Monday, July 18, 2011

Santa Cruz Wineries

I found this great article in the SF Chronicle today - thought I'd share. Great writing about a wine growing region that is not always given its due.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Wineries of Napa Valley Tasting Room

This article was originally published in the Benicia Herald on March 22, 2009.

A few weeks ago, I sang the praises of the Downtown Napa "Taste" card. For those of you who missed it, this $20 punch card entitles you to tastings at 14 downtown tasting rooms for just 10 cents a piece.

For those who like me, are limited with wine tasting funds, yet are still not willing to steer the car away from Napa, this is a great solution to the generally high cost associated with a day of tasting. In addition, the card promises that all tasting rooms are within walking distance of each other (there's even a little map on the card), and so no one has to stress too much about driving from estate to estate.

When I purchased my card from the visitor's center in the Napa Town Center shopping mall, I quickly noted that one of the tasting rooms was located just next door. Anxious to get started, I walked into the Wineries of Napa Valley tasting room and presented my card. The host that day explained that our 10 cents would get us three tastings from their list of 17 current offerings. The special featured wines that month were all “Winemakers Blends”, of which there were five listed.

As the tasting room represents a handful of smaller wineries, I decided to sample blends from three different spots that I had previously never visited: Burgess, Girard and R.A. Harrison.
The 2001 Burgess Enveiere, a blend of Cabernet, Cab Franc and Merlot, was very acidic on the nose. Once I sipped it, it proved to be very spicy and low in fruit flavor - a trait I tend to go for in reds and red blends. For the $50 price tag, I think there are much better bottles coming out of the Napa area.

I was much more impressed with the 2005 Girard Artistry Red Blend I sampled next. The complex blend of Cabernet, Cab Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec was not only more tasty, but also a much brighter wine. The flavors of ripe cherries and fruit punch filled the palate, leaving behind a sweet, smoky finish. This wine, at only $40 per bottle is one I can recommend with confidence.

With just one taste left in my visit, I chose to sample a blended dessert wine. I settled on the 2006 R.A. Harrison Nobility, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon priced at $75 per bottle. Again, I was not let down. The wine was sweet like any good dessert wine should be - with peach, nectarine and apricot notes. It was also sugary - like perhaps the flavors were mirroring a fruit tart covered with a thick glaze. It was delicious to sip and could easily be in my top five dessert wines I've ever tasted.

If you decide to go sample the wines at the Wineries of Napa Valley tasting room, they are located at 1285 Napa Town Center in downtown Napa. Check out the current offerings on their website at

Olabisi Winery

This article was originally published in the Benicia Herald on March 15, 2009.

Olabisi may seem like a strange name to put on a wine label, but the name signifies more than just rhetorical aesthetics. "Olabisi" is a girl's name in some areas of Africa. It means "joy multiplied." The name is an appropriate label for the wines it accompanies.

Ted Osborne and his wife Kim Wedlake founded Olabisi Winery in 2002, after Ted had spent seven years working in other wineries learning the craft. His resume includes big international wineries such as Cakebread of Napa, Rupert & Rothschild of South Africa and Chateau de Seuil in Bordeaux.

I tried some of the Olabisi offerings a few weeks ago in the downtown tasting room the winery shares with Trahan Winery. My notes from the tasting are littered with food pairing ideas - mostly courtesy of my two good friends who accompanied me that day - which tells me we were excited about the flavors we came across.

First up, we sampled the 2007 Chardonnay. I noted that my friend Jen expressed her desire to eat quiche with the tangy white. Emily, my other companion, pointed out how the flavor of the wine became more okay as it warmed up in her mouth. I remember wanting a little more butter flavor in the glass, but then again, that is a big bias I have in the Chardonnay varietal.

Next up was the 2006 Zinfandel, a treat on the nose with big meaty, peppery and jammy aromas. Jen, again quick with her food pairing suggestion, sipped from her glass and immediately exclaimed, "I want my kobe beef now!" Osborne jumped right in, saying that he likes to sip the Zin while grilling good quality steaks. With only four barrels produced, I suggest that you Zin fans out there try to sneak a couple bottles before they sell out. (Did I mention the $34 price tag? It's a steal.)

The 2005 Syrah that came next was listed on the tasting sheet next to "think BBQ pork ribs!" We couldn't have come up with a better pairing. The nose on this wine was all bright, dark berries like blueberry and dark raspberries. The flavor carried over nicely with a hint of blackberry.

Finally, we got to the 2005 Petit Sirah - a chewy red with a very cohesive nose that quite pleasing all around. I thought this wine could stand on its own and make a nice bottle to open while dinner guests wait to eat. It's big, flavorful and a enjoyable vintage.

For those of you wondering if my companions and I were hungry during out visit to Olabisi, you are correct! (How did you ever guess?) If you go, I also recommend stopping by Bounty Hunter at 975 First Street for a delicious meal post tasting.

Trahan Winery

This article was originally published in the Benicia Herald on March 8, 2009.

Chuck Custodio and
Ted Osborne may operate a somewhat hard-to-find tasting room in downtown Napa, but they don't appear bitter. In fact, they have found a means of turning the misfortune of having a business located on a street with seemingly perpetual construction and noise into a marketing plan, announcing late last month that they would give a 90 percent discount on tasting to anyone who could actually locate their tasting room.

Custodio, owner of Trahan Winery, and Osborne, owner of Olabisi Winery, share an inviting and friendly space on Franklin Street, between First and Second Streets. The men generally pour their own wines for visitors, chat about how the grapes were grown and offer advice on other tasting rooms to visit in Napa.

This week, I decided to start offering my thoughts on the two wineries, starting this week with Trahan and concluding next week with more on Olabisi.

The 2005 Chardonnay from Trahan is one Custudio almost insists his customers purchase to pair with Caesar salad.

"They were made for each other!," he told my companions and I.

We agreed that the warm and spicy flavors would suit a salad well. I made note of the mineral flavors in the wine that would cut the greens of the cheesy salad well on the palate.

Next, we moved to sampling the 2005 Merlot, a wine bright red and cherry colored in the glass with rich, dark berry aromas. My friend Emily nailed it when she described it as having a a fruity aroma and flavor that gives way to a spicy, earthy scent. She also said the wine was chewy, minerally and of a fairly dry finish. I found it equally complex and satisfying.

Finally, we sipped the 2005 Petite Verdot, made from grapes grown in the Suisun Valley. This wine transported me out to a blooming garden, filled with the scent of roses and blueberries. The taste was very earthy and reminded me of the unsavory sounding yet quite acceptable (for wine, not so much for Benicia tap water) dirt and mulch flavors.

Next week, I'll fill you in on the Olabisi wines, but if you can't wait to get out there and taste for yourself, the Trahan-Olabisi Tasting room is located at 974 Franklin St. and is open from noon - 5:30 p.m. most days.

X Winery

This article was originally published in the Benicia Herald on February 22, 2009.

Amicus Cellars and X Winery were born out of a unique idea.

Reed Renaudin created the business in 2000, turning the idea he proposed in his MBA thesis paper into a reality. The plan, as Renaudin envisioned it, was to create wines on caliber with the greats already on the market at a price drastically lower than the rest.

The result, I discovered, is for the most part, on target. The most expensive wine I sampled during my visit to the tasting room was marked at $40 per bottle, although the other six wines I sampled that day ranged from $13.99 - $24.99 each.

The bottle that went home with me was the 2007 X ES Sauvignon Blanc, made of grapes out of Lake County. The resulting wine is heavy on the melon on the nose and adds flavors of tropical fruit to the mix when it hits the palate. True to the promises of the company, the wine was not only Napa quality, but also very affordable at just $13.99 per bottle.

Other highlights included the 2006 Red X, a blend consisting of 60 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 22 percent Syrah, 12 percent Zinfandel and six percent Petite Sirah. The smell of toasted marshmallow floated out of my glass, leading me to find the wine a little sweet and a little sour in my mouth. The finish was smooth and left a lingering flavor of mocha. This table blend goes for $14.99 a bottle.

The 2005 X Paso Robles Petite Sirah, at the $24.99 end of the price scale, was big and surprising. The aroma was all berries and spice while the flavor was grounded with earthy tones and a chewy quality that made the wine more complex than I expected from the varietal.

If you decide to check out the winery's downtown digs, stop and pick up the Taste card. As I explained in last week's column, the $20 card gets you into 13 local tasting rooms with only a 10 cent obligation to taste. X Winery is a part of the promotion.

Also, call ahead, as the tasting room doesn't keep regular hours and prefers you make an appointment. You can call them at 204-9522 to set up a visit at their shop, 1405 Second Street in Napa. Check them out online at or

Ceja Vineyards

This article was originally published in the Benicia Herald on February 15, 2009.

Last weekend, I braved the iffy weather with a couple of friends in downtown Napa. We purchased 'Taste' cards from the downtown visitor's center and headed out to try some of the nearby tasting rooms featured on the card.

The Taste card, sold for a mere $20 at various locations in the downtown area, allows the holder to visit 13 different tasting rooms and pay only 10 cents for the pleasure of taking in some of the sips. Better yet, the card doesn't expire until December 31, 2009, so there's plenty of time for locals to cover all the incorporated vineyards.

Although I had filled my pockets with dimes before heading to Napa, not one of the four tasting rooms we visited on Sunday ever asked for the change. I highly recommend picking up one of these cards, enjoying the tasting rooms that are all within walking distance of each other, and hanging on to it for future visits.

One of the tasting rooms we passed through was that of Ceja Vineyards. The establishment, which offers Salsa lessons on Saturdays, is a great stop to make for wine enthusiasts like myself. The staff is friendly, the wine is good, and they have comfy chairs to sit in if you're feet are sore from waking.

The aroma of the 2007 Sonoma Coast Sauvignon Blanc is reminiscent of a bright, tropical fruit salad - with hints of meyer lemons, kaffir limes, guava, pineapple and peach. Once it reaches the taste buds, it carries through with the fruity flavors and delivers a solid, flavorful impression.
With 2000 cases of the white wine produced, it is one of the larger productions to come out of the Ceja winery. I found it interesting that our host, Michael Wray, pointed out that the Sonoma vineyard where the grapes are grown is located just outside of Petaluma. I made a mental note to keep my eyes peeled for a Ceja sign along the freeway next time I am in the area.

The wine that sold me during my visit to the downtown Napa tasting room was the 2006 Ceja Vino de Casa Red. The blend, made up of 58 percent Pinot Noir, 36 percent Syrah and 6 percent Merlot, was not only tasty, but very affordable at just $20 per bottle.

The blend was classically Napa without the general price point added to bottles that come with 'Napa' on the label. I was delighted to discover this particular wine.

I found the wine inviting when I first took in the sweet bouquet, which gave off subtle hints of vanilla. The flavor carried the sweetness over, adding a smoky oak quality to overall balanced wine.

If you decide to check out Ceja Vineyards, their tasting room is located at 1248 First St. in Napa. Check them out online at

Reynolds Family Winery

This article was originally published in the Benicia Herald on February 1, 2009.

Continuing on the Silverado Trail theme, this week I am thinking about my visit to the Reynolds Family Winery. The Tuscan-style vineyard, constructed on a former chicken farm, opened in the mid-90s and has established itself as noteworthy wine house in the Napa Valley.

To begin, when you first come up to the tasting room for the Silverado Trail, you pull up to the large building nestled simply next to a pond that will have you reminiscing about feeding ducks as a child. There are table and chairs along the side for a peaceful picnic, although I was there earlier this month, so I pretty much hurried to get inside.

When we walked into the tasting room, a large, fluffy cat greeted us just as quickly as the staff. To you, Bert Reynolds may be a celebrity who hit his prime in the 70s, but around the tasting room, he's a fat, orange cat. And if you ask me, I am definitely more of a fan of the kitty. He was quite a good host and he warmed up to me instantly, jumping on my lap without any regard to his size or weight.

But enough about the feline and onto the wine!

I found the 2004 Persistence - a blend created by owner Steve Reyonlds - to be quite agreeable. Comprised of 60 percent Cab, 15 percent Merlot,15 percent Cab Franc, eight percent Syrah and two percent Petit Verdot, the resulting melange is bursting with fruit - the call it jammy would be an understatement. The flavor of ripe, sweet raspberries hit me hardest. For a man that used to have a dental practice, I am impressed with his natural sensibilities when it comes to the make up of this bottle.

The 2004 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon was my favorite here. It smelled of black cherries, chocolate and leather. I made a note that this is the kind of wine I love to sip while I cook - it tastes yummy and goes great with a stewy smell wafting off the stove. On the palate, it has a nice currant and blackberry flavor that make the transition from the nose smooth and satisfying.

The Reserve Cab, which I am confident is just as good if not better, is the gem of the Reynolds Family business. Although all their wine labels feature their signature mustard flower image, the labels for the reserve Cab are handmade with actual pressed flowers in them, making each one just a little different.

Overall, I enjoyed each wine I was served during my visit. I thought the tasting room staff was excellent - and they offered up a lot of information on the brand, the family, the grounds and the wine. We felt welcome during our visit - if for no other reason because Bert treated us like old friends.

The Reynolds Family Winery is located at 3266 Silverado Trail in Napa. To learn more about the business, call them at 258-2558 or check out their website at