Good Wines from a Bad Year

It’s been almost a year since the COVID era began.  The past year has brought many new experiences, some of them unpleasant but a few of them were unexpected surprises.  Due to dwindling access, availability, and some forced changes of personal habit I stumbled upon a few new wines during this crazy time.  Here are some of my best surprises from the COVID year; perhaps they will give you a smile as well.

Photo credit: Fontanafredda

Photo credit: Fontanafredda

My favorite local restaurant ran out of my usual go-to wines so I had to try some others with my takeout.  One of them was the 2017 Ebbio Langhe Nebbiolo ($30).  I’m a huge Barolo fan and typically like Nebbiolo but this one is a real bargain for what it offers.  Dusty red berry, light tobacco, and lithe body make this a terrific offering. In fact, I’m wondering if I’ll like it better than my old favorite once it comes back into stock. Spring

Another standout, which is an older and much more “special occasion” wine was the 2014 Spring Mountain Cabernet ($75).  Spring Mountain wines are known for their robust power and iron fist, usually needing many years to become approachable.  This one has arrived in its happy place with palpable energy coursing through its blackberry, currant, and cedar notes.  A brilliant wine that got even better over a few days.

passimentosmallI am woefully behind on blogging (my friend calls this the “COVID ennui”) and I finally tapped into a few delightful wines that I was sent months ago.  The label on the 2018 Passimento ($18) alone makes it worth a second look and drink. From the Veneto region of Italy, this lovely white wine is made from Garganega grapes and tastes of peach, apricot, and almond flavors woven together with racy acidity.  Three months in oak rounds out the palate and gives it an extra boost in body.  Perfect for a warm summer day or even a cool winter afternoon spent outside seeing an old friend as I did.

Another great treat was the Bruno Paillard Champagne Reims Rosé Première Cuvée Extra Brut ($59). This is a beautifully delicate and scintillating sparkler that was one of my year’s best.  The fact that I’ve had the great pleasure to meet Alice Paillard a couple of times only made it better as it expresses her quiet assurance, elegance, and poise to a tee.  bruno

Ijuscru was invited to review the wines of Elden Selections earlier in 2020 and one of the wines I was sent, the 2015 Domaine Mouton Givry 1er Cru Clos Jus ($59), is still on my mind.  “Jus” means “juice” and true its name, this wine was juicy yet delicate with bramble raspberry and fresh mineral notes.

Eating out during the summer and even early cold spring was a sheer thrill.  Along with those evenings came some other new wines in the 2016 Alpha Estate SMX ($34) and the 2016 Tancredi Donnafugata ($39).  The Alpha Estate SMX is a red blend of 60% Syrah, 20% Merlot, and 20% Xinomavro from Amyndeon, Greece. Layered and supple, this wine teems with dark fruit notes of black cherry and plum interlaced with sweet spice and pepper flavors.  A full-body and crisp lean acidity round out the palate.

tancredismallThe Tancredi is from Sicily and another great find.  Blended from Cabernet Sauvignon, Nero d’Avola, and some Tannat grapes, this wine exudes savory notes of licorice, stone, and tobacco amid its black plum flavors.  Medium-bodied with fine-grained tannins, this wine has some staying power and should be good for several more years.

There was a brief respite last fall where I was able to go on a short domestic trip.  The hotel I was at was low on wines like everyone else but our sommelier went rummaging in their cellar and came out with the knockout 2005 Marques de Murrieta Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial ($110) for my friend’s birthday. Rioja1

Wonderfully smooth and seamlessly integrated, this wine, made from 81% Tempranillo and 19% Mazuelo, exudes classic savory tobacco, dried cherry, and tarragon notes with a haunting spicy finish. The Tempranillo was aged in American oak in traditional Rioja style while the Mazuelo was aged in French oak.  It all culminates in a beautiful marriage of flavors and a perfect birthday celebration. I would like to rummage in that hotel’s cellar a bit more.

TerlanAlso on that trip, we were treated to the 2016 Terlan Porphyr Lagrein from Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy ($75)Lagrein is one of those unique grapes that’s harder to find but when it’s made as well as this one, it’s extraordinary.  A cross between the lighter body of Pinot Noir and the zesty flavors and electric acidity of Nebbiolo, this grape can hold its own.  A striking inky color, this wine tastes of violets, clove, and black tea. While it is medium-bodied, this wine has impressive structure and heft while retaining its elegance and smooth tannins.

Back at home, there were a few periods where we locked in so long that I started going through my own collection and seeing how things were tasting.  Three standouts here were:

Edsmall2013 Sbragia Monte Rosso Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.  I loved this wine when I first had it sitting in the Sbragia tasting room in Moon Mountain District, Sonoma years ago.  On a particularly barren day last year, I treated myself to my last remaining bottle.  It is one of those wines where even a great memory paled to its present form.  It was simply ethereal. Using my Coravin, I enjoyed a glass every day for 4 days, and this wine never stopped delighting.

2011 Il Poggione Brunello I always love Brunello but I have to be in a certain mood for it.  It’s not a subtle wine so it takes some energy I think to really appreciate it.  My brother gave me this wine a few years ago and I was determined to hang on to it.  However, my resolve weakened during COVID as I considered how fleeting time and opportunity are so I decided to dive into it.

Another experience of it being better than I remembered ensued. Made from 20-year-old vines and 100% Sangiovese grapes, this lush and radiant wine tasted of toasted herbs, black cherry, plum, sweet spices, and tobacco. A powerful backbone with vibrant acid and a cedar finish rounded out this decadent pleasure.

madrigalsmallThe 2010 Madrigal Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa was perhaps the best bargain of the year.  I bought it several years ago on a Napa wine trip for $25. Having forgotten about it until I was going through my wine collection this summer, I thought it would be past its prime but it was a wonderful surprise, bursting with blackberry, currant, and cigar box spice.  Smooth round tannins dotted with menthol notes made for a lingering finish.

Hopefully this year will bring a much happier state of the world for everyone.  In the meantime, take the opportunity to try new wines when stores, restaurants, and your own cellar run low. You might be pleasantly surprised as I was.  sunnyday


Three Days in Paso Robles Wine Country

Daou Vineyards

I fell in love with Northern California the first time I set foot in it back in 1995 with my first tech job. Specifically, I loved the ocean, rolling hills, and vineyards all in close proximity and, of course, the moderate temperatures all year round. I’ve had the great fortune to visit vineyards around many parts of this beautiful state and I continue to be amazed each time I visit.  My latest smile-inducing trip (well before COVID-19) was to Paso Robles in central California, a place I saw for the first time five years ago.  I loved it then for its steep rugged hills, close sea proximity, and its relaxing casual nature along with its “wild west” feel.  It was fascinating to see it years later in a more “grown-up” phase but still preserving that cool rugged vibe.

If direct flights were available to San Luis Obispo (where one flies in to visit Paso Robles), one could argue that this is one of the easiest vineyard areas to visit in the United States.  Paso Robles itself is only 30 minutes from the SLO (aptly named for this area) airport.  Most wineries are within a 10 to 30-minute drive from the fabulous Allegretto Vineyard Resort where we stayed and there are a plethora of restaurants and quaint shops in Paso Robles itself that weren’t there last time I visited.

Allegretto Vineyard Resort

The Allegretto Vineyard Resort is also a newer arrival and a

Allegretto Chapel

wonderful place to stay.  There is a small vineyard right on the property as they produce their own wines and a stunning Tuscan-style chapel for those looking for a quiet moment.  Eclectic artwork dots the sprawling stone walls throughout the hotel and firepits abound for nighttime recaps of winery-filled days.  The rooms are all oversized (many with terraces and patios) and overlook vineyards, lovely gardens, or the relaxing pool area.  Incredibly accommodating staff are constantly smiling and looking to help and a lovely spa and brand-new fitness room meet any recreational need.  Incidentally, San Luis Obispo was named happiest city in America by the “Oprah show” in 2011. That has clearly spilled into Paso Robles as everyone I encountered was unbelievably friendly.

Paso Robles is a terrific destination on its own but then there are the vineyards which are a huge draw and offer wonderfully diverse offerings within a manageable area.  This is due to the Templeton Gap which contributes to the greatest day-to-night temperature swing of any of California’s wine appellations.  Over 60 wine grape varieties are grown in Paso Robles ranging from Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Merlot to Rhone varieties such as Syrah, Roussanne, and Viognier.  I also had some excellent Tempranillo and Tannat.  It’s all done well in Paso thanks to the daily 50-degree temperature swing, abundant sunshine, and naturally long growing season.  If you’re a wine lover, Paso Robles is a must-see once travel gets going again.


Here are some winery suggestions for your next trip.  Our Mortons/Landrys wine travel group started off at Justin Wine which is one of the bigger wine names from Paso Robles.  Justin is best known for their big, bold red wines (mostly from Bordeaux varieties but they also make a Tempranillo and Zinfandel).  In addition, they produce full-bodied Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, and a Rosé.  Try the 2017 Justification which is a blend of 65% Cabernet Franc and 35% Merlot (modeled after Right-bank Bordeaux).

Treana (Hope Family Wines) was our next stop where we did a black-glass wine tasting for breakfast.  Black-glass tastings are exactly what they sound like: blind tasting from a black glass where it’s impossible to see anything about the wine.

Treana black glass tasting

Black-glass tastings are one of the most humbling wine experiences as it is not unheard of to confuse a red and a white wine.  People scoff at this but I’ve done 5 of them and it’s happened every time (even with highly trained wine professionals in the audience).  This time was no exception but we thoroughly enjoyed Treana’s fabulous wines which focus on Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Mourvedre, and Grenache.  Try the 2018 Treana Cabernet Sauvignon ($30) which is a robust red with dark fruit, earthy leather, and sweet spice notes.

The Hope family (farmers in Paso for more than 30 years) also have 4 other individual brands in addition to Treana: Liberty School, Quest, Austin Hope, and Troublemaker.

Tablas Creek Vineyard is a required stop for anyone visiting Paso Robles. This winery specializes in Rhone varieties and was founded in 1989 through a joint effort between California’s Haas family and France’s Perrin family.   While looking for a site similar to the Perrin’s Château de Beaucastel, the two families settled on Paso Robles due to its Mediterranean climate and comparable growing conditions.

Vine plants at Tablas Creek Vineyard

To guarantee quality, clones of Mourvédre, Grenache Noir, Syrah, Counoise, Roussanne, Viognier, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc and Picpoul Blanc were imported from Château de Beaucastel as well as a variety of rootstocks.  Tablas Creek wines are divine ranging from a crisp, mineral-driven Rosé to elegant yet powerful Syrah.  Their vine-grafting demonstration is also fascinating and their expansive, welcoming patio makes it a perfect place to while away an afternoon.  Look for the 2016 Tablas Creek Esprit Blanc de Tablas ($45), a scintillating blend of Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, and Picpoul Blanc.

Epoch Estate Wines was a new find for us and an exciting one at that. An attractive juxtaposition of sleek and modern combined with rustic and casual style, this winery produces powerful Rhone-style white and red wines as well as a very unique expression of Tempranillo.

Epoch Estate Wines

The 2018 Epoch Rosé ($30), made of 43% Mourvèdre, 37% Grenache, and 20% Syrah was one of the best rosés I’ve had.  Its pale pink color defied the complex flavor menagerie going on in the glass with an array of grapefruit, honeysuckle, rhubarb, wet stone, and guava notes.

The 2013 Veracity, a Grenache-led Rhone blend, was described as “Scarlett Johansson in a straight jacket”, which seemed apt with its exuberant red fruit, lively pepper, and lush forest earth flavors.  The 2012 Tempranillo (94% Tempranillo with 6% Grenache) was all things autumn.  Ripe plum, dried leaves, smoky tobacco, and dusty tannins hallmarked this unusual and spectacular expression of Tempranillo.

Turley Wine Cellars is always a treat.  The undisputed king of Zinfandel, Turley makes 47 wines from 50 different vineyards, the majority of which are devoted to single vineyard Zinfandel and Petite Syrah. Most of Turley’s wines are certified organic or in the process of becoming so.

Ueberroth Vineyard

We got to visit two of the vineyards which were a study in contrasts.  The Ueberroth vineyard is an especially stunning site located closest to the sea of any of the Turley vineyards and also the oldest as it was planted in 1885. The vines are still on their original rootstock and the site has never been irrigated.  The vineyard’s high elevation of 1300 feet and limestone soils with high pH yield amazing wines of great elegance/serenity. Look for the 2017 Ueberroth Zinfandel ($55), a beautifully regal and satin-toned wine hallmarked by dried cranberry notes.

The Pesenti vineyard, although located at a lower

Pesenti Vineyard

elevation than the Ueberroth, is cooler in temperature due to its unique microclimate.   Another steep site with labor-intensive conditions, Pesenti yields denser wines that are more floral and fruit-driven than the Ueberroth vineyard. Look for the 2017 Pesenti Zinfandel ($44).

Another new find for us was Tooth & Nail Winery.  This is a truly unique place with a veritable castle and some of the edgiest artwork (and wine labels) we’d seen.  On first glance, we thought it may be a bit formal, but one look at the artwork and a quick chat with gregarious owner Rob Murray immediately convinced us otherwise.

Tooth & Nail Castle

Rob has been making wine since 2007 and today has 1000 acres of vineyards and four labels all under Rabble Wine Company: Rabble, Tooth & Nail, Stasis, and Amor Fati. He started Tooth & Nail Winery in 2014 when he decided he wanted tasting room and venue space.

Beyond the intriguing castle, Rob introduced augmented reality wine bottle labels in 2018 which are just downright cool.  For example, the Rabble Cabernet Sauvignon animated label shows Mount Vesuvius erupting over

Rabble Cabernet Sauvignon


There are all kinds of interesting wines to try at Tooth & Nail (which serves all of the Rabble brands) but some of my favorites were the 2015 Stasis Pinot Noir ($42) and the splurge 2015 Amor Fati Cabernet Sauvignon ($90).

Sunset at Daou Vineyards

No trip to Paso Robles trip is complete without a stop at the gorgeous Daou Vineyards.  It remains one of the most serene and spellbinding vineyards I’ve seen in the United States.  Their wines are equally compelling with riveting Bordeaux red blends as their sweet spot.  Don’t miss the powerful and lush 2016 Estate Soul of the Lion.

Sunset at Daou



Enjoy Italy’s Best Wines at Home

Chicago’s 2020 Tre Bicchieri, one of the wine trade’s favorite events, was filled with more exciting wines than ever including sparkling Gavi, ultra-lux Franciacorta, and old classics next to up-and-coming wine regions.

Gambero Rosso, the self-described “world authority on Italian food, wine, and travel”, sponsors the Tre Bicchieri Tour which is the world’s premier Italian wine showcase. This year, nearly 200 Italian wineries poured wines awarded the coveted “Tre Bicchieri” (“three glass”) designation, which fewer than 1% Italian wines achieve.

Standouts this year started with the less-seen but always rewarding Abruzzo and Marche regions.  Located on Italy’s Adriatic side, both regions feature the Montepulciano grape which produces wines with robust tannins and deep color. The 2018 Villa Medoro Montepulciano d’Abruzzo was an earthier style than the fruitier 2017 Montecappone Rosso Piceno (a blend of 80% Montepulciano and 20% Sangiovese) yet both of these wines demonstrate the complexity that Montepulciano can achieve near the Adriatic coast.

Montecappone also featured its 2016 Utopia Castelli di Jesi Verdicchio Riserva which was a wonderful expression of the classic Italian white grape, Verdicchio.  Aged 18 months on its lees with an additional 12 months in bottle, this wine tasted of herbs, lime, and chamomile with a waxy finish from the time on lees.  The wine is named after Thomas More’s book, “Utopia”, written in 1516.  At Montecappone, Utopia means “the way to perfection: walk, study, work, and live to produce excellent quality wines”.

Moving to the Alto Adige region, Cantina Terlano’s 2017 A.A. Terlano Saugivnon Quarz was scintillating with nervy acid, dominant gooseberry and grapefruit, and wet stone minerality on the long textural finish. Made with gentle whole cluster pressing and aged 9 months on lees in 50% large wood barrels and 50% stainless steel, this wine is a remarkably unique Sauvignon Blanc from northern Italy. Its name comes from the fine inclusions of quartz in Terlano’s volcanic porphyry rock soil.

I never miss the chance to try Barolo and was thrilled to find the 2015 Vite Colte Barolo del Commune di Barolo Essenze.  Tasting of black fruit, rose petals, and tobacco, chewy tannins and vibrant acid drove this wine along to a haunting balsamic-laced finish.  The 2010 Vite Colte Barbaresco Spezie Rieserva was also alluring with its violet, currant, and clove notes.  Two years aging in small oak barrels and one year in bottle melded both of these wines into ethereal delights for Nebbiolo lovers.  Both wines are produced only in the best vintage years so snap them up if you can find them.

Following along the Barolo path, I was early enough to the tasting to try the 2012 Vietti Barolo Villero Riserva.  This wine was only produced 13 times out of the last 38 years and is a tiny production of 3860 bottles.  Made from a south/southwest-facing vineyard near Castiglione Falletto, the Vietti portion of the Villero vineyard is barely one hectare in size.  Clay soils and 43-year old vines contributed to cascading notes of crushed violet, dried red cherry, and iron nestled among dense tannins and refreshing acidity. Aged in large oak casks and unfiltered before bottling, this wine was pure unadulterated bliss.  For the points lovers, this wine achieved 100 points in 2007 and 2009 and 99 points in 2010.

Sicily continues to produce fascinating wines and I made sure to check in on some of my favorite producers there, some of whom one of my travel groups got to visit last year.  Cantine Nicosia was once again outstanding with its mineral-driven 2013 Etna Rosso Monte Gorna Riserva and 2017 Rosso Vulkà.  The Vulkà is a blend of 80% Nerello Mascalese and 20% Nerello Cappuccio from volcanic soils and an altitude of 650-750 meters.  Intended for early drinking, this fruity and energetic wine was aged in tonneaux and 6 months in bottle. 

The Monte Gorna Riserva comes from an extinguished crater by the same name which is located at 750 meters and filled with lava terraces. Grapes are hand-picked and selected for this elegant and regal wine.  Predominantly Nerello Mascalese at 90% with 10% Nerello Cappuccio, this wine fermented on its skins for 3 weeks followed by 24 months in French oak barrels and 12 months in bottle.  Careful attention to every detail produced this beauty tasting of licorice, dried red cherry, freshly-tilled earth, and tobacco flavors.

In addition, Cantine Nicosia had their lively 2019 Sicilia Fondo Filara Frappato, an organic and vegan wine bursting with red raspberry, blueberries, and purple flower notes.  Frappato is an ancient Sicilian grape and this wine was part of their limited production Fondo Filara series.

Also from Sicily, Cottanera had a stunning expression of Carricante in their 2018 Etna Bianco.  A complex nose of lemon, jasmine, and cedar culminated in a full-bodied wine with mouth-coating waxiness from 6 months of lees aging.

Tenuta di Arceno is a Tuscan winery owned by Jackson Family Wines in Napa.  Jackson Family has acquired several wineries around the world and having been fortunate enough to visit several, I always come away impressed with their selections.  Tenuta di Arceno had a terrific offering of a Chianti Classico and two Super Tuscans, one Merlot-dominant (2013 Valadorna) and one Cabernet Franc-dominant (2013 Arcanum).  Both were delicious but I favored the Valadorna which was a blend of 74% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petit Verdot.  Full of ripe plum, blueberry, and sweet spice, this wine showcased Merlot at its finest.


Wrapping up, the Franciacorta offerings were off-the-chart impressive.  Two producers I tried were Ferghettina and Ricci Curbastro, both amazingly rich and complex in style.  Ferghettina has a unique square bottle which they created to increase the contact surface area between the wine and the yeast.  This results in enhanced aromatics in the wine as it ages.

The 2012 Ferghettina Franciacorta Pas Dosè Riserva 33 is composed from 33% of the base wine from 3 of their other wines – the Saten, Milledì and Extra Brut. This results in a wine made from grapes from 40 different vineyards located in 8 municipalities of Franciacorta. Made of 100% Chardonnay and aged 80 months on lees with zero dosage, this elegant yet muscular wine exuded dried bread and candied fruit notes with a commanding finish of toast and almond.

Do not miss the chance to try Le Mesma’s 2013 Gavi Spumante Metodo Classico if you can find it.  Floral and fruity with electric acidity, this wine had all of Gavi’s “yellow” profile (flowers, peach, and lemon) with a structured nutty and brioche finish from its classic Champagne method production.

I wish I had a couple more days at this grand event, there were so many special wines and regions to experience but I’m grateful that I got to try what I did.  Tre Bicchieri is always a first-rate and truly compelling experience that makes its attendees fall in love with wine all over again.

Vite Colte Vineyard


Celebrate the Holidays with Magical Cabernet Franc

It still comes as a surprise to many people that one of the noblest grapes of all, Cabernet Sauvignon, is parented by Cabernet Franc (a red grape) and Sauvignon Blanc (a white grape).  While Sauvignon Blanc is always in the news, usually in reference to a New Zealand or Sancerre, France wine, its regal partner-in-crime Cabernet Franc is less often talked about.  This is a real shame as Cabernet Franc offers one of the purest forms of wine-drinking when in solid winemaking hands.

Since Cabernet Franc ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon, it was historically planted as insurance for a vintner to ensure something ripened before cold weather set in. Typically lighter in body, color, and tannins than Cabernet Sauvignon, its vibrant acidity makes it a versatile food pairing wine (particularly with various meat and vegetable dishes as its characteristic herbaceous notes are naturally complementary).

Cabernet Franc is often seen in Bordeaux blends where it adds notes of spice, floral tones, and a certain freshness that lifts up a wine. However, it also shines as a single variety (or dominant variety) wine as the below wines demonstrate. There is a distinctive “inkiness” or pencil lead character in this grape that delights in the best examples as well as making it easily identifiable.  A regal, mysterious, and seductively alluring grape, the following wines are perfect for the magic of the holiday season (with some prices to boot).

2012 Palazzo Cabernet Franc ($95)

This wine made me fall in love with Cabernet Franc. I have had several vintages of this wine and it continues to be astonishing. Always in perfect harmony and balance, this Napa, California wine combines elegance and power in a cascade of crushed violet, purple flowers, cranberry, and dark chocolate aromas. On the plush palate, there is a wonderful iron earthiness highlighted by Cabernet Franc’s trademark pencil lead all framed by juicy acidity, powdery tannins, and a long haunting finish.  Winemaker Scott Palazzo is a master and his wines are truly special.

2014 Salvestrin Cabernet Franc

I discovered this lovely brand several years ago in the Taj Campton hotel in San Francisco where it’s still served. While I’ve had many of their Cabernet Sauvignons, I didn’t know they made a Cabernet Franc until I visited their Napa winery earlier this year.  This particular wine isn’t made every year and, when it is, it’s in short supply (only 50 cases were produced). 

This wine is intensely concentrated with inky iron, black cherry, savory spice, and tarry mineral notes. It’s a bold and robust expression of Cabernet Franc with powerful tannins, tight structure, and a long peppery finish.

If you’re looking for a major splurge on Cabernet Franc, look for the 2013 Vérité Le Désir ($389) from Sonoma, California which is a Cabernet Franc-dominated powerhouse supported by Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec.  This is a hedonistic wine with decades of life coiled within it.  A sleek dark beauty with ethereal flavors of exotic spice, supple red currant and plum, violet, warm stone, and just-lit cigar smoke, this wine has a long brooding finish that simply can’t be washed away.

2009 White Cottage Cabernet Franc ($44)

While no longer made, this Howell Mountain, California wine was a showstopper. Densely concentrated with wafting flavors of damp forest leaves, smoke, black earth, lilac, and cigar notes, I tasted this wine through its evolution over the past several years with great fascination. The 2009 is still drinking perfectly and continues to improve (and I’m down to my last bottle).  Thanks to winemaker Michael Andrews for introducing me to this wine years ago.

Switching states, the 2016 Stemilt Creek Ascent Cabernet Franc ($48) from Columbia Valley, Washington is another great one to try.  Richard Hood, the winemaker there, makes this wine in select vintages based on when conditions are right to “showcase varietal expression in its purest form”.  These grapes come from their Wenatchee estate vineyards where they are grown on steep north-facing slopes which promote slow ripening and dense flavor concentration.

This wine has jubilant aromas of dusty cranberry, black cherry, and tobacco with a scintillating herbal-driven palate of mineral, ripe red fruit, and cedar.  Zesty acidity, round ripe tannins, and a spicy lingering finish make this wine a standout. This is a more exuberant expression of Cabernet Franc (led by red fruit versus herbs) compared to the California versions mentioned due to Washington’s greater warmth and planting elevation.

Another marvelous expression of Cabernet Franc is found in the 2012 Gran Enemigo Single Vineyard Gualtallary ($125) from Mendoza, Argentina.  I had this wine for the first time a few months ago and was bowled over by it.  Although I’m not big points person, Robert Parker apparently was too as he gave this wine 95 points. Made from 85% Cabernet Franc and 15% Malbec, this wine showcases decadent notes of black cherry, blackberry, sweet spice, and thyme with powdery fine tannins, lively acidity, and a spicy long finish. While not cheap, compared to other wines in its category, it’s a wine worthy of its price.

If you like Cabernet Sauvignon, there’s a good chance you’ll be intrigued by Cabernet Franc.  Many of the flavors are similar but they may just be a bit more intense and concentrated in Cabernet Franc.  It’s a gamble well worth tasting and it might open up a whole new drinking world for you like it did for me. Happy holidays!



A Sanctuary for the Gorillas…and for me

I was one of those people profoundly touched by “Gorillas in the Mist” years ago when it came out as I’d been fascinated with gorillas since childhood. Seeing them in their natural habitat was a long-time dream of mine that finally got realized last month thanks to a great surprise trip from my husband in concert with award-winning safari company African Portfolio.  As high as my expectations were, the actual experience surpassed them all.  Flying over the lush, green-forested expanse leading into Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, it was hard to believe I was so close to the home of these magnificent creatures.

Mountain gorillas are still critically endangered with only 800 left in the world, all residing in the neighboring regions of Congo (not recommended for tourists at this time), Rwanda, and Uganda’s Bwindi (pronounced by locals as just “Windy”).  We chose Uganda for economical reasons (gorilla permits are 1/3 the price of Rwanda) and adventurous ones as there is much more to do in Uganda and it’s a bit more off-the-beaten path.

Tea fields

Tea fields

I had no expectations about Uganda as I knew little about it so I was instantly mesmerized by its beauty; majestic slopes, sweeping coffee and tea farms, endless swaths of green, and some of the most industrious people I’ve encountered. Life is very hard there yet it’s set in against an enchanting backdrop of natural beauty and fantastic agriculture with even the red soils adding to the idyllic scene.

It is there, in the southwest corner of Uganda, that Bwindi lies and where more than half of the remaining mountain gorillas make their home.  After all, they need to eat 60 pounds of greenery a day so where better to forage for food than a rain forest?

That rather ominous word “impenetrable” is not to be understated here.  Bwindi is truly a dense labyrinth of a forest complete with trees of all kinds (many with their own type of painful thorn), tangled brush and vines that have become one endless web, and insects that have found their own special heaven swarming about in such droves that there is usually a dull hum in the background.

Finding the gorillas therefore is not an easy trek. High altitude, steep vertical climbs on loose rocks, mud slides, and wet tree roots all combined to make this one tough go.  I’m embarrassed and grateful to say that at one point I had one porter pulling me in front and one shoving me in back to get me up some of this trek.  However, all is forgotten when the gorillas suddenly materialize.

It was magical to see the gorillas going about their natural activities. We saw one of the largest silver-backs (males) in the Park from about 6 feet away pulling leaves off a tree and eating in a constant stream.  We saw babies swinging through the trees in carefree abandon, a mother digging in a tree hole for ants (apparently a rare protein for them that they love to find when available), and another male deciding if we were threatening him and his family or not. Mostly, I reveled in their penetrating brown-orange eyes, thick black coats, and their incredibly similar human features and habits. Just to be so near them in their own world was an indescribable delight.

While we could have gladly sat there all day, humans are permitted only one hour with the gorillas once they are located in order to preserve their natural habits and limit their exposure to us. Once back at our lodge, the fantastic Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp, everyone was excitedly sharing their day’s stories.

Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp

Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp

This particular lodge is located within the boundaries of Bwindi which makes for very accessible starting points for the Buhoma treks. There are only 8 cottages at the lodge which makes for an intimate and congenial atmosphere among all the guests.  The common area is one of those tranquil places one could sit all day and just look at the view, surrounded by a stillness rarely experienced in today’s world, the heady smells of untouched land, and the pronounced calls of a wide variety of unusual birds including the Blue Turaco.

Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp

Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp

The gorgeous scenery is only matched by the smiles of the incredible staff at Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp.  Their attention to every possible detail, continual but un-intrusive follow-up, and absolute sincerity and commitment in their service was unmatched anywhere else we went (or most anywhere in the world I have been period).  It is a lovely place that I wish I’d had a lot more time to just “be” there.

Of course, with all this tranquility interlaced with death-defying treks, one needs a good glass wine or two.  Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp excelled in that area as well. The majority were South African wines with a wide variety offered each evening as part of the room fee.

Featured whites included the Four Cousins Dry White (tropical fruit and peach notes), Malan Cape Blanc (crisp, delicate, and fruity), and Van Loveren Chardonnay (fresh citrus, nuts, and smoke).   

Reds included the Four Cousins Singles Cocoa Cabernet Sauvignon (mocha, blackberry notes), Van Loveren Merlot (lush red fruit, soft tannins), Van Loveren Pinotage, and the Malan Cape Rouge (raspberry, plum, earthy).

The 2017 Nederburg Rosé was also on-hand. Tasting of zesty strawberry and herbs with a slight pepper crunch, this wine was the perfect refreshment at the end of a hot and demanding hike.

A couple of nights I also splurged on the 2014 Zonnebloem Cabernet Sauvignon (from the Premium wine list). This Stellenbosch red was robust and seductively gripping with blackberry, raspberry, clove, and cedar spice notes. A lovely complement to the cool rain forest evenings, cozy drizzle, and nighttime bird calls.

The 2016 KWV Classic Collection Chenin Blanc was also excellent.  I was reminded again what a versatile and high-quality grape Chenin Blanc is with this scintillating wine tasting of tart apple, lime, and peach interlaced with racy acidity.

Another fascinating drink was the Uganda Waragi which is a local gin (40% ABV) made from a unique combination of botanicals including lime peel, nutmeg, and cassia bark.  The botanicals combined with the fresh waters of nearby Lake Victoria, lime zest, and Greek juniper berries give this gin strong aromatics and a tangy lime flavor. We were told several times that stories get much better after consuming this drink!

Lastly, it’s well worth mentioning how exceptional the coffee and tea was in Uganda.  One of my favorite coffees (which also serves a great cause) was the Gorilla Conservation Coffee Kanyonyi Blend. This is a medium roasted coffee from 100% Arabica beans and is sourced from farms right next to Bwindi.  It is named for Kanyonyi which is the lead silverback for the Mubare gorilla family which lives in Bwindi. $1.50 per kilo of every coffee purchased is donated to saving the mountain gorillas.  This coffee has a wonderful chocolate undertone and smooth velvety texture.

With true kings of the jungle, beautiful countryside, amazing people, and wonderful food and drink, don’t miss a chance to visit Uganda.





Podgoria Silvania – One of Romania’s Oldest Wineries

Podgoria Silvania

Podgoria Silvania

Twenty minutes from Zalāu, whose name generally translates from the old Traco-Dacian language as “The Valley of Wine”, lies one of the oldest and most northern wineries in untouched Romania, Podgoria Silvania. Dating back to 1820, the winery is located in the Silvania Hills, an area where archeologists found evidence of commerce and rare Dacian silver coins dating back to 1600. Podgoria Silvania’s first cellars were dug from caves over two centuries ago by the Jewish community that populated the area at that time.

Later, in 1960, researchers discovered that the caves held a constant temperature of 12 degrees Celsius and the accompanying humidity gave rise to a unique form of mold which also assists in providing optimal aging in the cellars. After this discovery, additional cellars were dug and today, Podgoria Silvania’s incredible labyrinth of cellars (which are located 60 meters underground) stretches over 3.5 kilometers. 

Fascinating history is not the only remarkable thing about the winery.  Podgoria Silvania has a 45-year old tradition of specializing in sparkling wines. The wines are made in the Traditional Method (second fermentation in bottle) from Pinot Noir, Muscat Ottonel, Feteascā, and Chardonnay grapes and are aged on lees for 2-3 years.

Bottle-shaking cart

Bottle-shaking cart

Hand-turning of the bottle is still done and the winery uses a special cart to help shake the bottles (remuage).  This helps to move the wine’s sediment up into the cork so that it can be more easily removed later.  I had not seen a cart like this before nor the unique way of storing the bottles here with sticks laid between.  It still makes me nervous to see this picture!

Wine Storage with Sticks

Wine Storage with Sticks

Several sparkling styles are available including Brut Natur (1-2% residual sugar), Sec (3-4% residual sugar), Demi Sec, and Dulce. Due to the area’s cooler climate and Feteascā grapes, higher acidity gives their sparkling wines a unique and delicate freshness which makes them stand apart from many others.

Podgoria Silvania also makes dry wine from Feteascā, Traminer, Pinot Noir, Muscat Ottonel, Riesling, and Chardonnay from their 50 hectares of vineyards (planted in 2013-2014).

Podgoria Silvania's Vineyards and Hills

Podgoria Silvania’s Vineyards and Hills

I had the great pleasure to visit this beautiful area in northwest Romania a few years ago and am still enchanted by its idyllic rolling hills, iconic hay bales, and farmers still plowing fields with horses and hand-held harnesses.  The land is stunning with much of it unpopulated and the small town of Zalāu a place where people still walk to the daily market for fresh fruit and vegetables.  I had never had a strawberry like I tasted there – completely fresh and juicy with not a touch of pesticide ever a thought.

Romanian wine is slowly starting to hit the wine world radar with a few mentions popping up in wine magazines of late but its potential is far greater than anything you’ll read about.  The pristine land, continental climate moderated by the Carpathian Mountains, and local grape varieties Feteascā Albā (white), Feteascā Regalā (white), and Feteascā Neagrā (red) produce interesting and substantive wines with some international varieties faring well there too.

Feteascā grapes

Feteascā grapes

Podgoria Silvania produces 300,000 bottles a year (all of it from grapes grown on their estate) and exports much of it to Russia, Germany, Poland, and even France (a source of great pride for the winery).  Prince Charles himself has apparently been a long-time fan of Romania and currently has two homes in northwestern Romania in the towns of Vicri and Zalanpatak.

Podgoria Silvania's Vineyards

Podgoria Silvania’s Vineyards

As Podgoria Silvania says, “When nature blesses you with a treasure, you have to share it with the whole world.” And that’s what they are trying to do with their brilliant sparkling wines.





Experience Argentina through Familia Zuccardi’s wines

Familia Zuccardi

Familia Zuccardi

Argentina is best known for Malbec, the Bordeaux transplant grape that found its natural home in the Uco Valley’s high-altitude and sunny climate near Mendoza. However, Argentina has much more to offer besides great Malbec.  I recently got to try several wines from Familia Zuccardi which were both eye-opening and truly exciting.

Familia Zuccardi was founded in 1963 by Alberto Zuccardi and is now run by its third generation Sebastián Zuccardi.

Sebastian Zuccardi

Sebastian Zuccardi

The winery has always had a strong commitment to sustainability through its vineyard water recycling programs and use of green fertilizers, as well as through its social welfare programs and energy conservation efforts. Familia Zuccardi currently has 800 hectares of vineyards in the Mendocinian districts of Vista Flores, Altamira, La Consulta, Maipú, and Santa Rosa.  At present, 35% of these vineyards are certified organic with the rest of them using sustainable production systems.

Familia Zuccardi Maipu vineyards

Familia Zuccardi Maipu vineyards

Familia Zuccardi is also committed to innovation and has been a pioneer in the production of several varietal wines including Tempranillo, Bonarda, Viognier, Caladoc, Ancellotta, and Marselán.  In addition, the first late harvest wine of Argentina (Santa Julia Tardio mentioned below) and the first fortified Malbec wine (Malamado) were made in their winery.


We started our tasting with Argentina’s best-known white grape, Torrontés.  This grape has a unique texture and aromatics which make it beloved on a blind tasting.  As Torrontés is a cross between Criolla Chica (known as the Mission grape in U.S.) and Muscat of Alexandria, it combines the exuberant florals of the latter with the workhorse nature of the former. I’ve had a few in the past that were uninspiring but this one from Salta, the 2017 Zuccardi Serie A Torrontés, was impressive.  Pale lemon in color with green tints, this vivacious wine radiated salty citrus and pineapple aromas cushioned in crisp minerality.  Torrontés’ trademark waxy texture announced its arrival with an almost effervescent tingle on the nose.

Next up was the lovely Santa Julia Organic Blanc de Blancs.  Made with 100% Chardonnay organic grapes from Mendoza, this wine had an easy-going style with ripe red apple, lemon, and lightly toasted bread notes. At $12 a bottle, this is a steal for a quality sparkling wine. 

The 2017 Santa Julia Chardonnay was also very good with mouth-filling texture and a supple body made in a clean linear style.  While I’m not a Chardonnay fan, this was very drinkable with ripe lemon, almond and saline notes on a lingering viscous finish. This wine was also made from organic grapes.

We moved on to the reds after that and these were a real treat. We started with a side-by-side tasting of the 2013 Zuccardi Q Cabernet Sauvignon (from Valle de Uco) and the 2013 Zuccardi Q Tempranillo (from Santa Rosa).  The Cabernet came from two high elevation sites – Tupungato (4035 feet) and La Consulta (3608 feet) in the Uco Valley. Intensely purple in color, this wine tasted of red and black fruit with savory herbs. Firm tannins and zesty acidity supported the ripe fruit in this fresh and spicy wine. 

The Tempranillo was a beautifully structured tapestry of black plum, violet, iron minerality, tobacco leaf, and smoky campfire notes.  At $21 this is a fantastic value for a well-made wine that will also age several more years.

The 2013 José Zuccardi, from the Valle de Uco region, was named for Sebastián’s father José and made from 90% Malbec (from Paraje Altamira) and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon (from Gualtallary).  This robust wine was excellent with concentrated blackberry and plum notes, vibrant acidity, and a spicy elegant finish. Vinified in concrete vats and fermented with indigenous yeasts, the wine was then aged in oak foudres and bottled without filtering.

The 2012 Tito Zuccardi from Paraje Altamira and Valle de Uco was the star of the show rivaling many good Napa Cabernets and Bordeaux-style wines in complexity, elegance, and its myriad of black fruit, tobacco leaves, licorice, and dried herb nuances.

Named for founder Alberto Zuccardi who was known as “Tito” (Sebastián’s grandfather), this wine earns its noble name.  Made from 66% Malbec, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Ancellotta and 10% Caladoc, this wine was made from fermentation in concrete vats with malolactic fermentation in barrel. Different lots were then aged in French oak of 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th usage for 12 months before blending.  In addition, part of the Malbec was fermented with its stems contributing to the freshness and spice flavors in the wine.

Last but not least, we got to try the 2016 Santa Julia Tardio (Late Harvest Torrontés).  What a cool wine this was! At only 7.5% alcohol but 130 grams of residual sugar, this wine was shockingly dry on the palate with a svelte body and the Torrontés trademark texture.  Fresh peach, pear, orange peel, and apricot flavors interlaced seamlessly with honey and almond notes, all backed by vibrant acidity and an ample yet lightweight feel on the palate.  This was a very unique and sumptuous wine, perfect with cheese and dessert.

This tasting was fantastic and gives a tiny glimpse into the great diversity and quality that Argentina has to offer.  Look for these selections and enjoy the history and pride behind Familia Zuccardi’s terrific wines.

Familia Zuccardi Valle de Uco

Familia Zuccardi Valle de Uco








Taste Washington

Suzi Pratt Photography

Suzi Pratt Photography

It’s always exciting to find a tasting festival with dynamic new wines and the Taste Washington (held in Seattle in late March) was a fantastic discovery.  Wonderfully spacious aisles, decadent food interspersed among the vibrant wines, and the warmest of hospitality greeted us both days at the Grand Tasting.

The Taste Washington (the largest single-region wine and food event in the U.S.) presented wines from over 230 wineries and food from 65 restaurants/vendors ranging from a wonderful chocolate smorgasbord, to smoked meats, diverse cheeses, and fresh seafood. The festival ran over 4 days including daily “explore Seattle” events and nightly tastings along with weekend educational seminars all culminating in two days of Grand Tastings.  This was a perfect way to taste some great Washington wines all in one place as the state is notoriously large and spread out when it comes to visiting wineries.

Suzi Pratt Photography

Suzi Pratt Photography

As background, Washington has 14 AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) that are spread out from the cool maritime west end of the state to the dry, arid, and very warm east end.  The Cascade Mountains play a key role in protecting the eastern end of the state from the Pacific Ocean rains. These diverse climates produce world-class Riesling, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon among many other varieties which combine the pure fruit flavors of New World wines with the acidity and tannins of Old World styles.

From a wine tasting perspective, there were too many festival highlights to count but here are a brief few.  The most interesting grape we tried was the Siegerrebe from Whidbey Island Winery.  Whidbey Island is a cool growing site located an hour from Seattle. Siegerrebe is a white German grape and the 2015 Estate Siegerrebe ($18) had tingling acidity backed by cascading citrus flavors –  a unique alternative for Sauvignon Blanc lovers. Whidbey Island Winery also made a terrific 2016 Sangiovese ($22) with grapes sourced from Columbia Valley in eastern Washington as the island is too cool for red grapes.

Long Shadows Vintners was one of our favorites from the festival featuring Michel Rolland’s 2014 Pedestal Merlot ($65), John Duval’s 2015 Sequel Syrah ($60), and Gilles Nicault’s 2014 Saggi Red Blend ($55) all from the Columbia Valley AVA.  Long Shadows Vintners employs a unique concept of pairing a handful of the world’s best winemakers with some of Washington State’s best grapes to produce several ultra-premium wines. These were all wines of great depth, robust in nature, yet elegant in style.

Long Shadows The Benches Vineyard

Long Shadows The Benches Vineyard

Three Rivers Winery ($14) had one of the most interesting rosés in their 2017 Columbia Valley Rosé.  Made from 70% Syrah, 27% Sangiovese, and 3% Riesling, this wine ran the entire fruit gamut intermingling grapefruit, strawberry, and guava flavors with its clean vibrant finish and firm structure.

Cadence Winery was another great find.  Their owners, Benjamin Smith and Gaye McNutt, named the winery and all of their wines after musical terms. Their two Bordeaux Blends from the Cara Mia Vineyard in Red Mountain AVA were exceptional.  The 2014 Camerata ($60) was Cabernet Sauvigon-dominant and tasted of concentrated black fruit, spice, and earthy notes.  The 2014 Bel Canto was Cabernet Franc-dominant with white pepper, violet, and cherry flavors. Both wines were smooth, regal, and possessed subtle exuberance and power.

Stemilt Creek Winery won the award for most charismatic staffers.  Shelly and Karen were hugely entertaining and enthusiastic about pouring their wines. The 2015 Ascent Estate Cabernet Franc ($48) and the 2015 Ascent Estate Syrah ($45) were highlights here. Richard Hood also recently joined Stemilt Creek as their General Manager and Winemaker bringing a wealth of experience to the winery.

We also enjoyed Cloudlift Cellars’ 2014 Halycon Cabernet Sauvignon ($30) and the 2014 Panorama Merlot ($27).  The Halycon was firmly structured with black fruit, spice, and mocha notes while the Panorama was an enticing style of black cherry, blue fruit, and coffee flavors.

Vendor wise, the food was glorious and intelligently placed among the wines within each aisle.  Such a simple change, it made the flow of the tasting smoother and much more enjoyable to be able to easily eat while not missing any wineries in each aisle.

Capital Grille’s steak sandwiches were a huge hit as well as AQUA by El Gaucho’s oyster and fresh seafood bar.  The Groves on 41 (a Templeton, CA olive tree farm) ran a contest to see which new olive oil flavor to keep – jalapeno or chipotle (jalapeno won).  Incidentally, this family-friendly farm offers tours and tastings along with a large, elegant farm house vacation rental on the property if you’re looking for a unique experience.

There was fantastic cheese everywhere and along one side of the room was a large array of desserts and chocolate. jcoco was one of the best, offering 10 different flavored bars including Bali Sea Salt Toffee Milk, Arabica Espresso Dark, Black Fig Pistaccio Dark, and Vanuatu Coconut Pecan Milk among others.  Their women-owned company’s mission is also noteworthy as they donate a fresh meal to someone in need for each chocolate bar purchased; so far 2.6 million servings have been donated.  Look for this chocolate nationally at Williams-Sonoma.

We also stumbled upon a “chocolate of the month” club in Chococurb which partners with various chocolatiers to create monthly chocolate collections delivered right to your door for either $20/month or $35/month depending on your selection.

As you can see, we happily ate and drank our way through our Seattle weekend and had a blast at this incredibly well-run event.  It is definitely one to visit again and to put on your calendar for next year.

If you go, Seattle is a beautiful city with ever-changing weather and incredible sea views.  It has San Francisco’s exotic feel mixed with Boston’s quaint brick buildings and winding streets in the older section of town.  If you’re a foodie, you’ll be in heaven as the list of eclectic restaurants is long and fulfilling combing world-class food with a down-to-earth vibe.  Try The Pink Door, AQUA, and Matt’s in the Market for some excellent options.

Matts in the Market

Matt’s in the Market

There is also much to see and do in Seattle starting with glass blowing which it’s well-known for. The famous Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum is spectacular and the Seattle Glass Blowing Studio lets you watch live demonstrations all day long (and purchase gorgeous items).  Seattle has the advantage of a temperate climate which we were told aids in glass blowing as the ovens used are over 2000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Chihuly Glass

Chihuly Glass

The Underground Tour is a fascinating part of Seattle’s history and consists of 25 blocks of subterranean storefronts and sidewalks entombed after the town rebuilt itself following the 1889 Great Fire.

If you want to see great views, consider skipping the Space Needle and heading to the top of the historic Smith Tower which has a beautifully ornate and charismatic bar where you can walk outside and see the city as well as enjoy panoramic views in all directions.

Then there is Pike Place Market which is nothing short of amazing both in its 100+ year old history and vast selections of shops, restaurants, fresh food, and entertainment.  Definitely check out the fish-throwing that occurs right in the middle of the market throughout the day.  There are several levels to the market and over 500 small businesses so you can easily get lost for a good part of the day.

Pike Place Market fish

Pike Place Market fish

There are multiple hotels located strategically along the waterfront with glorious views and easy access to all of the above.  We stayed at the Marriott Waterfront which was steps away from Pike Place Market and perfectly situated.  And if you go, don’t forget a raincoat as we were not disappointed in Seattle’s reputation for rain.  There’s a reason that REI was born in Seattle but it was worth every drop.


Three Days in Pinhão

If there was one word to describe our visit to the Douro Valley last fall it was “sun-dappled”.  I don’t recall seeing light in so many nuanced colors and rays of intensity as we did driving through the spectacular Douro Valley.  Breath-taking slopes and stone-walled terraces dotted the rugged landscape with vines clinging to every last angle in unpredictable patterns illustrating their quest to survive.

And survive they do.  The Douro has some of the heartiest grapes on the planet which are able to withstand ever-increasing summer temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and scant rainfall.  The same grapes that go into world-renowned Ports (Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinto Roriz, Tinta Cão, and Tinta Barroca among many others) are also made into exceptional dry red wines as well.

These grapes are special because of their heartiness which in turn produces dense dark color, racy acidity despite the heat, and tannins that run the gamut from austere to fine-grained.  All of these attributes contribute to wonderful wines which are truly unique as these grapes are rarely seen together outside of Portugal.

The Vintage House

The Vintage House

It was for these reasons that, after an exhilarating week in Porto, my Dad and I headed out to the Douro for a few days to get a glimpse of the countryside where these grapes are grown.  While staying in the rustically posh Vintage House doesn’t exactly constitute “country” living, we had the best of both worlds by walking the hot dust-filled streets during the day and relaxing by the meandering Douro on our balconies at night – sipping Douro reds of course.

The Vintage House

The Vintage House

The Vintage House is owned by The Fladgate Partnership and is a sister property to the stunning Yeatman hotel in Porto.  Located right on the Douro River and literally steps from the Pinhão train station, this hotel offers old-world charm and class in brilliant shades of royal blue and yellow.

The Library Bar

The Library Bar

A highly acclaimed restaurant, the Rabelo Restaurant, is located onsite and you can step back in time at the Library Bar filled with dark wood, oversized leather chairs, and a brooding fireplace. It’s one of a handful of upscale places to stay while exploring Pinhão and the Douro Valley and well worth the experience.

The other positive about this hotel is its location.  The river proximity has obvious perks with the many boat cruises that depart right outside the hotel but you can also walk to several wineries nearby.  Quinta do Bomfim (vineyard that supplies Dow’s brand grapes) is literally 5 minutes away while Quinta das Carvalhas is just across the river bridge and offered some of the best wines of the entire trip.

Quinta da Roêda

Quinta da Roêda

Quinta da Roêda, the unbelievably steep vineyard that provides the grapes for the Fonseca brand, is about a 25-minute walk through some of the most stunning countyside we’d ever seen (it’s also quite an ascent on the way there but the return trip is much easier).

We also got incredibly lucky by staying at the Vintage House during their annual harvest party (last weekend of September in 2017).

Harvest Party

Harvest Party

This was an amazing event held outside on their sweeping hotel grounds along the river where 40-50 winemakers from all over the area came in to show their wines.

We got to try many wines we’d never heard of and may never see again as well as talk to the people who made them.  It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a wine geek like me that wants to know all the details about a wine and how it’s made in such an unusual region.

Some harvest party wine highlights were the Morgadio da Calçada Mimi Espumante Bruto (a lean but luscious sparkling wine), 2015 Quinta do Besuvio Pombal do Vesuvio, Dona Berta Reserva Tinto 2013 (medium-bodied red fruit delight), and Lavradores de Feitoria Três Bagos 2009 (full-bodied menagerie of black/red fruit and smoky finish).

However, the best find of all were the wines from Wine & Soul (established in 2001 by Sandra Tavares da Silva and Jorge Serôdio Borges:

2016 Guru Douro White made from a field blend of Viosinho, Rabigato, Códega do Larinho and Gouveio, this elegant wine tasted of pear, grapefruit, and zesty minerality.  Five months aging in new French oak contributed to its textured and creamy mouthfeel.

2015 Pintas Character – a decadent red field blend of 30 Douro grape varieties lush with plum and black cherry flavors, silky tannins, and long lively finish.

Jorge and Sandra of Wine & Soul

Jorge and Sandra of Wine & Soul

2015 Manoella made from 60% Touriga Nacional, 25% Touriga Franca, 10% Tinta Roriz, and 5% Tinta Francisca bursting with cranberry, currant, clove, and mocha flavors backed by fine-grained tannins and a lingering spicy finish.

2015 Pintas Vintage Port made from 40 indigenous grape varieties, this wine was dense purple in color with concentrated notes of violet, cassis, wet stone, and brambly raspberry.  A cascading drawn-out finish highlighted robust but regal tannins and savory spice.

The harvest party also had fabulous local food of course – cheese, meats, soups, olives, pork right from a suckling pig that was roasted that day, and desserts galore.

Suckling Pig

Suckling Pig


As night fell, a full moon came out and local dancers and musicians streamed in to perform harvest dances and sing.  These are the kind of immersive experiences that teach you about a region like nothing else really can – truly memorable!

So needless to say, there is plenty to do for 3 days in Pinhão.  Nearby wineries will also come by boat and pick tourists up for a visit to their locations down or upriver which offers two experiences for the price of one (boat ride plus winery visit).

Rabelo boat

Rabelo boat

We enjoyed the two-hour Douro River cruise so much that we did it twice.  Sitting in a classic rabelo boat that sits almost at water level, you can see the Douro from a vantage point like no other.  The first thing I noticed (besides the jaw-dropping scenery) was the complete lack of commercialism.  Each winery (quinta)had a lone stately sign way up on the hill denoting their name and that was it. No other billboards, buildings, or signs in sight.

Every bend of the river was mesmerizing with vines growing horizontally on terraces (socalcos or patamares) and vertically (vinha ao alto) up the hills.  The former are older trellis styles while the latter is a more modern attempt to prevent erosion and improve drainage on steep slopes up to 30 percent gradient.

We visited Quinta do Bomfim which has a fascinating 90-minute tour followed by several different tasting menus of various Ports which you can enjoy out on their expansive patio. We tried the Vintage Port tasting which included the Dow’s 1985 Vintage Port, Quinta do Vesuvio 1995 Vintage Port, and the Graham’s 2000 Vintage Port.  While all were exceptional, the 1985 stole the show with its dried cranberry, apricot, orange peel, and spicy tobacco notes backed by racy acidity and surprisingly dry finish.

Quinta da Roêda also offers a 60-min tour followed by a Port tasting overlooking the incredible sloping vineyards.  Here we tried a flight of the 2012 Quinta de Roêda Port, Croft 10 Year Old Tawny, Croft 20 Year Old Tawny, and the Croft Reserva Tawny Port.

The last day of our stay we went to Quinta das Carvalhas intending to do the 2-3 hour agricultural tour which goes into great depth on the vineyard and growing practices (one of the few of its kind) but had to shorten that to a tasting only due to time constraints.  However, the tasting alone was terrific.

While sitting right at the river’s edge, we sampled a mixed flight of 2015 Branco White (medium-bodied white wine made from Viosinho and Gouveio grapes), 2015 Tinta Francisca (elegant and medium-bodied red), 2014 Touriga Nacional (the blackberry-scented red power grape of Douro), 2014 Vinhas Velhas (old vines), and 10 Year Old Tawny Port all of which were fantastic.

The Vinhas Velhas was exceptional tasting of black and red berry, spice, and dusty herbs with brilliant structure and velvet-glove fisted power.  I’d not had Carvalhas wines before and now have them on my list of favorites.

If you visit Pinhão, it’s a 2-hour drive from Porto along some of the most impressive scenery you may ever see and well worth the trip.  There are a handful of restaurants and shops in the small town and some of the wineries also offer meals.

We found one of the neatest experiences was at a tiny

Port cake

Port cake

family-owned shop (Restaurante Rufete) eating the national favorite Bacalhau (white fish with huge bones), mountains of steamed vegetables, and a sumptuous home-made Port cake (yes there is Port in it and it was the owner’s grandmother’s recipe). Cooking doesn’t get much better than Grandma’s recipe for anything. Nor was I aware Port could be used in cake which was a gustatory revelation.

You can also take a boat cruise from Porto to Pinhão or a train so there are many travel options and all offer incredible scenery at every turn.  The Douro Valley is definitely a more rustic experience than Porto but absolutely worth every minute to see the birthplace of the grapes for some of the world’s most famous wines.

Quinta da Roêda

Quinta da Roêda










Napa’s Winter Delights



Winter may not be your first thought on a great time to visit Napa, but it’s definitely a good idea.  Clear blue skies and 50-60 degree temperatures awaited us along with few crowds and fantastic wine.  The vineyards are at one of their most peaceful moments with winter pruning just starting and workers starting to meander through the fields. Greenery has grown over many of the fire-topped hills making last fall’s vicious fires less evident and unless you know what to look for, it’s pretty hard to see any damage in the vineyards whatsoever.

Del Dotto Vineyards

We kicked off our long weekend at Del Dotto which always gives a great tour with barrel tastings, good humor, and sumptuous wines.  It’s also a terrific learning experience as the barrel tastings offer a glimpse into how different types of oak impact a wine’s development as well as how wine develops in general before it gets bottled.

Some tasting highlights were the French oak aged 2015 Piazza Del Dotto Cabernet Sauvignon ($175) which was spicy, red/black fruit driven, and showing some cedar notes. Some of our group preferred its counterpart aged in American oak which had more pronounced vanilla and sweet spice flavors. This tour is also a fun way to better understand what tastes a group of people have and why as you get to compare the same wine side-by-side aged in different kinds of oak.

Barrel Staves

Barrel Staves

We also had an easy-drinking 2016 Sangiovese (the Italian owners understandably favor this grape as well as red in general) and it’s a reasonable value at $58.  In addition, Del Dotto produces a well-made dessert wine called Dolores ($55) which is similar in style to a young Port and made predominantly from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Perfect with chocolate and truffles.

Old Caves

Old Caves

Del Dotto has a couple of locations but I prefer their Atlas Peak, Napa spot as it’s the historic cave and less opulent than the newer St. Helena location.  It’s also a mere 15 minutes from downtown Napa which makes it convenient especially if you have to go back to your room to sleep off the many tastings this tour provides.  The tour also includes pizza, cheese, and chocolate with the tastings which adds to its great value ($60/person during week and $75/person on weekends).

Turnbull Wine Cellars

Turnbull Tasting Room

Turnbull Tasting Room

I never thought riding an elevator would yield such rewards but after one of our Master of Wine student seminars last year, I got talking to the charismatic, hilarious, and extremely talented winemaker for Turnbull, Peter Heitz.  I finally got the chance to pay him a visit in Oakville and try more of their terrific wines on this trip.

Peter explained the different soil types of the four vineyards Turnbull works with and what they, along with the site’s aspect and elevation, add to each wine. I’m a total soil geek and loved seeing the rock displays they had on hand, as it makes it even more evident how soils contribute different characteristics to each wine.

Turnbull soils

Turnbull soils

The soils at Turnbull include red volcanic rock (produces wines with minerality, ripe fruit, and concentration), alluvial soil (produces darker red fruit, spice box notes, and elegant early expression), clay loam (expresses in tart cherry flavors and dense red wines), and bale (produces strawberry/red fruit notes in red wines and mineral-driven Sauvignon Blanc).

The highlights for me were the 2016 Josephine Sauvignon Blanc ($44) which was vibrant with citrus, tart apple, and mineral notes on a textured palate. Their signature Cabernet Sauvignons were also excellent.  The 2014 Fortuna Cabernet Sauvignon ($135), from alluvial soils, was alluring with black cherry, raspberry, spice, and dusty tannins, while the 2014 Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon ($150) was a haunting, powerful wine cast with dark fruit, nuanced layers, and a firm structure.

While these are obviously not everyday wines for most, the 2015 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($85) is a more approachable offering. Blue and red fruit showcase this wine’s energetic length and verve.

Fisher Vineyards

Fisher Vineyards

Fisher Vineyards

The next day we drove an hour up into Spring Mountain to visit Fisher, a wine I have had a few times and always enjoyed.  Fisher’s location feels worlds away from Napa with its Douglas pines, angular slopes, and cool brisk air.  Fittingly, the owner’s gorgeous Akita mountain dog Sake, (a gigantic but gentle giant) greeted us as we pulled in.

Founded in 1973 by Fred and Juelle Fisher, the winery is completely family-run with the Fisher children Whitney, Robert, and Cameron making, overseeing, and selling the wine respectively.

A small production winery, Fisher focuses on wine from single vineyards or blending wines through their various sites. We tried the following wines here:

2015 Mountain Estate Chardonnay ($75)– Aged 18 months in French oak, this was a robust style. Fresh minerality and zesty acidity framed ripe pear, lemon, and toasty crème brulee notes with a lingering finish and creamy palate.

2013 Mountain Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($95 and from Sonoma) – dark and brooding with concentrated blackberry, plum, and savory spice with a firm dense structure and lush finish.  Made from 87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Cabernet Franc, 6% Merlot, and 1% Syrah.

2014 Coach Insignia Cabernet Sauvignon ($110 and from Napa) – dense and powerful. Intense flavors of black/red cherry, leather, and licorice with a powerful long finish and vibrant acidity.  This wine was already approachable although it will age another decade. Made from 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot, and 8% Malbec.

2009 Wedding Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($150) – from the

Wedding Vineyard

Wedding Vineyard

sloping vineyard where Fred and Juelle were married right next to the winery, this spellbinding wine is 78% Cabernet Sauvignon and 22% Cabernet Franc. This was my favorite of all with explosive flavors of brambly blackberry, cedar, pencil shavings, and forest floor cascading along a mineral-driven backbone and chewy tannins. This wine’s mountain terroir and site elevation of 1200 feet are evident in its power, elegance, and terse acidity.

Salvestrin Winery



Another first for me on this trip was getting to visit Salvestrin which is a wine I discovered at the Taj Campton hotel in San Francisco (a regular haunt for other pre-wine country visits).  The bar there always has interesting and unusual wine finds.  Salvestrin is also family-owned (in its fourth Italian generation) and located in the St. Helena A.V.A. (American Viticultural Area).  Their wines manage to combine characteristics of lush valley fruit with the restraint and regality of mountain fruit.

We had a fantastic tasting here while overlooking their striking quadrilateral cordon-trellised vines.  This setup allows the canopy to be split which allows filtered sunlight to get into the middle of the canopy (a common method in warmer climates).  The first wine we tried was the 2016 Sauvignon Blanc ($25). Made in 50% neutral oak and 50% stainless steel, this wine was spritely and refreshing with mouth-filling texture and tropical fruit and pineapple notes.

Quadrilateral cordon vines

Quadrilateral cordon vines

The next three wines were all from the historic Dr. Crane Vineyard.  The 2015 Retaggio ($50) was an intriguing blend of 42% Sangiovese, 41% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, and 7% Cabernet Franc. Tasting of red and black fruit intermixed with Provence-style garrigue and spicy savory notes, tight structure and lively acid made this wine a lighter style of red.

The 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon ($64) is a blend of 92% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Merlot, and 3% Cabernet Franc and is a killer buy for a quality Napa Cabernet. Blackberry, cherry, tea, and vanilla flavors preceded concentrated coffee and cedar notes backed by fine-grained tannins and a long savory finish.

The 2013 Three D Cabernet Sauvignon ($145) is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and was recently released as it spent 34 months in 100% new French oak.   Sustainable growing practices and rigorous selection make this wine a true standout (the “Three D” stands for the three Salvestrin daughters). This wine expressed intense aromas of tart black cherries, plums, and dried herbs while a velvet finish eased in seductive notes of sweet spice and earthy mineral notes.

We also got to try the 2014 Cabernet Franc, a real gem here, and a varietal I saw made in a 100% style more than I have on prior visits.  The pepper, herbaceous, and inky violet tones of this variety can be incredibly seductive and haunting in the right hands as it is in this wine.

Incidentally, Salvestrin also has its own charming Inn at Salvestrin which features on-site accommodation right at the vineyard with gorgeous views and a short walk into St. Helena. There are few things better than waking up next to vineyards in my mind.

Merus Wines



Our visit to the charmingly chic Merus took us to another idyllic location at the outer edges of St. Helena near Calistoga and Howell Mountain.  Merus means “complete, undiluted, and pure” in Latin.  This small production luxury wine was created in 1998 and continues to be a showstopper.  In addition to Merus, their second label, Altvs, is also a stunner and was created in 2005.  “ALT-US” means “noble and profound” in Latin.

We started our tasting with the 2014 Altvs Chardonnay ($40) which was an impeccably balanced wine that appealed to everyone in our group, even those that typically don’t like Chardonnay.  Moderate in alcohol yet pleasantly weighty in body, this wine tasted of pear and lemon with a mineral core, steely acidity, and a long lush finish.

2013 Altvs ($75) is another great buy for a high-quality Napa Cabernet.  Produced in small quantities by winemaker John Clews, Altvs combines fruit from mountain, hillside and benchland sites to create this concentrated beauty.  This wine was laser-focused in its intensity with sustained black and red fruit, cassis, and sweet tobacco notes. Regal structure and fine-grained tannins made this wine approachable now but also allow for longer aging. 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Petit Verdot.

Merus Private Room

Merus Private Room

Next we tried the 2013 Merus ($160) which was a riveting blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Petit Verdot, 6% Malbec, and 3% Merlot from the Coombsville A.V.A. (one of the coolest sites in Napa).  Its longer growing season produces robust wines that are powerful yet still elegant like this one. This wine was rich in complexity with aromas of brambly blackberry, tarry minerality, violet, and bacon that introduced palate flavors of wet rock, black currant, and menthol.



This wine is carefully handled throughout its birth using whole-berries and warmer fermentation temperatures along with frequent punch-downs to yield ideal extraction without compromising the wine’s final balance.  Separate vineyard lots are also maintained throughout fermentation as well as aging (done in individually-matched French oak for each lot) in order to create the optimal Merus blend each year.  If you’re a points person, Robert Parker gave this wine 93 points.

If you do go to Napa, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with how much there is to do in the town itself.  Napa has developed into a vibrant town with great restaurants, wine bars, eclectic shops, and a diverse hotel selection.  We stayed at the Westin Verasa was which fantastic and a 5-min walk to Napa (right past the many delights of the Oxbow Public Market).  We also found a great driving company in SafeRide Wine Tours owned by former Napa law enforcement officers – what could be safer than that?