Larkmead Vineyards in Calistoga, CA: Visit and Enjoy!

When one thinks of Napa Valley and wine tasting, one often pictures a bucolic setting, sipping, and relaxing.  The experience at Larkmead Vineyards is a great example of just that.  This winery is located in Calistoga, which is in the north end of the valley.  The setting is beautiful, situated on the valley floor and surrounded by vineyards.

The facility itself is an artistic expression of architecture.  This is a Howard Backen project, one of the many wineries and restaurants he has designed in the valley.  Tastings are done on the porch or on the patio and lend themselves to really relaxing and enjoying the wine and the scenery.  Speaking of the scenery, the drought-tolerant landscaping, which incorporates many native plants, is also beautiful.

One of my favorite aspects of the visit is the exploration of the winery’s history, from its beginnings to the present day, with the aid of a talented host.  (This is a winery that has been in existence for 137 years.)  As for the historical guide, herein is one of the gems of Larkmead.  Sonny has been our host on numerous visits.  He is engaging, genuine and knowledgeable.  He easily weaves the story of the winery with the wine and allows you to gain a real appreciation for both.

But what about the wine, you ask?  While the setting is attractive, without excellent drinking wine, it would not really be worth it.  These are well-crafted, well-structured wines that are worth the money.  The portfolio includes Sauvignon Blanc, red blends, and deep, rich cabernets.  Their estate cabernet is $70, which is very drinkable young but will age gracefully.  Larkmead operates by appointment only.  So next time you plan a visit to the Napa Valley, include Larkmead.


The Hills Are Alive!

Sacramentans have great choices today as the Foothill wineries east of Sacramento continue to evolve. The federal government has designated four distinct AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) in the Foothills: Sierra Foothills AVA, El Dorado AVA, Fair Play AVA, and Shenandoah AVA. Growth is abundant in these areas. For example, Amador County, which is found in the Sierra Foothills AVA, has over 40 wineries. There is much to choose from and much to explore. The journey here has only just begun.

Wines from these areas are making great strides in being recognized for the value and quality that they offer for everyday drinking pleasure. Let me share with you some recent examples of wines that have garnered ratings from Wine Spectator of 90 points and above:

Andis Zinfandel, Amador County 2010, 90 points, $28
Easton Zinfandel, Amador County 2011, 90 points, $18
Domaine de la Terra Rouge Vin Gris d’Amador, Sierra Foothills 2011, 92 points, $16
Skinner Mourvedre, El Dorado Estate 2010, 94 points, $32
Skinner Eighteen Sixty-One, El Dorado County 2010, 93 points, $30
Pruett Lucky Lauren Red, Sierra Foothills 2011, 92 points, $29
Pruett Syrah, Sierra Foothills CSP 2011, 92 points, $36
Miraflores Zinfandel, El Dorado 2010, 91 points, $27
Miraflores Viognier, El Dorado 2012, 90 points, $20

The scores are indicative of the quality that is taking shape in the wines and the recognition of what is possible out of the Sierra Foothills. Great soils with lots of sun and cool nights can all contribute to quality grapes.

Obviously, the vineyard needs a great deal of attention and care to produce great harvests.  As mentioned in an earlier blog, there is one vineyard, in particular, that has garnered great respect. That is Shake Ridge in Amador. Ann Kraemer is the vineyard “master” whose grapes are sought after by some of the best winemakers in Napa. Shake Ridge provides grapes to Andy Erickson and Anne Favia for their wine labeled Favia, to Rosemary Cakebread who makes a Rhone Blend under her label of Gallica called Suzuri, and to Helen Keplinger who makes Lithic and Sumo, which both carry her name. There is much demand for these grapes grown on Shake Ridge under the intent and watchful eye of Ann.

One of the most remarkable facts about Shake Ridge is that it was only planted in 2003. These are all young vines. It takes at least two years of growth for a grape vine to produce clusters. In Europe, if the winemaker wants the wine to receive the French certification called AOC, which stands for “appellation d’origine contrôlée,” he or she can’t even use grapes from vines less than four years old. So what does this mean? The Shake Ridge vineyard is just starting to mature, and the grapes will only develop more intense flavors with the coming years. The best is yet to come, and that is why there is such demand.

What is happening at Shake Ridge is taking place throughout the Foothills, as you can see from the scores. This is an area where the intensity of vineyard management and winemaking practices are improving the results. The outcome is enjoyable wine at great prices for all. Come, visit, and taste.


All That and a Bag of Chips?

It has been a practice for several hundred years to age wine in oak barrels.  Oak plays an important role in the process of wine making. It enriches the wine with new compounds that impart flavors.  It serves as a barrier in the storage and therefore allows for specific physical reactions to take place.

What about those flavors?  First and foremost, there are primarily two places that the oak most used in winemaking comes from. That’s France and America — mostly Missouri.  Yes, I said Missouri.  You will hear these oaks referred to as French Oak and American Oak.  They deliver different nuances themselves.  (There is a winery in Napa Valley where you can taste the difference during a tour.  This winery does barrel tastings and will give you samples from wine that is aging in either American and French oak and that is the only difference.  This is a worthwhile experience and a very fun visit, yet that is for a later blog.)  Oak exerts its influence on wine through chemical processes that support the evolution of flavors and structure. The geographical origins of the oak, the forest, and type of grain will influence what the wood contributes.

The most interesting aspects of oak are the aromatic compounds and vanillin that will contribute to the structure and taste of the wine. Here are examples of the flavors oak can contribute: almond and smoke, coconut, cloves and spices, caramel and toffee, vanilla.  That is quite a list; and many winemakers have their favorite forests to pull the wood from, a particular process to have the wood seasoned, and then the right person to toast the wood to their specifications and build their barrels. (Barrel makers are called “coopers,” and the facility where this is done is called a “cooperage.”)  You can imagine how many options are available for a winemaker to develop flavors and nuances based on oak and to marry up what is best for developing the best possible wine.

Barrels can be quite expensive, ranging from $1500 to $1800 each when new.  When you read about wines, you will often see information about how much time the wine spent in barrels and what percent of new oak was used.

There are other means of imparting the flavors and nuances of oak to wine. Oak inserts can be added into wine tanks to achieve a similar outcome.  Sometimes winemakers use oak chips in bags, which are immersed into the wine.  While it is clear that this path is less expensive, there are some winemakers that contend that this can be a way to better control the oak influence on the wine.  That would be something for you to vote on as you choose the wines you enjoy.

As you can see, I have only scratched the surface of how integral oak is to the winemaking process.  Truly the science here is fascinating and much more complex than I have described.  Yet you now have new distinctions to engage in as you explore:  What are those nuances that I smell and taste?  Is it from the oak?  How long was this wine aged in barrels, was it 100% new oak or what percentage of new?  Interesting things to ponder as you explore what is in your glass.


Keever Vineyards: A Nice Visit and a Great Wine in Yountville

I have heard that the single best way to distinguish a well-crafted wine is that it beckons you back for another sip. Therein lies the “problem” with discovering that caliber of wine – you want to drink it! And darn it, there goes that desire to accomplish productive tasks right out the window!

This past weekend, I enjoyed one of those wines at Keever Vineyards located in Yountville, CA in the Napa Valley. Keever is a family-owned winery that produces cabernet from six acres of vineyards right there at the estate. This is a small production winery that takes pride and care in each step of the process. The winemaker is Celia Welch who is one of my favorite winemakers in Napa Valley. She delivers quality with all that she touches.

This property is visited by appointment only, so call ahead to set your date and time for a tour and tasting. Our visit was hosted by Liz, who was welcoming and quite knowledgeable about the property as well as the wine making process at the vineyard.  She works many jobs at the winery including harvest and sorting. This provides her with a clear picture of the journey of the grapes from vine to bottle.

The tour included a walk through the winery and the cave. Along the way, we tasted four different wines — a Sauvignon Blanc, a Syrah, a red blend, and finished with the flagship cabernet. All wines were well crafted and left me wanting more. This is always my buying signal — and I did just that. I left with the Inspirado red blend and, of course, the Cabernet.

Keever Vineyards is set on the hill overlooking Yountville. It is a gorgeous setting with lovely views of the valley below, and this idyllic setting provides a wonderful sense of peace and calm. I recommend a visit. It is a beautiful setting, with a gracious host and well-crafted wine.


Azur Wines — A New Find!

When visiting Vintner’s Collective a few weeks ago, I discovered a new winery and winemaker.  Quite frankly, we were there to taste a different wine which is known as one of the big wines that Napa has to offer.  But, in the process, we came upon another wine that was quite enchanting and exciting.

Andy, the manager at Vintner’s Collective, introduced us to Julien Fayard, the owner and winemaker at Azur Wines.  We had the pleasure of tasting through several wines with him and began to appreciate his philosophy and approach.  We first had a 2012 Sauvignon Blanc, and it was really masterful.  It brought the fresh citrus fruit yet was very round on the mouth feel.  There was crisp acidity which gave way to a soft suppleness that was reminiscent of wines from Sancerre.  Sancerre in France is known for beautiful Sauvignon Blancs, and this wine reminded me of those wines.

Julien poured a red that was also very memorable.  It was a 2009 Cabernet blend that was aromatic and presented with deep black fruit.  There were layers of rich fruit and structure that displayed depth of flavors that sailed on.  The finish was long and memorable and begged for another sip.  The price for this lovely wine was $65 and well worth the experience.

This was my first experience of Azur and Julien.  He is from France and has spent time working at grand Chateaux in France, such as Lafite Rothschild and Smith Haut Lafitte.  In Napa Valley, he’s worked alongside renowned winemaker Philippe Melka.

Here’s what Julien has to say about winemaking: “As a winemaker, my job is to bring out the best qualities that the vines have provided. I don’t seek to make a style of wine but more so to make wine that sings of its place, its history and its uniqueness. That’s my goal as a winemaker, to make wines that are pure expressions of their environment and not mask it. Wines with an identity.”

Julien was a pleasure to meet.  His wines were enjoyable and well worth the time and money.  His wines are available in many excellent restaurants in California and Oregon.  His wines are also available at Azur Wines.