Storytellers-Sequoia Grove

This past summer, my family and I flew into San Francisco, pieced together equipment from my brother and father-in-law, and headed north.  I had seen them before.  I was probably eight.  At that age, everything seems a bit taller than it does now.  You tilt your head back, way back and gaze up, up, up until the weight of your upper body nearly tumbles you backward.  Even then, I knew I was in a special place.  There was nothing that approached that size in the Adirondacks.  No cone that large, no trunk so vast.  And there was a stillness, a sense of reverence.

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I knew the Sequoia Groves were magical then.  My children felt that same sense of awe.  They looked up,up,up and were delighted when they could see the top.  They climbed, giggled, wondered as I had years before.  What have these trees seen?  How much more will they see?  The sense of time palpable, I thought of how much life I’ve lived since I was there last and how little time frame was in the life of the tree.  I thought of how my mother taught me about what I was seeing, how I hoped my daughter would do the same one day.  Tradition, strength, a sense of place.

I had the honor of attending a winemaker dinner a few weeks ago.  Molly Hill of Sequoia Grove Winery was in town with her representative from Kobrand, Mike Zinni.  The dinner was at The Salty Sow and even though it occurred in a week already filled, I did not want to miss the opportunity.  I had read about their history, their approach to winemaking and knew the wine would be something special.

Founded by Jim Allen in 1980, they began making classically structured Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.  Michael Trujillo began as a cellar worker and is now President and Director of Winemaking.  Molly Hill began in 03 and was promoted to winemaker in 08.

Together, they have refined, acquired, and revised to produce the best wine possible.  Being in Rutherford AVA, the Bordeaux varieties flourish.  With the acquisition of the Tonella Vineyard, they’ve been able to go from 80% sourced to 80% estate grown.  Through relationships with other growers, they are able to source the highest quality fruit, continually evaluating and striving.  Each lot is sorted twice, kept separate through fermentation.  In Trujillo’s words, they “like to use Andre Tchelistcheff’s analogy for making tea.  You steep and taste, steep and taste, until it’s just right.”

I think they are on to something.  Each wine we tasted was “just right.”  Not overly manipulated, great fruit, balance.  We started with the 13 Chardonnay.  The color was phenomenal.  Beautiful nose: apple, stone fruit.  The fruit was intense and rang through.  It begins fermentation in stainless and ends in French oak.  Citrus, apple, minerality, often lost with too much oak, were pronounced.

We then moved on to the 10 Cabernet Sauvignon.  I got stuck just on the nose.  Super layered, structured, enticing.  Black fruit, cocoa, maybe coffee?  something vegetative?  On the palate, black cherry and cocoa with a beautiful finish.  Approachable and complex.

The final wine of the evening was the 09 Cambium.  This wine was perfectly balanced, incredibly smooth.  Black and red fruit, earth, floral notes, and bit of cocoa.  Subtle fruit, layered, incredible mouthfeel.  A gorgeous wine.

Reading through the marketing literature, I found out more about the origin of the Cambium wine.  The term “Cambium” refers to “a living layer of cells, between the bark and hardwood, that each year produces additional wood and bark”.  It is the living force that grows the massive Sequoia and the delicate vines.  As Michael Trujlllo said, “The cambium imprints the memory of the vintage on the grapes and that’s what I want in the wine.  Each bottle holds the memory of the sun and the soil-the memory of the season.”

There are Sequoia on the property for which the winery is named. They towered over the Rutherford valley long before they were colored with vines.  The vines have their own stories to tell.  They may not have seen all the towering trees have seen, but they are capable of sharing those stories with us.  Molly Hill and Michael Trujillo have become the storytellers, giving the fruit a voice.  And just as the place for which it is named, each bottle of Sequoia Grove contains a tale of tradition, strength, and a sense of place.

Classic and Elegant-Franciscan Estates

When I was teaching, I didn’t review the files of my students right away.  I wanted to meet them, interact, observe with no preconceived notions about the individual.  After a time, in preparation for a goal-setting conference, I would look at what previous teachers had found in their time with the student in order to best serve that child.  Sometimes the notes were surprising; often they echoed my observations.

When reviewing a wine, I like to come to it with a clear palate and a clear mind. When I have had sufficient time with the wine, I like to go back and read the winemaker’s notes and the history of the vineyard. Each piece of information paints a picture and build my understanding of the industry, the winemaker, and the wine itself.  It also serves as a means for self-examination.  Did I pick up on that nuance?  Did it remind me of another wine from the same AVA?  Do I have a good understanding of how that variety typically shows?  And did the pairing I chose work or not with all of this in mind?  Then I go back to the wine with this knowledge and continue to learn. 

When I tasted the 2011 Franciscan Chardonnay and the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, they both elicited the same response.  These are very classic wines; these are very elegant wines.  If I were to think of a well done California Chardonnay or Cabernet from Oakville, the flavor profile of these wines would come to mind.  

Thanks to one of my favorite wine writers, Meg Houston Maker, I have learned how to best plan a meal to go with the wine.  Taste, plan, then revisit. Sometimes I have the luxury of time to do that, most often I do not.  The evening that I opened the Chardonnay, I did not have time to plan well, but happened to get lucky.  I had family at my house for a short time and had to pull something together.  I had bought a frozen Salmon filet so I quick thawed it, drizzled it with olive oil and dusted it with herbs and lemon zest.  I made orzo with goat cheese and lemon and asparagus.  I chilled the wine and dinner was on the table thirty minutes later.    

The wine was round and supple, a very elegant mouth feel.  The fruit was intense and the vanilla from the oak made it almost sweet and very creamy.  It was sturdy enough to hold up to the hearty Salmon and the acid of the lemon.  Each brought out the best in the other. 

With the Cabernet I made a Roasted Pepper Goulash with caraway seeds and paprika.  I had thought about pairing it with a peppery Syrah, but really wanted to try this Cab, so the Franciscan won.  This is an instance where the pairing worked, but it may have not been the best.  Either way, the wine was fabulous.  Dark cherry, spice, and a hint of rich cocoa.  Big enough to hold up to most anything, but not intimidating.  Smooth and delightful.  In the future, I would likely pair it with a grilled New York strip or something simpler.  It is such a classic wine, that a more classic pairing would allow the wine more room to shine without competition from a powerful sauce. 

When I sat down this morning to read more about the history and winemaking at Franciscan Estates, I felt as if I had passed an exam.  The descriptions and philosophy were very much in line with my experiences with these wines.  In the letter from Janet Myers, Director of Winemaking, she even states that, “they represent classic expressions of each variety.”  My thoughts exactly.  I say this, not to pat myself on the back, but to say that the process of learning about wine does not have to be intimidating.  It is as simple as being mindful during your experience.  Take note of all you smell, taste, see.  What does it remind you of?  Have you tasted a wine like this before?  Do you like certain aspects more than others?  Then read, learn, and reflect.  Repeat as necessary. Or as desired.

Disclaimer: These wines were provided as samples from Folsom and Associates.  The opinions are my own.

East Coast vs. West Coast

This week I decided to sample two Chardonnays, back to back, for an East Coast/West Coast showdown.  The first Chardonnay was the 2010 Biltmore Reserve Chardonnay from North Carolina and the second was the 2010 Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Chardonnay ($20).

The Biltmore was very easy to drink.  Which was great because we opened it after my son’s third birthday party.  I’d love to tell you how it paired, but we didn’t get that far.  A fresh pear green in color, with similar nose.  Hints of citrus, rounded with a bit of buttery notes.  There was some of the banana that you find with malo-lactic fermentation.  I would say this would be a very versatile wine, but not to pair it as you typically would when you think Chardonnay.  The oak was light, the fruit remained on the crisper side.  A fun take on Chardonnay, for sure.

We opened the Robert Mondavi for dinner last night.  I made a light pasta with asparagus, mushrooms, and chicken.  This was, what I consider to be, a very classic Chardonnay.  Classic, but without the heaviness that is sometimes overwhelming.  A pear yellow, lighter than some Chardonnays, but don’t let that fool you.  This bottle drinks like one that is older.  Pear, something tropical, and a floral perfume.  I tasted lemon, apple, some tannic notes, and a nutty, creamy finish.  There is definitely oak, but it doesn’t hit you in the back of the throat as some do.  I enjoyed this wine, especially as it hit the right temperature. 

So who won the bi-coastal showdown?  I think it depends on what you’re looking for in a Chardonnay.  A fun, lighter fruit forward wine with subtle oak or a creamy classic one?  Personally, I can’t call a winner.  As with most wines, there is a time and a meal for each of these.

*{Disclosure: I was provided with these wines from PR Firm, Folsom & Associates. All statements and opinions expressed in this article are my own.}

A Taste of Home-Lamoreaux Landing

A few weeks ago, I had my first weekend away since becoming a mom four years ago.  When the possibility of a weekend jaunt arose, it was clear where I wanted, no needed, to go-home.  Well, not quite home, but close.  Although I have been in Austin for nearly half of my life, Upstate New York will always be home. So a trip to the Finger Lakes, to visit one of my dearest friends, was just what I needed.

I had visited Ithaca in the mid-90s and had stopped at a winery, but was just learning about wine at the time, so I thought I would have my hosts pick a few possibilities.  I was intrigued by the wine offerings at Lamoreaux Landing, but knew that was going to be our destination after corresponding with one of the owners, Josh Wig.

Lamoreaux Landing sits above Seneca Lake with magnificent views and an inviting tasting room.  Towering windows,warm wood floors, great displays, and plenty of browsing room.  A space large enough to accommodate summer crowds, cozy enough to linger on a quiet winter day.  As impressive as the room is, it pales in comparison to the wines.

When tasting, I find that the host can make or break your experience. Laura, the Special Events Coordinator, was our host and could not have been better.  Warm, patient, knowledgeable and an all-around pleasure.    We started with the Riesling.  They do six Rieslings here, three are Single Vineyard.  All were fabulous.  The ’08 Reserve has a good balance of minerality and fruit- a touch of citrus and orange blossom. The ’10 had more of a lemony long finish.  The ’10 Semi Dry had softer, honeyed fruit and a long finish.  Of the Single Vineyards, Red Oak was our favorite.  Really big flavor.  Honeysuckle and pear, creamy and delicious.  Although grown so close geographically, each SV Riesling was so different.  Round Rock has a clean minerality (shale/slate) and a touch of gooseberries (I got currant or something, but borrowed gooseberries from their description).  Yellow Dog has more stone fruit , blossoms, and a touch of citrus.

Knowing my palate would only stand so much tasting, we skipped around after the Rieslings and tried a few that were new to me.  The 42 North was an interesting blend.  Mostly Moscato, this wine had fruit and floral notes with a touch of spice (coriander) and would be great with Thai.  The 08 Chardonnay was lovely.  Held  mostly in oak, it had the creamy roundness you would expect, but the time in stainless steel gives the fruit more of a chance to shine.  At $12.99 it is a bargain.  The Estate Red is another excellent bargain.  Cab Franc, Pinot, and Merlot.  Perfectly balanced and a perfect Monday wine at $11.99.  Finally, the big surprise for me was a 2009 T23 Cabernet Franc.  An unoaked Cabernet Franc.  I have never had anything like it.  It has all the big fruit, earthy herbs that you would expect from a Cab Franc and yet, it had a light finish.  Cranberry and soft tannins, this wine would be really versatile in pairings.  Big enough, but not too big for about anything.  Really interesting wine.

When we headed out to Lodi, I had read the accolades in popular publications.  I was impressed by the property. I was rooting for my home state so I was really hopeful that I would like the wine.  I didn’t just like the wine, I LOVED the wine.  I was blown away by the quality for the price point.  I tried things that were completely new to me and was tickled by the depth and variance in the Single Vineyard Rieslings.  And to top it all off, the people were as delightful as the wine.  I cannot recommend this winery enough.  I’d like to say the day was without but disappointment, but there was one.  A big one.  They can’t ship to Texas.  Devastating.  But all the more reason to head back home.

Gobble, Gobble, Gewurztraminer

Turkey Day is almost upon us!  I think you could go in several directions for pairing your gobbler and your goblet, but one particular favorite is a dry Gewurztraminer.  Gundlach Bundschu has a FABULOUS one.  Here is the description in Wine Enthusiast:

“A very nice example of a dry Gewurtz. Name an exotic spice, and you’ll find it here, especially cinnamon. The fruit is all about oranges, pears and lychee, while acidity is brisk and fine. Will challenge home chef and sommelier pairing talent. Pork and stewed fruit come to mind”. (90 points)

Equally fabulous are the promotional videos they have pulled together this year-Turkey Love.  If you have five minutes, they are worth viewing. 

Depending on your sides and personal preference, you can always go with a Chardonnay or Pinot.  I am curious to hear from you folks on this one.  What is your favorite Thanksgiving wine?  Do you go with more reasonable and more of it?  Or one glass of something super special?  Is there a side you have in mind or do focus on the bird?  (or Tofurkey, Turducken, Spam?)  Whatever you pour, you will, no doubt, have much to be thankful for this year! Cheers!