Virna Borgogno on the Wines of Barolo

One of several blessings from the COVID pandemic slowing down is that we’ve been able to get back to tasting events (such as this one in 2013). We attended one in March of this year, and in April, went to a tasting of wines from the Barolo region in Northern Italy, and talked to Virna Borgogno, who has her own label.

Virna Borgogno, who makes wine in the Barolo region
Virna Borgogno

“I studied enology,” she said when we asked her how common women winemakers are in her area. “I am the first woman with a degree in enology in Italy.”

She started making wines with her father, first, then eventually took over the family operation, making wine under the Virna label.

“Today, I work with my sister in the winery,” she said. “We are two females. We have 12 hectares and we produce 70,000 bottles.”

Understanding Barolo wines

While the wine she produces are all Barolos, a deep red wine, not every one is the same style. She has a classic style, and two single vineyard wines.

“A classic Barolo is a blend of different vineyards,” Borgogno explained. “We make a separate vinification from different areas, aging in a big casket, and after the two years in evolution, we make our blend between the different terroir… to make Barolo with the balance between the power of the region of the north and the elegance of the other region.”

But while blending from different regions can make some lovely wines, Borgogno said that making a wine from a single vineyard has its virtues, too.

“It’s the character of the terroir of this particluar location,” she said. “In general, we have a few different terroir in the same area.”

It was a theme that was repeated several times throughout the day, but we will be sharing as we feature some of the other women we spoke with.

Nicole Rolet and the Wines of Ventoux, France

You can find the Ventoux AOC (the French designation for viticultural area) in the southern part of the Rhône valley. Last spring, Anne attended a winemaker dinner featuring several of the AOC’s winemakers and their wines, and talked specifically to Nicole Rolet, of Chêne Bleu.

Photo of Nicole Rolet, representing the wines of Ventoux, France
Nicole Rolet

Rolet was there to represent the region as well as her own winery, which she owns with her husband.

“My husband had just bought the property when we met,” Rolet said. “And I ended up being an accidental winemaker because it’s one of those ‘things you do for love.’ and the original plan was that I was gonna support him and his passion. The plot twist is that I got bitten by his mindbug and ended up with a worse case of it than the one he started with.”

But the whole point of the fabulous dinner, put on by Kali restaurant in Los Angeles, was showing off the wines from the Ventoux region. And they were spectacular. Alas, since Michael could not attend, we did not get tasting notes, but if you see Ventoux on a label, the bottle is likely to be worth grabbing.

What the land is like

It’s a relatively new viticultural region in France.

“It’s the new France. We’re pioneering these very remote areas that were somewhat marginal to the more established ones, like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but they have incredible, biodiversity, amazing forests, you know, it’s a UNESCO biosphere reserve,” she said.

The Ventoux is one of the few places in France where you can buy land cheaply that still has the potential to make great wine, Rolet said. The region sits at the foot of Mount Ventoux, between the Swiss Alps and the Mediterranean ocean. Rolet said that her property, which is at the highest elevation in the region, gets a lot of sunshine, which helps ripen the grapes. However, because of the cool nights, the wines, especially the whites and rosés, are very crisp and fresh. The red grapes (and Rolet principally grows grenache) are also able to develop the kind of finesse that is often lost in hotter growing areas.

“So most winemakers have this Faustian choice. They either get the sunny fruit or the elegant,” Rolet said. “In the Ventoux, you get to have your cake and eat it too.”

The area has been affected by climate change, as is all of Europe. But Rolet said that because their region is so cool that they are hoping to get a bit of reprieve. To that end, they are managing water and what they’re planting . A lot of the vineyards are fairly new, too, which makes that kind of management easier.

Old vines

Rolet, though, has a 79-year-old grenache vines on her property, which produce very interesting characteristics. The disadvantage is that the vines do not produce a lot of fruit.

“The yields are atrocious at our winery,” she said. “This is not a winery for the faint of heart. It’s only for … people who are comfortable with very extreme situations because there’s going to be a definite yield problem.”

The results were still amazing. Rolet’s rosé was fresh and crisp, as advertised, with some vermentino added. She brought two reds, one from 2006 and a second from 2013. Both were rich and very food-friendly.

You can find out more about the wines of Ventoux on the English version of their website,

Olivia Wright and Knotty Vines – Not Your Grandma’s Brand

In the interest of full disclosure, when we talked to the Knotty Vines publicists, they insisted on sending us four bottles of wine for free. We’ll be honest. We had some reservations about some of the wines.

Winemaker Olivia Wright started working for Rodney Strong Vineyards about four years ago, and started the Knotty Vines brand there.

“We’ve had four head winemakers,” Wright said. “A lot of tenure, a lot of tradition. I was kind of hired on as a transition.”

Photo of winemaker Olivia Wright, of Knotty Vines wines
Winemaker Olivia Wright

Part of the problem was the brand image associated with Rodney Strong.

“We’ve faced the facts. A lot of people see it as your grandma’s brand,” Wright said. “Part of Knotty Vines came about when I started. This was a great opportunity to reach a younger audience. So, they tasked me with trying to put together this brand.”

Wright feels – just like we do – that too many people see wine as too exclusive. Or as Wright put it, that you have to have a PhD to enjoy it. That you only drink wine with fancy foods and it must the “right” wine with the “right” food.

“We do Knotty Vines and chips and dip pairings all the time,” Wright said. “You eat what you like and you drink what you like.”

She does like breaking the “rules,” offering fried chicken and chardonnay as a great pairing, and even a Knotty Vines pinot noir with salmon, once. We hold the opinion that if a pinot noir goes with salmon, that’s the sign of a good pinot noir

Getting to what people like

She spends a lot of time talking to people about what they like in wines.

“They want wine that’s smooth or rich or fruity or spicy, but basically no more than three descriptors.”

An example of that might be the cabernet, which we found simple, easy to drink, and better as a cocktail than with food. We also liked the chardonnay. It was nice and crisp and played very nicely with the caprese salad we ate with it.

Wright’s favorite wine to make is the label’s Red Blend, which was our favorite also, and paired really well with the curry chicken and vegetables we had that night.

“The Red Blend is really my playground,” she said. “It’s kind of a free-for-all.”

You can get Knotty Vines wines on the website here.

Lindsey Haughton on Martin Ray Dry Rosé

dry rosé, woman winemaker, women winemakers
This was the best shot we got of Lindsey Haughton, winemaker at Martin Ray Vineyards and Winery.

What a great opportunity! While we were at the Wine Bloggers Conference last fall, we were part of a group that got to go to dinner at Martin Ray Vineyards and Winery. We got off the bus and were handed a glass of their signature dryé rosé, and, even better, ran across their winemaker Lindsey Haughton.

What deep frustration when we realized our photos didn’t come out. We blame our lousy mobile phones and the utterly delicious rosé. Sometimes you just have to go with what you’ve got.

“You’re not supposed to have a favorite child,” Haughton said about the rosé we were all sipping. “But that’s my favorite child.”

It was a rosé made from pinot noir grapes (clone 828, if you care about that sort of thing). Haughton said that shortly after she joined the winery, rosé, particularly dry rosé, was becoming popular. As happens when something gets popular, there was a lot of rosé out there that was off dry – Haughton called it Kool-Aid. Most of the rest of us call it white zinfandel.

That being said, Anne couldn’t resist asking if Haughton thought it would be possible to make a good, dry rosé from zinfandel grapes.

“Absolutely,” Haughton said.

Making the dry rosé

Haughton explained that she uses both of the most common processes to make her rosé. About 30 percent of hers is made by saignée, or bleeding off some of the juice from grapes being used to make regular red pinot noir.  The other 70 percent is made from grapes that are picked and pressed right away, or dedicated to the rosé.

“A lot of it is just familiarity with the vineyards,” she said about which grapes go to the dedicated part of the rosé and which she bleeds from.

She likes using dedicated grapes rather than all saignée because she likes what gets extracted when the grapes are pressed.

“It’s got a lot more of the character of the skins,” she said. She does not like ultra-pale rosés that look more like the almost orange wines from Provence, France. “I want my rosé to look like rosé. I just feel like California should stop trying to mimic it. We’re not French. It should be a California wine.”

As in more fruit-driven than the dryer European style.

Of course, Haughton also puts out some very lovely pinot noirs and the dinner was quite tasty. But if they have to have a favorite child, we’re glad it’s the rosé. That was really good.


ReVisiting Leslie Sisneros and 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).  Then we saw her again at this year’s Family Winemaker’s event and thought why not run this post from last year again?

Leslie Sisneros, of Murder Ridge Winery,  has 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.

Carmenere and Petit Verdot with Meredith Smith

Winemaker Meredith Smith

We were given a case of wines from the Idaho Wine Commission as part of their efforts to let people know that there is not only wine in Idaho, but some very tasty wine, at that. 

Like many in her profession, Meredith Smith, winemaker at both Sawtooth Estate Winery and Ste Chapelle, actually did something else for a living before deciding she’d rather make wine.

“When I was about 36 years old, I was doing real estate development in Texas,” she said. “I had signed up through a Washington state viticulture program.”

She finished the program two years later, but it was another two years before she quit her job and started out at Sawtooth with a harvest job. Idaho attracted her because she had lived there and had been drinking wines from the region for some time. By the time her harvest job ended, she was the assistant winemaker, taking over as winemaker at Sawtooth in 2012, then adding winemaking at Ste Chappelle to her duties in 2016.

The two wines we got from the wine commission were Smith’s 2013 Trout Trilogy Carmenere from Sawtooth and the 2012 Petit Verdot from Ste Chapelle, two varieties that Smith says you wouldn’t think would do well in her relatively cool climate area, about 3,000 feet above sea level.

“Carmenere surprises me that it does well here,” she said, adding that carmenere and petit verdot are both late ripening varieties. “When I’m harvesting carmenere, it’s October 31, but for some reason it just seems to perform.”

Michael noted the carmenere’s dark color and got a fair amount of spice on the nose. The first taste was a little tart and mid-palate, there was a hint of bitterness. He also tasted some cherry flavor.

The thing is, it’s best as a food wine, but with either milder foods, such as roasted potatoes or vegetables, or something really strong like lamb.

As for the petit verdot, Michael noted the characteristic dark, inky color. The nose was filled with berries, and the taste had some oak, but the tannins were pretty low, making this more of a cocktail wine. It was pleasant, but didn’t really stand out.

Martin Fujishin and Teresa Moye, Partners in Wine

A few months ago, the Idaho Wine Commission sent us a mixed case from several different wineries in Idaho. We’ll be reviewing the wines (which they may regret) and featuring some of the winemakers.

Harvest may not be the best time to convince your online girlfriend to come out and live with you. But Martin Fujishin managed to do it.

“She seems to think I was on my best behavior that harvest,” Fujishin said about Teresa Moye, who does marketing, design and information technology for Fujishin Family Cellars based in Caldwell, Idaho.

“It’s mostly manageable,” Moye said.

Teresa Moye


The two have been together since 2008. Fujishin is producing about 2,000 cases a year of mostly Rhone-style wines.

“We’ve always been kind of a Rhone-style, but we’ve branched out,” he said.

What we tasted was the winery’s 2015 Viognier.

“Viognier is what every white wine wishes it could be,” Fujishin joked.

He noted that his viognier doesn’t have as heavy a floral character as other more traditional ones.

“I think we were going over the top with it in earlier vintages,” Fujishin said.

Indeed, Michael wrote in his notes that the wine had a light golden color, and that the nose was a bit closed. The texture was very light and the flavors were white flowers and a bit of honeydew melon. And it had a nice level of acidity and a long finish.


Julia Iantosca Blending and Pioneering

For winemaker Julia Iantosca, it’s all about the blending. So when her bosses, John and Nancy Lasseter hired her to work at their newish winery, Lasseter Family Wines, it was their preference for blends that got her on board.

“My interest in blending dovetailed with theirs,” Iantosca said. “It’s been wonderful… Certainly for the style of wine I want to make.”

It’s an interesting fact that European wines (which are known primarily by their place names) are almost all blends. Burgundy is the big exception to the rule, being made almost exclusively out of the pinot noir grape, with whites made out of chardonnay. Iantosca said that the Lasseters came into wine drinking in Europe, which was how they got interested in drinking wines that are blends of grapes.

“As a winemaker, [blending] allows you a fair amount of latitude in honing a wine to an ideal,” Iantosca said. “And by working with the grapes, you can really steer the direction and the personality of the wine. And that’s a really enticing way to personalize your style.”

Iantosca came into winemaking at a time when women winemakers were pretty rare. She was mentored by Merry Edwards, who was a pioneer among women winemakers in California.

Iantosca said that many of these early women got their start working in winery laboratories.

“Merry came at it from the cellar side,” Iantosca said, adding that a lot of men didn’t think women were up to the heavy work of moving barrels and other such tasks. “You just have to work smarter. There’s a reason that forklifts were invented, for example.”
She added that there are a lot more women working as winemakers than there used to be.

“There are certainly far more opportunities for women coming into the wine business than when I started,” Iantosca said. “It was just such a male-dominated industry. The idea of being in charge didn’t seem all that possible. It’s just taken time and a lot of women who have a lot of talent and determination to keep putting their head down and moving forward and having the quality of their work.”

But while there are a lot more women in the business, Iantosca pointed out that there are also a lot more wineries. Still, the business does remain male-dominated. Iantosca said that she noticed something when went to some large wine-business functions recently.

“It’s the only time when the line for the men’s restroom is longer than the line for the women’s,” she said.

By the way, if the name John Lasseter sounds familiar, he is best known for his day job – running Pixar Studios and Disney Animation.

Judy Starr on Growing Grapes

We met grape grower Judy Starr late last fall at the Paso Robles Garagiste Festival and really enjoyed talking to her about how she got started growing grapes. So fast forward to early this month, and we’re doing a bus tour of the Paso Robles region with the Cellarmasters home winemaking club. Our last stop was Starr Ranch Vineyard and Winery. Starr was not only there, she stayed open late for us, then poured while we sat around tables in her winery yard, overlooking the vines, as a soft breeze rustled the trees above us. One of our friends called it our nap for the day, it was so relaxing. And the wine was even more amazing. So amazing Anne blew the wine budget and then some buying several bottles.

So we highly recommend getting a glass of nice, crisp rose, then hauling it and your laptop outside under a tree somewhere and watching the below video. There’s a transcription underneath, too. Oh, and one quick note – most winemakers enjoy chatting with people and pouring their wines, but they really don’t like the sales part of it.

Judy Starr:

I began life 14 years ago as a vineyard. When I got here, I did not expect to have a label called Starr Ranch. I just wanted to grow fruit.

So, that’s where I started and I now know that’s a good place to start, because you’re sure of your grape supply and the quality of it from the beginning. So after I’d done that for a few years, I started my own little label. Because, after all, you’ve nurtured these grapes from the beginning, and then you take the next step.

Q – How did you start growing grapes?

Interesting question. Actually, it was sort of a… It wasn’t a mid-life crisis kind of a thing. But my children grew up and they did what they were supposed to do. They left home and got jobs. And so then I decided I had enough time and energy to do something interesting. And I wanted to grow something. I didn’t know at that point what it would be. I looked around for about for about four or five years and decided it would be wine grapes. Once I got to wine grapes, Paso [Robles] was pretty easy. It was 14 years ago and there were 33 wineries.

Q – Do you enjoy selling your wines?

Actually, I do enjoy selling the wine. Because it is an expression of what I put my time and energy into. I’m not the winemaker, as such, except if you believe that the wine is made in the vineyard. That’s my job. I care a lot about farming the fruit and producing excellent product. So if you have that, then the winemaking piece of it is easy. So I think for me, yes, the most fun is… is… seeing harvest every year. You put a lot of time and energy into it. A lot of work, a lot of hand work, a lot of people. Even when harvest approaches, you get this sense of anticipation that permeates everything. And it’s a very intangible sort of thing, but it’s certainly there when you farm.

Depending on where you live, of course, you can buy Starr’s wines from her website. And if you’re going to be in Los Angeles on July 11, you can go to the L.A. Garagiste Festival at the Wiltern Theatre

Two Shepherds, Two Philosophies, One Great Wine

William Allen in action
William Allen in action

It’s kind of a long story why this particular post got kicked repeatedly to the back burner when we actually tasted William Allen’s awesome syrahs last June at a Rhone Rangers tasting event. The Rhone Rangers is an advocacy group touting wines made in the style of France’s Rhone Valley. Rhone-style wines usually mean syrahs, mourvedres and grenaches or a blend of those three also known as GSM.

Allen’s wines, under his label Two Shepherds, really stood out because while the syrahs were nice and meaty, they were also well-balanced and smooth, unlike several of the other wines we tasted that day. But what makes Allen even more interesting is that he is not a full-time winemaker. He works a day job as an engineer to pay the bills while building his winemaking business.

“I don’t have much of one,” he joked about his life. “The most challenging time of year is harvest.”

And given that he’s leased blocks of grapes from seven different larger vineyards in five different counties, you can imagine he’s putting in some very long hours when it’s time to bring the grapes in. He also works with a custom crush facility, Inspiration Vineyards and Custom Crush.

But it works for him for the time being. He told us that he doesn’t have to put in the huge overhead most wineries require to do business for winemaking facilities, vineyards, storage and bottling equipment.

“It’s all money in advance,” he said.

The Two Shepherds are the two goals Allen works toward. One is Shepherding the Palate – Allen is also an active wine blogger and works actively with the Rhone Rangers to promote Old-World style wines. That usually means wines that are more balanced and subtle than many of the traditional California-style wines. The second shepherd is Shepherding the Grape – using minimal intervention to make his wines, including native fermentation (not adding yeast to get the sugars in the wine to ferment), and doing little more than protecting the wine from harm as it goes through the various processes on the way to us, the consumers.

The only problem is that he doesn’t really have a tasting room, but he will make appointments to taste at the Sheldon Winery in Santa Rosa, California. You can also buy his wines on the website