So I have this little project. It involves wine.

A few months before I started this blog, I was working away on a proposal for a new documentary project.  (If you’ve not read the “about” page here, you may not know that I’m a nature photographer!)  In fact, that proposal is what led me to create the wine-stained lens blog as an ancillary pursuit.

My previous documentary project, the Owens Lake Project, concluded for the most part after six-plus years.  While there will be some ongoing work for years to come, the major work on the project is finished.  Since I like to have a personal photography project going at all times, I wanted to jump right into something new as soon as possible.

The idea I’d kicked around for a few years–and what I finally decided upon–was an in-depth, year-long look at the winemaking process from grape to bottle.  A year in the life of wine, if you will.

logoThis project will be a slight shift away from prior work (conservation photography) in that it will involve writing as much as it would photography–but photography is still the primary focus.

Centered completely at the estate of Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles, home to some of the most stunning Chateauneuf-du-Pape style wines produced in the new world, The Life of Wine will take an up-close, in-depth look at a year in the life of the vineyard.  Follow along now with the introductory posts, setting the stage for the “new year” in the vineyard, which for our purposes will begin following this fall’s harvest as the vines go into dormancy.  We will go from dormancy to bud break to the end of next year’s harvest, with a parallel look at what’s going on in the winery lab and barrel room as the current harvest begins its next phase of life.

Tablas Creek Vineyard
Tablas Creek Vineyard

Tablas Creek is a pretty special place, and I’m honored they’re allowing me to tell this story through their vines and wines.  I’m excited about showing you this life, and hope you’ll follow along over the next year.

Make sure you never miss a day in the life of wine–subscribe with the RSS button on this page!

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!).

Home, home on the Range(land)

If you happened to run into Laird Foshay in town in Paso Robles, you’d quickly figure him for a local cowboy–the requisite boots and hat, perfectly placed (as an exiled Texan, I can speak to the subject of cowboy hats; more finesse is involved than you might imagine).

Rangeland's Award-Winning Wines
Rangeland’s Award-Winning Wines

But you’d be wrong–to an extent.  Foshay, whose first career was in tech publishing, is a Nova Scotia native who grew up in Palo Alto.  His startup INVESTools was one of the early web-based investment newsletters; he sold that and in 2000 purchased some of the sweetest west side Paso land you’re likely to encounter, Adelaida Springs Ranch, and moved the family to the burgeoning wine region.

Laird Foshay pouring a flight of his winesFoshay and his wife Lisa now raise cattle and sheep on the ranch (all grass-fed), and have 40 of those 1,500 acres planted to wine grapes.  This former Silicon Valley entrepreneur now spends his days as a bona fide rancher, a lot of that on horseback.

Just 12 miles from the ocean and at over 1,700 feet elevation, those 40 acres of grapevines thrive in the rich limestone soil and the cooler coastal air of the Adelaida District sub-AVA.  The Foshays initially planted 20 acres of vines in 2002, all to Bordeaux varietals, and have since doubled that and added Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and several Rhone varietals.

Estate VinesLiving in such a geologically and agriculturally rich location means that Foshay and winemaker Paul Hinschberger opt to take a mostly non-interventionist approach to their winemaking, preferring to let the wines show the beauty of that terroir to the greatest possible extent–a wise choice, clearly indicated in the quality of the wines.

Rangeland does not have a public tasting room–yet (more on that in a moment)–but is happy to set up a private tasting for you.  When you go (and, oh, you should go!), you’ll drive deep into the west Paso hills, through the ranch gate and arrive at their stunning ranch house–where you’ll most likely be greeted by Arrow, the ranch border collie.  And a green tennis ball.  You know what to do.Arrow the Ranch Dog

Once inside, you’ll enjoy a flight of their wines in a casual setting with breathtaking views to the west.  Their wines are a solid lineup, from the rosé (a blend of Zinfandel, Mouverdre, and Cabernet Sauvignon) to a GSM through a couple of red blends, Cabernet, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah.  The latter two were easy favorites of mine–big, as you might expect for those varietals, but with a surprising amount of restraint.  The Petite was especially impressive.

View to the westThe first time I visited, back in February, they were hosting a vertical tasting of their cabs, capped off with a rustic lunch of a beef pie made from their own grassfed beef.  And that’s where you’re going to find yourself faced with a tough decision–the Foshays offer not just a wine club, as you’d expect, but they also offer a beef club and lamb club.  Join any of their clubs, and you’ll enjoy an across-the-board 20% discount on wines and meat.  I dare you to resist.  We’re beef club members, incidentally (yeah, I couldn’t resist that).Rangeland Glass

Try to make it up for a private tasting and ranch tour–and then look forward to their upcoming expansion.  I was delighted when Laird pulled out the map and plans for their future tasting room and winery; while the intimacy of enjoying a tasting in their beautiful home is a special experience, the new facility they have planned will be impressive in its own right–and with those same sweeping views.  I’m excited by what they have planned, and look forward to following up as soon as the new tasting room is completed and opened.Plans for the Future

Rangeland Wines (on Adelaida Springs Ranch) is located at 10425 Klau Mine Rd. in Paso Robles.  Use the contact form on their website to scheduling a tasting, or call 805-674-9232.


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

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

RE:FIND Spirits – A delicious lesson in sustainability

I’ll begin with a bit of understatement:  Alex Villicana is a high-energy kind of guy, who is passionate about what he does.

And that’s a very good thing for all of us.

Alex Villicana of Villicana Wines and RE:FIND Distillery
Alex Villicana of Villicana Wines and RE:FIND Distillery

He is the embodiment of the Paso Robles pioneering spirit that’s made this area such an interesting and exciting wine region.  He and his wife Monica began producing their estate-grown wines under their Villicana label in 1999–but that’s a story for another time (which I’ll cover in the coming months).  Just know for the time being that those wines are beautifully crafted and you should stop by if and when you’re in the area.  Taste some, buy some.

RE:FIND Tasting Room and the Original Still
RE:FIND Tasting Room and the Original Still

But it’s their secondary business that really caught my interest recently.

I’d seen their sign on Adelaida Road for years (there are a lot of wineries on Adelaida Road; I’m still trying to visit ALL of them).  And along with the sign directing you to their tasting room, there’s also a sign for RE:FIND Distillery.  While there’s no shortage of great wineries in Paso, I had never seen a distillery set up shop there, and never really seen anything stronger than port promoted at a handful of other wineries.

I was looking for someplace new to try on a trip a couple of months ago and decided to finally check out this Villicana/RE:FIND operation and see exactly what they were up to.

And what they are up to there is something pretty amazing.  Villicana had been bothered for years by the fact that there was nothing much to do with the saignée–the “bleed” of juice from some wines (mostly Rhone varietals) that was otherwise dumped down the drain.  It seemed unacceptably wasteful.

“Growing wine grapes has a pretty big carbon footprint,” Villicana notes.  “When you think about the cost and energy and water that goes into farming those grapes, it’s a shame to just pour out thousands of gallons of juice.”

Stills at RE:FIND
Stills at RE:FIND

And then he had an epiphany.  He stumbled on a grape-based vodka in the mid-2000s, and it was good.  “I didn’t know you could do that,” Villicana said.  “It was my ‘Aha!’ moment.”

So Villicana set about figuring out how he could take that otherwise wasted saignée and recycle it by turning it into spirits.  He visited Dry Fly Distilling in Washington state to learn how to use distilling equipment.  And then he began the long process–about three years–to obtain a license to run a commercial distillery, something that wasn’t widely done in California since before Prohibition.

Spirits in the Making
Spirits in the Making

“My local ABC guy (California Alcoholic Beverage Control) was very helpful in figuring our way through this, fortunately,” Villicana said.  The tricky part about the licensing process is that you must own a still before you can get the license.

“But stills are expensive, so we were torn about whether to make such a big investment before we knew if the license was a sure thing,” he said.  But as soon as the ABC official told him that it looked like he had a clear path to getting that license, “I wrote the check out that day [for the still], and sent it off!”

“We got our license in 2011, and produced 200 cases the first year,” Villicana said.  And with that, RE:FIND was on its way.  They initially had a single 60-gallon still–since those first few years, they’ve added another 60-gallon still and a 300-gallon still, and currently produce around 2,000 cases a year.

“With this setup, we can turn over as much as 50,000 gallons of saignée, and produce as much as 6,000-7,000 cases of spirits a year.”

The second year, Villicana had to shop around for enough saignée to produce the desired amount of spirits, which has led to ongoing relationships with other local winemakers to recapture their run-off as well.

A Lineup of RE:FIND's Spirits
A Lineup of RE:FIND’s Spirits

Villicana said he approaches his flavor profiles in distilling the same way he does with his wines, and the results are exceptional.  RE:FIND currently produces a vodka, a cucumber vodka, a barrel-aged vodka (which is actually closer to a whiskey in flavor and color profile, which makes this bourbon girl all kinds of happy), an extraordinarily lovely and aromatic gin (sold in the tasting room as a “botanical brandy”), a rye, and a limoncello.  Between my first visit and my visit last weekend, I’ve tasted through all of these spirits–they’re remarkable.  Every one of them.

Everything is hand-crafted–even the bottling process.  “We actually contracted with a bottling operation for our spirits, but at the last minute they told us their insurance wouldn’t cover the job because of the risk of explosion.”  So, they hand-bottle their spirits as well.  “It’s actually better,” he said, “because it gives us better quality control.”  Always glass-half-full, that Villicana guy is.

The distillation process, to put it overly simply, involves removing the bad alcohol (acetone and methyl alcohol) from the good alcohol.  And of course Villicana has found a way to recycle that, too.  “We use the bad alcohol as a cleaner!”

Aromatics on Display for a Little Tasting Room Education
Aromatics on Display for a Little Tasting Room Education

He also tries to use local producers whenever possible–something that’s a bit of a challenge when acquiring the grains and aromatics needed to craft the spirits.

“I’m now working with local farmers on getting the specific grains and aromatics we want, and we use the lavender we grow right here at the winery.”

Villicana has found a way to recycle his winemaking byproducts into something truly beautiful–and now produces almost the same amount of spirits as they do wines.

“One of the great things about this is that the spirits have kind of filled in some of the gaps that are part of the ups and downs of winemaking,” he said.  “This gives us greater flexibility to focus on the quality of both, and actually makes winemaking more fun. And it’s allowed us to take some risks we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.”

In an example of recycling writ large, the Villicanas recently purchased the dilapidated Fox Theatre in downtown Paso Robles, and plan to make it the new base for RE:FIND.

“We have the conceptual drawings and floorplan now,” he said.  “We hope to start construction around the end of the year, and expect about a 12-month build.”

When completed, the renovated (nee, recycled!) theatre will also house, among other things, a performance space and a professional kitchen.  Stay tuned; I’ll write more about the theatre in coming months.  It should prove to be a fantastic addition to Paso’s downtown scene.

Explore the spirits and learn what goes into making them at the RE:FIND tasting room
Explore the spirits and learn what goes into making them at the RE:FIND tasting room

Villicana’s dream to use an otherwise discarded product to turn out beautiful spirits has also opened the door for the competition.  But he doesn’t see it that way.  Currently 8-9 new distilleries are in the plans in the Paso Robles area, and Villicana is thrilled, going so far as to offer guidance with the licensing process.

“It’s a cool way to be sustainable,” he says.  I’ll second that.

RE:FIND Distillery and Villicana Wines are open daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 2725 Adelaida Road (805.239.9456).



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

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.