Wednesday, June 27, 2012

I'm a sucker for Italian varietals!

Do distractions piss you off? Seriously, the day is planned, the car is gassed up, mileage case you couldn't afford to actually fill it up, and off you go! There were wines to be tasted, staff to be evaluated, and stories to be written. Nothing would deter my course, except, Italian varietals.

  The weather was a cozy 106 degrees in Sacramento County. There was nothing desired more than to have a glass of big red wine to compliment the sweltering heat. Admit it, red wine is good all year long, and we will not let a little heat wave spoil our wine preference! If necessary, do as Robert Mondavi did on a regular basis, add a few ice cubes to your favorite red. It's all good, and the ice does not change the character too much, I digress.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch. Driving to a particular winery for some research, (code for imbibe without abandon), a sign popped up indicating that Italian varietals were nearby. This caused my car, Kenji, to make a sudden  U-turn without any help. (he does this all the time, really) As Kenji, like a hound dog in pursuit of a runaway convict, followed the scent of Sangiovese, Barbera and a unique table wine, we found ourselves roaring up the gravel driveway of Palissandro Winery.

Note: when driving on gravel roads near vineyards, please drive slowly too avoid kicking up too much dust. This can adversely affect the grapevines growing nearby.

The winery sits atop a small hill overlooking a small vineyard. At first glance, the place looks like a fruit stand. It is small, quaint...yada, yada, yada, let's get to the wine!

Entering the tasting room, the acknowledgement clock ticked for about five seconds before a loud and rambunctious, "Hey, how are you" filled the air. Being caught off guard because the greeter stood no more than five feet tall and had a voice that bordered on a soft tenor, the welcome was genuine.

Ten second greeting acknowledgement test, pass, and they were about to snag another wine club member. (I'm so easy...oops, pronouns!)

My Vinista's (made up word, remember, the author, know personally?) were on top of their game. Because the day was a bit warm, the wine was stored in a small refrigerator behind the tasting counter. With tag team precision, the wines were poured in perfect synchrony.

Beginning with Sangiovese, the noble grape of Italy, and a favorite, the wine was darker than expected. Sangiovese has a thick skin which lends itself to long aging. However, this wine was very dark for a it's lineage. Not to be concerned, upon first presentation to the awaiting tongue, the reason for the dark color became obvious very quickly.

 "Ka-boom!" Wow, nothing like being choked by a tart Sangiovese. Personally, this is a wonderful feeling. Your throat locks up, salivary glands go into over drool, eyes squint and every nuance of moisture in your  mouth is pulled down your throat with the wine causing your lips to pucker up tight like a snare drum.  Can we all say, "yummy?" Love me some Sangiovese!

On to the next wine, a Super Tuscan called, Felice. This wine consists of 60% Sangiovese, 15% Syrah, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and ten percent Merlot. As Super Tuscans go, this was not the big, chunky familiar wine that is customary at many restraunts. This was an easy to drink, fruit forward blend that would pair well with any Italian food. (leftover Italian food that is, nothing like second day spaghetti!)

Revisiting the Sangiovese, to better determine a preference, (yeah right!),  the difference between a pure Sangiovese and a blended one was enough to consider joining the wine club. We'll talk about that later.

Next, bring on the table wine! Vino da Tavola, which literally means, wine of the table, would be the decisive factor. However, before delving into this naughty little non-vintage blend, it must be mentioned that the two vinista's were at all times engaging and knowledgable. The owner, Jeannine Blaylock, also stood guard in the tasting room like a mother hen watching over her flock of chicks. There was a sense that at any time, she would produce a plate of food for pairing with the wines, and of course, she did...sort of. While going outside to take a few photos, Jeannine somehow managed to escape the tasting room only to reappear with a pan full of melted cheese covered baguettes.(forgot what they were called, but they did go well with the Vino da Tavola!)

Sauntering back into the tasting room, a plate full of tapenade's beckoned. Etiquette demands that you politely say yes to any tapenade. Hunger demands that you try them all...especially if there is a  vast selection of crackers. Try them on each cracker with each wine. Seriously, get in touch with your inner ghetto, and sample all of them. If necessary, take out the aluminum foil, ziplock bag, wax paper, or whatever you use to take home leftovers from the smorgy, and get your tapenade on! It is a good idea to check for video cameras. Less embarrassment.

After indulging the tapenade's to the extreme, the Cabernet Sauvignon awaited. (Not Italian, but France and Italy are neighbors...sort of) Expecting a lighter than usual fruit bomb, the wine had a nice structure and again, was easy to drink. Cabs are known to be big, hearty wines. Not this one. It could be likened to a good beginners red wine. Not too tannic, not too heavy, not too fruity...for mountain wine that is.

Because the winery is fairly new, it will be interesting to see how the wines develop over time. Which brings us to the wine club.

Why join this wine club? Unlike wine clubs where the owner, winemaker, or whomever selects the wine for club members, this wine club allows its' members to select whatever they want. If there are only two wines that are enjoyed, pick those two for every shipment lest ye re-gift something that is not liked. Makes sense. Pass the Vino da Tavola and the Sangiovese!


Palissandro is a fairly new winery with an extreme amount of warm hospitality. How warm is the hospitality? Well, let's just say that the winemaker, Robert Van der Vijver,  literally and figuratively lives next door. Robert has his own winery, and offers his winemaking expertise to the Blaylocks. Between the two wineries, there is enough energy to power a small nation. (think Belgium)

I give this winery two slaps upside the head, and that is a good thing, and a high five for their wine club strategy. Make a customer happy, and they will keep you busy. The next time you plan to visit a particular winery, be adventurous and make a few U-turns when something catches your eye.

Until next time, Salute'!


Friday, June 22, 2012

Make a Left Turn in Plymouth, California

The road that leads to Plymouth, California is treacherous for many reasons. One being that the native deer have a habit of meeting oncoming headlights just as they come into view.(Road kill is abundant the closer you get to the town) However, another involves a sinister predator that lurks around every bend...there are few of these, and behind every bush and tree that dot Jackson Highway. The predator in question, the California Highway Patrol! You see, the road to Plymouth, is an endless speed trap. Beginning at the junction of Grantline Rd. in Sacramento County, the distance to the town is roughly 25 miles northeast. The CHP have nothing better to do than to monitor this vast stretch of nothingness for the slightest challenge of the myriad of speed limits which range from 15-65mph. Try pushing the pedal to the metal on any straight length of the road, the CHP will appear as if they've been beamed down by Scotty himself from Star Trek!  Seen it happen more than once. You've been warned. Now, about that left turn a few weeks back.

When entering Plymouth, the speed limit immediately drops from 55 to 45 miles per hour, and then becomes 35 mph even quicker. Assuming that this is by design so that one can marvel at the antiquated old gold rush town, there are a few unique attributes that make the drive worthwhile. For one, this is wine country. Plymouth is considered the gateway to wine country. More than 40 wineries are within five miles of beautiful, barren, downtown Plymouth.

With all of the wine guzzling that goes on the area, there are few places where  a hungry vinophile (word made up, know the author personally)  can satiate their appetite at a fair price with an abundance of choices and some good old fashioned UN-pretentious hospitality.  However, good people, such a place does exist...if you are willing to make the left turn before you get your drink on...which is a right turn on the same road...different name though.

To say that the discovery of this culinary mecca was accidental would be dishonest. The blame is to be placed on this blog which was read by a phenomenal social media director of the fine dining establishment known as the Amador Vintage Market. (OK, this proper journalism writing is killing me!) Her name is Sarah, and she cast her bait right in front of the nose of this blogger.

The Amador Vintage Market at 9393 Main Street in Plymouth, California is situated about three quarters of a mile west of the left turn mentioned earlier. Nestled among a few old buildings, the sign as well as the awning on the front of the building are hard to miss. Look for outdoor diners, or the looky-loo types gazing in the window watching the happenings going on inside, or praying that the line of eager patrons become shortened...soon!

Sarah plays hardball. What does this mean you ask? Previously, it was mentioned that the market was unpretentious. A more accurate description would be, "down homey." Sarah and the staff of the market were more like a family welcoming a stranger into their home with open arms. If you have ever visited the south, it is customary to offer your company, or as it is more commonly pronounced, "Cump-nee," a "cool" drink while they await your arrival into the parlor...or  on to the porch, whichever works for your piece of real estate.

There is something nostalgic about ice cold grape soda in a bottle. Popping the cap off of the bottle took me back to my childhood and the road trips across the country that my father would drive because he did not like to fly. (an Air Force lifer who hated to fly, imagine that...I digress) Anyway, back to being a journalist. Grape soda is only one of the many offerings in the large cooler located near another cooler equally filled with delectable goodies.

Sarah sat a spell and described what happens in a place no more than 2000 square feet packed to gills with all things yummy. But before she could get into her spiel, she asked if anything had been offered as a sample. Batter up! Let the game begin. Returning with a just out of the oven, perfectly golden brown, thick, meaty, succulent, mouth watering crab cake, it was all this blogger could do not bite her arm off!

The crab cake was filled with, uh...crab. No annoying fillers like bread crumbs and flour, this beast was full of crab! Yes, there were a few kernels of corn...different, and surprisingly welcome, but the amount of crab was unbelievable. Served with a side of aioli, better known as "uppity mayo" in the southern part of the country, and which went untouched, (no likey dat stuff!), the crab melted as it rested upon a tongue nearly drowning in saliva. Can Y'all say, Boo yeah, baby, whoooo dat be some good crab! I digress, again.

The conversation nearly became silent, or perhaps the words were being drowned out by the pleasure of chewing each tender bite of the extremely fresh and perfectly seasoned cake. Steam rose from within the flaky, buttery meat. Each bite was better than the first. Finding it impossible to photograph and chew at the same time, the camera was set aside and the conversation was temporarily halted as Sarah left to fetch another morsel of debauchery.

Chef Beth Sogaard, who unfortunately was not available, began her journey into culinary nirvana by developing the chip to the right. According to Sarah, the recipe is only known to Beth. The chip was indescribable in that it had a, uh, sort of, uh, not quite sure texture and a uh, kind of, uh, flavor that went really well with the house made hummus. Seriously, you cannot describe this chip. It is too complex and simple at the same time. However, the hummus was to die for! Unlike the paste pre-school children use in arts and crafts, which hummus can sometimes resemble and taste like, (you know you ate paste!), this hummus was wildly flavorful.

Chocked full of veggies, the only one discernible was probably onion or scallions. Sarah would not elaborate. Garlic and other flavors were perfectly balanced and the texture was as smooth as butter. If hummus had always tasted so good, this blogger would have another excuse for not being able to squeeze into a size 10 pair of jeans!

The chips can be purchased in bags, and the hummus is located in the cooler next to the endless selection of cool drinks as we say in the south.

Sarah was not done yet. Like a good southern hostess, she insisted on a tour of the facility. Mind you, this place is not that big, but what takes place here is amazing. Reluctantly putting the fork down, and tearing away from the hummus, Sarah drew attention to a corner of the room. A mirror hung precariously from the ceiling above a pseudo kitchenette. Get your mind out of the gutter, this is where they offer cooking lessons. According to Sarah, Chef Beth is always creating something new, and that she thoroughly enjoyed sharing her latest masterpieces with her cump-nee!

Sarah then diverted attention to the shelves located near the ice cream cooler. (you can tell by now, there is something for every taste in this place.) Grabbing what appeared to be a cake mix, she explained that the market was known for their bacon chocolate chip pancake mix.

As if your cholesterol wasn't squeezing the blood through your arteries by now, she went on to describe how popular the the pancakes were.

"We have a hard time keeping them on the shelf." Beth said. "They are a favorite  around here."

 After reading the label, they are not that unhealthy...unless you have them with a side of bacon, sausage, ham, three eggs, toast and grits washed down with a cup of hot coffee and a toothpick to pick your teeth afterwards! Did somebody say, coffee?

Yes, they do coffee! In fact, they do most of the "fru fru" hot beverages. For a country style, homey kind of place, they are up to speed with their state of the art machinery.

Another cooler directly...that's "drectly" in the south, across from cool beverage heaven is stocked full of fresh fish, salads, pasta dishes, deli meats, gourmet what not's and some veggies.

As an added bonus for those who over indulge on the endless assortment of goodies, or who for whatever reason choose not to drive up the hill to go wine tasting is the market serves local wines as well as a few rare gems. Wine is sold by the glass, or a bottle can be purchased to accompany your meal. Additionally, when cooking class are offered, wine and food are included in the purchase price of the lesson. Book early, classes fill up fast.

Nearing the end of the tour, Sarah offered a bit of history on the building and a good amount of information on Beth and her creation of a business built on humility and hard work. The market is very conducive to supporting other businesses. There is an area near the demo kitchen that is full of business cards, brochures and information from other local and distant businesses. Because she also caters, the staff is accustomed to multi-tasking. Weddings are a big part of the catering operation as well as fundraisers and private parties.

To conclude the visit, Sarah offered one last tidbit of hospitality. Located just to the right of the bacon chocolate chip pancake mix is a small cooler full of Italian ice cream.

Known simply as "Gelato," this cold, smooth, fruity treat has significantly less butterfat than ice cream, is not as solid and because of this,  the flavor bursts forward faster than ice cream. When asked if chocolate, raspberry, vanilla and a few other flavors would be desired, the response was, Uh, huh!

The next time you head up to Plymouth, or if you are within 10 miles of the area, make the left turn on Main Street. The Amador Vintage Market is worthy of three slaps upside the head...and that is a good thing, with an additional back handed slap as you leave...hopefully with a bag of chips, hummus, some bacon chocolate chip pancake mix, a few crab cakes and a Gelato washed down with a grape soda.
Now, go work out!

Until next time, Salute'!


Thursday, June 21, 2012

Message from Karen

Is blogging, journalism? There is a debate among journalist that blogging, because it is not covered by the ethical principles of journalism, is not really journalism. Thus, what does a photographer who just graduated with a minor in journalism do when it comes to straddling the line between professional journalism and writing about her personal experiences? Both. In respect for the recently obtained knowledge, it is imperative that the learned skills be put into practice. Therefore, this photographer will write  utilizing the skill of a much for personal pronouns ugh!, and will write as a blogger with the occasional professional gaffe. (okay, former professors, cut me some slack!) The message, style and humor will not change, I hope. (oops!)


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

It definitely was not, "too good to be true!"

The expression, "too good to be true," is often very true. Why we as people have to constantly try to dispel the truth in this expression is lost to me. We read this expression, and like a bottom feeding catfish that just lucked upon a fat slimy worm, we take the bait every time. I am no exception. The poster child for A.D.D, with my natural curiosity for all things questionable, had to go check out a winery that was "too good to be true!"

I know, you are wondering what happened at this winery that was, "too good to be true." Well, to begin with, I saw an ad for a job at this facility. Now mind you, the recently obtained, spell check didn't go off!...I digress, has me considering all sorts of get rich quick schemes that involve free, usually leftover at the end of the day wine (most wineries do this), and endless partying. So, when I saw this ad which clearly stated that "this was the opportunity of a lifetime," and that the facility was fun, exciting, fun and inviting, I had to find out for myself. After all, what kind of winery would boast like this? This had to be, "too good to be true!"

These days, the gas gauge in Kinji, (that is my cars' name) rarely ascends to the bright red letter F. I have one of those "floater" type sending units that can vary the actual amount of gas based on how fast you turn a corner or how steep the downhill slope that you park on is. I get excited when I can put as little as three dollars in the tank and the needle shoots all the way to the half full mark, then settles at just above the bright red letter E. On this day, Kinji got a rare treat...enough gas to tickle his belly half full. I know when the gauge is accurate. Drive for at least 30 minutes and if the needle does not move...we have gas! So with Kinji well fed, we headed up the hill to visit this winery that was, "too good to be true."

The drive was peaceful considering that the outside temperature hovered at around something akin to a nice afternoon in Hell. The windows were completely rolled down, which allowed the hot air to fill  the inside of the car like a pizza oven. This area is beautiful year round, and the terrain was familiar. Kinji seemed to enjoy the ride as well. He promised to not digest his nearly full belly as long as I did not use the air conditioner. The things we do for our cars. Besides, I was in a good mood, the CD player blasted  Tower of Power music and sweat pooled in unmentionable places. If nothing else, at least five pounds of water weight would be lost and I could skip the nightly workout. This was going to be a great day, because this winery was going to be, "too good to be true!"

 Reaching a slight diversion on the road...a sign that said, "Hand crafted Italian wines," it would have been rude to not stop and say hello. A new wine club later, I continued on the journey for another 1200 feet down the road. I roared Kinji up the gravel driveway, and momentarily my heart sank as his gas gauge needle plunged back to the bright red letter E! Not to worry, he corrected himself and settled between a quarter of a tank and half full. Not bad for a car that has almost 265,000 miles. Kinji found a spot that he liked and bade me farewell as I excitedly walked toward the entrance. I was met outside by a young lady who was friendly and informative pouring wine near the entrance. I was not amused by the guy who made eye contact with me long before the young lady did, but did not speak or acknowledge my presence. His dark sunglasses may have prevented him from seeing me, perhaps?

The young lady explained the protocol and advised me on how to proceed with the visit. The white wines were good, and considering that it was hot as Satan's armpits, I eagerly slurped them down. Sunglass guy was still not responsive. It was not until I made a comical reference about the Sauvignon Blanc that he exhibited a pulse. From this point on, I could detect that blood flowed through his body.

After tasting the white wines, I was directed into the actual winery. Swerving throughout the cavernous interior, two additional employees greeted me as I walked by and eagerly reminded me that this was the place that was, "too good to be true." I believed them until I got to the tasting bar.

How does one describe total, blatant dismissal and invisibility? Okay, harsh, I'll draw an accurate picture.
 The tasting bar is no more than 20-25 feet long, and there were no fewer than six people behind it to serve the 10-15 people tasting. Do the math; this is no more than two people per pourer. On my best days, I could pour for an entire bar full of people...realistically five to ten people...alone! Moving on. I observed the goings on, waited patiently, played with a dog being held by a lady next to me, tapped on the counter, attempted to make eye contact only to have my glare received and diverted and finally had to literally slam my glass down to get noticed. At this point, one employee attempted to at least look at me, but he was soon shoved aside as if he was treading on someone's turf. Ahhh, the turf wars of behind the tasting bar. Never steal a sale of a wine club lest ye be flogged by your peers.

At this point, a young lad, name withheld, noticed my disdain and condescendingly asked what I wanted next.  Next?  Was he blind? Did he not notice that the glass in front of me was a dry as the arid air outside? After nearly 10 minutes of not noticing my presence, I had to mention to him that I had not had anything since sidling up to the bar. At this point, he grabbed a bottle of something red...never did say hi, hello, nice to see you, welcome, or anything else that would make me want to taste anything, let alone apply for a job at this place. He just poured and walked away. (could he and sunglass guy be related?)

Wow, the wine sucked! Not because of a flaw in winemaking, but because having stood at the bar far too long without even being acknowledged, the acid in my stomach churned. A foul, bitter taste lurched upward into my mouth. A cold chill ran down my spine. No eye contact, no I'll be right with you, no fun! With that many people performing for a small audience,  disappointment set in and I wanted nothing more than to leave. Deciding to give it one more shot, I reluctantly proceeded to the barrel tasting area. Maybe it was just too dark in the cave? Lack of sunshine can cause severe attitude problems. Approaching the barrels, the girl pouring made several comments about the wine. Because she was unable to fill the wine thief...a long glass cylinder used to extract wine from a barrel. (Think back to your childhood when you stuck a straw in your Kool-aid, covered one end of the straw, and magically pulled a sample of  the always red, but did not taste like cherry liquid out of the glass) she said that the barrels may have not been topped off. Bad move. Never say anything negative about the wine. If there is a glitch, find out why before you serve. As for barrel tasting, know your wines and be precise with your wine spiel. Worse yet, she began to serve the wine unevenly. Some were given at least a one ounce pour, others barely had their glasses moistened. When she got to my glass, there was nothing left in the wine thief. She seemed to not notice, but she does get kudos though for at least acknowledging that someone was standing there.

Exiting the winery, and glancing back at the tasting bar to see if maybe there was something overlooked,  I noticed that several people were now waiting to be served, and like me, they were not immediately acknowledged nor were they invited to partake in the so-called fun atmosphere. Collectively, from the visual vantage point, it appeared that everyone behind the bar was more interested in who was immediately in front of them. At no time did anyone work the room...scanning to see if wine glasses were empty, or if guests needed any type of assistance. Could this be why they were running an ad...hmmm?

Leaving the winery, the young lady out front thanked me for visiting. Politely, the farewell was returned. Assuming that this day may have not been a good one...(this happens at wineries all the time), staff do get overwhelmed, time would be needed to mull over the experienced before deciding on what to write about. To recover from this experience, I made another stop at a nearby winery. The atmosphere at this winery was fun. The long drive was worth the effort to visit this area...until I drove more than half way back home.

There is always a chance to salvage a mistake. Humility and kindness, at least an effort to be kind, is usually appreciated. However, we cannot assume that everyone is one the same page when a chance to redeem a bad situation is intentionally avoided.

Previously, I mentioned that while standing at the tasting bar, one individual attempted to serve me, or to at least acknowledge my presence. He was rebuffed more than once, but he also did not put much effort into his attempt. This bothered me more than everyone else's blatant ignoring of my presence. Simple eye contact, maybe a smile...heck, stick your tongue out, thumb your something! He chose not to then, and he chose not to two hours later when I saw him at a gas station on the way home. He gave me the same darting glance, only this time, he recognized me for a fraction of a second. Instead of a smile or at least a nod, he lowered his brow into a dismissive frown, and again quickly diverted his eyes as if he did not want to admit that he had seen me earlier in the day. That was all the information needed to write this blog.

"Too good to be true?" No, it was not. On a scale of one to five slaps upside the head, I give it a two. One for the people who genuinely were nice, and that is a good thing,  and one for those who dismissed my existence...literally and figuratively. They deserve a slap upside the head!

Until next time, salute'


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Wine tasting 102: Do not assume

During my time as a "Vinista,"(I could not find this word in the dictionary) I could easily count the number of times people of color would be surprised to see another person of color behind the tasting bar. This amazement was further enhanced by the fact that of the three wineries I worked for, two were literally in the middle of nowhere. Now, I have a chance to do some observations for myself.

My journey begins at a winery off the beaten path in Placer county. This time, I would be the one who was surprised to see another person of color behind the tasting bar. (She was also the manager) My cousin and myself entered the tasting room and were greeted warmly by the staff. Because I have greeted thousands of customers, I know a genuine "I am so glad you visited" welcome. We were offered a tasting menu, asked where we were from and guided through the wine offerings with gentle and informative persuasions. When I mentioned that I was not a fan of white wine, I was immediately directed to a gentleman who just happened to be pouring a vertical lineage of my favorite grape, Petite Syrah! Go figure, what is the chance of this happening on the first visit? I was in Elysium! He too was gentle, accommodating without pretension and as unbiased as a Petite Syrah lover himself could be. We bonded instantly. Beginning with the 1995 vintage, he generously poured our tastes as if we were his best friends. I wanted to take him home and feed him. He was knowledgeable, humorous and genuinely interested in how we liked the wine. When asked if we could re-sample the 1998 vintage, (my favorite) he gladly obliged understanding fully that we were not quite sure of we liked it or not. (we did, but hey, nothing wrong with being sure) However, it was getting late and the dessert wine was still to be had. I usually do not drink anything sweet, but our Vinisto, (Couldn't find this word either) suggested that we give it a try.
Upon returning to the main tasting bar, I noticed that someone new was directing the goings on. She was completely in charge and handled herself with style, grace and perfection. It was clearly obvious that she commanded and received the respect of her subordinates.  She greeted us and began to describe the dessert wine as if she had made it herself. I was eager to try it and to my surprise, it was quite tasty.

Because there are so few people of color who work in tasting rooms, I had to know her story and how she came about being the manager of a large winery in the middle of nowhere. She told me that she had several years of corporate experience in the hospitality market, was from the midwest and loved her job. As an African American to work in  a community with a 0.8% African American population,( I could empathize with any conflicts she may have endured. However, because she handled herself so professionally, I doubt that she would be fazed by any uneasy situation.

Recently, I met another African American who worked for a winery as a part time event pourer. Observing how people responded to his presence at an event, I could see that like me, he was at ease with his audience. It would have been nice to get some feedback from him, but I was busy entertaining the crowd as well.

Part of the experience of traveling and discovering how a person of color is received in a tasting room involves the ability to have professionalism and at times, the hardened exterior of someone who does not sweat under pressure. So far, I have only been to one particular tasting room that clearly had a racist attitude. There loss. I have also recently learned that this particular tasting room has been advertising for several positions within their company. Imagine that?
 Perhaps I will apply...

Until next time, Salute'!


Getting acquainted with California wine grapes

One of the benefits of living in the central valley of California is that nearly every road coming and going through where I live leads to a wine region. Some of these areas or "AVAs as they are called are within three miles of my home. What is an AVA?

"When a US winery wants to tell you the geographic pedigree of its wine, it uses a tag on its label called an Appellation of Origin. Appellations are defined either by political boundaries, such as the name of a county or state, or by federally-recognized growing regions called American Viticultural Areas (AVAs)"
California Wine Grape Appellations

As I travel throughout California, I am constantly amazed at how different the wines taste in each growing region. Climate, altitude, soil composition, irrigation method and the skill of the winemaker are all factors in the final product. However, Mother Nature is the ultimate control freak in the equation.

In California, to say that one area is better than another in how grapes grow would be slightly inaccurate. Different types (varietals) of grapes grow in certain areas for several reasons. For instance, many grape growers  plant a certain varietal of grape based on where the original vine was sourced...usually somewhere in Europe. Because California has several areas that are similar to the growing regions of France, Italy, New Zealand, and Spain, many of the 256 known varietals of vitis vinifera (wine grapes) grow well within the state.

Lodi Zinfandel

The dominant red wine grape grown in California is the Zinfandel, but it is the second dominant of all grapes grown in the state. The Thompson Seedless reins as the most prolific of all classifications of grape. Used primarily in the production of raisins, the grape can be used to make wine and produce jams and jelly. Chardonnay is the dominant white wine grape produced in the state. Originating in the Burgundy region of France, the humble beginnings of this white wine grape began in the Livermore valley more than 130 years ago. Today, 80% of the Chardonnay produced in California was initially cloned from the original Livermore vines.(Btw, French Colombard is making a come back...Google it!)

Chardonnay, Clarksburgh AVA

Today, there are more than 100,000 acres of wine grapes grown throughout the state. Beginning in early spring, the vines begin to bud and flower. Budding consists of small protrusions that extend from the previous years pruning. Vines can appear to be "butchered" as you look between the rows.

Sangiovese Buddings

Each year, vineyards are pruned in late winter. Depending on the varietal, the vines are cut back to two stays. In layman terms, imagine a tree having several limbs extending from a main branch. each limb has several nodes that produces leaves. If you were to cut all of the nodes back to two nodes closest to the branch, you will get a good idea of how the vine looks after pruning. Pruning is done for many reasons. Yield control is the main reason, but pruning also trains the vines to follow a trellis for support.

Sangiovese, Amador County

Spending numerous hours walking through vineyards, there is a peace that I experience which is indescribable. (Think of the movie Field of Dreams when Kevin Costner walks out of the corn field) Maybe it is because grape vines are characters in their own right. The vines require little in maintenance once established. After they reach maturity, they are pretty much mistreated to better produce good fruit. Allowed to struggle, they become better vines. (A friend of mine used this analogy in one of her sermons.) However, because they are vines, and they do reach out to one another, vineyard management is essential to continuously produce a healthy crop. Leave them alone, and they will grow out of control...which is not always a bad thing. Many good "field blends" produce good tasting wine. Ask for these when you go wine tasting.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma

 I am often asked how long a grape vine can live? Speaking with several growers, there are vines in California that are nearly two hundred years old. Zinfandels from the Fox Creek Vineyard in Amador county are between 120-140 years old, and the "Grand Per vineyard of the area is nearly 200! Although wine is no longer made from this vine, grapes continue to grow from its' antiquated canes.

Personally, I grow Sangiovese, Zinfandel, Petite Syrah, Syrah, Tokay and Cabernet Sauvignon. I have yet to get usable fruit from my attempt at growing, but I haven't killed any vines yet!
I am excited to have a hobby that allows me to be outdoors. Hopefully as I learn more about this wonderful fruit, I may try my hand at wine making.

Pinot Noir, Santa Rosa

Experience the abundance of California vineyards and wine making. At many wineries, the owners are more than happy to share their knowledge with you. No question is too elementary, just ask. BTW,  Please do not take it upon yourself to trespass on their property. It is easy to get injured in a vineyard. Ask them first. Many will oblige.

 There are way too many growers who have educated me to list, but I thank each of them for sharing.

Until next time, Salute'!


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Kickin' it in the Middle of Nowhere with Berryessa Gap Vineyards

Two day's after graduation, I nearly forgot that I had been given an invite to party with a new winery located in Winters, California. Rummaging through a pile of business cards, I found the contact info for Berryessa Gap. This quaint little winery is located in beautiful downtown Winters...the bustling hub of "not too much happens here" during winter, spring, summer or fall.

In an earlier post on this blog, I mentioned my familiarity with Winters. Nestled in between the Putah Creek on the south flowing east and west...sort of, Davis, California to the east and Lake Berryessa to the west, the town wreaks of hard working agricultural types who live quietly and work hard. Agriculture is the vocation of choice, and one would be surprised to discover that tucked deep into the hills heading north lie an abundance of vineyards that provide the fruit for some incredible wineries in this bucolic scenario.

The vineyards, like many in the just over the hill Napa Valley, are not easily seen from Interstate 505 north. In fact, they are NOT seen. The landscape is dotted with fruit orchards and miles of wonderful brown California nothingness. Occasionally, road kill becomes dominant on the highway. Considering that there is really nothing to look at on this stretch of road, it is easy to imagine that some love struck, depressed varmint could end it's life by laying in the path of an oncoming big rig.
But not to worry, there are plenty of foraging large toothed predators nearby to clean up the carnage.

Upon entering Winters, you make a right turn on Railroad Avenue and drive north about one and half miles until you get to a neighborhood that conceals the vineyards that are located due northwest. You then make another right turn on a road that leads to the grapevine Mecca! It is amazing how the landscape goes from somewhat subdivision Ala rural urban America to some of the most prolific well maintained vineyards in the state. The vines swayed in the breeze with so much life, that I could not help but to wonder how they grew so well. 
I stopped to admire how healthy and abundant they appeared. The leaves were lush and green. The beginnings of berries hung majestically from their host canes. The rows in between the vines were meticulously groomed. I could have walked among these vines all day, but food and drink beckoned me to continue the drive up the hill and to the event.

Okay, I'm a sucker for cute guys! Arriving at the event, I was met by the Berryessa Gap parking valet's. The skill at which these young men directed me to park against the vineyards was scientific to say the least. "Just put her right there up against that post," one of them said. "You have plenty of room!" I have no idea of what plenty of room means in this neck of the woods as I was within centimeters of crushing a vine!

Walking up another small hill...or small mountain as anyone out of shape would call it, I was met by my new friend, Megan Foley. "Stingers Up!" as we say at CSUS, Megan gave me a glass and insisted that I indulge in everything that was available. To tempt me, she had a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc chilling on ice.

Sauvignon Blanc

Megan Foley

 Never say that you do not like something until you try it and determine why you do not like whatever it is. However, Sauvignon Blanc, not a favorite! To be fair, and to be appreciative of Megan's generosity, a small taste of the wine was happily gulped to cool down my sun parched, after climbing that miniature mountain of hill, throat! The flavor was different. It was smooth, mildly fruity and did not have the grapefruity,  rip the flesh off your palate presentation that some Sauv Blancs are known for. It was good!

Moving on to the party, and sneaking a second taste from Margarita...she insisted, it was time to establish a place among the crowd gathering in the food line.
No need to elbow my way into position, everyone was polite and engaging.

Keep the glass full, and they will love you! And that, she did. Devon and Margarita were in rare form on this day. I really appreciated that Margarita had remembered me from a previous visit.  She also remembered that Durif was a favorite of mine. Little things like being acknowledged and remembered make the second time you visit a winery special. If done sincerely, it is easy to become a stalker of the a good way.

Gettin' our grub on! 
Come and get it! A good reason to never leave California...Mexican food! Who doesn't like carnitas? Who would not kill for good carnitas? Extreme, nope! Carnitas are the holy grail of real Mexican food! Santiago Moreno and Shannon Martinez out did themselves on the carnitas and fruit! Shrimp and pork, melt in your mouth, juice running down your arm and onto your shirt, splashing into your lap, good carnitas! You know the kind where the tortillas are so fresh that they sweat. Those kind.

As you can see, the tortillas were cooked on an outdoor flat iron grill.  When tortillas are slightly burnt, this adds a smoky flavor to whatever they are filled with. Pairing this flavor with Berryessa Gaps Durif wine...which will be ranted about in a minute, Elysium!

 While patiently waiting in line,  a member of the Martinez family walked among the gathering asking if anyone needed any wine while they waited for food. Awesome! Points for this gesture. As the line progressed, and we came within inches of the food, the surrounding scenery added to the experience. The area is lush with valley oaks, rambling hills and acres of vineyards. There was a tranquility that spoke to my spirit;  some say,  somewhere in my future, wine, vineyards and photography would come together.

The food servers...nearly all family members in some way to the Martinez's were friendly and generous. Everything was fresh and had a "homegrown" flavor. The Pico De Gallo was to die for, and the fruit salad was filled with a medley of melon's, grapes and pineapples. A combination of sweet and spicy food paired with awesome wine, can you say..."Stalk this winery!"

Several people in the food line talked about how the previous year's rain nearly ruined the event. Mother Nature had similar plans for this day. However, not to be outdone, the team had plenty of shelter for everyone to continue the party. This also gave us a chance to get to know one another.

Unlike other winery parties where at times, folks can get a bit out of hand, this event was so calm and peaceful. At no time did anyone express discomfort or from what was observed, feel out of place. Everyone was friendly and interested in what this blogger was going to write about. We huddled closely under the ample tents and shared our stories with one another. Where it was too tight to move, someone happily fetched another glass of wine or food when asked.

In between small cloud bursts, several people were taking advantage of the interesting patterns that the clouds were forming. Some could be heard saying that the clouds had unique anatomical shapes. Others attributed the wine to helping them see these unique patterns. In all, we had a good laugh and snapped some awesome images.

Raindrops on wine glasses

What is Durif?

Originally, Durif was a varietal conceived by Dr. Francois Durif in the 1870s. Dr. Durif was commissioned to create a varietal that was resistant to powdery mildew. By cloning the varietals...that's the type of grape, Syrah and Peloursin or Beclan, he developed a grape that was resistant to the powdery mildew, but had other issues that put it in disfavor with the wine making establishment. You can read more about this at:

Durif Against the Sky!

Anyways, today, Durif is better known as true Petite Syrah! Unlike the leathery, smoky, tannin fruit bombs of the lower valley, this wine was unbelievably smooth and jammy.

If one could describe this wine in terms of feminine qualities, think "Queen Latifha!" Big legged, elegant. sassy, direct, voluptuous, firm and in control...wait a minute, that describes... regardless, this wine was the hit of the day. Owner Dan Martinez, you done good!

Dan Martinez, owner and vineyard guru. Dan spoke to me in between pouring and entertaining his guests. What I enjoyed more than anything was is humility and his ability to not take himself too seriously. He described the decision to plant on the southern face of the hill to better allow the fruit maximum exposure to the sun for an extended growing pattern as well as the brix at picking. What is all of this grape growing jargon you ask? Exactly. It is grape growing jargon that Dan shared abundantly. We talked about soil, pruning, irrigation, root stock, promulgation...that's a big word, and all things grape! It is not difficult to imagine sitting at the foot of a grape grower like a child listening to Dr. Seuss! Grape growing is a passion of mine, mainly because it is hard to kill a grapevine.

From the image to the right, you can see that there was plenty of wine to be consumed, and smiles were equally abundant. With the exception of one'll have to read previous blogs to determine which is not a favorite, each wine complimented not only the menu, but the tastes of everyone in attendance.

The event provided the opportunity to meet some of the coolest people. Many were regulars who lived nearby, and others were from afar. All shared their love of this winery.

One group in particular provided the coupe de gras of the day. although there was an abundance of fruit, sometimes red wine needs a little bit of chocolate! OMG, how often do you meet someone who works for a chocolatier! Stick a fork in me, I'm done! Chocolate and Durif, orgasmic! The only thing missing was a mirrored ceiling and handcuffs.


 Berryessa Gap Vineyards and winery gets three slaps upside the head and a bonus open handed slap on the butt for producing Durif and several other phenomenal wines. It was more than a pleasure to be a part of this day and to share in the abundance of their good fortune. This is a must visit location the next time you travel up Hwy.? in the middle of nowhere, U.S.A.

Until next time, Salute'.