Italo Cescon Pinot Noir

Italo CesconItaly’s Piave region covers a vast plain in the greater Veneto area. It is bordered on the south by the Adriatic Sea, to the northwest by the hills of Valdobbiadene and Conegliano, is crossed by the river Piave, and to the northeast it borders on the Friuli Venezia Giulia region. Wine has been made here for millenia, based on the archaeological discoveries that have been made. Moreover, the first Oenological School of Italy was founded there in 1876.

It was here In 1954 that Italo Cescon, after the end of his military service, decided to fulfill his dream of producing and selling his own wine, following in  the footsteps of his grandfather Domenico, a small producer of  wine for local families in his little village.

Enoteca [wine shop] Italo Cescon quickly gained a good reputation for their wines among the osterie [(taverns] and restaurants in Treviso, Italy, where it was located.  Building on that success, Cescon expanded the operation into a full-fledged wine company in 1957.

Dominico Cescon

In 1967, the Piave river flooded (as it often has over the centuries), prompting a move of operations to Roncadelle, where an old existing winery was renovated and enlarged.

Italo Cescon began to export their wines in the 1970s, especially into Germany, Switzerland, and France.

Work on rehabilitating the winery continued for 20 years, finally being completed in the late 1980s. At about the same time, the “La Cesura” vineyard was established for the growing of Piave DOC wines.

With the passing of Italo, going into the 1990s his heirs Gloria, Graziella, and Domenico started managing the winery, determined to continue to improve the quality of the wines and to expand brand awareness.

Italo Cescon

The Cescons shared, “Our goal today is the same as fifty years ago: careful and constant work aiming at excellence, research, and innovation, and communication of the culture and identity of our region. We are lead by traditions that teach us the value of time and respect for nature.”

Italo Cescon winery firmly embraces the concept of terroir, that a great wine starts in the vineyard. They state that their wines are strongly tied to the land and to the environment in which they are born. They are committed to safeguarding the vineyard’s well-being, protecting the soil, the animals, and the insects that live there. The winery relies on sustainable systems, and production uses mostly natural fertilizers and no pesticides.

The Piave region is characterized by the complex composition of its soils, which consist of alluvial sands due to the Piave river having frequently flooded the fields and their vineyards over the course of thousands of years. Enormous quantities of chalky calcium magnesium carbonate has been deposited, torn from the mountains by the violence of the waters and dragged along the river beds into the valleys.

Italo Cescon winery’s acreage consists of six estates, with 235 acres [95 hectares] in Marca Trevigiana and Friuli, and 37 acres [15 hectares] in the Valdobbiadene hills.

The climate there is mild, and generally warm and temperate. The rainfall is significant, with precipitation even during the driest month. This climate is classified as  humid subtropical. The average annual temperature is 56.2 °F. [13.4 °C].

Italo Cescon Pinot Noir 2018

This wine is joined by nine others to comprise Cescon’s “Il Tralcetto” line of wines.   Il Tralcetto translates as “The Little Grape Vine Cutting.”

Anna Cescon

All of the bottles in this line feature a knotty bit of vine twig, picked out from the pruning. (Although to put one on each and every bottle, I’m thinking Cescon must grow some acres of vines just for harvesting the twigs!) The tradition was born on a winter’s day in 1957 from an idea of Italo’s grandmother, Anna.

Anna Cescon

This 100% Pinot Nero (aka Pinot Noir) saw four days of cold pre-fermentation maceration.  Then came another six to eight days of traditional malolactic fermentation.  The wine was aged for six months in cement vats, followed by three months in bottle before release.

It is a dark, translucent ruby red in the glass.  The drinker is greeted by aromas of red berries and citrus.  This is followed on the palate with those same ripe berry flavors, joined by a pleasant tartness, spice notes, and excellent tannins.  In Venice, this Pinot would traditionally be paired with gnocchi in Bolognese sauce.

Top of page:

Lombardi Winery

Lombardi Wines

Tony Lombardi was born into a family of small business owners, and grew up in Sonoma County. He graduated from Saint Mary’s College with a degree in Business Management. His first job in the wine business came in 1998 when he joined the hospitality team at Clos Du Bois Winery, located in Geyserville, California.

From 2001 to 2013, Lombardi held senior leadership positions in marketing, public relations, and sales for such companies as Allied Domecq Wines, Beam Wine Estates, J Vineyards & Winery, Ascentia Wine Estates, and Kosta Browne Winery.

In partnership with his wife Christine, Lombardi founded Lombardi Wines in 2013 with a barrel of Chardonnay and a barrel of Pinot Noir.  He describes himself as a storyteller/connector at heart, and loves to tell the unique and interesting personal stories of Sonoma and Napa wineries and winemakers, and connect them and their wines to people across the country.  As part of that effort, he was encouraged to take the leap of faith in creating his own label from his former employers Dan Kosta and Michael Browne. They told him, “We did it, so should you!”

Lombardi hired Cabell Coursey in 2015 to be his winemaker and viticulturist/grower relations manager after he had held those jobs for three years at Kosta Browne.  Coursey also toils at his own winery, Coursey Graves. Prior to those efforts, he was the winemaker with Andy Smith at Dumol.  Well traveled, he has made wines all over the world, including Burgundy, New Zealand, Oregon, and California.

Coursey and Lombardi make small lots of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from vineyards in the Sonoma Coast AVA.  However, the winery owns no acreage or vineyards itself.  Rather, the Pinot Noir fruit is sourced from growers in the greater Petaluma area, where the Lombardi family has been since 1947, and Lombardi himself has cultivated many close relationships. He says, “I’m most proud of the interconnections I have with grower families that provide access to incredible fruit and that I can make a style of wine that I love to drink. The greatest satisfaction is seeing that enjoyment from people who try the wines I love to make. I founded my winery to honor my Italian roots and immigration story.  Wine has always been a part of my family’s history, starting from my great-grandfather Nazzareno Lombardi and his childhood friend Cesare Mondavi and their story of coming to America together in 1914. Sunday night dinners with extended family where the lively and spirited conversation around the dinner table was religion, politics, but always family first.”

The winery is not open to the public and does not have a tasting room. The wines are sold through an allocated mailing list.  This limited production is by design, as Lombardi wants the winery to grow “organically.”  Newly active members are first offered the Appellation Series and a small allocation of limited production single vineyard designates. Consistent ordering gains members access to a wider selection of wines.

In addition to being a wine entrepreneur, in 2015 Lombardi started Lombardi Marketing, a boutique consulting company offering marketing, public relations, and wholesale services for the benefit of small to mid-size wine companies in need of this expertise.

Lombardi also actively participates in charity wine auctions across the country. He believes that connecting through wine helps raise much-needed awareness and funds for worthwhile causes.

Tony Lombardi

Tony Lombardi

Lombardi Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2018

The fruit was sourced from the Sangiacomo family of growers (and winemakers) in Petaluma.  Fermented in 100% French oak barrels, of which only 10% were new, this Chardonnay was aged for 14 months in custom barrels sourced from the Freres, Bousseau, Chassin, Mercurey, and Atelier cooperages of France.   It is a very pale yellow, with aromas of melon and honeysuckle, and just a hint of vanilla.   The dominant flavors are lemon and tangerine, backed up by peach.  Not surprisingly, with so little new oak during fermentation, there is just a whisper of wood.  The wine finishes with an ideal level of refreshing acidity.  The ABV is 13.5%.  Like all Lombardi selections, this is a limited-production wine, with 240 cases made.

Lombardi Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2018

This wine was fermented in 100% French oak barrels (25% new).  It then saw 14 months of aging in custom barrels sourced from the Boutes and Atelier cooperages of France.   It shows a very transparent ruby in the glass.  The nose features aromas of rich black cherry, currants, and a hint of marshmallow.  On the palate there is a silky mouthfeel, with flavors of tart cherry, blackberry, and a bit of cocoa.  The focused acidity is complemented by delicate tannins.  It all wraps up with a medium-long finish.  The ABV is 14.2%.   300 cases made.

Lombardi Pinot Noir Hill Justice Vineyard 2018

The Hill Justice vineyard is nearly 1,100 feet up the side of Sonoma Mountain, and was personally planted by winemaker Cabel Coursey and his team.  This wine was fermented in 100% French oak barrels (50% new).  It then saw 14 months of aging in barrels sourced from Boutes and Atelier.   It is a very crystal-clear deep purple.  The wine starts with aromas of dark stone fruit, blackberry, and chocolate.  In the mouth, it is super smooth, with flavors echoing the scents, plus some cola.  The delicate acidity is supported by fine tannins.  Things come to an end with a juicy finish.  The ABV is 14.%.   100 cases made.

Lombardi Pinot Noir Guisti Ranch 2018

The fruit for this wine was grown by the Giusti family, who came to Sonoma  from San Pelligrino, Italy in the 1870s.   They began by farming olives and grapes, then moved over the years to prunes, cherries, and apples, and have now returned to grapes and olives.  The first Pinot Noir planting was in 2000.

Giusti Ranch

Giusti Ranch and Vineyard  Photo: Kurt Giusti

Under the Giusti Ranch Vineyard designate, in addition to supplying Lombardi, the family also sells  grapes to Kosta Browne Winery, in another example of Tony Lombardi’s tightly-knit network.

This wine was fermented in 100% French oak barrels (50% new).  It then saw 14 months of aging in barrels sourced from Taransaud, Chassin, and Boutes.   Like the Hill Justice, it is a very crystal-clear deep purple.  It also has similar aromas of dark stone fruit, blackberry, and a bit of baked cherry pie.  It is super smooth as well, with flavors echoing the scents.  The acidity and tannins are well balanced, and the wine delivers a long finish.  The ABV is 14.8%.   100 cases made.

Although Oregon and Washington state are justifiably famous for their Pinot Noirs, Lombardi’s selections prove that with high-quality fruit and a skilled winemaker, Sonoma can do equally well.  Indeed, these are some of the best Pinot Noirs I’ve ever had.  Highly recommended.

Top of page:

Smoking Loon Steelbird Rosé

Smoking LoonSamuele SebastianiIn 1895, Samuele Sebastiani left his native Tuscany for America. Eventually arriving in Sonoma, California, he worked hauling paving stones for a local quarry that were used to build the streets of San Francisco. Perhaps looking for less demanding work, in 1904 he purchased winemaking equipment and made his first 500 gallons of wine. Just five years later, he had enough financial success to purchase the Sonoma Mission vineyard (planted in 1825 for sacramental wines), the site the Sebastiani winery occupies to this day.

Sebastiani was the only winery in Sonoma County to continue operations during Prohibition by making a small amount of sacramental and medicinal wines. This and fruit growing were the only ways wineries were able to survive. Nearly ten years after Prohibition was enacted, the Great Depression added to the struggle. Sebastiani initiated major projects at the winery to help keep people employed by canning peaches, nectarines, and pears. When there weren’t enough jobs at the winery, he built a skating rink, theater, motel, and meeting hall at the Catholic Church.


Samuele Sebastiani

Following the repeal of the scourge of Prohibition, Samuele’s youngest son, August, joined the family business as winemaker. August purchased the winery from his late father’s estate in 1944. He expanded the business and began to sell name-branded wines.

In 1980, with August’s death the winery was passed down to his three children. The oldest, Sam, became CEO and President, and began to shift production from lower-cost products to upscale varietals. He left the company in 1986 to start his own business, and August’s youngest son, Don, ascended to control. During his first ten years, he increased production by 300%. In 2001 he established Don Sebastiani & Sons, a beverage holding company that includes wine, spirits, and water. Ironically, the portfolio does not include the original business, Sebastiani Vineyards, which was sold to the Foley Wine Group in 2008, which also owns Firestone Vineyards in Santa Barbara, Merus in Napa, and Three Rivers Winery in Washington state.

Smoking Loon Steelbird Rosé 2018

Smoking Loon, however, is one of the Don Sebastiani & Sons brands.  The blend is 60% Barbera, 27% Syrah, and 13% Grenache, with an ABV of 12%.  It is a petal pink color in the glass, and opens with fragrant aromas of strawberry, plum and cantaloupe.  The palate features a lovely watermelon flavor, followed by tart rhubarb and finally juicy, fruit flavors of apricot, and strawberry. This well-balanced wine has good acidity and a fresh, crisp finish.

Smoking Loon claims “the label activates PINK when [the] wine is a perfectly chilled 50ºF.” but I didn’t see it.

Top of page:

Jean-Marc Burgaud Beaujolais Villages

Jean-Marc Burgaud was born into a family of generations of wine growers. After obtaining his diploma in oenology and wine-growing, he started his eponymous winery with his wife and partner Christine in 1989.  He owns all of the vineyards he farms, with the majority (32 acres / 13 hectares) being in Morgon’s famed Cotes du Py, in the heart of the Beaujolais crus.  He also owns an even tinier amount of Regnie (2.5 acres / 1 hectare) and Beaujolais Villages (10.3 acres / 4.2 hectares), from which this wine comes.  Burgaud believes that the current total of his vineyards is the maximum area he can cultivate while still producing the quality he is after.

In the vineyards, Burgaud has been farming using organic principles for over 10 years (although without certification), and when nurturing the vines he follows his family’s traditions which he grew up with. The gobelet-pruned* vines are an average of 60 years old, and are planted at a high density (10,000 per 2.5 acres/hectare). All vineyard work is done by hand, with help from two employees and a horse (The use of horses is becoming increasingly popular throughout Burgundy.  Although more labor intensive than mechanization, it leaves the soil much looser and less compacted.).  He believes, “To make a ‘grand vin,’ the vigneron has to know his terroirs and how to farm to obtain the most beautiful grapes as possible, and it is from this harmony that ‘grandes bouteilles’ are born.”



In the cellar, Burgaud vinifies his wines with traditional Burgundian methods: whole cluster maceration in vats for variable durations according to the vintage and the appellation.  Only indigenous yeasts are used in the cellar, and with the exception of sulfur at bottling, nothing is added during the vinification process in order to obtain wines typical of the terroir. The wines are aged in either concrete or barrique (for the Reserve) for several months before bottling. To respect the balance of his vineyards, some cuvées before bottling are lightly filtered, while others are not.

Jean-Marc BurgaudJean-Marc Burgaud

Burgaud makes all of his wines with the stems. “I never destem,” he says. Instead, the difference between the wines is the time on the skins, which ranges from seven days for the Villages, 10 days for the Morgon Charmes, and 15 days for the Côte du Py. He learned the importance of maceration time from this work with the Charmes. “In the past, my idea of Morgon was a rich wine with a lot of tannin to keep for a long time,” he reflects. “In Les Charmes, if you have a long maceration you lose the fruit and get a green taste. It was a big problem for me for 10 to 15 years.”  He has since worked to achieve as much balance in his wines as possible.

He is a hands-on winemaker, and spends 80% of his time in the vineyard and the cellar. “It’s important that if you write your name on the label that you work in the vineyard,” he says.

Jean-Marc Burgaud Les Vignes de Lantignié Beaujolais Villages 2017

This wine hails from a tiny village called Lantignié, known for its serious and fruity wines. The soil is sand over granite, typical of the region.  Burgaud’s solely-owned vineyard is named Thulon.

After whole berry, semi-carbonic maceration (the grapes are not crushed, but allowed to ferment under their own weight), the wine is aged in concrete tank for six months prior to bottling. This occurred at the Château de Thulon, built in the 12th century, and owned by Burgaud’s great aunt.

This Beaujolais is a bright transparent red. It has a fresh and fruity nose, predominantly dark cherry. There is tart cherry on the palate, with plenty of astringency and zippy acidity. The tannins are mild, and there is just a hint of bitterness on the focused finish. Like almost all Beaujolais, this wine is best drunk when young, within two to four years after release.

*Gobelet-pruning, also known as bush-vine pruning, originated as far back as the Roman Empire. With the “gobelet” pruning method, four branches are formed around a central base to distribute and aerate the clusters. This creates an open structure, allowing a slight air current to circulate through the leaves and clusters, thus ensuring a healthy environment.  In addition, the vegetation forms a canopy that protects the berries from too much sun.

Top of page:

Imagery Estate Winery

In 1973, newlyweds Mike and Mary Benziger drove west and permanently settled in Northern California. Seven years later, Mike and and his brother Bruno Benziger purchased the historic Wegener Ranch on Sonoma Mountain in Glen Ellen, California. Hearing the Sirens’ call of the Golden State, over the next six years the four remaining siblings — Bob, Joe, Jerry, and Patsy, with their spouses — made their way to California.

In 1986, winemaker Joe Benziger first partnered with artist Bob Nugent to launch the Imagery Series of wines. This pairing of wine and art continues to this day, and permeates every aspect of Imagery Winery, including unique artwork replicated on every label. (Except for the wines shown here.  More on that below.) The dedicated on-site art gallery features label artwork commissioned from some of the world’s most notable contemporary artists, and includes over 500 works by over 300 artists. Currently, around 60 pieces are on view in the gallery.

At any given time, as many as 35 artists are working on pieces that will appear on future Imagery wine labels. The artists are not limited by size, medium, or content.

Joe Benziger has dedicated his career to crafting rare wines from uncommon varietals such as Malbec, Tempranillo, and Lagrein. These limited-production wines are available to wine club members only.

However, that doesn’t mean Imagery is inaccessible. Following in her father Joe’s footsteps, middle-daughter Jamie Benziger is the winemaker in charge of Imagery’s relatively new and more popularly-priced collection of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. The label is characterized with a “drip” motif, suggestive of both wine and paint.

Imagery Sauvignon Blanc 2019

This is quite pale yellow in the glass.  It presents initial aromas of citrus, lemon zest, and honeysuckle. It . It greets the palate with those flavors and adds a nice dose of cantaloupe and a bit of apricot.  There is none of the grassiness  or cat pee that often characterize (or even mar) this varietal.  Good acidity balances a surprisingly full mouthfeel.  A hint of dry Muscat lends refinement and softness.  The finish is bright and fresh, but short.

This wine would work well with Stir Fry Pork Cubes with Mushrooms and Corn, Sea Scallops Marinated in Citronette (a lemon and oil vinaigrette), or Indonesian-style Grilled Pompano.

Imagery Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

This Cab starts out with a nose of plums, prunes, and  vanilla. Then come the flavors of blackberries and tart cherries, and cocoa.  The wine is dry, but there is some of bing cherry sweetness.  The blend is 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Petite Sirah, the latter lending a hint of spice and pepper. The wine is fruit forward and velvety soft, with moderate tannins and medium acidity.

Serve this easy-going red with Pancetta-wrapped Sausages, Finger-lickin’ Ribs, or Saffron Roast Lamb with StickyGarlic Potatoes.

Top of page:

Heitz Cellar Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon

Heitz CellersIn my over forty years of drinking wine, I’ve had excellent bottles, bottles I’ve poured down the drain after drinking half a glass, and, mostly, everything in between.  But over all of those years and thousands of wines, two have eluded me, my so-called “unicorn” wines.

I first learned of the Heitz Cellar Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon in the mid-’70s when a normally generous acquaintance was showing off an unopened bottle, with obviously no intention of sharing.  Martha’s Vineyard was selling for about $30 at release then, far more than I could afford, so I wasn’t going to be enjoying it any time soon.  But the desire was established.

On a winery tour through Napa valley in the mid-1990s, I stopped at Heitz’s “tasting room,” at least on that visit  literally a windowless construction trailer parked by the side of the road.  I was about halfway through the tasting when I heard a car grind to a halt outside on the gravel.  The door burst open, and the driver demanded, “I want to try the Martha’s Vineyard!”  The bartender calmly responded, “We don’t pour the Martha’s Vineyard here.”  (A fact I, sadly, already knew.)  The door slammed shut, and he was off.  Denied.

Many of the wines here on Winervana are graciously supplied by producers in exchange for the review (although I am always free to write what I want without constraint).   But, sometimes I buy the wine myself, which was the case here.  Martha’s Vineyard is now selling for $250 on release, and, really, I still can’t afford it.  And it is certainly not a “wine for the casual wine drinker.”  But during these uncertain times, I thought, “What the hell.  I may never get a chance to drink this wine I’ve been lusting after for so long.” So here it is.

Born in Princeton, Illinois, Joe Heitz served in the Army Air Force during World War II, and moonlighted during off hours at a winery near Fresno.  After the war ended, Heitz began taking classes at UC Davis, achieving a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree in viticulture and enology in 1951. in the first graduating class of just seven people.  Heitz found employment at two wine industry extremes, first at Gallo, and then with the famous André Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyard as an assistant winemaker, where he worked for nearly ten years.

Heitz Cellar was established in 1961, when, after serving his “apprenticeship,” in 1961 Heitz and his wife Alice bought a small 8.5 acre (3.4 ha) vineyard from Leon Brendel in St. Helena, California, named “The One & Only,” for $5,000, and went into business for himself.  At the time, there were only about two dozen Napa Valley wineries, the lowest number since Prohibition.  (Today there are over 1,700 registered wineries in Napa, but “only” about 500 have tasting rooms.)  This pioneering winery even preceeded Robert Mondavi‘s 1966 start in nearby Oakville.

Photo: Jeremy Baines

In 1963, Heitz bought several barrels of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Hanzell Vineyards in Sonoma, the last vintages of James D. Zellerbach’s pursuit of Burgundian excellence and auctioned off by his widow. Heitz blended and sold the wines to lucrative acclaim.

One of his stated strategies for ongoing success was to pay growers, “what their grapes were worth,” in turn increasing the standard of the product he was receiving. In 1964, Heitz acquired an 1898 stone winery with its 160 acre (65 ha) ranch property, which became the Heitz winery and home.

Photo: Darcy K.

Since 1965, Heitz has held an exclusive agreement with Tom and Martha May, owners of the 34 acre (14 ha) Martha’s Vineyard in the Oakville AVA.  He immediately recognized the quality of the grapes, and the very next year Heitz vinified the fruit separately from his other production, and designated the vineyard on the label.  (Rather subtly, though.  Many of Heitz’s red-wine labels, unchanged for decades, look almost identical.  “Martha’s Vineyard” only appears in a small oval in the lower left corner.)

Martha's Vineyard

Martha’s Vineyard

“Standing in Martha’s Vineyard, you quickly realize why this site consistently produces a remarkable Cabernet Sauvignon. The vineyard receives gentle morning and early afternoon sunlight and is sheltered from the heat of the late afternoon sun by the mountains. This allows for longer hang time and Martha’s Vineyard is, historically, one of the last vineyards we pick. This ability to leave the fruit on the vine longer than other sites allows for concentration of flavor and softening of tannin to produce a wine so pure in its expression of place. The consistency in showcasing Martha’s Vineyard’s unique mint, bay leaf, dark berry and chocolate notes year after year is a reminder of why this vineyard has commanded a faithful following since the 1966 vintage.”
–Brittany Sherwood, Winemaker

Heitz is considered the first to champion the single vineyard designation in the U.S.  The 1968 vintage received attention for its quality, widely considered the greatest wine made in America up to that time. It was fermented in 1,000-US-gallon (38 hL) American oak vats, and then transferred to Limousin oak barrels where it aged for an additional two years.  Frank J. Prial, the wine columnist for The New York Times from 1972 until 2004, contended the wine remained “the benchmark by which California Cabernets were judged” for more than two decades.  (The 1970 vintage placed seventh at the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, also known as the Judgment of Paris.)

Following a review by Robert Parker where he wrote that Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon “lacked aroma, ” Heitz sent Parker a box of linen handkerchiefs, insinuating to the critic that he ought to clear his nose.

Joe Heitz suffered a stroke in 1996 which left him frail though lucid.  He died on December 16, 2000, aged 81. He was described by Warren Winiarski, founder and former proprietor of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, as the first of the Napa Valley artisans and the first to grasp the single vineyard concept.

David Heitz succeeded his father as winemaker in the late 1970s, having worked at the estate for many years. In 1984, the estate purchased the Trailside Vineyard in Rutherford, having previously purchased fruit from the site, and introduced a single vineyard bottling in 1989.

In the early ’90s, phylloxera afflicted Martha’s Vineyard, and no vintages were made in the mid-1990s.

Heitz Cellar annually produces approximately 40,000 cases (3,600 hL) of wine.  The estate’s vines are grown certified CCOF organic, with a move towards biodynamic farming planned eventually.  In addition to several vineyard-designated Cabernet Sauvignon bottlings that are often aged in oak for three and half years, Heitz also produces varietal-labeled wines from Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, and Grignolino.  (This is a rare variety in California, but was  the dominant planting of the original estate vineyard.  Heitz is still considered the premier producer.)

In April, 2018, Heitz Cellar was sold to Gaylon Lawrence Jr., whose Arkansas-based family owns one of the country’s largest agricultural businesses.

Heitz Cellar Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2014

This aged wine spent three years in 100% new French oak, one in neutral oak, and an additional year in bottle.  It is medium ruby to purple in the glass.  While I disagree that it “lacks aroma,” the nose is subtle, and predominantly of cherries.  It is incredibly smooth on the palate, with flavors of classic black currant, cocoa, tart cherry, and a hint of dust.  The tannins and acid are in perfect balance, and it al ends in a medium-long finish.  One thing I didn’t get: Heitz Martha’s Vineyard is famous for a minty overlay, especially when it’s this young.  While I wouldn’t find that a problem, I just wasn’t tasting it.  Regardless, Joe Heitz went to great pains to consistently deny that the minty notes had anything to do with the eucalyptus tress planted on the edge of the vineyard.

So, was the forty-five year wait worth it?  Well … yes … but.  This is an excellent wine, worthy of its iconic status.  But for me, it was simply too elegant, especially for the price.  At this stratosphere, I’m looking for something more boisterous,  like a Louis Martini Monte Rosso, a Palmaz, or a Kathryn Hall.

And the other wine of my fantasy?  That would be Penfold’s Grange, the legendary Australian Shiraz.  That one is selling for about $850 on release these days, so it may elude me forever.

Top of page:

Justin Cabernet Sauvignon

Justin Cabernet SauvignonJustin Baldwin founded his eponymous winery in Paso Robles, California, in 1981 on 160 acres.  His vision was to make world-class Bordeaux-style blends.   Befitting such ambition, The winery is invested in the French idea of terroir, that a wine must reflect its place, especially soil and climate.

Justin’s soil is largely fossilized limestone from eons of marine deposit. The limestone stresses the vines, producing grapes that, ideally, completely express their varietal character.

Paso Robles’ distinctive microclimate offers the widest day to night temperature swings of any grape-growing region in California. The hot days allow the grapes to develop intense flavor, while the cool nights create structure and balance.

Justin combines traditional Old World methods—like hand-harvesting and small-barrel aging in French oak—with New World technology.

Justin’s offerings include Bordeaux-style blends, of course, and other red blends.  These are joined by single varietal (or nearly so) Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Rosé, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Tempranillo, and Viognier.   At the top of the range is the famous Isosceles, their flagship wine (and a registered trademark).  Reflecting Isosceles’ prominence, much of Justin’s branding, marketing, and naming play off the right-angle triangle theme.

The Founder’s Vineyard

In addition to the Founder’s Vineyard, Justin also farms the Adelaida Road Vineyard, one of the highest in the Paso Robles AVA; the Creston Road Vineyard, located in the Templeton Gap that enjoys cooling breezes from the Pacific; and the steeply-sloped DeBro Vineyard that sits on a variety of soil types.

There is also an inn and restaurant on the property.

Billionaire Stewart Resnick bought Justin Vineyards and Winery in late 2010.  Resnick also controls Fiji Water, Pom Wonderful, and Teleflora.  Resnick also owns the Sonoma County wineries Landmark and Hop Kiln.

Justin Baldwin is still casually involved with the winery, but the winemaking falls to Napa Valley veteran Scott Shirley, who has maintained and even expanded Justin’s quality and reputation.  Justin was named the 2015 American Winery of the Year by Wine Enthusiast Magazine.

Justin Cabernet Sauvignon 2017

This 100% Cabernet Sauvignon is purple-ruby in the glass.  It features aromas of ripe black and red cherry.  Flavors of black currant abound on the palate, with cocoa and a hint of dust.  The wine is full-bodied and dry, with a moderately long finish. There is a mild acidity and balanced tannins. It was barrel aged for 13 months in American oak (25% new) and has an ABV of 14.5%.

Enjoy this wine with Spencer Steaks with Red-wine Shiitake Sauce, Pork Chops in Balsamic Cherry Sauce, or East-West Barbecued Chicken.

Coq au Vin (Chicken with Wine Sauce)

Coq au Vin is a classic French dish of chicken in wine with onions, mushrooms, and bacon.  It is usually made with red wine, but I think white wine makes for better color and flavor.  In France, the only side is usually parsley potatoes, but you can add buttered green peas as well.  This recipe comes from volume 1 of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Serves 4 to 6

4 oz. bacon
Cut bacon into 1/4″ x 1″ rectangles. Simmer for 10 minutes in 2 quarts of water.  Rinse and dry.

2 Tb butter
Saute the bacon in a large skillet on low heat in butter until very lightly browned

A cut-up frying chicken
Brown in the fat used to cook the bacon

1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
Season the chicken.  Return bacon to skillet, cover and cook on low for 10 minutes.  Turn chicken once.

1/4 cup brandy or cognac
Uncover, and pour in the brandy.  Carefully ignite the brandy.  Shake skillet for several seconds until the flames subside.

3 cups of dry white or rose wine
1 to 2 cups of chicken stock
1/2 Tb. tomato paste
4 cloves mashed garlic
thyme (I like to use about 2 Tbs. fresh)
1 bay leaf
Pour the wine into the skillet.  Add just enough stock to cover the chicken.  Stir in the tomato paste, garlic, and herbs.  Cover and simmer on low for 25 to 30 minutes or until the chicken registers 165 degrees.  Remove the chicken and keep warm.

While the chicken is cooking, prepare:
12 to 24 brown-braised onions
1/2 lb. sauteed mushrooms

Boil and reduce the liquid to about 2-1/4 cups.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Remove bay leaf.

3 Tb. flour
2 Tb. softened butter
Blend the butter and flour together into a smooth paste.  Beat the paste into the hot liquid with a whisk.  Simmer for a minute or two.

Arrange the chicken in the skillet, surround with onions and mushrooms, and baste with the sauce.  Cover and simmer on low for 4 to 5 minutes to reheat the chicken and serve decorated with sprigs of parsley.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking

Top of page:

Boondocks American Whiskey

By Spirits Contributor Neal KotlarekBoondocks American Whiskey

Crafted in close cooperation with Dave Scheurich, one of the world’s most respected master distillers and winner of the Whisky Advocate Lifetime Achievement Award, Boondocks American Whiskey Cask Strength 127 has an ultra-smooth finish, with distinctive aromas of rich caramel and vanilla. A robust and pleasantly aggressive palate is highlighted by fall spices and oak. This expression received a Gold Medal/91 points in the Los Angeles International Spirits Competition 2016 and Best of Category in the Ultimate Spirits Challenge 2016

Top of page:

Old World Wine vs New World Wine

Photo: Apartment Therapy

Is there a difference between wines that come from the Old World and those that come from the New World?  And does it matter?

First, yes, there can be distinct differences.  Although broad generalizations, these often apply:









Europe and the Middle East


Everywhere else, but especially North and South America.





Emphasis on vitis vinifera, the classic “noble” varieties.


Much more open to non-traditional varieties.





Cooler, leading to leaner flavors and tannins


Warmer, leading to fuller fruit and rounder tannins



Guiding Principles


Terroir (the sense of place of a wine’s origins,including climate and soil).


Grape varieties and the skill of the individual winemaker



Flavor Profiles


Earthiness, minerality, leaner tannins


More new French and American oak, and greater fruit extraction





Tighter, less aromatic, the wine often benefits from decanting




Fuller aromas which will sometimes benefit from decanting, but it’s not always needed





More tied to the history and traditions of the wine.  The production itself is more highly and specifically regulated.



More modern and innovative, but the wines can be more
industrial as well.





Less natural sugar content, which means lower final alcohol by volume, usually 12% or so


A higher natural sugar content from riper fruit, resulting in an ABV of 14 to 16%



General Characteristics


Elegant, restrained, lean, needs to be paired with food to maximize enjoyment



Opulent, lush, fruit-forward, can often be enjoyed on its own




Cheap to expensive


Cheap to expensive




Mediocre to extraordinary


Mediocre to extraordinary


Continue reading “Old World Wine vs New World Wine”

Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America Junmai Ginjo Genshu Saké

Tsubaki Grand ShrineThat’s quite a title there, isn’t it?

Let’s break it down:

Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America

The Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America (aka Tsubaki America Jinja) is the first Shinto shrine built in the mainland United States after World War II. It was erected in 1986 in Stockton, California, and moved to its current location next to the Pilchuck River in Granite Falls, Washington, in 2001.

The Gosaijin (enshrined spirits) of Tsubaki Grand Shrine are Sarutahiko-no-Ōkami, ancestor of all earthly spirits; and his wife Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto, spirit of arts and entertainment, harmony, meditation, and joy. Also enshrined are Amaterasu Ōmikami (spirit of the sun), Ugamitama-no-Ōkami (spirit of foodstuffs and things to sustain human life), America Kokudo Kunitama-no-Kami (protector of the North American continent) and Ama-no-Murakumo-Kuki-Samuhara-Ryu-O (spirit of Aikido).

Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America is a branch of Tsubaki Ōkami Yashiro, one of the oldest and most notable shrines in Japan.

Photo: Magus Dethen

Photo: Alexander Kushi-Willis


Junmai is pure rice wine, with no added alcohol). Until recently, at least 30% of the rice used for Junmai sake had to be milled away, but Junmai no longer requires a specified milling rate.


Ginjo designates that at least 40% of the rice has been polished away. If a bottle is labeled just Ginjo, distilled alcohol was added; if it is labeled Junmai Ginjo, no alcohol was added.


Genshu is undiluted saké (literally, “original” (base) sake) which has not been diluted after pressing. However, saké which has had water added within a range that reduces the alcohol content by less than 1% is also considered genshu.


Saké, the national alcoholic beverage of Japan, is often called rice wine, but this is a misnomer.  While it is a beverage made by fermentation, the production process more closely resembles that of beer, and it is made from grain (rice, of course), not fruit.  To make saké, the starch of freshly steamed glutinous rice is converted to sugar and then fermented to alcohol.  Once fermented, the liquid is filtered and usually pasteurized.  Sakés can range from dry to sweet, but even the driest retain a hint of sweetness.

Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America Junmai Ginjo Genshu Saké

This saké is a domestic product from SakéOne saké brewery in Forest Grove, Oregon.  The company began as a saké importer in 1992, and in 1997 they expanded the operation and began brewing saké.

SakéOne’s modest tasting room.

In premium saké, water composition matters a great deal. SakéOne’s founder chose Oregon because he believed that the best-quality water for saké brewing is in the Northwest.

The other crucial component is rice, and SakéOne sources its Calrose rice from the Sacramento Valley. Calrose is derived from Japanese saké rice and has several qualities that produce saké with more body, higher viscosity, and a long finish.

This saké is the personal selection of Reverend Koichi Barrish and is a fundraiser for the Tsubaki Grand Shrine in Granite Falls, Washington, over which he presides.  20% of sales go to support the shrine.

This is a dryish, full-bodied saké with hints of spices and caramel.   The ABV is on the higher end at 18%, and the SMV* is +6.5..  The rice has a polish of 58%, so 42% of the rice has been removed.  Serve this chilled with poached clams, steamed asparagus, or lemon-baked salmon.

SakéOne also offers: Yomi, g, Momokawa, and Moonstone.

Yomi was the first canned sake available in the United States. Yomi is junmai ginjo saké, with a lower acidity and a medium body. It is 13% ABV.

g saké is genshu, undiluted sake. There are two varieties of g saké, g fifty genshu and g joy genshu, which have different taste profiles. Both are 18% ABV.

The Momokawa junmai ginjo saké line is about 14% ABV.  Momokawa Silver is dry and crisp, while Momokawa Organic Nigori is lush, smooth, fruity, and floral.

Moonstone is SakéOne’s premium junmai ginjo saké .

**An important gauge of saké  is the SMV (Saké Meter Value).  This measures the density of saké relative to water, and is the method for determining the dryness or sweetness of saké. The higher the SMV, the drier the saké. The range is -15 to +15.

Top of page: