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 large 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, 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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Walla Walla Vintners Rosé 2020

Walla Walla Vintners was founded in 1995 in the shadow of the Blue Mountains by pioneering winemakers Gordy Venneri and Myles Anderson, and was just the AVA‘s eighth winery.  Even though there are now more than 140 wineries in Walla Walla Valley, in 2016, Walla Walla Vintners was named “Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year” by Wine Press Northwest.

Anderson retired early in 2017. Venneri worked with the new co-owners, Scott and Nici Haladay, for several months before he also retired.  Scott came from a technology background (as does his father Jay, who is a silent partner) and Nici is a licensed nurse, but both Haladays are longtime wine lovers,

Scott Haladay
(Photo courtesy of Scott Haladay)
Derrek Vipond

Derrek Vipond took over as winemaker at Walla Walla Vintners in January, 2019, succeeding winemaker William vonMetzger who held the position for over a decade. Vipond grew up in Puyallup, Wash., with deep roots in the Walla Walla wine community. He began his formal wine education at Walla Walla Community College in the Enology and Viticulture program, and took a degree from Oregon State University in Fermentation Science.  After graduation, Vipond followed harvests around the world, eventually settling back in Washington.

“I look at Walla Walla Vintners as a legacy brand for Washington state, and Myles and Gordy are legends in the Washington wine industry,” Vipond commented. “They were among the original people out there beating the drum for Walla Walla to the rest of the world. I’m really looking forward to carrying on that legacy.”

Walla Walla Vintners Estate Winery

Walla Walla Vintners 2020 Rosé of Sangiovese

This wine is 100% Sangiovese, made from fruit grown by the pioneering Seven Hills Winery of Walla Walla, which is Certified Sustainable and Salmon Safe.   Planted  in the early 1980s, the Seven Hills Vineyard is comprised of deep, silt loam soils over flood sediments at an elevation of 1,000 feet.

This Rosé is salmon-colored and lightly aromatic.  It offers a nose and flavors of strawberry and a bit of grapefruit, with a soft mouthfeel.  It is a very approachable, easy summer sipper.  450 cases were produced, and the alcohol is 13.4%.

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Dragonette Rosé 2020

The brothers Dragonette (John, the elder, and Steve, the younger) and close friend Brandon Sparks-Gillis, after having met and worked together at Wally’s, a renowned wine shop in Los Angeles, founded Dragonette Cellars in 2005. They did so in the climatic and soil diversity of the wild, windy, and remote northern Santa Barbara County.

“We all came from different business backgrounds,” Sparks-Gillis recalled. “John was a lawyer taking a wine hiatus from his career, and Steve was working as a computer engineer. I was a geology major in college, but I had already turned to the wine business and had worked in various capacities for some significant wineries both in California and abroad.”

The trio’s plan was quite simple: Establish a winery that would use prime Santa Barbara County grapes and hand-produce the finest wines possible. They figured they had something of a leg up since they knew plenty about winemaking, albeit as an adjunct to their then primary careers. John had studied wine independently for ten years, and had apprenticed at renowned Fiddlehead Cellars. He had also worked for three years for one of the area’s top vineyard management companies, and had developed relationships with a number of the leading growers in the area. Sparks-Gillis’ experience included Manfred Krankl’s cultish Sine Qua Non Winery and the highly-rated Torbreck Vintners of the Barossa Valley in Australia.

The proprietors. Two are related.  One is not. 

The designation ‘Dragonette’ was selected for the winery because the partners believed it carried a certain panache of mystery and uniqueness, and of course was the brothers’ name, regardless. Their ancestors, the Dragonetti family, emigrated from Italy to the United States in the 1930s, and like many others promptly adopted a more Anglicized moniker.  (They missed the chance to go with Dragnet and get a jump on Jack Webb.)

The Dragonette logo is an old symbol used by alchemists for the ‘elixir of life’ or ‘drinkable gold.’ During medieval times, it was believed that gold contained certain medicinal properties, and the alchemists sought a process by which gold could be dissolved into a liquid that could then be ingested to obtain healing properties. And now, centuries later, the partners are turning a liquid into gold.  Neat trick.

Dragonette’s first release was a mere 200 cases in 2006. But success came quickly, and the winery has prospered and will produce about 5,000 cases this year at their smallish winery in Buellton, California.  The tasting room is located nearby in Los Olivos.

The Dragonette tasting room in Los Olivos, California.

Dragonette Rosé 2020

2020 marks Dragonette’s 14th vintage of producing their highly sought-after Rosé, a wine that tends to sell out quickly each year.  This wine was sourced from Two Wolves Vineyard (56%) and Vogelzang Vineyard (44%), both in the Santa Ynez Valley AVA, located in Santa Barbara County.  The AVA covers over 76,000 acres, and is part of the larger Central Coast AVA. The Santa Ynez Valley also contains two smaller AVAs, Sta. Rita Hills (known for quality Pinot Noirs), and Happy Canyon (mostly home to Cabernet Sauvignon).

This wine is a blend of 91% Grenache and 9% Graciano, fermented using native yeasts in a variety of neutral oak and stainless steel vessels, and a concrete egg. It was aged for five months on the lees in neutral (used) barrels, and there was no malolactic fermentation.  It shows a lovely pink color, as so many Rosés do.  The nose offers up delicate aromas of strawberry and  raspberry.  This flows onto the palate, aided by melon and a bit of tart cherry.  It’s all complemented by refreshing acidity and a smooth mouthfeel.  600 cases were produced, and the alcohol is 13%.

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Chalk Hill Pinot Noir 2017 and Chardonnay 2018

I’m obviously a wine enthusiast, and with my wife will drink all or most of a full bottle of wine with dinner just about every night.  However, you may enjoy less wine with your meals.  If so, consider 375 mL half bottles.   They are also handy if you want a red and your companion wants a white, like the two shown here.  Half bottles are also convenient for picnic outings.  And, empty half bottles are great for storing leftover wine; just fill the half bottle as close to the top as you can, reseal it (easily done if the closure is a screw cap), and park it in the refrigerator.

The only real downside to half bottles is that they will cost somewhat more than half what the same wine in a full bottle will, since, other than the wine itself, the remaining expenses of filling, labeling, packing and shipping are more or less the same as for a full bottle.  For instance, the Chardonnay is $15 for a half bottle, and $26 for a full one.  Similarly, the Pinot Noir is $15 for a half bottle, and $29 for a full one (but really, not much of a penalty on this one).  Finding your favorite wines in half bottles can also sometimes be difficult, although like wine in cans they are becoming more common.  And now, on to the wines.

One fine spring day in 1972, attorney, private pilot, and wine aficionado Fred Fruth was piloting his plane over the Russian River Valley area.  Down below, he saw a natural amphitheater carved into the hills of eastern Sonoma. In addition to this other interests, he had been thinking of starting a winery, and it seemed as if this might just be the place to do it.

Fred Furth

Soon after, a tour of the extensive property confirmed that the site indeed had the climate and soils to grow first-class wine grapes.  Furth and his second wife, Peggy, purchased the land, named the estate Chalk Hill, and started producing wine about a decade later.  They gradually planted more than 270 acres of vines.  Years later, Furth said, “I have always been interested in wine because my grandfather had vineyards. I’m actually more interested in the working-the-soil aspect, but I have many very talented people in the winery who know how to produce a world-class wine. When I bought this property, I was told it was too hilly to be a vineyard, but I simply planted the grapes in rows going uphill. People said you can’t do that, but I’d seen it done in Germany so I knew it would work.”  After a rich and varied life, Furth died in 2018 at the age of 84.

Bill Foley

Lawyer Bill Foley acquired Chalk Hill in 2010.  Although Foley is titled as “vintner,” I doubt he sees the interior of the winery very often.  He is a vintner in the broader sense of “someone who sells wine.”  He also owns the National Hockey League’s Vegas Golden Knights,  is the Executive Chairman of the Board of Directors for Fidelity National Financial Inc., is Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors for Fidelity National Information Services, Inc., and owns fifteen other wineries.

The Estate

The Chalk Hill AVA is one of 13 in Sonoma County, and is distinguished from the neighboring appellations of the cooler Russian River Valley to the west and the warmer Alexander Valley to the northeast. Elevations are higher and soil fertility is lower. The soils include gravel, rock, and heavy clay. Under the topsoil is a distinctive layer of chalk-colored volcanic ash which inspired the name of Chalk Hill.

Each vineyard block has been planted based on criteria that include: soil profile and chemistry, slope, orientation to the sun, and climate. Under Fred Furth’s direction, Chalk Hill was an early leader in planting its hillside vineyards “vertically,” following the rise of the terrain, rather than across it. Because of this, the topsoil must be protected with a diverse cover crop serving many purposes. It anchors and protects the soil, preventing erosion; captures and affixes nitrogen; and harbors a varied community of beneficial insects that aid in pest management. Water conservation is addressed through a precisely controlled drip-irrigation system. Air movement through these vertical channels of the vineyard reduces mildew. All of the grapevines are a grafted combination of plants: a specific wine-grape variety above ground, and a complementary rootstock below.


More than two-thirds of Chalk Hill’s 1300 acres remain uncultivated.  In addition to the vineyards, the property features wilderness areas, the winery, a hospitality center, a culinary garden, a  residence, stables, and an equestrian pavilion.

The Winemakers
Michael Beaulac, Senior Winemaker
Michael Beaulac

Beaulac, a Vermont native, has as of this writing just become senior winemaker, bringing with him over thirty years of experience. He began his winemaking career when Tim Murphy of Murphy-Goode offered him a job as a harvest intern in 1989. Immediately after and through 1991 he worked as a cellar master with long-time Russian River winemaker Merry Edwards. Beginning in 1997, he spent four years as winemaker for Markham Vineyards in St. Helena. He became Vice President of St. Supéry Vineyards in Rutherford in 2001, working closely with Michel Roland and Denis Dubourdieu.  Beaulac was general manager and winemaker at Napa’s Pine Ridge Vineyards from 2009 until coming to Chalk Hill this year.

Michael shared, “Be proactive in the vineyards. Let the fruit find its balance. Do not force the wine to be anything it’s not. Let it express [itself]. Once in the winery, the wine should be touched as little as possible. In a perfect vintage, we really shouldn’t have to do anything.”

Darrell Holbrook, Winemaker
Darrell Holbrook

A Sonoma County native, Holbrook spent his childhood among the vineyards there. By age 12, he often accompanied his father to his job at Lytton Springs Winery, [now Ridge Vineyards] driving tractors and helping where he could. In 1994, after working at Lytton Springs in the vineyards, he began an apprenticeship under David Ramey, Chalk Hill’s winemaker at the time. He worked his way up from a cellar intern (aka cellar rat) to enologist and production manager, and then assistant winemaker in 2009. Ten years later he was promoted to winemaker.

Courtney Foley, Vintner
Courtney Foley

The youngest daughter of Chalk Hill Estate proprietors Bill and Carol Foley, she studied enology and viticulture at both Napa Valley College and Fresno State University. Her practical experience began under winemaker Leslie Renaud at Lincourt Vineyards and Foley Estates (surprise!) in Santa Barbara County.  Once back in Sonoma, she again found herself working with Renaud at Roth Estate Winery in Healdsburg. Just in case the wine thing doesn’t work out, she also has a J.D. degree with a focus on Environmental and Ocean Law from the University of Oregon School of Law.

Chalk Hill Chardonnay 2018

This offering underwent 100% malolactic fermentation, followed by 10 months of sur lie barrel aging in French, American, and Hungarian oak, of which 25% was new.  It is rather pale for a Chardonnay, but that doesn’t mean it’s insipid.  It features moderate aromas of citrus and melon, which continue on the palate, plus some vanilla custard.  It has a full, unctuous mouthfeel, and plenty of zippy acidity. ABV is 14%.

Chalk Hill Pinot Noir 2017

This wine also underwent 100% malolactic fermentation, followed by nine months of aging in French oak, of which 25% was new.  It presents with a transparent, light to medium purple in the glass.  It is mildly aromatic, with flavors of raspberry, tart cherry, and a bit of dust on the medium body.  Enjoy this easy-sipping Pinot now.  ABV is 13%.

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Kiku-Masamune Taru Sake

Saké is often called rice wine, but that 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.

You can read more about the history of saké and the specifics of its production here.

Kiku-Masamune Saké Brewing was founded in 1659, when Japan was ruled by Ietsuna, the fourth Tokugawa shogun.  Unusual among saké producers, Kiku-Masamune’s entire product line is classified as dry.

Things began when the Kano family built a saké brewery at their residence. At the time, the Nada region in Kobe, Japan, where they lived, had not yet become well known for its saké, but the subsequent popularity in Tokyo of saké from Osaka and Kyoto, known as kudarizake, led to a rapid surge in demand for saké from the Nada area.

During the Meiji period (1868 to 1912), Jiroemon Kano, the eighth head of the family, pioneered improvements in technology and other initiatives to increase the quality of their saké in the service of the ideal of “doing whatever it takes to create a better saké.”  It was during this period that the Kiku-Masamune brand was registered as a trademark.

From the Meiji period to the Taisho period (1912 to 1926), the company increased overseas exports and served as a purveyor to the Imperial Household Agency, an arm of the government of Japan in charge of state matters concerning the Imperial Family, and also the keeping of the Privy Seal and State Seal of Japan.

The brewery managed to survive the hardships of the tumultuous Showa period (1926 to 1989), which included the rise of militarism in Japan; Japanese aggression in China and elsewhere in east and southeast Asia; World War II and Japan’s defeat; and the post-war struggle to rebuild, which ultimately succeeded, and spectacularly so.

Just four years after the end of the war, a 1949 opinion survey conducted in six of Japan’s largest cities by a brewing-industry newspaper asked respondents to identify the saké brands they preferred to sell and the brands that they believed offered a particularly high level of quality.  Kiku-Masamune took top place in three cities and led in the overall results.  The company Is headquartered in Kobe, Japan, where it began, with four additional branch offices.

Kiku-Masamune uses one of the oldest production regimens, called “kimoto.”  This approach originated during the Edo period in the late 17th century.  In the kimoto method, a combination of rice, water, and koji (the mold that drives fermentation) is added to small tubs and then mashed into a paste by brewers using a special pole.  This is done with two workers to a tub, standing at opposite ends and alternating sides as they stir.  In this ancient tradition, the brewers sing rhythmic songs in order to work in unison and keep the poles from clashing. Some songs are from whatever brewing guild the toji (Master Brewer) belongs to, and some are specific to the brewery itself.  Due to the fact that this approach, which takes four weeks from start to finish, consumes about twice as much time and effort as other methods, only a very few of the more than 1,000 saké breweries in Japan employ it.

Three Ingredients

At its most basic, only three ingredients are needed to make saké: water, rice, and koji.  Because of this simplicity, the kinds of water and rice play major roles.

Miyamizu is well water drawn from a particular area beneath Nishinomiya City, and is one of the reasons Nada saké became nationally famous.  This water contains almost no iron, yet is rich in minerals such as calcium, potassium, magnesium, and phosphorus. The mineral content provides nutrition for the koji as well as a variety of other microbes, and drives a robust fermentation.

Kiku-Masamune has long used only Yamada-nishiki brewer’s rice . This rice, grown specifically for saké, is characterized by a larger grain size than normal rice varieties, low protein content, and a soft consistency that allows the koji to more easily penetrate the rice.

The Kiku-Masamune brewery.

Kiku-Masamune Junmai Taru saké (Tokkuri bottle) 720 mL

Saké classified as Junmai has no added alcohol. Until recently, at least 30% of the rice used for Junmai saké had to be milled away, but Junmai no longer requires a specified milling rate.

Taru saké is matured in barrels made of Yoshino cedar.  Ideally, the saké is drawn from the barrel and bottled just as the resulting cedar aroma reaches its peak.

Two tokkuri bottles are on the right.

A tokkuri is traditionally used for serving. The saké is transferred from the original bottle to the tokkuri, then poured in the drinking vessel.  The tokkuri can be immersed in warm water for heating; the bit of twine at the neck is used to pull the bottle out of the warm-water bath.  This saké is also available in the more-usual tall green bottle.

Both in the nose and on the palate, this crystal-clear saké  predominately features aromas and flavors of melons.  There is less cedar character than I expected (disappointingly), and it is nicely dry.   The mouthfeel is smooth and approachable.   It can be served chilled, which I recommend, at room temperature, or at Nurukan temperature (about 113 degrees F.).  ABV is 15%.

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), and this one comes in at +5.

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Hedges Family Estate

A winemaker, Nicole Walsh of Ser Winery, recently recommended a wine to me. And I thought, “If a winemaker recommends someone else’s product, it must be worth seeking out.” That wine? Hedges Family Estate Red Mountain Syrah.

In June of 1976, Tom Hedges and Anne-Marie Liégeois married in a 12th century church in Champagne, France, the area where Liégeois was born and raised. This melding of New World and Old World experiences and sensibilities would directly inform them once they entered the world of wine years later.

Liégeois was born near the medieval town of Troyes. Her upbringing was “maison bourgeoise,” where three generations of the family lived and worked together. The family was prosperous, and could afford to enjoy traditional home-cooked meals and the best of the local wines.

Hedges was raised as a “traditional” American, in a home of strong work ethics guided by his father, who had a background in apple growing and dairy farming before becoming an engineer. The younger Hedges was born in Richland, Washington, located at the confluence of the Yakima and Columbia Rivers. It was established in 1906 as a small farming community, but in 1943 the U.S. Army turned much of it into a bedroom community for the workers on its Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb at the nearby Hanford Engineering Works (now the Hanford site).  The B Reactor, the first full-scale plutonium production reactor in the world, was built here. Plutonium manufactured at the site was used in the first nuclear bomb, which was tested at the Trinity site in New Mexico, and in Fat Man, the atomic bomb that was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan. Nuclear weapons development continued here throughout the Cold War. Now now-decommissioned, Hanford leaves behind a grim legacy of 60% of the high-level radioactive waste managed by the US Department of Energy, including 53 million US gallons (200,000 m3) of high-level radioactive waste stored within 177 storage tanks, 25 million cubic feet (710,000 m3) of solid radioactive waste, and areas of heavy technetium-99 and uranium contaminated groundwater

Tom Hedges spent the first ten years of the marriage working for large multinational agricultural firms. He was employed by Castle & Cooke foods from 1976 to 1982 where he headed up four international offices. Next, he worked for Pandol Bros., a small Dutch trading company in Seattle, which at the time was importing Chilean produce and exporting fruit to the Far East and India. In 1984 he served as President and CEO of McCain Produce Co. in New Brunswick, Canada, farming potatoes for export. Then, in 1986, the Hedges created an export company called American Wine Trade, Inc., based in Kirkland, Washington (which is also the home of Costco), and began selling wine to foreign importers, primarily in Taiwan. As the company grew, it began to source Washington wines for a larger clientele, leading to the establishment of a negociant-inspired Cabernet/Merlot blend called Hedges Cellars in 1987. This wine was sold to the Swedish government’s wine and spirit monopoly, Vin & Sprit Centralen, which was the company’s first major client.

During this time, the Hedges discovered the developing wine region called Red Mountain, three hours southeast of Seattle. After buying fifty acres here in 1989, they planted forty acres to Bordeaux grape varieties and transformed American Wine Trade from a negociant and wine trader into the classic model of a wine estate. Today, this Biodynimacally-farmed Red Mountain property continues to be the core of the Hedges family wine enterprise. In 1995, they began construction of the Hedges Chateau.

Hedges Chateau. Photo: Jacob Hughey

The Hedges ‘children, Sarah and Christophe, are now involved in the business, and each has a special set of skills for understanding the terroir.

Sarah attended the University of San Diego and graduated with a degree in business and philosophy. She later attended UC Santa Barbara to study chemistry, and at the same time worked for a Santa Barbara winery managing the tasting room and helping with harvest. From 2003 to 2005 she worked for Preston Vineyards in Healdsburg, Sonoma County, doing wine production work. She became assistant winemaker for Hedges in 2006 under the tutelage of her uncle, Pete Hedges (younger brother of Tom). Pete Hedges schooled Sarah in both terroir and chemistry, believing that each works to show a wine the path to exhibit the truth of its place. Sarah ascended to head winemaker in 2015 after her uncle retired.

The elder of the two, Christophe, is a graduate of the University of San Diego with a Business Degree and minor in Theatre Arts.  In addition to being the general manager at Hedges, he farms his own property using modern Biodynamic techniques, executed by John Gomez, the Hedges Family Estate vineyard manager.  He has been long opposed to the numerical point scores used by several wine critics, and he urges consumers to rely on their own knowledge about a specific varietal or the region from which it came. (I’m with you there, Christophe!)  Ten years ago he created, an online petition promoting the elimination of 100-point rating scales from wine reviews altogether. “The final decision about a wine is personal, and it belongs to the wine drinker alone,” he explained. (As of this writing, the site is still online, but seems to be closed to any further activity.  I.E. you can’t even read the manifesto, much less endorse it, which I would have been happy to do.  Regardless of where you stand,  you can read a criticism and defense of the point-score system here.)  Christophe is also responsible for the very European-style Hedges bottle labels.

Hedges Cellars eventually transitioned to Hedges Family Estate, and farming practices have become more focused towards being organic and vegan.  Rather than commercial strains, only wild yeast is used, and the wines are neither fined nor filtered.  They are also gluten free.  The Hedges estate vineyard is certified organic by CCOF, nonprofit organization that advances organic agriculture for a healthy world through organic certification, education, advocacy, and promotion. It is certified Biodynamic by Demeter, the only certifier for Biodynamic farms and products in America. While all of the organic requirements for certification under the National Organic Program are required for Biodynamic certification, the Demeter standard is much more extensive.  The vineyard is also rated by Salmon Safe, which works with West Coast farmers, developers, and other environmentally innovative landowners to reduce watershed impacts through rigorous third-party verified certification.

Hedges estate vineyard.  Photo: Jacob Hughey

Hedges Family Estates Red Mountain Hedges Vineyard Syrah 2017

The grapes are from the Hedges Estate Biodynamic vineyard.  After being harvested they were crushed into bins where they underwent indigenous yeast fermentation. After pressing, the wine was aged in barrel where it underwent indigenous malolactic fermentation. The wine was aged in 56% new oak (65% French and 35% American) for 22 months before bottling.

This Syrah pours a nearly opaque dark purple into the glass.  There are full aromas of dark stone fruits accompanied by earth.  On the palate, those flavors are rather recessive, in the European style, but primarily pomegranate, and  blueberry.  Or it might just be that they are being masked by the big, black-tea tannins.  These come with good supportive acidity.  259 cases were made, and the ABV is 13.5%.

Hedges Family Estates C.M.S Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

The grapes were sourced from the Sagemoor, Wooded Island, and Bacchus vineyards in the Columbia Valley AVA and Hedges Estate, Jolet and Les Gosses vineyards in the Red Mountain AVA. The must was pumped-over for eight days and pressed to tank, where it underwent malolactic fermentation. The Columbia Valley portion of this wine (59%) was fermented to dryness in 100% American oak and aged in 100% French oak. It was then barrel aged for five months in 100% neutral oak. The Red Mountain AVA wines (41%)were barrel aged in 100% neutral American and French oak for 11 months.

C.M.S (named for its blend of 76% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, and 16% Syrah) is a semi-transparent but deep red.  The rich aromatics feature blueberry, blackberry, and black cherry, with support from dark cocoa and vanilla.  These deploy in the mouth as the same flavors.  Both the acidity and tannins are excellent and harmoniously balanced.  5976 cases were produced, and the ABV comes in at 14.0%.

Descendants Liegeois Dupont 2011

This Syrah is an homage to both sides of Anne-Marie Hedges’ French families.  the Liegeoises and Duponts.  The fruit was sourced from the Les Gosses vineyard in the center of the Red Mountain AVA. The juice was pumped over on skins for eight days before pressing to barrel and undergoing malolactic fermentation. The wine was  barrel aged for an average of  12 months in 52% new oak and 48% older oak( 62% American, 31% French, and 7% Hungarian).

The wine pours a semi-transparent dark purple color. It shows full aromas of dark stone fruit, especially plum, bordering on prunes, with hints of maple bacon. leather, and smoked cedar.  The plums plus blueberry are revealed on the palate.  The ABV is 14%, but seems higher due to the wine’s richness.  It’s all supported by strapping tannins and plenty of tart acidity.  1202 cases were made.

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