In wine, there's truth. ... The best kind of wine is that which is most pleasant to him [or her!] who drinks it. -- Pliny the Elder

Friday, February 21, 2020

Paso Robles: Revisiting, Relaxing, and Discovering

Victor Abascal of Vines on the Marycrest with his song-title labels.
Early February on the Central Coast of California is not high season for tourism, but for my husband's birthday this year the entire family wanted a place to relax, sit by a fire, watch the Superbowl, and just chill and be with each other. We booked what sounded like a perfect three-bedroom "hacienda" situated amongst the vineyards of Paso just north of Route 46.

And perfection it was!

The house was far enough from the highway to be quiet and tranquil, with the owner's Woodpecker Hollow Vineyard of Zinfandel vines in our front yard, and a pasture with friendly grazing cows right next to the house. The backyard was a deep gully, which lowered the air temperatures quite a bit, keeping us in the winter coldness that I so love (our pipes froze over night!). In short, it was a nice change from bustling Los Angeles.
Our home for the weekend, called Woodpecker Hollow, featured a homey "hacienda" as well as a small vineyard and Australian shephard.

Any trip to Paso Robles must include some tasting room visits. My family (husband, two sons, daughter-in-law and girlfriend) agreed that if we could only do one, we had to visit the beautiful winery of our friends Victor and Jenni Abascal. I've watched their Vines on the Marycrest tasting room grow up over the years, literally, much like I've watched my two sons do the same. As a member of the VOTM wine club (called the "In-Crowd"), I've always had a supply of their wine in my wine refrigerator at home, and once my boys reached drinking age, they enjoyed the wines on various occasions, loving them as much as I do. They were most excited to meet Victor and Jenni and to see the source of all the good wines they had tried.

Victor is the winemaker at VOTM and Jenni manages the taste room; both share child-care of their two children. They make a great team, and have grown their label over the years into a recognized and respected one, and have been active in the local wine-growing community focusing on Rhone and Mediterranean varieties on their hilly 26-acres in the Adelaida district of West Paso Robles.

Originally planted as an almond orchard, the Abascals began replanting in 2004 with grape vines, including Zinfandel, Tempranillo, Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre and Viognier. They also built one of the most beautiful tasting rooms -- a mid-century modern style building that is both sparely designed, but also homey, and featuring the coolest restroom I've ever visited!
(Top left, clockwise): VOTM's back terrace; the industrial/mid-century modern tasting room; Lucas and Diana (son and girlfriend) loved meeting Victor and Jenni; Beyond Belief sparkling wine; VOTM's sign welcomes guests.

We sampled reds, as whites were sold out at this time of year (and I love VOTM whites!). Our list included Sangiovese, which was our favorite with its medium body and notes of bright red fruit;  single-variety Syrah (the labels for single varieties differ from blends) ; "So What" Cab-Sangio-Syrah blend; and "Heart of Glass" and "Round Midnight" GSM blends. The first GSM is more Grenache based, with strawberry and raspberry notes, while the latter is more Syrah based, which is more meaty and peppery.

We also sampled VOTM's delicious "Beyond Belief" brut sparkling cuvée, a blend of Viognier, Grenache and Counoise, made in the traditional method. This bottling is a white sparkling, with very little skin contact, whereas the Rosé version, which we've received as part of the In Crowd, has longer skin contact.

My Valentine's dinner this year, which I shared with my close yoga friends, featured the Sangiovese and the brut sparkling cuvée from VOTM and the wines were a hit. It helps that the VOTM backstory is local to West LA-based group. As a teenager growing up in Culver City, Victor began experimenting with grapes when he planted vines on a hillside owned by the Marycrest nunnery. He ultimately was ordered to pull the vines, but Victor caught the wine bug.

He worked for many years in the music industry in LA, hence the song-title names on his blended wines, but ultimately made the move to Paso Robles. The winery hosts music concerts in the taste room regularly, and even sends a disc of music to the "In Crowd" wine club members with each shipment.

VOTM is a must-stop-in kind of place when visiting West Paso. Victor and Jenni will make you feel special.

Visit VOTM's Web site for more information and for tasting room hours:

Tudor Wines: Old World Luxury Wines in Downtown Paso

Dan Tudor of Tudor Wines makes the Nacina Zinfandel wines from grapes grown by our AirBnB host, Randy Rogers, and we were interested in tasting it, so we visited his tasting room in downtown Paso Robles. 
Dan Tudor and his wine flight at his downtown Paso Robles tasting room.

But first we sampled Tudor's wines, which are not typically Paso varieties ... Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay and Gewurtztraminer. He makes both dry wines and ice wines.

Tudor, wanting to make 'old world' style wines, buys his grapes from Santa Lucia Highlands, with a goal of creating "world-class luxury wines."

And they are beautiful wines.

We sampled a flight of his Pinots from various vineyards and vintages, and each was gorgeous, with nuance and balance. It was clear that Tudor is meticulous in his grape selection and the Nacino Zin was also lovely, not overly jammy like some Paso Zins. The Riesling ice wine was gorgeous.

Dan Tudor is a great host, talkative and so knowledgeable about wine and all topics. Check him out when in Paso.

Visit the Tudor wines Web site for more information on both Tudor and Nacina wines:

Happy Birthday Bruce Nozick! Here with Will and Lucas, our sons.

Until next time,

Friday, January 31, 2020

More on Mudgee, Australia!

In my first post on Mudgee, I focused on Day 1 of my excursion with the Wine Media Conference to this gorgeous wine region and town. On Day 2, I visited several more wineries, and below are my notes on each.

Logan Vineyard's unique winery and tasting room

Logan Wines

Logan Wines is the site of one of the most spectacular tasting room I've been in. This Danish modern building, located in the hamlet of Apple Tree Flat, is the height of style, while also extremely inviting and comfortable. Perched over the edge of a rather steep hill and overlooking Logan's vineyards, this is a visual delight, and the dramatic drive up to it only enhances the experience. As mentioned in my first post on Mudgee, the town and surroundings are so picturesque that TV shows are shot there; I saw this tasting room in an episode of one of my favorite Australian shows recently. 

The cool factor only increased for me when we met owner, Peter Logan, who epitomized the character of the region. Smart, personable, articulate and passionate about the wines and the vines, Logan graciously indulged us wine writers with his wine musings, pointing out that the vineyard behind him was being prepped for grafting of Tempranillo vines onto older Merlot rootstock (see photos below). Logan is at the forefront of the movement to bring new varieties into the region, and is producing wines from such grapes as Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Moscato, Pinot Noir & Pinot Meunier, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Viognier, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. He makes sparkling, still, rose, and orange wines.

Most of Logan's grapes are brought in from Orange, a wine region to the south and slightly east of Mudgee, where temperatures run slightly cooler; in fact, it's the coolest wine region in Australia and where the country's first Chardonnay wines were made. Logan's vines in Orange grow at elevations from 1600 to 2000 feet.

Logan's wines are a beautiful melding of new world pizazz and old world finesse. My husband and I were especially impressed with the Weemale Tempranillo. The Ridge of Tears shiraz (pictured below) is Logan's homage to his Scottish ancestors, using Shiraz grapes from Mudgee and Orange, grown on the best slopes, with low yields and produced with "hand-made" loving care to create Logan's signature style. This Shiraz is beautiful.

 This winery is well worth visiting if you find yourself in Mudgee.

(Top left, clockwise) Winemaker Peter Logan; Logan's posh tasting room; Ridge of Tears Shiraz; Merlot vines waiting for grafting with Tempranillo; inside the tasting room.

Moothi Estate

Moothi's 180-degree view cannot be beat.

Moothi Estate is a family-owned winery, founded in 1995, nestled in the Mudgee hills, and it's delightful. Moothi is another Aboriginal word for "nest in the hills."

The tasting room and outside terrace are a perfect setting for a long, languorous lunch and wine tasting. The winery's cellar door/kitchen features small bites and charcuterie platters (see picture below), and spectacular views. And the owners are lovely ... as welcoming as can be. They generously poured for us just about everything on their menu, which started with sparkling rose, and moved through Riesling, Pinot Grigio, Viognier, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, a Cabernet-Shiraz-Merlot red blend called Mooth Rocks, a Shiraz-Viognier blend, and a fortified Shiraz.

All of Moothi's grapes are estate grown, and the cellar door, one of the highest in the region, overlooks the vines.

(Upper left, clockwise) Moothi's logo; Moothi Rocks Red Blend; wines on deck; delicious charcuterie platter from Moothi's kitchen 

Burnbrae Wines

Moving on to Burnbrae Wines, we were welcomed by Trine Gay, co-owner with her husband Andy, and one of their winery dogs. The couple took over the winery from Trine's father in 2014, and have created a cheery, youthful and inviting venue.

(Top left, clockwise: Owner Trine Gay; "book cover" labels; my husband Bruce with winery dog; cellar door reading; outbuilding for events; peppercorn tree; charming rustic doors (center).

Rustic charm abounds at Burnbrae, from the cellar door, to the grounds, to the outbuildings, creating a beautiful venue for weddings and other events. There's even the option to stay at the adorable "winemaker's cottage" on the grounds.  

The labels on Burnbrae's wines are designed like book covers, each telling a story that is linked to Burnbrae's past and present. For example, the "Twinkle Toes" Cuvee sparkling wine, which we were greeted with upon arrival, has a label that harkens back to the fact that the cellar door used to be a dance hall. The "Home Ground" Shiraz refers to the large peppercorn tree outside the front of the cellar door, which marks the site of the original winery.

Burnbrae produces a range of wines, including the above-mentioned sparkling white, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir (my favorite), Shiraz, Cab-Merlot blend, Pinot Gris, and a couple of different Rose wines, which are slightly spritzed and sweet, using the Moscato grape. The lineup is definitely youth-oriented, light, and fun.

Lowe Wine & Zin House

This place is special in that it's a winery, a restaurant, a wedding venue, and surprisingly, it's also all about Zinfandel. My first thought was 'Zin is quintessentially Californian ... not Australian!' I was definitely intrigued.

Our first stop was at Zin House, the restaurant, where we were treated to a gorgeous lunch prepared by Chef Kim Currie, wife of Lowe Wines' David Lowe. Served family style, in the gorgeous dining room that felt like an old farmhouse, the food was classy but not pretentious (see photos below). The foods were paired with Lowe's lip-smacking wines. I was overwhelmed by the generosity of our hosts.

For the last four years, Zin House has been awarded One Chef Hat from the SMH Good Food Guide Awards, which, as explained to us, is Australia's equivalent of Michelin stars. Very impressive.

Along with our lunch at Pipeclay Pumphouse at Robert Stein Winery, we were definitely eating in style on this Mudgee excursion, and Mudgee was living up to its reputation as a foodie destination.

The fare at Zin House, a One Chef Hat award-winning restaurant in Mudgee.
Most of the produce used at Zin House is sourced right from the property, and is organic, as are the wine grapes from the estate vineyards. Like the best Zin vines in California, the vines are old, bush trained and untrellised, unirrigated, low-yielding, and in this case organic (certified) and biodynamic. Robert Lowe is passionate about his winemaking, calling it "slow winemaking," which I interpret as quality. His wines are lovely, and who knew you could get great Zin in Australia?

Lowe is a fifth-generation Mudgee, descended from the first English settlers in the Valley. He has been in the wine business since birth, basically. He's passionate about Zin, after having spent time in northern California, in his "formative years," learning from California wine pioneers, and he also worked alongside Australian legends Len Evans and Murray Tyrrell. He seems to have wine running through his veins, and he's also humble and approachable. I so enjoyed my conversations with him at his winery.

(Upper left, clockwise: Robert Lowe, winemaker; Zinfandel paver (the entire alphabet populates Lowe's cellar door garden); the wine; Zin vines;  tasting the Zin in the garden outside Cellar Door; winery dog; bush vine Zin vineyard; one of the views from inside the Zin House restaurant; the cellar door (center)

Final Thoughts on Mudgee

Mudgee is a wonderland to me, with dozens of small, artisan, family-owned wineries tucked in and around the valley and rolling hills. And the wines being produced are wonderful. The town of Mudgee is really cool, with shops, eateries and hotels, and just about the nicest people I've ever met. All of these things make Mudgee a wonderful destination for weekend travelers.

If you are traveling to New South Wales, Australia, I urge you to check out both the Hunter Valley and Mudgee. You can get to them easily from Sydney, via train, car, or plane. On the journey, you can experience the Blue Mountains, Australia's version of the Grand Canyon; they are stunning.

Special Thanks

I want to say a giant Thank You to Mudgee and its people. Also, cheers to the following organizations and business who welcomed Wine Media Conference 2019 attendees:

Mudgee Wine and Country Tours Ben, our driver, was the best driver a visitor could ask for, making sure we saw wildlife, stunning vistas, and historic markers, even if it meant pulling to the side of the road spontaneously to shoot a picture of a road sign!

(Upper left, clockwise): Ben of Mudgee Wine Tours; Mudgee road sign; beautiful old vines in Mudgee; the comfortable Mudgee Tourist Bus; my husband Bruce with Cara George of Visit Mudgee Region; my fellow WBC19 travelers.

Cara George, CEO of Visit Mudgee Region: A wonderful human being and great host, who made sure we stayed on schedule but also gave us the time we needed at each stop on our tour.

My fellow Wine Media Conference attendees who made the Mudgee excursion extra fun. It was great sharing the wine geek moments with all of you.

Until next time,


Saturday, December 28, 2019

Book Review: Root Cause, a Wine Thriller

I love wine, and I love a good mystery novel. Put the two of these together and I'm ready to curl up with my cat and dog on my couch for a good long read.

I recently came upon a copy of Steven Laine's Root Cause, a "wine-soaked" mystery, according to Kirkus Reviews. This lengthy -- 359 pages -- mystery/thriller is suited to the wine geek as well as the average mystery lover, but it's the former who will get the most out of it.

Laine knows his wine, and tends to show it in his writing. I found myself nodding in agreement with him as he described the various wine regions, grapes, and vinification practices that supported his fun-packed and informative wine mystery. My years and years of wine studies came into play as I hungrily read page after page of this engrossing mystery.

The book's main protagonist is Corvina Guerra, an Italian "flying winemaker" who grew up in the vineyards of her parent's home in Italy. Of note, she's named after the core Italian grape variety used to produce Amarone, the full-bodied wines of the Valpolicella region of Italy. Like the grape, she is both down to earth and richly endowed with vitality along with keen street and book smarts. Her professional and personal lives, however, are at a crossroads, as her marriage is on the rocks and her job with Universal Wines is not on solid terroir. She begins to suspect that someone is intentionally infecting the world's top vineyards with the phylloxera (playfully called Philomena in the story) aphid, a treacherous louse that nearly destroyed the vineyards of Europe in the 1850s when it was imported on American rootstock. American vines were and are immune to the disease, but European vines were eaten alive by the pests, and it was only the grafting of European wines to American rootstock that saved the wine industry from near extinction in France and other regions. Corvina's boss at Universal Wines is not easily convinced that she should travel the world tracking the 'root cause' of this nemesis of the vineyard, but of course she does.

Corvina eventually teams up with the dashing, debonnaire Bryan Lawless, a flawed but lovable wine writer and "Master of wine, but not quite" (he was somehow kicked out of the program but we don't get full details on that), who immediately displays the sharp wit and skill that have served him in the sometimes cut-throat world of  luxury wine, as well as the shoot-from-the-hip impulsiveness that has led him to be blacklisted from it. It's the classic bad boy-good girl team-up that may or may not be romantic, but definitely makes for a crack detective duo.

The journey to find the culprit or culprits who are spreading the destructive pest in the world's vineyards is thrilling, with Interpol eventually getting involved as the protagonists make swings through Singapore and the vineyards and wineries of France, South America, South Africa, Napa, Italy, and Portugal. At times the book is written like a travelogue, and considering Laine's background as an International traveler working in the high-end hotel business, it works really well.  I was on the edge of my seat ... mostly because my wine geek side was fascinated with Laine's real-life experiences of these vineyards and wineries which shined through on the pages.

The final solution is satisfying, though a bit bizarre, and the chemistry, or should I say 'blend,' of Corvina and Bryan, left me thirsty for more wine capers featuring these two intrepid oenophiles.

Root Cause is available at

Until next time,

Friday, December 6, 2019

Mudgee ... It's a Wine Region in Australia!

The beautiful skies of Mudgee
I post this in the midst of the horrible destruction of human and animal life as well as property caused by the catastrophic bush fires in Australia. In October 2019 when I visited, the drought concerns expressed by the vintners in the Hunter Valley and Mudgee wine regions caused me to worry about the future of this beautiful place, and my fears have now become real. I dedicate this post to the people and wildlife of Australia and hope that this terrible situation is resolved soon.

As my post-conference excursion for Wine Media Conference 2019 in Hunter Valley Australia, I jumped at the opportunity to go to the neighboring wine district called Mudgee. With a name like that, I couldn't resist!

The name Mudgee comes from the Wiradjuri term "Moothi, and translates to "nest in the hills." The Wiradjuri are a group of indigenous Australian Aboriginal people who thrived in Central New South Wales before the arrival of European settlers in the early 1800s.

Mudgee, a small-ish wine area about 3 hours northwest of Sydney, is touted in New South Wales Wine Country, published by Destination NSW in partnership with the NSW Wine Industry Association, as a culinary epicenter, brimming with top-rated restaurants and farmers markets providing a broad range of seasonal produce and local food products. Honey is another main attraction, with small family operations producing wild honey and honeycomb products with fragrance and flavors unique to the local terroir .... sounds a lot like wine, doesn't it?

And speaking of the wines, which is the point of my writing and the main reason for my trip to Mudgee, they were a surprisingly interesting and delicious revelation for me. After several days of focusing on the Semillon (see my previous post) and Shiraz of the Hunter Valley, it was nice to sample some of the other grape varieties that Mudgee offers, like Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Tempranillo, and Sangiovese. And like neighboring Hunter Valley, there are also excellent Semillon and Shiraz being produced in Mudgee.

Following are some hightlights of the Mudgee trip. More adventures will follow in my next post.

Hollydene Estate Wines

Hollydene Estate's tasting room and restaurant

Juul Blanc de Blanc
Our first stop on the drive from Hunter Valley to Mudgee was breakfast at Hollydene Estate Wines in the Upper Hunter Valley.

Being a weekend destination for Sydney and surrounding areas, many wineries in Upper Hunter and Mudgee offer food and lodging options. Hollydene has a stunning restaurant and grounds that are conducive to weddings and romantic dining experiences.

Their wines range from sparkling Blanc de Blanc called Juul (not the e-cigarette!), which was delicious with the beautiful breakfast buffet Hollydene served, to Semillon, Riesling, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Shiraz, Verdelho and Muscat. Quite a lineup! This was a great stop on our way into the heart of the Mudgee valley.

Our intrepid driver Ben of Mudgee Tourist Bus took us up and over the Blue Mountains to the stunning Mudgee valley.

Robert Stein Winery

Our first stop in the "nest in the mountains" area of Mudgee was at Robert Stein Winery  (prounounced Steen) -- which is home to acres of vineyards, a winery, a motorcycle museum, and the exceptional Pipeclay Pumphouse restaurant.

We had a divine, languorous lunch made by Pumphouse Chef Andy Crestani, with each course paired with the gorgeous wines of winemaker Jacob Stein, grandson of the founder Robert Stein, the motorcycle enthusiast who established the winery in 1976. Stein's wines included Rieslings, both dry and half-dry, a saignee rose, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, and my favorite, "The Kinnear," which is 100% hand-picked Shiraz, and named after the ship that brought the first Stein, Johann, to Australia in 1838. I'm saving my bottle of this for a very special occasion.

Since that first Stein arrived on Australian shores in the early 1800s, along with many other German immigrants, the family has been growing grape vines. There is a long and rich family history at Stein Family Winery.

Clockwise, starting top left: "The Kinnear" Shiraz; Pipeclay Pumphouse Chef Andy Crastani; the original pump outside the restaurant: Jacob Stein in the Motorcycle Museum (that's his grandfather pictured on the wall)

Kanga Madness

A surprise revelation on the Mudgee tour was about Kangaroos. Being from the US, I had never seen one before, and assumed that they were a sacred animal in Australia. Well, they are and they aren't. Kangaroos are a national symbol, adorable (from afar), and definitely a tourist attraction, but to Australians they can be a nuisance, the way that deer can be in the US, causing car accidents and property damage. In fact, my first Kanga sighting was of a "sleeping" one (our driver Ben's description) on the side of the road (ugh!).

Depending on who you speak with, the Kangaroo population is out of control. Vineyard managers do not love Kangas, as they eat grapes and they are dealt with as any pest in a vineyard. I saw Kanagroo pelts in the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne, which was my first realization that they are hunted. And Kangaroo meat is consumed in Australia. Our lunch at Pipeclay Pumphouse included a course of  Kangaroo tar tar ... a dish I tasted, but chose to leave for others to consume.

The Cellar by Gilbert

This is another Australian wine family whose roots go back generations in the wine industry. Our host on this visit was Will Gilbert, the current wine-maker, along with his father, who represent the sixth and fifth generation of Gilberts in the wine business. Our delightful evening including samples from Gilbert's current and library selections, paired with  gorgeous platters of delectables from High Valley Cheese Co.

Will delighted us with his fresh, modern approach to wine making and his family history. The Cellar was founded in 2004 in Mudgee by Will's father Simon, however the wine-making Gilbert family got its start in the Eden Valley of South Australia. The family founded the iconic Riesling maker Pewsey Vale Vineyards.

Will epitomized the youthful, experimental new generation of wine makers that I'm seeing in just about every wine region I visit. He was enthusiastic about trying new grape varieties and clonal selections, as well as experimenting with various vinification methods -- orange wines, carbonic maceration, pet nats -- while at the same time respecting and preserving traditions handed down to him over the generations. I especially loved his 2018 Sauvignon Blanc Sur Lie. And not to be pigeon-holded, Will also produces ciders.

Downtown Mudgee and the Perry Street Hotel

Church spire in downtown Mudgee, Alby + Esther's Wine Bar and Coffee House, and the Perry Street Hotel
I'm a huge fan of Aussie and New Zealand TV, and have been known to binge watch my favorites for hours. In one of them, called The Heart Guy (called Doctor Doctor in Australia), I've always been captivated by the gorgeous landscapes and quaint downtown area. Well it turns out this show is filmed in Mudgee, and I was staying in the Perry Street Hotel, one of the best-appointed boutique hotels I've ever been in, which was in the opening shot of a recent episode of the show! 

Mudgee's town center looks like a cross between Mayberry RFD and a California Gold Country town. It's got charm, with cute little shops, church spires, and comfy hotels along with a more rugged, outdoorsy grit. It's a thoroughly pleasant place to spend a few days.

Alby +  Esther's is one of the charming, must-see spots in town, and we enjoyed a hosted breakfast on our first morning in town. The cafe is tucked into a cobblestoned alleyway in a building that dates back to the 1870s, and is full of charm and friendliness. The locals and visitors mingled while we enjoyed local (fantastic) fare in a private, art-filled dining room.

Mudgee Tourism 

Mudgee Region Tourism and Mudgee Wine Association are doing a terrific job attracting tourism to this lovely part of the world. Currently, however, only about 4% of tourists to Mudgee are international travelers, says Cara George CEO of Mudgee Region Tourism. One of the goals in hosting US and other international wine writers was to spread the word about Mudgee, its wines and its abundant attractions, and I happily do so.

Having been there, I can say it feels like an undiscovered gem. It's got everything going for it, except rain right now.

Here's hoping that the storm clouds roll in and preserve this beautiful part of the world.

More on Mudgee wineries in my next post!

Until next time,

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Hunter Valley's Simple Yet Complex Semillons

This year's Wine Media Conference took me to Australia's Hunter Valley, for the first-ever overseas version of this yearly event.

This gorgeous region, which is little known outside of Australia, produces some of the world's best Semillon wines. Both youthful versions and aged versions have been thrilling wine aficionados for decades, and I was thrilled to experience them in their natural habitat.

Semillon is the signature wine of the Hunter Valley -- a region that is little known outside of Australia. The region's dominant red grape is Shiraz -- Aussie for Syrah. The latter tend to be lighter, less opulent and more nuanced versions than those produced elsewhere in Australia.

I was aware of Hunter Valley Semillons because a few of them are sold at The Wine House where I work, from iconic producers like Tyrrell's, Brokenwood, and Silkman. Addionally, in my WSET Level 4 Diploma studies, I learned in-depth about Hunter Valley Semillons, including the effect the area's sub-tropical climate has on the grapes in the vineyard, the winemakers' minimal intervention approach (i.e., no oak), and the wines' ability to age for many years. In fact, my final exam for my Diploma included one essay question comparing two wine labels, one for an aged dry white Bordeaux blanc (a Sauvignon Blanc-Semillion blend) and an aged Hunter Valley Semillon. The Old World versus New World faceoff!

Pick, Crush, Ferment, Bottle

Semillon is a white grape variety, well known as a blending partner with Sauvignon Blanc in Bordeaux's dry whites from the Entre deux Mer and Graves appellations, and the succulently sweet wines of the Sauternes and Barsac appellations. Additionally, California Sauvignon Blancs often have Semillon blended in, and I prefer these versions as the grapes fill in the gaps for each other -- the Sauvignon Blanc providing aromatics and searing acidity, the Semillon providing more toned down fruit and aromas and a more rounded texture.

Semillon vines are productive, easy to grow, and well-suited to the climate of the Hunter Valley, a wine region a couple hours drive northwest of Sydney, in New South Wales. The sub-tropical weather in the valley provides afternoon cloud cover and humidity that keep the vines stress-free in this otherwise hot valley, and the light, sandy soils are ideal for Semillon.

Per Liz Silkman of Silkman wines, the typical Semillon from the valley evolves from a lean, tight, coiled citrus (lemons and limes) wine for the first five years, then it grows into toasty nuttiness. The reason? Per Silkman, they don't really know why, and it's possibly the chemistry of the wine itself. But the winemaking approach "could not get less interventionist," says Silkman.  The wine can sit in this evolutionary phase for five or 10 years, and then can evolve into a beautiful golden color, while retaining its acid and citrus notes. (See notes on the Tyrrell vertical tasting below.)

Rain and Lack Thereof

The Hunter's rainfall can be plentiful and often occurs during harvest. Unfortunately, the valley has had three consecutive drought years and its water supply is at a critical level, which means drinking water, much less water for vine irrigation, is in danger of drying up completely. While we visited the Hunter, every winemaker we met expressed the need for rainfall, and the tension surrounding this issue was palpable. I was heartened to see, however, that global climate change is an accepted scientific phenomenon in The Hunter Valley, which was stated emphatically by Julie McIntyre of the University of Newcastle, who did a presentation on the history of the vine in Australia, and is also the co-author of Hunter Wine. She will be spending time this year at UC Davis as a 2019 Fulbright Scholar.

A Sampling of Semillons

As part of WBC 2019, we were invited to taste some Semillons from the more well known producers as well as many from smaller boutique producers. Following are a few of the standouts for me:

Two Rivers Stone's Throw Semillion

I include the 2018 Two Rivers Stone's Throw Semillon here because it was what my husband and I drank while having a picnic lunch on a blanket at Manly Beach, to the north of downtown Sydney. This wine, while not complex or expensive, will always evoke memories of one of our favorite days in Australia. 

On that day, we boarded the ferry at Sydney's Darling Harbor, saw the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Bridge up close, and disembarked in Manly about 40 minutes later to discover this enchanting, relaxed seaside community that offers so much. It has beautiful beaches, bustling village streets, hiking trails, lots of wildlife (including the Eastern Water Dragon), and several "bottle shops," which we call wine stores in the US. I found the delicious bottle of Two Rivers Semillon at one of the shops for about $18 Australian, a real bargain!

It was a delightful wine, pairing well with our picnic lunch. This young Semillon is light, citrusy, and cheerful, and has been awarded many accolades, including a gold medal at the 2019 Sydney Royal Wine Show, produced by the Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales. (Another fun fact about the Australian wine industry: they love and have many wine shows!) Unfortunately, I cannot find this wine for sale in the US.

Tyrrell's Vat 1 Semillon

When you drink Tyrrell's Semillon you are drinking Hunter Valley history. Since 1858, this family-owned winery has been growing vines and perfecting its wines, and now siblings Chris, Jane and John Tyrrell are the fifth generation to helm the business. Chris, 36, began his wine-making career in 2001 when his grandfather Murray Tyrrell passed away, and he was our excellent host for a tour of the original vineyard and winery, with its dirt floor and ancient wine vats, followed by dinner at the lauded Muse restaurant. 

Before dinner, in the barrel room of the original winery (the main operations have moved off the historic site to a modern facility), Chris Tyrrell set up a vertical tasting of Semillon and Shiraz. Of note, we tried 2019, 2009, and 1998 of Vat 1 Semillon -- Vat 1 is Tyrrell's top-line vineyard. The 2019 was light, bright and aromatic; the 2009 was lovely and rounded, and still evolving; and the 1998 was suprisingly bright and acidic, with lots of lemony citrus notes. This was the perfect example of how Semillons from the Hunter Valley can evolve and age, in this case for over 20 years, and still have some life in them. 

Tyrrell's 2019, 2009, and 1998 Vat 1 Semillon displayed how this wine can age beautifully.

Echoing Liz Silkman's words, Tyrrell says, "It's all quite simple; we crush, ferment, and bottle." That's the story of Hunter Valley Semillion ... minimal intervention, but beautiful, complex results.

Brokenwood ILR Reserve Semillon

Brokenwood senior winemaker Stuart Horndern

The Hunter Valley Wine Tourism Association hosted all attendees at Brokenwood Wines for an evening of wine tasting and mingling with about 20 of the "Legends of  Hunter Valley." The Legends are the men and women winemakers of the region who had the most impact on the valley's wine reputation. This beautiful winery was named 2019 Cellar Door of the Year by the Tourism Association and it is stunning (see picture below with my husband).

Brokenwood's senior winemaker Stuart Hordern, who introduced the Legends at the event, brought his 2013 ILR Reserve Semillon to the white wine "speed tasting," which has become a hallmark of the WMC. This classic Semillon was 100% stainless steel-aged, and had notes of brioche and bees wax, with zingy acid. It was bright and fresh and just beautiful.

Fortunately, both Tyrrell's and Brokenwood's wines are generally available in the US. It's the small, boutique wineries that you are less likely to find, but they are worth seeking out while in Australia.

My husband Bruce at the beautiful Brokenwood Winery cellar door.
It was great to have the opportunity to explore Hunter's Semillons, both the ones I was familiar with and new ones, while in Australia. The above is just a sample of the wines of Hunter. I hope to explore the Shiraz and other other grape varieties of Hunter in future posts, as well as the wines of the Mudgee region.

Until next time,
G'day Mate!

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

White Wines All the Time!

Almost every day at The Wine House I get a customer saying they want to stock up on white wines because they keep running out of them. Their daily choice when reaching into their wine refrigerator tends to be whites, not reds, leaving the reds for either cooler weather or a more "serious" occasion.

I can so relate to this!

I got it into my head that my collection -- modest as it is -- should be filled with age-able, complex reds from around the world ... Italian Barolos, Bordeaux blends, Napa cabs, and Spanish Riojas. All these wines sit there, waiting for some unknown special occasion in the distant future. But my white and rosé racks always seem to be bare.

Why is this?

Bottom line, I drink more whites and rosés than reds, and not just in the hot summer months. I live in Los Angeles, where cold weather is quite rare, but still, I tend to drink the paler wines even when the temperature dips below 60 degrees. They are what I crave at the end of a work or leisure day, and they tend to pair well with the food I like.

Some of the white wines on display at Great Whites Fest Part Deux. Il Lugana (far left) was the hit of the Fest!
With all this in mind, I hosted the first "Great Whites Fest" at the Wine House in August 2018, followed this past August by "Great Whites, Part Deux." My intent was to help people explore the plethora of white grape varieties grown around the world, and also to show the wide variety of styles of more common International varieties like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Grigio.

Both festivals sold out and were a success based on the feedback I received and the after-event sales of the wines. There were crowd favorites, as well as "interesting" wines that people were willing to try, but not necessarily buy. Most wines were reasonable priced, that is, below $30, and often under $20.

Following are eight of the festival favorites:

Pasini Il Lugana

2018 Pasini San Giovanni Il Lugana, Lugana, Italy, $21.99

By far the best seller of the day was this wine from the Lugana area of Lombardy, Italy. This particular bottle is short and squat, which is bad for storing in wine refrigerators but appealing for its uniqueness ... it just looks like fun wine to drink. And it is! This white wine is made from the little-known Turbiana grape, and has a roundness on the palate, offering a touch of honeysuckle, green apple, and white peach, but with bright acidity. This is a perfect summer sipper to drink on its own or with light summer fare.

2018 Domaine du Salvard "Unique" Sauvignon Blanc, Loire Valley, France, $12.99

This Sauvignon Blanc from the Touraine region of the Loire Valley is a thirst-quenching, food-pairing, fruit-forward wine with zingy acidity. It has a beautiful floral nose and citrus on the palate. This one should be bought by the case and is a perfect party wine.

2018 Hippolyte Reverdy Sancerre, Loire Valley, France, $28.99

Hippolyte Reverdy's family has been making wine in the Loire for generations. This Sauvignon Blanc from the Sancerre region is my go-to Sauvignon Blanc when I want to spend a tad more than usual -- and it's so worth it. This wine has a bit more heft to it than other Sancerres, with a lovely viscosity that coats the tongue but also a purity and freshness that makes it a perfect pairing with lighter foods such as grilled shellfish, salads, and light pasta dishes.

2017 Domaine Pinson Frères Chablis, France, $24.99

This well-priced AOC Chablis displays 'typicity' of Chablis, that is, a wine with oyster shell minerality due to the ancient seabed soils of this region, plus tropical and citrus fruit on the palate, with some grapefruit on the end. This lush yet linear wine pairs well with fish, of course, as well as lighter chicken and pork dishes. (Not pictured.)

2018 MAN Family Wines Free Run 'Steen' Chenin Blanc, South Africa, $8.99

This is not a complex wine, but it's pleasant, easy drinking, and great value as one of those rare wines we sell that are under $10. This South African Chenin Blanc, known as 'Steen' there, has tart fruit flavors -- apples, lime, plum -- with weight and acidity to round it out. It sure goes down easy, and with the price, it would also be a great choice for a large gathering.

2017 Sylvain Pataille Bourgogne "Les Méchelots" Blanc, Burgundy, France, $31.99

Sylvain Pataille is a certified organic and biodynamic winery in the Marsannay region of Burgundy. Sylvain's wines emphasize the soil in which they are grown, and show a great deal of minerality. The wines are aged in older oak barrels, so there's just a hint of oak on this Chardonnay. This is a beautiful white Burgundy made with exquisite care at a very good price.

2017 Dafnios, Vidiano Crete, Greece, $15.99

Vidiano was a near-extinct white grape that was revived by young winemakers in Greece, and this is a good example of the crisp, refreshing whites coming out of the Mediterranean islands. This wine has an elegance, offering citrus aromas and apricot and flowers on the palate, and a lingering finish. I'm really enthusiastic about the whites from Greece and encourage everyone to check them out. 

2018 JLH Roussanne, Santa Barbara, California, $29.99

This wine from actress Jennifer Love Hewitt and her husband Brian Hallisay is a fine example of the Rhone white variety Roussanne from Santa Barbara County. On the nose it has honey, Asian pear, and citrus blossoms, and the palate offers subtle citrus and warm apple, with a butterscotch finish. Yum.

There are so many Great Whites from around the world, and my goal is to explore as many of them as I can. Most of the wines mentioned in this post are currently available at

Until next time,

Monday, July 29, 2019

Exploring Oregon at 'Wine Camp'

Oregon Pinot at Sokol Blosser Vineyards
Being invited to the Oregon Pinot Camp is like being handed a golden ticket. Just imagine, a camp for adults in the wine country of Oregon, dedicated to the wines, wineries, and wine makers of this beautiful state. What could be more fun?

When I got the good news that I got into camp this year, I was thrilled, as colleagues who have attended this camp in previous years have regaled me with stories from this four-day deep dive into Willamette Valley and its wines, including the festive last-day salmon bake, myriad winery and vineyard tours and, of course, wine sampling.

Oregon Pinot Camp, or OPC, occurred in mid-June this year, and hosted 270+ wine industry retailers, distributors, sommeliers, and wine/beverage directors from the around the world. OPC lived up to my expectations and surpassed it in many ways. I want to thank The Wine House (my employer) co-owner and domestic wine buyer Glen Knight for aggressively pushing for my acceptance to camp, and also Elk Cove Vineyards for sponsoring me. I'll be forever grateful, and better informed about Oregon wines.

Riesling Rising

Alexana, Raptor Ridge, and Brooks Rieslings
Oregon Pinot Camp is not just about Pinot Noir; it's also about Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Gamay, as well as rosé and bubbles. There is much to explore.

At the "Riesling Revival" gathering, held before camp opening at the gorgeous Five Mountains Vineyard home of Elk Cove Vineyards winemaker Adam Campbell (son of founders Pat and Joe Campbell) a half dozen or so Riesling producers gathered for a tasting, paired with excellent Szechuan food, for a pool-side relaxed gathering. Producers pouring their Rieslings included Alexana, Brooks Winery, Elk Cove Vineyards, Hyland Estates, Ponzi Vineyards, Trisaetum, Union Wine Co., and Van Duzer Vineyards.

I chose this event, rather than the one that focused on Chardonnay, because I had a gut feeling that the Rieslings of Oregon were going to shine brighter, and I wanted to try them all at one sitting.

And I was right. Riesling is the white wine of Oregon, in my opinion, with beautiful acidity, nice minerality, complexity, and an ability to be drunk as an aperitif or paired with all kinds of food.

And there's something about the winemakers of Oregon. They are extremely passionate about wines from the Willamette Valley, from the various AVAs and sub-AVAs, as well as about the Riesling grape. And let's face it, Riesling is a hot grape in the sommelier world these days. So, being with winemarkers like Florent Merlier of Van Duzer, Ken Campbell of Elk Cove, Bryan Weil of Alexana, and Luisa Ponzi of Ponzi, as they poured their wines and discussed Riesling's heavenly mission was literally like being at a Revival. And the antics of the day lived up to the event's name, as a "high priest" blessed the event, the wines, and "baptized" several winemakers as they drank from the holy chalice (see photo, left) of mixed Rieslings from the various producers.

Antics aside, I firmly believe that the Rieslings of Oregon are world-class and hope that it will become easier to sell them to customers in the future. Riesling is a hard sell, and consumer education is still needed to get the word out about this noble grape in general, and Oregon Riesling in particular.

I don't mean to dismiss the Chardonnays of Oregon. I did find one in particular that was splendid, from Robert Brittan of Brittan Vineyards. This Burgundian-style Chardonnay was light and refreshing, with a complexity and lingering finish that were extremely pleasing -- and I rarely indulge in domestic Chardonnay, truth be told.

Pinot, Powered by Terroir

Volcanic and Red Jory soils of Oregon
There's no doubt about the fact that Pinot Noir is king in Oregon. It's the grape that most Oregon winemakers hang their hat on. And for good reason.

The Willamette Valley is an extremely diverse region in terms of soils, elevations, and micro-climates, and this results in a variety of Pinot styles, from rich and luxuriant, fruit-forward  versions to light-bodied and "feminine" Burgundian versions. The terroir has everything to do with the wine style. 

There are many soil types in Oregon wine country, and like Eastern Washington, the ancient Missoula Floods had a lot to do with it. (See my previous story on The Dirt on Red Mountain.) These ancient glacial floods left behind tons of marine sediment and deep silt on the Willamette Valley floor. Another factor in the soil diversity is the collision of the Pacific and North American plates off the coast 15 million years ago, which created the coastal range, and hence the rain shadow that currently protects the Willamette Valley. It also created ongoing pressures that resulted in volcanic activity with lava flows that formed the fertile basalt soils, known in Oregon as Red Jory. Windblown Loess soils are a result of the silt blown up from the valley floor onto northeast-facing hillsides of the Valley.

Winemaker Steve Doerner of Cristom
For the most part, Oregon Pinots are grown on the South and Southeast-facing hills, at between 200 and up to 900 feet elevation on volcanic, marine, or windblown loess soils. Volcanic soils produce Pinots that are lush, perfumed and bright red. Pinots from marine sediment tend to be bold, chewy, spicy, with black fruit flavors. Loess soil Pinots offer blueberry, plum, chocolate cherry and spice.

It's not unusual to have different soils within feet of each other in vineyards in Willamette Valley. For example, Steve Doerner, winemaker at Cristom Vineyards in Eiola-Amity Hills, showed OPC campers two sites just 100 feet from each other that had completely different soils, one with rocky volcanic soil and one with richer, more fertile Jory. This is important in vineyard management as the various soils need to be worked differently. Volcanic soil, for instance, is best dry farmed, because when it gets wet it is very slick, for both tractors and humans. Sandy soils not so much.

Another aspect of the terroir is the air, and a great example of how it affects vineyards is the Van Duzer corridor, which guides cool ocean breezes into the valley, particularly effective in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA. Pinot Noir grapes like coolness, and the breezes also cut down disease pressure.

Each producer of Oregon Pinot Noir has their style: For the lighter, more feminine styles, there's Chehalem and Soter, two of my favorites. For bigger, bolder Pinots, there's Ken Wright Cellars, which produces a Pinot from 16 different vineyards throughout the Willamette Valley, showcasing the terroir of each. For a more earthy style, there's Antica Terra. There are dozens more great choices among Oregon Pinots. Check them out at the Oregon Winegrower's Association Web site.

Ocean breezes, courtesy of the Van Duzer Corridor, help keep grapes disease-free in Eola-Amity Hills AVA

Until next time,