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

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Italy's Reds & Whites Delight at Marino Ristorante

Wine refreshes the stomach, sharpens the appetite,

 blunts care and sadness, and conduces to slumber.

-- Pliny the Elder

I learned during my years-long study to achieve my WSET Diploma that Italy did not become a nation state, or one unified country, until 1861. This had never sunk in during my high school history classes; it was only when I began studying about Italian wine that I learned that prior to 1861, and after the fall of Rome in the fifth century, Italy was a fragmented collection of numerous, politically divided city states, often at war with one another. Once united, however, Italy faced other obstacles, including two world wars and its own civil war, before ultimately surviving as a democracy and a European power.

In spite of its disruptive history, Italy has consistently been producing killer wines dating back to ancient times. In fact, there is some belief that the first vitis vinifera vines were grown in Italy, although there are some folks in Spain, Greece, and Georgia (the Eastern European one) who would strongly object to this notion!

Regardless, it's safe to say that Italy has been producing wine for thousands of years, in all its different regions, and is much glorified in wine circles throughout the world. The popularity of Italian wine  amongst the clientele of The Wine House in West Los Angeles, where I am employed, is pretty amazing. Folks love Italy, Italian food, and especially Italian wine. Our Italian tasting events usually sell out pretty quickly (in non-COVID times!).

LA Wine Writers recently spent a lunch hour at Marino's Restaurant in Los Angeles, hosted by Bethany Burke of Taub Family Selections & Palm Bay International, where she presented a tour of Italy via the wines of four producers that she represents. We "traveled" up and down the boot of Italy, from Piedmont to Sicily. It was a nice reminder of how diverse and good Italian wines, both red and white, can be, and also how reasonably priced.

(From top left, clockwise) Bethany Burke of Taub Family Selections;
Torbato sparkling wine; the day's white selections; Chef Sal Marino's first course.

Here's what was tasted:

The Whites, and Bubbles

From producer Sella & Mosca, whose estate is on the island of Sardinia, we tasted three wines, two of them whites. First there was Torbato Brut Alghero DOC sparkling wine, made with 100% Torbato, produced using the Charmat method. Turbato is an indigenous grape to Sardinia (although some say it's originally from Spain), and it's been revived on the island. It's made in both still and sparkling, and this sparkling was just lovely, especially on a warm September day in LA. It's also well priced at around $21, and is a perfect aperitif wine.

Also from Sella & Mosca was the 2020 Monteoro Vermentino di Gallura Superiore DOCG, from the northeast section of the island of Sardinia. This area experiences hot days and cool nights, which are perfect conditions for this grape. A lovely summer sipper with crisp acidity, and well priced at around $24.

Like Sella & Mosca, Mastroberardino is responsible for the revival of indigenous grape varieties, but in the Campania region of central Italy. First up was 2019 Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Biano DOC. The wine is 100% Coda di Volpe, Italian for "tail of the fox," so named because of the long pendulous bunches these grapes grow in. And ever the romantic language, Lacryma Christi is Italian for "tears of Christ." This is a citrusy, spicy white with medium acidity, priced at about $20.

Also from Mastroberardino was the 2019 Fiano di Avellino DOCG, a more full-bodied white, with notes of almonds, citrus, flowers, and herbs. It's priced at about $22. 

At just 12.5% abv, these beautiful wines paired beautifully with Chef Sal Marino's starter courses of tuna tartar and salad. 

The Reds

After the appetizers and whites, things got seriously red, with three Chianti Classicos and three Nebbiolos. 

From Tuscany, the wines of Rocca delle Macie showcased the beauty of Sangiovese in its various iterations of Chianti Classicos. The Zingarelli family runs this vineyard, which was started by the late Italo Zingarelli of "spaghetti western" fame in 1973, when he moved from making moves to making wine. His son and his family now run the operation, and are active in the Chianti Classico growers' consortium.

The red wines and their pairings.

The 2018 Chianti Classico DOCG Tenuta Sant'Alfonso features 100% estate Sangiovese, and is aged in French oak for a year (retail price $28). The 2018 Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva Familia Zingarelli is a fine example of the Riserva style, which means the wine has spent at least two years in oak and at least three months aging in the bottle (retail price $28). The 2018 Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva di Fizzano Gran Selezione is the historic cru of the winery, and a fine example of this fairly new category of Chianti Classic, which is above Riserva (retail price $41). The additional requirements above Riserva are .5% more minimum alcohol and 30 months aging, as opposed to 24 months. Paired with Chef Sal's red-sauce pasta and braised lamb with polenta, these were just spectacular wines for the money, and a good lesson on Chianti Classico wines.

Moving to Piedmont, in Northern Italy, we got into the Nebbiolos, one of my favorite grapes. This lighter-bodied wine was presented in three versions, all 100% Nebbiolo, in various vintages, from Beni di Batasiolo, a Dogliani family winery. First up was 2017 Barbaresco DOCG (retail price $40), aged 12 months in Solvenian and French oak plus 12 months in stainless steel. The 2016 Barolo DOCG is a mixture of all five of Batasiolo's vineyards, aged in Slovenian oak for 24 months plus 12 months in stainless steel (retail price $42). Finally, there's the lovely 2013 Barolo DOCG Briccolina, also aged 24 months in French oak and 12 more in stainless steel (retails for $115). Briccolina is a Barolo Cru, in the village of Serralunga. This absolutely elegant wine displayed a brown-tinged garnet color, and aromas of flowers, herbs, berries, delicate spices. The tannins are integrated and lovely on the palate. 

Bonus Reds and Truffle Pizza

Chef Sal shaves truffles onto pizza, served with big bold reds.

From Sella & Mosca there was the 2014 Marchese di Villamarina Alghero DOC 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. And no Italian wine tasting would be complete without an Aglianico from Mastroberardino. We had the 2011 "Naturalis Historia" Taurasi DOCG. Of note, and because I like quoting Pliny the Elder, this wine is named after his magnum opus. It's a single-vineyard, old-vine, manually harvested wine, there's no doubt that this chewy, dark, opulent wine could age for another 50 years. It retails for about $114.

Until next time,

In vino sanitas!

Helpful Links

Marino Ristorante:; Facebook @marinoristorante
Winery Twitter: @mastroberardinowinery; @sellaemosca; @roccadellemacie; @batasiolvini
Winery Facebook: @mastroberardinovineyards; @sellaemosca; @roccadellamacie; @bastasiolo
Taub Family Selections: @taubfamilyselections (Facebook & Twitter)
Palm Bay International: @palmbayinternational (Facebook & Twitter)

The Wine House, which has a huge selection of Italian wines:
To search for any wine try:

Monday, September 27, 2021

Applegate Valley's Troon Vineyard Leads in Sustainability

Soon after I visited Southern Oregon as part of the 2021 Wine Media Conference (WMC21) this summer, the Oregon Wine Board released the 2020 Vineyard and Winery Report, which confirmed some of the thoughts I had during my weeklong visit to this beautiful wine region. Some of my thoughts were not so good, based on the horrific wildfires and oppressive heat that were making their presence known in the form of smoky skies and parched fields. But most of my thoughts were positive, based on the fact that my eyes were opened to a whole world of wine possibilities, including the impressive organic/biodynamic/sustainability movement among vineyards in Oregon, as well as the plethora of grape varieties that the Southern Oregon climate is capable of growing successfully.

Some of the key findings of the report, which can be found in full here, support the fact that 2020 was a bad year for Oregon wine, just as it was for most of the world. COVID and wildfires are the main culprits, and both factors were omnipresent in my travels through the region. Statistically, per the report, there was a downward slide in yield per acre (-24%), grape production (-29%), and direct-to-consumer sales (-27%). Factors for these, in order, were a cooler spring, September wildfires, and COVID-caused tasting room closures.

But there were some bright spots, and they point to a rosier future for Oregon wines, although climate-change factors and pandemic-related issues are unpredictable and could have continuing negative effects. That being said, per the report, there were increases in total acreage planted, grape tonnage (particularly in Rogue and Columbia River regions), national sales (both within and outside the state), and international sales.

The state currently has 995 wineries, up 10% from 2019, and not surprisingly the bulk of them are in the Northern Willamette Valley. However, Southern Oregon's Rogue Valley AVA  (which includes the Applegate Valley AVA) saw a healthier growth of 12%, bringing the total of wineries to 122.

In my last post, several of the Rouge/Applegate Valley vintners were mentioned, and this highlighted the great variety of varieties that these AVAs are producing, with most of the vineyards using fairly robust sustainability practices. My previous post on Cowhorn Vineyards is a good example of this push toward a "closed-loop" farming system.

There were several other Southern Oregon wineries that provided the WMC attendees with a focused look at the area. Of note is Troon Vineyard, a recognized leader in the sustainability world. Following is a closer look at Troon.

Troon Vineyard

The hospitality and information provided by Troon General Manager Craig Camp was beyond compare. This industry veteran and his team set up a four-part tour of the Troon estate in Grants Pass, Oregon. My tour started in the barrel room, moving on to the vineyard and its terroir, the composting facilities, and finally the viticulture practices. The day was complete with a multi-course dinner cooked by local chefs and accompanied by Troon wines. Talk about a wine geek's perfect day!

All quadrants of the tour (on a very hot day with wildfire smoke in the air no less!) provided insights into the factors that contribute to Troon Vineyard achieving Regenerative Organic Certified farm status, being the second winery in the US to do so (Tablas Creek in Paso Robles, CA is the other one). Troon Vineyard is also Demeter Biodynamic certified.

Following are some facts learned about Troon on this tour.
(From top left) Amphorae in the barrel room make orange wine from Vermentino; cowhorns in Troon's biodynamic arsenal; General Manager Craig Camp with vineyard dogs; Kubli Bench soils of granite loam.

In the Barrel Room

  • All native yeast is used, there is no "legacy" yeast. It's winemaker Nate Wall's belief that the wine is made in the vineyard, and his "minimalist" style prevails.
  • Amphorae are used for Troon's orange Vermentino, which Wall says grows perfectly on the estate. The clay vessels are made by Andrew Beckham of Beckham Estate Vineyard in Sherwood, OR, who is a ceramics instructor as well as a winemaker. The vessels are unglazed and unsealed, allowing for the right amount of oxidation of the wines. Vermentino is Troon's only grape fermented in the amphorae; the grapes sit for three weeks on their skins to produce an orange wine.
  • No new oak is used at Troon, and the newest oak barrel is third fill; barrels are used up to 7 times.
  • Wall would love to use a concrete egg, but so far has not.
  • Most of Troon's wines are Mediterranean varieties. Estate-grown grapes include Vermentino, Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier, Syrah, Grenache, Primitivo, Tinta Roriz, and Tennat.
  • Piquette, or "frugal farmer fizz," per the Troon Web site, is made when the leftover juice and skins are pressed again for a light, fizzy, quaffable wine. We were served this at the end of our tour, pre-dinner (see photo below). Called Piquette!, this 2020 vintage was a delicious aperitif on a very hot day in August.

In the Vineyard

  • Troon's 100-acre vineyard is part of the Applegate Valley AVA, and is situated at 1300 to 1400 feet elevation.
  • The property sits on the Kubli Bench, a geologic plateau of sorts that part of the Siskiyou mountain range, and which has its own meso-climate. The vineyard gets more wind and sun than other parts of the Applegate Valley.
  • The soils are granite loam, pushed up by tectonic plates that collided thousands of years ago.
  • Owners Brian & Denise White bought the vineyard three years ago from Dick Troon, who planted in 1972. In 2017 the Whites implemented the robust biodynamic program which, among other things, meant pulling out diseased old vines and replanting with new vine and new varieties.
  • The vineyard has a thriving native garden and they are moving toward a permanent cover crop, which includes rye and fescue, which increases the earth's ability to hold water. Sheep have been added to the farm's animal life, and they forage on the cover crops.

Composting & Viticulture

  • Troon Vineyard has a 3,000 square composting area, which is managed by Andrew Beedy, an Organic and Biodynamic farming consultant, who has implemented a robust biodynamic program. Beedy also consults with Cowhorn Vineyard, which also has an impressive biodynamic program (read about it here).
  • The vineyards have been managed by viticulturist Jason Cole of Pacific Crest Management since 2018. He also manages about 10 other Oregon properties.) 
  • Cole has slowly transitioned the Troon property to young vines, pulling out the old vines post-harvest when the soils are dry.
  • The goal with water (which appears to be getting scarcer year by year) is to become "off-dry,"
    says Cole. The young vines require more water in their youth, but as they age they will require less.

Dinner by Fire + Wine

Mary Cressler and Sean Martin of Vindulge not only presented us with a copy of their newly published cookbook Fire + Wine, they also barbecued each and every course of our open-air dinner, from appetizers to dessert. Capping the evening, the aforementioned winds did sweep in, although not as robustly as per usual on this very warm evening. 
(From top left) Troon at sunset; Troon's Piquette! 2020; Fire + Wine cookbook authors Sean and Mary Cressler.

Until next time,


Useful Links

Travel Southern Oregon Web site:

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Rogue Valley, Oregon: A Little Wine With Your Shakespeare

The recently held Wine Media Conference (WMC) 2021 brought wine writers to Eugene, Oregon, this year, and as always, the excursion prior to the main event was a highlight, providing an in-depth discovery of one specific region in the state. Along with about 25 other wine writers, I chose to take a closer look at Southern Oregon's Rogue Valley, about which I knew very little. 

About three hours by bus from Eugene, the Rogue Valley, along with neighboring Applegate Valley, sits just above the northern California border in Oregon. The destination town for the wine media was Ashland, Oregon, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the gorgeous old Ashland Springs Hotel, where we stayed. Dating from 1925, and originally known as the Lithia Springs Hotel, this nine-story hotel boasted that it was "the tallest building between Portland and San Francisco," and brought European elegance to the area, known for the gold rush, mineral springs, and the Chautauqua lecture series, which were an educational/self-improvement movement popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (they are still on-going in NY State). The facility for the Chatauqua meetings became the present-day facilities of the popular Shakespeare Festival. Tudor-style themes dominate the town as an homage to Shakespeare.

The hotel was refurbished in the 1990s with a "cabinet-of-curiosities concept based on education and travel," per an Architectural Digest interview with its owners Doug and Becky Neuman. I was personally intrigued by the hotel's lobby with its magnificent display cases of the aforementioned curiosities (see photos below).

The Ashland Springs Hotel has a "cabinet of curiosities" design inside, and a beautiful art-deco exterior.

Rogue Valley Wineries

At a reception in the Ashland Springs's beautiful cobblestone patio and flower garden (which replaced a pool during restoration), several knowledgeable representatives of Southern Oregon organizations extended their hospitality and welcome to the writers. Among them were Lanessa Pierce, author of "What to Do in Southern Oregon;" Gina Bianco, Executive Director of Rogue Valley Vintners; Bob Hackett, Executive Director of Travel Southern Oregon; Dana Keller, Director of Food & Beverage at Rogue Creamery; Chris Spirko, GM/CFO of Sharffen Berger chocolates; and representatives of 10 area wineries.

Following are the wineries, and their wines, in the order they presented, with just a few notes on each. Each wine was paired with cheese, chocolate, or a delicacy from Lark's, the restaurant in the Ashland Springs Hotel.

Hummingbird Estate: 2020 White Pinot Noir, a white wine from a red grape, retails at $32 a bottle. Hummingbird has a tasting room and Bed & Breakfast on their property, and they also produce three different wines in a can, a growing trend.

Dwell Wines: Based in Applegate Valley, Dwell is a woman-owned winery, and her plans are to open a  tasting room in January 2022. The wines are made at Barrel 42, an off-premise facility. We tasted their 2020 Rose of Pinot Noir

Coventina Vineyards: The 2017 Chardonnay, priced at $20 a bottle. The name is from the Celtic for purification and regeneration. Their wines are also made off-premise at Barrel 42.

Irvine & Roberts: 2018 Estate Chardonnay, $35 a bottle. Winemaker Vince Vidrine explained that he does one early pick of grapes which produce crisp clear juice, and one later pick, which produces a richer, rounder juice with high sugar, and he combines these in barrel for this estate wine.

Foris: "Meticulously crafted. Amazing Affordable." This phrase comes from their Web site, but everyone at this event was floored by the $20 price tag on the very good 2019 Foris Rogue Valley Pinot Noir. Founded in 1974 by Ted Gerber, an early pioneer of the west side of the Rogue AVA, the winery has 40-year-old vines featuring the heritage varieties of Oregon: Riesling, Gewurtztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay. Like Barra of Mendocino (see story here), Gerber owns his land and chooses to pass on the concomitant savings to his customers. 

Naumes: 2018 Barbera, $40. This was paired with Rogue Creamery Caveman Bleu Cheese, which would taste good with just about anything, in my opinion, but the Barbera was delicious with it. Naumes also produces sparkling wines, a growing category in Oregon.

Quady North: 2018 GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre), $25. Herb Quady is the son of the Quady wine family, known for their sweet red and white wines made from Muscat grapes in California's Central Valley. The family purchased Oregon property and Herb now makes Rhone-ish and Loire-ish style wines (his words). Quady noted that the Mourvedre in the Rogue is lighter in style, but still maintains the "funk" that is its hallmark, and that the Syrah is the "glue" in his GSM that does well in just about every vintage.  

RoxyAnn Winery: Claret is RoxyAnn's signature red wine, and the 2017 Claret is composed of 40% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, and the rest Cab Franc and Malbec. The winery is on the site of one of the oldest orchards in Oregon, dating back to 1908 as the Hillcrest Orchard, which is on the National Registry of Historic Places. The propety has 3 VRBO properties, and features a 120-year-old horse barn tasting room, which is open 7 days a week, and is also "kid friendly."

Weisinger Family Wines: While Eric Weisinger's father, a pioneer of the Rogue Valley, felt Gewürztraminer was the future of Southern Oregon when he first began growing grapes, it didn't quite turn out that way, and the son was pouring his 2018 Tempranillo for us wine writers. This grape is the easiest to grow on their property, says Eric, and since he is a self-proclaimed "lazy winemaker," that suits him fine! (There will be more on Weisinger in a future post, as they hosted an in-depth tasting for WMC 21 attendees.)

Belle Fiore: This producer has the most opulent estate, comprising a French-style chateau with magnificent views of the Ashland area, and offers private tastings by appointment in their Italianate tasting room. They grow 15 different varieties and have three distinct labels, of which the Belle Fiore Winery brand is one. The 2016 Numinos wine, poured for us, is a Bordeaux blend, with 54% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cab Franc, 9% Merlot, and some Malbec and Petit Verdot to round out the blend, which retails for $49.

Foods of Southern Oregon

Not to be overlooked or overshadowed were the food pairings for the above wines. Lark's chef prepared gorgeous small plates, and Rogue Creamery provided their award-winning cheeses. 

Another presenter was Chris Spirko of Scharffen Berger, the company known for producing baking chocolate. Spirko explained how this 25-year-old company was sold to Hershey 15 years ago, and purchased back from them in 2020. They are developing a "bean to bar" facility in Ashland, Oreg., employing 25 people, and at the time of this tasting in early August 2021 they were doing first trials of their products. Baking chocolate is a majority of their business, and they have partnerships with chefs and bakeries.

"Team Oregon"

Going into this excursion, I believed that as a Southern Oregon winery, it must be a constant thought that you are living in the shadow of your northern neighbors in the Willamette Valley with their world-famous Pinot Noirs and 700+ wineries. 

I was wrong. Per Herb Quady of Quady North, it's not a South vs. North mentality in the Rogue, in fact "I'm Team Oregon," he says. The Rogue Valley is a newer wine region, with more freedom and openness, with a youthful character, and presenting different opportunities. We certainly saw that in our visit with Cowhorn, with two women in their twenties as owner and winemaker (see my last post).

I also wanted to know what the signature wines of Southern Oregon are, assuming they were like Willamette Valley in this respect. It turns out that this is no signature wine, or signature grape, or even signature influence (i.e., French, Italian, Spanish, etc.). We sampled Sauvignon Blancs, Viogniers, Rieslings, Gewurtztraminers, Grenaches, Pinot Blancs, Chardonnays, Barberas, Cabernet Sauvignons, Pinot Noirs, Tempranillos, Mourvedres, Bordeaux blends, Carmeneres ... a veritable kitchen-sink of wines. 

And the wines are good ... no tasting notes to share, but I have a fairly trained palette and I know good wine when I drink it. And there is so much value wine, or bang-for-the-buck wines. Most of the wineries we visited sell direct to consumer either via Internet sales or wine club, so check them out via the links above.

I've also never seen a region that is so conscious of the environment, with the words organic, biodynamic, and sustainability on the lips of just about every owner/winemaker. The farm-to-table movement is also vibrant, with mouthwatering world-class food available. 

Southern Oregon deserves a closer look ... and possibly an extended vacation. In addition to the wineries and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, there are lakes, caves, mountain trails, and much more to see. If you do go, see below for some important links. 

Until next time,


Important Links:

Travel Southern Oregon:

Ashland Springs Hotel:

Rogue Valley Vintners:

Rogue Valley Wine Country:

Rogue Creamery (they have tours):

Scharffenberger Chocolate:

Oregon Shakespeare Festival:

For ideas on things to do with a family:

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Cowhorn Vineyards of Southern Oregon: Moo-ving the Needle on Biodynamics

This year's in-person Wine Media Conference finally landed us attendees in Southern Oregon. Postponed for a year due to COVID, the annual event never fails to impress and amaze, giving us the opportunity to dive deep into a wine region ...  usually one that I've never been to. Southern Oregon gets overshadowed by the northern Willamette Valley, known primarily for its Pinot Noirs. My Oregon Pinot Camp experience in the summer of 2018 opened my eyes to these beautiful wines, as well as the Willamette's Rieslings, Chardonnays, Pinot Gris.

But Southern Oregon is a different place. Sitting between two mountain ranges, the Cascades to the east and the Coastal Range to the west, it encompasses the Rogue, Applegate, and Umpqua valleys, extending from the northern California border up to the beautiful city of Eugene, which lies in Lane County and sits in the southern tip of the Willamette Valley. 

The wines of Southern Oregon are a world of different grapes from the Northern Willamette. You'll find Rhone varieties, Spanish varieties, Italian varieties and many more. In fact, the South cannot be summed up with one grape the way its northern counterpart can. At #wmc21 we were treated to Tempranillos, Mourvedres, Viogniers, Gewurtztraminers, Marsannes, Roussannes, Syrahs, Carmeneres, Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs, Pinot Blancs (one of my favorites!), Grenaches, and more. Additionally, there is an enthusiastic embrace among the wineries of biodynamic, regenerative, and organic agriculture, as well as natural winemaking. Yes, orange wines are plentiful here!

Cowhorn Vineyard & Gardens

Owner Katherine "Mini" Banks (upper left)  and winemaker Sarah Thompson (bottom middle). The "little homes" for Grenache are seen in the photo on upper right.

One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden. This Biodynamic and Organic property changed ownership in April 2021, and is now owned and operated by Katherine "Mini" Banks, who put together a team of of young, energetic, forward-thinking vineyard workers. The team's enthusiastic and warm embrace of our group of wine writers was much appreciated.

Our day started with one of the most in-depth tours of a vineyard property I've had, led by Banks and winemaker Sarah Thompson. We learned about the the #500 (horn manure) and #501 (horn silica) preparations for biodynamic farming, which Banks says are the most critical for creating, maintaining, and enriching the soils in a vineyard. The #500 spray is a "tea" preparation created from the rich hummus made over the winter months in the horns of cows buried in the ground, containing nutrient-rich cow dung. This tea is spread on the vineyard soils in the spring during bud-break. The #501 spray is a silica solution made from ground up quartz and water. It's sprayed onto the vines, giving them a light-reflective coating, which helps with photosynthesis and disease prevention, among other good things.

In the vineyard, we saw "happy" vines (see photo below), or "Dr. Seuss vines," as Banks describes them. This is due to the head training favored by the vineyard, which they believe makes the vines self-sufficient as their roots need to go deeper to "ground" themselves. Thompson and team use natural sissal twine to help stabilize the vines when winds come in, which occurs daily late in the afternoon in Applegate Valley. These winds are brought in on a natural funnel off the ocean, which is about a four-hour drive away. These winds were especially helpful this summer to help blow out the fire smoke that was invading all of Southern Oregon in August, due to the horrific wildfires to the east of Cowhorn. 

Of particular interest was the "little homes" vine management project that Thompson and Banks are testing, whereby the stray vines are tucked into the main part of the plant (see image above), which they believe signals to the plants that they have enough sunlight. They will see over time if this creates more or less sunburn on the vines and how the vines will react to this system in a rainy year. I hope to revisit this issue in a couple years.

One of Cowhorn's goals is to become completely dry-farmed. They currently irrigate, and have sprinklers in the vineyards for frost mitigation. Their watering is done at long intervals, as they want the grapes to be "stressed" to be healthier. 

The vineyard also features an asparagus field, which in April through June produces about 1,000 pounds per week. The asparagus ferns are harvested after growing season and re-seeded for the following year's crop. Additionally, lavender fields attract a variety of pollinator bees, and blackberry bushes and oak trees (brought back to life since new ownership took over) round out the polyculture estate that Cowhorn is creating to reach their biodynamic, self-sustainable goals. The future goals, in order to make the property into a closed loop, is to house employees on the property and have the farm animals reside there as well. Currently the cow manure is brought in from Rogue Creamery an organic creamery nearby that produces Rogue River Blue, which was named World Champion Cheese at the 2019/2010 World Cheese Awards in Bergamo, Italy, a first for an American cheese. This was probably the best cheese I've ever eaten.

Cowhorn currently has 117 acres of vineyard area, not all of which is planted, with 90% planted to Syrah, and the remaining parcels planted to Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache, Mourvedre, and Tempranillo. 

Asparagus ferns sway in the wind (top left); lavender fields attract pollinating bees (top right),
and happy Grenache vines reach for the sky (bottom).

The Wines ... and Lunch

The above-mentioned Rogue Creamery Blue wrapped in Cowhorn Syrah Leaves with Crips was the first course in the splendid luncheon provide by Chef Kristen Lyon of Jefferson Farm Kitchen. This luncheon was served with several Cowhorn Wines which, because of the recent change in ownership, are the offspring of the previous owners, which Banks has inherited. There will be more wines coming from new winemaker Sarah Thompson, which she says will likely have less new oak and more whole-cluster fermentation. 
(clockwise from top left): Cowhorn's 2020 Grenache Rose; Mini Banks doles out barrel samples
of the 2019 Syrah; lunch overlooking the vineyard; the barrel room

We sampled the following wines:

2020 Grenache Rose -- tasted as beautiful as it looks in the photo above!
2014 Reserve Viognier -- luscious and lovely.
2014 Grenache -- lively, youthful, full of fruit and acid.
2020 Spiral 36, a Rhone style blend of Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne -- class Rhone white blend, crisp and fresh, with mouth-coating viscosity. $28 retail
2019 Reserve Syrah, as a barrel sample -- I see the potential for this once bottled (which was to happen August 10th, right after our visit) and aged for another year. Lovely fruit popping through.

While I did not get pricing for most of the above wines, and the Cowhorn site does not list these, I was told by Mimi that the 2019 Estate Syrah will be about $50 and the Reserve will be about $75. 

Cowhorn is a winery to watch going forward. Banks and Thompson, along with co-owner Grant Gustofson, make a dynamic team, and with Raj Parr consulting, you know good things are still to come. If you are going to Oregon, plan a visit, but be sure to make an appointment, as that's the only way to get in. Hours are listed at

Important links:  -- to purchase wine and make an appointment -- to purchase some of the best cheese in the world! -- Rogue Valley Wine Country website -- Travel Southern Oregon website, for other things to do and see -- to help you get around while doing your wine tours -- to learn more about biodynamic sprays and manures

Until next time,



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,