was glad I had a bottle of SanTasti palate cleansing beverage with me – yes you really can go back and forth from red to white with optimum enjoyment and appreciation. Highlights for me included:

Carr Vineyards & Winery: 07 Pinot Noir, Three Vineyards, Sta. Rita Hills and 07 Turner Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills

Clouds Rest Vineyards: Tried and enjoyed 4 vintages from Sonoma: 02,03,04,05

Bouchaine Vineyards: 2006 Carneros

Demetria Estate: 2006 Cuvee Sandra, Sta Rita Hills

Kindred Wines: 2007 Pinot Noir Amber Ridge Vineyard, Russian River Valley

Papapietro-Perry: 2007 Russian River Valley

Kindred Wines,member of SFWA

Kindred Wines,member of SFWA

Besides tasting some very interesting wines and meeting the creative men and women behind those wines, it was nice to catch up with friends. Eve Bushman of Eve’s 101 and Denise Lowe, the “goddess of vino”, were on hand for a photo op.

Denise Lowe, Xochitl Maiman and Eve Bushman catch up at Pinot Days in Los Angeles

Denise Lowe, Xochitl Maiman and Eve Bushman catch up at Pinot Days in Los Angeles

At 1:00 sharp Los Angeles Pinot fans, and there are thousands of them, converged on the festival, not letting the approaching storm keep them from the task at hand. I left with a new appreciation for this intriguing grape, respect for the fortitude of those who make the wine and a strong craving for a steak. However, one of my favorite recipes to go with Pinot Noir is this one shared by Chef Douglas Keane of Cyrus in Healdsburg, CA. Kathleen Inman likes this one too.

Truffled Red Wine Risotto with Parmesan Broth