Thursday, July 30, 2009

Westover Vineyards - the largest selection of ports

Westover Vineyards is a real find hidden along the beautiful Palomares Road in the hills between Castro Valley and Pleasanton. Bill Smyth purchased this estate in 1987 with the intention of raising horses. Soon after he moved to this area he met George and Caroline Chouinard who had a winery just down the road from Bill’s Palomares Canyon ranch. Bill has invented much for the medical industry and now he wanted to use that creativity in the developing fine wine and now produces over 6000 cases a year at his winery.

Every winery needs something that makes them special and sets them apart from the almost 3000 wineries in operation in the state of California alone! Bill focused on ports as his uniqueness. Often wineries will have 2 or 3 port or dessert wines; Westover offers more ports than any other winery in the country. They have two dessert wines, five white ports and almost 20 red ports on their tasting menu. If you love port, Westover has to be on your list of local wineries to visit!
However, while ports might be the reason to visit, they are not the only wines to taste during your adventure at Westover. Start off with a very refreshing Rose Reserve California Champagne from Palomares Vineyards. It is infused with raspberry and strawberry flavors and while it might not be Dom Perignon, you can save hundreds of dollars by picking up a bottle of this delicious refreshing wine for only $16.

The 2004 Je t’aime (I Love You) Meritage from Livermore Valley is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. It is rich in dark cherry with a touch of chocolate and has a long finish. A very special wine is their 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon from Pleasanton Ridge. This wine is from grapes grown in the highest vineyard in Livermore Valley and is rich in dark cherry and blackberry, round tannins and has a touch of chocolate and cassis.

And then you move on to the ports. Bill Smyth says, “Ports are good for any time and should not just be considered as dessert wines, they are good for BBQ and steaks.”

He has a white double chocolate white port that is so rich in chocolate that you have to shake the bottle to blend the inch or so of chocolate back into the wine. The range of ports available includes ports made from Zinfandel, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah. For your tasting pleasure, they also have a red chocolate port, red vanilla port, a red chocolate coffee port, and a double chocolate red port. At the high end is a Portuguese style port, Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) port and 10 year Tawny ports.

Westover Winery produces all their wines on site and also has space for events and weddings. Visit Westover at 34329 Palomares Road between Interstate 580 and Niles Canyon Hwy 84. They are open for tastings 12 to 5 p.m. on weekends and 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays.

For more info:
Westover Vineyards

Friday, July 24, 2009

Chouinard Winery - a gem in the country, in the heart of the San Francisco Bay area

Chouinard Winery is located on Palomares Road between I580 and Hwy 84. It is hard to believe that this jewel of an area is in the heart of San Francisco Bay, surrounded by millions of people. It feels more like the foothills of the Sierra rather than a few miles from major freeways and cities of the bay area.

The Chouinard family found this property in 1977 and planted their first grapes. By 1985 they were producing their first wines. Since the lower slopes were used as loading pens for sheep and cattle for many years, the rich native loam soil helped the vines flourish. At 1000 foot elevation, the vineyards are cooler than much of the surrounding area. Later, owner and architect George Chouinard, cut terraces into the steep 35 degree sloped hillside to plant Cabernet Sauvignon. The well-drained soils and high sun exposure is great for the Cabs. They now have 2.5 acres of Chardonnay and 2.5 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon.

George also remodeled the 85 year old barn into his winery with the tasting room on the upper level. As you enter the tasting room you immediately notice the walls covered with the blue ribbons their wines have won over the years. The deck off the back gives you a view of the vineyards and the outdoor area where they hold events including weddings and their ‘Music in the Vineyards’ series Sundays during the summer with sounds from cajun, swing, reggae, jazz and blues groups.

Co-owner Caroline Chouinard greeted us at the tasting room to guide us through a sampling of their wines. Their California Champagne presents fresh pair aromas and yeasty lees and toast. It is a balanced wine with tart acidity and green apples on the palate.

The award winning 2006 Chenin Blanc from Monterey County is stainless steel fermented and has the aromas and flavors of pear, peach and bit of flintiness. On the palate it has tart acidity and full body textures.

A very interesting wine is the Granny Smith Apple Wine. Made from 100% Granny Smith apples, the wine is fresh and delightful brimming with the flavor of Granny Smith apples. It has a slight sweetness and would be an excellent summer wine especially with pork chops.

The 2006 Alicante Bouchet was very refreshing with a pleasant dark color (Alicante Bouchet is one of the few grapes with dark juice), with rich fruit flavors of blackberry and boysenberry and a touch of spice on the back palate. The tannins are round and pleasant.

Chouinard’s dessert wines were a particular joy. The 2006 Viognier Ice Wine from Lodi is a product of the modified ice wine method. The peach and honey flavors burst in this very sweet balanced wine. It has 24.5% residual sugar. This Ice Wine has won many awards for Chouinard.

The 2002 Old Vine Late Harvest Zinfandel Port is a fine ruby port with ripe flavors of plum, raspberry and dark cherry with a very pleasant long finish.

Winemaker and son Damian Chouinard is particularly proud of the 1999 Orange Muscat from Paso Robles. This is their third vintage of this wine. Damian states, “in order to get the high sugar I wanted in these grapes, we had to let them raisin a great deal.” This wine has predominant orange blossom aromas and a beautiful sweet flavor that would pair exquisitely with Crème Brule in an orange cup.

Visit Chouinard Winery for a pleasant tasting experience. They are located at 33853 Palomares Road between I580 and Hwy 84. You will enjoy the drive to the winery and meeting the Chouinard family and sharing their wines. Purchase a bottle and step outside to their arbor covered tables and relax among the vines.

For more info: Chouinard Winery at

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Shypoke 2006 Napa Valley Charbono - Rare but delightful

Charbono is a black-skinned varietal found almost exclusively in Napa Valley. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s Inglenook Winery in Napa was a major producer of Charbono. After Inglenook, much of the acreage of Charbono slowly disappeared. There are only about 80 acres of Charbono in all of California and the acreage is continuing to shrink, with over half this acreage in Napa Valley.

Professor Carole Meredith of UC Davis has determined via DNA testing that Charbono of California is the French variety of Corbeau, associated with the Savoie region of France. One of the synonyms of Corbeau is Charbonneau. It is also believe that Charbono/Corbeau is the same as some Argentine Bonardas, but not all.

Only a few winemakers continue to produce Charbono, mostly in Napa Valley. One of best is Shypoke, the label name for wines made by Gary Heitz from his family vineyard. The Shypoke story starts back in 1904, when Michael Heitz emigrated from the Alsace region of Germany, and took interest in a 50 acre plot in Calistoga. He planted several varieties including Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and a little known variety, Charbono. With prohibition the M. Heitz Winery turned to growing walnuts, pears and prunes but he did insist on keeping his prized Charbono. With then end of prohibition Michael’s son Fred started to turn the property back to vineyards. In 2001 Michael’s great-grandson Peter Heitz became winemaker of Shypoke on the original Heitz land. Shypoke is the folk name of the Blue Heron that nest in the river along the ranch. Peter Heitz utilizes sustainable farming practices to share the outstanding fruit in its purest form. The estate is also a proud member of Slow Food’s Ark of Taste.

The Shypoke 2006 Napa Valley Charbono is a vibrant, inky colored wine with aromas of black cherry, plum and pomegranate. The same dark fruits explode on the nose with chocolate, sage and tar notes. It finishes with ripe round tannins. This is a good food wine that would pair with smoked duck, hearty stews or smoked meats. There were 630 cases produced and the price is $35.00.

Sit back and enjoy 100 years of tradition and history with the Shypoke 2006 Charbono.

For more info: Shypoke Winery

Friday, July 17, 2009

The weekend is almost here, what can you do for some great wine tasting this weekend? As usual, the third weekend finds many wineries open and serving you samples of some great Santa Cruz Mountains and Santa Clara wines. There are also many special events this weekend.

Wine Tasting and Grand Opening Reception at Forbes Mill History Museum

The Forbes Mill History Museum has a new exhibit, Vines to Wine – A history of our local vineyards and wineries, that commemorates the history of the local wine and viticultural heritage of Santa Cruz Mountains and Santa Clara Valley. The exhibit examines the colorful and influential personalities and the legacy that continues today with our local wineries. On Sunday, July 19, 1 to 4 p.m. several local wineries will be pouring at the reception that opens this new exhibit. The wineries that will be present are: Silver Mountain Vineyards, Muns Vineyards, Perrucci Winery, Muccigrosso Vineyards, Burrell School Vineyards, Loma Prieta Winery and Fleming Jenkins Winery.

Passport Day – Santa Cruz Mountains - July 18

Passport Program is a great opportunity to explore the exciting region and learn more about the wonderful diversity of the wines and the winemakers. Many of these wineries are not normally open to the public so Passport day, July 18, is your chance to visit these wineries. Most wineries are offering special events such as barrel tasting, special wines, music and more. There are almost 50 wineries open this weekend plus several smaller wineries are using local restaurants such as Michael’s on Main in Soquel, where wines from 7 different vintners will be poured. In addition several restaurants in the Santa Cruz and Palo Alto area will be having special pricing.

New wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains area this year are Poetic Cellars in Soquel and Odonata,

Be sure to visit the wineries of Santa Cruz Mountains this Saturday.

Santa Clara Valley Wineries Open for Tasting – Third Weekend of Month

Monte Verde Vineyards at 13775 Sycamore Drive in Morgan Hill is open this Saturday, July 18, for tasting. They have many great wines. Learn more about Monte Verde Vineyards in a previous story.

Creekview Vineyards at 12467 Creekview Court in San Martin is also open both Saturday and Sunday for tasting 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Thomas Kruse Winery at 3200 Dryden Ave in Gilroy is having a Bottling Day on Saturday July 18, 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Bring your own empty bottles and you can bottle your own 2006 Claire’s Field Red Estate Merlot for $6 a bottle for one case, $5 a bottle of two cases and $4 a bottle for three or more cases. If you don’t have any empty wine bottles, you can by a case of new bottles for $8. Tom’s bottling days are always popular and this Merlot is very tasty and perfect for summer BBQ. Help Tom clear out his 2006 Merlot to make room for bottling the 2007 vintage.

Satori Cellars at 2100 Buena Vista in Gilroy will be open for tasting. At 3pm on both Saturday and Sunday Vineyard Manager, Winemaker, and Owner Tom Moller will conduct a walking tour of the estate vineyards complete with wine tasting among the vines. Learn about the history of his estate vines, his trellising techniques, clonal selections, and harvesting practices. Comfortable shoes are recommended!

Jason-Stephens Winery at 11775 Watsonville Road in Gilroy is celebrating Jason’s birthday with their regular live music Friday’s, July 17, from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Tonight’s music is from the Music Jones Band. The BBQ grills will be hot and ready so bring your picnic and enjoy the evening with great music and fine wine.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Jason-Stephens Winery

Producing great wine is much like making great music requiring many components to come together precisely. Start with perfect grapes that depict the Terrior, treat them with care through the crushing and fermentation process, and then use the right oak barrels for the right amount of time to produce wine with the taste, aroma and structure that wine enthusiasts admire. Just as wine making is a symphony so it is true in making a great winery. Jason-Stephens Winery is an example of the harmony that can result when the components of a great symphony come together.

Stephen Dorcich, son of pear farmers and former professional high-speed boat racer, purchased the 79-acre estate in 1989 and started planting grapes. By 1993 he was selling his grapes to local wineries and home winemakers. Wineries around Santa Clara Valley and around California have used his sustainably farmed grapes in production of fine quality wines.

In 2001 one of those home winemakers was Jason Goelz, a recent Cal Poly graduate, who came to Dorcich for some grapes to home ferment a barrel of Syrah. The two struck up a relationship and by 2004 Goelz was selling Dorcich’s custom crush to high-end wineries in Napa and around California for blends. In 2007 Jason approached Dorcich with the proposal to build a winery and jointly produce fine wines under the Jason-Stephens label. The winery opened in 2008.

The persistence of these two has paid off, producing outstanding wines that offer complexity, balance and elegance. This symphony is a delight to enjoy. Jason’s philosophy in winemaking is to, “Enhance people’s lives for the better because of what I created. My goal is to provide the wine enthusiast with wines that exceed their expectations.”

The Jason-Stephens 2007 Estate Chardonnay is an elegant wine with a perfect balance of fruit and oak. The aroma of pears and pineapple is followed by a creamy feel on the palate with flavors of Crème Brule and lemon.

The 2006 Estate Merlot is a dark rich wine full of dark fruit and spice with the interest of tea, coffee and tobacco and a touch of vanilla from the oak. It is soft and smooth on the palate leading to a long finish.

Jason-Stephens 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon is a great value that provides the aromas and flavors of dark cherry and blackberry with a touch of cassis and cedar. The smooth tannin leads to a medium finish.

On the other hand, the 2006 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon is an excellent high-end wine rich in dark cherry, plums and cassis. There is a touch of pepper and bakers chocolate on the nose. The tannins are still a bit ripe but there is a lot of age ability in this wine and this wine will be providing pleasure for a long time.

The 2006 Estate Syrah is a double gold winner with the aromas of blackberry, strawberry and blueberry with significant pepper and smoke and a touch of vanilla. The tannins are rich and balanced and lead to a great long finish.

Jason wants to, “build friends, family and life-long loyal wine lovers.” He encourages wine lovers to visit the winery. During the summer they have live music every Friday night. The BBQ grills are warmed up and you are encouraged to bring your own picnic, fry up some burgers, enjoy the music, meet with friends and share in the passion Jason puts into his wines.

Jason-Stephens is located at 11775 Watsonville Road in Gilroy between Uvas and Redwood Retreat Roads. You are welcomed to the estate through a long row of palm trees. They are open daily for tasting 12 to 6 p.m. in the summer, and 12 to 5 p.m. during the rest of the year.

For more info: Jason-Stephens Winery

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Saxon Brown 2007 Semillon

All too often we find ourselves drinking the same “trusted” wines over and over again. After all, the majority of wines we drink are made from well-known grapes such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Syrah.

There are, however, over 5,000 different varieties of wine grapes and over 24,000 different names for these varieties. Of these 5,000 varieties, only 150 are planted in commercially significant amounts. Strive to try some great wines that are produced from “lesser-known” grapes, most of which are grown in California.

One example of a lesser-known grape in California is Semillon. While it is considered a “classic” grape, it is often used in blends in North America (often with Sauvignon Blanc), but not as popular as a stand-alone varietal. It is the major white grape grown in Bordeaux and is most famous as the varietal used in Sauternes. Acreage in California for Semillon has dropped from 2,800 acres in 1981 to approximately 1,500 today.

I recently tasted Saxon Brown 2007 Cricket Creek Semillon from Alexander Valley. This Semillon is bursting with white peach, citrus blossom and fig flavors, delivering a rich, slightly yeasty mouth feel and lingering creamy finish. It has seen no oak and thus retains its great acidity and fruity flavors. To retain the flavors of the grape, winemaker Jeff Gaffner cold tank fermented this wine for over 90 days at 52oF-55oF. After fermentation, rather than aging in oak, he kept the wine on yeasts for five months to provide the soft richness. Saxon Brown made 324 cases of this wine. The price is $22.

It is ready to drink now or over the next 2-3 years and will pair well with antipasto, New England clam chowder, halibut and sea bass.

For more info: Saxon Brown Wines

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Monte Verde Winery

Monte Verde Vineyards is small family-run winery in Santa Clara Valley. Winemakers Todd and Alexia Johnson started with 300 Merlot vines planted in 2000; growing to a hobby in 2003; and on to a passion in 2006 as they continued planting over 1300 vines, adding Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo; and culminating as a award-winning winery in 2008. The first release was only a little over a year ago and they only produce 300 cases per year. Yet, they already are winning awards for their wines. Not too bad for a backyard (albeit big backyard) operation!

As you can expect for a winery this size, every wine is truly hand-crafted. The grapes are specially selected and fermented in small lots based on vineyard designation. While caring for their three children, Alexia is also the primary winemaker, producing the wines with the care necessary to preserve the unique character of their vineyard. Only French oak is use, producing wines with balance and great quality.

Todd continues in his day job and cares for the vines in this organic dry-farmed vineyard. The area features excellent climate for their wines. Backed up by the Santa Cruz Mountains, they have the typical hot Morgan Hill days, but the mountains provide the cool nighttime temperatures to allow the vines to rest.

They have recently completed a new winery building with a tasting room for special events. The primary tasting room continues to be an outdoor affair opened every third Saturday of the month. Here you will not only have a chance to meet the Johnson family, but also the friends who are an important asset to this family winery.

The Monte Verde 2008 Albarino from Las Cerezas Vineyard in Lodi, one of their few wines not grown on their estate and just released in May; is a perfect summer wine with tart acidity, and delicate aromas of honeysuckle, lemon peel and citrus blossoms. There is a touch of sweetness in the mouth and a bright lean finish. This wine is a perfect match for shrimp or crab, especially served chilled outdoors in a summer evening.

The 2006 Villa Palma Vineyards Merlot from Central Coast is a bronze medal winner from the San Francisco Chronicle. This dark medium bodied wine is bursting with dark cherry and blackberry flavors with medium levels of tannin and a touch of spice, including clove and cinnamon. It is a very versatile wine that can be paired with everything from flank steak, roast chicken or a good bacon cheeseburger.

Monte Verde’s 2006 Syrah from nearby Murabito Family Vineyards captured a silver medal from the San Francisco Chronicle and has an intense nose of pepper, raspberry and blackberry followed by a round full-bodied mouth feel with a ripe long finish. Try this wine this weekend with a spicy pizza or red meat with herb sauces.

The final wine tasted was the 2007 Amistad, a Santa Clara Valley blend of Syrah (52%), Merlot (39%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (9%). It has an intense nose of dark fruit and pepper. On the palate you will experience dark cherry, raspberry, blackberry, cassis and pepper with a touch of chocolate and clove. The long finish is balanced and well-rounded. This rich wine will go well with a steak that has a touch of spice and herb in the sauce.

You will enjoy a visit with Monte Verde at their outdoor gazebo under the large oaks in front of the winemakers’ home. Most likely the winemakers themselves will be there to greet you and entice you with their fine wines and pairings with various cheeses, nuts and fruits. You will find Monte Verde on Sycamore Drive off Watsonville road just a short distance north at the Uvas Road junction. The winery will be to your left about ½ mile down Sycamore Drive.

For more info: Monte Verde Vineyards

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Fenestra Winery - Friendly and fun in Livermore Valley

Fenestra Winery is one of the oldest wineries in Livermore Valley. When it first opened in 1976, by then San Jose State chemistry professor Lanny Replogle, there were only 5 wineries in Livermore Valley. In 1980 Fenestra moved to the century-old George True Winery building on Vallecitos Road. That old building adds to the charm of Fenestra with the feel of a rustic barn – yet on the roof is a brand new solar power system providing 80% of the winery’s power needs!

With the widest variety of wines I have seen at a tasting room; plus friendly, knowledgeable tasting room staff who obviously love their job and their wines; in a charming old building loaded with barrels and yesteryear signs; and surrounded by countryside that is a blend of old country, yet new developments nearby, results in a wonderful joyful afternoon of wine tasting. The tasting room staff makes you feel like you were just invited to their family gathering and treat you like old friends as you enter the door. The low table with their wines scattered about makes you feel like you are with friends versus the typical high bar separating you from the servers.

During my visit to Fenestra they had 21 wines on the tasting menu plus 2 additional new releases that were being served. A designated driver is a good idea for your visit to Fenestra. Besides the standard varietals you expect at most wineries, Fenestra has an interesting selection of not so common wines. Portuguese varietals such as Alvarelhao, Verdelho and Touriga; plus Torrontes and Malbec normally found in Latin America are on the tasting menu at Fenestra.

Their 2008 Torrontes, from the Silvaspoons Vineyard in Lodi, was a pleasant surprise. Torrontes is normally found in the high elevation vineyards of the Mendoza and Salta regions of Argentina. With a mild intensity of lilac, peach and melon aromas on the nose, your mouth is greeted with a dry, light, crisp, refreshing burst of apricot, peach and melon that gives an appearance of a touch of sweetness. While lacking some of the steely finish I have found in the higher elevation wines, this wine is a bit more fruit forward than many in Argentina.

The Fenestra 2005 Alvarelhao, also from Silvaspoons Vineyard, is a little known Portuguese varietal normally located in the Douro region of Portugal. This red wine is very fruity on the nose and palate, offering flavors of spicy plum and raspberry with good body leading to a long finish. I can imagine this wine paired with roasted chicken or turkey with plenty of spices.

The 2006 Touriga is an award winning wine with a bouquet of plum, raspberry and rose and presents you with full bright flavors of plum, raspberry, black cherry and spice. This wine is a blend of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Tinta Cao, all grapes that are found in Portuguese ports. This wine is perfect for a summer BBQ!

And save room for their delicious dessert wines where the friendly staff pairs sweet Viognier with lemon cookies and Port with dark Belgian chocolate!

Visit Fenestra Vineyards during your next visit to Livermore Valley and enjoy a truly worldwide tour of wine with friends. The tasting room is open Friday through Sunday, Noon to 5 p.m. They are located at 83 Vallecitos Road, right on Hwy 84 coming from I-680. They have only recently added a $5 tasting fee that goes towards purchase of wine. This is the best $5.00 you can spend! And if you think they have a wide variety in the tasting room, join their wine club, the Fenestra Fanatics, for an even wider selection!

For more info: Fenestra Winery