Recap of the 2016 LAWineFest (TL/DR version: FUN, with great wines!)

Not all wine festivals are created equal.  Some are mob scenes where most of the attendees seem to be focused on how quickly they can get their buzz on, and others are just great fun–good crowd, some seriously great wines, and decent food to soak up all that vino.  The LAWineFest this year falls into the latter (better) category.

I’m not going to go into exhausting detail, but will share a few thoughts followed by some of my phone pics from the event.

Their Boutique Wine Garden is a fabulous idea, and the wineries who were included in that premium spot were impressive across the board.  It was an additional $45 for admission to that exclusive area, and well worth it.  All of them were small-lot producers (1500 cases a year, max).  That’s right up in my wheelhouse, because I am reliably charmed by these winemakers and their almost always surprisingly good wines.  My two favorites were Eagle Eye Wines from Napa, a small producer of all-estate wines–I loved everything of theirs I tasted, and especially loved their rosé of Cabernet Franc (and now I wish I’d ordered a few bottles to go with the Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc I DID order).  I’m very much looking forward to visiting their ranch in Napa later this summer for an interview and future blog feature.

The other winemaker who just knocked my socks off was Vinemark Cellars, a true Garagiste.  Owner/winemaker Mark Wasserman was pouring a big lineup of his wines, and all of them impressed.  I especially liked his Sangiovese (which he ferments with pinot noir yeast!), and his Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir.  Honestly, I loved everything Vinemark poured for me.

After tasting all that delicious wine, I was more than happy to line up at one of the food trucks–a great addition to the festival.  And the Cousin’s Maine Lobster roll I had was tasty.  If you missed it this year, don’t miss it next year.  Great wines, and great fun.

Ascension Cellars
Ascension Cellars
Cloak & Dagger Wines
Cloak & Dagger Wines
Eagle Eye Wines
Eagle Eye Wines
Vinemark Cellars
Vinemark Cellars
Cousin's Maine Lobster Roll
Cousin’s Maine Lobster Roll

Meet the Russells of Rabbit Ridge Winery

Editor’s Note: There’s a reason I’ve chosen the Russells to be my first (of many, many) winemaker profiles, and it’s purely personal.  Their winery, Rabbit Ridge, was the first place I ever went wine tasting back in 2002.  They were still headquartered in Healdsburg in Sonoma County, and were the first of many wineries I would eventually explore along the region’s storied River Road.  I walked in a complete neophyte, and walked out with a new passion and a case of Erich Russell’s Nebbiolo.  While wandering the Paso Robles wine country a few years ago, I spotted a familiar sign with a familiar bunny logo–and that was the first I realized they’d completely relocated to Paso.  I stopped (I HAD to stop!), reacquainted myself with their wines and have enjoyed getting to know the Russells over the ensuing years.  And this is their story.

Rabbit Ridge Winery
Rabbit Ridge Winery on San Marcos Road in Paso Robles

Erich and Joanne Russell first met at a wine industry gathering at Walt Disney World in Florida in 1996.  And something clicked.  They hit it off, talking well into late hours over (of course) wine.  Joanne lived in Florida, and Erich returned to his home in California.  When he called a few weeks later to ask her on a formal date, his first question was “Do you have a passport?”

Erich and Joanne Russell
Erich and Joanne Russell

And that deeply romantic question led to an extended first date–a trip to Cannes, France–and a love story still being lived out in the rolling hills of Paso Robles.  “I thought a trip abroad was efficient,” Erich says.  “I already liked her from that first meeting, and wanted to find out if we can still get along well in a foreign country where things can and do go wrong (luggage was lost, among other things)–I figured if we still liked each other at the end of the trip, that was a good sign.”  The date wasn’t just efficient, it was also completely romantic, and continued all the way to Paso Robles–when they returned from Cannes, they went straight to what is now the winery property (which Russell had recently purchased), where they sat, with wine, in front of an old stone fireplace watching the sun set.  They were engaged

Live Oak Vineyard
Live Oak Vineyard

six months later, and married not long after that.

Rabbit Ridge Barrel Room
Rabbit Ridge Barrel Room

Erich Russell got his start as a winemaker by making wine at home.  When the winemaker at Chateau St. Jean tasted Russell’s wine in a winemaking contest, he offered Russell a job in the winery’s cellar.  Russell jumped at the chance, quitting his job in San Diego to move to northern California and begin a new career in winemaking.  After stints there and at Simi winery, he founded his own winery in 1981, taking his nickname from his time as a long-distance runner at San Jose State–the “white rabbit”–and Rabbit Ridge was born.

Miscellaneous hardware in the tank room, 22 feet above the barrel storage and tasting room.
Miscellaneous hardware in the tank room, 22 feet above the barrel storage and tasting room.

The Sonoma County winery did very well, and Russell quickly gained recognition as an award-winning winemaker, named Connoisseur’s Guide’s Winemaker of the Year in 1998.  While Russell’s star was rising, he was also on the hunt for new land to expand his wine grape growing–and he liked what he saw in Paso Robles.

The San Marcos Road property–where the winery and tasting room are now–was his first land investment in Paso Robles, and they now own three blocks of land in the Templeton Gap area totaling around 350 acres planted to wine grapes and olive trees (5 Italian olive varietals, and they bottle their very, very good estate olive oil under Joanne’s Olive Diva label).  The purchase would prove to be life-changing for the Russells.

Olive Tree Detail, Live Oak Vineyard
Olive Tree Detail, Live Oak Vineyard

“The more we came down to do work on the land, the more we realized we really liked Paso Robles.”  They loved the climate, the land, and the people.  So they closed up shop in Sonoma County and made Paso their new home.

The Russells decided to spare no expense on the construction of the new winery facility in Paso Robles.  They chose Mediterranean-style architecture (you might think you’ve ended up in Tuscany when you spot their beautiful villa from the road).  Ingenuity and high tech are engineered into everything–much of the facility is built into the side of a hill; the crush pad sits 22 feet above the press area and tank room, and in turn the press area and tank room sit 22 feet above the bottling room, barrel room and tasting room.  This layout allows them to move wine throughout the facility by gravity, which saves energy and is gentler on the wine.

A deer rests under the olive trees at the San Marcos Road facility.
A deer rests under the olive trees at the San Marcos Road facility.

That careful engineering is just one aspect of Russell’s meticulous approach to winemaking–he even has a wonderful primer on using oak in winemaking that you can (and should) read here.  He treats all the wines he makes–even the one large-ish production wine he makes for sale in Trader Joe’s stores–with great care and attention to quality.  Of that delicious $5.99 miracle in a bottle–the Allure de Robles Rhone blend–Russell says “It is my hardest wine to make as an affordable everyday priced wine; it is a challenge.”  But make it he does, along with a fantastic lineup of estate wines.

You can see all the wines they produce on their website, here.  Rhone varietals dominate, but you’ll also find excellent reserve Zinfandels, Petite Sirah and Bordeaux (and a mighty fine Chardonnay).  My favorite of his wines, the Russell estate Roussane, hasn’t been produced the last few years because yields have been too low during our multi-year drought, but their white Rhone blend, Blanc de Vine, is a fine stand-in (even after the Roussane reappears!).  In a nod to their sustainable farming practices, Russell pointed out blocks of vines during a drive through the vineyards that they’ve elected to sacrifice to the drought.  There’s only so much water to go around, unfortunately.  Conditions look a bit better after this year’s closer-to-normal rains, and Russell is optimistic about the coming vintage.

Vines Lost to Drought
Vines Lost to Drought

If you’re in Paso Robles, you’ll find them just north of town on San Marcos Road, west of Highway 101.  The tasting room occupies the front of the same building that houses their barrel room.  You can expect a friendly and relaxed tasting experience when you stop by, and most likely have your wines poured by a member of the Russell family.  That warm and personal environment, and the beautiful wines Erich Russell makes, have had us coming back for years.

Wall of Wine BarrelsThe tasting room is located at 1172 San Marcos Road, Paso Robles, California 93446, (805) 249-0252.  Tasting room hours are Friday-Sunday, 11am – 5pm.  They also have a tasting room called The Rabbit Hole for their sparkling wines (including the tasty “Bling,” a brut-style sparkling wine) in downtown Paso Robles at 1244 Pine Street, (805) 286-4692.




Update on Justin Winery’s Land Destruction

When last we spoke about this, we were awaiting the first fallout from the discovery of Justin Winery’s horrendous destruction of its Sleepy Farm Road property in west Paso Robles.  The county and the Upper Salinas-Las Tablas Resource Conservation District had both issued “stop work” orders and local outrage was spreading like wildfire, becoming a national headline.  Since that time, social media backlash exploded and local businesses began boycotting Justin wines.

The Resnicks, who own Wonderful Brands (who in turn owns Justin, among other properties), are now attempting to repair the substantial self-inflicted reputational (ha!) damage.  First, the news:  they’ve announced they are abandoning efforts to convert their land, including the construction of a mind-bogglingly ill-advised large-capacity reservoir (which they would not fill by the long-term and environmentally sound method of using runoff, but by pumping out 6 million gallons of precious and scarce groundwater).  They also announced they intend to donate the now-decimated parcel of land on Sleepy Farm Road to a yet-to-be-named land conservancy.  Gosh, thanks.

And I’m completely unmoved by their half-hearted mea culpa.  Here’s why.

First, the Resnicks are motivated by the accumulation of wealth, and apparently little else.  If you’re unfamiliar with them, this is a good place to start.  They’ve ruined the water supply for the entire population of the island of Fiji.  They’re quickly doing the same in California’s central valley.  My opinion of this couple?  Horrible, awful people.  Irredeemable.

But it gets better.  In their self-serving press release, do they accept responsibility for what’s been done to their land?  OF COURSE NOT.  Read on, from the San Luis Obispo Tribune’s story this morning:

In their announcement, the Resnicks blamed their “local team” at Justin Vineyards and Winery for the “terrible situation at our Sleepy Farm Road property, not to mention our poor reputation within the community.”

That is the lowest, sleaziest and most cowardly tactic–blame your employees, and accept no responsibility.  That’s truly reprehensible.

These people do not care about their land, regardless of their self-serving hand-wringing to the contrary.  They’re on a cut-your-losses P.R. salvage mission, and nothing more.

Like so many others, I will continue to boycott them–all of their products, including Justin wines.  You should, too.


11th Annual LAWineFest this weekend!

If you don’t have the time to plan a days-long wine-tasting trip through your wine region of choice, wine festivals are always a great way to explore a variety of wines, all in one location–and this weekend, the location happens to be my very own neighborhood.  I even have a promo code that’ll save you 50% off the $90 ticket price when you buy in advance! Read on . . .

LAWineFest commemorative glasses
LAWineFest commemorative glasses

The 11th Annual LAWineFest is this weekend at Sunset Bronson Studios at 5901 Sunset Boulevard.  The festival features an impressive list of winemakers exhibiting (and pouring) their wares.  You can even check out specifically which wines will be available on the LAWineFest website here.  The festival runs from 3 pm to 7 pm on Saturday, June 25, and from 2 pm to 6 pm on Sunday, June 27.  The $90 admission will get you wine, beer, and cider tastings, a commemorative glass and event program, and complimentary Icelandic Glacial water, Peerless iced coffee, and La Brea Bakery bread.  The popular Boutique Winery Courtyard is back again this year for an additional tasting fee of $45 for 12 hand-picked wineries who produce 1500 or fewer cases of wine a year–limited to 400 tickets each day.

Getting to and from is pretty easy, too–the location is a short walk from the Hollywood/Vine Metro stop, and they’ve got a special promotion going with Lyft.  Check out this link for a $40 free ride credit for first-time Lyft users.  They also offer discounted tickets for designated drivers at just $15 (be responsible and take advantage of one of these great deals!).

And here’s a great incentive for purchasing your tickets in advance: get general admission tickets for just $45 (it will be $90 at the door!) with the code FEST2016.  Just go to this page, click on the button to buy tickets and enter the code at checkout.

As with most festivals like this, there’s plenty to see (and taste) in addition to wine.  Beer and cider will be well-represented, and there’s also a nice lineup of “lifestyle” vendors for all things wine- and food-related.  And of course, there must be food.  As has become almost expected at festivals like this, you can look forward to some of your favorite local food trucks there (food for purchase at additional cost, not included in your festival admission).  I’m already thinking about Cousin’s Maine Lobster’s delicious lobster roll with a little chardonnay!

Having taken a quick look at the list of wines being poured, I’ll offer a couple of don’t-you-dare-miss-these recommendations.  Epiphany Wines from Santa Barbara County will be pouring four wines–try them all, but especially don’t miss their outstanding Grenache.  And my very favorite off-the-beaten-path winery, Navarro Vineyards from the tiny town of Philo in Mendocino County, will be there.  If you’ve never had their dry Estate Gewurztraminer, you’re in for a treat (that one’s in their lineup for the festival, along with a few other of their wines).  Done in the Alsatian style, it’s a beauty of a wine, bone-dry with gorgeous aromatics.  I’m looking forward to that one most of all, I think.

The feel-good part (besides the wine, of course):  LAWineFest donates a portion of the event proceeds to a charity, and this year’s official LAWineFest charity is Sunshine Kids, who help children who have cancer.

I’ll be there Saturday, Instagramming away and doing plenty of tasting–you should go, too!

Weeknight Wine – 2015 Curran Grenache Blanc

I can’t stop loving you, Grenache Blanc!

This is probably my current favorite white wine (maybe even my favorite wine, period, for the moment).  California winemakers realized about a decade ago that Grenache Blanc, generally reserved for Rhone blends, has the potential to be a blockbuster of a single varietal, and are now producing some truly outstanding wines from that grape.

I’ve remarked before that Grenache Blanc is the white wine that thinks it’s really a red wine–which may be why I love it so much–but that’s in reality very likely because it’s considered a mutation of the red Grenache grape.  In the right hands (both grower and winemaker), it makes for big flavor with huge body–all in amazing balance.

2015 Curran Grenache Blanc
2015 Curran Grenache Blanc

One of the best Grenache Blanc producers in the state (and elsewhere, as far as I’m concerned) is Kris Curran of D’Alfonso-Curran wines in the Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County.

Her Grenache Blanc is a perfect summer wine, with BIG fruit and perfectly balanced acids.  Bone-dry, but incredibly rich.  There’s tart green apple and spice on the nose, and an explosion of tropical fruit (guava, pineapple) on the palate, with a bit of wet rock to give a touch of minerality.  It’s a very food-friendly wine, but also drinks just fine all by itself.  $28/bottle, which is a bit spendy for my weeknight wines, but since I picked up a case with a hefty club-member discount (you like wine clubs? be in this wine club!), the bottle price was knocked down to $14 (did I mention you should maybe join their wine club?).

Editor’s note:  The Weeknight Wine series will spotlight 1-2 wines each week that are great in quality but won’t break the bank.

I focus solely on small wineries. This is why.

As I ready my first few winery stories on this nascent blog, I want to keep the conversation going here.  And a current story out of the Paso Robles area is precisely the kind of thing I’d like to talk about.

When I read the first couple of stories that emerged about this last week, I was thisclose to firing off a scorchingly critical post about the evils of corporate-owned wineries.

I’ve toned that down a bit.  But only just a bit.

Here’s the current source of outrage:  Wonderful Brands, a large corporation that owns a portfolio of wineries and other food-related businesses, purchased Justin Winery in Paso Robles in 2010, one of the “original” Paso wineries.  Wonderful Brands is known for some of their other holdings, one of the largest being Fiji Water.  I don’t hold much affection for bottled water producers in the first place (and neither do our overloaded landfills), but (not so) Wonderful Brands has been an especially poor steward of the land.  And that’s been driven home in a rather shocking way by last week’s news that they are decimating their land in the Willow Creek district of west Paso in order to increase their acreage of vines.  They have been slapped with multiple stop work orders from the city and county after their “improvements” came to light.

They clearcut more than a hundred (possibly several hundred) oaks–and did so during nesting season.  Considering this part of the state is home to many birds who are endangered species and species of special concern, this wholesale destruction during nesting season is especially shocking and sad.  I am rather tuned into these specific issues via my Owens Lake Project–my biases are certainly no secret–but this was outrageous by any measure.

The clearcutting of trees, which you can see before/after photos of here, will likely create serious issues with erosion, which then threatens local streams and aquifers (which are already threatened enough in central California).  It also seems likely to create a heat island in this storied microclimate.  Any way you approach this, their land “conversion” is destructive and selfish.

And actions like this, which sadly are not that uncommon among corporate winery owners, are the primary reason I do not like them and will not cover them in this blog.  They don’t need me to tell their stories–unless and until their story becomes one of outrageous environmental destruction, and then I’ll be on it faster than a duck on a junebug.

Large-scale grape-growing outfits are rarely good stewards of the land.  And you need to be fully aware of who they are when deciding where to spend your wine-buying dollars.  Their approach to growing wine grapes is one of quantity and yield-per-acre over quality.  It’s very easy to dump tons of water on your vines and increase your yield dramatically–but the end result is poor quality fruit and dismal environmental practice.  Water in California is a limited resource.  To consider this a viable means of growing wine grapes in California is one of the most blindered, selfish, greedy approaches I can imagine.  And the wine sucks as a result, generally speaking.

The multitude of issues with Justin’s/Wonderful Brand’s destruction of the land are still taking shape, and it’s going to take action by the county to safeguard against this in the future–an oak-cutting ban has been considered but not passed in previous years, and that’s something that will likely be revisited after this.  What sort of environmental impact responsibilities a property owner must comply with should also get a closer look.  California Fish and Wildlife should have been closely involved before a single tree was cut–and there need to be limits on WHEN trees can be cut in any quantity.  Doing so during nesting season should see an outright and immediate ban.

Justin’s neighbors are rightly concerned about the impact this has on their water resources.  Most, if not all, of the neighboring property owners have well-earned reputations for sustainable farming practices.  Most of them dry-farm, which both preserves water and results in much higher-quality grapes.

And those good neighbors–in every sense of the word–are the winemakers I intend to cover here.  I want to tell the stories of people who love what they do, and who love and care for their land.  You should feel good knowing that you’re buying a higher quality, handcrafted wine, and not giving your money to folks who don’t give a second thought to sustainability.