A Wine Lover’s Paradise: The Dreamy French Cottage in Sonoma

A Wine Lover’s Paradise: The Dreamy French Cottage in Sonoma

A Wine Lover’s Paradise: The Dreamy French Cottage in Sonoma

February 14, 2020

One of life’s simple pleasures is opening a bottle of wine at the end of a long day or workweek, when surrounded by friends, or right before diving into a good book. But have you ever thought about the journey wine takes before it gets to the bottle? For anyone curious about the winemaking process, a one-of-a-kind, immersive experience awaits in Sonoma: a stay at Vintner’s Cottage.

Vintner’s Cottage sits on the property of a family-owned winery: Blue Rock Vineyard. Blue Rock got its start as a winery in the 1800s run by Italian immigrants. Vintner’s Cottage itself was once the site of Villa Maria winery, but that operation was shuttered during Prohibition. In 1987, Kenny and Cheryl Kahn bought the property, which became the sustainability-focused winery that it is today. “It’s a true hidden gem, tucked into a breathtaking section of Alexander Valley. The grounds have an incredible history, dating back to the mid-1800s. The vineyards are speckled with gorgeous blue serpentine rock,” said Carla Jeffries, Blue Rock’s director of hospitality. “In fact, serpentine is used in much of the landscaping throughout the estate and in the walls of the home.”

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Serpentine rock—so named for the group of minerals that make it up—is both the winery’s namesake and California’s state rock. It plays a distinct role in California’s plant life, with 10 percent of the state’s native flora growing on serpentine soils.

Yet what makes Blue Rock truly different, Jeffries said, is that walking through its gate is like being transported to a different place and time. “Time truly seems to stand still here. We like to say our guests are hugged—figuratively and literally—by the land, and by those of us who are its stewards,” Jeffries said. “We’re passionate about this special place—the grapes we grow, the wines we craft, and the guests we meet.”

Blue Rock is also about 15 minutes north of downtown Healdsburg, a charming Sonoma County stopover with a beautiful town square, art galleries, boutiques, antique shops, and farm-to-table restaurants.

Anyone who has stayed at the historic home—a French stone cottage reminiscent of the European countryside, boasting its own pool and a bocce ball court—has loved the opportunity to be in the midst of the action of a working vineyard.

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Michelle T. usually travels to Napa Valley for wine-tasting excursions, but she and her group opted for Sonoma on their recent trip for a new experience. Michelle had high praise for the home—“French country expertly crafted with luxury amenities”—and said the entire property has an air of magic about it. Her group also loved getting the chance to sit down with Blue Rock staff to learn more about the ins and outs of winemaking.

“We spent two hours with our hosts by the fireplace learning the history of the vineyard and gaining insight to the complexity of the winemaking process, starting with the soil nurturing the grapevines,” she said.

Another visitor, Rebecca M., chose an off-season stay at Vintner’s Cottage for her first visit to wine country. “The cottage was quaint, beautifully decorated, very comfortable—absolutely amazing,” she said. “The grounds were breathtaking, even though we stayed there (at the) end of January, first of February.”

And a trip to Vintner’s Cottage during the fall provides a special opportunity: getting to see the harvesting of the grapes up close, a treat Bruce M.

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“We had the opportunity to join an early-morning harvest, and we enjoyed a truly exceptional farm-to-table lunch in a dining room built for that purpose, overlooking the vineyard through a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows,” he said. “Carla and the rest of the Blue Rock team were extraordinarily hospitable, and very accommodating.”

Bruce also said he was perfectly happy to stay on the property in the evening—members have free rein to explore after the winery closes at 6 p.m.—and grill up some steaks, pairing them with Blue Rock wines. (He recommends the Best Barrel Cabernet Sauvignon.)

Wine aficionado or not, anyone with an interest in the winemaking process should consider a stay at Vintner’s Cottage for their next trip to wine country.

“My only regret is that our stay ended before we had a chance to try out the bocce lawn,” Bruce said, “but we’ll make a point of that the next time we stay here!”

Emerging Wine Regions You Need to Visit

Emerging Wine Regions You Need to Visit

Emerging Wine Regions You Need to Visit

February 11, 2020

There’s something especially beautiful about exploring wineries in lesser-known regions. In recent years, extreme weather conditions such as fire and hail have challenged viticultural regions around the world, and turned unlikely locations into hotspots for winemaking. Here we examine four up-and-coming wine regions around the world that merit a visit, not just for the noteworthy wine they produce, but also for their picturesque settings, unique dining scenes, and the stories behind their once-unconventional wine cultures.

Waiheke Island, New Zealand

Car-carrying ferries depart often from Auckland, taking visitors to this breathtaking vineyard-dotted island where boutique wineries and farm-to-table restaurants abound. The island is worthy of an overnight trip, or you may want to stay longer to fully absorb the relaxed culture.

Te Motu Vineyard, focused on low-yielding vines and Bordeaux-style wines, is an emblem of the artisanal nature of winemaking on Waiheke. “There are so many things to love about this island. It’s a short boat ride from our biggest city, but it feels like another country,” said Te Motu’s manager Rory Dunleavy, whose father and uncle planted vines on Waiheke in the 1980s. They had stumbled into the Onetangi Valley’s very special terroir, where lower rainfalls and slightly warmer temperatures combine with rich clay soils, all ideal for producing ripe, healthy grapes.

Waiheke celebrates winemaking as a way of life. “There’s a great sense of community amongst the vineyards and winemakers,” Dunleavy said. “Finishing up a long hot day at the vineyard with a swim five minutes down the road at Onetangi beach makes for a pretty great work-life balance. Even when it’s busy through summer, it’s bloody hard not to relax here.”

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There’s an award-winning restaurant at Te Motu—don’t miss the local Waiheke oysters. You’ll also want to visit Stonyridge Vineyard, which specializes in organic Cabernet blends made following French traditions, and is nestled in a valley within an olive grove. Stonyridge offers healthy and fresh dining with a view at the relaxed Veranda Café, and their tasting lounge is open for trying wines and nibbling on olives. And don’t miss the recently renovated Tantalus Estate, featuring an impressive cellar where Bordeaux-style, rosé, and sparkling wines are aged. Tantalus also makes beer and has a light-filled restaurant emphasizing seasonality; other wineries are located within walking distance if you’re eager to explore further.

Tokaj, Hungary

Come to this corner of Northeastern Hungary to try dry wines, or regional icons like the sweet wine Aszù, which was lauded by royalty as early as the 16th century, and rare, limited- production Essencia wines. Tokaj wines are made principally with the grape Furmint, almost exclusively grown in this region.

Tokaj is located a pleasant 2.5-hour drive or train ride from Budapest. En route, you’ll want to stop in the historic town of Eger, which was the farthest west that the Turks established rule—you can visit the 16th-century castle where the Hungarian army once defeated the encroaching Turks, and there are Turkish baths as well.

It’s a place so steeped in history—including a very complicated period during the Yugoslav era, when agriculture and winemaking were collectivized—that it was awarded UNESCO Heritage status in 2001, but today’s Tokaj winemakers are definitely staking their claim in the current global wine scene.

Tokaj’s cellars are often quite old, making them fascinating to tour and learn about the different, somewhat complicated, winemaking styles. It’s worth visiting the long-standing estate Dizsnókö, and the newer Royal Tokaji is a benchmark producer. You can try to get a tasting at the quirky boutique enterprise of Samuel Tinon, a Frenchman making award-winning wine in a cave without electricity. Also look to try wines by Zoltán Demeter, a former employee of Napa Valley’s Stags’ Leap who is making single-vineyard wines considered “first growth.”

Visit Tokaj in early September to check out the annual Furmint Festival. For dining in Tokaj town, look to LaBor Bistro, which serves shareable small plates, as well as platters of Hungarian cheeses and the famed local mangalitsa pork. Gusteau offers beautifully composed dishes that reinterpret Hungarian classics and a highly acclaimed wine list in an elegant setting; the restaurant can also organize a bike tour among the Tokaj vineyards. If you fall in love with the (very good) cheeses in Hungary, you can stop by Zempléni Sajt creamery in Tarcal for a tasting.

Rías Baixas, Spain

The lovely and underappreciated white grape Albariño is the focus of this gorgeous coastal region in Galicia, Northern Spain. While you may have tried Albariño in that spritzy summer wine Vinho Verde from neighboring Portugal, the boutique producers of Rías Baixas treat this indigenous variety with much greater seriousness. There are five sub- regions in the Rías Baixas D.O. (designated origin), and they all offer slightly different wine styles and terroirs. Throughout the sprawling region of Rías Baixas, you can find Albariño wine made sparkling, or light and fresh, or matured in oak, and even as a dessert wine made with botrytised grapes.

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Trying a local white wine alongside freshly caught Atlantic seafood, it’s easy to understand why the region has focused heavily on growing Albariño since the late 1980s—the wine’s aromatic, bright, lemony character pairs delightfully well alongside grilled octopus or steamed clams and scallops. Seafood is truly a way of life here. In the neighborhood of San Tomé, low tides see women known as mariscadoras coming out to the shoals with buckets to dig for shellfish by hand.

Wineries in this region are often family-run and might not have official tasting rooms, so be sure to make an appointment. Some of the oldest wineries are housed in pazos, historic estates going back several centuries—two of note to visit are Pazo San Mauro and Pazo de Señorans. One acclaimed winery worth checking out is Adega Pedralonga, a family-run biodynamically farmed estate founded in 1997. Pedralonga shows how Albariño can be vinified from a terroir- focused approach, resulting in wines that display the mineral and saline depth of the region’s granite soils.

“As a huge fan of Albariño, I loved visiting Rías Baixas,” said Rick Fisher, the education director of the Washington D.C.-based Wine Scholar Guild and a self-professed Spanish wine scholar. “The region has breathtaking scenery, and it’s amazing to see how tradition and modernity work hand in hand to grow and harvest the grapes here.”

The region offers traditional options like tapas and seafood eateries, and avant-garde dining, most notably the Michelin Guide-noted Casa Solla. The famed cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is a short train ride or drive from the northernmost part of Rías Baixas. There’s also a small but interesting Ethnographic Museum of Wine to visit in the charming town of Cambados, which is also the site of the annual Festival of Albariño, held the first week of the steamy month of August.

Verde Valley, Arizona

Tasting rooms nestled into Red Rock countryside leave a remarkable impression in this unlikely spot for vineyards. One of Arizona’s three wine-growing regions, Verde Valley boasts an ideal climate for grapes thanks to a roaring river and high desert terrain, and offers visitors exciting and quirky boutique wineries with tasting rooms. Verde Valley is located about two hours from Phoenix and accessible via the Verde Canyon Railway. More adventurous travelers can kayak directly to some wineries.

Take the Verde Valley Wine Trail to discover more than 20 wineries over the course of one to four days; it begins in beautiful Sedona and heads north, culminating in Jerome, where former Tool vocalist Maynard James Keenan makes small-batch cult wines under the Caduceus label. You can also opt to follow the Painted Valley Wine Trail, which features dozens of unique barrels hand-painted by local artists showcased in wineries. A few wineries not to miss: Burning Tree Cellars, Alcantara Vineyards, Page Springs Cellars, Oak Creek Vineyards, and Javelina Leap Vineyard.

Caduceus founder Keenan is proud of his viticultural home base. “Arizona’s wine industry is poised to overtake several wine-producing states in economic impacts,” he said. “With $3.3 billion in measurable impacts in 2015, and nearly a half million in state tax generation, this can no longer be considered a ‘cottage’ or ‘boutique’ industry.”

Explore Napa Valley’s Wine Excellence

Napa-Valley-Hero

Explore Napa Valley's Wine Excellence

July 24, 2019

Few images of wine country are as iconic as the white water tower and solitary silver oak rising from the vineyard floor. The image has graced the label of every Cabernet Sauvignon bottle from Napa Valley’s fabled Silver Oak Cellars winery since its inaugural vintage, and is representative of the winery’s singular focus. “Do one thing, and do it well,” says CEO and President David Duncan of Silver Oak’s guiding philosophy. Silver Oak produces only two wines: Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley and Cabernet Sauvignon from the Alexander Valley. Both are aged for about two years exclusively in American oak, and both enjoy cult status among connoisseurs and collectors, which is no small feat in a region that produces some of the world’s most elegant and sought-after Cabernet Sauvignons.

While Silver Oak has built its considerable reputation on producing Cabernet Sauvignon exclusively, its younger sister winery, Twomey, is more experimental and specializes in modern interpretations of Old World wine across a variety of styles, starting with Pomerol style Merlot with a New World sensibility. “It’s a perfect complement for the ethos of Silver Oak,” says David, whose father, Ray Duncan, founded Silver Oak in the early 1970s. Silver Oak releases its wines four and a half years after harvest, and although these wines are ready to drink, they’re also capable of aging another 15 years.

This steadfast schedule doesn’t allow time to adjust to current winemaking trends, and its unwavering approach has created the legend that is Silver Oak. “‘Trust’ is a favorite word we hear from customers,” David says. “Instead of trying to change according to critics’ palates, we keep putting out wine that is drinkable.”  

Twomey shares that dedication to releasing drinkable wines that also pair well with food, but produces a variety of styles that allow Twomey to utilize and fine-tune winemaking techniques that are best suited to each specific varietal. In addition to Merlot, Twomey also produces appellation and estate Pinot Noirs and an estate Sauvignon Blanc. “My brother, Tim, is a Burgundy lover, so he is a big influence with our Pinot Noir, and the women in the family all like white wine, so we added Sauvignon Blanc to the lineup,” David says. It’s fair to say that, as different as they are, both wineries are still very much in the same family. 

Raymond Twomey Duncan, an entrepreneur from Denver, co-founded Silver Oak winery with Christian Brothers enologist Justin Meyer in 1972. Their singular goal was to produce a world-class Cabernet; it’s what David refers to as his father’s “Cab is king” mentality. Producing just one wine was seen as renegade and risky, which is something of a Duncan family hallmark. Additionally, Meyer insisted on holding the wines to age until they were ready to drink—at the time an unorthodox practice in California—believing that the tannins needed time to mellow and driven by the desire to make an approachable wine that’s drinkable on release.  

By the mid-’80s, the highly allocated wine was in such fierce demand that hundreds of customers would line up outside the winery and spend the night before the annual release date. Duncan jokes, “They’re still lining up, but we don’t let people spend the night anymore.” “Silver Oak is a phenomenal success story,” says Ian Blackburn, founder of Learn About Wine in Los Angeles. “It’s a paramount brand that has been unwavering in its approach to the market. They did it their way— making Cabernet in what has now become a Cabernet state. Many Napa wineries started lining up their release dates around Silver Oak’s. It’s as if Silver Oak had the crystal ball.” Indeed it’s a legacy that seems almost charmed.

“I got a call from my dad,” says David Duncan, who was then heading up Duncan Oil in Denver. Within hours, David and his wife, Kary, who was serving as assistant chief of medicine at the University of Colorado, made the decision to pack up their life in Denver and make the move to Napa Valley. But David’s move to Napa wasn’t the only change for the Duncan family, which was finally expanding its sights beyond Cabernet Sauvignon. The previous year, in 1999, Ray Duncan had bought the Soda Canyon Ranch, mainly for the Cabernet, but “our winemaker, Daniel [Baron], got very excited about the French clones of Merlot in the vineyard,” says David Duncan. “So we decided to make a single-vineyard Merlot. Because Silver Oak was to remain strictly focused on Cabernet, the Duncans named the new Merlot winery Twomey, Ray’s mother’s maiden name.

 The partnership between Duncan and Meyer still existed at Silver Oak; however, Twomey was founded as a Duncan family venture. “With Twomey, the Duncans decided to plant a stick in the ground with Merlot,” says Blackburn. “That’s a powerful move from a label that is synonymous with Cabernet.” Like his father, David is a renegade—perhaps something he picked up during all those summers working on a cattle ranch in Colorado as a teenager. When he wants something, he goes after it. His commitment to making world-class Merlot at Twomey continues with the recent appointment of winemaker Jean-Claude Berrouet of Château Pétrus fame as a consultant to Twomey’s winemaking team. If you want to make the best Merlot in the New World, you hire the guy making the best Merlot in the world.  

“Much of my style of winemaking is based on [Berrouet’s] aesthetic,” says Baron. “In fact, I often credit my time with him [at Pétrus and Dominus] as one of the inspirations that led to Twomey Cellars. JeanClaude knows how to combine subtlety, intensity and balance in a wine, and his joy of living comes through in every glass.” Today, Silver Oak’s landmark wooden water tower and headquarters in Oakville—constructed from hand-quarried limestone reclaimed from a 19th-century cooperage—stand in stark contrast to Twomey’s sleek tasting room in nearby Healdsburg; the different styles make an apt metaphor for the two wineries’ distinct identities. As different as the two wineries may appear, however, they’re united by the family’s singular vision and unwavering pursuit of excellence. “Our model is focus,” David says. And whether it’s Silver Oak’s dedication to perfecting a single varietal based on 40 years of experience or Twomey’s more varied and experimental approach, their shared vision remains clear. 

A Riesling Renaissance

A Riesling Renaissance

June 19, 2019

If there were ever an onomatopoeic grape in the big, wide world of wine, it is handsdown Riesling. Come on, say it. Rieeeeessssslinggggg. It sounds … tingly. Refreshing. Zingy. Breezy, even. And you know what? That’s exactly what it tastes like, too. So why does everyone treat it like a candy sucker stuck to a floor mat? Well, not everyone—and maybe not much longer. 

For pretty much all sommeliers worth their salt, Riesling is Darling #1. Why? It’s nature’s perfect little dinner date—generally low in alcohol, with electric food-friendly acid beyond your wildest lightningbolt dreams, and it comes in a range of styles like the ultimate well-stocked wardrobe, from light and crisp to luscious and smoky.

There’s an awful lot to adore in those tall, skinny, supermodelesque bottles of beloved Bacchus juice. “The first wine I tried that was inspirational and sort of took hold of my soul was the 1976 J.J. Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spatlese. It was relatively early in my wine drinking days—I was about 20— and my palate was still learning but also accepting of wines with residual sugar; but the fact was that the wine didn’t just stop there—the acid kicked in. And its length and purity of being stopped me and made me pay attention,” says sommelier and oneman Riesling rabblerouser Paul Grieco, who co-owns Hearth restaurant and the trio of quirky, inspiring wine bars: Terroir, Terroir Tribeca, and Terroir Murray Hill. “Twentyfive years later, I’m still remembering this wine. That says something.”

Indeed it does. Rieslings, at their best and brightest, do tend to be intensely memorable because they hit multiple senses in an utterly eye-opening manner. The sight of their beautifully bright hue; the incredible aromatics of everything from flowers to minerals to succulent pear or ginger or citrus; their touch on your tongue, so zippy with laserlike acidity translating into something dancingly light or lusciously mouth-filling; and the flavors, which can range from austere to orchard-ripe. But that’s the secret— that elusive, much touted word in wine: balance. Yes, some styles of Riesling have off-dry to downright sweet flavors. But most of the time, even with the sweetest of the sweet—what you might see on a German label as auslese or beerenauslese or that rollercoaster ride of a wine title trockenbeerenauslese— Rieslings still have this bright, linear current of electricity zipping through them, keeping the wines utterly buoyant and leaving your palate dry after all is swallowed and done. This grape has deep roots in Germany, but late-ripening Riesling has found itself a pretty good home in other parts of the world, too.

 “We revere Old World Riesling, of course, those from Germany and Austria and Alsace,” says Grieco. “But I’m also stoked about the New World and those expressions. The Finger Lakes is a world-class venue to grow world-class Riesling. There’s the Niagara Peninsula, Australia, New Zealand. I’m overjoyed by it all. “Maybe my heart and soul will say, ‘Paul, don’t you want to go back to that ’76 Prüm?’ Maybe so, but as my Riesling world has expanded, I’m just as intrigued by [aged Rieslings] from Victoria [Australia]. Or the Cave Spring 2008 [from the Niagara Peninsula]. Or the Hermann Wiemer Late Harvest Riesling 2009—which is the greatest Riesling produced ever in North America. It’s extraordinary.” Truly, Riesling wears a different dress for every dance. The cool climate Rieslings of Germany’s fine Mosel region take on fresh apple-orchard aromas and the kind of acid levels that make the juice dance in your mouth. In warmer regions, like Alsace, France; Austria; or even the Clare Valley in Australia, the aromas turn peachy, sometimes with a zesty lime quality to them.

And the Finger Lakes? Be prepared to sigh over the honeysuckle and floral notes, with bits of orchard fruit and even some zesty grapefruit qualities, all with a backbone of acid that makes you sit up, smack your lips, and say, “Oh hey, what’s for dinner?” If all that makes you lick your lips in eager anticipation—and worry about the stock of your local boutique shop—don’t panic. There may well be more Rieslings coming to a glass near you. In the summer of 2008, Grieco decided that the only way to get wine lovers to drink more Riesling was to, well, force them. “As a beverage director, I would go to a table and suggest a Riesling for their dinner, but all I’d hear was ‘I don’t drink that because it’s sweet.’ From hearing that so many times, I wanted to make some converts. I was going to have to force you to have it if you were going to engage me in conversation,” he says.

For the 91 days of summer 2008, Grieco offered a radical plan: Riesling, and Riesling only, by the glass in each of his wine bars and at Hearth, too. No Chardonnay. No Pinot Grigio. No Gruner. And you know what? It worked. Since then, the Summer of Riesling has expanded all around the country, with about 500 restaurants and wine bars participating coast to coast for summer 2012. There has also been a parallel movement through the International Riesling Foundation to educate drinkers on the sweetness levels. Their biggest contribution: a simple, yet wildly effective taste scale that goes on the back of wine labels so consumers can figure out what to expect from the bottle. “It’s all about trying to re-jig the conversation of wine. You know what we say about Riesling [at Terroir]? When you drink it, you will be a better person. I believe that!” Grieco laughs. “How can you not drink a glass of Riesling, with its complexity and delicacy and balance and yumminess and sense of place, and not feel more in tune with yourself and those around you? It’s a glorious drink but there’s something demanding about it, too—it makes you pay attention, but as soon as it’s on your palate, you smile. You can’t help it. You have joy coursing through your veins.”

Five Fabulous Rieslings

Perhaps the most intriguing characteristic of this summery varietal is … variety. Grown all around the world, Riesling assumes different personalities reflective of the region where it is produced. From Alsace in France to the Columbia River Valley to the rugged lands Down Under, Darling #1 is sure to surprise.

1. Finger Lakes. 2008 Ravines Argetsinger: Bone dry. Crisply, bracingly, cracker dry. Lick-a-rock dry. Please-bring-me-to-dinner dry, but with delicate notes of fresh herbs and honeysuckle, with a peach-pit, almost green-olive briny finish that makes you smack your lips for more, more, more.

2. 2011 Grosset Clare Valley ‘Polish Hill’: Heady summer flowers and dribbles of nectarine and pear juice fill your mouth, but this lean and lovely Riesling still manages to keep a bit of buttoned-up austerity to its body and serene but long finish.

3. Germany. 2009 J.J. Prum Auslese Mosel Bernkasteler Badstube: Racehorse acidity gallops through your mouth with a saddle full of Granny Smith apples and honeydew melon on its back, while the long, luxurious finish leaves you with a little spice and white pepper to think on. If you’re looking to age some Riesling, this isn’t a bad place to start.

4. 2008 Albert Boxler Alsace, Grand Cru Sommerberg “e,” Alsace: Light on its frisky, floral feet but with a great, grounded minerality that keeps this wine from running away with its basket of ripe stone fruit.

5. Washington State. 2010 Chateau Ste. Michele and Dr. Loosen Eroica Columbia ValleyThe result of a partnership between Washington State’s Chateau Ste. Michele and the famous Mosel Riesling producer, Dr. Loosen, offers great squeezes of tangerine and lime, aromas of orange blossom and zippy minerality.

Exquisite Wines You Have to Try from Around The World​

Exquisite Wines You Have to Try from Around The World

April 22, 2019

There are many terrific reasons to collect wine: investment, showcase, commemoration, hobby. Some collect it simply because they enjoy good wine and want to have unfettered access to exceptional bottles. Others collect as an investment because there truly is value in some great bottles from around the world. And others collect because … it’s fun. Whether your cellar consists of a handful of special vintages or cases of futures, there is always room for a few more excellent bottles of wine. But as days lengthen and grow warmer, we think more about enjoying wine in the sunshine rather than stashing it away for a special occasion. Here are some out-of-this-world finds worth drinking right now. Destination Cellars Estate Sommelier Sean Q. Meyer specializes in hand-tailoring experiences for wine lovers seeking exclusive and personalized access to prestigious properties and vineyards around the world.

One of my favorite spring ingredients is the morel mushroom. And my favorite grape to drink with morels is Pinot Noir. There is something perfect about the way Pinot fruit and earthiness work with the mushroom. One of our favorite producers of Pinot Noir in California is the small production, little-known Arista winery, founded in 2002 by the McWilliams family. It is in every way a family-run operation, from the founders whose vision made it possible to their sons who manage the day-to-day operations.

The founding family enjoys sharing their story firsthand with visitors, and you will simply not find a family more passionate about its craft. But the wines speak for themselves. They show profound elegance, complexity and the ability to cellar for several years: three things not always common to California grapes. Arista’s fruit comes from the Bacigalupi Vineyard, which lays claim to its own share of history. It’s the same vineyard that produced the Chardonnay grapes for the famous 1973 Chateau Montelena, which won top prize for white wines tasted at the 1976 “Judgement of Paris.” And some of those vines still grow alongside the Pinot Noir grapes that make this wine. But history or no, it’s an exceptional label and an excellent wine.

Grüner Veltliner is a great wine for spring and summer. There is a spectacular balance of fruity and savory essences, framed beautifully by the natural acidity of the grape. Fruit flavors such as green apple, pear, lime and white peach are interwoven with fresh notes of white pepper, daikon, watercress and tarragon. This dichotomy of flavors provides a tremendous amount of versatility for food and wine pairing. Grüner can often be the perfect wine for all of your challenging pairings such as asparagus, lentils and artichokes. It also pairs well with spring onions, chives, ramps and green garlic.

In the Wachau, the ripeness of grapes and potential alcohol is named on the label using local terms. Steinfeder (a kind of local grass) is the least ripe and lowest in alcohol. Federspiel (a falconer’s tool) rates right in the middle. And Smaragd (an emerald-colored lizard found in the vineyards) is the ripest with the highest alcohol. Hitzberger was one of the first estates to take a “no compromises” approach to quality. In fact, many consider them to be nearly singlehandedly responsible for the incredible spike in quality throughout the region. Sauvignon Blanc is, in my opinion, at its best in the Loire Valley of France. The racy acidity, bright lemon and lime flavors, and profound minerality make it a must-have as either an aperitif or as a first-course wine at any spring feast.

The Vacheron family has had an extraordinary impact on Sancerre from the turn of the 20th century. Currently, Jean-Laurent (the fourth generation to tend the estate) handles the majority of the operations. The winery was certified organic in 2003 and converted to biodynamic agriculture in 2004. Due to the extra care in the vineyard, the wines excel at communicating a sense of place. There is a focus and intensity to these wines, which makes them among the best.

This time of year always carries a certain amount of excitement and anticipation for those in the wine trade. In April, all of the Chateaux in Bordeaux open up their doors to the sommeliers, wine writers, importers, distributors and retailers to show how the wines of the current vintage are developing. The event is known as En Primeur, and most of the production in Bordeaux is sold this way.

Consumers are also able to make a commitment to futures and pay for their wines now and take delivery when they are finished, roughly two years following the purchase. In great vintages this can be a good gamble, as the pricing for futures is often well under the price of the released wine. Most years we attend and often bring groups with us. The stories from these trips are always exciting and sometimes amusing.

Last year, when visiting Smith-Haut-Lafitte, we were hosted by one of the owners, Florence Cathiard. To say she is a woman of profound charm and grace would be an understatement. As her guests, we were shown every nook and cranny of the beautiful estate. As the tour concluded, she brought us to a room where, with a click of a handheld remote, the floor opened to reveal the stairs to a cellar full of wines dating back more than 100 years, beautifully chosen artwork and cool jazz softly playing on an audiophile-grade system.

The tour of the cellar was absolutely magical. As it was time to go to our tasting and dinner, we started leaving the cellar. With nearly everyone out, the doors began to close, seemingly of their own accord, trapping three from our group in the underground cellar. The lights and music were set to automatically shut off when the doors shut, keeping our guests quite literally in the dark. A look of panic crossed our host’s face. Something was wrong with the doors and they would not open. Rather than cries of panic, we heard calls for a corkscrew from our trapped compatriots.

After some fiddling with the controls and the hydraulics, the doors opened and our companions were free once again. After our little ordeal, we were escorted to a dining room at the Chateau and served a delightful meal paired with their wines. Of all of the places we visited, I am certain that our new friends will never forget their visit to Smith-Haut-Lafitte and the great comedy of being trapped in a room full of extraordinary wines.

The Newest Super Tuscan Wine Has Roots in Family Farming

Wine-Hero

The Newest Super Tuscan Wine Has Roots in Family Farming

February 28, 2019

The partnership that resulted in the Tuscan winery Urlari started on a ski lift in Portillo, Chile, and today its wines are imported by a company based in Teton Village, Wyoming, the small community at the base of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.

Italian co-founder Roberto Cristoforetti is both a certified fruit farmer and handcrafts custom ski boots for the world’s best ski racers. (Since the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, 83 Olympic medals have been won in Cristoforetti-made boots by skiers including Alberto Tomba, Hermann Maier, Tommy Moe, Picabo Street, and Julia Mancuso; he plans to retire after the 2019-2020 race season.) Urlari’s other co-founder, Mary Kate Buckley, has skied her entire adult life and this past summer started as president of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. In 2002, the two found themselves on a lift together in Portillo.

Initially they chatted—in German, because that was their common language—about athletic footwear. At the time, Buckley was Regional Vice President and General Manager for Nike’s Americas Region and was curious that top World Cup racers all had custom boots. As their friendship grew, Buckley soon learned of Cristoforetti’s passion for wine, which had its roots in his friendship with Italian ski racer Alberto Tomba (who was known as much for being an oenophile as for his dominance in skiing’s technical events). 

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Tomba invited Cristoforetti to accompany him to wineries in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany, Chile, and California. Buckley had been introduced to fine wine in the mid-1990s when she was working for Disney and based in Hong Kong but often working in Tokyo. “In Tokyo, I sat in an office next to Guy [Aelvoet, president of Disney Consumer Products in Japan] and he became my mentor and a friend,” she says. “Guy shared his appreciation for fine food and fine wines. When [he] introduced me to a new wine, he’d not only introduce me to the quality of its attributes, but could speak articulately about the winery that produced it and details that translated [it] from being simply a great product in a bottle to a reflection of the deep passion and rich histories of its owners.”

By the time Cristoforetti and Buckley met, he was a partner in a start-up Tuscan winery. Later, he mentioned to Buckley that he was thinking about planting his own vineyards. (He grew up in a family of fruit farmers.) Inspired by his passion and always looking for new challenges, Buckley encouraged him, offered to be his partner, and to help—initially with marketing, and, eventually, sales. (Of course Buckley checked in with her wine mentor, Aelvoet: “When I told him I was thinking about starting a winery in Tuscany, he weighed in, first to warn me how challenging it would be to start a winery from nothing, but then to support with advice and cheer me on at every stage,” she says.)

Cristoforetti began searching for suitable land and, in 2004, found it. It was while Buckley and Cristoforetti stood on a 25-acre plot of sheep pasture in Riparbella, in Tuscany’s coastal Maremma region 4 miles from the Tyrrhenian Sea, that they created the product vision for Urlari. The sloping pasture has an elevation between 700 and 800 feet and is surrounded by dense forests in which locals hunt for wild boars.

As the pasture was being transformed into vineyards—15 of the 25 acres were planted—evidence of it being cultivated since Etruscan times was found, including fragments of a wine vessel, a hairpiece, and a coin dating to 200 B.C. that eventually inspired the winery’s labels. Unusual for the region, Cristoforetti planted grapes very close together. (This is seen more often in Bordeaux.) “When the plants are so close, they fight for the limited water, so only the strong plants and grapes survive, and those that survive are going to be more intense than they otherwise would be,” he says.

To make Urlari’s first wines, Cristoforetti approached winemaker Jean-Philippe Fort, even though the Bordeaux native had never before agreed to work with a winery outside of France. (More than 40 percent of the wines Fort consults for are Grand Cru Classe, including Chateau Angelus, a Premier Grand Cru.) Intrigued by Urlari’s terroir and facilities, Fort agreed, officially bringing together the three world wine cultures Cristoforetti most esteems: Italian, American, and French. In 2010, using the 2008 vintage, Urlari produced about 8,000 bottles of its first wine, Pervale, a blend of Sangiovese (28%), Cabernet Sauvignon (25%), Cabernet Franc (25%), Merlot (15%), and Alicante Bouschet (7%). “Roberto sold these mostly from the back of his car throughout Italy,” Buckley says. Urlari’s second vintage, 2009, produced 24,000 bottles, and the winery extended its distribution. Its first export customer was Aelvoet’s son-in-law, who owned a restaurant in Belgium. “He bought 50 cases based solely on Guy’s recommendation,” Buckley says.

Not all sales were so easy though. “We thought the hard part would be making the wine, but the really hard part is selling it,” says Buckley. “There are so many wine labels in the U.S., and nobody needs another one.” She briefly looked for an importer, but was unsuccessful. “So I got my importer license,” she says. “If you look at the label today, you’ll see it says ‘Imported by Urlari USA, LLC Teton Village, WY.’” (Buckley bought a home at the base of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort the year after she and Cristoforetti bought the land for Urlari and she became a full-time Wyoming resident in 2009.) Her strategy was to sell wine to stores and restaurants in Jackson Hole and also to restaurants in New York City. “It’s the most competitive market in which everyone wants to sell their wine,” she says. “While I had never sold wine or anything else, I had confidence that the most sophisticated wine directors in New York would recognize and buy a truly unique, high-quality wine.”

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In Jackson Hole, Buckley was able to walk into wine shops and restaurants without appointments and talk with owners and sommeliers. Dennis Johnson, the now-semi-retired manager of Dornan’s Wine Shop, which has a 1,500-plus bottle list and has earned a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence every year for 31 years, remembers the first time Buckley came in. “She walked into the shop and told me she had started a winery in Italy,” he says. “We like helping out smaller, individual wineries that are giving it a go, so I tasted the wines. It was nice stuff, a really, really good quality wine. I had no doubt it would sell.” Other bottle shops and restaurants in Jackson Hole quickly followed.

Making inroads in New York was more difficult. “I got a copy of Wine Spectator’s list of best restaurants for wine,” Buckley says. “And then I cold-called the ones in New York City.” Most restaurants wouldn’t see her, but “the ones I got in front of with the wine bought it,” she says. After Buckley had gotten Urlari onto the wine lists of restaurants like Keens Steakhouse, Delmonicos, Bar Italia, and Caravaggio, importers took notice. Today Urlari’s three wines—Pervale, L’Urlo (100% Merlot), and Ritasso (100% Sangiovese)—are sold through distributors in Montana, Utah, and Wyoming, and importers in the NY/NJ/ CT area and Pennsylvania. The 2017 New York International Wine Competition recognized Urlari as the Tuscan Winery of the Year, and its 2011 vintage Pervale won a “Double Gold” from a panel of top wine critics. James Suckling, regarded as one of the world’s top wine critics, has awarded scores of 93 points for Pervale, 93 points for L’Urlo, and 92 points for Ritasso.

On the phone in the middle of the most recent harvest, I asked Cristoforetti if Olympic skiers or grapes are more difficult to work with. He didn’t hesitate: “Grapes.” And that makes Urlari’s success all the sweeter. Buckley says, “Building a new business from scratch—literally going from standing in a sheep pasture and envisioning a wine made from grapes of plants that have yet to be planted and encountering hurdles along the way, to winning awards and having people enjoy all of our work—that’s so much fun.”

One of the World’s Best Winemaking Regions Is One of the Oldest

Douro-Hero

One of the World's Best Winemaking Regions Is One of the Oldest

December 28, 2018

No landscape in the world expresses the idea of mind over matter more powerfully and poignantly than northern Portugal’s Douro River Valley. Over the course of centuries, human grit, gumption and genius have completely transformed the valley’s almost-vertical hills of gnarled schist into terraced vineyards. Humans have massaged the hills’ coarse granite and slate soils into yielding the wines used to make the region’s signature product, Port. Port is the most storied of fortified wines, which differ from standard wines because a grape spirit, or brandy, is added during the production process. Adding the spirit during, and not after, fermentation kills off the active yeast cells and leaves the wine with high levels of residual sugar, making it sweet and strong in alcohol—Port’s special character.

In 2001, UNESCO recognized the uniqueness of these landscapes when it classified the Alto (upper) Douro Valley as a World Heritage site. UNESCO specified that the upper valley constitutes “an outstanding example of a traditional European wine-producing region” that’s been growing grapes for over 2,000 years. The group also noted, “The components of the Alto Douro landscape are representative of the full range of activities associated with winemaking—terraces, quintas [wine-producing farm complexes], villages, chapels and roads.” More simply said, the visual harmony of this countryside quietly exalts with its aura of peaceable permanence. Staring out over such well-groomed and -tended vineyards is profoundly soothing, too. Subliminally, they convey a gentle definition of eternity based on a profound respect for nature transmitted from one generation to the next. There have been vineyards here since almost the founding of the Roman Empire.

This bucolic backdrop makes for an unlikely setting for a revolution, but during the last 30 years a wave of change has jolted the valley’s conservative and genteel traditions of Port production. The bold band of winemakers who launched the charge still leads it. They came together in 2003 and christened themselves “the Douro Boys.” Their shared goal was to put the unfortified wines of the Douro on an equal footing with Port. The wines had the pedigree to achieve a level of recognition appropriate to their inherent quality. And they have. Today the region is rebooted; the Douro’s unfortified wines are on par with the best vintages of Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Piedmont and other storied Old World wine lands.

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Consider that wines from one or more of the Douro’s quintas have made it onto Wine Spectator’s “Top 100 Wines of the Year” list every year for over a decade. This feat casts them as rivals of the Pauillacs, Gevrey-Chambertins, Châteauneuf-du-Papes and Barolos. The highest Douro Valley unfortified wine score to date? Wine Spectator rated a 2011 vintage Quinta do Vale Meão 97/100. From the magazine’s tasting notes: “A lush, seductive red, filled to the brim with an array of dark fruit and kirsch flavors, accented by plenty of cream and spice notes. Silky tannins and molten chocolate hints add richness. The long finish echoes with mineral and white pepper. Best from 2015 through 2022.”

During the recent week I spent among the Douro Boys—men, really—as a fledgling but eager student of Douro Valley wines, I’ve never met a more passionate, worldly-but-earthy and intelligently innovative group of winemakers. Each one taught me something different about the essential character of Douro wines. All of them exemplified the same consistent elegance, charm and graciousness as the superb quaffs I sampled.

The “Boys” are a convivial group of cousins, brothers and friends, and did not jump into winemaking on a whim. Between them, they represent five of the most respected wine estates in the Douro—Quinta do Vallado (Francisco Ferreira and João Alvares Ribeiro), Niepoort (Dirk Niepoort), Quinta do Crasto (Miguel and Tomás Roquette), Quinta Vale Dona Maria (Cristiano van Zeller) and Quinta do Vale Meão (Francisco Olazabal). Although descended from some of the most famous Port-making families in the region, none of these men find their ardor for making unfortified wine incongruous with their families’ history. “Innovation is actually very much a part of our heritage,” observed the amiable Cristiano van Zeller when I visited him at Quinta Vale Dona Maria, where he makes wine from 50-year-old vines on property that has been in his wife’s family for 150 years. The Wine Advocate’s Robert Parker said of the Quinta do Vale D. Maria 2009, “It will be a contender for wine of the vintage” and rated it 96 points.

“From generation to generation, we have been documenting every single square foot of this valley, because even if they are just a few feet apart, different parcels of land can produce wholly different wines,” van Zeller said. “This is why we have to mix and match different barrels from different plots to get the right balance in a wine.”

“Everything changed in 1986 when Portugal joined the European Union,” explained Carlos Raposo, the brilliant young cellar master who oversees production as part of his collaboration with winemaker Dirk Niepoort at the latter’s Quinta de Napoles vineyards. The EU abolished the monopoly that funneled Ports produced in the Douro region to the big Port houses that blended, matured and marketed them from their cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia across the river from Porto. “Wine producers were finally able to bypass the houses founded by the English and Dutch Port merchants and were free to sell independently,” Raposo said.

To appreciate the magnitude of this change, it helps to know a little bit about the history of winemaking in the valley of the Douro River, which originates at Picos de Urbión in Spain and then flows 557 miles west across northern Portugal before reaching the Atlantic Ocean at Porto. Archaeological evidence indicates wine has been made in the upper valley since the Bronze Age some 3,000 years ago, but the region’s vineyards really thrived when Portugal became part of the wine-loving Roman Empire in the 3rd century B.C. What sealed the fate of the Douro as a producer of fortified wine for centuries was a series of treaties signed between England and Portugal that gave Portugal privileged access to the lucrative British market.

The 1703 Methuen Treaty put Portugal on a preferential basis in supplying Britain through lower tariffs on wines from Portugal than those from other countries. After a quality scandal in the region in the early 1700s caused Port sales to plummet, the Marquis de Pombal, a Portuguese nobleman, founded the now legendary Douro Wine Company to regulate the Port trade. The company, for the first time, officially delineated those regions of the valley that had the legal right to call their fortified wine “Port.” (The Douro is one of the three oldest established wine appellations in the world.) The thriving commerce between England and Portugal led to the establishment of a community of English and other European wine brokers in Porto, and the founding of the great Port houses, which enjoyed a monopoly some winemakers describe as quasi-feudal with the quinta producers until 1986.

“In 1987, when Dirk told his father that he wanted to buy the 70-acre Quinta de Napoles and begin producing wine, the older gentleman first thought his son had taken leave of his senses, but eventually he came around,” explained Raposo. “After several years of hard work, Dirk’s Redoma wines showed everyone the incredible potential of the Douro to produce unfortified white wine, which surprised everyone, because almost none had been made here in the past—the Douro was considered red-wine territory par excellence. Niepoort whites are made with local varietals like rabigato, codega do larinho and viosinho. These grapes come from very old vineyards planted in mica schist soils at high altitudes, which yield delicate mineral-rich wines of great complexity.”

It isn’t just the grapes and terroir, the French idea of a very specific geographical place. “We still work according to traditional methods, including crushing the grapes by foot in large, open, waist-high stone tanks called lagares,” said Raposo, who worked at wineries around the world before joining the Niepoort winery. “The reason we work this way is the foot never crushes the grape pips [seeds], releasing bitter oils the way that mechanical presses do, and the granite used to make the lagares gives the wine more character, too.”

On a chilly autumn afternoon, a fire crackled in the fireplace of the elegant dining room at Quinta do Vale Meão. August oil paintings on the walls and silver-framed family portraits on the sideboards brought generations of family to the table even though today’s owner, Francisco Olazabal, entertained a single guest—me—for lunch. The meal began with a soothing country soup made from potatoes, stock and turnip greens.

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A main course of braised partridge hunted by the host in the surrounding hills followed. The succulent bird was served with a Quinta do Vale Meão 2013, an elegant red wine made from touriga nacional, touriga franca, tinta barroca and tinta roriz grapes grown on the estate. “This wine shows off the best elements of New and Old World style. You’ll find it’s full- bodied and fresh without any cloying jaminess,” said Olazabal, and he was right.

For the Douro, Olazabal’s estate is relatively recent. The 650- acre quinta was founded in 1877 by Antónia Adelaide Ferreira, his great-great grandmother. “She was from the Ferreira Port family, and her plan was to create a model vineyard. Almost all of the grapes grown here were sold to Ferreira to make Port until 1998, when my father resigned as director of Ferreira to dedicate himself to producing great still [unfortified] wines on the estate,” Olazabal said. “My great-great grandmother was sort of a visionary,” he added, explaining that the quinta lies on a geological fault with two distinctly different soil types: schist in front of the house and granite out back. “She knew this, and by buying this land she gave us great tools, because different grapes prefer different soils,” he said.

“We’re quite different from other Douro producers, because our vineyards are young and vinified according to individual parcels and then blended,” Olazabal told me while we visited his recently renovated aging cellars, where the air smelled deliciously of dried red fruit, especially cherries. “The real genius of the new Douro wines is that they can present such a strong sense of terroir but also be discreetly modern.”

While Olazabal maintains individual parcels of varietals, the other Douro estates still use the traditional local “field blend” system of grape growing. In this, different varieties are planted in a single parcel and picked at the same time. “These parcels are so precious that we have catalogued every single vine in case we need to replant. There are some dozen different grape varieties in those parcels, and together they make magic,” Miguel Roquette told me as we stared out over the vineyards that produce the grapes from which his family’s most highly lauded wine, the Quinta do Crasto Vinha Maria Teresa, is made. (Wine Spectator awarded the 2005 and 2011 vintages 96/100 and the 2007 vintage 95/100, while Robert Parker rated the 2001 as 95/100, the 2003 as 96/100 and the 2005 as 94/100.) Until I actually tasted the 2005 vintage in a Porto restaurant a few days later, the most interesting thing about my visit to Roquette’s estate was botanical.

“Come, Alexander. It’s important that you see this. This will tell you more about what makes the Douro the Douro than anything else,” Roquette said. I followed him into the dark on a cool, autumn night with a fine sliver of a new moon in the star-studded sky above. Using his cellphone, he lit the way through the gardens outside of the family house on the farm. “Here we are,” he said, shining the light on an amazingly long, thick and gnarled slate gray root exposed in the side of a snaggly cliff. “The vine that sent down that root is at least a hundred feet above us on the hillside. Do you feel the power in this root, the obstinacy of nature? This is the Douro, a harsh place where the vines struggle but end up producing some of the world’s best grapes, from which we’re now making some of the world’s best wines,” said Roquette, sounding as awed as if he were seeing the root for the first time.

This is why you might honestly say that the Douro is living up to its name, since “douro” means “golden” in Portuguese, and this wine region, at once venerable and brilliantly avant- garde, is clearly just on the cusp of a new golden age.

How to Vacation in Sonoma’s Wine Country​

Sonoma-Hero

How to Vacation in Sonoma’s Wine Country

December 19, 2018

Locals often say, “Sonoma is for wine, and Napa is for auto parts.” (Of course, people in Napa have been known to respond, “Sonoma? I think I’ve heard of it.”) Good-natured rivalry aside, there’s no question that Sonoma is less famous than Napa. But it’s also a premier wine region that draws people back again and again. And though there are plenty of well-known wineries in the county, it’s easy to get off the beaten path to discover California’s original winemaking culture with family-run wineries, sprawling estates and hidden gems. 

In fact, Medlock and Ames put as much thought into the food they produce as the wine. A flight may include fresh vegetables from their garden, some local cheese, or salami produced by a neighbor. The wines tend to be fruit forward, with a sauvignon blanc you will never forget. They also make a rose that pairs with just about everything they serve. 

In Sonoma, a winery is typically much more than a place where they produce wines. At Medlock Ames, this is especially true. The young winery has only produced six vintages, but their wines convey a mature sophistication. And they grow a lot more than grapes on the 335-acre plot at Bell Mountain. They also grow produce and herbs, using principles of organic farming that brought owners Ames Morrison and Christoper Medlock James together at Tulane University.

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Along with the wine, they offer a selection of organic produce for sale in the tasting room, but that’s not the only thing that will surprise you here: There’s also a secret bar. The Alexander Bar is hidden away, in speakeasy form, behind a tasting room wall. It opens in the evening, when they serve handcrafted cocktails, also using their fresh-grown ingredients, as well as artisan spirits and local brews. It’s just one more unexpected treat at Medlock Ames in the Alexander Valley. 

There is no prettier winery in the spring and early months of summer than Matanzas Creek, located in Sonoma’s Bennett Valley. Grapes are, of course, the primary crop at the vineyard. But the lavender fields have their own fan club. The lavender gardens come to peak bloom in late June, which handily coincides with the annual Lavender Festival. Soon after the lavender harvest it’s time to start picking grapes and making wine. The lavender is used in the kitchen as well as in a line of spa products available at the winery as well as a couple of local spas. Bennet Valley received an American Viticultural Area designation in 2003. Sonoma, Bennett and Taylor mountains grab the fog and cool air, courtesy of the Pacific Ocean. This cooling effect, known as the Petaluma Wind Gap, produces a microclimate similar to the Russian River Valley’s. It allows for a long growing season as grapes ripen a little at a time. Matanzas Creek wines are both interesting and well made, capitalizing on the superior fruit the vineyards offer. 

It’s hard not to be immediately taken by the beauty of the Michel-Schlumberger estate, even before you discover what makes this winery unique. The vineyards stretch across 100 acres on the foothills of Dry Creek Valley and, as you walk through the vast land, you’ll find breathtaking views from every angle. Beyond the 20 blocks of grape vines lie an olive orchard and vegetable gardens, alive and vibrant with butterflies, bird and bees, chickens, sheep and goats.

The fauna at Michel-Schlumberger serves a purpose: The bees naturally pollinate the landscape; the chickens eradicate outbreaks of pests; the goats clear the scrub on the hillside; and the sheep mow the grass. Jim Morris, Vice President of Sales & Marketing, sums it up: “Our world is all about building a healthy ecosystem.”

And that’s exactly what the Michel Schlumberger estate is: a self-sustained, eco-friendly environment that runs with little electricity, gasoline or excess water. They have earned some impressive awards in sustainability, but let’s not forget that it’s all about making wine — excellent award-winning wine. 

The acclaimed movie director’s estate is certainly no secret. But it’s an experience in its own right and worth the visit. Over the past 25 years, Coppola has reclaimed all of the original Inglenook vineyards. And in a nod to the estate’s storied history, it was renamed Inglenook in 2011, but still very much carries the Coppola brand name.

When you enter the big gates of the winery, you aren’t quite sure if you’re going into a movie set or an Italian castle. Unlike most wineries, this one is built with the entire family in mind, a place where you can spend the day with excitement for kids of all ages to enjoy. 

Outside of the winery is a swimming pool, café and changing “cabines,” which include pool passes and towels. There are also four full-size bocce ball courts and special events and concerts throughout the spring and summer. Rustic Restaurant, inside of the winery, serves “Francis’ Favorites,” such as Marrakesh Lamb and Braciole with Rigatoni in Meat Ragu. Indeed, the Coppola estate is a destination in its own right.

Midway between Sonoma and Santa Rosa is Kenwood, home to wineries such as Landmark and Saint Francis. Though St. Francis offers some nice food-and-wine pairings, there are other food options. The Restaurant at the Kenwood Inn and Spa is a beautiful spot for Mediterranean cuisine.

Open to the public for lunch and dinner, the large fireplace is usually going during the area’s short winter. The rest of the time, the dining room is open to the picturesque courtyard. At the other end of the spectrum is Cafe Citti. There is nothing elegant about it: Order at the counter and then take a seat inside or outside among what is bound to be mostly locals. But don’t confuse basic with lessthan-wonderful. The rotisserie chicken is great, as are any of the pastas. The white clam sauce is a staple, made with shelled clams sautéed with white wine and olive oil. The Casear salad is excellent, as long as you’re a fan of garlic.

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Sonoma Square is a sleepy little spot, just like the town itself. With a variety of restaurants and shops, it’s easy to spend time just cruising, tasting and exploring. Those wanting to fend for themselves in the kitchen should make a stop at The Sonoma Market, which specializes in higher-end products at reasonable prices. The selection of produce, meats and specialty items is excellent.

Vella Cheese Company has been a Sonoma mainstay since 1931. Made exclusively with milk from happy, livin’- large cows at nearby Merten’s Dairy, Vella cheeses have garnered a heap of awards over the years. Tucked just off the square on Second Street, the shop offers cheese samplings. Still owned and operated by the hands-on Vella family, the cheese company is most famous for its Dry Jack. Created accidentally during World War I when Italy stopped most of its exports to feed its soldiers, Dry Jack became a domestic option to Parmesan cheese. And during World War II, the cheese’s reputation got another boost in both popularity and national pride. These days the cheese isn’t used as a Parmesan substitute but as a cheese worthy of its own place at the table — or in the omelet, atop the pasta, or with some crackers. Vella Cheese Company is also the only commercial cheese outfit in the U.S. to make Toma, a soft, slightly ripened artisanal cheese that originated in Piedmont. Italian Table Cheese, Asiago and a whole fleet of full-moisture Monterey Jacks round out the company’s selections.

LaSalette Restaurant specializes in the fairly obscure cuisine of Portugal. Named for the chef-owner’s mother in honor of her heritage, the restaurant has garnered a reputation for excellent seafood. Portuguese food draws from the culinary histories of its former colonies throughout the world, including Asia, Africa, India and the New World. The result is a truly unique dining experience, especially in Sonoma surrounded by a plethora of French and Italian-influenced California cuisine. They do a lot of cooking in the wood-fired oven, and serve several Portuguese national dishes, such as the feijoada completa with smoky sausage and caldo verde, literally translated as green soup. 

People argue about Cafe La Haye — nobody can agree on a favorite dish. Some stick to the risotto of the day, period. For others, it’s all about the seafood special. Even the roasted chicken with caramelized chicken jus has a fan club. And that’s before anyone even mentions dessert, which ought to include butterscotch pudding. Foodies agree that Cafe La Haye is a special place. Owner Saul Gropman is usually the one to greet guests as they come through the door, and he knows how to welcome people in and make sure they’re well tended.

Girl + the fig brings vineyard-style eating to downtown Sonoma. Originally opened on the Glen Ellen estate, restaurateur Sondra Bernstein moved girl + the fig to the square when the Sonoma Hotel evacuated its spot. (She now has The Fig Cafe at Glen Ellen). Girl + the fig is a magical little spot, with a welcoming patio and warm service. Time slows down in deference to what is often referred to as a French country menu, though Bernstein insists it’s actually a Sonoma menu with a French passion. Sonoma’s farms supply most of the ingredients the restaurant uses, and the food is topnotch. But what has always distinguished the eatery is the hospitality. The staff, from hostess to bartender to server, literally welcomes each guest. Of course Sonoma wines are highlighted, and imbibing is encouraged through extensive by-the-glass options as well as a selection of wine flights. During the spring and summer months, wait for a table on the patio. It’s worth it.

Sonoma Winemaker Explains Difficulties Facing Family Wineries

Winery-Hero

Sonoma Winemaker Explains Difficulties Facing Family Wineries

October 16, 2018

“Go get ’em, Bruno!” winemaker Bruce Cohn calls to his old black lab as the dog chases a rubber bung (a stopper for a wine barrel) across the olive tree-shaded courtyard at the B.R. Cohn winery in Glen Ellen. “He’s 14 and he thinks he’s 3!” Cohn exclaims. “He drank red wine all his life, that’s why.” Bruno barks excitedly when he hears the word “wine” as Cohn notes that the dog has his own wine, called Bruno’s Blend.

These are good days for Cohn, 69, a Chicago native who has had two successful careers, the first as the manager of the rock band The Doobie Brothers and later Night Ranger, the second as a winery owner in Sonoma County. Cohn’s family relocated to San Francisco when he was 10 and a year later moved an hour north to rural Forestville where his father, who had been in the shoe business in Chicago, started a goat dairy. The family lived in an old farm- house, and Bruce had to get up at 4:30 every morning to milk the goats—he also picked grapes on a neighbor’s vineyard.

But he never imagined that one day he’d be a winemaker. It happened almost by accident. He’d become the manager of The Doobie Brothers in 1970 when he was just 22. “We had 38 guys on the road, two planes and four semis, it was a lot of responsibility for somebody that young.” The Doobie Brothers “were pretty crazy, wild guys at that time. Now they’re just crazy,” he says with a laugh, “boring and crazy.”

Cohn also worked as the sound mixer at the Doobies’ shows. After four years of incessant touring he decided to buy some land in the Valley of the Moon, a crescent of paradise in eastern Sonoma County. The idea was to have a place to decompress. “I was on the road with the band about 250 days a year,” he says, “and I just wanted a place where I could raise my kids like I was raised.”

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“I call this the center of the earth,” Cohn says. “This is like Tuscany. I tell people, don’t go to Italy, just come to B.R. Cohn. We have better wines; we have great olive oils.” That sounds boastful, but Cohn seems like a down-to-earth guy who can’t quite believe his luck and is grateful for how well his life turned out. When he acquired the property, some of the land was planted with grapes that were sold to Sebastiani, a nearby family winery. The patriarch, August Sebastiani, sagely told Cohn he wouldn’t make much money on the grapes, but that he’d do well with the land. “When I got my first check for the grapes,” Cohn says, “I understood what he meant.”

In the early 1970s, Cohn read thick books about viticulture on flights with the Doobies. Not long afterward, he was introduced to Charlie Wagner of Caymus Vineyards, and asked the veteran winemaker to mentor him, but Wagner was taken aback by Cohn’s appearance. “I sure didn’t look like a farmer,” Cohn says. “I had an afro up to here, leather pants, high-heeled boots.” Cohn soon won him over, and Wagner, who died in 2002, tutored Cohn for four years. “In 1978, I’d brought him three tons of pinot and three tons of cab grapes,” Cohn says. “I drove a ’48 Dodge over the mountain” to Caymus in Rutherford, in the heart of Napa’s wine country. “I burned the brakes up going down the Oakville Grade.”

Six months later Wagner called Cohn and said: “Get over here, you gotta try this wine.” So Cohn drove back over the Mayacamas Mountains, and Wagner poured him some pinot. “I didn’t know anything about red wine. I was drinking tequila and Dos Equis with the band,” Cohn says.

“So, I tried the pinot and said, ‘oh that’s good.’ He said ‘yeah, it’s pretty good. Now try this cab of yours.’ He poured me a glass of the cab. I said, ‘Oh, that’s real good.’ He said, ‘No, that’s not real good. That’s the best cab I’ve ever had from Sonoma County.’” Wagner advised Cohn to have Sebastiani make the wine under Cohn’s Olive Hill name, “but August laughed and said, ‘Bruce, I don’t even have a tank small enough to put your grapes in.’” So Cohn had other local wineries do it and started winning gold medals.

In 1982 The Doobie Brothers broke up; the next year Cohn began managing the band Night Ranger. In 1984, he decided to launch his own winery and named it B.R. Cohn. “It was my second chance with enough money to do it,” he says. “But it takes a lot more money than I thought.”

His first year, Cohn made 900 cases of cabernet and 2,000 cases of chardonnay. “The chard you could take the paint off your car with, literally. I couldn’t sell it,” he says. “And the cab got a 94 rating from Wine Spectator. Nobody in Sonoma had gotten a rating that high for cab.” Cohn says he’s fortunate to have purchased land in an area that’s perfect for cabernet, not the just warm days and cool nights but where frost is rare. He has hired talented wine- makers but says, “The vineyards make the wine. If you don’t have great grapes, you’re not going to have a great wine.”

Dan Weiner, a booking agent for the Doobies, Foreigner and other bands, has known Cohn since 1972 and says, “He has laser vision. He looks out at the horizon and sees a future that no one else can even imagine. He bought a farm, but in his eyes he could see the grapes, the vines; he was seeing it all. That’s just the way he is.”

Cohn inspires intense loyalty in people with whom he works. “I love the man. I’d take a bullet for him,” says Tom Montgomery, B.R. Cohn’s chief winemaker from 2003 until last year. “He does practice what he preaches. He believes in rock ’n’ roll music, truth, justice and the American way. I don’t know of any- body who better describes the lifestyle I’d call the good life.”

In 1990, Cohn decided to use the olives that were dropping off his eight acres of 140-year-old French Picholine trees. “The kids were staining the carpet with black olives in the house over there,” he says pointing to what is now the tasting room. “It was pick up the olives or buy new carpet. So I picked up the olives and shipped them to Modesto to the only guy making extra-virgin olive oil in California.”

He didn’t have enough olives on his property to distribute nationally so he began buying from throughout California to make a blend of oil, vinegar and spices for dipping. He launched an olive oil festival in his grove that initially attracted about 10 producers but soon grew so large that it’s now held in downtown Sonoma. The 15th annual Sonoma Valley Olive Festival was held last January.

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Cohn’s success is “no freaking accident,” says Herbie Herbert, who managed Steve Miller and Journey in the 1970s and ’80s. “It’s a marriage of determination, talent, organizational skills and management skills. There are a lot of people who may not realize it, but Bruce Cohn is the most important person they’ve ever met in their life. The guy is a seriously gifted entrepreneur.” Starting in the 1970s when Cohn was still in his 20s, he wanted to share his good fortune. He held a golf tournament to benefit the United Way and had members of The Doobie Brothers sing Christmas carols for gravely ill kids at Stanford Children’s Hospital.

In 1987, Doobies drummer Keith Knudsen wanted to help Vietnam veterans so Cohn suggested he try to reunite the band, which had split up five years before. Cohn says the Doobies felt their time had passed, but they agreed to do one show at the Hollywood Bowl. “It sold out in two hours,” Cohn says. “So they said maybe we should do one for Stanford Children’s Hospital. So I booked Shoreline (in nearby Mountain View, California), and it sold out, 19,000 seats.” They ended up doing 10 shows, all benefits, raising millions of dollars. The band played on, going back into the studio to record and continuing to tour; they now play about 85 shows a year.

Cohn next wanted to do something closer to home. He rented the field at Sonoma High School and held a benefit with Graham Nash and Little Feat. But there was “no ambiance,” so Cohn built an amphitheater on a gently sloping hill at his winery and got permits for 3,000 people to come onto his land one weekend a year. The B.R. Cohn Charity Sonoma Music Festival has attracted such legends as Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Chicago and Gregg Allman, and naturally The Doobie Brothers. Last year Ringo Starr performed. “We had a Beatle in Sonoma!” Cohn says.

In 2015, the Sonoma Music Festival moved to downtown Sonoma. Toby Keith will play at this year’s festival, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary. Over the years, the festival has raised almost $7 million for veterans, food banks and other worthy causes. Today, though the winery still bears his name, Cohn no longer owns it. He sold 70 acres of vine- yards and the rights to his name last year to Vintage Wine Estates, but he retained 21 acres and still lives in a home on the property. “I grew the winery from 500 cases a year to almost 85,000. That took a lot of money that I didn’t have so you take on a lot of debt,” he says. “Pretty soon you got a great lifestyle, but you’re working for the bank. There isn’t that much profit in wine.”

Costs were “going through the roof,” he says. “Dollar-wise, it was just too much pressure. I was like the hamster on the wheel and never knew from one year to the next if I was going to be able to make it. Family wineries are selling out. Corporations are coming in and buying market share. It makes it hard on the little family guys; we couldn’t compete.” So now Cohn is a consultant paid by Vintage. “I am the spokesman, the figurehead. I’m on the payroll, but I have almost no responsibilities,” he says, surveying the land he owned for 41 years. “It’s kind of wonderful,” he says with a laugh, “kind of great.”