Adventures in wine and food pairing at Lodi’s beautiful Wine & Roses Hotel

When LoCA’s Randy Caparoso asks if you might possibly have plans to be in Lodi the following weekend, you should probably say YES, even if you live in Los Angeles and did not, in fact, already have plans to be in Lodi.  If it were me, that is–and it was, and I did say yes.

Randy was leading a culinary wine and food pairing class (“exploration” might be a better word) at Lodi’s beautiful Wine & Roses Hotel a couple of weeks ago along with Executive Chef John Hitchcock, and I happily accepted the offer to cover the event for Lodi Wine.

As part of Wine & Roses’ ongoing Cooking School offerings, the evening was somewhere between a class (ahem, exploration) and an elegant food and wine pairing featuring some of Lodi’s best offerings.  The hotel itself, an historic Lodi property which had its beginnings in 1903 as a private estate, is a gorgeous setting for such an event.  I had the privilege of staying at Wine & Roses that weekend, and it’s a wonderful destination in its own right with the on-site Towne House restaurant and spa.  The rooms are spacious and well-appointed, with an unmistakable air of luxury.

The setting for our exploration of food and wine pairings at Lodi's Wine & Roses Hotel
The setting for our exploration of food and wine pairings at Lodi’s Wine & Roses Hotel

As I skimmed the menu for the dinner and pairing, three significant things jumped out at me.  One, there was a nod to classic pairings (caviar and bubbles, for starters); two, some challenging pairings–and by challenging, I mean dishes that employed unconventional flavors (and thus a challenge to find just the right wine) such as wasabi; and three, that some of Lodi’s best wines (and several of my personal favorites) represented the region quite well in the company of great cuisine.

Yukon gold blini with creme fraiche and caviar, paired with LVVR's Lodi Appellation sparkling wines
Yukon gold blini with creme fraiche and caviar, paired with LVVR’s Lodi Appellation sparkling wines

First up, and perfectly so, was the Yukon Gold blini with caviar, creme fraiche and lemon zest–this French Laundry recipe was paired with two Lodi sparklers, a Brut and a Blanc de Blancs from LVVR Sparkling Cellars.  The two non-vintage sparkling wines are produced in the méthode champenoise style and were an ideal accompaniment to the lighter-than-air blini and the hit of salty-briny caviar.  Both are fine sparkling wines with their traditional production method evident in the yeasty, bready nose; these were both new Lodi wines for me, and I still can’t decide on a favorite.  I thought both paired really well with this small bite, and provided a great introduction for the assembled crowd to begin thinking about the relationship between food and wine.

Billi Bi - a traditional French cream of saffron mussel soup
Billi Bi – a traditional French cream of saffron mussel soup

The second offering, Billi Bi – a traditional French cream of saffron mussel soup, was served as a small bite on porcelain spoon, and was the first real wake-you-up flavor of the night with the mouthful-of-ocean taste of the mussel.  Paired with that was Markus Wine Co.’s 2016 Nativo, a bone-dry and intensely aromatic blend of German varieties (Kerner, Riesling and Bacchus) from the Koth vineyard in Lodi’s Mokelumne River AVA.  This particular vineyard, which boasts more than 50 German varietals–many of them the only such plantings in the United States–is one of Lodi’s most remarkable hidden gems, and winemaker Markus Niggli creates some of the most compelling and original wines from them.  The Billi Bi is a tricky pairing, because it does best with a white wine, but needs a white that can stand up to the strong flavors of the dish.  The Nativo’s elegant and spicy acidity was the perfect choice (and I’m currently working on a profile of Markus Niggli, which I hope to publish next week).

Caparoso 1
Sommelier Randy Caparoso guides the attendees through a series of wine and food pairings featuring Lodi’s best wines (and cuisine).

This particular pairing, along with the oyster with wasabi that followed, was the ideal platform for Caparoso to go into a subject area that few in the business know better (not to mention had an active hand in developing)–how to pair wine with decidedly non-French, non-traditional (non-European) flavors of spice and umami.  After years as a sommelier and wine program manager for more traditional French restaurants, Caparoso joined up with Hawaiian Chef Roy Yamaguchi and would go on to co-found the Roy’s Restaurant franchise, ultimately reaching 28 locations across the globe.  Roy’s helped popularize the pan-Asian cuisine that now seems omnipresent, but that cuisine presents a spectrum of flavors that do not immediately and obviously bring to mind the kind of wine pairings familiar in more traditional Euro-centric restaurants.

Wine pairings, Caparoso told the class, should take into consideration contrast as well as similarity.  “Food should make the wine taste better, too” (not just the other way around).  Think of wine AS food, he said–or as an ingredient with the food.  With food featuring flavors of spice and umami, use that idea of contrast when you begin to search for wines that will pair well with those kinds of dishes.

Wasabi Oyster
The Kumamoto oyster with micro wasabi and asian pear (my favorite small bite of the evening)

And indeed, the next pairing was a great example of what Caparoso was talking about.  The fried Kumamoto oyster with micro wasabi and asian pear had exactly that pan-Asian personality, with the subtle but sharp heat of the wasabi lifting the savory fried oyster to a whole new level.  So what goes with wasabi?  Forget the Asahi and Sapporo.  Wine absolutely can be successfully paired with this flavor, and it doesn’t have to be the most oft-parroted suggestion of a dry Riesling.  With this, the 2016 Fields Family Wines’ Vermentino was dry, tart, and perfect.  Flavors of meyer lemon and lemongrass, a slight salinity and solid minerality–that citrus backbone balanced so well with the fried oyster, and held its own against the wasabi component of the dish.

Randy Caparoso and Executive Chef John Hitchcock discuss the pairings with the class
Randy Caparoso and Executive Chef John Hitchcock discuss the pairings with the class

We enjoyed a third wine in the mix with the appetizers before heading on to the main course–Acquiesce’s 2016 Grenache Rosé.  We were encouraged to try the two whites and the Grenache Rosé with both of the appetizers as a way of experiencing how a dish can pair well with a variety of wines.  This traditionally styled Rosé, with a strong nod to its French roots, is dry, with abundant fruit and a little of that trademark spice that the Grenache grape shows so well.  And it was a great transition into the wines featured with the next course.

Plating the seared sous vide squab with the beautifully brunoised ratatouille
Plating the seared sous vide squab with the beautifully brunoised ratatouille

The entree for the evening, seared squab with pan jus and ratatouille, was a simple, traditional and stunningly presented dish–instead of the traditional rustic presentation, Chef Hitchcock and his staff prepared a meticulously brunoised take on this dish; that careful and skillful touch elevated an already-great dish; the aesthetics and texture were simply lovely.  The squab was prepared sous vide and then seared and dressed with pan jus.  And to go with this hearty but not heavy dish?  Two stellar Grenaches: Bokisch Vineyards’ 2014 Garnacha (the Spanish name for the Spanish variety perhaps better known by its adopted Rhone identity), and McCay Cellars’ 2014 Grenache.  This is a lightish/mediumish-bodied variety, with lively spice and fruit, and both iterations of this wine tasted beautifully with the squab.  These wines are a wonderful testament to Lodi’s ability to produce high-quality reds that are a universe apart from the big Zinfandels which built Lodi’s reputation over the last century-plus.

Artful plating takes our dessert course from this . . .
Artful plating takes our dessert course from this . . .
. . . to this
. . . to this

The final course (dessert, of course) struck me as a perfectly pitched, almost sentimental nod to Lodi.  The vanilla bean panna cotta with rhubarb and strawberry salad with micro mint and lavender was light and creamy, with the seasonal, local rhubarb and strawberries throwing a balancing note of tartness.  It was paired with perhaps the Lodi-iest of Lodi wines: the Jessie’s Grove Ancient Vine Tokay.  This grape–a Vitis vinifera variety that was more commonly grown and consumed as a table grape–was the leading grape crop in Lodi before seedless varieties eclipsed it over the last quarter century (I could, and very well may, devote an entire post to this fascinating grape).  It’s made in a white port wine style–so it’s lightly fortified–from 130-year-old Tokay vines, and never sits heavily on the palate.

New Culinary Director Bradley Ogden (left) speaks to the group at the end of the evening
New Culinary Director Bradley Ogden (left) speaks to the group at the end of the evening

It was a beautiful way to close out a great evening, and as the class lingered over the dessert, Wine & Roses proprietor Kathy Munson introduced James Beard Award-winning Chef Bradley Ogden, who joins Executive Chef John Hitchcock as the hotel’s new culinary director.  It’s exciting to look forward to what these two great culinary minds will come up with as a team (and also a good time to note that Wine & Roses has several dinners on its summer schedule, each featuring a particular Lodi winery).

Wine recap:

LVVR NV Lodi Sparkling Brut ($20)
LVVR NV Lodi Blanc de Blancs ($20)
Markus Wine Co. 2016 Nativo ($22)
Fields Family Wines 2016 Vermentino ($19)
Acquiesce 2016 Grenache Rosé ($24)
Bokisch Vineyards 2014 Garnacha ($20)
McCay Cellars 2014 Grenache ($35)
Jessie’s Grove 2011 Ancient Vine Tokay ($35)

 

 

If you go to one wine festival all year, go GARAGISTE!

Wine festivals are fun things to go to–an impressive number of wines to taste as you wander at your own pace.  Who wouldn’t have fun doing that?

But the California Garagiste Festival, which has its 6th annual event in Paso Robles this weekend, is a little different than your usual wine festival.

garagisteWhy?  Story.  Everything comes back to story (stay with me, I’ll explain).  As I’ve mentioned here previously, and as I detail on my “about” page, story is what took my interest in wine from whatever I could pick up at my local wine shop that tasted good to wanting to know everything about wine, and being able to do so with no pretense or intimidation.  By story in this context, I’m talking about the opportunity to find out the who/what/why behind a bottle of wine, the opportunity to talk to the person who made the wine, to hear their . . . story.  Story goes a long way in making wine approachable and engaging.

So if you like that, if you’re intrigued by the “why” that went into that bottle of wine on your shelf, you will find no better event to indulge that than the Garagiste Festival.

What the heck is a Garagiste?  From their website:

GARAGISTES – (garage-east) n, Fr. – A term originally used in the Bordeaux region of France to denigrate renegade small-lot wine makers, sometimes working in their garage, who refused to follow the “rules.” Now a full-fledged movement responsible for making some of the best wine in the world. Who’s laughing now, Francois? Syn: Rule-breakers, pioneers, renegades, mavericks, driven by passion.

The California version of this movement has embraced the name as a way to bring together micro-producers (usually no more than 1500 cases per year production, some produce much less) and use this festival platform as a way to bring their wines to the public in a way they’re not otherwise able to do individually.  Some of the Garagistes have tasting rooms, but some (the majority, I think) do not.  Many of them are new-ish to the winemaking game, but there are some seasoned old-timers as well, who continue to produce wine in small lots and with little interest of scaling up.  They do what they do because they love it, and the wines reflect this beautifully.

I attended the Los Angeles Garagiste festival this summer, and was so impressed with the wines I tasted, and had a wonderful time talking to the winemakers.  This is an up-close-and-personal event in a way that other wine festivals are not.

The Paso festival begins tonight with a wine and (grilled) cheese event in Atascadero–sadly, that’s sold out (but let’s just hope they repeat this particular party for next year’s festival, because let’s be honest–GRILLED CHEESE SANDWICHES).  There are still tickets available for Saturday’s events, which include a pair of seminars, the Grand Tasting, and the after party.  Tickets are available at the door, but in the event of a sellout, I’d highly recommend buying them now via this link.  Your best deal is the day-long VIP pass, which gets you into both of the seminars, the Grand Tasting, and the after party.

I haven’t tasted wines from every producer who’ll be there, but I’ve tried a LOT of them–here are my don’t-miss recommendations:  On Your Left, Pulchella, Caliza, Bodega de Edgar, Vinemark, and brand-spanking-new Garagiste, Serrano.  If you recall my profile of Rabbit Ridge winery, Serrano is RR’s second generation getting into the game (and their inaugural 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon has already racked up some impressive accolades–I’ve had it, it’s TASTY).

The always outstanding Vivant Fine Cheese will be serving cheese and charcuterie during the Grand Tasting, and other vendors will offer their wares as well (think: estate olive oils that will rock your world).

The all-day event runs from 11:00 a.m. (with the first seminar) to 5 p.m., The Grant Tasting is 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., and the after party is 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. All events are at the Paso Fairgrounds, 2198 Riverside Ave, Paso Robles, CA 93446

Beautiful wines and beautiful food, beautifully paired

I was invited to a trade luncheon last week featuring the wines of one of the oldest Chateaus in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Chateau La Nerthe, at Georgie restaurant in Montage Beverly Hills.

The wines of Chateau La Nerthe
The wines of Chateau La Nerthe

More about the Chateau and Georgie in a moment, but first, about the lunch itself:  it was such a wonderful reminder of why I–and I suppose all of us–love wine so much.  I love to settle in with a glass of something delicious all by itself, but there’s something transcendent when you have just the right great wine with just the right food.  It can be downright revelatory.

If you’ve never dined at Georgie, it’s well worth a visit.  All of the dishes we had at the luncheon are available on the regular menu, so if you see something here that looks good–go get it!

Oyster Escabeche, which was as beautiful as it was delicious

We started out with a thoroughly impressive pairing–Prieuré de Montézargues rosé (one of the labels owned by the Chateau), with a single, perfect oyster escabeche, a Galician preparation topped with a meticulously brunoised pepper relish.  When an Amuse-bouche is placed in front of you and you reflexively grin at the sheer aesthetic loveliness, you know you’re in for a good time.

Herbed Labne on Pita
Herbed Labne on Pita

And so the rest of the lunch progressed–yellowfin poke and the Chateau’s 2012 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc; kale and tabbouleh salad with the astonishing 2012 Clos de Beauvenir, a Roussane-dominant blend and the estate’s top white.  I will dream about this wine.  My favorite of the starters, the herbed labne–a riff on tzatziki topped with cucumber, cherry tomato and pickled red onion–was paired with the 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc, which has aged beautifully, drinks beautifully, and still has years of (delicious) life in the bottle.

Export Director Christophe Bristiel discusses the wines of Chateau La Nerthe
Export Director Christophe Bristiel discusses the wines of Chateau La Nerthe

And those were just the whites.

A family-style lunch paired perfectly with the Chateau's offerings
A family-style lunch paired perfectly with the Chateau’s offerings
The made for an unconventional but perfect pairing with salsa verde marinated shrimp
The Cotes du Rhone Villages made for an unconventional but perfect pairing with salsa verde marinated shrimp

On to the heavier plates and the lineup of the estate’s Côtes du Rhône Villages, Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge (2012 and 2006), and their Châteauneuf-du-Pape des Cadettes, their premier Rouge, made from a dedicated 20-acre vineyard under vines ranging from 80 to 100 years old.  The food continued to impress as we moved into the heavier dishes, including some truly inventive pairings–especially the salsa verde marinated shrimp which made for a surprisingly spectacular pairing with the Côtes du Rhône Villages.  My favorite dish served with the reds was the short rib ravioli (because come ON you know this is going to be good!) and the des Cadettes.  FANTASTIC.

An artisinal cheese board finished off a beautiful lunch
An artisinal cheese board finished off a beautiful lunch

In short, Chateau La Nerthe produces some of the finest Rhône wines you’re likely to find–know that much (and those of you in the Los Angeles area can find them at Wally’s).  The Chateau has a wonderful history, and I’ll be interviewing their export director, Christophe Bristiel, here in the coming days about that in detail.

 

Lovin’ la Vida Lodi (Part 2 of my adventure)

So I had quite the introduction to Lodi wine country last week, and my second day there only got better.

Filled with enthusiasm and warmth from the previous evening’s festivities, I bounded onto the shuttle at 5:30 a.m. the second morning, ready for a sunrise harvest at Michael David Winery.

Harvesting Viognier at Sunrise at Michael David Winery
Harvesting Viognier at Sunrise at Michael David Winery

Oh, who am I kidding. I dragged my zombified self onto the bus, clutching my to-go cup of hotel coffee like a life preserver and wondered what the heck I’d gotten myself into.

Kevin Phillips, putting all us bloggers to work harvesting Viognier
Kevin Phillips, putting all us bloggers to work harvesting Viognier

But the enthusiasm would soon return for real the moment we stepped into the vineyard, now bathed in a soft pre-dawn glow.  The air still had a bit of coolness (enjoy it while it lasts!), and field workers were already hard at work hand-harvesting Viognier grapes–which is the same task we were about to try for the first time, and general manager Kevin Phillips was there to crack that whip and make sure we got to work pronto.  A ruthless taskmaster, that man (not really; he was a riot, and a great sport for allowing us into his vineyard for some very sketchy beginner-level field work).

Pros putting us all to shame while they harvest Viognier at light speed
Pros putting us all to shame while they harvest Viognier at light speed

Let me just say this: those workers are GREAT at what they do, and the speed with which they do it will blow your mind.  I was already impressed just watching them work their way down the rows, but when the rest of us donned gloves and picked up clippers to give it a shot, I was even more impressed.  That is some seriously demanding work, and the level of skill and focus it takes to move with any speed down those rows comes from a lot of dedication and practice.  It is hard, hard, hard work.  They are Bad. Ass.  We, on the other hand, kinda sucked–but learned a little more about what goes into making our favorite liquid-in-a-bottle, and got a genuine appreciation for some of the most back-breaking work that’s such an integral part of the process of going from grape to bottle.  Everybody jumped in and gave it their best shot, and we almost, kinda-sorta filled up one big bin as a group.

Bloggers getting a taste of harvest-time hard work
Bloggers getting a taste of harvest-time hard work

After a field worker’s breakfast at the winery (coffee and a massive breakfast burrito), we were off to Mokelumne Glen Vineyard to check out one of the (if not THE) most unusual vineyards in all of California.  Bob Koth’s vineyard along the banks of the Mokelumne River is a living museum of German and Austrian varietals.  While it doesn’t include every such varietal in existence, the Koths do grow almost 50 different varietals (including several different Riesling clones)–many of which are the only such plantings in the U.S., and in one of the least likely places to grow these cool-weather grapes.  But grow them he does, and it’s become a varietal playground for winemakers, a few of whom greeted us at the end of our vineyard tour (where I hope nobody was keeping track of how many Gewurztraminer berries I was munching along the way).

Borra winemaker Markus Niggli talks to our group about the wines me makes from Mokelumne Glen's fruit
Borra winemaker Markus Niggli talks to our group about the wines he makes from Mokelumne Glen’s fruit
MVG Wines
Some of the wines made from grapes grown at Mokelumne Glen vineyard

We sampled wines made from Mokelumne Glen grapes by Borra Vineyards, Holman Cellars and Sidebar Cellars–my favorites were the Holman Uncharted, made from MGV Bacchus grapes (a new varietal for me), and Borra’s Nuvola–a crisp, dry 100% Gewurztraminer made from MGV grapes.  The excitement that these winemakers have about the opportunity to work with Mokelumne Glen’s rare varietals was palpable (and made the tasting that much more fun).

After we finished our tasting there, we stepped across a continent (figuratively speaking), meaning we walked across the road to Bokisch Vineyards’ Las Cerezas vineyard, planted with Spanish varietals Tempranillo, Albarino, and a new-for-me red varietal that Bokisch specializes in, Graciano.  Owner and grower Markus Bokisch took us through a tasting of these wines (again, such a great experience standing in the same vineyard where the wine you’re drinking was grown).  Bokisch spent several years in Spain, and came away with a passion for (and extensive knowledge of) Spanish varietals, and they are the centerpiece of the wines he makes.

Our delicious Catalan-inspired al fresco lunch at Bokisch Vineyards
Our delicious Catalan-inspired al fresco lunch at Bokisch Vineyards

We were soon off to Bokisch’s Terra Alta vineyard and tasting room for another vineyard and winery tour (including a FUN taste of freshly pressed Albarino juice!), and finally settled in under a massive oak tree in the middle of the vineyard where we enjoyed a Catalan-style repast prepared by Liz Bokisch, accompanied by more of those delicious Bokisch wines.  There were open-faced build-it-yourself sandwiches, a watermelon and feta salad, and an incredibly fresh, bright and perfect-for-the-heat gazpacho.  It was the perfect warm weather meal, and the al fresco vineyard setting was beautiful.  And I came away with a mild obsession for his Mourvedre-based Monastrell; we tasted the soon-to-be-released 2014, and I will be back for more of that.

So, what’s the best thing to do after feasting on a Spanish-inspired vineyard lunch?  Go see more vineyards!  Off we went again, this time to the Abba Vineyard where we were met by grower Phil Abba and winemaker Mike McCay of McCay cellars, who uses the Abba Syrah and Grenache in his wines.

McCay Rose of Carignane and Grenache--bright, dry and delicious
McCay Rose of Carignane and Grenache–bright, dry and delicious

We were back to triple-digit temps, so being met with McCay’s cold and delicious Rose of Carignane and Grenache to start off with was a welcome treat.  With refreshing rose in hand, we got a tour and quick lesson in trellising in the Syrah vineyard.

Smart-Henry trellising system for Syrah at Abba Vineyard
Smart-Henry trellising system for Syrah at Abba Vineyard

For this particular varietal, Abba uses an uncommon trellising system known as Smart-Henry, where the grapes are trained into two tiers.  And it’s the most aesthetically beautiful trellising I’ve ever seen.

McCay's Abba Vineyard Syrah, from vine to glass
McCay’s Abba Vineyard Syrah, from vine to glass

We had a taste of McCay’s Syrah from that vineyard, and then proceeded down the road a bit to Abba’s Grenache vineyard.  Not only did we again sample the wine from that vineyard while tasting the almost-ripe Grenache berries, we got to do something this wine geek has been fascinated by but never tried before–we played around with one of the winemaker’s and grower’s most important harvest-time tools, the refractometer.

Using the refractometer to check sugar levels in the grapes
A fellow blogger using the refractometer to check sugar levels in the grapes

This is used to measure the sugar level, or brix, in winegrapes and helps determine when the time is right to pick those grapes (and by the way, that McCay Grenache–currently one of my favorite varietals generally–knocked my socks off; big and spicy on the palate, with a cherry cola nose that I flipped for).

I can’t say enough good things about how Lodi Wine planned this excursion, by the way–our final vineyard stop of the day was yet another educational (and really interesting) lesson in wine.  We left the Abba vineyard and headed to the Rous vineyard of true ancient-vine Zinfandel.

Chris Rous, Steve Millier, Tim Holdener and Mike McCay tell the group all about the Rous Vineyard ancient-vine Zinfandel
Mike McCay, Tim Holdener, Steve Millier and Chris Rous tell the group all about the Rous Vineyard ancient-vine Zinfandel

Grower Chris Rous sells fruit from that vineyard to three different winemakers–Mike McCay, who seemed to be just following us around at this point (I KID, I KID!–McCay was one of my favorite people I met on this excursion), Steve Millier of Ironstone Vineyards, and Tim Holdener of Macchia Vineyards.  They all make an old-vine zin from this vineyard, and we were treated to a side-by-side tasting of all three.  There were definite differences in style between the three, all were delicious, and it was really interesting to taste the different takes on old vine zin from the same vineyard.  Yet another wine geek’s treat.

I may never stop raving about this experience.  Lodi Wine did an amazing job showing off their great wine region, and including lots of general in-the-field wine education as well.  I was so impressed not just by the wines, but by the wonderful people making them.  Lodi is a small town, and those winemakers all know each other and have built a wonderful community–and it shows.  I was honored to be included in that community, even if it was just for a couple of days.  I’m already planning a trip back later this fall to interview several of the winemakers so I can more properly introduce them to you here on winestainedlens.

 

Surprised by Lodi (Part 1)

I’m one of the first people who’ll urge you to put aside your assumptions when you go into any new situation, but even I wasn’t sure what to expect when I traveled to Lodi, California for the ninth annual (and my very first) Wine Bloggers Conference last week.

And boy, was I blown away by what I experienced.

Known in the past mostly for its (very) large-scale production of wine grapes, used mostly in bulk wines, it’s so much more.  Lodi was named 2015’s Wine Region of the Year by Wine Enthusiast magazine–no small accomplishment–so I suspected I was in for a treat.  I already have a soft spot for underappreciated wine regions (see my love of all things Paso Robles), and Lodi just went straight to my heart.

I opted to participate in the pre-conference excursion in Lodi on Wednesday and Thursday (the conference officially kicked off on Friday morning), and I’ll spend this post filling you in on that first day and first up-close experience with Lodi wines (tomorrow you’ll hear about day 2).

Picpoul Blanc berries in their pre-wine state
Picpoul Blanc berries in their pre-wine state

The conference picked us up at our respective hotels (with the delightful Randy Caparoso, a wine journalist who writes for the Lodi Wine Commission and is also editor-at-large for SOMM Journal and The Tasting Panel magazines as our guide) and we were off to our first winery and vineyard visit–Acquiesce Vineyards, where winemaker Susan Tipton produces Rhône whites only (okay, and one VERY tasty rosé).  Who even does that?  Susan Tipton does, and she knocks it out of the park, thank you very much.

Acquiesce's lineup of luscious Rhone wines (and don't you just LOVE that bottle shape?)
Acquiesce’s lineup of luscious Rhone wines (and don’t you just LOVE that bottle shape?)

Now, granted it was just ridiculously hot in Lodi last week, but those were some of the most crisp, refreshing white wines I’ve tasted in a very long time.  We took a quick stroll through her vineyard, and then escaped the heat to try the wines inside the (blessedly cool) tasting room.  Her Picpoul Blanc was easily my favorite (and currently sold out), but the entire lineup is a beautiful expression of everything that makes those wines simultaneously a perfect representation of both the Rhône region they hail from and the synergistic perfection of those varietals grown under optimum Rhône-like conditions here in California.

Gorgeously gnarly 112-year-old Zinfandel vines at Lizzy James Vineyard
Gorgeously gnarly 112-year-old Zinfandel vines at Lizzy James Vineyard

We were soon back on the bus and on our way to the Lizzy James Vineyard, where we were given a vineyard walk-and-talk with owner/grower Kyle Lerner of Harney Lane Winery and winemaker Chad Joseph.  There’s something truly special about tasting a wine while standing in the very vineyard in which the grapes were grown (and this would not be our only such experience).  These vines in particular are true old vine Zinfandel, planted in 1904, nice and gnarly and something Lodi still has in abundance–and part of what makes it such a special wine region.  And those old vines produce some of the most intense, complex fruit–and resulting wine–you’ll ever put to your lips.

Beautiful bouquet of rosés at Harney Lane
Beautiful bouquet of rosés at Harney Lane

After learning all about those vines, we headed on to the Harney Lane tasting room for our last stop of the evening.  We sampled the Albariño, then the rosé of Tempranillo, Petite Sirah & Zinfandel (bone-dry, rich and absolutely heavenly).  Glasses in hand, we decamped to the winery’s patio, where the Lerners had set an incredible dinner for all us bloggers.

Harney Lane (delicious) Dinner Menu
Harney Lane (delicious) Dinner Menu

I’ve enjoyed more than a few winemaker dinners over the years, and this one–well, it was fabulous and friendly and brimming with great food, great wine (including that Lizzy James zin!), and great conversation and laughter.

Toasting a great meal and a great first day in Lodi wine country
Toasting a great meal and a great first day in Lodi wine country

What a wonderful way to get acquainted with each other (beyond our electronic friendships) and the lovely and gracious Lerner family.

We ended the day with several in the group taking a ride on a harvester as it mechanically picked chardonnay clusters just as the sun was going down and the delta breeze from the Carquinez Strait kicked in (aaaahhhhh).

A sunset joyride on a chardonnay harvester at Harney Lane
A sunset joyride on a grape harvester at Harney Lane

WHAT a day.  It was an incredible introduction to Lodi, full of charm and killer wine.  And we were just getting started (Part 2 tomorrow!).

Rhone Rangers Los Angeles tasting is this Saturday!

I’ll take any opportunity I can think up to drive up to Paso Robles for a little quality wine-tasting time–but one of the benefits of living in a big city like Los Angeles is that sometimes the good wine comes to YOU.

Rhone Rangers Los Angeles TastingAnd the Rhone Rangers tasting event in Los Angeles is one of those lucky, lovely times.

If you’re not familiar, the Rhone Rangers began as a way to educate the public and introduce them to (and promote) the great new-world Rhone wines being made in the U.S.  Originally a solely California creation, it now boasts member wineries from Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Michigan, New York, and Virginia.

The Los Angeles event features mostly California producers, including industry leaders such as Tablas Creek and Halter Ranch, and also many small producers (which you already know I have a soft spot for) such as Lone Madrone and Calcareous.  More than 40 wineries will be there, and styles run the full gamut, meaning you’ll find plenty of teeth-staining goodness to enjoy no matter what your preference is.

There are multiple ticket options for the event–I’d recommend the Saturday pass, which gets you in bright and early for the winemakers’ seminar at 11:00 a.m.  The seminar “The Past and the Future” features a panel of winemakers and includes a flight of red and white wines.  That pass also gets you into the VIP tasting (ahead of the crowds) as well as a buffet lunch.  You can also choose to attend just the VIP tasting or the main event–but be aware that the Saturday and VIP passes are almost sold out.  Grab a ticket now, and use code RRLA16 for $10 off the ticket price.

A few wineries I recommend as must-try tastings are Tablas Creek, Halter Ranch, Lone Madrone, Calcareous and Ridge.  Whatever your Rhone preferences, this is a definite don’t-miss event, and it’s a great way to spend a Saturday.

Here’s the full schedule for the day:

Date:            Saturday, August 6

Location:   Skirball Cultural Center
2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90049
Complimentary Parking

Time:
11 am – Winemaker Seminar
(with Red/White Rhone Blends)
12:30 – Trade and Media Tasting
12:30 pm  – New Event: Winemaker
White/Rosé Luncheon
1:30 pm – VIP Grand Tasting
2:30 pm – Grand Tasting General Admission

Love small producers like I do? Check out the Garagiste Festival!

Small producers have everything to do with my fanatical love of wine.  Sure, you can walk into a BevMo or independent wine shop and pick up a bottle of something perfectly lovely to drink, but a big part of the charm for me is getting to know that bottle’s story–which usually means visiting the place it came from, or chatting with the (person with the) hands that crafted it (indeed, it’s this blog’s very raison d’être).

One of the great things about living in California is that doing such a thing on a regular basis is easily possible and a lot of fun.  And there’s perhaps no better embodiment of this small-lot bonanza than the California Garagiste movement.

What is a Garagiste?  It’s the name first given to microproducers in Bordeaux, France in the early to mid-1990s, who were producing more robust (bigger fruit, higher alcohol) wines than those in the style of the traditional chateaus.  While the movement in France seems to have stalled somewhat, American winemakers–especially those in California–embraced the concept and the California Garagiste movement was born.

The majority of California Garagistes come from the Paso Robles area (though there are producers ranging from Santa Barbara to Napa who also participate), and they’ve been actively promoting these small producers of 1,500 cases or less since 2011 when they held their first festival in Paso Robles.  They’ve since expanded south to the Santa Ynez Valley, and onward still to Los Angeles.  The third annual Garagiste Festival: Urban Exposure is this Saturday, July 9, at The Wiltern in Los Angeles.

2016 Garagiste Festival: Urban Exposure
2016 Garagiste Festival: Urban Exposure

What makes this festival so special is that many of the winemakers who will be there do not have tasting rooms–this is your chance to do something otherwise impossible: taste those great small-production wines and chat with the winemakers in person.  These are people who began making wine as a labor of love–no corporate nonsense here.

If you live in Southern California and you love great wine, you need to go to this festival.  There are three ticket levels available: the public grand tasting, which runs from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., is $69.  If you’d like to get a jump on things before the crowds arrive, the $99 ticket will allow you in for early tasting at 2 p.m.  And better still is the VIP Backstage Seminar Access, with admission beginning at 1 p.m. and which offers the seminar “Understanding Oak Varieties: Tasting the Winemakers Spice Rack.”  Ticket price is $129, and this is where you can get your wine geek on.  From the festival website:

With Panelist Ryan Render, Rendarrio Vineyards and Michael Larner, Larner Vineyards

What does oak really taste like? French oak, American oak, neutral oak, heavy toast… these are some of the words we hear all the time in the wine world, but what do they really mean? How do you tell the flavor of oak from the flavor of the wine itself? We will taste it for ourselves as our VIP guests will get an All Access Pass to the world of oak in wine.

It almost impossible to learn the difference in oak flavors unless you can sample a single wine with different types of oak treatments side-by-side. Once you do this, you’ll be able to identify oak flavors at whole new level and for the rest of your life. We’ve done it and it’s powerful, fun, and enlightening way to raise your tasting chops.

The discussion will be led by Ryan Render, a representative for the famous French tonnellerie Cadus. Ryan, an accomplished Garagiste winemaker in his own right and owner of Rendarrio Vineyards, will guide attendees through a history of barrel making and it’s nuances covering everything from forest origin to grain influence to toast levels as we taste and compare wines from both his vineyard and the Larner Vineyard.

This is not something you can achieve at home – you need the Garagiste Festival to make it possible!

Once the seminar is over VIP guests will enjoy unlimited tastes of over 200 ultra-premium, hard-to-find wines provided by over 60 wineries; exclusive tastes of “Rare & Reserve” wines* ONLY being poured from 2-3pm; a $10 food coupon to our onsite food truck;  bread, cheese & charcuterie, as well as product samples provided by selected artisan food vendors. These tickets are limited.

This is going to be a rare opportunity to learn some of the most important basics of winemaking, along with an exclusive tasting of rare and reserve wines, followed by the general Garagiste tasting.

Go to this link for tickets, and if you’d like to see a listing of which producers will be there, that’s conveniently provided on the festival website here.  I’m already familiar with a handful of these winemakers, and can tell you you’re in for a treat (and some amazing wine).  Even better?  Proceeds from the event are donated to the Cal Poly Wine and Viticulture Program, thereby investing in the future of great California winemaking.

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

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!