Gabriel Boudier Saffron Infused Gin

Gabriel Boudier Saffron Infused GinIn 1909, Gabriel Boudier took over the house of Fontbonne, founded in 1874, and renamed it after himself. He established the business at Boulevard de Strasbourg in Dijon, France, where it continued to thrive until his death in 1918.

In 1936, his widow sold the house to Marcel Battault, who decided not to change the trading name because of its high-quality reputation, He, in turn, handed the business to his nephew Pierre in 1941. In the years since, four more Battaults, Jean, Yves, Francois, and Claire have joined the firm and enjoyed the company’s penchant for nepotism.

Boudier makes a comprehensive line of Crème de Cassis de Dijon, for which they are most famous, Crème de Fruits, eaux de vie (unaged brandy), liqueurs, and the saffron-infused gin which we’re focusing on here.

Introduced in to the US market in 2008, Boudier Saffron Infused Gin is based on a artisanal colonial French recipe rediscovered in the Boudier archives. It is distilled in small batches using a traditional pot still.

The saffron in this dramatically golden-orange-hued gin is more subtle than its appearance suggests (it is artificially colored). The saffron adds a nuanced spiciness and slightly-honeyed balance to the traditional gin botanicals of juniper, coriander, lemon, orange peel, and fennel.

What to do with this unusual spirit?  Here’s one idea:

Saffron Peach Cocktail

3 oz. GB Saffron gin
1 oz. peach syrup
1/2 oz. fresh lemon juice
1/4 oz. agave nectar
Shake and garnish with a fresh peach slice.

A few other ways to enjoy this unique gin are ‘up’ in a martini glass (skip the vermouth); on the rocks; mixed with tonic and garnished with an orange wedge; or to put a new twist on a Negroni. 80 proof.

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Maxville Winery

Maxville Lake WineryMad Max(ville)

The 1000-acre Maxville  Winery’s Napa Valley estate is located in the Chiles Valley AVA, in the Vaca Mountains, running parallel to and northeast of the Silverado Trail. The property was first planted to grape vines in 1974; today Maxville has over 100 acres of vineyard located at elevations between 900 and 1,200 feet. The volcanic soils provide a prime growing condition for wines, and Maxville practices sustainable dry farming methods in order to preserve the integrity of the property.

With a cooler microclimate than the main Napa Valley floor, afternoons are still sunny and warm, but nighttime temperatures plunge. This encourages full phenolic maturity, giving the grapes the potential of tremendous complexity.

In 1996, a new tasting room and barrel ageing facility was built, and it was extensively remodeled in 2016.

Under the owners that acquired the property in 2014, Executive Winemaker Camille Benitah began an extensive redevelopment and restoration of both the vineyards and the riparian corridors. “The Chiles Valley is real and rural and absolutely awe-inspiring,” says Benitah. “This is really an undiscovered part of the Napa Valley – it has so much history, but it’s also still pristine.”

Maxville Sauvignon Blanc 2014

This pale straw-colored wine is made from 100% estate-grown Musqué clone grapes. The nose expresses aromas of lemon cream and guava. The lemon notes continue on the palate, supported by by citrus and pear flavors. The acidity is well-integrated, and the finish is full-bodied and long.

Unusually, the wine was then aged three ways using a concrete egg, stainless steel, and barrels. The components were aged sur lies for eight-months before blending and bottling.

Although delicious now, this Sauvignon Blanc could last up to 10 years in the cellar, if you can wait that long. Not me.

Pair this selection with shellfish and potatoes à la Marinière, butter-poached lobster with tarragon and champagne, or grilled scallops with Rémoulade sauce.

Maxville Cabernet Sauvignon 2014

This Cabernet presents with a deep garnet hue and aromas of cedar and dark fruit. The flavor is fruit-forward, dominated by blackberry, cassis, and currant, supported by hints of chocolate, spice, and toasted oak. It’s all wrapped up with tightly wound tannins, zippy acidity and a long full finish. Decant (for at least two hours) now to make the aromatics more accessible, or let it rest for up to 15 years if you like a softer character.

This Cab underwent a seven-day cold-soak followed by a warm fermentation. The wine was left on skins for one week after primary fermentation finished. Malolactic fermentation was done in barrel; spending 18 months in 60% new French oak barrels.

This wine yearns for robust dishes like Bistecca alla Fiorentina; Provençal rack of lamb; or spit-roasted piri-piri chicken.

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Cusumano Winery

Cusumano WineryLeave the Gun.
Take the Cannoli.

Sicily is the island at the tip of the toe of Italy’s “boot.” It is the biggest island in the Mediterranean, and Italy’s biggest wine-producing region, with over 325,000 acres under vine. However, much of this fruit is distilled into spirits, especially grappa.

The Cusumano Winery is located in Partinico, in Sicily’s far northwestern corner. Relatively new, the winery was established in 2001 when brothers Alberto and Diego took over the management of the company from their father, Francesco. With the help of an intimate knowledge of the Sicilian terrain and consulting winemaker Mario Ronco, the Cusumano brothers today own over 400 hectares (nearly 1,000 acres) of vineyards, and include three separate estates:

Ficuzza, at nearly 2,000 feet above sea level, has 467 acres planted 70 percent to white grape varieties, including the white grape Insolia.

The 346-acre San Giacomo estate is noted for the white color of the “trubi,” the mineral-rich soils that combine lime, clay, and sand. Reds dominate here, with the Sicilian classic Nero d’Avola a key player.

Presi e Pegni is the smallest of the estates at 173 acres. Among the grapes grown here are Nero d’Avola, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot.

Cusumano’s wines are all estate grown and harvested by hand, and are crafted in the ‘new’ Sicilian style that is typified by varietal expression and rich flavors.

Since 2013, Cusumano has been a part of the Terlato Wines empire. “We’re proud to welcome a family-owned Sicilian brand into our portfolio,” Chief Executive Officer William A. Terlato said. “Our own family heritage is Sicilian, so this is an opportunity to reconnect with that legacy.”

The stated philosophy behind Cusumano has been to emphasize the importance of terroir knowledge, invest in innovative technology, and nurture a passion for winemaking.

As a unique touch, in the Sicilian tradition these wines are not sealed with a cork, but rather with a clear-glass stopper.

Cusumano Insolia 2014

100% Insolia, this golden-hued wine hails from Ficuzza, Cusumano’s largest vineyard. The aroma features pineapple, citrus peel, and soft floral accents.

Flavors of pears and tart apples and are evident on the palate. It is mildly acidic with a medium body and a decent, if short, finish. If you like Vinho Verde, Sauvignon Blanc, or citrus-forward Chardonnays, you’ll enjoy this, I think.

Try this summer sipper with Risotto with Spring Vegetables, Tomato, and Basil;Pan-Roasted Mackerel with Rosemary and Garlic; or Fricasseed Chicken with Egg and Lemon.

Cusumano Nero D’Avola 2014

Nero D’Avola (also called Calabrese) is Sicily’s most widely-planted red grape. This one is garnet in the glass, with a nose of red and black raspberries. The taste is fruit-forward (rather unusual for an old-world wine), with medium tannins, a hint of cocoa and earth, and plummy spice flavors.

Enjoy this red with Pan-Fried Beef Braciole Filled with Cheese and Ham; Meatballs and Tomatoes; or Drunk Roast Pork.

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Boutari Winery

Boutari WineryIt’s Greek to Me

If you’re a fan of Greek food, and the wines that go with them, you have probably already sampled a few bottles from the ubiquitous house of Boutari, the world’s number-one selling Greek wine.

The Boutari Company was established in 1879 by Yiannis Boutari in Naoussa on 124 acres, making it one of Greece’s oldest purveyors of fine wine. With decades of experience and business acumen, it is one of the top wineries in Greece. Boutari wines are exported to over 45 countries and have won over 370 medals in international wine competitions.

Boutari was the first and only Greek winery to ever win the award “European Winery of the Year” from Wine Enthusiast, after evaluating its performance in winemaking over time.

Although a producer with a long tradition, Boutari isn’t bound by it. They have embraced modern international winemaking techniques, such as the use of stainless steel, cold-temperature fermentation, and French-oak barrel aging. They strive to get the most from both indigenous Greek and French grape varieties.

The extensive Boutari holdings are comprised of six wineries in Greece: Naoussa, Santorini, Peloponissos, Crete, Goumenissa, and Attica, and one winery in Southern France, near the city of Limoux. Each winery has its own distinct personality, influenced by the architecture and the atmosphere of the particular region within which it is located.

Boutari Santorini Assyrtiko 2012

The island of Santorini, located in Greece’s Aegean Sea, is a defunct volcanic caldera, and home to some of the oldest vineyards in Greece (at upwards of 300 years).

First comes this wine’s quite pale yellow color in the glass. Next up is a relatively closed nose, with delicate hints of ripe melon. But then things get interesting, with flavors of mango, apple, and grapefruit. There’s a crisp, racy acidity with a suggestion of lemon zest.

This island-born wine practically demands to be paired with seafood, such as Porgies with Avgolemono Sauce, Squid in Wine, or Baked Lobster Tails with Feta, but something like Chicken Breasts in Phylo would be delicious as well.

Boutari Naoussa 2009

This wine hails from Bourtari’s original winery in Naoussa, on the southeastern foothills of Mount Vermio in the northern Macedonia region, about thirty miles northwest of the Aegean Sea. The soils are calcium-rich marl (clay loam), and dampened by abundant rainfall.

Made from 100% Xinomavro, the premier red-wine grape of Greece, Naoussa is all about dry, tart, dark cherry, which dominates in the color; on the nose, which also includes the aromas derived from ageing, cinnamon, and wood; and on the palate. Support comes from a nice acidity and soft, medium-grained tannins. To get the most from this bottle, let it breathe for about 30 minutes, and don’t serve it too warm (i.e. not above 65º F).

Enjoy a glass (or two) of Naoussa with a classic Souvlakia, Pork with Green Olives, or Moussaka with Artichokes.

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WALT Wines

WALT WinesWALT Wines, owned by Kathryn Hall and Craig Hall, is dedicated to the production of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the Pacific Coast, spanning nearly 1000 miles and including Sta. Rita Hills, Sonoma County, Anderson Valley, Napa Valley, and the Willamette Valley. They strive to source top fruit from the most distinctive vineyards; practice precise, non-interventionist winemaking; and focus on limited production. The goal is to allow the wines to naturally and honestly express the character of the sites where the wines are grown.

WALT Wines are named after Kathryn Hall’s parents, Bob and Dolores Walt. They were dedicated wine-grape growers who produced six different varietals that were sold to several well-known wineries. For the Walts, growing grapes was the satisfaction of a hard day’s work and the feeling of peace walking through the vineyard before sunset. Kathryn Hall managed the vineyard operations herself from 1982 until 1992.

In 2010 WALT expanded from grape farming to wine production. Today, the winemaking team is led by Vice President, Winemaking Steve Leveque (who also crafts the HALL Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon wines), and Winemaker Megan Gunderson Paredes. who work in a state-of-the-art winemaking facility aided by a passionate winery staff, and strong vineyard partners.

WALT’s methodology includes: night harvesting; hand sorting every berry; whole cluster pressing of Chardonnay; native yeast fermentation; barrel aging on lees to create more texture, richness, and complexity; and weekly batonnage and topping during the decidedly long malolactic fermentation. The wines are neither fined nor filtered. This can result in a bit of haze, but it is in keeping with the idea that the wine was made with the least intervention and with the highest-quality intentions. By sourcing fruit from quality growers and by utilizing the state-of-the-art winemaking facilities at HALL Wines, they strive to make the best wine possible, while keeping extremely limited production levels.

WALT’s estate vineyard, Bob’s Ranch, was purchased by the Halls in 2014 and is located in the heart of the Petaluma Wind Gap on highway 116 just south of Sebastapol.

WALT Bob’s Ranch Chardonnay 2017

This is primarily Wente clone, which produces mostly small berries, limiting production. There are thirty different blocks at Bobs’ Ranch, with roughly a third planted to Chardonnay.

This wine opens with bright aromas of lemon, apricot, and mango. The palate features an unctious mouthfeel, with flavors of tart citrus and a hint of butter. A near-perfect balance of acidity and creaminess. Super OTW.

Match this wine with grilled Chilean sea bass with citrus-Anaheim salsa; baked monkfish fillets with fines herbes bread crust; or scallops St. Jacques.

WALT Bob’s Ranch Pinot Noir 2017

Cherry cola and black tea express on the nose. Cherry flavors predominate, abetted by dark fruits mingled with raspberry and cinnamon. This is supported by excellent mouthfeel, vibrant minerality, medium acidity, and just a hint of tannins.

Consider serving with balsamic-glazed salmon; chicken with cherry-wine sauce; or Cornish game hens with raspberry gravy.

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Yao Family Wines

Yao Family Wines

In November 2011, then-recently retired NBA star Yao Ming established his new Napa Valley winery, Yao Family Wines. But the story really begins in 2004, when Yao Ming was still in the early stages of his basketball career. Yao’s Houston Rockets teammate Dikembe Mutombo introduced him to the institution of the Texas steakhouse. Over many steak dinners, Dikembe tutored Yao on the magic of a great steak and wine pairing, and Yao became an aspiring wine aficionado.

As he puts it, “A shared bottle of wine reminds me of Chinese meals at home, which are served on what Americans call a “Lazy Susan.” The food is placed in the middle of the table and shared. In the US, each person chooses their own meal, so the wine is what brings people together. It is shared and brings a common element to the meal.”

As Yao broadened his knowledge of wine, he began to learn about the process of winemaking, and grew to appreciate its artisan and natural origins. He visited Napa Valley for the first time in 2009,  where he met with numerous winemakers and industry experts, learning more about the generational and communal nature of Napa. This inspired him to one day establish a winery of his own there.

Yao specifically began to develop a rapport with industry veteran Tom Hinde, now President and Director of Winemaking. From 1997 to 2005, Hinde was General Manager for Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates and helped develop two Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon programs as part of the winemaking teams for Lokoya and Cardinale. Additionally, he supported the winemaking team at Stonestreet Winery and launched Vérité Estate. For seven years, Hinde was General Manager at La Crema and Hartford Family Winery where he helped build La Crema into one of Sonoma County’s most prominent wine producers. They discussed Yao’s passion for wine in general, for the flavor profile of classic Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon in particular, and for Yao’s desire to form a true family project. Yao wanted to develop a winery where everyone involved had a hand in the company vision, the wines created, and the relationships with customers.

They were joined by Larry Bradley, Consulting Viticulturist. He has a strong background in both developing and managing vineyards throughout the world. His particular expertise lies in soils and conservation, and his extensive resume includes vineyard management and viticulture consulting experience with Clos du Val Winery, Clover Hill (Australia), Domaine de Nizas (Languedoc, France), Elyse Winery, Falcor Winery, Flowers Winery, Morisoli Vineyards, Taltarni Winery (Australia) and V. Sattui Winery among others.Yao Ming

The winery launched its first two offerings in December 2011: Yao Ming Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and Yao Ming Napa Valley Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. A second label, Napa Crest, was added in September 2013.

Now-retired wine authority Robert Parker wrote, “I am aware of all the arguments that major celebrities lending their names to wines is generally a formula for mediocrity, but that is not the case with Yao Ming. These are high class wines. The two Cabernets are actually brilliant, and the Reserve bottling ranks alongside just about anything made in Napa.

Yao Ming Napa Valley 2009

This is the winery’s signature wine. It was created to reflect classic Napa Valley winemaking as well as Yao’s personal preference for smooth and balanced Cabernet Sauvignon.

Grapes are sourced from prestigious Napa Valley vineyards with a reputation for top-quality fruit. Fermentation is done using artisanal winemaking techniques, and ageing is up to 18 months in 100% French oak barrels.

This people-pleasin’ potion has a deep ruby hue. It features flavors of cherry, blackberry, and cassis. The oak is well integrated and has a nice toast aroma, with hints of vanilla and wild sage. The wine has plenty of depth and concentration, with supple tannins and balanced acidity. It should still age nicely, but why wait?

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Concannon Vineyard

Concannon VineyardIrish Eyes Are Smiling

The Concannon story began in 1865 when James, then an 18-year-old boy, courageously set sail from the rocky coast of Ireland’s Aran Islands to seek opportunity in America.

Even at such an early age, Concannon recognized that the terroir of the Livermore Valley in California’s central coast region was strikingly similar to the premier vineyards of Bordeaux. So, in 1883 he established Concannon Vineyard with a selection of high-quality vines which he imported directly from Bordeaux, including from renowned Château Margaux and Château d’Yquem.

Concannon worked closely with early California viticulture leaders Charles and Clarence Wetmore to determine if California could be a successful winegrowing region. Their efforts paid off at the 1889 International Paris Exposition when the Livermore Valley became the first American Wine Region to win international gold medal awards, including the Grand Prix.

Captain Joe Concannon (son of James) kept Concannon Vineyard continuously operating throughout the scourge of Prohibition by making and selling sacramental wine. This prevented the destruction of the winery’s 1893 Château Margaux Cabernet Sauvignon root stock and other historic Bordeaux vines.

In the early 1930s, Captain Joe became one of the first in the world to bottle Cabernet Sauvignon as a single varietal wine. During the 1950s, he hired one of the first formally-trained female winemakers, Katherine Vajda, to serve as Concannon’s lead winemaker.

In 1965, grandson Jim collaborated with UC Davis in selecting cuttings from one of Concannon’s Margaux ancient vines. These dynamic, high-quality cuttings became known as Concannon Cabernet Clones 7, 8, and 11. Today, an estimated 80% of California’s Cabernet Sauvignon is planted with Concannon Clones.

In 2008, John Concannon took over the leadership from his father as fourth-generation vintner. In 2009, Concannon Vineyard was one of the first wineries in California to become Certified Sustainable. During this time the estate winery also completed a 10-year revitalization project.

Concannon Chardonnay 2016

The nose of this wine features aromas of honeysuckle and grapefruit. It’s pale yellow color doesn’t prepare you for the unctuous, creamy mouthfeel. The grapefruit repeats on the palate, as well as lemon custard.
Serve this voluptuous and slightly sweet Chardonnay with lemon halibut almondine, salmon à la king, or raisin-turkey surprise.

Concannon Cabernet Sauvignon 2015

An excellent value, this Cabernet is rich garnet in the glass. It greets you with hints of leather and floral notes. Then come flavors of big dark fruit, red plum, and vanilla, supported by balanced acidity and bracing tannins. It ends with a nice long finish.

Try this Cab with Parisian ragout, broiled lamb chops, or veal parmigiano.

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FLAVIAR: A Community of Spirits Lovers

FLAVIAR: A Community of Spirits LoversBy Spirits Contributor Neal Kotlarek

After five years in the making and international growth, Flaviar is a membership-only community for spirits enthusiasts, dedicated to providing education, discovery, and unparalleled access to the world of spirits. Flaviar seeks to aid every member in developing their own tastes as they curate a home bar that is more eclectic, more exotic, and, more personal than the world’s best speakeasy.

Designed for people discovering the world of fine spirits, Flaviar plays to their motto, “Tasting is Believing.” The membership community is about taste, exploration, and quality. All members receive:
• Themed quarterly Tasting Boxes (shown here)
• Access to exclusive member-only private bottlings
• Original content on fine spirits
• Free shipping
• Exclusive offers, such as live experiences and curated regional tasting events hosted by Flaviar, distillers, and brand ambassadors alike, in select markets across the country.

Through trial and discovery, members can learn more about their favorite products from a database of currently 22,206 products, build up their virtual (and physical) home bar, and share thoughts and feedback, helping spirits novices and experts alike find their favorite spirits – from global names to small, regional craft producers.

For more information and to sign up, visit

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Benziger Family Winery

Benziger Family WineryBeyond the Pale

In the early 1980s, the Benziger family (not to be confused with Beringer, although they often are) migrated west from White Plains, N.Y., and started a winery on Sonoma Mountain. Winemaker Joe Benziger learned his craft by making large production wines for the Glen Ellen brand, but eventually decided that his future lay with a series of small, artisan wines, sustainably produced.

Depending on location, every Benziger vineyard is certified sustainable, organic, or biodynamic, using the most up-to-date green farming practices. But, just what does that mean? Green, sustainable, and organic are words that are often used rather casually. At Benziger, they try to be more precise.

Their third-party certified-sustainable vineyard program emphasizes environmentally-sound growing methods, such as biodiversity, soil revitalization, and integrated pest management. Their growers are required to participate in sustainable farming.

Organic grape growing avoids the use of synthetic chemicals and uses natural methods like crop rotation, tillage, and natural composts to maintain soil health, as well as natural methods to control weeds, insects, and other pests. The winery itself is certified organic, too. Organic is an evolutionary step up from sustainable. After that, many Benziger growers move on from certified organic to certified biodynamic.

Animals and beneficial gardens play an important part in biodynamic farming techniques. Benziger relies on sheep for the removal of overgrown cover crop, and they replace the need for mowing, disking, and spraying herbicides; they aerate the soil while continuously depositing nutrient-rich fertilizer throughout the vineyard.

Olive trees also support the health of the estate. Olives often grow well in the same climates and soils as wine grapes, and Benziger has been offering an Estate Biodynamic Olive Oil for a number of years.

Benziger North Coast Sauvignon Blanc 2014

This very pale-yellow sipper is made from 100% Sauvignon Blanc grapes harvested from the North Coast appellation of Sonoma County. It opens with hints of melon on the nose. There is a subtle sweetness in the taste, suggesting peaches. The acidity comes on reminiscent of Key lime. It ends with a bit of bubbly on the finish.

Pair this easy-going wine with tabbouleh, braised swordfish in white wine, or grilled shrimp in a Catalan almond sauce.

Benziger Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2014

This selection looks more like cherry Kool-Aid than wine, but it’s wine, for sure. The understated nose features raspberry and sweet earth. The taste is cherry, alright, but this time of the tart variety. There is a medium finish with restrained tannins.

This easy-to-drink Pinot would go nicely with steam-poached salmon, Spanish chicken with sweet peppers, or Andalusian braised lamb shanks with honey.

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BACA Wines

BACA WinesThe eponymous Kathryn Hall Wines are known for their Cabernet Sauvignons. A second label, WALT Wines, specializes in Pinot Noir and Chardonnday. In 2016, Ms. Hall’s daughter, Jennifer Brown,  launched a third winery for the family named BACA Wines. Latin for ‘berry,’ BACA’s focus is on California Zinfandel. According to Brown, “When we set out to create the BACA brand, we had one mission in mind: to produce luxury Zinfandels that are nuanced, honest, current, and fun. We saw a gap in the market with the Zinfandel varietal, so we decided to craft a luxury Zin brand aimed at the curious and the adventuresome – while focusing on quality.”

Brown is joined at BACA by winemaker Alison Frichtl Hollister, who notes, “I grew up in a creative household and I’ve always viewed the world through an artistic eye; I draw, paint, and make prints. That way of looking at the world, fresh, new, and intuitive, directs and focuses how I look at this project. At a basic level winemaking is chemistry and microbiology, but it takes someone with an ability to find beauty in the organic, chaotic part of the process. And that’s where my growing up with an eye for art and my degree in biology just made a good synthesis.”

BACA Wines director Jennifer Brown (L) and BACA Wines winemaker Alison Frichtl Hollister (R).

For many years, Zinfandel’s origins were quite mysterious. Then research indicated a relationship with Primitivo from Italy’s Puglia region. But in 2001, DNA fingerprinting directly linked Zinfandel to an obscure grape from Croatia. Aside from Italy’s Primitivo and isolated plantings in South Africa and Australia, almost all other Zinfandel wines come from California, where growing started in the 1850s.

HALL President, Mike Reynolds, in talking about BACA, stated, “We are excited about making Zinfandel that is diverse, from different places. We are fond of these wines in that we like to show off the differences in terroir, which is the essence of what our winery is all about. We thought that the Zinfandel grape was a great medium to do that with.”

BACA sources fruit from Calistoga, Russian River, Rockpile, Howell Mountain, and Paso Robles, all from prominent vineyards. Using winemaking techniques that include optical sorting, exacting fermentations, and aging in French oak barrels, BACA aims to craft wines that reflect their place and climate. The BACA wine portfolio includes these five Zinfandels: Double Dutch, Cat’s Cradle, Marbles, Tug O’ War, and I Spy. In addition, there is a four-pack canned wine, Ring Around the Rosé, also made from Zinfandel, of course.

BACA Double Dutch Zinfandel Dusi Vineyard 2017

The wine is sourced from the esteemed Dusi Vineyard which is located on the southern end of Paso Robles, just on the west side of Highway 101. This is a dry-farmed vineyard that was planted first in 1945. Soils are rocky at the vineyard site.

This Zin starts out ruby red in the glass, with a nose of cherry and blueberry. Next comes plenty of tart cherry on the palate, with touches of smoke and milk chocolate. It is all supported by good tannins and bright acidity. There is little black pepper, often a characteristic of Zinfandel. The finish is luxurious and long.

BACA Cat’s Cradle Zinfandel Rockpile AVA 2017

Rockpile AVA is an American Viticultural Area located in Sonoma County, northwest of the town of Healdsburg. Established on February 28, 2002, Rockpile AVA was Sonoma County’s twelfth designated wine appellation. The wine region consists of approximately 15,400 acres, with about 160 acres of planted wine grapes. All of the AVA has an elevation in excess of 800 feet above sea level.

This big wine is dark brick red. Leather and stone fruit are the initial aromas. It is racy in the mouth, with puckering (in a good way) acidity, and flavors of sour cherry and that typical black pepper. Well-built tannin carries through the lengthy finish.

Enjoy either of these selections with focaccia burger with tomato, arugula, and aioli; brine-cured port chops with balsamic glaze, or braised chicken with tomato, pancetta, and zinfandel.

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WALT Wines

WALT Clos Pepe Pinot NoirWALT Clos Pepe Pinot Noir 2014

WALT (a Kathryn Hall brand) sources grapes from Santa Barbara to Sonoma; Clos Pepe, an estate vineyard, is located in the Santa Rita Hills in the Central Coast region. This bottling is 100% Pinot Noir, and was barrel aged for 10 months. The dark red color is paired with a nose of strawberries, cherries, and cranberries. The smooth flavor features red berry, cocoa, and black pepper, with supporting warm oak and firm tannins. Although this wine is medium-bodied, it has a surprisingly long finish.

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Grace Lane Wines

Grace Lane WinesGrace Notes

Grace Lane wines are sourced from a family-owned winery in Mattawa, Washington, population 4,467, nestled in a bend of the Columbia river and 152 miles southwest of Seattle. The family had been farming in the area since the mid-1950s, and believed that the region’s moderate temperatures, low rainfall, and sandy soils would be ideal for wine grapes, and planted their first grapevines in the area in 1997.

But winemaking in Washington has a much longer history, of course. It began in 1872, when a winery on Stretch Island crushed a native American grape called Island Belle. After a brief flourishing, the scourge of Prohibition and even some of the state’s own tariff laws crippled the industry until the mid-1960s. However, the state now boasts over 200 wineries, and is well on its way to regaining its place on the wine map. Indeed, it is second only to California in American wine production.

The Columbia Valley is the largest wine-growing region in the state. It is a designated AVA [American Viticultural Area], and includes 1,152,000 acres in south-central Washington, and part of northern Oregon as well. Only about 29,000 acres are under cultivation, but that is enough to include 99 percent of Washington’s vineyards. Within the very large Columbia Valley AVA, subdistricts of Yakima Valley, Red Mountain, Walla Walla, and Puget Sound are also recognized.

To the west, the Cascade Mountain range protects the area from the cool weather coming in from the Pacific Ocean, making the Columbia Valley the warmest growing area in the Pacific Northwest. Unlike the western half of Washington, it also has the drier climate that quality winemaking requires. Because of the varying temperatures throughout the region, different grape varieties do well in its various locations, although white wines dominate.

Grace Lane Riesling 2013

If you like your wine sweet and easy, this could be the one for you. It shows light straw yellow in the glass. Next come the aromas of green apple and white peach. The flavor profile (officially “medium sweet” on the International Riesling Foundation’s sweetness scale) is soft and delicate, with suggestions of those same tree fruits and hints of spice box. The acidity is relatively low.

Enjoy this wine with Balsamic Glazed Salmon, Crab Cakes with Honey-Yogurt Salsa, or Sole with Grapes and Champagne.

Grace Lane Cabernet Sauvignon 2013

With a color of dark garnet, this Cab begins with aromas of fresh-baked brioche and ripe plum. The flavors of dark fruit, prune, and black tea are fairly assertive at first, but soon settle down into a nicely balanced whole. Perhaps predictably, this wine is definitely different (in a good way) if you are used to California Cabs.

Pair this up with Smoked Salmon and Wild Rice Cakes with Paprika and Green Onion Aioli, Pork with Apples and Cider Cream Sauce, or Potato and Morel Mushroom Manicotti.

Update February 2021: recent research indicates Grace Lane is no longer in business.

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Nino Franco Winery

Nino Franco WineryTiny bubbles, in the wine
Make me happy (make me happy)
Make me feel fine (make me feel fine)
Tiny bubbles (tiny bubbles)
Make me warm all over.

Don Ho certainly appreciated sparkling wine, and I’m here to encourage you to do the same. There are plenty of reasonably priced bubblies available, so there is no need to save them for a special occasion (although that works too).

First, some clarification. Legally, only those sparkling wines produced in France’s Champagne region, a viticultural area 90 miles northeast of Paris, can be called Champagne. All other sparkling wines, i.e. spumante, prosecco, crémant, sparklers from California, are well…sparkling wine.

And that’s what Nino Franco Winery makes in Valdobbiadene in Italy’s Veneto region. Vines are grown only on the most sunny parts of the hills, at altitudes varying between 150 and 1500 feet above sea level, while the north-facing slopes are covered mainly in woodland.

The climate throughout the area is mild, with not excessively cold winters and warm summers, which is when the nobility of Venice likes to visit.

The Franco winery was founded here in 1919 by Antonio Franco. Under his son Nino the winery expanded its operations and markets. Primo, the third generation proprietor, currently oversees operations with his daughter Silvia.

Primo Franco took his diploma of oenology at the Scuola di Enologia in Conegliano (Veneto). He then decided to develop his own approach to the growth of the vines and the production of prosecco at this modern winery. Since October 1990 Primo has utilized non-traditional cultivation techniques combined with the use of old varietal clones. He also invested in the production process in order to eliminate all those wines that were atypical for the area.

Nino Franco Rustico Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG NV

This is a brut, or quite dry, prosecco. It is very pale yellow in the flute, with rather coarse bubbles that quickly dissipate. It features flavors of traditional green apple and a hint of ginger ale. With a medium body and a clean finish, this would be excellent as an apertivo. Drink this young and lively prosecco soon after purchase.

This wine wants to be served with appetizers, such as a classic Bruschetta, Tomatoes Stuffed with Shrimp, or Grilled Mussels and Clams on the Half Shell.

Nino Franco Faìve Rosè Brut Spumante NV

Faìve [fieEEve] is Italian for those sparks and tongues whipping about at the top of a fire, which gives this copper-hued wine its name. Another product of Primo Franco’s restlessness, Faìve is an untraditional blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, both cold soaked on the skins.

The nose appropriately recalls dried red rose petals, with a bit of vanilla and honey. The taste is nicely balanced: dry, with lively acidity, black cherry fruit, a hint of tannic bitterness, and plenty of bubbles, of course.

Despite its color, this is a wine for savory dishes, like Risotto with Clams, Fricasseed Chicken with Egg and Lemon, or Frittata with Tomato, Onion, and Basil.

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Gnarly Head

Gnarly HeadThat’s Like, Gnarly, Dude

Hey, man, check out this gnarly wine. Gnarly Head wine, actually.

Starting from San Francisco, go about 100 miles east and a bit north and you’ll reach Lodi, California, home of Gnarly Head Winery.

And, where does that unusual name come from?

In 2005, the founders of Gnarly Head went in search of a vineyard suitable for making the Zinfandel they dreamed of. They found it in Lodi, when they came upon some of the oldest vines in California. Old vines are also known as heritage vines, old world vines, and most importantly gnarly vines. The 30- to 80-year-old vines have twisted, old trunks and branches sprouting in all directions—truly gnarly heads. The free- standing mop-topped ‘head trained’ vines found in these old vineyards were the nursery for Gnarly Head Old Zinfandel. Grapes from these old vines are small and few, but offer the big flavor the winemakers were looking for.

Since 2005, the winery has expanded to include a total of nine selections in the house style, including the original Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, a red blend and a white blend.

Gnarly Head Chardonnay 2012

If you are not a big fan of Chardonnay, especially in the oaky style, this could be the one for you. Gnarly Chard is almost colorless in the glass, it is so pale. The nose features suggestions of melon and pineapple.

These flavors continue on the palate, which also adds pear, plenty of citrus, and a touch of vanilla on the finish. It’s much like a Pinot Grigio, although Gnarly Head makes one of those, as well. The 2012 Gnarly Head Chardonnay is crafted using grapes from specially selected vineyards in Lodi and Monterey.

Spring may seem impossibly far away now, but it will be here before we know it. When it does arrive, have this wine ready to pair with Tuna au Poivre, Sea Bass with Olives and Roast Tomatoes, or Poached Chicken with Avgolemono Sauce.

Gnarly Head Malbec 2012

Although based in California, Gnarly Head isn’t afraid to travel the world in search of wines that match their product philosophy, in this case down Argentina way. Famous as the epicenter of Malbec, Mendoza abuts the eastern foothills of the Andes, 220 winding miles from Santiago, Chile.

The vineyards of Mendoza are some of the highest in the world. The difficult sandy soils there stress the vines, leading to concentrated juice.

This 2012 was Gnarly Head’s inaugural Malbec offering. The deep-purple color in the glass follows on with aromas of dark berry fruits. The fruit character was preserved by aging the wine for six months in split lots, some in oak and some in stainless steel to restrain the tannins (but not too much). Finishes with plenty of blueberry and blackberry.

Enjoy this value wine with Aegean Lamb Casserole with Pasta, Beef Tangine with Prunes, or Herb Braised Rabbit.

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Rabble Wine Company

 Rabble Wine CompanyRousing Rabble

If you are looking for affordable, approachable, easy-drinking wines, I suggest you seek out those from Paso Robles. This large but lesser-known appellation was established in 1983 (a mere toddler in wine years), and is located around the town of Paso Robles in the northern part of California’s San Luis Obispo County. Most of the growing area is classified as Region III, equivalent to France’s Rhône region. At last count, there were over 18,000 acres under vine.

Rabble Wine Company encompasses four labels: Rabble, Stasis, Amor Fati, and Tooth & Nail. Rabble’s estate winery and visitor center is regarded as one of the region’s leading destinations, featuring a somewhat kitschy castle-like building that includes an expansive tasting room.

Rabble was founded by Rob and Nancy Murray in 2011. In addition to becoming a vintner, Rob has been a grower and vineyard owner for over 20 years. He continues to own and manage properties from Paso Robles to Santa Maria, with his own brands utilizing roughly five percent of the grapes he farms. He’s obviously doing something right, as Rabble is one of Paso Robles’ fastest-growing labels.

Speaking of labels, I’m almost always more interested in what’s in a wine bottle than what’s on it. However, the iconoclastic labels for Rabble and its sister brands have attracted a lot of attention in the wine press. The Rabble labels are renditions of historical woodblock prints from the Nuremberg Chronicle, dating to the late 1400s. They have been faithfully reproduced, including a full-embossing rarely seen in this context. The images depict nature’s wrath, as a reminder to work in concert with her at all times.

Rabble Red Blend 2015

This disorderly mob member hails from Mossfire Ranch, about three miles southwest of Paso Robles. A mix of 90% merlot and 10% syrah, it greets you with its bright red-purple color and aromas of red cherry and cocoa on the nose, with just a hint of anise. The rich cherry continues on the palate, adding red berries and delicate spice notes. The flavors, lively acidity and firm but sweet tannins are remarkably balanced. An excellent value. The label illustrates the Apocalyptic Comet falling upon Florence with the Unicorn and Phoenix.

Try this wine with cranberry-cheddar brats with bell peppers, New Mexican rubbed pork tenderloin, or grilled chicken with Fresno chile/plum sauce.

Rabble Caberrnet Sauvignon 2016

Another Mossfire offering, on first approach currant, cocoa, and a hint of tobacco drift from the glass. Again, the taste of cherries, but this time of the tart variety, supported by vanilla, dried sage, blueberry, and cassis. These are complemented by woody notes from the French oak, which also supplies lively and supple tannins and a nice long finish. And the label? Mount Vesuvius Erupting over Pompeii.

Enjoy this wine with venison and black bean chili with toasted cumin crema, pan-roasted chicken with blackberry-ancho sauce, or red chile and honey-glazed salmon.

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