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

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Barra Family of Mendocino: 65 Years and Going Strong

Mendocino County, in Northern California, is a land of great natural beauty, with small towns and meandering country roads. As a wine region, Mendocino is less pretentious than say Napa or even Paso Robles, having maintained some of its hippie vibe. It's a wonderful place to grow vines, as I discovered during a visit to the Fetzer-Bonterra winery as part of the 2017 Wine Media Conference. The lovely rainy day I spent in "Mendo" was eye opening and had a lasting effect on my view of biodynamics and sustainable farming.

Barra's two labels; vineyard shot courtesy of Barra of Mendocino

There are wine families in Mendocino with long, deep history in the region, including the Fetzer and Parducci families. Another is the Barra family, who have been growing vines in Mendocino since 1955, and producing their own wine since the late 1990s. The Los Angeles Wine Writers recently hosted a Zoom tasting featuring wines from Barra's two labels: Barra of Mendocino and Girasole.

The Barra estate, which is in its 65th year, is located a couple hours north of San Francisco, right off the 101 Freeway, and snuggled up against the Redwoods. Their 325 acres produce all of the varieties that go into Barra's wines. The Barra of Mendocino label represents their best of the best, says winemaker Randy Meyer, explaining that these wines are treated with kid gloves and produced in small volumes. Their Girasole (Italian for sunflower) label is  more approachable, that is, lower-cost, less oaked, more fruit forward, and using a screwcap. These are wines that "let the grapes speak," Meyer adds. Both labels use 100% organic, estate-grown grapes.

Charlie Barra, who passed away in 2019 at the age of 92, purchased the property in the 1950s and sold grapes to others before making the decision with his wife Martha to make their own wine. One big advantage to being an early entrant into California's wine business is that the Barra family owns both their vines and their winery. Carrying very little debt, they choose to pass affordable pricing on to their customers.

Meyer says that the current global climate change situation has benefited the Redwood Valley, where Barra is located. It is cooler than Napa and Sonoma, but with very little frost (in fact none in 2021). The area experiences a huge shift from day to night temperatures, known as diurnal swing, which is ideal for grape growing, as it allows the grapes to ripen in the heat of the day, but to cool off and retain their acidity at night. 

Additionally, even during severe drought, the Barra estate has deep ponds that provide enough water to irrigate their vines (they are not dry farmed) and, when necessary, for frost mitigation. Barra wines are OMRI (Organic Material Review Institute) certified. This private nonprofit determines whether or not a product qualifies as organic under the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP). Helping in the vineyards are osprey (to keep vermin away), owls, egrets, hawks, foxes, deer, bobcats and turkeys.

The vines are all hand harvested and sorted in the vineyard. Barra produces 40K to 50K cases of wine, plus they continue to sell grapes to other wineries. Shawn Barra, the son of founders Charlie and Martha, runs a custom crush facility called Redwood Valley Cellars, while daughter Shelley runs the marketing activities.

Winemaker Randy Meyer is a UC Davis graduate who started his wine career at Corbel and worked there for 23 years before moving to Barra in 2019. Meyer took the LA Wine Writers through a tasting of three Barra/Girasole wines, as follow:

2020 Girasole Rosé: This is a lovely blend of Pinot Noir and Zinfandel with acidic freshness and aromas and flavors of red fruit and a touch of sweet spice. Winemaker Meyer destems the grapes, and does direct press, but carefully extracts so it's not too dark (Zin can do that).  This retails for around $15.

2019 Girasole Charlie's Bend: This is labeled a "red wine" and was first produced for the 2019 vintage, in memory of founder Charlie Barra. This juicy, oak-touched red has Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Petit Sirah in the blend, and features a tannic, chewy finish and flavors that conjur up the spice rack. This can be enjoyed youthful, no need to age it, and it retails for just $16.00.

2018 Barra of Mendocino Petit Sirah: This is Barra's flagship, having provided the winery more awards than any other of its wines. This small production wine is grown at Barra's highest-elevation vineyards and it's a "bomber" per winemaker Meyer. Petit Sirah is high in anthocyanins (dark pigment) and tannin, and it's a wine that's not for everyone, but paired with a rib eye steak with black pepper and blue cheese, it's a great pairing. This bomber wine, aged in French oak, offers spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, and retails for $26.

Where to Purchase

Barra's wines are not available everywhere, but can be found in California, Colorado, Illinois and New York. Most of their sales are in these four states, and the rest are sold in Barra's tasting room and through its wine club.

To order Barra's wines, go to

Until next time, Cheers!

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Velenosi Marches On

One of the lesser-known wine regions of Italy is called Marches, or Le Marche in Italian. Not a super-well-known region outside of Italy to most people, it is nonetheless home to one of my favorite Italian white wines called Verdicchio. To my delight, more and more people are appreciating these sea-influenced, crisp and minerally whites, which are thirst-quenching summer wines. The Marche region makes other wines that are also worth exploring, including reds based on Montepulciano and Sangiovese, the main grapes in the neighboring and better-known regions of Tuscany and Abruzzo.

During the 2020 virtual Wine Media Conference in August, Velenosi, one of Le Marche's prominent producers, hosted a virtual tasting, providing four of their wines to attendees to try at home. The session was hosted by Lora Donadoni, aka The Italian Wine Girl. 

Before we go into Velonosi's lovely wines, let's take a closer look at Le Marche, the wine region.

Le Marche: Between the Mountains and the Sea

The Marche region stretches along the Adriatic coast of eastern Italy, and borders Umbria and Tuscany to the west, Emilia Romagna to the north, and Lazio and Abruzzo to the south. While the region touches on so many other regions, it has a distinct quality of its own based on its proximity to the sea and the mountains, as well as its soils and topography. The region features 15 DOCs and three DOCGs. The largest and most productive DOC is that of Verdicchio de Castelli di Jesi. 

Marche's location in Italy (see map) is part of the reason it has not became as well known as regions like Tuscany and Venezio, as it is off the main transport spine going up and down Italy. While the north has Venice and the south has Rome, there are no world-renowned cities in Le Marche.

It's even hard to gather an abundance of information on Mache as a wine region -- several of my trusted sources do not even have entries for this region. For example, The Wine Bible skips right over Marche, listing only Verdicchio Bianco as "simple clean white wines in the region known as Marche." Similarly, World Atlas of Wine has no entry for Marche, just a small sub-section in the "Central Italy" chapter that mentioned Verdicchio and the "reds of Marche [based on the Montepulciano and Sangivoese grapes that] have been slower to carve out their identity."

Marche offers wine and so much more. While I have never personally been there, the presentation provided by Velenosi plus Internet research on Marche have whetted my appetite for a post-pandemic visit!

Marche has miles of pristine beaches with world-class resorts and seafood restaurants, historic medieval towns, Romanesque churches, natural preserves and festivities such as the Quintana Palio Joust (a medieval horse racing event). The joust takes place in the beautiful town of Ascoli Piceno, which is 12 miles inland from the Adriatic and in the southern portion of Marche, close to Abruzzo. 

Ascoli Piceno, Home of Velenosi

Ascoli Piceno is the home base of Velenosi, a "self-made winery," per the winery's literature, started in 1984 by Ercole and Angela Velenosi, with little capital or know-how. While they may not be one of the old families of the Italian wine world, today they produce 2.5 million bottles on about 360 acres of vines in Marche, plus an additional 40 acres in Abruzzo.

Velenosi's Ascoli Piceno vines are located on the fertile clay soils in the hills surrounding the Tronto river valley, where the Mediterranean climate provides warm, dry summers and mild, wet winters. 

Velenosi produces a large variety of bottlings, ranging from sparklings to whites, roses, reds and even dessert/sweet wines, as well as Bag in Box wines and olive oils. 

The sparklings are made from Chardonnay, Pinot Nero and the lesser-known Passerina, in Charmat and Traditional method. Still whites include Verdicchio, Pecorino, Chardonnay, Pecorino-Trebbiano blends known as Falerio Bianco, and Passerina. The Rose, or Rosata, is produced from the Montepulciano grape. Reds include Lacrima di Morro d'Alba, a specialty of the Marche, and the Rosso Piceno blends of Montepulciano and Sangiovese. Sweet wines are made with Moscato, Lacrima and Sciroppe di Visciole. 

The WMC Tasting

Four bottles, one white and three reds, were tasted during WMC, in the following order:

2019 Querciantica Verdicchio Dei Castelli Di Jesi DOC Classico 

The wine is 100% Verdicchio, and is grown in the hills of Castelli di Jesi's oldest areas.

This wine really hit the spot on the warm summer night of the tasting. As one fellow WMC attendee stated, it cut right through the humidity. 

Fermented at low temperature, this lovely, feminine white delights the palate with apples, stone fruit, and flowers, and just a slight vegetal note. It was chock full of minerals owing to the clay and limestone soils, with a distinct salinity that, in my mind, tasted of the Adriatic Sea.

Per Donadoni, this wine can age, and pairs well with oysters, crudite, shell fish, and risotto.

The wine retails for $15 to $20.

Querciantica Lacrima Di Morro DOC

This red is 100% Lacrima de Moro d'Alba [note difference in spelling on label vs town's actual name] which, per Wine Grapes, is a recovered local Marche specialty, brought back from near-extinction in 1985. The grapes in this DOC are grown near the town of Moro d'Alba in the northeastern corner of the Verdicchio di Castelli di Jesi zone of Marche.

Lacrima is also known as "red Gewurtztraminer" owing to its perfumed characteristics. It's name means "teardrop" in Italian, which is most likely based on the fact that when ripe, the grapes exude a small drop of juice.

And juicy this wine is, with strawberries and other red fruits, soft tannins and low acid, making it a good pairing with BBQ and Asian food. I really enjoyed this quaffable red, and served slightly chilled, the wine is even better, in my opinion. A delicious summer wine.

At under $20, this delightful red should be bought by the case.

Il Brecciarolo Rosso Piceno DOC Superiore

Il Brecciarolo is 70% Montepulciano and 30% Sangiovese (Rosso Piceno DOC requires a minimum of 35% and maximum of 85%  Montepuliciano and no more than 50% Sangiovese). Unlike the Velenosi's Lacrima, this blend has an unmistakable oak influence. It also has a rich palate of cherry, cocoa, red flowers, and some spicy notes. 

The "superiore" indicates that the grapes are derived from a smaller historic zone with lower yields than non-superiore Rosso Picino wines. 

Distributed widely in the US market, this wine has a ripeness and palate that tells me that if you like big California reds, you will love this wine. 

And the pricing is right at $15-$18.

Rosso Piceno DOC Superiore

This is the big boy of the Velenosi tasting. 

The same blend as the Brecciarolo, this wine is produced from 50-year-old vines, at an altitude of 2100 feet. This wine is even bigger and riper (think ripe plums and cherries) than the former, which is the winemaker's choice, says Donadoni. 

At 14.5% alcohol, and with distinct oak, this wine is not for the faint of heart. 

Again, if you have a California palate, you will love this wine, and it will hold up to the biggest, heartiest meat dish you can serve.

The wine is priced at around $50.

Resources for Velenosi and Le Marche

Once the world opens up for safe travels again, Le Marche will be a the top of my list of wine regions to visit -- for its wines, its cuisine, it's history, its natural beauty, and its off-the-beaten-path qualities. In the meantime, I will continue my armchair travels, using the following resources:

Learn more about Velenosi at

Check out Italian Wine Girl's blog at

And for general Le Marche, I found the following sites useful:

Until next time, Ciao!

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!