Tag Archives: Petite Sirah

Smith & Hook red blend

AG Pick: Smith & Hook 2013 Proprietary Red Blend

It’s chilly, gray and drizzling where I am. It’s the kind of weather that makes me want to close my laptop, light a fire, and get cozy on the couch with a good book and glass of red wine.

The wine I’d want to be sipping is the Smith & Hook 2013 Proprietary Red Blend from California’s Central Coast. Rich with intense dark fruit and smoke notes, it’s the wine equivalent of a warm blanket on a cold winter day.

Smith & Hook Proprietary Red BlendThe wine is a blend of 47% Merlot, 35% Malbec, 10% Petite Sirah and 8% Cabernet Sauvignon from vineyards in Paso Robles, Arroyo Seco, San Antonio Valley and Santa Lucia Highlands. It was aged for 26 months in French oak, 60% of which was new.

2013 is the first vintage of the Proprietary Red Blend. Smith & Hook, part of Hahn Family Wines, also produces a Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Proprietary Red Blend opens with aromas of dark red berries, smoked meat and toasted oak. The taste is full, lush and layered with dark red cherry, blackberry, plum, vanilla, baking spice, tobacco and leather. It’s velvety smooth in the mouth with well-integrated tannins. The finish is long and satisfying with lingering berry pie.

The wine is a great pairing for hearty winter dishes. Enjoy the Smith & Hook Proprietary Red Blend with beef tenderloin or stew, a savory risotto or braised lamb shank.

A bottle of the Smith & Hook 2013 Proprietary Red Blend costs $25.

14.5% alcohol

Seduce Your Senses with Fifty Shades of Grey Wine

Want to add some spice to your Valentine’s Day? Or maybe something sweet is more your style?

Titillate your taste buds with a glass of Fifty Shades of Grey White Silk or Red Satin, wines inspired by the sensual series.

As Anastasia Steele would say, “oh my!”

50 Shades of Grey wineAuthor and wine enthusiast E.L. James drew inspiration from the romance between Anastasia and Christian for the white and red wines. She collaborated with winemakers in California’s North Coast region to craft each blend.

The White Silk 2012 is mainly Gewurztraminer with some Sauvignon Blanc. Cold fermentation and stainless steel aging were used to preserve the fresh fruit characters. The wine is gently sweet, with floral aromas and flavors of white grapefruit, tangerine, honeysuckle, orange blossom and lychee. Jasmine and sweet citrus linger on the delicate finish.

The Red Satin 2010 is a blend of Petite Sirah and Syrah that was aged in new and seasoned French oak barrels. Seductive aromas of blackberry, cocoa and spice lead into flavors of black cherry, plum, clove, smoke and leather. Well balanced with good acidity and velvety tannins, the wine will appeal to even those who haven’t read the books.

Enjoy the wines with aphrodisiacs like oysters or foie gras with the White Silk, and filet mignon or dark chocolate with the Red Satin.

Each bottle costs $17.99. To find out where the wines are sold or to order online, visit www.fiftyshadeswine.com.

With Fifty Shades of Grey wines, there’s no tastier way to tell your Valentine –

You. Are. Mine.

13.5% alcohol by volume

More White Wines | More Red Wines | More Under $20

It’s Time for Wine: Napa for 2013

By Monty and Sara Preiser

February is a great time for us to slip in and out of Wine Country destinations and then fill you in on what is new, and what remains fantastic. These same places will be ultra-crowded come season, so advance planning is highly recommended. Don’t forget that you can now download the Preiser Key to Napa free to your iPhone or iPad from the AppStore. The magazine is still the only complete and accurate guide to wineries and restaurants, and also contains educational pieces and other useful information (if you don’t mind, please remember to mention the Preiser Key when you make reservations).

Wineries: One New, One Re-Emerges at the Top of its Game, & One Under the Radar

The New: Though making wine for a few years now, Bello Family Vineyards has recently opened one of the more impressive tasting rooms in the Valley. It is just the place to sample the superb wines being crafted by A-List wine maker Aaron Pott, who came aboard in time to finish the 2007 vintage and has had his brilliant hand in the mix ever since.

A true family winery, proprietor Michael Bello has three loves: his construction business, thoroughbred racing, and fine wine. It was only natural for him to parlay his business into producing both a champion filly, Megahertz, and a champion wine brand.

2010 Bello Chardonnay ($45): A kiss of Viognier proves to be a splendid addition to this 20 month barrel aged wine. We detected a soft, buttery flavor from start to mid-palate, and a panna cotta white chocolate finish. Quite the profile for a Chard.

2009 Bello Marsanne ($38): When Marsanne is good, as it is here, it is very, very good. Though it is the most widely planted grape in the northern Rhone Valley, it has not yet made the desirable impression in the U.S. that the Bello version shows it can. A full wine with great acids abounding with nuts and honey awaits you in this bottle.

2009 MEGAHERTZ Cabernet Sauvignon ($50): Given its production and cost, we think this may ultimately be the flagship wine that defines Bello in the eyes of the mass public. Few wines of the price offer such a rich chocolaty nose, as intense a bright black cherry mid-palate, the significant “chew,” and a 10+ second finish.

2008 Bello Napa Cabernet Sauvignon ($100): This is a big and bold bottle of wine with black fruit and coffee immediately prevalent, and some serious secondary characteristics (forest floor, smoke) just emerging. Aaron’s first creation from start to finish at Bello.

2009 Bello Napa Cabernet Sauvignon ($100): Concentrated yet approachable, describes this beautiful wine. Layers of black fruit, blue fruit, tar, and earth treat the palate. Perhaps the best recommendation? A Double Gold Medal last month from the American Fine Wine Competition, one of the few places you can find the tasting being performed in a totally blind manner by judges of no bias who all have accomplished palates.

2009 Bello Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($250): A word to the many fine and super expensive Cabs being produced in Napa Valley – move over and give the Bello Reserve some room, as it is closing on the rail. It is so good that at first we might think it a lucky hit, but with the knowledge that Aaron is at the helm, he will most likely produce such opulence in the years to come. The wine immediately impresses with its juicy full mouth that trickles down the tongue and itself drives you back for more. But an impossibly long finish following earth, smoke, anise, and spice keeps you in the game as well. This one belongs in the winner’s circle.

Appointments are not necessary, but having one can never hurt. Rick Healy, long experienced in the hospitality field and known to many of you, is now holding court at Bello along with a fine staff. The creatively elegant surroundings will only add to your enjoyment here.

Back On Its Game: As the many people we have escorted to Turnbull Wine Cellars can attest, we are long-time fans of the wines. But as we have written many times over the years, one can become discouraged about a wine for many reasons – some as small as being treated with indifference in a tasting room.

Since the advent of our friend Peter Heitz as winemaker, we have been in a quandary. We love Peter’s wines (both the Turnbull and his private label), but there always seemed to be an administrative lack of energy that should accompany such excellent wines. We had been told that had changed, and so off we went to find out for ourselves. It proved to be a good move.

We have been around long enough to immediately know and identify the signs of a place where you want to taste wines. That we were in the right room was readily apparent, and Burroughs, Abigail, and Alex made sure the ambiance continued – not just for us but for the visitors from Oregon, Texas, Chicago, and the Bay Area as well. Of course, they had Peter’s superb wines to help them out.

While we tasted other varietals, the stars of the day here were the Cabernet Sauvignons. So many were outstanding that it was almost a gluttonous experience. Each one, which we will list below, showed individual characteristics of terroir, fruit profiles, tannins and finish. The tasting isn’t free, but it is very reasonably priced, and we can say without reservation that this should be a stop in Napa for any lover of quality Cabs.

Monty’s Favorite: 2009 Leopoldina ($75)
Sara’s Favorite: 2009 Amoenus ($75)
Great Buy: 2009 Napa ($40)
A Cellar Needs: 2009 Black Label ($100)
Lush Library: 2007 Audaci ($85)
For Discerning Minds: 2009 Fortuna (Monty liked a lot, Sara a little less so)

2011 Oakville Viognier ($30): A whiff of enticing perfume hits the nose, followed by bright apricot and nectar in the mouth. This is no wimpy Viognier, finishing long and round.

2009 Leopoldina Cabernet Franc ($60): Chewy black fruit gives way to a bright, spice finish. This is a hard varietal to get right, but it is directly up Peter’s power alley and he hits it out of the park.

Ready to Soar: Even after (“ahem”) years in Napa, little is as thrilling as driving to a private home located in the vineyards – an estate – to taste wine with the owners and winemakers. Sometimes we even glance at each other as if to empathically ask whether our hosts have invited the right people.

We have always enjoyed the wines from Allora Vineyards, yet we might like this wonderful family even more. Terry Klein is the wine serious/social comic patriarchal host, and son Chris is obviously of the generation now in daily charge of the business. We see the two daughters, Cortney and Kelly, periodically at two other wineries where they hold prestigious positions, but they too are intimately involved with Allora. Today we missed the last link in this family affair, matriarch Nancy, but her good influence on the children is obvious.

The estate in St. Helena consists of 15 beautiful acres with 10 planted to vine. All of the wines are produced here, and all are crafted by noted winemaker Rudy Zuidema, who has a penchant for making wines of structure and seamlessness that we have always liked (no, more than just “liked,” – let’s say “respected” for their excellence as well).

2010 Allora Lieta ($30): Mostly Sauvignon Blanc, yet with a healthy dose of Semillon (and a surprise ingredient), this little gem is floral with perceived sweetness which is really the significant fruit flavors of apricot and peach blossom. And in a move with which we are not familiar, Rudy has added the lees from a Chardonnay barrel for about 5 weeks to add some creaminess and dimension.

2009 Tresca ($60): Primarily Cabernet Sauvignon with 12% Petite Sirah and 7 % Cabernet Franc adding earthy cedar and bright cherry nuances, this full bodied wine seems to find flavors shooting throughout the upper palate and then lingering for an extraordinarily long time.

2009 Cabernet Franc ($75): Bold, dark fruit streams from front to back, as do the dancing tannins. Many Cab Francs are a bit light in body, but the addition of over 20% cabernet Sauvignon here gives strength throughout.

2008 Petite Sirah ($65): Rich and complex with a spice on the nose, plums in the middle, and a terrific body. One of the best Petite Sirahs we know.

2009 Lusso ($125): Sometimes a wine is so well made, the fruit so well extracted, the structure so nicely attuned, the flavors so well integrated, and the finish so pleasing, that it is not necessary to over analyze the product further. This is one of those times.

2010 Sussurro ($75 for 375ml): A well made Late Harvest and somewhat unusual Cabernet Sauvignon/Late Harvest Petite Sirah blend. Black cherries and creaminess control, and the lack of cloyness, while preserving the sweet nature of the wine, is a great asset.


It’s Time for Wine is a column published by wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser that is featured on the Amateur Gastronomer.

Monty and Sara Preiser reside full time in Palm Beach County, Florida, and spend their summers visiting wineries and studying wines on the west coast where they have a home in Napa. For many years they were the wine columnists for The Boca Raton News, have served as contributors to the South Florida Business Journal, and are now the principal wine writers for Sallys-Place.com.  Monty and Sara also publish The Preiser Key to Napa Valley and Sonoma, the most comprehensive guides to wineries and restaurants in Napa and Sonoma. Click here to read more columns by the Preisers.

Surprising Lake County Wines

By Maxine Howard

What is so surprising about Lake County wines? The surprise is that they’re interesting, well-made, and reasonably priced.

Twenty-one wineries from Lake County (just north and east of Napa) showed off their recent vintages at a tasting in San Francisco in September. We only had a chance to sample about a third of the offerings, but came away with a desire to visit Lake County to explore others.

The whites had a light touch. Sauvignon Blancs predominated but there were some lightly oaked Chardonnays. The reds exhibited bold flavors and nuances created by some interesting variety combinations.

Langtry Estate and Vineyards had one of our favorite white wines. The 2011 Guenoc Sauvignon Blanc was made from the Musque clone, from the Loire Valley, so it had some characteristics of a Sancerre. It showed terrific fruit at the start, continued with hints of the minerality you would find in its French cousins, and finished with dry grapefruit notes. At $16 a bottle it seems like a great option.

Among the red wines offered, Rosa D’Oro had two interesting bottles. The 2010 Primitivo (Italian Zinfandel) was a full-bodied wine with ripe berry flavors and the peppery accent you would expect from a Zinfandel. It is priced at $20. The 2010 Aglianico (an Italian variety related to Cabernet) was a substantial mouthful. The fruit was well balanced, there was a bit of earthiness, and the firm tannins should allow it to age well. It costs $24 a bottle.

Steele Wines showed off an interesting blend called Outcast Red ($22), which included Syrah, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Barbera, and Petit Verdot. The bold, dark fruits were balanced nicely by earthy tones for a spectacular taste.

Another fascinating blend was a joint production of Shannon Ridge Winery and Vigilance Winery. The 2010 Dalliance ($19.99) is a blend of Zinfandel, Barbera, Syrah, Tempranillo and Grenache. It lures you with a spectacular deep color and aromas of blackberry and cherry. Here again, the blending of grapes with varying characteristics results in a complex, full-bodied wine with balanced fruit, a mellow taste and a dry finish.

Lake County wineries produce small quantities each year that are not as widely distributed as their better-known counterparts from Napa. But if you can find them you will discover they are well made and worth a taste.

For more information visit the Lake County Winery Association at www.lakecountywineries.org.

images from the Lake County Winery Association’s Facebook page

It’s Time for Wine: There is Little Small About Petite Sirah

By Monty & Sara Preiser

Just mention Petite Sirah and “the question” comes soon thereafter. How is it different from (big) Syrah?

Almost all of the world’s easily recognizable grape varieties* are the offspring of two parent grapes. For example, the parents of Chardonnay are Pinot (probably Pinot Noir according to our conversation with the world’s leading grape geneticist Carole Meredith) and Gouais (a now unimportant grape hardly grown any longer). For Cabernet Sauvignon, the parents are today’s more relevant and almost indispensable Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.

Petite Sirah, the progeny of Syrah and Peloursin, is its own distinct variety. It was developed in the Rhone region of France (where it is called “Durif” or “Petite Syrah”) primarily to help combat the mildew to which Syrah was susceptible. But then the new vines were also compromised, this time by dry rot in the southern humid districts. Not surprisingly, then, today you won’t find much Petite Sirah under any name in France. It does, however, grow well in the drier regions of the U.S. and parts of Australia. Somewhere along the line, the preferred new world spelling and nomenclature became “Petite Sirah,” though one would not be technically incorrect according to the U. S. Government (the TTB) if either “Petite Syrah” or “Durif” were used in describing the wine.

In July we hosted a tasting of twenty 2002-2008 Petite Sirahs at our Napa home. The wines were divided into flights so that each could be compared next to another with a like harvest date. We seated a stellar tasting panel to join the two of us at the table. They included Mike Drash, owner/winemaker of Tallulah Wines and winemaker for Aratas; Shelly Eichner, National Sales Manager for Swanson Vineyards; Sara Fowler; winemaker for Peju Province; Todd Graff, winemaker at Frank Family; Shari Gherman, sommelier and President of the American Fine Wine Competition; Christina Machamer, master chef and General Manager of B Cellars; Steve Reynolds, owner/winemaker of Reynolds Family; and Florida chef Lee Blakely.

The exercise was to taste blind, comment, and then arrive at a group decision as to what medal each wine might receive at a competition. Two added elements to the evening were the presence of a film crew from the American Fine Wine Competition who were capturing how judges actually go about their charge, and the inclusion of certain wines (those with later vintages in flights 3 and 4) that could earn invitations to the next competition based on their showing.

After tasting, commentary, and debate, results were agreed on by the panel, though sometimes more reluctantly than others – sort of like a United States Supreme Court decision. The best of the older vintages were the 2004 Quixote Stags Leap and the 2004 Shypoke. For the 2005 flight, the panel favored the Olabisi Suisun Valley, with the Bremer Family, Envy, and Swanson entries receiving some good support. Generally, the wines above not only exhibited excellent balance, but they were aging well, had lost very little integrity, and paired quite nicely with the food served.

Moving to 2007, the clear favorite was the Girard Napa Valley, with the Charter Oak St. Helena also giving an excellent account of itself. A newcomer unknown to the panel (except Monty, who met one of the vintners earlier in the week), was the 122 West Russian River Valley Durif. It won some new fans and garnered a strong (though phantom) Silver medal.

The final flight consisted mostly of 2008 vintages, with one 2009 in the mix. The strongest showing was by the Aratas Napa Valley, while B Cellars Napa Valley and the Simi Dry Creek Valley showed well. Interestingly, this vintage did not produce enough “Gold” votes for any of these wines to achieve that level, even though each of the bottles mentioned highly impressed more than one member of the group. Perhaps the lack of unanimity was a function of the wines’ relative youth. They will, we are happy to say, receive Competition invitations and get another chance in early 2013.

Breaking down all the wines evaluated, medals would have looked like this:

Charter Oak St. Helena 2007
Girard Napa Valley 2007
Olabisi Suisun Valley 2005
Quixote Stags Leap 2004

122 West Russian River Valley 2007
Aratas Napa Valley 2008
B Cellars Napa Valley 2008
Bremer Family Dry Creek Valley 2005
Envy Napa Valley 2005
Shypoke Calistoga 2004
Simi Dry Creek Valley 2008
Swanson Oakville 2005

Arger Martucci Napa Valley 2005
Jessup Yolo County 2008
Retro Howell Mountain 2004

You may be eagle-eyed and note that we only listed fifteen of the twenty. Well, five did not medal on this particular evening and we see no imperative to include them further. We hope it is sufficient that we certainly recommend you sample any of those listed, as we all felt they were good enough to medal. There are also a number of excellent, more recently released Petites that were not included. Time and space usually dictate the number of wines that can be assessed, and we do what we can. Thus, we urge you to arrive at no conclusions about any wine not listed.

Petite Sirah is a wine growing in popularity, and we are personally happy to see it. The flavor profiles fit our palates well. We look for a full bodied wine with deep color pigmentation and medium to high tannic structure. Spices and peppery red fruit are identifiable in the better bottles, as is a (sometimes) touch of jam (but not jammy like Zinfandels). With the above descriptions, you can see that Petite Sirah is quite perfect with grilled game dishes, medium spiced stews, and duck. If you aren’t familiar with this wine, we recommend you explore.

*The term “variety” refers to the vine or grape, while “varietal” refers to the wine produced by a variety. It is often hard, when writing, to distinguish which one is being discussed, and sometimes it is both or a combination of both. Most people do not distinguish the two, and almost always use the term “varietal.”


It’s Time for Wine is a column published by wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser that is featured on the Amateur Gastronomer.

Monty and Sara Preiser reside full time in Palm Beach County, Florida, and spend their summers visiting wineries and studying wines on the west coast where they have a home in Napa. For many years they were the wine columnists for The Boca Raton News, have served as contributors to the South Florida Business Journal, and are now the principal wine writers for Sallys-Place.com.  Monty and Sara also publish The Preiser Key to Napa Valley, the most comprehensive guide to wineries and restaurants in the Napa Valley, published every March, July, and November. In fall 2011 the Preisers released the first issue of The Preiser Key to Sonoma. Click here to read more columns by the Preisers.

It’s Time for Wine: Sonoma Valley Appellations

By Monty and Sara Preiser

Most oenophiles are aware of the Russian River, Chalk Hill and Carneros districts of Sonoma, but few others. As Sonoma county winemakers continue to refine their decisions as to what varieties grow best in what locations, the designation of the wine’s appellation will become more and more important.

In Sonoma County, as in other wine producing areas of this country, there are grape growing/producing regions that each possess characteristics approved as unique by the government, and, thus, are granted status as an American Viticultural Area (commonly referred to as “AVA” or “Appellation”). While memorizing these AVAs is not necessary, it will enhance your understanding and fun to have at least a general working knowledge of each one, and what you can expect from a wine that bears an Appellation name on its label.

Modern oenology allows the luxury of matching grape varieties with the locations that are best suited to grow them. Individual regions feature distinct meso or microclimates (functions of wind, rain, temperature, and time-in-the-sun) as well as terrain – hill, valley, foothills, type of soil, etc. When all of these factors, which obviously affect the grapes, are put together, they can be said to create a specific “terroir,” or, for lack of a better definition, “sense of place.”

Why is it important to know a wine’s AVA? For many reasons, most of which have to do with predicting how a wine should taste or be paired, before you actually taste or purchase it. Being cognizant of what an AVA brings to the bottle can help you select a wine to go with a particular dish, or decide whether a price is fair. For example, the Russian River AVA is well known for producing cooler climate varietals like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. If you saw a Zinfandel with a Russian River Appellation, you might have some doubts about ordering it before having the opportunity somewhere to taste it.

But the good thing about drinking wine is that once a bottle is opened and you actually taste the wine yourself, all bets are off. You can then make the call as to whether you like it and what foods you want to accompany it. If you are satisfied, that is all that matters. Let’s discuss the various Appellations below.

Sonoma County

Placing this first since all the other thirteen smaller appellations are a part of it, a winery might use this appellation if a bottle of its wine contained grapes from more than two viticultural areas other than those in the Northern Sonoma (see below) region. If it sounds like “Sonoma County” is a catch-all, it is. There is no unifying description of its characteristics.

Alexander Valley

Located in the northern part of the county, Alexander Valley includes both the flatlands and the hills to the east and west (22 miles long and from 2 to 7 miles wide). The diverse micro-climates support the growing of a number of grape types, though Cabernet Sauvignnon is the star.

Best Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, some Chardonnay.

Bennett Valley

This is a small AVA, but rising in stature all the time. It benefits tremendously by being bordered by three mountains which permit the cool early fog and winds to blow from the Pacific down the gap which is Bennett Valley. The extra hang time needed to obtain ripeness allows for very balanced wines.

Best Varietals: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, Zinfandel.

Carneros (formally “Los Carneros”)

Don’t be confused as this Appellation is partly in Napa as well (one of only 2 places in the U.S. of which we are aware where an Appellation crosses county lines). As Carneros is just off the San Pablo Bay in the county’s southernmost area, it is quite cool.

Best Varietals: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and recently some excellent Merlot.

Chalk Hill

This name comes from the soil of white, chalky, volcanic ash found in the mountains (actually there is no chalk – it is a mixture of quartzite, sand, and loam). The region, north of Santa Rosa, experiences plenty of sun and heat from a thermal belt that influences the temperatures.

Best Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc.

Dry Creek Valley

Named for Dry Creek, a tributary to the Russian River and irrigated by Lake Sonoma, this region is about 16 miles long and 2 miles wide and experiences warm late mornings and afternoons following morning fog from the Pacific. Wines are grown on the valley floor and hillsides above.

Best Varietals: Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, some Chardonnay.

Fort Ross – Seaview

The county’s newest appellation, approved by the TTB in late 2011, its 27,500 acres were carved out of the 480,000 acre Sonoma Coast, the latter of which actually extends somewhat inland. Truly located on the shoreline, this AVA was granted its distinct status because much of it is mountainous and thus above the fog line that often affects the rest of the older, larger appellation.

Best Varietals: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Green Valley (formally Green Valley of Russian River)

This small, beautiful area near Sebastopol is worth exploring on many levels (redwood forests, llama farms), but from a wine standpoint is is significant that it may be the coolest, foggiest region in Sonoma County – even cooler than the rest of the Russian River Valley.

Best Varietals: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Knights Valley

Located next to Napa Valley and protected from the cool Pacific Ocean influences due to its geography, this region is the warmest in all of Sonoma County. Its warm days and cool nights provide the ideal weather for producing Bordeaux grapes of all kinds.

Best Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, Petit Verdot.

Northern Sonoma

This region encompasses a half dozen other appellations (Chalk Hill and the Alexander, Dry Creek, Green, Knights, and Russian River Valleys) and was primarily championed by giant Gallo, which wanted a definitive umbrella appellation so it could make an “estate wine” at its winery in Dry Creek using grapes from the other aforementioned areas. Gallo is the only winery using this AVA designation, which is cooled by the Pacific rather than the San Pablo Bay, and has sedimentary rather than volcanic soils.

Pine Mountain – Cloverdale Peak

This is an interesting new (Fall of 2011) AVA, in that it includes part of northeastern Sonoma County and portions of Mendocino County. Only about 5% of its 4,600 acres are planted with just a bit more under development. The area is relatively fog free, so it has ample sunlight, and is cooler than the Alexander Valley, much of which stretches below.

Best Varietals: Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, some Chardonnay.


This appellation’s name is quite descriptive of the hardscrabble soils and actual rocks in and around which the vines here must struggle to grow (survival of the fittest, as they say). Rockpile is also above the fog line, so, while ocean cooled, the evening mist is not a factor and sun is plentiful.

Best Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel.

Russian River Valley

Not really including the entire Russian River Valley, this region follows the river from Healdsburg south to Santa Rosa and then west to Occidental. It is remarkable for the fog that rolls down the river banks from the ocean and lasts until late morning, creating the perfect cool climate for world class wines.

Best Varietals: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, some Syrah.

Sonoma Coast

A huge geographical area abutting the Pacific coast (San Pablo Bay in the south all the way to the Mendocino border) belies the fact that it is sparsely planted. Cooler and wetter than most of Sonoma, the vineyards benefit from being above the fog line, and ultimately achieve great balance due to a long growing season.

Best Varietals: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Sonoma Mountain

East of the Sonoma Valley near the town of Glen Ellen, this region allows a number of varietals to be successfully grown because of its diverse micro climates created by mountain crevices and some rolling slopes. Primarily eastern facing and above the fog line, sunshine is abundant.

Best Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel.

Sonoma Valley

Running north/south between the town of Sonoma and Santa Rosa, this is also called “The Valley of the Moon.” The mountains on both sides protect the area from Pacific weather and so the southern part is cooled from the San Pablo Bay while the northern areas can become quite hot.

Best Varietals: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Semillon, Merlot.


It’s Time for Wine is a column published by wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser that is featured on the Amateur Gastronomer.

Monty and Sara Preiser reside full time in Palm Beach County, Florida, and spend their summers visiting wineries and studying wines on the west coast where they have a home in Napa. For many years they were the wine columnists for The Boca Raton News, have served as contributors to the South Florida Business Journal, and are now the principal wine writers for Sallys-Place.com.  Monty and Sara also publish The Preiser Key to Napa Valley, the most comprehensive guide to wineries and restaurants in the Napa Valley, published every March, July, and November. In fall 2011 the Preisers released the first issue of The Preiser Key to Sonoma. Click here to read more columns by the Preisers.

AG Pick: The Sum 2007

While you’re still trying to figure out the significance of the numbers in Lost, pick up a bottle of The Sum.  This red wine from The Seventy Five Wine Company may not help you add up all the mysteries left unanswered in Sunday night’s finale, though it’s an excellent sip as you discuss the numerous theories.

The Sum is a rich and full bodied blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Syrah and 10% Petite Sirah from the Napa Valley.  The grapes were fermented and aged separately, spending at least 14 months in 80% new French oak.  After blending the wine was aged in oak for an additional 3 months.

This red has all the great qualities of a Napa Cab with a surprisingly low price, at just over $20 a bottle.  The Syrah and Petite Sirah flesh out the flavors, adding depth and complexity.

Deep garnet-purple in color, the wine draws you in with aromas of cherries, blackberries, vanilla and spice.  These flavors unfold and develop in the mouth, with layers of sweet ripe berries, plum, cedar and cinnamon.  It’s lush and velvety in texture, with nice acidity and firm tannins that will allow you to enjoy this wine for the next several years.

The Sum pairs nicely with red meat.  Serve this with steak, lamb chops, buffalo and other hearty meat dishes.

This is the inaugural vintage of The Sum; it was created by Tuck Beckstoffer, whose family is well known for grape growing in the region.  Beckstoffer also produces a Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc under the Seventy-Five label.

A bottle of The Sum 2007 costs around $21.

Whalebone: A Great Find in Paso Robles

The highlight of my day in Paso Robles was discovering the wines of Whalebone Vineyard.

Never heard of it? Neither had I before I came across their tasting barn. But after trying their delicious red wines I’m a huge fan.

Whalebone VineyardWhen I arrived at Whalebone I met Jan Simpson who, along with her husband Bob, bought the property in 1986 to farm and raise cattle. They planted their first grapes ahead of the Paso Robles boom in 1989 and were soon selling the fruit to nearby wineries for top dollar. Starting in 1994 the Simpsons saved grapes to make their own wine. “Bob Wine,” as they affectionately called it, soon became a hit among their friends. Jan explained that they got into winemaking full time after Bob (who was also a doctor), lost a couple of fingers in a hunting accident, effectively ending his medical career. The Simpsons released their first wine under the Whalebone label in 2001. They came up with the name after finding numerous whale and marine fossils on the property.

Today, with the help of winemaker Dan Kleck, the Simpsons produce their cult favorite Bob Wine, as well as a Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Zinfandel.

If you like big, bold and spicy reds, you’ll want to order one (or more) of each right away. You won’t be disappointed.

Whalebone ZinfandelThe first wine Jan poured for me was the 2006 Zinfandel, their first vintage of this varietal. It’s a blend of 79% Zinfandel, 7% Petite Sirah, 7% Tempranillo and 7% Counoise. The wine is bright and zesty with flavors of cherry, vanilla and spice with dried herbs and white pepper on the finish. Well-integrated tannins give it a velvety mouthfeel. It’s a great wine for grilled steak or lamb. The 2006 Zinfandel costs $30.

Next Jan poured the 2005 and 2006 Syrah. Both are really, really good. The 2005, which I prefered slightly more, is 95% Syrah and 5% Petite Sirah. Deep purple in color, the wine has lush flavors of cherry and blueberry with a hint of toasted walnuts. The 2006 is 100% Syrah and has intense flavors of blackberry, vanilla, black pepper and smoke. Both the 2005 and 2006 Syrah cost $30.

Bob WineAfter the Syrah came two vintages of Bob Wine. Tasting both I could see why these have always been such a big hit. The 2005 Bob Wine is 76% Estate Cabernet, 18% Syrah and 6% Zinfandel. Dark crimson in color, the wine has jammy flavors of blackberries and raspberries with crushed black pepper. The finish is long and fruity. The 2006 Bob Wine is 61% Estate Cabernet, 19% Petit Verdot, 13% Zinfandel and 7% Syrah. Ripe flavors of plum and raspberry are complemented with a hint of cedar and spice and rounded out by soft tannins. Both are $30 so buy one of each to compare the flavors.

The tasting concluded with a trio of Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2004 and 2006 vintages are 100% Estate Cabernet, while the 2005 vintage has 93% Estate Cabernet and 7% Petite Sirah. All the Cabs have delicious full-bodied flavors of ripe black cherry, blackberry, sage, cedar and clove. You can’t go wrong with any vintage, though the 2004 is slightly more elegant and refined because of its age. The 2004, 2005 and 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon cost $35.

Whalebone tasting roomI enjoyed all of Whalebone’s wines so much that I joined their wine club and bought a few bottles to ship home.

Having been to many tasting rooms, I always prefer the more intimate ones where you get to meet the owners or the winemaker, or chat with friendly and knowledgeable staff. The wine seems to taste better when you’re able to interact with the people who help craft it. By the time I left Whalebone’s tasting room I felt like I was part of the Simpson family. Jan was so warm and welcoming that it was impossible not to fall in love with their wine.

If you can’t visit Whalebone, be sure to order some of their wines online at www.whalebonevineyard.com (I’m not sure if the wines are available at stores outside of California). But if you can visit, it will surely be a great experience you won’t soon forget.

A Taste of Los Olivos & Solvang

After a great time at Blackjack Ranch, I headed into downtown Los Olivos.  “Main drag” would be a better way to describe it.  All the action is on Grand Avenue, a cute few blocks of restaurants, tasting rooms, boutiques and a market.

I stopped for lunch at Los Olivos Cafe.  The menu is a mix of Californian and Mediterranean cuisine, with an extensive wine list to complement any dish.  The food on its own is enough to draw diners, though its cameo in the movie “Sideways” certainly didn’t hurt business.

Out of all the tasty sounding salads and sandwiches, I decided to order the pulled lamb sandwich.  It was hearty and well-seasoned with moist strips of lamb on a brioche bun.  It definitely hit the spot after a morning of wine tasting.

My first stop after lunch was at Tensley.  The tasting bar is tucked away in a shared space just off Grand Avenue.  Established in 1998, Tensley is a family owned and operated winery that primarily produces vineyard designated Syrah from Santa Barbara County.

I started with a taste of the 2008 Lea Tierra Alta Vineyard Syrah Rosé.  It’s a fun wine to drink, thanks in part to the way it was made.  Jennifer Tensley, the wife of owner and winemaker Joey Tensley, crushed the grapes by foot with their 5 year-old son.  In color and in flavor, this wine is almost like a light red wine rather than a rosé.  Notes of strawberries, raspberries and rose are complemented by light minerality.  This is a nice wine to pair with spicy food.  A bottle of the 2008 Lea Tierra Alta Vineyard Syrah Rosé costs $20.

Next I tried two Syrahs: the 2007 Thompson Vineyard Syrah and the 2007 Colson Canyon Vineyard Syrah.  I had a hard time picking a favorite.  Both are well-balanced and elegant.  The Thompson Vineyard Syrah has bright berry flavors with a hint of earth and leather.  The Colson Canyon Vineyard Syrah is deep purple in color, with flavors of blackberries, cherries and violet, and a nice balance of tannins and acidity.  Give me either one of these Syrahs and I’d be very happy to drink it.  Both Syrahs cost $38.

The tasting concluded with a wine named “Détente.”  The handshake on the label hints at the wine’s story.  It’s a collaboration between Tensley and Domaine de Montvac in southern France.  During a trip to the Rhône Valley in 2008, the Tensleys met winemaker Cécile Dusserre and came up with the idea to create a Rhône-style blend that would bring together their unique styles and terroirs.  The wine is 50% American grapes and 50% French grapes.  Tensley contributed Syrah from the Colson Canyon, while Dusserre contributed 70% Grenache, 25% Syrah and 5% Mourvedre from Gigondas.  The resulting wine is a harmonious blend of Old and New World.  Flavors of blackberries, plum and red currants mingle with licorice, spice and a hint of smoke.  Gentle tannins give the wine a rich and round mouthfeel.  It’s a nice pairing for grilled meats.  A bottle of the Détente costs $45.

After Tensley I walked up Grand Avenue to Epiphany Cellars.  Part of the Fess Parker family of wines, Epiphany is run by Fess’ son Eli.  With a variety of whites and reds, there’s a wine for any taste.  In particular I enjoyed a couple of white wines: the 2007 Purité Viognier and the 2007 Inspiration.  The Purité Viognier is 100% Viognier from the Santa Ynez Valley and aged in stainless steel.  Without any oak, the true flavors of Viognier shine through.  On the nose are hints of honeydew, pineapple and lychee, while on the palate are flavors of white peach, apricot and honeysuckle.  Low acidity in the wine leaves a soft finish.  This wine pairs nicely with fish, chicken, cheese or spicy Asian dishes.  A bottle of the 2007 Purité Viognier costs $24.

The 2007 Inspiration is a white Rhône blend consisting of 36% Marsanne, 30% Roussanne, 24% Viognier and 10% Grenache Blanc.  It’s aged for 10 months in 1/3 new French oak.  The wine has fresh flavors of peach, melon and tropical fruit with well-balanced acidity and a hint of honey.  This wine is great for seafood.  A bottle of the 2007 Inspiration costs $23.

My favorite of Epiphany’s reds was the 2005 Petite Sirah.  It’s 95% Petite Sirah and 5% Grenache from the Santa Ynez Valley.  The wine is aged for 24 months in 70% French oak and 30% American oak, with about 55% new barrels.  This red has those great smoky and chocolate flavors you expect in a Petite Sirah, along with notes of dense black fruits, pepper, spice and vanilla.  A bottle of the 2005 Petite Sirah costs $30.

Following the earlier recommendation of Blackjack Ranch’s tasting room manager, I left downtown Los Olivos to check out Brander Vineyard.  Though it seems a little off the beaten path, you can’t miss the bright pink chateau that houses the tasting room.  An unusual sight next to the lush green trees and vineyards, the tasting room looks like a princess’ castle designed by a 7 year-old girl.

Moving beyond the bright color, I noticed the flag of Argentina flying above the chateau.  I found out later that it represents the international background of the Brander family.  Owner and winemaker Fred Brander was born in Buenos Aires and later moved to Santa Barbara with his family.  He established Brander Vineyard in 1975, which at the time was one of only a few vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley.

Brander excels in Sauvignon Blanc.  I especially enjoyed the 2007 Cuvée Nicolas, a blend of 80% Santa Ynez Sauvignon Blanc with 20% Semillon.  It has intense tropical fruit flavors and a hint of spice.  Three months in French oak gives the wine a silky texture.  The 2007 Cuvée Nicolas costs $25.

I also liked the 2008 Santa Ynez Valley Sauvignon Blanc.  It’s a blend of Brander’s estate fruit and Sauvignon Blanc from other vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley.  The wine has a bright floral nose and crisp flavors of pineapple, white peach and grapefruit.  Light and refreshing, it was a perfect match for the hot and sunny afternoon.  The 2008 Santa Ynez Valley Sauvignon Blanc costs $15.

One of my favorite whites came at the end of the tasting — the 2007 Moscato Di Fredi.  Slightly sparkling with moderately sweet notes of white peach and apricot, this makes a great aperitif or dessert wine.  Serve it with cheese or fruit.  A 375ml bottle costs $12 and a 750ml bottle costs $20.

The good news for Florida residents is that Brander can ship to the Sunshine State (currently it does not ship to all 50 states, including New York).  Hot Miami summers go great with Brander’s Sauvignon Blanc.  Tensley, Epiphany and Blackjack Ranch also ship to Florida.

After the Moscato I was in the mood for something sweet.  On the way back to Santa Barbara I took a detour to Solvang, the “Danish Capital of America.”  It’s a quaint Danish village with shops, restaurants and bakeries.  Part cute and part kitsch, Solvang would fit in well at Epcot’s World Showcase.  As someone who loves that kind of stuff, I had a great time strolling around and peeking in shops.  I stopped at Mortensen’s Danish Bakery and got — what else — a cheese danish.  It was sweet without being overly sweet and the pastry was light and flaky.

Solvang is home to several tasting rooms with such interesting names as Lions Peak and Mandolina.  Unfortunately by the time I arrived my palate was a bit overworked.  At least that gives me an excuse to return!

Earlier: Wine Tasting in the Santa Ynez Valley – Blackjack Ranch