A Central Valley Surprise, Mariposa Wine Company

wine-trip-april-09-097So the two of us are driving north to Calaveras County on California highway 99, and we’re looking for a good spot to snag some lunch, stretch our legs – the usual sort of road trip stop.  The 99, if you’ve never been on it, runs up the middle of the San Joaquin Valley (aka California’s Central Valley), to the east of Interstate 5, which also runs through the San Joaquin Valley.  This is the state’s massive agricultural region, and they’re growing a little bit of everything out here and lots and lots of raisins, fruits, nuts, cotton and other veggies.  They also grow a lot of wine grapes – in fact, more wine grapes are grown in the San Joaquin Valley than anywhere else in California.

In any case, while these are rather interesting facts, scenery-wise, it’s not too exciting.  Especially when you’re on the road and the only stops are the usual fast food folks and gas stations.  When we’re on the road, we try to avoid places that we have at home.  There were, however, a couple signs for Wine Tasting.  The first didn’t come up at a good place to stop.  But the second came up at a good time to be stopping, in Madera, California.  It didn’t look like much, just a big factory-style building out in the middle of nowhere with a small, red clapboard building next to it advertising produce and nuts.wine-trip-april-09-093

Hmmm.  Mariposa Wine Company.  The yard out in front of the tasting room was nicely decorated.  Next to the parking lot was a whole lot of giant crushing machines and some stainless steel tanks.  It had the right smell.  The tasting room was lovely.  Margaret Ruiz, the tasting room hostess, was delightful and chatty and full of good information about the wines, although Mike’s more technical questions caught her a little off-guard.  They were good questions, just not the kind most folks ask.  And Margaret was able to answer most of them.

The winery and tasting room have been open since 2003 and they produce just under 5,000 cases a year, under three different labels.  But Ruiz said they are all made by the same winemaker.  They do get their grapes from the better known wine regions in California.  However, they are part of a growing network of small wineries in the Madera area.

Coming up next, we’ll be looking at a couple of the wines from the company’s mid-range label, Carmichael.  In the meantime, you can check out the winery here.

wine-trip-april-09-095

Kenneth Volk Negrette – Tasty and Odd

Courtesy of Kenneth Volk Vineyards
Courtesy of Kenneth Volk Vineyards

Negrette is a true Oddball Grape if ever there was one. It’s not seen that much outside of France – or even within France.  It is a French grape, but if you’re going to find it, it will be in the southwest of France, in the Toulouse region.

Kenneth Volk’s negrette has the deep red, almost black, color of a syrah. The nose has cedar, earth and dark fruits similar to blackberries. This is a textbook example of that perfect balance of acids, tannins and alcohol that create a whole that is better than the sum of its parts. The finish lasted a good 15 seconds after we decided to swallow it.

The tannins were drying and could easily withstand a year in the cellar, in spite of negrette’s reputation as a wine best drunk young. The flavors can stand up to cheeses – we tried some yellow cheddar – and we can’t wait to enjoy it with Brie spread on a good baguette with some dried salami on the side. But a steak might be too much for it and it would be a shame to miss the fruit.
The negrette seems to be available in the Kenneth Volk tasting room but if you call the winery, they might ship it. It’s worth hunting for.

A Shrimp-Loving Verdelho

Label art courtesy Kenneth Volk Vineyards
Label art courtesy Kenneth Volk Vineyards

This wine deserves to be enjoyed at the drop of a shrimp fork.

Seriously.  There’s a strong core of minerals in the flavor that brings almost a briny character to the wine.

Verdelho is perhaps best known as a Portuguese varietal, mostly because it’s one of the components of Madeira and often used in that other Portuguese classic fortified wine Port.  In France, however, it is fermented into a crisp, dry white.

The Kenneth Volk version has a clear yellow color, and the honeysuckle in the nose (aroma) is delicate and not overpowering.

The flavor of citrus peel balances out the mineral flavors mentioned above, giving the wine a crisp, light cleansing feel in the mouth.  Which means serve it with light seafood.  Maybe some nice, big cocktail shrimp that have been steamed and chilled, or a big green salad with chunks of lobster or crab.

If you can’t find the verdelho at your local wine retailer and you can get wine shipped to you in your state, you can order it from the winery directly,  with bottles going for $24, plus shipping.

From Whence Comes the OddBallGrape

Ken Volk doesn’t know this yet, but in a way, he is a major inspiration for this site.  The president and director of winemaking for Kenneth Volk Vineyards, Volk has a long history of experimenting with grape varieties that no one else has even heard of, let alone tasted.

Ken Volk with his negrette (Photo courtesy of Kenneth Volk Vineyards)
Ken Volk with his negrette (Photo courtesy of Kenneth Volk Vineyards)

Some years back, when Volk was still at Wild Horse, the Paso Robles winery where he made a name for himself, there was this little red called blaufrankisch.  Most folks were a little wary of it.  We dove right in and discovered what a joy trying something really new and different can be.  Ever since then, finding those odd ball grapes has been one of our passions.  And when this site came together, it seemed only natural to name it after that passion.

Volk sold Wild Horse in 2003 and the next year bought the facility he has now in the Santa Maria Valley.  His first wines under his namesake label rolled out in 2006.

Mike’s first experience with the Kenneth Volk product occurred as the last stop on the bus tour from hell.  Anne was working.  The weather was beyond miserably hot.  The wines at the other wineries were all over-oaked.  And the rest of the winemaking club was cranky, to say the least.  But Volk not only took the time to talk to the group, the wines (13 different bottles) were a revelation.  Pinots, cabs, chards, maybe even a negrette or a tempranillo or something like that.  Mike didn’t take notes that day.  But it was an impressive tasting both in terms of the scope and the really good flavor.  When the wine tastes that good at the end of the day, you know you’ve got something special.

We also recently spoke with Volk at the Family Winemakers event in Del Mar, California, and yes, he will be producing some blaufrankisch starting as early as this year.

“I’ve got an acre and a half of blaufranckisch, which I’ll be getting a crop off of this year,” he said.  “It was a graft that I did last year, so I expect it to…  I’ll probably get two tons of it this year.”

But we’ll still have to wait another couple years or so before anything gets bottled and/or released.

But what drives his interest in different…  Okay, odd ball grapes?

“There’s so many interesting grape varieties out there that have interesting flavors and unfortunately, the industry is dominated by a handful of them,” Volk said.  “Every year I try to do a new variety I’ve never done before.”

Negrette (photo courtesy of Kenneth Volk Vineyards)
Negrette (photo courtesy of Kenneth Volk Vineyards)

And we’ll be featuring his negrette and his verdelho over the next few days.  You can find out more about Volk and his winery at his website, volkwines.com.

Calibration Time, Blackstone Cabernet Sauvignon

s6300012The tasting calibration continues with the Blackstone Winery 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon. And again, this isn’t about us telling you what we think this wine should taste like. This is about you tasting this or a similar wine so that you know what we’re talking about when we mention, say, hints of cassis, one of the “standard” flavors for cabs.

So what the heck is cassis (pronounced cah-seess)? Well, turns out it’s a black currant plant, currants being the small, dark berries found on this particular shrub. The French make a liqueur from them called creme the nose, although it’s not too heavy. That’s the cassis. Michael also picked up some dark cherry in the smell, as well. The color is a really dark ruby.

Michael also caught some bing cherry on the back of his palate. At the same time, there was that light drying effect from tde cassis. Currants also taste a lot like raisins, in our humble opinion.

In fact, you can get some of that almost raisiny scent in he tannins in the wine, which is often described as “cleansing the palate.” The finish was decent, the flavor lingered for about 10 seconds. And overall, there’s a bit of oak in the wine, but not enough to get in the way of the fruit. That being said, the wine isn’t a fruit bomb, either, meaing all fruit and little else.

We figure this will do nicely as a food wine, maybe with a steak or a nice garlicky stew. But there is enough fruit that it does stand on its own – what we usually will call a cocktail wine. In fact, Anne argues that it’s closer to a cocktail wine.

So let us know what you come up with. We’re looking forward to hearing from you!

Anne Louise Bannon
Michael Holland

Syncing up with Fetzer Chard

Overall, the Fetzer Vineyards 2008 Valley Oaks Chardonnay is a pretty basic chard. It’s light – the sort of wine that’s good with salads, a simple roast chicken, perhaps, or a light sole or even some creamy pasta sauces. You just don’t want to pair it with anything terribly strong-flavored, like a dish heavy on the garlic.

Here’s what we found:

The color was a clear, straw-colored yellow. The nose (or aroma) turned up some hints of melon, a little bit of citrus and light oak. The mouthfeel was fairly lush – it’s not the sort of wine we’d call a gulper. But there wasn’t much of a finish, as in the flavors didn’t hang around in the mouth once the wine was swallowed.

The taste followed through on the hint of melon, with some tropical fruit flavors added to that. There was a bit of oak, some nice light acid and light tannins – that dry, almost rough feeling on the back of your palate.

Now, it’s your turn. Find the Fetzer chard, or if you can’t, try some other light chardonnay. Don’t spend a lot of money. Taste it, then post comments on what you found.

Anne Louise Bannon
Michael Holland

It’s Calibration Week! Start Your Bottles

The winery’s tasting notes called the smell in their wine “gaminess.”  Michael wrote down “barnyard.”  Anne just wrinkled her nose and said, “Ooo.  Ick.”  Someone could have said, “Wow, that’s great!”

All of us would be right.  Or correct.

Tasting wine is an inherently subjective process.  And Napa-centric snobs notwithstanding, any wine you like makes it a good wine.  True, there are certain characteristics that most people seem to agree make wine taste good.  And there are certain smells and tastes that distinguish different grapes (aka varietals).  But the way we might describe a basic cabernet sauvignon is not necessarily the way you would describe it.

So this week  we will be doing a calibration tasting.  We have purchased two wines that should be available around the U.S. (we got them at Target – although we recognize not every state in the Union allows wine to be sold there).  The first is a Fetzer Vineyards, Valley Oaks Chardonnay, 2008.  It should retail between $10 and $15,  unless you catch it on sale, like we did.  The second (coming in around the same price point) is a Blackstone Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2007.

You are invited to buy the same wines – or as close to them as you can get and taste along with us.  On Wednesday, we’ll post the chardonnay notes and you can compare what you tasted to what we tasted.  The idea is that if we say, “this chard has a nice pineapple tang,” and you tasted peach, then you’ll know that when we say pineapple about some other chardonnay, you’ll probably taste peach.  And if you like peach, then you’ll possibly like that wine.  And, of course, Friday, we’ll do the cab sauv.

Now, what if you taste the wine and you taste… wine.  It’s good, or possibly not.  But peach?  Pineapple?  Barnyard?  Bacon fat?  What in bloody tarnation are these wine geeks talking about?  It’s wine, for crying out loud.  Exactly, we say.  Seriously – the genius behind our tasting notes is Michael.  Anne can seldom taste all the more subtle flavors.  That doesn’t mean she can’t tell a good wine from a bad wine – or more importantly, that her impressions of a wine are any less valid.  It just means that she evaluates a wine in a different way.

So the first thing to remember is that tasting notes are supposed to be fun.  Unless you’re judging wines for a competition (something Michael has actually done many times), the only real reason for tasting notes is to communicate something – usually to yourself and/or life partner.

Maybe you just want to remember what it was about that syrah you tasted at your local wine bar that made you want to buy the bottle.  Maybe you want to pretend you’re Uber-critic Robert Parker.  And why not?  He is, in our not so humble opinion vastly over-rated.  It doesn’t matter.  What does matter is that you get to choose what words you use, your preferred short-hand, whatever.  Just write down your impressions.

Then we invite to post your comments so we can all share what we thought about the wine.  Just remember, no snarking on anybody else, because all of our impressions are valid.  And maybe we’ll come up with a new way to describe that soft, creamy feeling on the back of the palate as something besides buttery.

Slainte!

Anne Louise Bannon and Michael Holland

Ceja’s Vino de Casa, Not Your Ordinary Blend

The thing with Ceja’s 2005 Vino de Casa is that it’s a basic, food-friendly, delicious little red.  Nothing pretentious.  Even the name just means “house wine.”  Who’dathunk that it would come from 62% pinot noir and 38% Syrah?  It’s hard to imagine two more different grapes.
Pinot noir is, of course, the heartbreak grape.  Notoriously finicky, unless conditions are perfect in the vineyard and it’s treated with the right respect in the winery, you’re going to get crap.  And usually expensive crap at that.  Ask us how we know.  Syrah, on the other hand, is hardy and usually as a wine it’s slightly spicy – think black pepper, licorice, cloves instead of fruity character – and in your face.  As delicate and rich as the best pinots are, syrah is bold and almost overripe.  Blended together, the two make an intriguing combination.

With pinot noir (and since that’s the larger part of the blend, those characteristics will presumably dominate), the aromas – or nose – will generally include cherries, raspberries, violets as well as sassafras, mint, leather and mushrooms. The taste can be any of these and oak is almost always part of a winery program, as long as there isn’t too much.

In the Casa de Vino, the Syrah adds color and flavor to the blend.  There’s a nose of earth and some cedar/redwood. The medium weight mouthfeel contained pomegranate, some blueberry and dry red fruit. A good long finish lingered.  And it’s more food-friendly than a lot of other pinot-based wines. At 13.2% alcohol, it will go well with lighter meats like pork with a light pomegranate reduction glaze or even with a little bit of oak smoke from the grill with the glaze as a grilling sauce. Vegetarian options could be smoked tofu or a French-inspired salad of artichoke hearts, olives and tomatoes over baby greens sounds yummy especially if there’s good bread alongside.

Ceja Summer Sipping

Sauvignon blanc is finally developing a following for the right reasons as opposed to being the Anti-Chardonnay. Lean, citrusy and crisp, it’s a great summer wine, and the Ceja 2007 sauv blanc, out of the Sonoma Coast region, fires on all the right cylinders.
If harvested and made with slightly underripe grapes, sauv blanc can have a distinctly “catbox” aroma. If overripe, it goes soft with melon and pineapple/tropical fruit aromas and taste. It is in that thin middle ground that its characteristic grapefruit aroma and crispness really gets to express itself.  Although, too much grapefruit and the wine is definitely out of balance.
The Ceja had the grapefruit aroma indicative of a normally ripe fruit at harvest. Not much oak was detected due to the use of older barrels, which added almost no flavor to the wine but did concentrate the fruit flavors. The concentration became obvious in the mouth with the lemony/lime crispness and minerals on the mid-palate. The decent finish and modest mouthfeel make this a good palate cleanser and an excellent aperitif.
While many sauv blancs are little more than lemony water, the Ceja is a nice summertime refresher.  Or try it alongside any number of dishes from chicken that’s been marinated in lime juice and garlic, ceviche or anything that has citrus elements.

An American Winery, Ceja Vineyards

This is the American story.  In the early to mid 1960s, Pablo Ceja joined thousands of his country-men to leave their native Mexico and work in the brasero program in California, picking crops and otherwise working in the fields.  Ceja landed in St. Helena, picking grapes across the Napa valley and dreaming of owning his own vineyard.

The family, including mama Juanita, immigrated to the U.S. in 1967, and Pablo’s two sons, Pedro and Armando, caught the dream from their father.  In 1983, Pedro and his wife Amelia, pooled resources with their parents and Armando, and the family bought their first vineyard.

Since then, they’ve gone well beyond just growing grapes in Napa’s famous Carneros region to producing up to 10,000 cases of premium wines.  And the third generation of Cejas are helping out with the family business, including two tasting rooms, one at 1248 First St., in Napa, itself, and another open by appointment only – a small house that’s been made over into a gorgeous facility perfect for groups.

The family may be dead serious about producing their wines, but even with the beautiful appointments of the tasting room and almost slick atmosphere there is a sly sense of humor.  Check out the business cards.  We talked with Ariel Ceja, who is listed at General Manager of the winery and “Da Little Guy.”  Wine Educator Javier Hernandez is also the Papi Chulo.  Problem is, there really isn’t a good translation for it, but it’s something along the lines of Pretty Boy or Hot Daddy (both of which Javier is).  He is such a sweetie and very passionate about sharing wine.

“You have to learn the philosophy of the winemaker,” he told us.  “Ours is to produce wines that go with any kind of food.”

Javier was also quick to point out that not all Mexican food is spicy – heat not usually being a flavor component that goes well with wine.  And, in fact, he offered up several examples of traditional dishes, such as mole, that go very well with certain reds.  You can check their website for several other examples.

While Javier conceded that most people associate beer with Mexican culture, he rightfully reminded us that most of the laborers in California wineries came (or come) from Mexico.

“We also know how to do it,” he said.

And they do.

Ceja Vineyards’ website can be found here.

Anne Louise Bannon

Mike Holland

Odd Ball Grape