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

Heavens to Twisted Oaks 2005 Murgatroyd

2005_murgatroydWe love blends. They can express the full palate of a terrior – think Burgundy or Bordeaux. They can also demonstrate the combined skills of a winemaking team that includes vineyard staff and cellar rats alike. As a bonus, every winery has the option of creating its own brand of cola product.

As in Twisted Oak’s Murgatroyd (and if you know the cartoon reference, post a comment). The wine is a blend of four varietals and five vineyards: two cabernet sauvignons (accounting for the extra vineyard), a petit verdot, a tempranillo and a grenache, which means there’s a potential range of aromas and tastes the could include violets, blackberries, molasses, plums, tobacco, blueberries and bell pepper.

In this case,the resulting aroma is licorice/anise with some berries. The first taste was that of spices like black pepper and cloves. Dusty fruit, or a ripe taste that’s not overly sweet, is balanced with less acid and more tannins, thanks to a combination of American, Hungarian and older French oak barrel aging.  There is some noticeable dryness from the tannins that would cut through the weight and richness of a steak, a savory winter beef stew or some lamb chops medium-rare with some pinkness at the bone.

You could age the wine for another year or so.  It would be interesting to see if it improves.  That being said, it’s darned tasty now.

Twisted Oak 2005 Tempranillo – Yum!

2005_tempTwisted Oak’s 2005 Tempranillo is one of those wines that just seems to fit in anywhere.  It’s rich, but not overpowering – the subtle kind of wine that stands out just enough to be memorable without taking over.

Tempranillo is one of those up and coming grapes.  We’ve seen it here and there for a number of years.  In fact, tempranillo seems to be about where syrah was almost 10 years ago.  People had heard of it, but you rarely saw it on the shelf at the supermarket.  Of late, in places like California, tempranillo is getting the treatment previously reserved for cabernets and pinot noir and in the right hands and in the right soils, it is a glorious thing.

The grape, itself, is a blue/black grape most commonly used in blends in Spain. It’s chief flavor characteristics are blueberry and other berries, grassy or herbal qualities, hints of earth and/or leather.  Leather may sound a little odd, but that’s what the books say.  Your mileage may vary.  Because the grape has a thick skin, it can have some powerful tannins, which is why it’s often blended with grapes with less color and/or tannins.

The Twisted Oak Tempranillo has a deep ruby color and a nose full of the characteristic blueberries and cherries.  But don’t let that fool you.  This is no fruit bomb. Winemaker Scott Klann used some French oak (which you can taste) but not enough to drown out the fruit. There are some nice acids in the center of the palate which make for a clean, easy drinking mouthfeel.

This is a great food wine – an Oddball Grape hallmark – and should go well with grilled meats like tri-tip, or grilled chicken or anything Spanish-style. Mike was amazed at how well it worked with some seared scallops in a caper sauce. You might also try it with a cioppino or even a good surf and turf.  We do not recommend it with rubber chicken.

Up and Running With Twisted Wine

The crush pad.  The tasting room looks better.
The crush pad. The tasting room looks better.

Drat the folks at Sunset Magazine.  According to Twisted Oak Winery Owner Jeff Stai, the magazine’s article on the winery had the money quote: “If Monty Python started a winery, this would be it.”

wine-trip-april-09-113Pirates, rubber chickens, and symbols for language not suitable for sensitive ears.  It’s all part of the Twisted zeitgeist and fun at Stai’s winery in Vallecito, California.  It’s not a winery for the uber serious or for people who do the “nice” thing.  But if you don’t mind the silliness, you can get some lovely, food-friendly wines.  And if you do like the silliness, you can have a grand old time there.wine-trip-april-09-107

Now, keep in mind, Anne has known Jeff for years via the FoodWine email list – an electronic world-wide kitchen table.  But we first met Jeff – or El Jefe, as he is known – last year when we decided to check out the joint after hearing good things from fellow FoodWinos Tina Vierra and Penny Gadd-Coster.  Mike liked the wine so much he immediately joined the Twisted Few wine club, and then earlier this year won the Write the Label contest for this year’s bottling of Ruben, the white wine blend that’s named after Ruben the Rubber Chicken mascot.  So, we are getting a case of it as our prize, but that was before we decided to start the blog.

El Jefe at work on the bottling line - yeah, he really does work!
El Jefe at work on the bottling line - yeah, he really does work!

Schtick aside, it’s all about the wines, first.  The production is relatively small (although we keep having so durned much fun there, we keep forgetting to ask), and the focus is on locally grown, Calaveras County grapes.  Scott Klann (aka El Fermento) has the responsibility of turning it all into wine, using such methods as co-fermenting some viognier with their syrah.  Sadly, the result of this traditional technique from the Rhone won’t be available until next year.

Making wine in the dark, when the grapes are cool
Making wine in the dark, when the grapes are cool

You can check back with us on Wednesday for the first of Mike’s tasting notes.  In the meantime, you can find out more about the winery on their website, TwistedOak.com, the blog, El Bloggo Torcido.  There is a Twisted Oak page on Facebook and you can follow Jeff on Twitter.

Anne Louise Bannon and Michael Holland

Odd Ball Grape