Byron John Sebastiano Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016

The Sta. Rita Hills AVA is an American Viticultural Area located in Santa Barbara County, California. From its creation in 2001 through 2006, the appellation was officially named Santa Rita Hills AVA. The name change was the result of a protest by Vina Santa Rita, a very large Chilean wine producer that was concerned about the AVA name diluting its international brand value. I’m glad everyone was satisfied, but the change seems rather subtle to me.

Sta. Rita Hills is part of the larger Santa Ynez Valley AVA, located between the towns of Lompoc and Buellton with the Purisima Hills on the north and the Santa Rosa Hills on the south.  The hills run east to west, which allow fog and ocean breezes from the nearby Pacific Ocean to enter the valley and create a cool micro-climate. The Sta. Rita Hills area is well-suited for the growing of Pinot Noir grapes, which tend to do well in cool climates with rocky soil. The region is also known for Chardonnay and Syrah.

The first commercial vineyard in Santa Barbara County was established by Uriel Nielson in 1964. After years of working as a winemaker in Santa Barbara County, Ken Brown (Byron Kent Brown) released the first Byron Pinot Noir from grapes purchased from Neilson in 1984, making 7,600 cases. Brown recognized the Santa Maria Valley’s potential for wines in the Burgundian style, and was the first winemaker to introduce grape varieties such as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Gamay to the area. Brown acquired the 118-acre Nielsen Vineyard in 1989 and built his winery there.

In 1990, Robert Mondavi Winery bought Byron. Brown became Winemaker and General Manager. He and Tim Mondavi, Robert’s son, set about designing the new Byron Winery as an expression of their shared belief in natural farming, experimental viticulture, and gentle grape handling. They wanted to eliminate pumping, which shears grape stems, skins, and seeds, allows tannins and other harsh elements into the juice, and can make wine bitter.  The resulting 4,000-barrel-capacity, multi-level winery replaced pumping with gravity flow, with the goal of producing more complex, dynamic wines. Byron’s vineyards were also expanded and replanted as Brown experimented with trellising systems, new rootstocks and clones, row orientation, and planting density in his quest for what he considered to be the ideal grape.

The Byron Winery.  It is not open to the public.

A few years later, Ken Brown left to pursue his own label. Ken Volk purchased the Byron Winery and renamed it Kenneth Volk Vineyards. Subsequently Byron passed through the hands of Constellation Brands, the now-bankrupt Legacy Estates Group, and finally Jackson Family Wines who currently own the winery, as well as 39 others.

Byron’s winemaker from 2003 until 2020 was  Jonathan Nagy, a University of California Davis chemistry graduate. He worked with all of the commonly-used Dijon clones, plus Pommard, Wadenswil, and Swan selections from multiple vineyard sources including Nielson Vineyard, Sierra Madre Vineyard, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Julia’s Vineyard, and John Sebastiano Vineyard.

Byron currently sells all of their wines by allocation only. Potential buyers are notified by email when new selections are released.

Byron John Sebastiano Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016

The John Sebastiano Vineyard was first planted along the eastern border of the AVA in 2007. The 100-acre site, just 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean, has soil predominantly of diatomaceous earth and loam.  It enjoys a myriad of exposures and marine influences, which together with premium clonal selection and high-density planting produce exceptionally small clusters and berries.

This 100% Pinot Noir saw 14 months in 100% new French oak. It is transparent brick, with medium aromas of plum jam and dark cherry.  These continue as the flavors, with a bit of brown spice added. The acid is rather low, creating a sense of flaccidness or extra smoothness, depending on your perception.  150 cases were made, and the ABV is 13.2%.

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Dow’s Late Bottled Vintage Port 2016

True Ports hail from the Douro valley in northern Portugal, and have done so for over three hundred years. The region’s predominant soil is schist, composed of various medium-grained to coarse-grained metamorphic rocks with laminated, often flaky parallel layers of micaceous minerals.  The low annual rainfall makes this probably one of the driest regions of the world where grapes are grown without irrigation. This terroir results in very low-yielding vineyards, with vines bearing only a very few small bunches of full-flavored grapes whose thick skins protect them from dehydration.

Port is a fortified wine. Fortification is the addition of brandy or a neutral spirit to wine in order to boost the alcohol content. Fortified wines are often sweet, because the alcohol kills the yeast before fermentation completely runs its course, leaving residual sugar. This accounts for Port’s characteristic rich, luscious style and also contributes to the wine’s considerable ageing potential. Fortification also stabilizes the wine, a definite benefit for a product destined for the long sea voyage from Portugal to England, the first large market for it.

In 1798 Bruno da Silva, a Portuguese merchant from Oporto, traveled to London, where he imported wine from his native country, reversing the route of English traders to Portugal. He married an Englishwoman, was rapidly assimilated into London society, and built a reputation for his wines. When the outbreak of the Napoleonic wars in 1803 put his business in jeopardy, da Silva applied for ‘Letters of Marque’ (a Royal Assent to equip a merchant ship with guns) to secure safe passage of his Port from Oporto to England. His became the only Port company to transport its wines in its own armed fleet, a distinct competitive advantage.

Upon his death, the business passed to da Silva’s son John, who in 1862 partnered with Frederick William Cosens. Together with John’s son, Edward, the trio became the active partners in Silva & Cosens. Like his grandfather, Edward da Silva was also a shrewd businessman, and the company continued to prosper. Edward became a highly respected figure in the London wine trade, and was one of the founders of the Wine Trade Benevolent Society, (renamed The Drinks Trust in  2020) the leading British wine trade charity.

George Acheson Warre, whose well-known family had been involved in the Port trade since its earliest years, joined Silva & Cosens as partner in 1868. In 1877, the firm merged with another leading Port company, Dow & Co, whose senior partner was James Ramsay Dow.  Although smaller than Silva & Cosens, Dow & Co had become a very highly regarded Port producer with a particularly fine reputation for its vintage Ports, and when the two companies merged, it was decided to adopt Dow’s as the brand name.

The Vineyards

The Douro

Quinta do Bomfim has provided the main source for Dow’s products since it was acquired in 1896. The property is a classic ‘river quinta (estate)’ with many natural advantages: it is south-facing, ensuring ample exposure to the sun; its stony schist soil affords excellent drainage, allowing water to reach the vines’ deep roots; the annual rainfall is near perfect at 31 inches (15 year annual average); the altitude ranges from 394 to 1,115 feet above sea level, accommodating both gentle gradients lower down and progressively steeper slopes higher up the valley side. A further advantage is the consistent climate.

The principal grape varieties planted are: Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz and old mixed vines. Two-thirds of the vineyard is now over 20 years old, while one third is between 30 to 40 years old.

Another classic river quinta, Senhora da Ribeira is located 15 miles upriver from Quinta do Bomfim. Senhora da Ribeira is set in the remote, hot, and dry Douro Superior and commands a north bank position, overlooking a broad sweep of the Douro. The quinta was built close to an ancient and strategic river crossing, guarded by two 12th century hilltop castles on either side of the Douro. Travelers would pause here to pray for a safe river passage and onward journey at a small chapel dedicated to the ‘Lady of the River’ (literally: Senhora da Ribeira).

The quinta’s high proportion of old vines (45% are over 25 years old) is of critical importance. The old vines are very low-yielding, producing on average less than two pounds of grapes each, giving intense and concentrated musts. As with Bomfim, the consistency of the climate plays a key role, although the rainfall is only about half of that experienced at Bomfim: 18 inches is the 10 year average.

The Symingtons

Andrew James Symington, a Scotsman, travelled to Oporto in 1882 at the age of 18 to work for the Grahams (if you are familiar with Ports, you should be spotting a trend here), another Scottish family long established in Portugal. Young and ambitious, he soon left to work on his own in the Port trade, where he gradually built up a reputation as an expert taster.  By 1905 he had become a partner in Warre & Co, the first British Port company established in Portugal, and in a few years he became the company’s sole owner.

Curiously, at this time the Warre family, who were the principal owners of Dow’s, had no remaining interest in the company that bore its name. In 1912, Dow’s senior partner, George A. Warre decided to return to England and invited Symington to manage the Douro Valley vineyards of Dow, its lodges (wineries) and assets in Gaia. In the same year, a share swap took place whereby Symington took a 30% stake in Dow’s and Warre took, in return, shares in Warre & Co. The successful partnership between the Symingtons as Port producers in the Douro and Gaia and the Warre’s in London looking after sales lasted for half a century until 1961 when the Symingtons finally became the sole owners of Dow’s.

With their extensive vineyard holdings and Port brands, including Dow’s, Grahams, Warre’s, and Cockburn’s, the Symingtons are often described as ruling over a “Port empire.” In addition to their Port holdings, Symington owns several brands of Douro DOC wines.

Dow’s Late Bottled Vintage Port 2016

The Portugese only declare Port vintages in years which they deem worthy.  In the 21st century, these have been 2003, 2007, 2011, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018, a rather more frequent pace than in the 20th century.  These “Vintage Ports” are the top-tier offerings.  “Late Bottled Vintage Ports” are made from grapes of a single vintage, in this case 2016, but of second-tier quality fruit, although they can still be quite good.   

As indeed this one is.  This wine spent four to six years in oak, as all Late Vintage Ports do.  Dark purple in color, it offers subtle aromas of raisin, prune, and baking spice.  The rich mouthfeel carries flavors of ripe berries, particularly blackberry, and chocolate, and a well-balanced and restrained sweetness.

Pour this wine in a wine glass at room temperature, or slightly chilled in warm weather to make it more refreshing.  It works as both an aperitif and after-dinner drink. It does not need to be decanted, is ready to drink on release, and should be consumed within four to six weeks of opening. The ABV is: 20%.

I have also recently reviewed another widely-available and similarly-priced Port from the Symington portfolio, Cockburn’s Special Reserve.  While I enjoyed both, my nod goes to the Dow’s, with its less peppery, more balanced classic Port character.

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Penfolds Bin 600 Cabernet Shiraz 2018

Until Yellow Tail precipitated the boom in “critter wines” in 2000, it can be argued that Penfolds was just about synonymous with Australian wine in the U.S.  The label is ubiquitous here, in both grocery stores and fine wine shops. Prices range from about $12 per bottle for the Koonunga Hill Shiraz-Cabernet, to $850 for the legendary Grange, and everything in between.  (That $850 is doubly amazing, because just five or six years ago Grange was “only” about $200.) The selections are mostly reds plus a few whites and even a tawny Port.

Founders Dr Christopher and Mary Penfold immigrated to Australia from England in 1844, bringing their own French vine cuttings. Not long after, their fledgling vineyard was officially established as the Penfolds wine company at the 500-acre Magill Estate in Adelaide.

The Penfolds were believers in the medicinal benefits of wine, and they planned to concoct a wine tonic for the treatment of anemia.  Initially, they produced fortified wines in the style of Sherry and Port for Dr Penfold’s patients. The operation enjoyed early growth, and since Dr Penfold was focused on his medical practice, much of the running of the winery was delegated to Mary Penfold, including the cultivation of the vines and wine blending. On Christopher’s death in 1870, Mary assumed total responsibility for the winery. According to one historical account, by that time the business had “grown to over 60 acres with several different grape varieties including Grenache, Vverdelho, Mataro (aka Mourvedre), Frontignac and Pedro Ximenez,” and the estate was “producing both sweet and dry red and white table wines with a growing market in the eastern Australian colonies of Victoria and New South Wales.” Clarets and Rieslings were especially popular.

During her tenure, Mary engaged in experimentation, explored new methods of wine production, looked into ways of combating diseases like phylloxera, and engaged a cellar master by the name of Joseph Gillard.

Penfolds was producing a
third of all South Australia’s wine by the time Mary Penfold retired in 1884, when the company passed to her daughter Georgina and son-in-law Thomas Hyland.   By 1907, Penfolds had become South Australia’s largest winery (It is still big, but it no longer holds that position. That distinction now goes to Casella winery in Yenda, NSW of YellowTail fame. ) Eventually, the business was passed onto their two sons and two daughters. The company became public in 1962, and  the Penfold family retained a controlling interest until 1976.

In 1948, Max Schubert
became the company’s first Chief Winemaker. A loyal company man and true innovator, Schubert would propel Penfolds onto the global stage with his creation of Penfolds Grange.  (That’s a story for another time, if I can ever get my hands on a bottle.  Hey, Penfolds!  A little help here?)

In 1959, while Schubert was perfecting his Grange experiment in secret, Penfolds’ tradition of ‘bin wines’ began. The first, a Shiraz with grapes from the company’s own Barossa Valley vineyards, was simply named after the storage area of the cellars where it was aged.

In 1988, after three decades of Grange’s  success and growth into a wine world icon, Schubert was named Decanter magazine’s Man of the Year, and on the 50th anniversary of its creation, Penfolds Grange was given a heritage listing in South Australia.

In 1976, control of Penfolds was acquired by Tooth and Co., a brewer based in New South Wales, which in 1982 became part of the Adelaide Steamship Company Group. In 1990, SA Brewing purchased Adelaide Steamship’s wineries. Later, SA Brewing was divided into three separate entities: the wine assets were named Southcorp Wine.

Southcorp Wines became a part of the Foster’s Group in 2005. In 2011, Fosters was historically much more involved in beer than wine, and the wine operation faltered over those six years.  When Fosters decided it was time to divest its wine holdings, they were sold to Treasury Wine Estates, headquartered in Melbourne, and Penfolds current owner. The chief winemaker since 2002 has been Peter Gago.

Penfolds Bin 600 Cabernet Shiraz 2018

In 1998, Penfolds imported a selection of vine cuttings from South Australia’s esteemed Kalimna and Magill Estate vineyards, and planted them in California’s Paso Robles AVA. The original name of what is now referred to the Camatta Hills vineyard was Creston “600” Ranch, reflected in this wine’s name, Bin 600.  It is one of four wines in Penfold’s inaugural California Collection.

For 20 years, Penfolds efforts in California remained experimental, and no wines were released.  However, in 2017, TWE bought up the US holdings of fellow giant Diageo. Suddenly, Gago had access to the prized vineyards of Chateau St JeanAcaciaBeringerBeaulieu VineyardStags’ Leap WinerySterling, and Etude. The new California Collection wines are a blend of the different AVAs from which these wineries draw their fruit.  Despite the location, Gago has made clear that the brand trumps everything. There’s California sun and California soil, “but everything in between is Penfolds,” he said.

This blend of 78% Cabernet Sauvignon and 22% Shiraz includes some fruit from the original Camatta Hills plantings.  It is a dark opaque purple, with moderate aromas of dark stone fruit, vanilla, and a bit of floral undertones.  On the palate there is earth, cocoa, and grippy tannins.  The fruit was more recessive than I usually like, but this wine is well-balanced enough that I quite enjoyed it nonetheless. ABV is 14.5%

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Keenan Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2016

As a reviewer and source of reliable information, I am supposed to be as objective and unbiased as possible. But not today.  Keenan wines have long been some of my favorites. If you need impartiality, please come back soon.  If not, read on.

After serving in World War II, Robert Keenan worked as an insurance broker and also invested in commercial real estate.  He had been a wine enthusiast for years, including owning a significant collection of Bordeaux wines, and finally decided to have a go at winemaking.  Certain that mountain-side vineyards in Napa Valley could produce world class wines, in 1974 Keenan purchased 180 acres (of which 48 are under vine) in the Spring Mountain District at an elevation of 1700 feet. Located on the eastern slope of the Mayacamas mountain range, (Spring Mountain District was declared an American Vineyard Appellation (AVA) in 1993.) The low-vigor soils unique to the region were known to create a stressful environment for vine growth, setting up perfect conditions to encourage vineyards planted on the steep rocky mountainsides to produce wines of great concentration, structure, and pure varietal flavors.

The original acreage Keenan acquired included the crumbling Peter Conradi Winery, founded in the late 19th century, and one of the first pioneering properties established on Spring Mountain.  Conradi and his family moved here in 1890, planted grapes a year later, and built a simple wooden winery which he later replaced with a winery made of stone in 1904.  Conradi had originally planted the vineyards to Zinfandel and Syrah, but those declined when the property was abandoned during Prohibition, and by the time Keenan arrived in 1974, none of the original vineyards were producing. Keenan cleared the estate of tree stumps and rocks, extended the vineyard acreage, and replanted the property to Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. He built a new winery, using the existing stone walls from the old Conradi building for the barrel room, and brought in Keenan Winery’s first harvest there in 1977.

Like many such operations, the winery is a collaborative affair. Keenan’s son, Michael, after running a residential home remodeling business for years, took over leadership of the estate in 1998 when his father was ready to retire and was looking for a buyer. Even as a young man, Michael was eager to learn about winemaking and honed his winemaking skills under the leadership of his father, as well as renowned winemaker Joe Cafaro. Michael Keenan now works in concert with General Manager Matt Gardner, Cellar Master Aristeo Garcia Martinez, and Assistant Cellar Master Ricardo Segura. Matt has been with the estate since 1995. Together, they establish winemaking protocols, aging, and the finished style of Keenan wines.


The Keenan winery.

In the tasting room and winery itself, Michael’s wife and Artistic Director Jennifer Keenan ensures that visitors enjoy the full experience of the winery through her creative and playful interior design and sumptuous event design. She is responsible for the classic Keenan image and created the unique label design for the brand.

The Keenan’s son, Reilly, predictably has been immersed in wine culture from a very early age. He became a member of the team at age sixteen, and works during harvest, hosts tastings for visitors on the estate, pours for wine events, and is the dedicated point person for many consumer and trade events.

Under Michael Keenan’s supervision, the vineyards have been systematically replanted to increase grape quality. The program focused on increasing soil health throughout the vineyards, using superior farming methods combined with organic compost and cover crops. Matching each varietal clone to its optimum location, every acre is sustainably farmed and planted with specially selected rootstock. In addition, close attention has been given to row orientation on each site, combined with efficient irrigation. The winemaking team takes a conservative approach, to encourage the varietal flavors to stand out in each bottle of wine.


The estate vineyard.

Keenan Winery produces three wines exclusively from grapes grown on the Spring Mountain Estate: Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Cabernet Franc, plus a Merlot Reserve from the Mailbox Vineyard. Keenan also offers wines produced from estate fruit blended with grapes grown in carefully selected Napa Valley vineyards: Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and the Mernet Reserve, which is a proprietary blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. The Summer Blend, an annual spring release, is composed of mostly Chardonnay and blended with small amounts of Viognier and Albarino.

Keenan Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Spring Mountain District 2016

This wine commemorates Keenan’s 40th vintage.  It was produced exclusively from grapes grown on the Keenan Estate located in Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain District, 31% each of the Cabernet Sauvignon clones 337, 7, and 412 along with 7% Cabernet Franc.

It is opaque, dark purple, with moderate aromas of dark fruit, cassis, prunes, and a hint of menthol and earth.  The rich, full body sports lip-smacking flavors of those dark fruits and a little cedar, all supported by bracing tannins and just the right amount of acidity.  This wine should reward cellaring, but I like my California Cabs young, big, and strapping, so that’s the way I drink them.  Hell, I like tannins.  This wine is undoubtedly expensive, but worth it.  900 cases were made, and the ABV is 14.3%.

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Pombal do Vesúvio 2018 Douro

In the 1970s, Portugese rosés such as Lancers and Mateus were the height of sophistication to many young wine drinkers: “It’s imported, and comes in a fun bottle!” With age comes wisdom, and these wines were eventually abandoned for the justifiably famous fortified wines of Portugal, Port and Madeira, produced by many ancient and famous houses.

Much less well-known is Portugal’s status as a producer of both red and white table wine, ranking in the world’s top ten in production.  With a population of just 10 million, but top five in per capita consumption, much of that wine is sipped by the thirsty Portuguese.

The Quinta [Estate] of Vesúvio has a long and storied history. António Bernardo Ferreira bought the property in 1823, at that time called Quinta das Figueiras.  The property was mostly covered with wild scrub stretching up the mountainside and an abundance of fig trees, which gave it its name. He felt that this property had enormous potential as vineyards. It took his team of five hundred workers thirteen years to carve terraces out of the steep slopes and plant thousands of vines. Within the boundaries there are seven hills and thirty-one valleys. On the summit of each hill stands a ruined old lookout post, which once guarded the property. The tallest lookout is called the Raio de Luz, The Ray of Light. From there you can survey the full 360º aspect of the vineyards.

Vesúvio is situated far upriver in the Douro Superior, 75 miles (120 kilometers) from Portugal’s Atlantic coast and only 28 miles (45 kilometers) from the border with Spain. Vesúvio has a total area of 806 acres (326 hectares), of which 329 acres (133 hectares) are planted with vines. The rest, almost two-thirds, has been conserved in its natural state. Many other things grow at Vesúvio besides vines: oranges, lemons, figs, almonds, walnuts, grapefruits, pomegranates and many more exotic fruits and herbs.

Vesúvio also has great variations in altitude, from 426 feet (130 meters) at the riverside to 1,739 feet (530 meters) at the top of the tallest ridge. Being so far inland, the Quinta experiences climatic extremes, reaching very high temperatures in summer and very low ones in winter. It is extremely dry, with an average of only 16 inches (400mm) of rain falling each year.

In 1827, Ferreira built the winery, with its eight granite lagares (large, open vats or troughs), in which wine grapes are crushed by foot to this day, and eight chestnut vats, each capable of holding the equivalent of one lagar of Port. This original winery is where all of Vesúvio’s Port is still made. The facility was more than just a winery though; it was a whole community in its own right with orchards, gardens, and a village where the workers lived with their families. There was even a school, which would have been the nearest one for dozens of miles in any direction.

Quinta do Vesúvio

After working with the property for seven years, in 1830 Ferreria decided to rename the estate Quinta do Vezúvio (originally with a ‘z’ as was common in Portuguese spelling at that time). At the time, Ferreria boasted, “All the English have poured praise on my lodge and hold that they cannot find another adega [wine house] to match mine in the Douro … stating frankly that both in Oporto and the Douro, nobody has better wines.” In an unprecedented move, Ferreira exported his wines directly from his winery to the United Kingdom, then the largest market for Port by far. His aim was to persuade the authorities of the great quality of wines from the Douro Superior and hence the need to extend the Denominação de Origem Controlada. It had been established in 1756, almost 180 years before the French established their own similar quality system, but many Portugese winemaking regions were originally excluded.

During his life, Ferreira was involved with many of the most famous Quintas in the Douro Superior. Vesúvio, though, was his showpiece, and the only one mentioned In the memorial marking his death in 1835.

In 1834 Dona Antónia married Bernardo Ferreira II, Ferreira’s son, in the small chapel at her parents’ farm, the Quinta de Travassos. Following his death in 1844, she and their children inherited all of his vast Douro empire, but Antónia was adamant that Vesúvio should remain exclusively her own, and proceeded to extend the fame and reputation of the operation. She was the first to bottle her wines and sell them under the Quinta’s own name, unprecedented in the nineteenth century.

When phylloxera ravaged the Douro, Antónia began to experiment with new grape varieties and new techniques of grafting in her vineyards. Predictably, during these years the Portuguese wine economy suffered significantly. While other producers in the Douro were laying off their employees, Antónia found ways to keep them on, planting orchards, nut trees, cereals, and other crops, as well as grazing flocks of animals.  In the 1870s and 1880s she also renovated and expanded the house and the chapel, which remain today just as she rebuilt them.

Following Dona Antónia’s death in 1896, Vesúvio was held by the Briti Cunha family for many generations until 1989, when the Symingtons, winemakers in the Douro for five generations, assumed possession. In 1882 the first Symington, Andrew James, moved from Scotland to Portugal to work for W & J Graham’s. But their ancestry in Port goes back even further. When Andrew James married Beatrice Leitão de Carvalhosa Atkinson, he married into a lineage that goes all the way back to Walter Maynard, who in 1652 was one of the very first British Port merchants to export wine from Oporto.

Symington Family Estates bills itself as the leading producer of premium-quality Ports in the world, with brands such as Graham’s, Cockburn’s, Dow’s, and Warre’s. SFE is also the leading vineyard owner in the Douro Valley with 2486 acres (1006 hectares) of vineyards across 27 quintas, all of which are managed according to sustainable viticulture standards; much of them are also organically farmed. When the Symingtons bought Quinta do Vesúvio, they decided that the sole objective would be to create outstanding vintage wines, initially focusing exclusively on Vintage Port and later adding dry (Douro DOC) wines, including this one.

Pombal do Vesúvio 2018 Douro

This is Vesúvio’s second-tier wine, a blend of 50% Touriga Franca, 45% Touriga Nacional, and 5% Tinta Amarela. It is named after the estate’s dovecote, a structure intended to house pigeons or doves, or “pombal” in Portugese, which is surrounded by vineyards. Unlike the first-tier fruit, the grapes are transported to the Quinta do Sol winery for processing and fermentation.

The wine is dark purple, with subtle aromas of roasted plum with a hint of thyme. The palate features quite tart red cherry and blackberry, the fruit rather recessive in the Old World style.  It’s all supported by moderate black-tea tannins. 2,000 cases were produced, and the ABV is 14.5%.

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Pizza Giambotta

This pizza features Italian sausage , sweet peppers, and onions.


Start dough at 4p for dinner between 8p and 9p
1 cup warm water
2 tsp instant-rise yeast
3-1/4 cup bread flour
1 tsp salt
1/4 cup olive oil (extra virgin not necessary)
Combine ingredients and knead by hand for 10 minutes or machine
for two to five minutes. Coat dough ball in a thin film of olive oil or cooking spray, cover in plastic wrap, and let rise in warm place until doubled in size.


3/4 lb. sweet Italian sausage in casing
2 Tbs olive oil
2 cups chopped onion (about one large)
1 lb. mozzarella cheese, shredded (You can also substitute fontina, as I often do.)
1-1/2 cups tomato sauce with fresh basil and parsley and dried oregano
2 bell peppers, roasted, peeled, and chopped  (The color is up to you, but I like red and orange or yellow, rather than green.)
1 tsp. dried oregano, crumbled

About an hour before dinner time, turn the oven up as high as it will go, preferably 500 degrees. Thirty to forty minutes before baking, roll dough out to 15” circle. [Or divide dough if you want to make two smaller pizzas.] Place on pizza screen if available, being careful not to press the dough into the mesh. With your fingers, press and form a 1/2 inch border around the edge.  Gently brush or rub the dough with the olive oil.  Cover with plastic wrap for this second rise

Cut the sausage into 1/2-inch thick coins.  In a large skillet, cook the sausage still in their casing in the olive oil over medium heat until cooked through, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes.

In the pan you used to cook the sausage, add the onion and cook over medium heat for two minutes to soften.

Spread the tomato sauce over the dough up to the raised border.  Spread the onion over the sauce.  Arrange the sausage coins evenly over the onion. Sprinkle the oregano over all, followed by the shredded cheese.  Arrange the bell peppers over the cheese, pressing them in gently.

Bake the  pizza on the bottom rack of the preheated oven for 5 to 10 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown and the cheese is melted and speckled.

My wife particularly liked this one.

Mangia! Mangia!

Serves 4 to 6.

The dough for this recipe came from James McNair’s excellent New Pizza Don’t be discouraged by the one-star reviews, they are bogus, imho.  One dweeb complained that McNair didn’t cover such arcane techniques as cold fermentation.  Geez.  If you want a cold ferment, use room temperature water and let the dough rise in the refrigerator for 24 hours.  But, you’re not going to have pizza tonight, and you won’t taste the subtleties a cold ferment brings to dough under all those toppings.

The Giambotta recipe itself is derived from one in The Ultimate Pizza by Pasquale Bruno, Jr., another quite reliable pizza book.

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Tetramythos Retsina

Not even the Greek-Americans I know will drink Retsina.  Quite a bold position, considering it is routinely called the “iconic wine of Greece” and is ingrained in the food and drink culture of the nation.

And I don’t understand their reluctance.  I’ve been enjoying Retsina for decades, although I will admit it’s in part because of Retsina’s origin story.   More on that in a moment.   The traditional grape for Retsina is Savatiano with Assyrtiko and Rhoditis sometimes blended in. Modern Retsina is made following the same winemaking techniques as white wine, with the exception of small pieces of Aleppo pine resin (!) being added to the must during fermentation. (It remains to be seen what effect this past summer’s wildfires in the Greek pine forests  will have on resin production.)  It is this pine resin that gives Retsina its name, as well as its unique flavor profile.  The resin exudes an oily film on the surface of the fermenting liquid;  after racking, the wine is clarified and the solids and surface film are removed.

Nowadays, much less resin is used than traditionally called for. Such wines lack the pungent “whiff of turpentine” of old.  Indeed, it seems to me the resin content goes down every year.  Frankly, I miss that resin punch, and, ironically, even as producers seemingly try to make the wine more accessible, fewer people are willing to try it.  Regardless, it is considered an ideal accompaniment to such flavorful Greek dishes as saganaki, pastırma or garlic dips, which are often consumed as appetizers.

But why add pine resin in the first place?  Isn’t this a gross adulteration, easily remedied?  In ancient Greece, long before the advent of the barrels and bottles we take for granted today, earthen wine jars and amphorae were sealed with pine resin to protect the contents from oxidation.  Some of this inevitably flavored the wine.  So much for the historical record.

But the legend is far more interesting.  It centers on the siege of Greece by the Romans in the second century B.C.  As the invaders plundered everything that came their way, the beleaguered Greeks were determined to deny them the wine.  “You will take our freedom . .  but you will not enjoy our wine!” they reportedly cried.  It was deliberately tainted with the now-famous pine resin, and in fact the Romans refused to drink it.  Once the war was over, however, and the Greeks had prevailed, it was time to celebrate.  But, all of the available wine had been dosed with pine resin.  What to do?  Well, drink it anyway, of course, and acquire a centuries-long taste for it!

Tetramythos Retsina

Founded in 1999 by brothers Aristides and Stathis Spanos, Tetramythos Winery is a boutique operation situated at Ano Diakopto of Egialia in the northern Peloponnese peninsula in the south of Greece. As far back as 150 AD the geographer Pausanias referred to the local villages as ideal for the cultivation of grapes.

The Tetramythos winery, completed in 2004.

There are 35 acres of vineyards [14 hectares]. The vines are planted in soils that are limestone-rich and at altitudes of 1,965 to 3,450 feet (600 to 1050 meters) on the slopes of Mount Aroania. The vines are certified organic by the Greek DIO organization, and winemaking is as natural as possible. These are true cool-climate vineyards, mostly north-facing, where breezes from the gulf of Corinth help produce fresh and balanced fruit. Indigenous and international grape varieties are grown, including Roditis, Mavro Kalavritino, Agiorgitiko, Malagouzia, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The mountainside.  Photo: Αντωνης Ογλου

Inside the winery, small stainless steel tanks enable small-scale vinification suited to each varietal and vineyard. There are also underground ageing and barrel cellars. and a wine bar.

Panayiotis Papagiannopoulos, the winemaker, hails from the area.  He is known for being one of the most innovative wine producers in Greece; humble with great dedication, he has saved local grapes from extinction, and has researched how to use traditional amphora of the past with modern production methods.

This pale yellow wine is, unusually, 100% Roditis that has been aged for up to two years.  It has a mildly aromatic nose.  There is just a whisper of pine resin on the palate, which is dominated by citrus, especially lemon, with good acidity and a bit of chamomile on the finish.  This is a pleasant, refreshing quaff, but not really my idea of a Retsina. ABV is 12.5%.

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Cockburn’s No. 1 Special Reserve Port

True Ports hail from the Douro valley in Northern Portugal, and have done so for over three hundred years. The region’s predominant soil is schist, composed of various medium-grained to coarse-grained metamorphic rocks with laminated, often flaky parallel layers of micaceous minerals.  The low annual rainfall makes this probably one of the driest regions of the world where grapes are grown without irrigation. This terroir results in very low-yielding vineyards, with vines bearing only a very few small bunches of full-flavored grapes whose thick skins protect them from dehydration.

Cockburn’s (CO-burns, not COCK-burns) is perhaps the best-known name in Port, thanks to Cockburn’s Special Reserve.  Certainly, in the first half of the last century Cockburn vintage ports were widely regarded as the finest in the world.

Robert Cockburn was a Scottish soldier who served in Portugal during the Peninsular War, and thereby was exposed to Port wines. In 1815, Robert and his brother John, who originally were wine merchants in Leith, Scotland, decided to get into the Port business. Looking for better fruit than what was available at the traditional merchant’s fair in Porto, they ventured up the Douro river and bought the  best grapes they could find directly from farmers there. Over time, the Cockburns were joined by the Wauchope, Smithes, Teage, and Cobb families as partners. Together, they built a reputation for fine Vintage Port.  For most of the 20th century, Cockburn’s was the name in Port — famous (some would say infamous) for deferring on vintages that others declared, and fetching prices 10 to 15% above the going rate of their Oporto competitors.

Cockburn’s was one of the first companies to plant vineyards in the remote Douro Superior,  a region once considered out of bounds for respectable producers, but which became known as Cockburn’s Country.  It was also instrumental in resurrecting the now iconic Touriga Nacional grape variety from obscurity, largely due to the efforts of John Henry Smithes, Cockburn’s winemaker and the “Cowboy of the Douro.”

The Cockburn and Smithes families sold the business in 1963 to Showerings of England, producers of Babycham (a low-alcohol sparking cider made from fermented pear juice), who had at about the same time taken over Harveys of Bristol. Showerings decided they needed a Port to complement the branded Sherry that was then their cash cow, Harveys Bristol Cream. Christened “Special Reserve,” it revolutionized the Port trade in 1969, creating a whole new category between Ruby Port and Vintage Port.  (It is more substantial than a Ruby, but less so than a Vintage.)

The brand has a tradition of humorous marketing, with many people still remembering the iconic print and TV ads from the ’70s and ’80s. That same spirit continues today, reflected in recent “Pronounce Responsibly” advertising.

Over time, the Cockburn’s portfolio passed through a number of owners. At some point, Showerings became part of Allied Domecq until that operation was taken over by Pernod Ricard in 2005, who promptly sold Cockburn’s and some other brands to the Fortune Brands holding company, the parent company of Beam Global, the company best known for its bourbon. Predictably, Beam’s knowledge of and interest in fortified wines was minimal at best, so Beam quickly (and wisely) contracted the winemaking itself to the Symington family, already responsible for Dow, Graham, and Warre Ports, in 2006. In 2010, the Symingtons purchased Cockburn’s outright, acquiring the brand, the lodge (aka winery), the inventory, the vineyards, and Martinez, a port shipper that Showering had acquired before Cockburn. The Symingtons conducted an intensive overhaul of all of Cockburn’s viticulture and winemaking practices, with the goal of restoring Cockburn’s reputation and quality.

In addition to their Port holdings, Symington owns several brands of Madeira and Douro DOC wines. With their extensive vineyard holdings and many Port brands, the Symingtons are often described as ruling over a “Port empire.”

The Douro

In 2016 the Portuguese Minister for Tourism opened the new visitor center at the Cockburn’s Port Cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia, Porto. The cellars contain the most extensive collection of oak barrels in the Port trade. It is also the site of the last in-house cooperage in Portugal, where a skilled team of craftsmen carefully maintain and repair thousands of ancient casks.

Cockburn’s owns two important vineyards in the Upper Douro Valley, the world’s oldest demarcated wine region and a UNESCO-protected landscape. Both are in the rugged, remote Douro Superior, some 87 miles [140 kilometers] upriver from the city of Porto, a region with hot and dry climatic conditions. Quinta [estate] dos Canais is one of the major Douro properties, with a total area of 672 acres [272 hectares], of which close to 247 are under vine. Just five miles [eight kilometers] further upstream is the Quinta do Vale Coelho, a small 47-acre [19-hectare] property, of which two-thirds are planted to vines. Both quintas are situated on the north bank of the Douro river, and the vineyards are mostly south-facing, ideal for the ripening of  grapes.

Cockburn’s Special Reserve Port

Special Reserve was created by blending fruit from vineyards in the Douro Superior, maturing it for up to five years in oak casks, and bottling the wine ready to drink. It rapidly became the world’s best-selling Port. Its breakthrough success was evident in how other Port houses followed suit (Fronseca’s Bin 27, Warre’s Warrior, Graham’s Six Grapes, and Sandeman’s Founder’s Reserve for instance).

This dark opaque purple wine has a surprisingly delicate nose of sweet plum.  It is much more lively in the mouth, with red berry flavors, a restrained sweetness, good acidity, and just slightly bitter and peppery tannins.

Pour this wine in a wine glass at room temperature, or slightly chilled in warm weather to make it more refreshing.  It works as both an aperitif and after-dinner drink. It does not need to be decanted, is ready to drink on release, and should be consumed within four to six weeks of opening. The ABV is: 20%.

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Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2017

Duckhorn Vineyards was co-founded by Dan and Margaret Duckhorn in 1976. On their first vintage, 1978, they released 800 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon and 800 cases of Merlot. Partly due to a wonderful growing season that year, 1978 turned out to be an excellent first vintage, one that buttressed Duckhorn’s belief that great wines begin in the vineyard, “It was a great year,” he reminisced. “We could have made wine out of walnuts.” Sauvignon Blanc was added to the list in 1982. In 2005, the San Francisco Chronicle proclaimed Dan Duckhorn its “Winemaker of the Year” and named four of his wines to its list of “Top 100 Wines of 2005.”

Dan Duckhorn

Early on, the Duckhorns decided to focus on the production of Merlot. At the time, few Napa Valley producers were exploring the potential of this varietal as a standalone wine. But, Dan Duckhorn became a great fan of Merlot during his travels in the mid-’70s to St. Emilion and Pomerol. He felt that this varietal was underappreciated in North America. “I liked the softness, the seductiveness, the color,” says Dan, “the fact that it went with a lot of different foods; it wasn’t so bold, didn’t need to age so long, and it had this velvety texture to it. It seemed to me to be a wonderful wine to just enjoy. I became enchanted with Merlot.”

Soon after establishing his winery, Duckhorn met up with Ric Forman. He was the winemaker at Sterling Vineyards at the time, and when he heard that Duckhorn was looking for some Merlot, he gave him a call, “I’ve got a vineyard you have to see.” Forman took Duckhorn up to the Three Palms Vineyard in Calistoga. Forman also recommended a winemaker by the name of Tom Rinaldi. When Rinaldi rolled up to the winery on a motorcycle looking like “a flower child,” as Margaret Duckhorn called him, they had no idea what they were in for. But, it worked out because Rinaldi ended up as the Duckhorn winemaker for the next 20 years.

Margaret Duckhorn

From the first vintage, Margaret took an active role in the day-to-day operations of the winery, hand-sorting the fruit and working alongside Rinaldi during blending. Later, she began focusing on marketing and international public relations to promote Duckhorn Vineyards. Over the years, she also helped to articulate Duckhorn Vineyards’ philosophy and core values. “We recognize the importance of taking care of this remarkable place, and of giving back to the community that has given us so much. In addition, we make certain that our practices at the winery and in our vineyards are sustainable.”  After the Duckhorns divorced in 2000, Margaret pivoted to advocating for the Napa Valley wine industry, working both locally and globally to protect and promote the region.

The first few years were simple, with only three stainless steel tanks under a big oak tree and hand-cranked basket presses. For the first vintage in 1978, they only harvested 28 tons of grapes into apple lug boxes, half Cabernet Sauvignon and half Merlot. Everything was hand-picked and sorted extensively. Duckhorn’s trip to France had also introduced him to the Nadalie family who were barrel builders, and he decided that brand new French oak was the way to go. Those first few vintages were cellared exclusively in Nadalie coopered barrels.

The Duckhorn Visitor Center (bottom photo: Zaiya Mikhael)

In 1982, Duckhorn made its first white varietal wine, Sauvignon Blanc. With the expansion of the winemaking program came a need for more fruit; this is when Duckhorn began acquiring some of the properties that are still important today. Two of the first vineyards purchased were Patzimaro Vineyard in 1989 and Monitor Ledge Vineyard in 1992. Today, the winery’s seven estate vineyards are located on 168 acres (68 ha) in alluvial fans of the Napa Valley and on the slopes of Howell Mountain. There are an additional 153 acres (62 ha) of four estate vineyards in the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County.

Two of the valley vineyards (bottom photo: Phil Guertin)

The mountain has distinctly different grape-growing conditions than the valley floor. Often during summer months, the maritime fog seeping into the Napa Valley below will not reach the mountaintop, giving Howell Mountain more sunlight and moderate temperatures.  The shallow and rocky soil drains easily, forcing the vines to send roots deep in search of water. And, the rocks retain the day’s heat, protecting the vines during cold spring mornings and foggy summer nights.

Duckhorn’s current winemaker, Renee Ary, has numerous vineyard blocks to choose from, each offering markedly different flavor profiles. She strives to understand the needs and opportunities presented by each specific terroir and microclimate. By approaching each vineyard block individually, Ary’s goal is to harvest when the flavors have reached their peak and the tannins are at their softest. Grapes are hand-picked and hand-sorted prior to crushing, as they have been since the beginning. In addition, some vineyard sites are even harvested several times, selecting only the ripe fruit with each pass through the vineyard.

In the winery, Ary blends from almost 200 distinctive lots using taste and instinct, not formula. Wines are barrel-aged separately by vineyard lot, utilizing an extensive barrel program that sources 25 different types of oak from 13 separate cooperages. The majority of the barrels are made from French oak in the Bordeaux Chateau style. These barrels breathe easier, encouraging the wines to develop. Duckhorn also employs many water-bent barrels, a process which removes harsh tannins from the wood, bringing about toasty, caramelized flavors.

In July 2007, a controlling interest in the company was sold to GI Partners, a private equity firm, at a price believed to be over $250 million. The company was sold to another private equity firm, TSG Consumer Partners, in 2016. The operation continues to expand under this ownership. In addition to Duckhorn Vineyards, Duckhorn Wine Company also operates Goldeneye [1996], a maker of Pinot noir in Anderson Valley, and Paraduxx, a blend of Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon made at a winery on the Silverado Trail between Yountville and Oakville, California. The company also produces second wines under the names Decoy [1985], made from Alexander Valley fruit not included in Duckhorn, Migration [2001], made with grapes from Anderson Valley and the Sonoma coast, and Canvasback [2012] a maker of Cabernet Sauvignon in Washington state’s Red Mountain appellation.

Duckhorn also controls Greenwing, which makes Cabernet Sauvignon in Washington’s Columbia Valley, and Postmark, a maker of Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from the increasingly reliable Paso Robles region.

Finally, two formerly independent wineries are now also under Duckhorn’s wing. Calera, founded in 1975 by Josh Jensen, is known for their Central Coast Pinot Noirs. Kosta Brown, dating back to 1997, is one of Sonoma’s premier producers of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2017

A blend of 87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot, 0.5% Cabernet Franc, and 0.5% Petit Verdot, from Duckhorn’s estate vineyards and top Napa Valley growers, this wine was aged for 16 months in French oak barrels, half of them used, that restrained the oakiness.  This dark purple selection begins with moderate aromas, primarily vanilla and rich dark fruit, especially berries.  These continue in the mouth, backed up by black currant, tart cherry, and an earthy finish that has a hint of bitterness.  1,600 cases were produced, and the ABV is 14.5%.

Pio Cesare Barbera d’Alba 2018

Pio Cesare [pee-oh chez-are-eh] was founded in 1881 in Alba, in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy by Cesare Pio. Alba is known for its white truffles; the Gothic Alba Cathedral with a bell tower that overlooks the city; and the Church of San Giovanni Battista, which contains artworks from the 14th century onward.

Pio Cesare is one of the oldest wineries in the region and one of the first to export their products. Pio, a successful entrepreneur, was inspired to produce a small and select quantity of wines from the hills of Barolo and Barbaresco for himself, his family, friends, and customers. He was dedicated to the terroir of the Piedmont region and to producing wines of the highest quality. The operation is still owned and run by the fifth-generation of the original family, now led by Federica Boffa and her cousin Cesare Benevenuto. “When Pio Cesare began in 1881 there were four or five producers of local wines,” explained Benevenuto. “Now there are over 600 producers in Barolo and Barbaresco, but Pio Cesare is the only one in the city center of Alba.”

Pio Cesare produces five single-vineyard wines, which are only produced in select vintages. There are also more generic offerings of Barolo and Barbaresco, as well as Langhe Nebbiolo wines, Dolcetto d’Alba, Barbera d’Alba, Grignolino, and Freisa. The range of white wines includes a Gavi and one of the best-regarded Arneis wines in Piedmont, and is led by the single-vineyard barrel-fermented Chardonnay Piodilei.

Cesare Pio’s entrepreneurial spirit drive him to travel throughout Europe in the early 20th century to publicize and promote his wines. His passport, which is proudly displayed at the winery in Alba, bears the number 55.

Cesare Pio’s well-used passport.

His son, Giuseppe Pio, was lucky enough to inherit a thriving winery at the turn of the 20th century. He carried on his father’s mission and invested in expansion of the cellars and the business, making Pio Cesare a benchmark brand for the wines of the region.

In 1940, Giuseppe Pio’s only child, Rosy, married Giuseppe Boffa, a young  engineer from Alba, who managed a large company in Milan at the time. When Italy entered the travails of the Second World War, Boffa decided to leave his job in Milan and dedicate himself to the Pio Cesare winery. After the war, the Pio Cesare brand rose in fame and prominence both domestically and internationally, becoming one of the most respected names among Italian wine producers, with a special focus on its renowned Barolo.

Rosy and Giuseppe Boffa named their youngest son Pio, in honor of his great-grandfather. The late Pio Boffa was joined by his cousin Augusto in the early 1990s. Boffa’s sister’s son, Cesare Benvenuto, has been active since 2000 as the fifth generation, and Pio Boffa’s daughter, Federica, is now part of the enterprise as well.

The Vineyards

“In the 1970s my grandfather and father started buying vineyards,” said Federica. “It was a big change.” She said that the strategy they employed was to buy vineyards from which they were already sourcing grapes, which kept a continuity in the wines. They now own a substantial 185 acres [75 hectares] in Barolo and Barbaresco, including holdings in the famous Ornato vineyard in Barolo and Il Bricco in Barbaresco. Fruit for Pio Cesare wines is also sourced from managed vineyards under long-term contracts with local growers.

Italy’s Alba Region.

One of Pio Cesare’s typical vineyard sites.

The location of the vineyards was not chosen randomly, but was determined by a strong belief in blending the different characteristics of each vineyard and region in order to produce wines that represent the styles of each appellation’s terroir as a whole, instead of individual sites. This was the method of producing Barolo, Barbaresco, and the other classic wines at the end of the 19th century, and it still remains the winery’s guiding philosophy today. Production is about 33,000 cases a year from these two regions.

The Barolo region holdings are comprised of 78.5 acres [31.8 hectares].
51 acres [20.7 hectares] are planted with Nebbiolo for Barolo.

The Barbaresco region holdings are comprised of 66.5 acres [27 hectares].
34.75 acres [14 hectares] are planted with Nebbiolo for Barbaresco.

Other vineyards include a total of 25.5 acres [10.25 hectares] in Diano d’Alba, Trezzo Tinella, Roddino, and Sinio.

The farming practices of the winery have become much more modern and sustainable under the current stewardship. “We have moved away from chemicals in the vineyard,” shared Federica. “We consider ourselves almost organic, but my father didn’t want any certification; he didn’t believe in certification as marketing.”

Yields in the vineyards have been restrained to improve quality instead of quantity. No seasonal workers are used in the vineyards, so the same people are immersed throughout the entire growing cycle, from the pruning to the harvest, and interventions are kept to a minimum.

The Cellars

In the cellar, the approach isn’t easily pigeonholed. It’s a sort of fusion between traditional approaches and more modern winemaking. There’s a strong reliance on large-format neutral oak barrels (botti), but most of the top wines also have a portion that goes through small oak barrels for part of their elevage.

The winery at ground level.

The cellars were built at the end of the 1700s, but the main foundation walls are much older,  dating back to the Roman period, about 50 BCE. There are  four different levels, one of which is even lower than the nearby Tanaro River. They feature naturally-occurring constant temperatures and appropriate humidity. Significant renovations have been made over the years to rebuild and restructure the cellars, including a new fermentation cellar with a gravity racking area and a new barrel-ageing room 36 feet underneath the existing facility.

Part of the ancient cellars.

A more modern part of the facility.

Pio Cesare Barbera d’Alba 2018

This reliable Italian is DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) under the Italian rules of appellation classification.  DOC is the main tier, the third highest of four, and covers almost every traditional Italian wine style. There are around 330 individual DOC titles, each with a set of laws governing its viticultural zone, permitted grape varieties, and wine style.

100% Barbera, this selection was sourced from vineyards in the Barolo region in Serralunga d’Alba (Colombaro) and in Monforte d’Alba (Mosconi); in the Barbaresco region in Treiso (Bongiovanni); and also in the Langhe region in Sinio (Val di Croce, Bricco dello Stornello) and in Diano d’Alba (Carzello).

The wine was fermented in stainless steel tanks, followed by a long maceration on the skins for 20 to 25 days.  It was primarily aged in big French oak “botti” for 12 months, but a small amount was aged in barriques as well.

It presents with a transparent purple.  Next come medium aromas of blueberry and blackberry, which repeat nicely on the palate.  It’s supported by tart-cherry acidity and black-tea tannins, and wraps up in a long finish.  ABV is 14.5%.

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Orin Swift Cellars Palermo 2018

I have been aware of Orin Swift wines for some time, especially The Prisoner, but had never had the chance to try any of them, so I was intrigued when a friend brought over this selection.  He is adamant that “all wines from California are inferior to any wine from Europe, especially Spain!” so I looked forward to his evaluation of this one, as well as my own.

Orin Swift Cellars is a relative newcomer on the California wine scene, having been established in 1998, but not by “Orin Swift,” as I had long assumed. Rather, it was by the now iconic, and iconoclastic, winemaker David Phinney. Orin is Phinney’s father’s middle name and Swift is his mother’s maiden name.

Phinney, a native Californian, was born in Gilroy, the son of a botanist and a college professor. However, within a week he was in Los Angeles, where he spent his childhood, and finally an adolescence in Squaw Valley. He enrolled in the Political Science program at the University of Arizona, with an eye towards a law degree, but before long became disillusioned with both. At this juncture, a friend invited him on a trip to Italy, and while in Florence he was introduced to the joys of wine, and soon became obsessed.

Back in the States, he began his career by working the night-shift harvest at Robert Mondavi in 1997. Encouraged by Mondavi, remarkably he started his own Napa Valley brand the very next year with the purchase two tons of some Zinfandel, though he wasn’t sure what he was going to do with it. Predictably, there were some false starts. Orin Swift’s first vintage was okay but not noteworthy, with Phinney confessing that he made an error in sourcing average fruit from the ‘wrong part’ of a great vineyard. Eventually he figured it out though, creating a rich, seductive, runaway best-selling wine called, surprise!, The Prisoner (an unusual blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Charbono).

Since making his first wine in 1998, Phinney has bee guided by two  criteria; “find the best fruit from the best vineyards and don’t screw it up” and if you do screw it up “experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.”

David Phinney.  Photo: Margaret Pattillo.

In a controversial move in 2016, Phinney sold Orin Swift to E&J Gallo (yes, that Gallo) for nearly 300 million dollars, but he shrewdly negotiated to remain in charge of production and winemaking for them. “I have access to their amazing vineyards; after the harvest in 2016 – the first year – I threw a barbeque for all the rest of the [Gallo] winemakers, some of who I knew, some I didn’t, to apologize for stealing their grapes because I knew we were getting access to stuff we probably shouldn’t have!”

While some observers saw it as a canny and natural business move, there were also whispers of criticism about Phinney ‘selling out.’ He is sensitive to the complaint, but stands by his decision. “It was a very natural, organic coming together, I’ve known and worked with the Gallos since 2005 and it was just kind of a conversation that was spurned because our growth curve was like a hockey stick, and that’s when you become attractive to bigger wineries,” he says.

Such financial independence has allowed Phinney to also produce wines from vineyards he owns in California and four European countries (France, Italy, Spain, Greece).

Many of the wines Phinney makes are blends. This is by design and not circumstance, so having access to a huge number of vineyards and parcels in sought-after areas of Napa Valley and beyond makes his job more interesting, and his quest for producing great wines arguably easier, as he is always striving for balance in his products. “For me the easiest way to achieve complexity is through geographic diversification, and that can be county-wise, valley-wise, country-wise,” he says. “I was told many years ago, and I believe it, that if you put a lot of good red wine together you often make a great red wine, so having that – and I hate this phrase – ‘spice rack’ of different things to play with can really work. You still have to be a custodian of each wine so that when you add them together the finished wine is better than the sum of its parts, that’s where I think blending really works.” And although he admits it’s a cliché, he believes that 90% of a wine is made in the field, so vineyard selection is the key to success.

Phinney also creates all the of the wine labels, and he is always looking for inspiration, much of which comes from his extensive travels around the world. “They all start and end with me, whether I like it or not. I grew up in LA in the 1980s very much in the punk/skateboarding/surfing scene, so there’s definitely a street art aspect to it. The flipside of that is that my parents were both professors, so we basically travelled the world and wherever we went we always had to go to a fine art museum. so there’s always been this relationship with art either by proxy or by design.”

Orin Swift Palermo Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

Instead of a blend, for which Phinney is better known, Palermo is the entry-level Orin Swift Cab (still about 50 bucks, though).  It was aged for 12 months in French and  American Oak, of which 33% was new.

It is a rich, inky purple, with plenty of dark stone fruit and raspberry on the nose.  This is accentuated by cassis, blackberry, and vanilla on the palate.   The presentation is in excellent balance, a Phinney hallmark.  The ABV is a robust 15.5%.

Even my European-leaning friend grudgingly enjoyed it.  Perhaps predictably, since Phinney confesses that although his prestige wines come from California, his heart is in Spain.  As for me, I really liked it.

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Pizza Margherita

I have nine pizza cookbooks, and seven of them have  a recipe for Pizza Margherita.  In part this is because it is a classic, and in part because the story of its creation is clearly known and iconic.  In 1889, the Italian royal couple King Umberto and Queen Margherita paid a visit to Naples.  While there, local pizzaiolo Raffaele Esposito made three types of pizza for them: a marinara pizza with anchovies; a bianca (white) pizza with lard, provolone or caciocavallo cheese, and basil; and a pizza with tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil, featuring the red, white, and green of the Italian flag.  The queen was particularly delighted by that last one, and when Esposito received a note of thanks from her, he dedicated the pizza to her.


Start dough at 4p for dinner between 8p and 9p
1 cup warm water
2 tsp instant-rise yeast
3-1/4 cup bread flour
1 tsp salt
1/4 cup olive oil (extra virgin not necessary)
Combine ingredients and knead by hand for 10 minutes or machine
for two to five minutes. Coat dough ball in a thin film of olive oil or cooking spray, cover in plastic wrap, and let rise in warm place until about doubled in size.


1 Tbs olive oil
1 cup chopped canned Italian-style plum tomatoes with as little juice as possible
1/2 cup loosely-packed torn fresh basil leaves
6 oz. (1 cup) fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced thin or chopped coarse (You can also substitute Fontina, as I often do.)

Although not traditional, for this pizza, I also used:
6 oz. sliced pepperoni
1 can of anchovies, drained

About an hour before dinner time, turn the oven up as high as it will go, preferably 500 degrees. Thirty to forty minutes before baking, roll dough out to 15” circle. [Or divide dough if you want to make two smaller pizzas.] Place on pizza screen if available, being careful not to press the dough into the mesh. With your fingers, press and form a 1/2 inch border around the edge.  Gently brush or rub the dough with the olive oil.  Cover with plastic wrap for this second rise.

Spread the pepperoni and anchovies (if using) evenly over the dough up to the border, followed by the tomatoes.  Sprinkle half the basil leaves evenly over the tomatoes.  Arrange the cheese over the tomatoes so that some of the tomatoes can be seen.

Bake the pizza on the bottom rack of the preheated oven for 5 to 10 minutes, or until the crust is brown (as you can see, mine got a bit darker than I would have liked).  Sprinkle on the remaining basil leaves as soon as the pizza comes out of the oven.

I’m thinking only a true Italian wine should go with this, such as a Dolcetto, Barbera, or Montepulciano.

Mangia! Mangia!

Serves 4 to 6.

The dough for this recipe came from James McNair’s excellent New Pizza Don’t be discouraged by the one-star reviews, they are bogus, imho.  One dweeb complained that McNair didn’t cover such arcane techniques as cold fermentation.  Geez.  If you want a cold ferment, use room temperature water and let the dough rise in the refrigerator for 24 hours.  But, you’re not going to have pizza tonight, and you won’t taste the subtleties a cold ferment brings to dough under all those toppings.

The Margherita recipe itself is derived from one in The Ultimate Pizza by Pasquale Bruno, Jr., another quite reliable pizza book.

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Schug Carneros Estate Rosé of Pinot Noir 2019

Walter Schug was born in 1935, and grew up in Assmannshausen, Germany, on the only Pinot Noir estate in the Rheingau region,  which was originally planted in the 12th century. Although Schug’s father was its manager, Walter never formally worked there. He did work for six years in viticulture and winemaking in Germany and England, and earned a diploma from the Geisenheim institute, Germany’s premier college for the wine industry, in 1954. He was then invited to serve an internship in Delano, Calif., south of Fresno. After five years of that, He returned to Germany in 1961 to marry his sweetheart, Gertrud, who also came from a winemaking family, and a month later they and their Volkswagen Beetle, with skis attached, were on a boat to New York. From there, they drove to California, where Walter had been offered full-time work by winemakers who had visited him and his father in Germany. After toiling for five years for a bulk wine processor in the Central Valley, he was hired by E. & J. Gallo,  Based in St. Helena with his wife and three children, Schug was responsible for managing Gallo’s numerous North Coast grapegrowers. Although the late Julio Gallo is widely credited with discovering great North Coast grapes for Gallo’s wines, Schug was the grower-relations representative, wheeling and dealing, and always looking for new fruit sources.

In the six years Schug worked with Gallo, “He learned all the good spots to plant grapes, and the not so good,” said his son, Axel, now Schug Carneros Estate’s managing partner. Colorado construction executive, entrepreneur, and aspiring vintner Joe Phelps (who died in 2015 at 87) wanted that knowledge when he hired Dad in 1972. Dad would check out the land or vines, tell Joe he wanted it, and Mr. Phelps would write the check. They trusted each other.” Schug selected the site for Joseph Phelps Vineyards and helped plant their first vineyard in St. Helena.

The first wine Schug made for Phelps was a Riesling. Phelps soon allowed Schug to add Pinot Noir, but the U.S. market wasn’t yet ready for it, and Joseph Phelps Vineyards abandoned the varietal after the 1979 vintage. “Joe couldn’t sell the Pinot, so I said, ‘Let me see what I can do,’” Schug recalled. “He said yes and didn’t charge me a cent. So in 1980, I began purchasing the same Pinot Noir grapes that had gone into the Phelps wines.”

As the Phelps winemaker, Schug also bottled the first varietally-labeled Syrah in California, and Napa Valley’s first Late Harvest dessert wines (Gewürztraminer, Riesling. and Schuerbe) that were incredibly popular in his native Germany. In 1974, he produced California’s first proprietary Bordeaux-style blend, Insignia. He also made the legendary vineyard-designated Cabernet Sauvignons from Phelps’ Backus Vineyard and Eisele Vineyard years before such types of wines were common.

Schug worked at Phelps through the 1983 harvest, moonlighting as the winemaker of his own brand, which launched in 1980. “I never planned to leave Phelps, but the winery needed the cellar space I was using for my own wines,” he explained. After a couple of false starts, he moved production to the Sonoma side of Carneros where he bought land, planted grapes, and built his own facility in 1989. “You get a certain feeling in your body of what Pinot Noir needs, where it wants to grow, where it needs more fog,” he said. “I felt that in Carneros.”

The Schugs’ mutual love of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir led to this decision from which they never looked back. The pair of Burgundian varietals have remained at the forefront of Schug’s wine portfolio. They come from 42 acres of estate grapes as well as purchased fruit, and the winery also works with Sonoma-grown Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, a full-bodied yet dry sparkling Rouge de Noirs, and a late-harvest Riesling from Lake County grapes. However, it’s Pinot Noir that commanded Schug’s keenest attention and accounts for 60 percent of the winery’s annual production, which has grown from 2,000 to 30,000 cases a year, according to the company’s website.

At Phelps and later at Schug, German-made equipment was Schug’s choice, a guarantee, he said, that things would work as expected. “All this equipment, it comes from Germany,” Schug once explained. The presses, the pumps, the fermentation tanks, the 669-gallon wood oval casks for the aging of wine — all were manufactured in Germany and shipped to Schug when he began building the winery and planting grapes. “The equipment used in California back then was shit,” he once recalled.

David Graves, who worked for Schug at Phelps in 1979 before co-founding Saintsbury winery in Carneros, watched the man work for years. “There [was] a very sweet side to Walter, an analytical side, a serious side, and a knee-slapping sense of humor. He [was] very proud of his children and grandchildren,” Graves said. “He was well-trained at Geisenheim, and that European perspective informed his entire American winemaking career.” Graves also shared, “Walter pioneered the popular Meritage, and was among the first to recognize the Carneros region. He also was known for his late-harvest wines in addition to Pinot Noir.”

Walter Schug late in life.

After a long and storied career in the California wine industry, Walter Schug died in 2015 from complications of a stroke at the age of 80.

Son Axel as Managing Partner now runs the business side of Schug Carneros Estate; his sister Claudia is also a Partner. “[My father] was a Pinot Noir niche person long before the movie ‘Sideways’ came along and everybody was demanding it,” Claudia said. “He didn’t jump on a bandwagon. He was pushing it from the very start.”

Today. the winemaker is Johannes Scheid. Raised on a small family winery in the Mosel Valley of Germany, Scheid developed a passion for the European style of winemaking from working in the family business as well as summer trips with his parents and sister through the continent’s wine regions. Like Walter Schug, he studied Viticulture and Winemaking at Geisenheim University. In fact, Johannes first met Walter after an annual presentation at Geisenheim, and, after inquiring about the possibility of a harvest internship, was hired for a 2009 position at Schug, and again two years later.

In the summer of 2012 he returned to Germany where he worked in some of Germany’s top wineries, and he traveled around Europe’s wine regions as well. Then he ventured to the Nelson region of New Zealand for harvest jobs. and traveled to Australia and Thailand before returning to California in late 2013.

Scheid accepted a position as Production Manager with Benziger in 2015. In 2016 he became Schug’s Assistant Winemaker, returning to the winery where his California winemaking career began and where he felt most connected. Now, as Winemaker, Scheid is dedicated to preserving Walter Schug’s legacy of terroir-driven and European-style Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Schug Carneros Estate Rosé of Pinot Noir 2019

First off, this wine is sealed with a relatively low-quality plastic cork.  While I am not a priori opposed to synthetic or reconstituted corks, I do like them to be better than this one.

This Rosé of Pinot Noir is crafted in the German style of a Weissherbst or white harvest, a delicate rosé wine made from red grapes. It was hand harvested at night, and then pressed cold with minimal skin contact,  It is a nice, pale pink, and has a light aroma of rose petals on the nose.  The palate reveals flavors of strawberry, lemon, and grapefruit, backed up by vibrant acidity.   The ABV is 13%

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La Crema Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2019

Rod Bergland, with the assistance of some other partners, founded La Crema Viñera in 1979 in a Petaluma business park.   The name, which translates as the Best of the Vine, was an intentional boast: Bergland believed his vineyards produced the best grapes in Sonoma.

1n 1975, Bergland, then a biology student at Sonoma State University, worked a harvest without pay for Joseph Swan, even then an iconic California winemaker, who would become his mentor. In 1976 he worked the crush (for which it is believed that he was paid).  Swan was a perfectionist who would readily dispose of wines that did not meet his standards, and he willingly used marginal equipment, including a tiny press that was allegedly broken half the time.

Initially, La Crema focused efforts on developing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the Sonoma Coast, using Swan’s techniques like gentle handling, precision sorting, whole-cluster pressing, and open-top fermentation. The early years were difficult however, and  Bergland later recounted to wine writer Dan Berger that he worked the night shift at Safeway to make ends meet.

In 1986 Bergland married Joseph Swan’s stepdaughter, Lynn. The couple worked with Swan on the 1977 vintage but that would turn out to be Swan’s last. He was ill with cancer and passed away in 1989.

In 1993, Jess Jackson and Barbara Banke purchased La Crema Viñera, shortened the name of the operation to La Crema, and produced the first wine under their team in 1994 (Bergland made the 1993 for them). Jackson had already decided that La Crema would become part of an expanding portfolio of wineries, each with its own specialty and identity.  La Crema would make wines from cool-climate regions on the Pacific coast states, mainly from the principal Burgundian varieties, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with which the winery was already well established. He started with the Russian River wines that Bergland had created, but soon moved into other regions. The winery began working extensively with fruit from appellations such as Sonoma Coast, Green Valley, Anderson Valley, and Los Carneros, extending its reach into Monterey in 2008, and then to Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 2012. Though the growing regions are different, the vineyards themselves all fall within cool climates with well-drained soils.

In 1996, a new winery (not open to the public) was constructed in the Russian River Valley appellation, and a tasting room opened in the town of Healdsburg in 2006. During this decade, Jackson’s daughters, Laura Jackson Giron and Jenny Jackson Hartford, along with his sons-in-law, Rick Giron and Don Hartford, began managing the day-to-day operations and representing the winery out in the market.

La Crema had been sourcing some of their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the renowned Saralee’s Vineyard in Russian River Valley. The winery had developed a close relationship with Richard and Saralee McClelland Kunde, and eventually purchased the vineyard from them in 2013. The circa-1900 barn on the property was modernized and reopened as the La Crema Estate at Saralee’s Vineyard in 2016, replacing the Healdsburg tasting room.

Saralee’s Vineyard.  Photo: Deborah Beyes

The renovated barn.  Photo: Robert Lewis

The Winemakers

Head winemaker Craig McAllister has made wine in his native New Zealand, Australia, Chile, and Cyprus.  He joined La Crema in 2007 as the Harvest Enologist after studying at Lincoln University in New Zealand, where he received his Bachelor of Science degree in viticulture and enology. He has been a steward of La Crema’s Monterey program and worked extensively on the Sonoma Coast Chardonnay. He also helped to further develop La Crema’s collection of single vineyard Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines. He was promoted to head winemaker in 2017.  “There’s an authenticity to our wines; we allow the grapes to fully express themselves without manipulation in the winery and they’re made in traditional ways,” McAllister shared. “We barrel-ferment Chardonnay and punch it down by hand, as it was done in La Crema’s early years.”

McAllister is assisted by winemaker Eric Johannsen, who received undergraduate degrees in Chemistry and Philosophy.  He pursued a Master of Science in Enology at the University of California, Davis.  Before joining La Crema in 2004, Johannsen spent his early career at such wineries as Mount Eden Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Cuvaison Estate Wines in Napa, and Williams Selyem Winery in Healdsburg.  After 20 years in the industry, he counts being in the vineyard, soaking in its cyclical rhythms, as his favorite aspect of winemaking. “Even early in the growing season, your conception starts to develop about what the wines will eventually become.”


Sustainability is a touch-stone at wineries everywhere, and La Crema is no different.  The winery itself is third-party certified under the Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance’s program.  All of  La Crema’s Estate Vineyards are third-party certified under the Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance’s program and  the SIP program.

All facilities are managed by a central computer to manage and monitor the most efficient use of energy,  including lighting, boilers, and refrigeration systems.

Cover crops provide beneficial insect habitat and improve water holding.  Leaf pulling reduces disease and reduces road dust to control mite populations. Habitat conservation in and around the vineyards provides biodiversity.

Only drip irrigation is used to conserve water and the energy to pump it.  100% of winery water used is recycled for landscaping and vineyard irrigation.

La Crema Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2019

One of Sonoma County’s largest AVAs, the Sonoma Coast Appellation stretches from the San Pablo Bay in the south to Mendocino County line to the north, and runs primarily along the mountainous coastline of the Pacific Ocean.  The AVA is known for its strong maritime influence that provides a cool growing climate throughout the year, with fog-moderating warmer summer temperatures.  The fruit for this wine was sourced from several of La Crema’s estate vineyards including Saralee’s, Kelli Ann, and Durell. Soils across the vineyards are predominantly free draining and low vigor.

Once picked, the fruit is gently pressed and allowed to settle for 24 hours before being fermented.  This Chard spent seven months on the lees in barrels, which were a mix of 75% French and 25% American oak, of which just 17% was new.  It presents with a very pale yellow in the glass, followed by very delicate aromas, primarily citrus.  This continues on the palate as crisp grapefruit, orange, and lemon meringue, supported by moderate acidity.  The wine becomes richer and rather more balanced about an hour after opening, unusual for a white.  The ABV is 13.5%.

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Momokawa Heart and Soul Saké

Saké is often called rice wine, but this is a misnomer.  While it is an alcoholic 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, heated, and placed in casks for maturing.  Sakés can range from dry to sweet, but even the driest retain a hint of sweetness.

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 their own saké.

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 for this bottling SakéOne selected Yamada Nishiki from Arkansas.


SakéOne’s modest tasting room.

Momokawa Heart and Soul Saké

The producer states that “Heart” refers to the center of the rice grain, or shinpaku.  The “Soul” refers to the dedication of the saké brewing team who created this hand-made saké.  It is a full-bodied Junmail* Daiginjo**  with a slightly yellow hue.  It opens with a nose of melon and lychee.  These continue on the palate, plus a bit of apple.  The overall balance is quite good.

The ABV is 16%, and it has a mid-scale SMV*** of +1.5, but it seems drier. The rice has a polish of 40%, so 60% of the rice has been removed.  Serve chilled.

NOTE:  SakeOne offers a three-tiered monthly saké club (but not all three tiers are available in every state, due to local liquor laws).  Club membership offers attractive discounts and access to limited production sakés.  Unfortunately, SakeOne marks up the actual shipping charges by 30% to 50%, making those discounts in reality rather less attractive.  I for one would prefer that the discounts be less, if necessary, and the shipping costs accurate.

*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.

***The SMV (Saké Meter Value) measures the density of saké relative to water, and is the method for gauging the dryness or sweetness of saké. The higher the SMV, the drier the saké. The range is from -15 (sweet) to +15 (dry),

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