Jan 15, 2017

Napa Valley cheeky tasting tour. #WineWednesday

So its a 8pm on Tuesday night and you and the wife have the rest of the week off, what to do? First check with your partner in crime to see if he and his wife are up for an adventure. Nope, working was the answer. So in a moment of possibilities it was decided to get up early enough that driving to Napa we would arrive at the first stop at opening time.

The next morning was upon us and we left mostly on schedule. As we traveled north on Hwy 1 we made good time and a Starbucks stop was allowed. Back on the road in no time and traffic was kind. We were quickly over Hwy 17 and heading towards San Francisco. Crossing the spectacular Golden Gate bridge only slightly behind schedule.

So where was the first stop? We had not yet decided. I know, I know. Only thirty minutes away from Napa and no first stop had been settled on. As we drive over the bridge we started the planning.

First stop we decided was to be the spectacular
 Gloria Ferrer Winery
Figured bubbles would be a good start! Now although it was a sunny day, being the middle of winter and mid morning we knew it would be a little too cold to enjoy all the beautiful views from the balcony so chose instead to be seated at the #1 table inside the very nice interior tasting area. We opted to enjoy a glass each of the 90+ Point bubbles tasting flight and a delicious cheese plate (brunch).

An Extra Brut Reserve Cuvee, Royal Cuvee Brut and a delightful Demi Sec. What a special experience in a lovely classy setting. A great start to the cheeky tasting tour but just as we were agreeing on that we noticed something strange on the tasting menu. An Aussie Flight! Well I could not leave without finding out what the story was there. Turns out that Katnook Estate from Coonawarra South Australia is in the portfolio. These three great Coonawarra Cabernets are not to be missed. Who knew, Coonawarra Cabernet in Napa California! These wines are a great expression of the classic and unique characteristics of the Coonawarra wine region. So our first stop was a beauty and with bottle of Cabernet purchased we were now faced with the second stop decision.

What a beautiful winters day driving through Napa Valley.

Our next stop was to be the Castello di Amorosa. Figured we would go to the north end and work our way back as we had yet to secure a place to stay. The Castello di Amorosa is a 13th century styled Tuscan Castel that is visually amazing. What would the wine be like? Well we did not have high expectations given the touristy theme park kind of setting. The place was packed. Did these people not know it was Wednesday! Crowds aside we lined up to purchase our tasting package (yes, lined up just to purchase a tasting or a tour). Yes you purchase a package and then go to the area for that package. Ok so I'm a bit of a tasting snob and I'm not a fan of the tasting crowd experience so decided on the $40 Reserve tasting in the Il Passito Room and as it turned out, a great choice.

The Il Pasito Room is a cool space. The tasting started with a lovely Pinot Gigio. Guided through our tasting by the lovely Ciara we tasted into the reds. So how were the wines you ask.
Well they were all decent to good until I tasted the Il Barone. This stunning wine was a real game changer.

Tasted a couple other very good wines but was totally smitten by the Il Barone so purchased a bottle to go. If you get a chance, go visit the Castello di Amorosa and have the Reserve tasting and a good look around.

As we were leaving we made a couple calls for tastings but were turned down as they were booked up and there were no slots open. What! This was a Wednesday! Note to self book way ahead next time. Oh wait, this was a last minute trip...

As we were going south we saw the Freemark Abbey sign and whipped on in. Wine I had not tasted before. Just what we were looking for. We tasted through the range and were impressed with the consistently good Cabernets. A nice facility and good wine at reasonable prices by Napa comparisons. Purchased a bottle of the 2012 Bootleg Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine was selected as I felt it was the best balance of price and taste.

We had made no reservations for anywhere to stay but had reached out to a couple places we have social media contact with. Some standard discounts were offered but nothing the regular deal seeker did not get. As we left and headed south through Napa Valley the misses jumped onto Priceline and scored a great deal that was about half the price of the offered deals. This meant we were to be in Napa for another day. Woo hoo!

We had a simple but wholesome meal at the Trancas Steakhouse. A delicious steak sandwich and a French Dip both with fries that really hit the spot at a very reasonable price.
We retired relatively early so as to be in the best shape to embrace the day ahead.

To be continued...

Happy Wine Adventures,


Nov 27, 2016

Getting our Grüner on at Hahndorf Hill Winery

Just like your first real kiss or that first love, the first time I tasted Grüner Veltliner I was never to be the same again. I had been kissed and my heart (palate) was hooked. It was the debut White Mischief Grüner Veltliner (a fruit-driven, less dry style) from Hahndorf Hill Winery in Hahndorf South Australia in the beautiful Adelaide Hills. I was immediately smitten with this beautiful wine. In the years since that first sip I look forward with anticipation to heading back to Hahndorf Hill Winery every year to taste the new vintage and see what else is on offer as well as enjoy a wonderful ChocoVino experience.

The most important grape variety in Austria, Grüner Veltliner achieved worldwide awareness and popularity at the end of the last century. It is a fertile variety and therefore requires a deft touch in the vineyard with things like yield regulation. It grows especially well in deep loamy soils, does not like dryness and is sensitive during flowering. Grüner Veltliner delivers all quality levels - from light, acidity-toned wines to the highly ripe Prädikat wines. The site and the yield are crucial to the quality. Spicy, peppery versions are preferred and so are versions yielding stone fruit notes. Grüner Veltliner is capable of producing very fine, full-bodied wines well capable of ageing. Until I was introduced to this wonderful wine by Larry at Hahndorf Hill Winery and in an instant I was hooked.

Having been unable to source healthy Grüner plant material in Australia, HHW (Hahndorf Hill Winery) in 2006 was able to import three different clones directly from Austria, which all passed successfully through the quarantine system. Then in 2009 they imported a further three clones again from Austria, making a total of six clones of Grüner that were planted in their vineyard.

In 2010 they released their debut vintage, which they affectionately named GRU. This was the first production of Grüner Veltliner in South Australia (and the second within Australia, the first being Lark Hill, a year earlier, in the Canberra wine region).

In addition, the HHW GRU Grüner Veltliner 2015 was selected to represent Australia at the prestigious Six Nations Wine Challenge 2016, where it was (not surprisingly) awarded a Double Gold Medal.

At Hahndorf Hill Winery they now produce four different styles of Grüner Veltliner - a classic style, GRU Grüner Veltliner; a more fruit-driven style, White Mischief Grüner Veltliner; their reserve style, GRU2 Grüner Veltliner and soon (maybe already) will be releasing a late harvest style called Green Angel.

Winemakers like to tell you that their wines go with everything but in the case of HHW Grüner Veltliner, Austria’s (Adelaide Hills soon) best known white wine, it’s true. Short of Sunday roasts and large juicy steaks you can match it with practically anything. At first glimpse, that umlauted ü in Grüner may give off a tongue-twisting impression. But the name is actually simple to pronounce, it's "Grew-ner Velt-leen-er". Really, if Pinot Grigio and Cabernet Sauvignon easily fly off the tongue, then certainly Grüner Veltliner will. Or just join us and call it Grüner.

This wine has a lovely fresh aromatic citrus quality on the nose that carries to the palate with a mouth filling citrus and stone fruit combination. With the almost perfect amount of acid that makes your mouth water and beg you to drink some more. Before you know it the bottle is empty. What a lovely wine that at *** earns an 8+ on the scale.

As I mentioned early in the piece, I look forward every year to tasting the latest from Hahndorf Hill Winery and the Grüner is a major reason. Ok, and the great staff that also provide a wonderful tasting as well as the ever amazing Chocovino experience that are really icing on the cake.

Happy Wine Adventures,


Nov 19, 2016

Every Participant Gets a Medal ?

A pet peeve of ours is the 'the every participant gets a medal brigade'. A product of the self-esteem movement, parents and coaches today feel obligated to heap praise on children, no matter if they deserve it or not. No matter if they hit a home run or made the error that lost the game for their team. That is, if they even keep score at all. The mentality has created an atmosphere where everyone gets a trophy, but awarding medals and trophies just for participation sets the bar very low, according to experts. Trophies make kids feel like finishing in last place may be good enough.

So where are we going with this? Have you noticed how many medals and awards some wines have? Have you also noticed that generally when you see these at a grocery store they are a cheaper brand in the $12-$20 range. Which then begs the question, how do all these mediocre wines get all these medals and awards?

So lets start by saying that it may not be the wineries fault. They may be victims or contributors to a faulty system. Victims or participants of the every entrant needs an accolade society. Submit your wine, pay your fee and at worst you will get a Bronze Medal.

Wait, what? How can this be you ask. We are surprised that a significant number of people think that all Golds are the same. Not so! The gold medal that the new to the game from some obscure non AVA small family winery just received (may be real, but not likely) is not the same as one received at a competition that judges blind and against a set standard where the points are tallied by someone else and there are no guarantees. Massive wine competitions like the San Francisco International Wine Competition or the Royal Melbourne Wine Awards generate a lot of awards and probably sell a lot of wine for those that receive these awards.

So where do we begin. In the US for every country wine town there is generally a wine show or two each year that holds an awards segment. Submit your entry and be judged by a collection of folks that range from drinkers to somms. The problem with most of these competitions is that there is not a standard they are judged against but just against others of similar variety for that event. Some didn't even do the tasting blind although we have not come across this in a while. So what this means is that the one that those tasting liked the best is a Best in show and a Gold or as is becoming more popular a Double Gold.

Now we are proponents of 'if you enjoy a wine, then drink it' but we also are well aware that because you like it does not make it Medal worthy or high points score worthy.

One thing about wine medals is that, unlike the Olympics, there are almost always more than three in any category and often gold medals are awarded to all wines that are scored a certain mark (say, more than 93 out of 100), silvers are given to all scoring more than 88, and bronzes to all over 85. So as you see in theory then, all wines in a category could be awarded gold. Alternatively, no medals at all could be awarded. So a gold doesn’t mean that a wine was best in its class because it might have been the lowest of three golds.

And there are often many classes, based on style, grape variety and price. A gold medal winner in the under $10 red category might not be nearly as good as a gold in the over $20 Shiraz group.

We remember seeing a cartoon showing a man tasting wine in a store, making a face and saying, “This wine tastes terrible!” The pourer says, “Wine Spectator gave it 92 Points,” and the customer replies, “I’ll take a case!”

In the US, most wine competitions are like the Special Olympics: wineries get medals for showing up. And the more medals a competition gives, the more successful it is. So where does this leave us?

 If a bottle has a medal sticker on it in the supermarket, it gets a response. In a wall of wine, anything with some bling gets a response. Some say this is not a bad thing as that bling may encourage people to branch out and try different grapes and regions, wine that would otherwise be ignored. Trouble is, as punters, we'd expect any award to be offering more than a "you won't want to spit this out" kind of reassurance.

In California the state fair competition was important in helping the California wine industry grow before Prohibition (it started in 1854) and rebuild after Prohibition. At a time when very few took California wine seriously, it was a way for small wineries to get a PR boost. Maybe that’s how the whole culture of winery interests first competitions started.

So in the end who is the true customer of a wine competition? Is it the winery that enters, or the consumer who sees the gold medal?

The reality is probably somewhere between the two. All we know is we wish there was a bit more of a norm so that those making wine actually knew where their wine stood in the big picture which would allow them the opportunity to try harder to make better wine.

It would also allow the consumer to not worry so much about the possibility they may be pouring their latest purchase down the drain.

Happy Wine Adventures,


Nov 18, 2016

A winemakers journey.

Way back in the Santa Cruz Mountains is an old estate that few ever get to see that has been producing wonderful Pinot Noir for over ten years. Established in 1881 by California pioneer Pierre Cornwall this grape growing property was once owned by the famous director, Alfred Hitchcock. Today Heart O' The Mountain is owned by the Robert Brassfield family and produces a limited amount of hand-crafted, Estate grown Pinot Noir made by winemaker Brandon Armitage.

Brandon Armitage started his career 19 years ago in New Zealand. where he studied Viticulture in Central Otago and started getting his hands dirty working on helping to establish new vineyards and working in existing ones. While completing his technical degree in Viticulture he was volunteering all of his free time to winemaking. Working for Carrick Wines in New Zealand a love for Pinot Noir was born. After years of traveling back and forth from northern hemisphere, Colorado/Oregon/California, to southern hemisphere New Zealand making wine, he was able to develop the skills needed to grow and nurture grapes into the best Pinot Noir the Santa Cruz Mountains has to offer!

Brandon Armitage is the winemaker and President of Armitage Wines and is now taking over the general management of the Bassfields Heart O the Mountain operation for whom he has been making wine for for a number of years! The Brassfields have built a reputation based on family, exceptional quality and a passion for making stellar wines from one of the most magical places within the Santa Cruz Mountain AVA, known as the old Alfred Hitchcock estate, Mt. Roberta and Heart O' The Mountain.

Heart O' The Mountain Vineyard was planted with specific clones, orientation and rootstock best suited for the terroir and micro climate of the estate. Five clones have been planted, 777, 828, 667, Pommard and most recently 115, offering different characteristics to be showcase the property and some to be crafted into the best Pinot from the area.
The Brassfields hard work and care evolved into a wine that was only available to people they connected with and who became club members. As members grew so did production and different styles of Pinot from the same vineyard thus creating the single clone series. While blending the clones together fills in the spaces, balancing tannin, sugars and acids providing a balanced wine experience, being able to try the different components of the single clones provides a better understanding of what goes into blending. Showing off single clone wines is part of what separates the estate from other wineries in the area.

Bob giving us some history in the English rose garden
As the winemaker-owner of Armitage Wines and taking over the responsibility of HOTM, Brandon has put a lot of thought into how he is going to balance the two labels and maintaining the exclusivity of the brand Heart O' The Mountain.  All Heart O' The Mountain Vineyard single clone wines will have the original Heart O' The Mountain label.
These wines were once only available to club members but now can be tasted at the Aptos California tasting room. As of the 2014 vintage, Heart O' The Mountain Vineyard wines that are a blend of the different clones will have the Armitage label on them.  
Brandon says the focus is still the Allocation Club and they want members (their family) to have exclusive access to certain aspects of the business such as club events and HOTM winery visits.  
Both labels can be purchased through the website at www.armitagewines.com.  Club members can access or create an account on the website, purchase wine, and have the wine shipped to them or pick it up at the Postal Annex in Scotts Valley or at the Tasting Room in Aptos. 

Armitage Wines and Heart O' The Mountain has opened the wine club up to new members as the vineyard has produced more grapes in recent years and they plan on making all of it into wine!  They also believe the best marketing is word of mouth and have created a Referral Program where they have a few different wines that they keep in their Library, so if a member refers someone to the club, they gift them  a bottle of wine from the library. Nice touch!

At the recent unveiling of the 2014 vintage at the Estate we asked Brandon what were some of the current changes people will see and what directions he may take the labels in the future. He said not much is going to change but is looking to grow production a bit but staying the course with the current process. He is looking forward to getting into the vineyards and putting his hand on the vines to up the quality even more.

When we asked Brandon what one thing he had learned in his time in New Zealand that he uses to this day he straight out stated that the one thing he believes is that paying attention makes a difference. You must pay attention to the details Brandon says, that way you never have to recover only monitor and guide the wine to its be its best.  

Bob Brassfield gave us a wonderful tour of the estate and gave us the history as well. While Hitchcock did not live there he used the place for entertaining guests. We can only imagine what a thrill it must have been for those guests as the place is spectacular. We also had a long chat with Bob about the circumstances that brought about his association with Brandon and how it has come that Brandon has come to be taking over the operation. Bob is excited to see what is to come and has the utmost confidence in Brandon's wine making and vineyard management skills. 

With that all being said what about the 2014 releases? We tasted through the 2014 HOTM 667, HOTM Pommard Clone, HOTM 828, HOTM 777, Armitage Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir, Armitage Chalone 'Dry Hole Vineyard' Pinot Noir as well as the Armitage Mt Roberta Reserve Pinot Noir. All quality wines. These are relatively young wines and are not yet set to be released for a month or so, but all tasted very good.

These are very impressive wines from a small vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains and Brandon is really one to watch, or as we prefer to do, continue to taste and drink his wines (strictly so we can continue to inform). With wine this good it wont be long before there will be a waiting list to get an allocation of his wine. 

Join the club now while you can so you don't miss out!

Happy Wine Adventures,


Oct 16, 2016

2013 Pinot Nior's from Armitage Wine

Not that long ago we came across this wine maker that just knocked our socks off. A self proclaimed maker of Pinot Noir. After a taste of the range we were hooked. The wines we tasted were;

2013 Carmel Valley Pinot Noir. This is hefty for a Pinot. It has tannin's that will need a little time to figure out who they really are. This wine changes in the glass over time quite a bit. Time should prove this to be an interesting and enjoyable different style Pinot Nior. *** 7.

2013 Santa Cruz mountains Pinot Noir. 
Soft feminine and delicate A sexy young girl who enjoys leading you astray. Oh baby. Hey honey can I keep her? 100% new oak. Would not have guessed. Just delightful *** 7+.

2013 Armitage Chalone
2013 Dry Hole Vineyard Chalone Piñot Noir.
A full sumptuous, voluptuous wine that has it all going on. A Marilyn of wine. Great balance and a crackin finish that just checks all the boxes. This wine is feminine but is a bit like that sultry woman that can make grown men blush. A siren that one cannot resist. Please sir can I have some more. No new oak. *** 8.

2013 Santa Cruz Mountains Mt Roberta Reserve Piñot Noir.
2013 Armitage SCM ReserveThis is a beautiful svelte wine that has beautiful aromatics and a balanced and round mid palate. The finish is like a great suspense novel from a master that holds you on the edge of your seat for an extended period of time. A technical descriptor for this wine would be 'Yum'.  This is the same as the Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot but selected barrels that Brandon feels are the best of the best. The best of the best is a little more rounded and fuller. This seductive wine is a lover with a feel for substance and connection that will make your night one to remember. ** 8+.
Head on over to Aptos California and have a taste of some pretty darn good Pinot Noir. We are soon to taste the pre-release of the 2014's and we cant wait.
Happy Wine Adventures,