Waipapa Bay Rosé

Waipapa BayIn 1819 English missionaries first brought vines to New Zealand. For the next 150 years or so, most of the wine produced there was for local consumption. That began to change in 1973, when Sauvignon Blanc was planted in Marlborough. Within the next decade, the wines and the region became New Zealand’s most famous.

Althogh the nation is, surprisingly, made up of around 600 islands, there are two primary ones, the aptly named North and South Islands. Predictably, most of its regions have a maritime climate. The country is divided along its length by a spine of mountains, which causes a rain shadow that keeps things fairly dry on the eastern side, where almost all of the grape growing is done, while it’s quite rainy on the west.

In 1987 Brent and Shirley Rawstron started farming 7.5 acres of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on the banks of the Halswell River in Canterbury, New Zealand. They soon re-planted to almost all Pinot Noir, which they found to be much more suited to the property. Eventually the estate expanded to 15 acres, all on north-facing slopes. In 2004, they pressed into Marlborough in search of additional desirable vineyard sites, and the couple now owns 100 acres of vineyards there, planted to Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris. Like 98% of New Zealand’s production, their grapes are sustainably grown.

Marlborough offers a special combination of climatic features that create the ideal site for bright, ripe, balanced fruit: plentiful sunshine, long, warm summer days, and cool nights that keep acidity in the grapes. These conditions particularly suit Sauvignon Blanc. Soils vary considerably in the region, allowing subtle differences between and even within vineyards. These are divided into blocks according to soil and aspect, and are harvested and vinified separately.

The name Waipapa Bay comes from a spot on the Pacific Ocean known for surfing and marine life. It is located halfway between the Canterbury home of the Rawstrons (native New Zealanders) and their vineyards in Rapaura.

The Waipapa Bay line is imported by Broadland Drinks, a 50-year-old international wine business with a British heritage. It has also been co-owner of the brand since 2012.

Waipapa Bay Pinot Noir Rosé

This 100-percent Pinot Noir hails from the Rawston’s estate in Canterbury. To produce the wine’s pale salmon hue, the skins are in contact with the wine for the first 24 hours. This rosé has aromas of strawberries and summer fruits, with a dash of spice. Carried by a medium body, on the palate there are plenty of red fruit flavors, especially raspberries and strawberries, which linger on the long finish. These come with a grapefruit-like zippy acidity. Serve lightly chilled. The ABV is 13%.


Note: In 2001, a small group of winemakers created The Screwcap Initiative, and the closure has become ubiquitous there, with 99% of New Zealand’s wines now released under screwcap.  The closure has gained major acceptance from Australian producers as well.

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Alquimista Cellars

La Follette Cellars

Some winemakers and winery proprietors are born into the business. Some buy into the business. And some evolve into it. Greg LaFollette of Alquimista evolved quite successfully. He has been called a “vine whisperer,” a “cellar magician,” and a “tireless coaxer and protector of handcrafted wines.” He is one of Sonoma’s most revered winemakers, and was honored as Winemaker of the Year in 2010. He has also been tagged “Prince of Pinot” by the website of the same name.

first, a career in science

La Follette’s early years were spent as a musician. At 17, he became the bagpiper for the Queen Mary berthed in Long Beach, California. (And he plays the bagpipes to this day.)  “I wanted to be a winemaker since my teens,” admitted La Follette. “But who in Los Angeles becomes a winemaker?” Eventually he decided that neither music nor wine offered a viable way forward, and after earning degrees in Plant Biology and Chemistry, La Follette started his professional career in 1984 at the University of California, San Francisco, as an Infectious Disease  researcher specializing in HIV suppression. While there, he co-authored over a dozen papers in the field. But, he was also still feeling the pull of his early interest in the wine industry.

While taking his masters degree in Food Science and Technology at U.C.Davis, he became fascinated with “mouth feel” and started dissecting wines to determine their components of taste and texture (especially of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay).  His particular interest in the Burgundian techniques of sur lie aging and bâtonnage coincided with an interest in new production techniques in California.

And then, a career in wine

Leaving academia behind, in 1991 he joined Treasury Wine Estates and held various positions at Beaulieu Vineyard, beginning with late-shift Harvest Winemaker and ending with Research Viticulturist/Enologist. He worked closely with winemaker Joel Aiken and the legendary wine master Andre Tchelistcheff, who exhorted La Follette to “live the wine,” which is to say to become totally immersed in both the science and art of winemaking.  He began to  increase his knowledge of Bordeaux varietals and production techniques. He also started traveling throughout the U.S. and Australia to further broaden his skill set.

In 1994 he began toiling for the Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates empire. Owner Jess Jackson enticed him to assist in lifting La Crema out of bankruptcy (that worked out well, for sure!) and starting the Hartford Court label. La Follette helped Hartford Court to win “Winery of the Year” and “Best Pinots of the Year” from Wine and Spirits magazine. His travels continued as he assisted in  establishing new wineries and vineyards in South America and the U.S. Drawing on his training as a researcher, he wrote numerous technical papers during this time, including “Designing Wineries for Maximum Quality Output with Minimum Cost Input,” which is still used by Napa Valley College in their winemaking syllabus.

In 1996, La Follette moved on to the Flowers Vineyard & Winery. His work there resulted in the establishment of a cult Pinot Noir (“massive” as he has characterized it; quite an unusual descriptor for Pinot Noir) and elevation of a previously little-known area that later became known as the Ft. Ross/Seaview AVA. The winery he built at Flowers during his tenure is still considered one of the best gravity-flow, gas-assist green wineries in the world. He reestablished 73 acres of Flowers’ vineyard using the best clones of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay he could find, while simultaneously reducing farming costs by over $4,000 per acre and increasing quality. He had just recently written an influential paper on that very subject, after all.

By 2001 he was partner and co-owner of Greg & Greg Inc., a custom crush facility which became an incubator for small, high-end brands such as McPhail, Londer, Holdredge, and Radio Coteau. That same year he launched the first winery of his own, Tandem Wine Co. These projects overlapped with his stint at Chile’s Viña Casa Marin as Consulting Winemaker, advising on viticulture, winemaking, and facility design. By 2004 he was also consulting with Boisset Collection, pulling yet another label, DeLoach, out of bankruptcy. And, he established La Follette Winegrowing Inc., his on-going wine consultancy that helps establish, resuscitate, or enhance new or struggling wineries.

Alquimista Cellars, perhaps the final stop on his wine journey

Today finds him as winemaker at Alquimista Cellars, in partnership with co-winemaker Patrick Dillon. Alquimista is Spanish for alchemist, a name selected for its history of fusing science, art, spirituality, mythology, the elements, and enlightenment. La Follette said, “Our passion in wine is to capture both magic and your imagination. Imagine winemaking built on science, spirituality, boundary-breaking artistry, and risk. Imagine experiencing wines that inform a new generation of discovery, while, at the same time, venerate old world tradition.”

Dillon also evolved into the world of wine, after wearing many hats: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, writer, author, editor [Forbes], web content director, strategic consultant, vice president of a software firm, executive producer at a web-based data visualization design firm, and co-author of the Open Range cookbook.

In 2000 Dillon and his wife Anne bought a small farm in Sonoma County, where they met Eric Sussman, who had just launched his Radio Coteau label. Leveraging Dillon’s growing interest in winemaking, Sussman recruited him for helping with a variety of chores in the cellar. “He kept telling me how romantic winemaking was,” Dillon recalls. “And I kept reminding him of what a great sense of humor he had.” But the hard work and mentoring paid off, leaving Dillon with an understanding of the need of maintaining great grower relations and enforcing unwavering fastidiousness in both the vineyard and winery. He gained further experience with Marimar Estate in Sonoma County, and later ADAMVS, the high-end Cabernet Sauvignon producer on Napa County’s Howell Mountain. “I saw in Patrick a world of experience that really rubbed off in working with growers even during the toughest harvests and in our winemaking,” reminisced La Follette.

Always the iconoclast, La Follette believes that “balance” is more important than low yields in producing  higher-quality wines. “A broad generalization” he said, referring to the low yield maxim. “It is more likely that high-end wines from vines that are cropped too low are actually worse than if the vine has a balanced crop. This leads to runaway alcohols. If the vine isn’t balanced, it will pay no attention to ripening its grape tannins. Then you must pick the grapes at higher sugar percentages to produce flavor-ripeness and that leads to higher alcohols, lower acidity, and jammy flavors. Balanced vines mean balanced wines, it’s as simple as all that.”

Alquimista’s focus is on vineyard-designated cool-climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnays. La Follette strives for minimal filtering and fining (so usually some cloudiness is to be expected), but all of the wines I was able to sample, at least, were crystal clear. To achieve that, the red wines are settled carefully and turbidity (cloudiness) is monitored before bottling. The white wines are cold-stabilized at 28° F for two weeks, and then racked cleanly off of the settling lees.

All of the wines are made from native yeasts carried from the vineyards on the grapes themselves. Sometimes this can lead to unpredictable results, but La Follette and Dillon fully embrace that possibility. The grapes are sourced from vineyards located in Lodi, the Russian River Valley, and Mendocino.

That little “4” or “A” like symbol on Alquimsta’s labels is the alchemy symbol for maceration, the time grape juice spends in contact with the skins and seeds.

The vineyards

Haiku VineyardThe 141-acre Haiku Vineyard lies at the foot of the Mayacamas Mountains in the Sanel Valley of Mendocino County.  Centuries of floods have left a cobbled and stony soil, in which every block has been organically farmed since  being  planted more than 25 years ago. The Fetzer family has worked it since 2005, using canopy and water management, organic compost, and natural habitats that encourage raptors for rodent control and songbirds for insect control. Cover crops that attract beneficial insects are utilized instead of pesticides, and to  prevent erosion, retain moisture, and add organic matter to the soil. Weeds are mowed rather than killed by herbicides.

Chuck and Gail Jones  purchased a half-acre adjacent to what would become their nearly eight-acre Hawk’s Roost Ranch in west Sonoma County in 1968. “The place had an absentee owner. There were some unkempt zinfandel vines on that land but it appeared to be propagating more weeds and poison oak than wine vines,” Chuck recalled. Eventually building and living on their half acre, Gail grew weary of the eyesore next door. “I’m tired of looking at weeds. Let’s buy the place,” she declared in 1992.

Hawks Roost Ranch

After stripping out the existing vegetation, the first plantings were pumpkins and cut flowers.. “Neither of us knew anything about farming grapes, much less what rootstock was and what it should be for our particular growing area,” Chuck said.  Jim Pratt, one of the area’s most respected vineyard managers, analyzed the soil, finding it consisted of alluvial clay-loam with hardpan about 18 inches beneath the surface. Pratt suggested a hearty rootstock and an equally virulent clone, known for its strength and boldness.  By 1998, more than 5,000 vines had been installed.

The five-acre Jessie’s Grove vineyard near Lodi has endured for 128 years. Originally planted by pioneer Joseph Spenke, and named for his daughter Jessie, the property is now farmed by Greg Burns, Spenker’s great great grandson. The gnarly vines are 86 percent head-trained Zinfandel, with the remainder a motley crew of Black Prince, Flame Tokay, Mission, and  Carignane vines. Says La Follette, “Each contributes a distinct element for the alchemy we strive for. This is our first project [in Lodi] and we are honored to work with arguably the most cherished vineyard of a region already renown for its ancient vines.”

Lorenzo VineyardOwned and farmed by John and Phyllis Bazzano and named for John’s Italian grandfather, the 10-acre Lorenzo Vineyard might have become a golf fairway instead. “My father and some of his friends got wind that the Santa Rosa Golf and Country Club was considering expanding. So, being pretty shrewd, they purchased land that would be in the way of the expansion, hoping for a nice sale,” recalls John. “Well, the expansion never came our way. We ended up with a bunch of oak trees and an old orchard.”

After some false starts in farming the property, the Bazzanos realized their ground possessed just the right amount of Russian River loamy clay to foster wine grapes.  They planted Chardonnay vines in 1974 and 1975; these are now some of the oldest in the appellation. La Follette has worked with the Bazzanos for more than 10 years.

Manchester RidgeManchester Ridge lies about one hour west of Boonville  on the Mendocino coast, 2000 feet above Point Arena and the Pacific.   The vineyard’s 30 acres of weathered soil are routinely subjected to wind, rain, and temperature swings. Since the late 1990s La Follette has partnered with vineyard manager Martin Mochizuki to coax the vines into producing the best grapes they can.

Mes FillesIn 1998, La Follette began working with the owners of the Mes Filles Vineyard  located in the Russian River Valley.  He supervises viticulture to his own specifications on the 10-acre site, which is perched above the fog line atop a hill southwest of Sebastopol. The area is made up of Goldridge soil, a fine sandy loam left from an inland sea that drained into the Pacific more than two million years ago. This soil is known for excellent drainage and good fertility. The sloping vineyard sees long hours of sunlight, and cool coastal evening temperatures are created by marine air moving through the Petaluma Gap.

The Oppenlander Vineyard occupies land cleared 160 years ago by Danish immigrant Charles Oppenlander near the hamlet of Comptche in northern Mendocino County. Bill and Norman Shandel, Oppenlander’s great grandsons, farm the land now along with their wives, Kitty and Wanda. The 20-acre vineyard, first planted more than 100 years ago, and replanted in 1998, is hosted in heavy, clay loam, surrounded by redwoods. Just eight miles from the coast, the property holds cool marine air that fosters long hang time and slow ripening.

a selection of the wines

Before I get to the wines, a note about the cork: for many of their wines, Alquimista is  using a new closure product. Called “UNiQ”, from Ganau,  It  is made from finely ground natural cork that has been put through a high-intensity steam-cleaning process at 180° C.  Although in my experience the overall risk is overstated, this eliminates any trace of TCA (the chemical compound that causes wine to be characterized as “corked”), and guards  against undesired aromas and flavors.  Because of the possibility of cork taint, as well as the increasing cost and scarcity of all-natural cork, we can expect to see more and more producers migrating to these types of products, as well as the useful screw-caps and far less desirable artificial plastic plugs.

Alquimista Chardonnay Manchester Ridge 2016

Because of the challenges Pinot Noir presents to even talented winemakers, La Follette likes to call his Chardonnays his “anti-crazy” wines.

This wine reflects Alquimista’s singleness of vision, and won’t be for everyone.  It is a bright, clear lemon yellow, with aromas of melon and honeysuckle. There is grapefruit and a distinct  grapefruit pith (albedo) bitterness on the tongue, underlain with lemon curd and a hint of white peaches, all supported by crisp acidity.  The ABV is 14.9%, and 100 cases were made.

The bottle art is by Sonoma artist Sandra Rubin.

Alquimista Confluence Pinot Noir 2016

This wine is sourced from three estates, Mes Filles Vineyard, Hawk’s Roost Ranch, and Lorenzo Vineyard, all in the Russian River Valley AVA. The juices from these vineyards were separately aged in French oak for 18 months before being blended.  This Pinot is a medium purple in the glass.  It has a big nose of ripe cherry and spices.  The palate features tart cherries and dark fruits, mainly blueberries.  There is a snappy acidity that may be too intense for younger or more sensitive drinkers.  It all wraps up with a long finish.  The ABV is 14.2%, and a mere 67cases were produced.

The bottle art is  by San Francisco Bay area artist Mandy Bankson.

Alquimista Convergence Pinot Noir 2016

The 2016 is the initial offering of “Convergence,” a blend of three different vineyards in Mendocino County: Manchester Ridge is the anchor, with support form the Oppenlander Vineyard and the Haiku Vineyard.  The Manchester Ridge juice fermented on Chardonnay lees in its two barrels of new oak. The 18 remaining vineyard-designate barrels were once- and twice-used French oak, and the juices were separately aged for 19 months before being converged.  Like the Confluence, this Pinot is a crystal-clear, medium purple in the glass, with a similar nose of ripe cherry and spices.  The soft palate features zippy tart cherries, cranberry, and cinnamon, with a hint of cocoa.  It too all wraps up with a long finish.  The ABV is 14.2%, and 168 cases were produced.

The bottle art is  by San Francisco Bay area artist Mandy Bankson.

Alquimista Hawk’s Roost Ranch Pinot Noir 2016

100% sourced from the Hawk’s Roost Ranch, this Pinot is a clear, red garnet.  You are greeted by aromas of sweet dark berries, plum, and strawberries.   Remarkably, there is also just the slightest hint of smokey bacon.  These are followed by flavors of sweet cherries, cranberry, and fruit compotes.  The mouthfeel is round and soft, and the pliable tannins and acid are in perfect balance.  Definitely not your average California Pinot Noir.  The ABV is 14.1%, and 125 cases were produced.

The bottle art is  by Santa Rosa artist Mary Blake.

Alquimista Manchester Ridge Pinot Noir 2016

This wine was barrel aged on the lees for 16 months in only 15% new oak plus 85% once-used wood.  It is is the palest of these four Pinot Noirs, but with no reduction in flavor.  It starts with aromas of violets and blueberries, which also flow onto the palate with additional flavors of dried fruit, bitter orange, and a bit of cocoa.  It ends with a medium-long finish.  The ABV is 14.6%, and 150 cases were produced.

The bottle art is  by Point Reyes Station artist Toni Littlejohn.

Alquimista Jessie’s Grove Ancient Vine Zinfandel 2016

This selection is primarily Zinfandel, but is blended with the Carignan, Flame Tokay, Black Prince, and Mission grapes that Jessie’s Grove offers.  The black cherry color continues on as aroma to the nose. Then comes the flavors of plum and tart cherry, with just a bit of Zinfandel’s characteristic black pepper spiciness.  It has a long finish.  The ABV is 15.1%, and 65 cases were produced.

The bottle art is  by Sebastopol artist Carol Rae Watanabe.

You can find these and other selections at Alquimista Cellars’ website: https://alquimistacellars.com.

Visitors are welcomed to Alquimista, but strictly by appointment only, Covid or not.  Contact Alquimista through the website for more information.

NOTE:  There is a La Follette Winery in Healdsburg, which grew out of Tandem Wine Co. (it’s complicated), and although Greg La Follette was a part of its establishment as the founding winemaker, he departed soon after over “creative differences,” and no longer has any involvement.

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Midnight Black Rosé

Midnight Black RoseTo say that the Taub family is an international wine and spirits powerhouse is, frankly, quite an understatement.  It all started on December 6th, 1933, when Martin Taub and his brothers started making brandy in Jersey City. After World War II, Taub started a distributorship in New York because long-time clients Ernest and Julio Gallo needed a partner on the East Coast.

Martin’s son David started his career working at the distribution company, but in 1977, he struck out on his own (with his father’s help, of course), founding  Palm Bay Imports. Soave was a big seller at the time, so David headed to Italy’s Trentino region to locate a new Italian wine for the U.S.  And find one he did: Pinot Grigio. He formed a partnership with the Cantina Viticoltori del Trentino, Ca’Vit for short, which Taub changed to Cavit for the American market (TV personality Dick Cavett was an early pitchman). The Taubs’ distribution muscle sent Cavit across America, and people lapped it up.  Italian acreage of Pinot Grigio doubled between 1990 and 2000 alone. (The success wasn’t just due to Taub’s Cavit, though. The Terlato family’s Paterno Imports, no small operation itself, started bringing in another Pinot Girgio that would go on to become a big seller, Santa Margherita, in 1979.)

In 1990 Taub started what would become an aggressive expansion program by adding two more Italian estates.  In 1998, he partnered with Olive Garden, and today Palm Bay is the supplier for their wine program, including the chain’s house wines, produced by Cavit. And there are plenty of other wines to chose from as well.  Palm Bay Imports was rechristened Palm Bay International in 2007 when the company added domestic wineries to their portfolio, which now numbers 103 producers of both wines and spirits in 17 countries. And as if that weren’t enough, in 2016 the “fine wine” labels, including Chateau LaFite Rothschild, Légende, and Los Vascos, were spun off as Taub Family Selections, with 83 brands of their own.  See?  International powerhouse, and one you’ve probably never heard of.  The operation is now into the third generation, with David’s son Marc ascending to CEO after his father’s death in 2012.

Midnight Black Rosé

This pink is 100% Lagrein from Trentino, where it is mostly grown.  It’s marketed as a wine for strong independent women.  “You know who you are and that’s for sure not a girly-girl. You are fierce, always stand up for
what you believe in, and never apologize. You believe that life is more fun when you take risks and veer outside the lines,” states the sales flyer.  Whatevs.  I’m a manly-man and I drink Rosé without apology dammit (especially when it’s ripping hot outside, as it is right now.)  Fermentation was on the seeds and skins (aka must) for the first two days to induce the color, which is a nice pink/orange.  After fermentation was complete, the wine aged for  several months in stainless steel tanks.  This full-bodied, bone-dry Rosé offers aromas and flavors  of apricot, melon, and grapefruit, with a bit of Seville oranges at the finish. There is a balanced acidity, and the ABV is 12.5%.


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Summer White Wines, None of Them Chardonnay

Summer is a little more than half over, and the long, hot days are waning away. Which is fine with me, but I’m in the minority, as I am every year. Regardless, there are two months of nice weather left in most of the country, which is plenty of time to get together outside, at six-feet apart, of course, with a few close friends and enjoy some white wine. There are many to choose from, and I’ll get to that next. But first, what you don’t want for summer quaffing is a rich, buttery selection like a highly-oaked Chardonnay. (And I say “highly-oaked,” because for me, I’ve never encountered an “over-oaked” Chard.

That being said, here are eleven ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) grape variety suggestions for summer sippers, with some specific label recommendations as well.

1. Aligoté is the other white grape of Burgundy. The wines made from it are often citrusy and sometimes nutty. Try them while you can, because vineyards are being replanted to the much more popular Chardonnay all the time. One such is the Didier Montchovet Aligoté, which is fermented in enamel-lined tanks, rather than stainless steel. The wine is somewhat vegetal, with plenty of acidity.

2. Although justly famous for its Port dessert wine, Portugal isn’t a one-trick wine country. Its Alvarinho is from the Vinho Verde region. This thick-skinned grape produces wines of creamy richness, with apricots, peaches, and citrus flavors. The Reguengo de Melgaco expression is fresh and stony, with the typical citrus and some more exotic fruit. Once you cross the border into Spain, Alvarinho becomes Albariño. You could try the bright, fresh Salneval with its stone fruit and citrus, the refreshing Condes de Albarei that delivers stone fruit, melon, and actual stones, or the racy Brandal offering citrus, tangerine, and plenty of minerals.

3. Opa! Assyrtico from the Greek island of Santorini has citrus and honeysuckle flavors and a penetrating acidity. The Chatzivariti Eurynome has a nose of white flowers and that typical citrus, joined by minerals and spice on the palate. Or consider the Thalassitis, with its minerality and racy acidity supported by subtle lemon, spices, and herbs.

4. Italy’s Soave is famously made from Garganega. When carefully made, this grape can yield wines that are quite elegant, and exhibit a notable almond character. The I Masieri from Angiolino Maule is light and fresh, with plenty of mineral-laden tangerine, lemon, and grapefruit.

5. Known for its often high alcohol and low acidity, Grenache Blanc is widely planted in Spain and France, but this Acquiesce version comes from Lodi. It has a nose of pear, honey, and wildflowers, followed by flavors of honeysuckle, tropical fruit, and minerals.

6. Gruner Veitliner is a white wine grape grown mainly in Austria, but is also cultivated in parts of eastern Europe. The wines are pale, crisp, light-to-medium bodied, and often come with subtle spice notes. A sparkling example to try is Schlumberger Gruner Veitliner Klassik. This wine is a bright yellow, with hints of green and a nice fizz. If you’d prefer a still wine, there is the bright and crisp Loimer Lois [loyce].

7. Although it originated in Burgundy, Melon de Bourgogne [boor-gwan-yuh] now almost exclusively makes its home in the Loire Valley, where it is also known as Muscadet if it comes from the Pays Mantais subregion. Often aged sur lie (in which the wine has prolonged contact with dead yeast cells and other sediment to increase depth and complexity), these wines can be soft and creamy with hints of citrus. The light-bodied expression from Marc Presnot, La Bohème, is all that, plus flowers, grapefruit, and figs. The bone-dry Henri Poiron Domaine des Quatres Routes has a nose of green apple and pineapple. More green apple pairs with lemon peel on the palate.

8. I like Pinot Grigio (also known as Pinot Gris depending on where it’s grown), but I just can’t get excited about it. Dunno why. Regardless, this grape can range from crisp, light and dry when it’s made in northern Italy, to rich, fat, and honeyed Alsacian versions. Predictably, the Luna Nuda from Alto Adige is bright and fresh, with citrus, apples, and minerals dominant. The widely available Lindeman’s Bin 85 from Down Under has citrus, white stone fruit, and some grassy notes. The high acidity makes it quite refreshing. Left Coast Cellar‘s The Orchards hails from Willamette, and offers up light citrus and a hint of flowers. The medium body has a creamy texture and medium acidity.

9. OK. Riesling. I’m going to be honest about this up-front: although Riesling is, by all accounts, one of the world’s greatest white-wine grapes, and makes classic food-friendly wines in a range of styles from quite dry to very sweet, I’ve never been much of a fan. This baffled me for a long time, but I finally figured it out. I find that most Rieslings exhibit both an aroma and a taste of oil. At their best, it’s like olive oil. At their worst, it’s like motor oil, at least to me. Once you get beyond that, they have zippy acidity, notes of spice and fruit (particularly peaches and apricots), and a flower-scented bouquet. A good German expression to try would be Armand Riesling Kabinett, which has that characteristic spice, fruit, and acid, plus a bit of sweetness. Another is the Schloss Schonborn Marcobrunn, an elegant wine with aromas of apricot, peach, and tangerine, balanced by minerality and hints of spice. Plenty of Riesling comes from California, too. Ser Dry Riesling, produced near Santa Cruz, tastes of mostly tart citrus, particularly lime, with subtle hints of pear and apple. (You can read more about Ser here.) The off-dry and medium-bodied J. Lohr Bay Mist entices with honeysuckle, spice, and a lush mouthfeel, accompanied by tropical fruit and pear. And there is the typically dry Gobelsburger from Austria, featuring white peach, nectarine, apricot, and a bit of pepper. Finally, the Jacob’s Creek Reserve from Australia is easy-drinking, crisp, and packed with juicy citrus.

10. Roussanne hails from France’s Rhône region, and its wines are often delicate and refined.  But these two are from California.  The Edmunds St John from Paso Robles offers an oily texture, tastes of mangoes, baking spices, and honey, all balanced by a vibrant acidity. The always reliable Cline in Sonoma makes a blend of Marsanne and Roussanne that has notes of honey, orange, and pineapple with a  mineral finish.  It is completely unoaked.

11. Probably the best well-known of these varietals to most people, Sauvignon Blanc is widely grown around the world, with France, California, and New Zealand being major producers. Sauvignon Blancs can show plenty of acidity and minerality, so they are crisp and flavorful, and best when young. This all makes them classic summer wines.  They can also have grassy and herbaceous flavors and aromas. These don’t appeal to me, but many others enjoy those sorts of things. Rombauer comes from Napa Valley. This is the same family responsible for The Joy of Cooking. This refreshing wine delivers flavors of grapefruit, lime, and white peach, with just a smidgen of grass. Riley’s Rows is owned by a young vintner in Sonoma who is just 20 years old and is still in college!  Her wine is nearly colorless, and has a delicate nose of papaya and honeydew. It is slightly sweet, with subtle flavors of lemon and grapefruit, and absolutely no grassiness.  From New Zealand I have three possibilities: there is te Pa, with gooseberry and nectarine on the palate, ending in mineral and flint notes. The international powerhouse Kim Crawford is readily available. It offers a tart, refreshing, distinct grapefruit nose and taste. It is completely dry, with a bit of flint on the finish. Whitehaven is a small producer, so it may be harder to find. Their wine is medium bodied, with blackcurrant and gooseberry flavors and a dry, clean finish. And I can suggest the Bird in Hand Sauvignon Blanc from Australia for its flavors of gooseberry and passionfruit and a bit of lemon curd.

Many of these wines share traits of citrus, minerality, and crisp acidity.  If you seek out selections for summer sipping with these same characteristics, you really can’t go wrong.

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Riley’s Rows

Riley's Rows


There’s an old witticism in the wine business that goes, “If you want to make a million dollars by producing wine, the first thing you need to do is spend a million dollars.” For a young and ambitious vintner to be able to skip that first step would be quite a blessing. Such is the case with Riley Flanagan. She is the eldest daughter of Eric Flanagan, a boutique winemaker and grape supplier in Sonoma, California. Through his Flanagan Wines operation, her father shares the tasting room, winemaking facility, and some of the fruit for his daughter’s own wine label.

Riley Flanagan

Riley Flanagan literally grew up in the vineyard. She was born in 1999, the year that her father bought his first piece of land, which at the time had not yet seen any cultivation. At the age of three, she helped plant their first vines in that first family vineyard, located in Bennett Valley. The site sits at 1200 feet up on the south and southwest slopes of Bennett Ridge at the confluence of San Pablo Bay and Petaluma Gap. The soil is rocky, volcanic cobbles with excellent drainage. Having a warm micro-climate in a cool region means that bud break here is early, but harvest is late. The extra hang time for the grapes, along with the low yields and the hillside site, can deliver intense, complex fruit.

Isabelle MortIsabelle Mort

She helped bring in the harvest of Flanagan’s first wine (it was just one barrel, released in 2004). As she grew older, she began to work in the cellar of the winery, being mentored by Flanagan’s winemaker, Isabelle Mort (among others along the way), and who is now her winemaker as well. With this kind of background, Riley, although as of this writing just twenty-years-old, is way ahead of the game. (I find it’s rather ironically amusing that Riley is old enough to legally oversee a wine operation in California, but not to drink its products.) Her stated goal is to “create a wine for everyone; great wines, made with integrity, at an accessible price. I want [people] to experience all of the beauty [wine] has to offer.”  To fill her idle hours, Riley is currently a full-time student in chemistry, a field she has also been interested in since childhood, at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

Riley Flanagan


The name “Riley’s Rows” refers to the vines she planted with her father twenty years ago, and her current releases are bottlings made from those very same plants. About that early beginning, Riley shared, “From that day on, I was in love. I gave up my aspirations of being a princess and committed to becoming a wine maker.” The drawings of grape vines on the labels are by Riley herself, made when she was four years old.

Flanagan clan

The Flanagan clan.

4CsA portion of Riley’s Rows retail sales are donated to 4Cs, a nonprofit organization that operates 11 state-funded preschools, and provides affordable, quality childcare in the Sonoma area.

4Cs Sonoma


The neck of the bottle of this and all of the Riley’s Rows selections have no foil capsule, by intent.  Riley shared, “I don’t use foils because I don’t like them. I just prefer the look of not having them and I can’t stand cutting them!”

Riley’s Rows Sauvignon Blanc. 2019

This wine was made from just the second crop harvested from the Redwood Valley Grape Ranch in Mendocino County, way up north.  It was fermented in 60% stainless steel and 40% barrels.  It is nearly colorless, with merely a suggestion of yellow.  It has a delicate nose of papaya and honeydew, and a nice smooth mouthfeel.  The subtle flavors are lemon and grapefruit, with absolutely no grassiness.  Although relatively common in this varietal,  I prefer my Sauvignon Blancs without it.  The finish is clean but somewhat short.  ABV is 12.8%, and 1,024 cases were released.

Riley’s Rows Rosé of Syrah 2019

This super refreshing rose began life in a small Syrah vineyard in Sonoma’s Bennett Valley.  The goal was to mimic the pink wines of Provence.  It is a lovely light salmon color in the glass.  You are greeted with aromas of mouthwatering ripe fruits, particularly nectarines and strawberries.  The soft plush mouthfeel and medium body is paired with flavors of grapefruit, blood orange, and stone fruits.  The delicate tannins and vibrant acidity lead to a medium finish.  The dry fermentation was in 60% stainless steel and 40% neutral barrels (hence those subtle tannins).  ABV is 12.8%, and 540 cases were produced.

Riley’s Rows 3×3 Red Blend 2017

Made from 36% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Syrah, and 29% Merlot from a number of north-coast Sonoma vineyards, including the Flanagan’s Brandt Ranch. It was in French oak barrels, 20% new and the remainder once-used, for 14 months.  This blend opens with a nose full of dark fruits and a hint of cocoa.  Next come flavors of plums, blackberry, and more cocoa, complemented by good acidity.  But what really stands out here are the big, grippy tannins.  Now, this is fine with me, but may not be for everyone.  It ends in a long finish with, predictably, plenty of black tea notes.   The ABV is 14.2% and 355 cases were made.


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Flanagan Wines

Flanagan Wines


Eric Flanagan did not come of age with a background in the wine business, or even farming. After graduating from college in 1985, he embarked on a banking career, which he pursued until 2013. His job during those years took him on journeys around the world. He had always had an interest in wine, and over the course of these trips Flanagan became fascinated by how grapes of the same variety expressed themselves in different places.

the siren call of wine

Seeing no need to wait for retirement to start a second career, at the age of 36 in 1999 he decided to act on his deep interest in the world of wine. He purchased 40 acres of open land on the side of Bennett Mountain in Sonoma, California, (in what would later become the Bennett Valley AVA). The site sits at 1200 feet on the south and southwest slopes of Bennett Ridge at the confluence of San Pablo Bay and Petaluma Gap. The soil is rocky, volcanic cobbles with excellent drainage. Having a warm micro-climate in a cool region means that bud break here is early, but harvest is late. The extra hang time for the grapes, along with the low yields and the hillside site, can deliver intense, complex fruit. Flanagan and his then very-young first daughter, Riley (who has gone on to become a vintner herself), planted his first vines there in 2001.


The original winery and Bennett vineyard.

Flanagan’s first wine was one barrel of Cabernet Sauvignon made in 2004 with winemaker Philippe Melka. In just the following year he grew production to 150 cases.

Cabell Coursey                                     Isabelle Mort

From 2014 to 2016,  Cabell Coursey was the winemaker at Flanagan. The energetic and peripatetic Coursey also makes the wine for Tony Lombardi, as well as his own label, Coursey Graves. Although he continues as consulting winemaker for Flanagan, the day-to-day winemaking operations are overseen by Isabelle Mort, who also makes the wines for Riley Flanagan’s label, Riley’s Rows.  (And while Eric Flanagan sources all of his grapes from Sonoma County, his daughter draws some of her fruit from ranches in Lake County and Mendocino.)

In 2015, Flanagan obtained a 27-acre Pinot Noir vineyard named Gap’s View in the Petaluma Gap area of the Sonoma Coast AVA. Cool afternoon winds from the Petaluma Gap keep the fruit “clean” and allow it to ripen slowly. The site is the source of some of Flanagan’s Pinot Noir grapes, a small amount of which are made into a vineyard-designated wine.

That same year, he purchased the iconic Sonoma Coast Platt Ranch. With over 300 acres of redwood and fir, it is home to one of the largest coastal redwood groves in the state. The vineyard itself is just 2.5 miles from the Pacific Ocean, and has 31 acres planted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The soil is Goldridge fine sandy loam, and sits high above the regular morning fog. From the top of the property, you can see the tiny town of Bodega and the Pacific Ocean.

Platt Ranch

Platt Ranch vineyard, which Flanagan believes “may be the greatest Pinot Noir and Chardonnay site in California.”

Flanagan winery 2.0

With access to so much high-quality fruit, Flanagan quickly outgrew the original production facility. In 2016 he purchased a shuttered winery located just outside of Healdsburg. The operation is one of the oldest in Sonoma County, having been originally bonded in 1885. “We couldn’t be more thrilled to have found this special winery site and estate vineyards,” said Flanagan. “We realized [in 2014] that the winery I built in Bennett Valley wouldn’t meet our future needs. Acquiring an operating winery with a 25,000 case permit, ten acres of vineyard, and a public tasting room feels like a miracle.”


The current Flanagan winery.

FlanaganThe Flanagan production building. The three blue rivulets are the winery’s logo, symbolizing the Flanagans’ three children, all daughters.

The estate totals twenty acres, ten of which are planted to vines. Shortly after the purchase, Flanagan and then-winemaker Coursey replanted to Cabernet Sauvignon with modern spacing to make the most of the hillside site. Coursey said at the time, “I’m excited to replant the winery’s estate vineyards, and look forward to redesigning the winery and creating a world-class facility. The new winery will enhance our ability to craft wines with integrity from some of the most exceptional vineyard sites in Sonoma County.”


The view from the tasting room patio.  The rainbow does not appear every day.

In 2016, Flanagan bought the historic Brandt Ranch, which is located within the Kelsey Bench appellation in Lake County, north of Napa Valley. The 120-acre vineyard has 108 acres planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc.

“Having a top Kelsey Bench Cabernet source was a thoughtful addition to the highly-acclaimed Pinot Noir vineyards at Platt Ranch and Gap’s View,” reminisced Flanagan. “Brandt Ranch is a site with great soils, aspect, and climate … my commitment is to help every vineyard we own to realize its potential.”

Other vineyards

In addition to the Bennett Valley, Platt, and Brandt Ranch already mentioned, Flanagan also sources fruit from these two properties (and a few others I won’t get in to).

Bacigalupi Vineyard is a few miles south of the Flanagan winery. The Bacigalupi family owns about 120 acres of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir here. This vineyard was the source of the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that beat the French competition at the famous “Judgement of Paris” tasting in 1976.

Ritchie Vineyard, a famous Chardonnay site in Sonoma County, was planted in the early ’70s with a Wente clone of Chardonnay. Owner Kent Ritchie was told shortly afterward he would have to eventually replant the vineyard because the vines were not phylloxera resistant, but some forty years later the Ritchie Vineyard is still producing world-class fruit.


Flanagan has an annual production of 4,300 cases, all made sustainably. As of this writing, they are in the process of having their vineyards certified sustainable by CSWA (California Sustainable Winegrowers Alliance).

Beyond the formal certification, sustainability for Flanagan means, “that we farm with a long-term mindset. We do everything we can to ensure that this land will be as healthy, or healthier than, it was when we found it. We are committed to balanced, healthy vineyards, and to producing wines that reflect the integrity and distinctiveness of their site. Our mission is to make great wines from the best vineyards in Sonoma County.”

Flanagan clan

The Flanagan clan.

Flanagan Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2017

The wine was 100% barrel fermented with a blend of fruit sourced primarily from the Bacigalupi and Ritchie vineyards, and then aged for 11 months in French oak barrels, of which 45% were new. A bright gold in the glass, it features a nose of citrus and papaya aromas, with a hint of butterscotch. The lush mouthfeel is accompanied by flavors of tart grapefruit, pineapple, pear, and a suggestion of minerality.  It has bright acidity to balance the richness, and a long finish. ABV is 14.5%.  359 cases produced.  This is one of Flanagan’s four Chardonnays.

Flanagan Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2016

This Pinot Noir saw 11 months of ageing in  French oak, 46% new. Fermentation was done in open top fermenters for 10 days.  It exhibits a brilliant clear dark red color, and a nose dominated by dark plum accompanied by red cherry, floral notes, and spice. There are flavors of tart cherry and mixed red fruits on the palate.  The tannins are nicely integrated.  It ends in a medium finish, with a lingering suggestion of black tea. This vintage was sourced from the  Gap’s View and Platt vineyards, as well as two others. ABV is 14.3%, and 700 cases were made.  This is one of the five Pinot Noir’s Flanagan produces.

Flanagan The Beauty of Three Proprietary Red 2015

This is a blend of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Syrah, and 5% Merlot, drawn from the same barrels as their Flagship blend, but with a different composition.

It presents with a rich, dark purple color.  There are plenty of blackberry and dark stone fruit aromas, and these continue on as the primary flavors with the addition of some cassis.  It has an unctious mouthfeel, very smooth tannins, and a nice long finish. ABV is 14.8% and 640 cases were released.


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Wine in a Can? Yes Please!

From left to right: Lubanzi (photo courtesy of Lubanzi), Underwood (photo by Jules Davis), and Alloy (photo courtesy of Alloy)

We’re all familiar with wine in glass bottles, and even boxes. but cans are gaining ground, particularly with Gen Zers and Millenials.

When it comes to wine packaging, the glass bottle has been the primary choice for centuries. Because of this long history and tradition, consumers associate the bottle size, shape, and color directly with the quality of the product within. By and large, screw-top closures, oddly-shaped bottles, non-glass containers, and boxes were relegated to lower-quality products.

That all began to change about 20 years ago, with a growing acceptance of screw-tops, the ones from Swiss company STELVIN® in particular. It is an aluminum closure system specially designed for wine, featuring a specific bottle neck finish and a range of liners. This was accompanied by the wide introduction of packaging alternatives such as Tetra Paks, wine-on-tap, bag-in-box, individual-serving sized plastic pouches, and aluminum cans.

A short history of canned wine

The story of canned wine, particularly, is much older, however. In the mid-1930s, metal-canning technology was developed, and people have been consuming assorted beverages, such as soda, juice, and beer in cans for over 90 years, of course. As early as 1936, the Acampo Winery began packaging a California Muscatel in steel cans under its Acampa brand. Another early pioneer was Vin-Tin-Age.  (You’ve got to love that forced pun. Or not.) However, these early efforts failed with drinkers, presumably due to the wine’s interaction with the unlined metal of the steel can. In the early ’80s there was another attempt to sell wine in cans, this time made of aluminum. Taylor California Cellars tried to convince airlines to serve their wine in lightweight, single-serve aluminum cans. However, small glass and/or plastic packaging won out instead; the now-ubiquitous 50 ml airplane bottle is familiar to anyone who has flown, or visited a liquor store.

Regardless of specific type, any wine packaging must serve three purposes. First, it must to protect the wine, which can be damaged if exposed to oxygen, bacteria, or other harmful contaminants. Second, it must contain the wine (duh!), allowing it to be transported, stored, and consumed. Finally, it must provide information about what you’re drinking: where the grapes were grown, the alcohol percentage (ABV), the name of the wine, and more. Cans do a excellent job of protecting wine, especially ones that are young, fresh, and fruity, with little to no oak contact, low to moderate tannins, and intended for consumption shortly after purchase.

The growing popularity of canned wine

Canned wine accounts for a tiny fraction of the market, about one percent. Even so, cans are one of the fastest-growing forms of alternative wine packaging. For years, a can was seen mainly as a convenient way to deliver cheap wine, but these days the same change in consumer acceptance that occurred with screw-caps is happening with canned wine, with higher-quality wines being introduced over the last two decades. Wine-in-can sales totaled $6.4 million in 2015, $14.5 million in 2016, and $22.3 million in 2017. In 2018, sales jumped to more than $69 million, totaling the equivalent of 739,000 12-bottle cases in retail outlets tracked by Nielsen. That’s up from just $2 million in 2012, compared with a five-percent increase in boxed wines and a 14.2-percent gain for wine in Tetra Paks during the same period.

A number of factors have contributed to wineries’ enthusiasm for canned wine. Cans offer drinkers convenience and portability, since cans are welcome many places glass bottles are not, such as private lawns and pools. The labeling is often fun, dramatic, and creative, allowing producers to position themselves as modern and forward thinking, which is of particular importance to Gen Zers and Millenials. Gotta stay hip, ya know. More substantially, aluminum is 100% recyclable, resulting in a very small environmental footprint. Due to lighter weight during shipping and handling, reduced breakage, and more-efficient stacking, cans versus glass bottles also yield typical savings to producers of approximately 15 to 20%, with some claiming as high as 40%.

Another detail not to be overlooked is the lining that coats the inside of the can, and prevents the liquid from interacting with the aluminum, which was the bane of the false starts of years ago. The pioneer in this regard is the Baroke Winery of Australia. In 1996 they introduced their patented can-coating system, trademarked as Vinsafe. However, no U.S. producers use the Vinsafe technology, relying instead on coatings developed by domestic can makers, primarily Ball. Note that because wine is acidic (less so than beer, more so than cola), eventually the polymer coating can degrade. Another reason to enjoy canned wine as soon as possible (as if we need one).

Finally, we must not disregard the impact of the Internet. It is full of selfies of consumers with colorful, creative cans. The fun and festive nature of many of the designer cans inspires social media blog entries, hashtags, and pictures of friends enjoying the wine together as well.

Currently, 350 wine-in-a-can products are available from 125 wineries in 13 countries. In Japan, wine in cans is very popular, in part because selections are widely available in vending machines. (This is a convenience that will likely never be seen in the U.S. market, due to our century-old hangover from Prohibition.) Quite a number of canned sakés are also offered there.

Three prominent “wine in a can” pioneers

In the U.S., Francis Ford Coppola (yes, the director of the Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now, as well as many other films) recreated the wine-in-can category in 2002 by producing a wine named after his daughter, Sofia, to serve at her pool-side wedding. He also cans his Diamond brand. Since then, Coppola has been joined by such major producers as E. & J. Gallo with their Barefoot and Dark Horse labels; The Infinite Monkey Theorem of Colorado and Texas; Precept Wine conglomerate’s House brand; Field Recordings / Alloy Wine Works offering California selections; and Union Wine Company of Oregon which sells its products under the Underwood label.

Andrew Jones founded Field Recordings, a single-vineyard project, in Paso Robles, California, in 2007. Jones released his first canned wine, Fiction Red, under the Alloy Wine Works label (Get it? Metal? Alloy?) in 2014. It was intended as a one-off release, but the positive response from buyers prompted him to pursue the format; today, around 40% of the winery’s production is canned. The lineup consists of three core wines: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Everyday Rosé. In addition, they frequently release unorthodox, limited-edition offerings, mainly for the can-wine club members, though they sometimes become permanent additions to the portfolio. “It was about meeting people where they wanted to be,” says Jones. “They wanted top-quality, terroir-driven grapes, treated the same way they would be for the bottle, but in a smaller, endlessly recyclable package that could be consumed anywhere.” Jones sold the company to Vintage Wine Estates in 2019, but is still involved. He reports that his production line is currently 20 times what it was when he launched.

Union Wine Company dove into canning by launching its Underwood label in 2014, relying on 375 ml cans. Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris were the first two varietals offered, but the lineup has since expanded to include still rosé, white and rosé sparkling wines, a white blend, and wine coolers. Today, 55% of the company’s 448,000-case business is in cans, up a remarkable jump from just over 100,000 cases in 2014.

Founder and owner Ryan Harms credits the success of Underwood’s canned products to their affordability and lack of pretension. “With cans, we embrace the artistry of making great wine, minus all the fuss,” Harms says. “And we’ve remained committed to our original mission of bringing craft quality and affordable Oregon wines to people’s tables for everyday occasions.” Harms says the appeal of the Underwood wines is that they have “an implied ‘ready to drink’ quality, which allows them to lend themselves to the can better than other styles might.”

A final note, and a few recommendations.

Most canned wines are either 375 ml (a half “bottle” of wine) or 250 ml (the size of a can of Red Bull). While the 375s can be sold individually, the federal government prohibits individual sales of the 250 ml cans, requiring that they be sold in four-packs. I prefer the 375 ml size when I can get it. Some wines come in 187 ml or 500 ml cans, but these are less common. And, an individual winery won’t offer a variety of can sizes; they pick one and stick with it.

I can recommend just about all of the Underwoods, especially The Bubbles, Dark Horse Rosé, Butter Chardonnay (even though its oaked profile is atypical of canned wine), Creamery Chardonnay, and Cupcake Chardonnay.

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Ser Winery

Ser Winery


In the tradition-bound world of wine, winemaking has, predictably, been dominated by men. For example, there are about 4,800 wineries in California, but only 10 percent have female lead winemakers. (When it comes to winery ownership, the number does jump up to about 19 percent, according to Woman Owned Wineries, a nationwide directory of female wine entrepreneurs.)

Encouragingly, however, greater educational opportunities (as opposed to the historically more usual inheriting a wine operation) have been opening the possibility of becoming a winemaker to more and more women. One of these is Nicole Walsh of Ser Winery in Aptos, California, due east of Santa Cruz.

The winemaker

Over the course of her 19-year career (so far), Walsh has held just about every position in the wine industry, including associate winemaker, winemaker, vineyard manager, grower-relations manager, and owner. She was born in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1975. An early interest in wine drew her to Michigan State University, graduating with honors in 1998. At the time, the undergraduate department of Viticulture and Enology there was, remarkably, comprised of just two students. This provided a highly unusual opportunity to be immersively mentored by Horticulture professors in grape growing and winemaking. As part of her last semester at MSU, she attended a sustainable agriculture university, EARTH, in Costa Rica. While there, Walsh became proficient in Spanish, and she solidified her commitment to sustainable agriculture.

Nicole Walsh

Nicole Walsh    Photo: www.wildu.co

After graduation, she worked for four years on the Leelanau peninsula in northern Michigan. This small AVA (one of five in Michigan) is home to 27 wineries, and has diverse microclimates uniquely suited to cool-climate wine grapes, particularly Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Franc. During her time there, she managed vineyards and honed her winemakeing skills.

In early 2001, she married Kevin Walsh, and together they moved to Santa Cruz, California. Shortly thereafter, in February, she started working with Randall Grahm at Bonny Doon Vineyard.

Walsh took a sabbatical from Bonny Doon in 2008, when she moved with her husband and young son to Marlborough, New Zealand. After a year, she returned to Santa Cruz to develop Bonny Doon’s newest property in San Juan Bautista. She continues to manage that property as well as make wine at Bonny Doon’s Santa Cruz winery.

In 2012, reflecting on her New Zealand experience, especially with Pinot Noir, Walsh decided to start her own wine brand as well, which she christened Ser, which is Spanish for “expressing identity or origin; having the intrinsic quality of.”

“I was inspired for the name after reading an article by Andrew Jefford, ‘Wine and Astonishment’. It was in that writing that the notion of the ‘being’ of wine truly resonated with me. Being is different than existing. It is true, wine exists; you can touch it, smell it, drink it. To quote Jefford, ‘Being, by contrast, is the ‘isness’ inside.’ In other words, the natural essence of the grapes unique to each specific growing area. I am dedicated to preserving the ‘isness’ of wine, to allow its true varietal expression and the place and time of its origins,” shared Walsh. Clearly, this thinking closely aligns with the traditional concept of terroir.

She continued, “Jefford also talks of that first moment of insight, that moment when some people decide to devote their professional life to wine. He says,’It gives the lucky few who choose to ‘grow wine’ the chance to use craft to embody, reflect, and echo nature itself.’ I am privileged to be one of those ‘lucky few.'”

Ser Winery Tasting Room

Ser Winery Tasting Room in Aptos, California

Once the winery was underway, she began working with local Santa Cruz Mountain growers to purchase fruit from a number of interesting vineyards with distinct microclimates in the appellation. In symbiotic partnership with those farmers, she started experimenting with several varieties, such as Riesling and Chardonnay (both of which she had worked with on Leelanau), Syrah, Mourvedre, and a much less-known variety, Cabernet Pfeffer. She is committed to preserving and enhancing the unique character of the varietals used in her wine.

Ser’s label, designed by local artist and teacher Jenny Angelacos, was inspired by an ocean wave and Walsh’s love of surfing. It is intended to convey the unifying thread that connects the diverse places from which she sources her grapes.

The wines

Nicole Walsh hard at work; winemaking doesn’t get more hands-on than this.
Photo: www.wildu.co

Ser Dry Riesling Wirz Vineyard 2017

OK, I’m going to be honest about this up-front: although Riesling is, by all accounts, one of the world’s greatest white-wine grapes, and makes classic food-friendly wines in a range of styles from quite dry to very sweet, I’ve never been much of a fan.  But I enjoyed this expression, so kudos to Ms Walsh.

The fruit came from the Wirz Vineyard, located in San Benito County’s Cienega Valley, in the foothills of the Gabilan Mountain Range at about 1100 feet above sea level and 25 miles or so from the Pacific Ocean. It is composed of granite and limestone soil. Owner Pat Wirz employs head training, dry farming and organic techniques on the over 90-year-old Cabernet Pfeffer and 60-year-old Riesling vines.

In “head training,” vines are tied to a wooden stake positioned at each one. The stake generally stands three to four feet above the soil surface. When used conservatively, this system is ideally suited to production of low to moderate quantities of high-quality grapes.

To make this wine, Walsh pressed whole grape clusters in stainless steel, which was also used for fermentation. She used an indigenous yeast, and the wine was bottled prior to malolactic fermentation to lend softness without stripping the acidity.  It is medium yellow in the glass, with a nose of olive oil and delicate floral notes.  These are followed by mostly tart citrus on the palate, particularly lime, with subtle hints of pear and apple. It’s balanced out by that good acidity, and wraps up with a medium finish. The ABV is 13% and 160 cases were made.

Ser Vermentino Cedar Lake Vineyard 2019

Cedar Lane vineyard is located in the Arroyo Seco appellation of the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County. Soils are well drained, river bed gravelly loam.

After arriving at the winery, the grapes were whole-cluster pressed into stainless steel tank to begin primary fermentation. The wine was transferred mid-way through fermentation to neutral French oak puncheons (500L). There was partial malolactic fermentation, followed by eight months of aging in barrel prior to bottling.

This very pale wine has almost no nose.  On the palate you will find delicate citrus, lychee, and a hint of honey.  It offers crisp acidity and a short finish.  The ABV is 13% and 175 cases were made.

Ser Dry Orange Muscat 2020

Before opening the bottle, I thought this might be an “orange” wine, that is, a white wine made by leaving the skins on white grapes during fermentation, also known as skin-contact wine.  This results in an amber or orange hue in the finished product.  But no.  Orange Muscat is a relatively obscure grape variety, a cross between two more widely-known parents: Muscat Blanc à Petit Grains and Chasselas.

There are many other subcategories of Muscat as well, and these are often vinified into sweet or fortified wines.  However, this one is bone dry and is pale gold, much like any other white.  Whole grape clusters were pressed to stainless steel, followed by a cool fermentation for 20 days.  The wine was bottled without malolactic fermentation after four months on the lees.  Unusual for a Muscat, it is only slightly aromatic, with apricot and mango on the nose.  These flavors continue in the mouth, but are masked somewhat by the bracing citrus-laced acidity.  There’s even a hint of pepper.  ABV is 13%, and 87 cases were made.

Ser Rosé of Grenache Loma Del Rio Vineyard 2020

The Loma del Rio vineyard is located on the west side of the Salinas Valley at the foot of the Santa Lucia Highlands just south of King City. Walsh declares it, “one of my favorite sites for Grenache.”

This wine was whole-cluster pressed to stainless steel. The juice was clarified with a centrifuge to help mitigate smoke taint due to the wildfires in the region at time of harvest.  Happily, none is evident. It was bottled without malolactic fermentation after four months on the lees.

This wine is a delicate pink salmon, with an unassuming aroma to match, one that is primarily rose petal.  The palate offers strawberry and guava. There is plenty of juicy grapefruit-laced acidity, and a medium finish.  This is a wine that benefits from not being numbed.  After being on the counter for a while, and it came up from the refrigerator temperature of 36° F to about 50° F, the nose didn’t change much, but the flavors became much more apparent.  Walsh made 100 cases, and the ABV is 13%.

Ser Pinot Noir Tondre Grapefield 2016

This is the first time I have encountered a vineyard referred to as a “grapefield.”  It was planted in 1997 on six and half acres in the heart of the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation. It now has seven blocks in 104 acres, 81 of which are planted with  Pinot Noir. Tondre Grapefield is SIP Certified.

Composition is 100% Pinot Noir, all from the Tondre Grapefield, and harvested from 10-year-old Pommard clone vines. (The Pommard clone was originally sourced from the Château de Pommard in Burgundy by Dr. Harold Olmo of the UC Davis’ Department of Viticulture and Enology in the early 1970s.)

Walsh created this Pinot Noir by starting with five days of cold soak. Indigenous yeast was used for the eight days of primary fermentation. This was followed by four days of maceration before being pressed into neutral French puncheons (large oak barrels that usually hold 80 to 133 gallons) for 14 months of malolactic ageing.

This shows Pinot Noir’s classic clear, bright red in the glass. The nose offers aromas of cherry, raspberry, blackberry, and roast plum.  The palate is dominated by tart cherry and zippy acidity.  The wine has excellent balance, and it all wraps up with a long finish.  ABV is 13.5%. Just 80 cases were produced.

Ser Cabernet Pfeffer Central Coast 2016

Cabernet Pfeffer is an extremely rare variety with less than 12 acres grown in California, most of them located in San Benito, a wine region at the southern end of the Santa Cruz mountains. It was once thought to be a crossing of Cabernet Sauvignon and another, unknown variety, and to have been bred in Los Altos Hills, California, in the late 19th century by farmer and winemaker William Pfeffer. However, a recent ampelography ( the field of botany concerned with the identification and classification of grapevines) study by UC Davis on the Wirz vines discovered they are are in fact Mourtaou, a  French variety from the Bordeaux region. Whether the variety was named after the farmer or for its spicy characteristics (Pfeffer is German for pepper) is a mystery.

Ser’s Central Coast Cabernet Pffefer began with five days of cold soak with a small addition of sulphur . Indigenous yeast was used for the ten days of fermentation. This was followed by ten days of maceration before being pressed into barrels, of which 50% were neutral and 50% were new French oak. After three months, the wine was transferred  to neutral oak for 14 months of barrel ageing. The blend is 76% Cabernet Pfeffer and 24% Cabernet Franc.

The wine starts with a bright, clear red cherry color in the glass, much like the Pinot Noir.  But then we move on.  The nose shows plenty of juicy fruit, like cherry Starburst candy (seriously) and hints of violets.  Then come flavors of those same juicy cherries.  Also, since  Cab Pffefer is known for its spice and pepper, I was surprised on first trying it that those were subtle, at best.  But after about two hours of air, it’s “Hello pepper!” settling on the back of the tongue.  It is supported by good acidity, fine tannins that resemble those of Cabernet Sauvignon, and a medium, slightly bitter finish. The alcohol is 13.3%, and  220 cases were produced.

Ser Wirtz and Silletto Vineyards Cabernet Pfeffer 2015

As noted above, this varietal is quite rare in California, so it is remarkable that Walsh makes a second expression.

This wine was sourced 64% from the Wirz Vineyard and 36% from the Siletto Vineyard, both in San Benito County.

The Wirz vineyard is located in the CIenega Valley of the Gabilan Mountain range. The 95-year old-vines are dry farmed using organic methods in decomposed granite and limestone soils. The Siletto vineyard is located just East of the Wirz vineyard near Paicines in San Benito County. These 25-year-old vines live on gravelly-loam soil.

After harvest, the grapes were cold soaked for four days prior to primary fermentation. They saw five days of maceration post fermentation, then were pressed to neutral French oak puncheons, where they aged for 14 months prior to bottling.

Like the Central Coast offering, the wine starts with a bright, clear red cherry color in the glass, with a hint of brick.  The moderate aroma is predominantly cola.  This is followed by flavors of dark fruit, baked plum, tart cherry, and some more of that cola.  Unlike the Central Coast wine, the pepper was quite subtle.  There is good acidity and delicate but well-integrated tannins . The alcohol is 14%, and  230 cases were produced.

Ser Graciano Bokisch Vineyard 2018

This wine is all Graciano (aka Morrestel in France), a red-wine grape traditionally hailing from the Rioja and Navarra regions of Spain.  The fruit was sourced from the Terra Alta vineyard farmed by Bokisch Vineyards, a winery and grape grower located in the Clement Hills subdistrict of the Lodi AVA.  Grown on Redding gravelly clay loam, the vines are roughly 19 years old.  Markus Bokisch named this property “Terra Alta” because it reminded him of  the wine region near his home town in the Catalunya region of Spain.  The vineyard is Certified Organic by CCOF and  Certified Green by the Lodi Rules Program

After fermentation  in one-ton bins, the wine was pressed to neutral French oak puncheons and aged for 16 months.  It pours a transparent purple, with mouth-watering aromas of red and black fruit.  On the palate, this is predominately cherries and red berries, with a bit of white pepper spice.  It has a medium body, not unlike a Pinot Noir.  It is supported by good tannins that offer up just a hint of bitterness.  Walsh made 70 cases, and the ABV is 13.4%.

Other Ser wines

Although I haven’t tried them, in addition to these selections Ser Winery also offers Rosé of Cinsaut (a red-wine grape from Languedoc-Roussillon, usually characterized by a light body, high acidity, and low tannins), Sparkling Riesling, a second Pinot Noir from the Santa Cruz Mountains, and yet a third (!) Cabernet Pfeffer.  There is a wine club with three shipment options, the easiest and most reliable way to obtain these limited-production wines.


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Sauvignon Republic Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon RepublicIn 2003, Sonoma chef John Ash, Mendocino-based winemaker and educator John Buechsenstein, and restaurateur Tom Meyer joined together with former Fetzer Vineyards president and winemaker Paul Dolan to establish Sauvignon Republic.  The goal was to make classic Sauvignon Blanc from grapes sourced from around the world. “I like the dynamics of partnerships,” Dolan said. “It is not about running my own show and allows me to use my creative side.”

The first Sauvignon Republic release was from the Russian River Valley in Sonoma, northeasat of Santa Rosa. A wine from Marlborough, New Zealand, was added to the portfolio in 2004, and a Stellenbosch, South Africa, Sauvignon Blanc joined the lineup in 2005. In 2007 came a Potter Valley wine from Mendocino.

Somewhere along the line, the partners seem to have lost interest in the project.  Whether they simply abandoned the name or sold it, Sauvignon Republic is now only available at Trader Joe’s, and only comes from Marlborough, New Zealand.  Perhaps this value wine will find a broader audience in its current home.

Sauvignon Republic Sauvignon Blanc 2006

This one of the best-structured Savignon Blancs I’ve had in recent memory, and a bargain at the price. It shows a very pale straw color, and tastes of grapefruit, passion fruit, and guava. The grassiness and green herbs typical of Sauvignon Blanc is only hinted at here, and that’s a good thing. Its surprising richness and medium body is balanced with just the right amount of acidity.  (This wine is the original Russian River Valley effort, not the current one from New Zealand.)

Pair this up with any food that would go with a bright citrusy wine, like a chicken stir fry with plenty of basil, pad thai, or swordfish steaks in a light cream sauce.

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The Singleton of Glendullan

The SingletonBy Spirits Contributor
Neal Kotlarek

The Singleton of Glendullan is a fine example of Scotland’s most famous region for single malts, Speyside.

The Glendullan distillery was founded in Dufftown, Speyside in 1897. The distillery receives its pure waters from the River Fiddich, a tributary of the Spey River. The whisky is available in ages of 12, 15, and 18 years old, all matured  in used oak casks from both American bourbon and European sherry. The combination creates a well-balanced, rich tasting malt that can be enjoyed as a cocktail before dinner or as an after-dinner treat. It has a semi-crisp taste that is refreshing and even zingy without being overpowering, an excellent choice for those not yet ready to try some of the heavier Scotch offerings.

Glendullan Distillery


In a blind tasting conducted by the Beverage Tasting Institute, The Singleton scored a 92-point rating. That rating is considered “exceptional,” and outscored traditional category leaders such as Macallan 12 (90 rating), Glenlivet 12 (88) and Glenfiddich 12 (86). Not too shabby (for those of you who care about such numerical rankings).  Regardless, it’s a darn good buy for an exceptional Scotch whisky.

The Glendullan is part of the Diageo beverage alcohol empire.


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