Leslie Sisneros on Murderously Good Pinot Noir

Leslie Sisneros of Murder Ridge Winery

We met Leslie Sisneros at the 2016 Family Winemakers of California Grand Tasting (in the interests of full disclosure, we got into this paid event for free in the hopes that we’d get around to writing something about it or the presenting winemakers sooner than we did). This is a great event, by the way, especially if you’re new to wine. The $75 for the ticket might seem like a lot, but we’ve seen smaller tastings that cost a lot more, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a greater breadth of wines. Plus, you’ve already paid for them all, so you might as well try even the ones you don’t think you like.

But back to Ms. Sisneros, of Murder Ridge Winery. She’s been making wine for over 20 years, but actually fell into making pinot noir.

“It wasn’t my choice,” she explained. “Because I started out at Kendall Jackson and I was assigned the variety. Actually, zin’s pretty hard, too. I guess it’s good when you start out with the hardest wine to make. But I’m always up for a challenge, so I just took it in stride.”

Pinot noir is a notoriously finicky grape and can be very hard to make well.

“There’s all kinds of different pinots,” Sisneros said. “It can go from the lowest priced ones to the premium ones. You’re looking for something that’s fruity and not overly tannic.”

But when you hear people wax eloquent about pinot noir, you’ll often hear them going on about the clone of the grape.

“There’s more people who talk about pinot in terms of clones than any other variety,” Sisneros said. Many grape varieties have their own specific clones, but it’s more of an issue with pinot noir. “It really does make a difference in what clones you plant and where you plant them. It determines the winemaker’s fingerprint.”

She explained that cloning is sort of like taking the natural process of evolution the next few steps further.

“In nature, everything generally mutates so the strongest survive,” Sisneros said. “What the people do is they’ll select a particular plant or several plants in a vineyard. They’ll take a bud culture and they will keep making it genetically the same and it will take generations and generations.”

She said that after individual clone, the other thing that really makes a difference in a pinot noir is where it’s grown.

“You can certainly tell a Russian River pinot noir,” she said. “To me, they’re like night and day. Mendocino pinot is more delicate. Russian River is dark and moody.”

Murder Ridge Winery is in Mendocino County, in a largely wilderness area known as Mendocino Ridge. The winery gets its name from the infamous murder of Joseph Cooper in 1911. Sisneros partnered with wine grower Steve Alden to form the label after having worked with his grapes for several other wineries for whom she’s worked as a consulting winemaker.


Deborah Hall, of Gypsy Canyon, Shows off Her Vines

Deborah Hall is the owner and winemaker for Gypsy Canyon. She’s not only a super nice lady, she makes some amazing wines, in particular, her Old Vines Angelica. This is a sherry-type wine that was made by the mission fathers throughout the southern parts of California. In fact, Angelica was supposedly named for the city of Los Angeles. 

Check out the video below and she tells about how she found the old vines of Mission grapes on her property. BTW, head-trained grapes are ones that are not put up on trellises. More about Deborah and how we got to know her below the video.

We got to know Deborah Hall when Michael started his own little ancient vines project here in Los Angeles. Michael got permission to harvest the grapes off of two vines at the oldest building still standing in Los Angeles, the Avila Adobe on Olvera Street. We’re pretty sure the vines were planted when the adobe was built in 1818, but there’s no way of knowing. The vines are well over 100 years old and are quite possibly the oldest vines in the state.

Once Michael found out that he was dealing with Mission grapes – a variety grown here by the Franciscans who built the California missions, he contacted Deborah Hall to get some pointers on how to make Angelica. Deborah was not only kind enough to share her recipe, she invited us up to lunch at her home and winery. She not only fed us and poured us her incredible wines, she took us out to see the grapes she’d found while clearing brush on her property. Anne had the video camera and we had a blast talking about old vines.

Wine Vending Machines – A Peek Inside

Ever wonder what’s inside one of those machines that sell wine by the glass? We did, and back in August 2015, we had a chance to see the inside of one at a restaurant show. And then promptly forgot about the pictures.

So, just for the fun of it – here they are:

Picking Wine for the Wine Snob


2013-04-27 21.49.12 This is a re-post from a few years ago, but it’s (sigh) still relevant. Hope this helps. For other gift ideas, check out our friend Krista Lamb Davis’ blog Upkeep: Wine, Body and Soul. 

It’s holiday gift giving time and one of the biggest problems with all the elitism and snobbery surrounding the world of wine is that it makes the simple gesture of offering a gift of wine so fraught with terror. And it’s so very unfair and unnecessary.

Wine geeks that we are, we have gotten our fair share of kindly-meant white zinfandel (and if you’re not a wine person and don’t know why this is not a good thing to do, relax, you’ve hit the right page). Yet we have not mocked anyone who has ever done so, nor have we cut said people off or thought less of them. But then, we try to be nice and accept the gift as an attempt to respect who we are.

At the same time, we recognize that there might be a boss, a future in-law or just somebody you would like to know better and you’d like to please and/or impress said person and you know this person likes wine. And the sad truth is, this person may also be a wine snob.

The problem is, there are wines that are pretty “safe,” in that almost anybody who likes wine will be reasonably impressed with a bottle of, say, a cabernet sauvignon from Silver Oak winery. But you’re talking about wine that can get pretty pricey. And, truth be told, there are those who think Silver Oak is trading on its label, so you’re still not safe, as it were.

So the first thing to do, if you’re not a wine drinker or know much about wines, is give up on the notion that you’re going to be able to convince a real wine snob that you “know” wines. Because no one knows wine like a wine snob does, unless that person happens to agree with said snob often enough. And that includes people like us who make wine and know what “fine” wine tastes like. That’s what a snob is and why we generally don’t cater to such people. We get that said snob may have a son you’re planning on marrying or may be the manager you’re hoping will promote you. We’re just pointing out that you’re not likely to get on said snob’s good side by trying to impress this person with knowledge you don’t have (and you can’t have it because the only knowledge this person counts as valid is his or her own).

That doesn’t mean you can’t give this person a gift of wine that shows some thought and care in the giving. After all, it’s the thought that counts and while you don’t want to send the message that you weren’t thinking, the vast majority of people out there, including wine snobs, are willing to accept that you made an effort on their behalf. As long as it’s clear that you made the effort. Again, we recognize that there are some people willing to attribute the worst motives to you no matter what you do, and at that point you may want to start looking for another job or settle in for a rocky relationship with the in-laws or re-think the potential relationship. But the following tips should help you with the vast majority of folks.

So when you don’t have knowledge, sometimes the easiest thing to do is ask. If you really, really want to keep it a surprise, you can try framing the question as a request for another friend who likes wine. But simply saying you don’t really know that much about wine and want to learn will generally warm the cockles of even the grinchiest of hearts because there are few things wine snobs love to do more than pontificate about their preferences. You might try asking where a good place to get wine is or what’s a good wine for someone who’s really into wine.

Now, if said snob responds with several different preferred wine shops and asks about budget, or asks what your friend likes, then you’re probably not dealing with a true wine snob. Which means you can go to yet another wine store and ask the person behind the counter to guide you to a good bottle of something unusual. If said snob says things, “Well, the only place to go is…” or “Obviously, your friend will only want….” then you are, in fact, dealing with a snob, and it might be time to check out that tie or purse.

You can also respond with the “Gee, I’m not sure what my friend likes. What do you like?” Listen carefully, because your target snob will give you plenty to go on. As soon as you feasibly can, write down anything you remember. Then you’ve got two options. If your budget is wide open, then you can go to said snob’s preferred store and ask the sales person to help you. Most are pretty cool and get it. Sometimes you’ll run into a fellow snob, but then you can walk and shop elsewhere.

Any decent wine store will have someone willing to help a newbie purchase a bottle for someone else. And the good ones won’t make the noob feel like an idiot. Because you’re not an idiot. You’re trying to please someone with a bottle of wine and it really shouldn’t be this complicated. And it shouldn’t break the bank, either, because there are lots and lots of great wines for under $20 and several under $10. If you get a really obscure label from a truly tiny producer, you can also proclaim it a boutique wine, which might forestall some lip curling.

Now, you’ll note we’re not recommending any specific wines here. Why? Because there are far, far too many to list and every time we read one of these lists, we find we have a heck of a time finding a given label – which doesn’t help when you’re looking at the rows and rows of bottles without a clue what to buy.

So worse case scenario? You don’t know what the target snob likes, just that he or she likes wine. Go with a Bordeaux red, if the person tends toward stuffiness, go with a premium California cab sauv if the person loves labels and status, go with a red made from something unusual, such as negrette or tempranillo, if your giftee likes taking chances and adventure. And, again, try and ask your friendly wine store employee for suggestions. They can offer you ideas even we haven’t thought of.

The only hard and fast rule (unless you know for a fact otherwise) is never, never buy white zinfandel for a wine snob. As a wine, it tends to be just dreadful, sick sweet stuff, which is why we don’t like it. There may be good ones out there and you might even like it, which is cool. But most people who like wine don’t tend to like white zin.

Oh, and for the record, there’s a reason we’re the OddBallGrape. We love trying stuff we’ve never heard of.

How to Choose Your Wine for Thanksgiving

wine for ThanksgivingThis is the time of year when all the wine pundits are falling all over themselves writing about the best wine for Thanksgiving dinner. And everyone writes about a different wine. And at least one or more of those choices you look at and wonder what planet is that writer from?

No need to stress out on this one. You can pick out your own wine for Thanksgiving. Seriously. It’s easy.

You do a blind tasting. Now this is something you want to do with friends because it involves multiple open bottles of wine. But that will also make it a lot more fun.

Choosing wine for Thanksgiving Dinner is actually kind of tough because several of the traditional elements are sweet and do not go well with dry wines, whereas the savory elements are often overwhelmed by sweet wines. And just to confuse things, while turkey is technically at least part white meat, its stronger flavor tends to do better with dry reds.

There are a few exceptions. Sparkling wines go with pretty much everything. Some really fruity dry reds, such as syrahs or zinfandels, do okay with the sweeter foods as well as the savory. Anne doesn’t agree – her palate is more sensitive to the sour of acids, and to her, that’s how anything dry tastes after anything sweet.

Now since dinner is what this is all about, you will need some food to go with your tasting. We recommend turkey pot pie, something cranberry, and baked sweet potato. Pretty much everything you’re going to be eating that day is combined in those three elements.

Next, you need a few wines to try. Check in with your favorite wine merchant or see what the local Trader Joe’s is recommending. Pick up, say, three different bottles. Or have your other friends each bring one. Or get the same number of different whites and different reds, if you want to get that fancy. Because a lone white in a tasting of reds kind of gives itself away.

Doing the blind tasting

Once you’ve got your food elements ready, open the wine bottles, unless they’re white wines. Red wines usually need a touch of air to taste their best. Now, here’s the fun part. Have one person put each bottle into a different paper bag. Have another person shuffle the bottles around and number the bags. That way, no one really knows what’s in each bag.

If you have them, get out enough glasses so that each person has one glass for each wine. So, if you’ve got three wines, each person gets three glasses. But don’t stress. If you don’t have that many glasses, you don’t. Just rinse between tastes.

Then eat the food and taste the wines along with it. Make notes about what you like and don’t like.

That’s it. Simple. Then you serve the wine you liked best and to heck with what the pundit said you should be drinking. Pundits can only offer suggestions. You and your family are the only palates that count in this one.

Want Some Schmor Wine?

bothsmWe’re going to make this a quick one. Our friend Leah Canon, of Schmor Wines, came up with this seriously cool label in honor of our democratic process – Elephant and Donkey wines.

An event planner, Leah was looking for a label that would go with a good party. Or at least, a really big party. Can’t get bigger than our two main political parties, so she went with it. By the way, it’s the same wine – a lovely syrah blend – in both bottles.

Leah is slowly building her business and hopes to eventually have an event center and winery to go along with the wines. She got into bottling and selling wine as a way to enhance her event planning business.

No matter which party you’re voting for, we get that this election cycle has been more than a little stressful. So go ahead, order some Schmor Wine, open a bottle and try to relax. Just don’t forget to vote on November 8.

Women Winemakers of Chablis, Part Nine

White wine, french wine, dry white wineThis is our final post on the Women Winemakers of Chablis. We’d like to thank all of the women who participated, as well as Marguerite de Chaumont-Quitry, who went to the enormous trouble of setting this all up for us. We asked all nine women the same three questions and Ms. de Chaumont-Quitry got the answers translated for us.

Our final winemaker is Athénais de Béru of Château de Béru.

1)    What makes Chablis different from other wines made from chardonnay?

Chablis is not only the name of a charming city in North Burgundy. The terroir of Chablis is unique. The soils of Chablis have a unique geological composition dating from the Jurassic era, named Kimmeridgian. What is Kimmeridgian? Complex limestones full of marine fossils, oysters concentrated salt and iodine. This very unique terroir brings a very unique typicity to the wines produced on Chablis land.
Of course, our grape variety is 100% Chardonnay which is one of the most planted grape varieties in the world. Chardonnay has a very interesting characteristic: it reveals the perfect image and tipicity of where it grows. In a rich and warm soil, it will produce a rich, fat and warm Chardonnay. In a stony, mineral soil with cold temperate weather, it can produce an amazing stony mineral pure and crystalline Chardonnay: a Chablis!

2)    If my reader sees Chablis on the label of a bottle of wine, what should she expect to taste in the wine?

Chablis is a huge appellation with many different soils, expositions, many winemakers with many different styles.
Personally, I am against standardization, so I would say there is not one only taste in a Chablis or in any other wine. I am located in Beru, my vineyards are above 300 meters altitude, the personality of my wines cannot be the same as the other lands from Chablis. Each wine is unique. But, generally speaking, a wine from Chablis revealing the best of its Terrroir will be pure and mineral with delicious aromas of citrus fruits like lime or orange and sometimes ripe white fruits like pears or peaches… and with intense saltiness, which brings freshness, salinity and complexity to our wines. The limestones and the chalk also bring nice flinty stones, smoky aromas.

3)   Finally, how are things changing for women winemakers in France? In the U.S., making wine is still very dominated by men. Are there more women becoming winemakers? Do women make wine differently than men, and if they do, what do they do that’s different?

I think most of the working world is still more masculine, but it has changed a lot and more women are involved. I am not a feminist. We need both men and women in a project. Making wine is an adventure which also needs both men and women.
To the question “is a wine made by a woman more feminine?” My answer is no.
Wine depends on the land, on the grape variety, on the climate, on the terroir, on the personality of the winemaker. We are all unique. Our wines are unique.


Syrah with Sabrine Rodems

red wine, syrah wine, winemaingWe first came across Wrath Wines several years ago at a Rhone Rangers trade tasting of mostly syrah wines. We got in free, although we can’t remember now if tickets were sold or if the event was even open to the public.

However, most of what the participating wineries were pouring were syrahs from 2011, a particularly challenging year for California wine, and those wines were, well, pretty lousy.

Except for the syrah from Wrath Wines. So when we decided to do a lesson on syrah, we naturally thought of Wrath’s winemaker, Sabrine Rodems.

Rodems told us that she had been a stagehand, then decided to go back to school in a pre-med program. However, when she decided that medicine was probably not her thing, after all, her sister told her that the family needed an enologist.

“It was a joke,” Rodems said, adding that her family was mostly scientists of some sort. “We were all into food and wine. The beauty of being a winemaker is that it’s both art and science.”

The thing to remember about syrah, she said is that it can be strong.

“It has a huge amount of flavor,” she said.

But how much and what kind of flavors tends to depend on where the syrah grapes are grown.

“Cool-climate syrah tends to be more plummy,” Rodems said.

Syrahs from Paso Robles, which has a warmer climate, tend to be meatier, with hints of bacon. Hers tend to have lots of spice, fruit such as black cherry, nutmeg, cloves, sometimes even a hint of juniper.

As for what to serve with it?

“It just depends on your mood,” Rodems said. For example, if it’s a Friday night, you can uncork one to relax with before dinner gets to the house. “You can drink them by themselves.”

That being said, syrahs are still great with food.

“It definitely goes with meat,” Rodems said. “Lamb and syrah, you can’t go wrong there.”


Women Winemakers of Chablis, Part Eight

white wines, women winemakers, chablis
L.C. Poitout and Catherine Poitout

This is our second to the last installment on the Women Winemakers of Chablis. We’ve got nine total. Today, we’re featuring Catherine Poitout of L&C Poitout, in the Chablis region of France. Chablis is also the delicious white wine made from the chardonnay grape (remember, European wines are usually named after where they’re made, rather than by what they’re made of). This series is from a group of email interviews with nine women winemakers from the Chablis region, translated from the original French by someone else because Anne’s French is in terrible shape. We asked each woman the same three questions.

1)    What makes Chablis different from other wines made from chardonnay?

Chablis’ location and soils make its Chardonnay stand out compared to other Chardonnays.  It is in at a very northern latitude, with extremely cold weather, and planted on chalky soils from the Kimmeridgien and Portlandian eras, full of fossilized sea animals.  This results in very mineral-driven wines that are bright and refreshing, yet complex.

2)    If my reader sees Chablis on the label of a bottle of wine, what should she expect to taste in the wine?

Your readers should expect a beautiful white wine, with very bright fruit and high acid.  These wines can be very complex and elegant, skewing more towards finesse than power.  They are perfect for shellfish, light white meats and cheeses.

3)   Finally, how are things changing for women winemakers in France? In the U.S., making wine is still very dominated by men. Are there more women becoming winemakers? Do women make wine differently than men, and if they do, what do they do that’s different?

Wine-making is still very dominated by men in France as well.  Currently, most women involved in wine-making rarely start wineries, but take over inheritances.  While they are less present in the fields due to the intense physical labor required, we do see more and more women in the winery as winemakers or wine-making  Speaking in generalities, women seem to seek out more elegance and finesse than power when making wine, and have a very positive impact on the design of the labels.

Women, Wine and What..?

women winemakers, wine for women
These are the ones you want – not the reserves.

We did receive samples from the winery mentioned below after we had bought our own and did the interview. However, we did not request said samples, nor, we suspect, will the winery’s publicist be terribly happy to see what we have to write about them.

Hmmm. Where to begin? Because what started as a straightforward interview with a woman winemaker ended up touching on a hot-button issue, and, well, we need to address it here.

The woman winemaker is Margaret Leonardi. Last February, she was promoted to winemaker at Little Black Dress wines. We got the press release and thought what an interesting subject. But having interviewed an interesting person before only to hate her wines, we made sure we bought a few bottles from the Little Black Dress line before we requested the interview.

They are a supermarket wine, but the chardonnay was quite tasty – nothing spectacular, but worth the $11 we paid for it. So were the reds we tried. In fact, we were quite pleasantly surprised. (We got them at Ralph’s supermarket, aka Kroger elsewhere in the country.)

So Anne chatted with Ms. Leonardi, and she was quite pleasant. We did talk briefly about how the label is marketed, but that’s not really Ms. Leonardi’s job. In addition, her interest is in making more “serious” wines, wines that are varietally correct (as in they taste like you’d expect that variety to taste like) with more structure.

We are down with that. You see, here’s the issue. Wines that are typically marketed to women are frequently “dumbed-down,” as in they’re made simply, without a lot of structure, which is a really hard thing to describe, but you sure know it when you taste it. In fact, we were discussing this issue at another tasting with wine-writer Corie Brown, general manager of ZesterDaily.com. She’d told her adult daughter, “Don’t ever buy wine that’s marketed at you.”

The assumption is that women buy wine to drink with their girlfriends and don’t care how complex or interesting it is. Well, that’s probably true, since most wine in this country is purchased by women and from the supermarket. But it’s also probably true of most men, as well. Yet, the dumb stuff gets marketed to women, which is more than a little insulting.

So to find a label aimed at women with some structure and complexity, wow. We were quite happy.

Until we received the samples that the publicist insisted on sending after we’d done the interview. These were the reserve labels, so you’d expect them to be even better. The chardonnay was off-dry and low acid, with nothing on the bottle to hint that it was intended that way. Or if it was, we didn’t see it. A sweet chard? What’s the point?

The rosé, made from a blend of several grapes including the extremely sweet muscat, was intentionally sweet but was only helped by the very low expectations we had for it. The cabernet sauvignon was flabby and inoffensive and boring. You could taste an overly soft malolactic fermentation (the part that can lend some creaminess to the mouthfeel) and the slight off flavor from a last minute intervention, which could have been alcohol removal or a rebalancing of the acids.  This is the reserve label and it was a blah. In fact, all three wines were a perfect example of dumbed-down wine.

To be fair to Ms. Leonardi, she has not been with the company that long and she probably did not make cab sauv, and possibly had limited contact with the others. And, again, she did say that her goal was to make more serious wines.

There is nothing wrong with a simple, unstructured wine. Sometimes that’s exactly what’s needed. We just wish that the people who market wine would stop foisting them off on women on the assumption that women don’t care what they’re drinking. Sure, some women don’t – just like some men don’t. But there are a hell of a lot of us women who do care, who want something nice to drink with our girlfriends that isn’t flabby or dumbed down and we’re getting pretty fed up with avoiding labels marketed to us simply because of a sexist assumption.