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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Ozeki Karatamba

Let’s be clear about this right away: Saké, the national alcoholic beverage of Japan, is often called rice wine, but this is a misnomer.  While it is a beverage made by fermentation, the production process more closely resembles that of beer, and it is made from grain (rice, of course), not fruit.

To make saké, the starch of freshly steamed glutinous rice is converted to sugar and then fermented to alcohol.  Once fermented, the liquid is filtered and usually pasteurized.  Sakés can range from dry to sweet, but even the driest retain a hint of sweetness.

In 1711, the Manryo brewery, was established by the first Chobei Osakaya of the Osabe family in Imazu, Nishinomiya City, Hyogo Prefecture.  This is a significant saké production region , and  the head office is still located there.  The famous water found here is known as Miyamizu, groundwater originating in the Rokko mountain system. The region is also ideal for rice production, including Yamada-nishiki, a renowned saké rice.

In 1810 the fifth-generation owner of Manryo built a lighthouse to help guide home the ships that had delivered Manryo’s products to Edo, as Tokyo was then known.  The  Imazu lighthose has been an important cultural edifice in Nishinomiya ever since.  In 1984 it underwent an extensive restoration.

The Imazu lighthouse.

In 1884 the company was rebranded from Manryo to Ozeki.  The name originates from the world of sumo wrestling, where the grand champion was originally known as the Ozeki (now the second highest rank).  Additionally, odeki is Japanese for ‘good job.’  Because it sounds similar to ozeki, this was intended to motivate the production of good saké.  As sumo was becoming popular in the late 19th century,  it exemplified many of the ideas that were considered  important for success, including strenuous hard work and technical skill.  Ozeki aimed to build the brand through these concepts, just like winning sumo wrestlers try to do.

Ozeki’s facilities were destroyed by fire due to a WWII air raid in 1945, but were rebuilt following the end of the war.  In 1966, Ozeki introduced a saké vending machine, something we will never see in the United States!  They entered the U.S. market in 1979 by establishing Ozeki San Benito Inc. in Hollister, California.  The company celebrated 300 years in business in Japan in 2011,

Ozeki Karatamba

Like my wines, I prefer my sakés to be dry.  Karatamba is one of the driest I have found, with a Sake Meter Value* of +7.  The ABV is 15.5%, and the polish rate** is 70%.

Karatamba (Dry Wave) is brewed and bottled in Japan.  It is a honjozo saké.  This classification, one level up from the most basic, is made with better-quality rice, and a higher proportion of the alcohol is produced during fermentation rather than being added (a characteristic of honjozo).  Also, Karatamba attains its dryness level by the added alcohol; it would be difficult to do so without it.

Predictably, this saké is crystal clear.  The nose offers up melon and lychee.  These continue on the palate (without the tartness) plus some caramel richness and perhaps a hint of maple syrup.  It has a round smooth mouthfeel ending in a pleasant soft finish.

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

**The rice used in saké is called “saka mai” in Japanese, and it is not the same type of rice used for eating.  The grains are larger than food rice,  contain more starch, and less protein and fat.  The rice is first milled, aka “polished,” to remove the outer layer that could cause off-flavors in the finished product.  Typically, this will be 25 to 70%, but I have heard of exotic sakés with 99% starch removal!  Not surprisingly, the more the rice is milled, the more expensive the saké becomes.

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Cape Red Red Blend 2020

When I profile a wine, I like to start with the story of the producer, and then get into the wine itself.  I couldn’t find much about this offering, which is just as well as it is low-quality plonk.

It is sourced from Zidela Worldwide Wines.  Their website states, “Our Company aims to be the prime South African supplier of value-for-money wines in the international private label market.  [We have} the capability to offer a wide range of bulk wines from all the wine regions in South Africa. Our long-standing working relationship with various wineries enables us to get involved in the wine-making process to meet our clients’ specific needs.”  So, no need to look for a winemaker’s personal approach or vision here.

The wine is exclusively distributed in the United States by, where I bought it through a Groupon offer for a mixed case of two bottles each of nine different wines.  The per-bottle price came to $5, much more than this particular wine is worth.

Cape Red Red Blend 2020

The color and clarity of this wine is fine, but then the wheels fall off.  It has thin aromas and a recessive palate of weird, unidentifiable fruit.  The acidity is totally out of balance, plus bitter tannins and an odd funk on the finish.  The only way I was able to get through it with dinner (a delightful grilled pork roast) was by refrigerating the hell out of it.  The packaging is nice; too bad they didn’t put half as much effort into the wine.  I don’t know how many cases were made, but, frankly, any was too much.  ABV is 13%.

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The Story of Saké

L to R: Sensei, Karatamba, Momokawa Heart and Soul, Kiku-Masamune Taru.

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

Saké is an ancient drink, so much so that its origin has been lost in the mists of time. Ironically, the earliest reference to the use of alcohol in Japan is recorded in a third-century Chinese text, the Book of Wei in the Records of the Three Kingdoms which wrote of Japanese party habits.  The Kojiki, Japan’s first written history, compiled in 712, is the earliest to mention alcoholic beverages in Japanese itself. Historians place the probable origin of true saké (which is made from rice, water, yeast, and kōji mold (aspergillus oryzae) in the Nara period (710–794).

Saké  production was a government monopoly until the 10th century, when temples and shrines began to brew saké  as an essential part of religious ceremonies, evolving into the main centers of production for the next 500 years. That being said, the saké of antiquity was not the same as the clear beverage we know today.  It was reserved for nobles and priests, and was thick and milky or yellow in color, with a low alcohol content.

In the 16th century, the technique of distillation was introduced into the Kyushu district from Ryukyu. This led to shōchū (literally, fiery spirits), a beverage typically distilled from rice (kome), barley (mugi), sweet potatoes (satsuma-imo), buckwheat (soba), or brown sugar (kokutō), though it is sometimes produced from other ingredients such as chestnut, sesame seeds, potatoes, or even carrots.  It usually contains 25% alcohol by volume, and is most often used as a beverage outside of meals.

During the Meiji Restoration, laws were written that allowed anybody with the money and know-how to construct and operate their own sake breweries. Around 30,000 breweries sprang up around the country. As time passed, the government levied increasing taxes on the saké industry and the number of breweries eventually dwindled to 8,000.

Once  the 20th century arrived, saké-brewing technology advanced beyond the centuries-old traditions. The government opened a saké-brewing research institute in 1904, and in 1907 the first government-run saké-tasting competition was held. Yeast strains specifically selected for use in brewing were isolated, and enamel-coated steel tanks came into use, which were easier to clean than the traditional wooden barrels, lasted forever, and were devoid of bacterial problems.

During the Russo-Japanese War in 1904–1905, the government banned the home brewing of saké. At the time, saké comprised 30% of Japan’s tax revenue. Home-brewed saké was not taxed, so the thinking was that by banning it sales and tax revenue would increase. This ban ended home-brewed saké, and the law remains in effect even today.

World War II brought rice shortages, and the saké-brewing industry was hampered as the government discouraged the use of this essential food for brewing.  Postwar, breweries slowly recovered, and the quality of saké gradually increased. Even so, beer, wine, and spirits became increasingly popular in Japan, and in the 1960s beer consumption surpassed saké for the first time.

While the rest of the world may be drinking more saké and the quality of saké has been increasing, production in Japan has been declining since the mid-1970s. Predictably, the number of saké breweries is also declining; there were 3,229 Japanese breweries nationwide in 1975, but the number had fallen to 1,845 by 2007.

Courtesy of Ozeke Saké

As noted earlier, saké is made from just four ingredients: rice, water, koji, and yeast.  With so few components, the quality of each is crucial.  Akita is known for its high-quality rice.  Some of the best water is found In Nada near Kobe, where rivers course through granite canyons, or Fushimi with its pure spring water.

Although saké breweries often pride themselves on the quality of the rice and local spring water that they use, unlike wine this does not translate into terroir, as the brewing process effectively cooks out any such nuances.

Rice Polishing, Washing, and Soaking
The rice used in saké is called “saka mai” in Japanese, and it is not the same type of rice as food rice.  The grains are larger, contain more starch, and have less protein and fat.  The rice is first milled, aka “polished,” to remove the outer layer that could cause off-flavors in the finished product.  Typically, this milling will be 25 to 70%, but I have heard of exotic sakés with 99% starch removal!  Not surprisingly, the more the rice is milled, the more expensive the saké becomes.  As an example, it takes 800 grams (28 ounces) of polished rice to make 720 mL (the size most like a wine bottle) of Ginjo saké.  (Ginjo designates that at least 40% of the rice has been polished away.)

After polishing, the rice is soaked, either by machine for simple sakés, or by hand for higher-quality ones.  Next the rice is steamed.  Unlike rice for the dinner table, which is typically simmered in hot water either in a pot or automatic rice cooker, saké rice is prepared by steaming, which allows the rice to maintain a firm outer texture and soft center, thereby helping the brewing process.  It is this heating step that more closely aligns saké with beer, which also requires heating, rather than wine, which must not be heated.

Rice Cooling
The rice must be cooled after it has been steamed to the desired degree.  Large breweries use a refrigerated conveyor system to lower the temperature, while craft brewers rely on traditional methods of tossing and kneading to adjust the temperature, giving the brewmaster more precise control.

Koji Making
The heart of a saké brewery is its “koji muro”, the cedar-lined room in which koji is made.  It is kept at 86 to 90 degrees F. (30 to 32 degrees C.), making it much like a sauna, so you have to enjoy warm weather to work there!  Cedar has natural anti-bacterial resins which help to create a clean environment conducive to efficient koji production.

Koji requires 48 hours to prepare, during which the rice is  inoculated with koji mold spores, and carefully kneaded in controlled temperature and humidity.  The mold converts the starch in the steamed rice to glucose, and microorganisms multiply to create a snow-white fuzz with a strong, sweet fragrance. The finished koji will be about 20 to 35% of the rice used in the production of the saké, depending on the recipe.

Once the koji is ready, it is mixed into chilled spring water and yeast in a fermentation tank, and then the steamed rice is added.  The tank is filled gradually, in three stages over a four-day period.  This allows the yeast to retain its strength to keep consuming sugar and producing alcohol throughout the fermentation period, which typically continues for 21 days.  The temperature is maintained at 46 to 64 degrees F. (8 to 18 degrees C.).  The brew, called “moromi,” is stirred on a daily basis to ensure consistent fermentation.  Each day, tests are performed to check specific gravity, acidity, and alcohol content.

Pressing And Racking
Once the moromi reaches maturity as determined by the brewmaster, in a craft brewery it is drained into cloth bags which are placed in the traditional “fune” press which works with gravity and hand-applied mechanical pressure. The first run of saké starts emerging from a spout at one end of the press under the natural weight of the filled bags, resulting in a light-and-fruity first-pressed sake known “arabashiri.”

In a large commercial brewery the moromi is machine-pumped into a large accordion like hydraulic press called a “yabuta.”  Activated charcoal is usually added to the pressed saké  and then filtered out.

Once pressed and racked the saké may either be bottled immediately or temporarily tank-stored at close to 32 degrees F. (0 degrees C,). “Go” is the measurement unit traditionally for saké. One go is about 180 mL. Saké bottle sizes are also based on these units, with the most common sizes being: 180 mL (1 go; about 6 ounces); 360 ml (2 go); 720 mL (4 go); and 1800 mL (10 go, the magnum-like bottle you often see in izakayas, informal Japanese bars that serve alcoholic drinks and snacks. The glass may be either green, brown, or clear.   After bottling, most sakés are pasteurized.

Storage and Consumption
The entire saké production process takes about 45 to 60 days from start to finish.  There are no vintage years, and the product is best consumed within the year it is bottled, as aging does not enhance its flavor in any way, and indeed may degrade it.   Once a bottle is opened, it should be refrigerated and drunk fairly quickly.

Grades of Saké
Saké is divided into two main categories.  Jozo-shu is made with added alcohol, and junmai-shu is not.

Futsu-shu is ordinary table saké and the most widely consumed grade.  It is best served warm, and is suitable for use in cooking.
Honjozo-shu is made with better-quality rice, and a higher proportion of the alcohol is produced during fermentation rather than being added.
Honjozo-ginjoshu and honjozo-dai-ginjoshu are the highest grades of alcohol-added saké.  They are made with more care from top-quality rice.  They should be served cold.

Junmai-shu is similar to honjozo-shu, but relies on all of its alcohol from the fermentation.  It is more likely than jozo-shu to be found in the U.S., and can be served warm (not hot) or cold.
Junmai-ginjoshu and Junmai-daiginjoshu are the highest grades of junmai-shu.  Like the highest grades of jozo-shu, they are made with more care from top-quality rice.  50 to 70% of the rice is polished away, respectively.  They should be served cold.

Serving Saké

L to R: glass carafe and cup, masu, and two tokkuri with matching ochoko.

The glass carafe above is used for serving cold saké.  The blue cavity is filled with ice to keep the saké cool.  The wooden box is a “masu.”  In addition to being a drinking vessel, it was also traditionally used for measuring  rice, appropriately.  In traditional restaurant service, the masu is placed on a small saucer and filled until the saké overflows, thus ensuring an honest pour.  Some people, particularly native Japanese, will add a small pinch of salt to the corner of the masu before drinking, but I don’t recommend doing so.

In Japan, the process of heating saké is called “okan suru” and the resulting warm saké is called “kanzake.”  The ceramic pots used for the heating are “tokkuri,” and the accompanying cups are “ochoko.”  These are usually sold as sets, and are available in a very wide variety of styles.  And, “warm” is the operative word here.  Most heated sakés, both at home and in restaurants here in the U.S., are made too hot.  Warm saké  should be about 108 degrees F. (42 degrees C.).  If you like it a bit hotter, the limit is around 122 degrees F. (50 degrees C.).  Heating releases saké’s bright rice aroma, and causes the alcohol to be quickly absorbed into the blood.

In addition to it being a beverage, saké is also used as one of the principal seasonings in Japanese cooking, the other three being dashi stock, fermented bean paste (miso), and soy sauce.  Saké acts as a food tenderizer due to the amino acids it contains.  It also can suppress saltiness, eliminate fishy tastes, and take away strong odors.  It is used sparingly in cooking, and as with wine, only use saké that you would drink on its own.

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

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Rütz Proprietor’s Reserve Chardonnay 2018

Keith Rütz’s first career track was  in the fashion industry.  He was the proprietor of two trendy clothing boutiques located near the UC Berkeley campus.  To search out the latest styles, he frequently travelled  to both London and Paris. It was in France where he began to develop his love of Burgundy and interest in wine generally.

This growing interest was also informed by Rütz’s ancestral roots, which go back six generations to his great great grandfather, Fernand Lebegue, who grew up in Aigne, in France’s Languedoc region.  There he worked as a cooper, fashioning barrels from the Vosges, Nevers, Allier, and Troncais forests, all famous sources for top-quality barrels used in wine production.

After graduating from UC Berkely, Rütz spent several years working in the fashion industry, eventually starting his own business in 1982 that produced belts for such icons as Kenneth Cole and Anne Klein.

Due to the demands of ever-changing fashion, Rütz traveled frequently, visiting Asia and South America five times each year, Europe (and France in particular) another three times a year, and an annual pilgrimage to New York for the beginning of the fashion season.

“It finally became very exhausting,” Rütz recalled. “I led what you would call a completely hectic existence. The fashion industry is one of getting to the top and staying there. There is little respite.”

Although during this period Rütz’s life was quite frantic, in 1992 he carved  out enough free time to start Rütz Cellars in the Russian River Valley, where, in addition to being the owner, he was also the winemaker, focusing on California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the tradition of his favorite Burgundian wines. From the beginning, his stated goal was “to make the finest small-batch wines possible that would stand up to those made by the top French producers.”

“I had been able to combine the fashion and winery aspects of my businesses quite easily,” Rütz noted, “whenever I traveled to Europe for a fashion event I was able to tote some wines and get people interested in my products. They found my approach quite novel and that was all right by me. When I finally realized that we were represented in twelve countries and just about every major market in the United States, I knew I had to do something about it.”

That “something” was to leave the world of fashion behind and focus solely on Rütz Cellars.  “I have always believed that quality will dictate the size of any winery,” he shared. “What I want to do at this point is produce the very finest wine I am capable of producing. I am also a firm believer in not rushing the process, so I imagine what I envision could take quite some time.”

In 2020, Rütz Cellars expanded into the Chalk Hill appellation for Cabernet Sauvignon production, as well as Napa Valley in the Rutherford AVA working with the Morisoli Vineyard.  Rütz brought on winemaker Mike Trujillo to oversee the production of that varietal under the Domaine Rütz label.

The Russian River Valley AVA

The Russian River Valley got its name when Russian settlers arrived along the Sonoma Coast at historic Fort Ross. There, they found that the fertile soils of the area were excellent for farming in general and grape-growing in particular.

Fort Ross.  Photo: Harald Padeborn

This AVA is best-known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, The region earned AVA status in 1983, and comprises 15,000 vineyard acres and 70 wineries.  Rütz Cellars sources fruit from such respected vineyards as Dutton Ranch, Martinelli , and Bacigalupi.

In the growing season, warm daytime temperatures plummet when fog regularly intrudes from the Petaluma Gap to the south, and the Russian River to the west.  In the late afternoon, a fog bank can often be seen hovering above the appellation’s border in the hills west of Sebastopol.

Rütz Proprietor’s Reserve Chardonnay 2018

This is 100% Chardonnay, all sourced from the Russian River Valley. While it was  aged in French Allier and Troncais oak, all of it must have been previously used, as the wood is barely noticeable.  It is the typical pale gold, with moderate aromatics of citrus and a hint of stone fruit like golden apple and pears.  Grapefruit and limestone dominate on the refreshing palate.  There is plenty of supporting acidity, and just a bit of bitterness at the end. 950 cases were produced, and the alcohol is 13.9%.

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How To Be Better Informed About Wine

OK,  if you’re reading this I have to assume you enjoy wine, but don’t know much about it, and would like to become more knowledgeable.   In that case, you are the very person that Winervana is intended for.  So, how can you learn more about wine?

First, drink more wine!  Now, this isn’t a call for overconsumption, but rather for broadening your wine horizons.  If you gravitate towards Cabernet Sauvignon, try some Merlots.  If you like Chardonnay, try Pinot Grigio.  If you mostly drink wines from the U.S., sample some from Europe.   At a more basic level, if you usually drinks reds, include some whites, or the other way around.  And definitely dive into some Rosés!  You get the idea.

Rely on wine professionals.  These can include salespersons at your local wine shop as well as sommeliers at high-end restaurants.  Don’t be intimidated that these people know more about wine than you do.  Of course they do, that’s their job.  Their job is also to sell you something you might like rather than make you feel ignorant.  (If any of these people does that, immediately take your business elsewhere.)  Feel free to provide as much information as possible, like “I don’t like sweet wine.” “I only drink sweet wine.” “I prefer wines from Hungary.” (Hey, it could happen.) “I like the idea of organic wines, but can’t seem to find any.”

I myself am not a particular fan of Rieslings.  Before I pretty much gave up on them, I told the seller at a local wine shop that I kept hearing about how versatile and food-friendly Rieslings were, and I really wanted to find one I could embrace.  It would need to have only a little spiciness or floweriness.  It would need to be bone dry. It would need to cost about 20 bucks.  He suggested a wine from Sonoma, which I sort of enjoyed, but didn’t make me a convert.  (Although this one just about did.)  So, guidance from a pro won’t always ensure success, but it will certainly increase the odds in your favor.

And, never, never feel embarrassed about price.  Any time you are dealing with a wine seller, don’t hesitate to tell them, “I don’t want to go above X dollars for this purchase.”  Again, if the seller can’t respect that, go elsewhere.

Host a wine tasting party.   Invite six to eight friends for the party.  Each person should bring a bottle of wine made from the same variety, such as Syrah, and all the bottles should be roughly in the same price range, which you can specify in the invitation, like $20 to $25. (If you have a wealthy friend, it can be amusing to have that person bring a “ringer,” a bottle that costs four or five times what was called for in the invitation.  This is a good way to reveal that price and quality are not necessarily in lock step.)  When people arrive, you should wrap the bottles in individual brown paper sacks or in aluminum foil with just the neck exposed, write a number on each one with permanent marker, and pull the cork. Sit down at a comfortable location, give everyone a piece of paper, a pen, a wine glass, a glass of water, perhaps some bread sticks, and start tasting the wines one at a time.  I suggest going with pours of no more than one or two ounces for the tasting session, much like you would get at a winery’s tasting room.  Wine left over can be consumed as people socialize afterwards.

Follow the six esses: see the color of the wine, swirl it in your glass, smell it, sip a little, swish it around in your mouth, and then swallow or spit. (Spitting is how professionals can taste dozens of wines at a time and remain lucid.  All well and good, but it is unlikely to happen at a home party, where the point is to have fun as well as learn about wine.)  Write down your impressions.  Taste through all the wines, then talk about them as a group and hear what people liked and didn’t like. Once you’ve tasted all the wines, take them out of their wrapping one at a time, and next to the notes you made about that wine, write down the vintage year, the winery, where it was made, and how much the bottle cost. If you hold on to these notes, they can be the foundation of your wine education, a growing ability to remember what style of wine you like, along with what wineries you think make good wine. With any luck, your guests will all host parties of their own.  That would give everyone a chance to try 36 to 64 different wines!

Consider a wine club.  Here are some examples:

Nearly all of these clubs offer a first case at a loss-leader price, with the wines often costing about $10 per bottle.  After that, they want to ship you a case of wine on a regular basis, usually quarterly.  I have tried a number of these clubs., but, I am no longer active with any of them.  I still recommend that you give a few a try, though.  You will be exposed to wines and producers you never heard of, from all around the world.  I think the best plan is to buy that first case, try the wines, and then cancel and move on to another club.  If you do this, say, once every three months for a year, you will have tried 48 new wines and expanded your palate for the better.  You will like some wines more than others, which is the whole point, and you might even get lucky and discover one you love.

Almost every winery has a club of their own, as well.  These usually ship two or three bottles on a monthly or quarterly basis.  But, I suggest you hold off on these until you have focused your tastes on what you really like.  I myself have been a member of Cline, Clos Pegase, Keenan, and Truchard for years.

I was also a long-time member of V. Sattui, until the owner, Daryl, aka “Dario,” drove me away by his arrogant attitude.  I won’t bore you with the details, but it was unfortunate because the wines are quite good and only available directly from the winery.  However, I have no interest in supporting a producer who doesn’t care about his customers, or one who won’t respect your intelligence or your budget, and neither should you.

There are plenty of wine courses, catering to every level.  As a way to increase your wine knowledge, these can range from easy and nearly effortless, to a real commitment of both time and money.  It all depends on what suits you.  Here are just a few:

Wine Folly

World of Wine: From Grape to Glass

Introduction to Wine and Winemaking from U. C. Davis

The Great Courses

And, there are thousands of wine-related videos on YouTube.

Finally, there is self-education through reading.  There is a wealth of resources both in print and online, such as right here at  One of the books I rely on is The New Wine Lover’s Companion by Ron Herbst.  Jon Bonné’s The New Wine Rules is great for demystification.  Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson’s The World Atlas of Wine is just that, a comprehensive overview of wine places, terroir if you will.  Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course is highly regarded.  And Robert Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide, although definitive, is like drinking from a fire hose.  (Parker retired in 2019, so his seventh edition from 2008 is likely to be the last.)

There are magazine’s too, of course, such as Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Decanter, and Imbibe.  But frankly, these can be overwhelming for the casual wine drinker, especially the first two.  I read them occasionally, but don’t subscribe, and, predictably, find their numerical rating systems capricious and rather unhelpful.

Drink more wine!

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Sustainable, Organic, and Biodynamic Wine

These days, wine drinkers are increasingly seeing the words sustainable, organic, and biodynamic on wine bottles and in wine producers promotional materials.  Stewardship of the land and the lack of chemicals sound appealing, and who doesn’t like something that is dynamic?  But what, really, do these terms mean?  In fact, they are not just amorphous “feel good” terms, but do have specific definitions as well as institutional certifications to go along with them.

Note: These criteria and certifications only specifically apply to wines made in the United States.  Other nations may or may not have similar programs.


When a wine is termed sustainable, it means the winery engages in eco-friendly practices such as using drip irrigation or dry farming; limiting or eliminating chemical waste and the use of pesticides; replanting crops or trees to replace those harvested for production; reducing the winery’s carbon footprint; using cover crops between vineyard rows  to improve soil health; prevent erosion, control vine vigor, discourage weeds, and promote the sustainable health of the vineyard; deploying beneficial insects to control pests whenever possible; recycling packaging; taking part in energy efficiency initiatives; wildlife conservation; and other ‘green’ initiatives. Sustainability basically implies that the business is leaving as little negative impact on the land as possible.


Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing (CCSW) is a statewide certification program that provides third-party verification of a winery’s commitment to continuous improvement in the adoption and implementation of sustainable winegrowing practices.

Sustainability in Practice (SIP) Certified helps farmers and winemakers demonstrate their dedication to preserving and protecting natural and human resources.

Global Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) Certification is an internationally recognized system that sets standards to ensure safe and sustainable agriculture and ensure product safety, environmental responsibility and the health, safety, and welfare of workers.

The Napa Green organization supervises two programs.  Land is an umbrella program that recognizes growers with validated environmental compliance and verified farm plans as meeting standards for watershed stewardship. Winery is one of only four sustainable winegrowing programs nationwide, offering the opportunity for comprehensive soil-to-bottle certification in both the vineyard and winery.

The California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance is a certification program that provides verification that a winery or vineyard implements sustainable practices and continuous improvement.


Organic wines are about the protection of natural resources, to promote biodiversity, and limit the use of synthetic products, especially in the vineyards.  Organic wines are made with organic grapes, of course.  That starts with the use of no synthetic pesticides in the vineyard.  Once the vinification process begins, substances like commercial yeast must also be certified as organic. Further, for the wine itself to be organic, there can be no sulfites added during production, although some sulfites do occur naturally in all wines.  Sulfites are chemicals used as preservatives to slow browning and discoloration in foods and beverages, including wine, during preparation, storage, and distribution. Sulfites have been used in wine making for centuries, but some people are sensitive to them.  If you’re not asthmatic, sulfite sensitivity would be very unusual. If you do have asthma, your chances of being sensitive to sulfites is in the range of between 1 in 40, and 1 in 100.   (I myself am asthmatic, and have no sulfite sensitivity.)


Certification is an arduous, three-year process during which producers have to transition vineyards by discontinuing any use of prohibited substances.  To be “Certified Organic,” wines must meet the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program’s criteria in both farming and production, as well as requirements set by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.


Biodynamic is the most rigorous of these three protocols.   Although based on both sustainable and organic, it goes much further.  It is a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, gardening, food, and nutrition. Biodynamic wine is made with a set of farming practices that views the vineyard as a complete organism. The idea is to create a self-sustaining system with natural plants, materials, soils, and composts. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are forbidden.  Instead, a variety of animals and insects will typically live in the vineyard to fertilize it and control pests. Biodynamic farming also has an association with ancient agricultural concepts such as following lunar growing cycles and astrological charts, connecting the earth, the vines, and the solar system.  (This last part gets a little squishy, imho.)

And more than just  concept, Biodynamic is a registered trademark of Demeter Association, Inc., the United States’ branch of Demeter International, a not-for-profit incorporated in 1985 with the mission to enable people to farm successfully in accordance with Biodynamic® practices and principles. Demeter’s vision is “to heal the planet through agriculture.”


The Demeter Biodynamic Farm Standard applies to the certification of farms and ranches for the purpose of allowing them and their resulting agricultural products to carry the Demeter certification marks Biodynamic®, Demeter® and Demeter Certified Biodynamic®.  The Demeter Biodynamic Farm  Standard meets the minimum requirements set by Demeter International.  These base standards form a common legal foundation and agricultural framework for Biodynamic practice worldwide.

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Kokonor Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

There are many ways to buy wine: at a wine shop or liquor store, at a grocery store, or through a winery’s wine club, among others.  There is another option that I use on occasion.  These are online “flash sites” that offer one or even a few different bottles for sale per day, at discounts of around 15 to 70%, often with free shipping if you place a minimum order, which tends to be three to six bottles and varies with the price.  How do they do this?

  1. The winery approaches the site (or vice versa), looking to sell some wine that the winery has not been able to sell as quickly as they would like.  The winery may be stressed by lack of cash flow, not enough storage space, or some other unknown.
  2. They agree on a price that enables the site to sell the wine at well below retail.
  3. The site buys all (or most) of the available stock.
  4. The site then offers the wine at a discounted price, often substantially so.

Here are a three such sites you might want to try:

This Kokonor came from  It had a listed retail price of $135 (true retail prices are sometimes difficult to verify, but on Kokonor’s web site the 2016 was selling for $125 before the allocation window closed.  The 2017 and 2018 were not available there.)  WTSO sold this bottle for $33, with free shipping on three bottles.  Quite a deal, almost too good to be true, so I contacted the winery for clarification.   This is what their representative had to say, “Due to Covid-19 and wildfires in 2020 all but shutting all of our sales channels down (tasting room, on-premise sales) we released our 2017 and 2018 vintages on Wines Til Sold Out [at] well below our cost.”  So, sometimes when it’s gotta go, it’s gotta go.

Kokonor is owned by a Chinese company, Qinghua Huzhu Barley Wine,* under the subsidiary Koko Nor Corp., which purchased Sundown Ranch LLC in late  2013 for $15 million. Sundown’s main asset was a 1000-acre property in St. Helena at the north end of Napa Valley, of which 100 acres were under vine. Kokonor makes the wine from fruit sourced from this vineyard at the  Maxville Winery in the Chiles Valley AVA east of Napa Valley.  (The CEO of Maxville, Anthony Hsu, was born in Taiwan and spent time there off and on before adulthood.  Coincidental that a Chinese company should make wine at Maxville?  I leave that up to you to decide.)

The Winemaker

George Bursick grew up in Sonoma County, where many of his friends’ families were grape growers and he was exposed to vineyards and winemaking early on. After attending UC Santa Barbara for a while, he was hired part-time at Beringer Winery in St. Helena. His first duty was assembling Christmas gift packs for the tasting room. Soon after however, he graduated to the cellar where in 1970 he was, “…dragging hoses for $5.26 an hour. I was glad to be making such good money.”

“Myron Nightingale [Beringer’s winemaker at the time] was my first mentor, my first serious inspiration to become a winemaker,” said Bursick. “He encouraged me to return to college and finish my undergrad work in plant physiology and to get a Master’s Degree in enology from UC Davis. In the meantime I was learning the winery business from the ground up working in the cellars at Beringer.”

Upon graduation from UC Davis, Bursick began his first solo winemaking job at the now-closed McDowell Valley Vineyards in Mendocino County on the recommendation of John Parducci. One of his most significant accomplishments there was the first varietal release of Syrah in California. This was produced in 1980 from the 1978 vintage of 100-year-old vines, which had long been misidentified as Petit Sirah, at least in this vineyard. George suspected the mistake and brought in ampelographists to verify his opinion that the vines were in fact Syrah and more than worthy of a special bottling.

After nine years at McDowell, old friend Justin Meyer recommended him to Rhonda and Don Carano. They were in the early stages of their plans for a new winery in Sonoma County called Ferrari-Carano and Bursick joined the team as Director of Winemaking.

“From the beginning, I think we were all what you might call progressive; maybe aggressive,” he said of the early days at Ferrari-Carano. “We wanted to make really great wine and we explored all possibilities. We were among the first to bring in ENTAV clones from the France’s viticultural authority. We experimented with barrels, fermentation, yeasts, we researched everything and we’d try anything, in the winery and in the vineyard. And for the most part, the results were worth it.”

Bursick left Ferrari-Carano in 2006 in order to focus on his expanding consulting business, and later through that work become Vice President of Winemaking at J Winery. He agreed to the take the position with the stipulation that his existing consulting clients would not be affected. Bursick ushered J Vineyards into a new era of wine production focused on cool-climate, site-specific Russian River Valley Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

He produced the Kokonor as a consultant at Maxville.

Kokonor Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

The fruit for this 100% Cabernet Sauvignon was hand-picked from select blocks, hand-sorted, and then whole-berry fermented in micro-fermentation batches.  It was aged for 22 months in 100% French oak.

A predicable dark opaque purple, Kokonor serves up classic aromas of blackberry and cassis, which continue on the palate.  However, the wine is fruit-recessive, in the Old World style.  It is supported by notes of tobacco and cedar, as well as zippy acidity and grippy tannins.  336 cases were produced, and the ABV is 14.5%.

Would I pay $135 for this wine?  Well, no.   Would I pay $33?  Hell yes.  As indeed I did.

* Barley wine isn’t wine at all, but rather a strong ale with between 6 to 12% alcohol by volume.  The beer writer Michael Jackson referred to a barley wine by Smithwick’s as, “This is very distinctive, with an earthy hoppiness, a wineyness, lots of fruit and toffee flavours.” 

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Tuna with Lotus Root and Udon Noodles

My wife recently came home with a lovely 7 ounce tuna steak.  Well, I love tuna, and because of this I thought, “this isn’t going to feed the two of us.”  So I began to consider how to stretch it out.  The answer?  Tuna pasta, Japanese-style!

Serves 2

6 to 8 oz. tuna steak (mine was sushi grade, but that isn’t necessary since it will be cooked)
4 oz. of udon noodles
3 or 4 green onions (scallions)
Lotus root, about 3″ long
2T soy sauce
2T mirin
2T peanut oil (I used ginger-infused oil for a bit of flavor boost)
Chives, chopped fine
Shichimi Togarashi (Japanese hot pepper mix, available in Asian markets, the Asian section of some supermarkets, and online, of course.)

    1. Heat lightly-salted water to boiling in a saucepan large enough to fit the udon noodles easily.
    2. Peel the lotus root, then rinse under cold water. Slice the lotus root into 1/4″ rounds. then cut the lotus root into 1/4″ dice. Rinse again, then set in a bowl with cold water and splash of vinegar to prevent discoloration.
    3. Meanwhile, chop the scallions, green parts and all.
    4. Heat the oil in a 10″ skillet on low, and add the scallions and drained lotus root until slightly softened.  Browning is not necessary.
    5. Cut the tuna into 1/2″ cubes.
    6. Add the tuna, soy sauce, and mirin to the skillet until the tuna is cooked to medium rare (140 degrees F) and a sauce forms.  This will only take two or three minutes.  Turn off the heat, but keep the skillet on the burner.
    7. Cook the udon in the boiling water until not quite al dente.  This will vary with the brand of udon, but plan on 2 to 8 minutes.  Mine took about 4 minutes.
    8. Remove the udon with tongs, keeping the water in the saucepan at a low boil, and rinse in a colander under cold water to remove excess starch.  Return the udon to the saucepan, bring to a boil, and heat for one minute.
    9. Drain the udon, place half on each plate, top each plate with half of the tuna mixture from the skillet, garnish with chopped chives, and finish with the shichimi togarashi

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Keller Estate Casa Chardonnay 2019

Many years ago, while driving through Sonoma County, Arturo Keller and his wife Deborah came upon a piece of property overlooking the Petaluma River with a tremendous view and expansive terrain.  Keller, a passionate antique car collector and native of Mexico, purchased the 50-acre parcel in 1982.   He soon had a paved road built that wove about the property to serve as his own miniature racecourse. Keller also recognized the potential of the property as a grape-growing site, and in 1989 the La Cruz Vineyard was began.

Over time, Keller added more acreage, and planted Pinot Noir, Syrah, Viognier, and Pinot Gris, and began making wine for family and friends.  Keller soon called on his youngest daughter, Ana, who had studied chemistry at the University of Mexico, to become the nascent winery’s winemaker.

Keller Estate released their first wines in 2001, an estate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  The name ‘Keller Estate’ pays homage to the Keller family’s Swiss heritage, since the word ‘keller’ is cellar in German.

Ana also started a sister brand, Casa Wines, which are sourced exclusively from the family’s La Cruz Vineyard. Casa Wines produces Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and a red blend.

Keller Estate has completed the California Sustainable Winegrowing Program. The winery utilizes a natural water source, promotes local wildlife to live on the property, and is home to thousands of newly planted trees. The vines are all grown sustainably and organically.

The Keller Estate Winery

The Winemakers

Ana Keller – Estate Director and Winemaker

Raised in Mexico, Ana’s first exposure to wine came early in life when she spent her holidays in France’s Loire Valley harvesting grapes.  “When my father asked me to join him in establishing Keller Estate, I was overjoyed,” she related. “We have accomplished much of what we initially set out to do, and it’s up to me to continue to make sure our quality never fluctuates.”

She holds degrees from both the University of Mexico (biopharmaceutical chemistry) and a Masters in Pharmaceutical Development from the prestigious King’s College in London.  While there, she took her first formal wine tasting lessons.

Keller was heavily involved in the effort to make her property part of the AVA (American Viticultural Area) called the Petaluma Gap AVA.

“When you consider what the winds of the gap do to the area and to the grapes themselves, it seems to be a no-brainer. The winds force our (Pinot Noir) grapes to develop thicker skins and that in itself changes the equation.”


The fog-shrouded Petaluma Gap

Keller devotes 100 percent of her time to Keller Estate, and confided that her parents are still active in the business as well. “Whenever my father is available, he sits in on our meetings and tastings. He is still quite active and his passion for cars takes up a great deal of his time. He cares a great deal about the winery since it is still a relatively small family operation.”

Julien Teichmann – Winemaker

Born in Goettingen, Germany, Julien Teichman joined Keller Estate in 2018. His passion for fermentation began with an internship at a brewery.  He next spent some time in Florence, Italy where he had his first contact with winemaking and vineyards.  Julien then earned a degree in winemaking from the Weincampus Neustadt in Germany.

Julien traveled the world working harvests and finally came to the United States in 2013, where he spent time at Kosta Brown and Merry Edwards before joining Keller Estate. He espouses a profound respect for the vineyard, and a holistic approach to farming and winemaking.

About the Vineyard

The Keller Estate La Cruz Vineyard features an intricate stone cross sculpture that boldly stands over the vines, and was named to represent the family’s Mexican heritage.

The majority of the La Cruz Vineyard, where Keller Estate grows all of their Chardonnay, Syrah, Pinot Gris, and slightly over half of their Pinot Noir, resides on the lower hills of the property. The soils here are multi-layered, mineral-laden clays there were once San Pablo Bay seabeds. This mineral character comes through in the wines and is very much a part of the Keller Estate’s unique terroir.

Keller Estate Casa Chardonnay 2019

To start with, this bottle was sealed with a synthetic plastic cork.  Not the worst one I’ve ever encountered (although the one in the second bottle was harder to get out than the first), but I’m just not a fan.  I’m fine with manufactured corks, where cork is ground up, treated to prevent cork taint, and then reconstituted as closely as possible to the bark itself.  But failing that, I’ll take a screw cap over a plastic stopper any day.

Moving on to the wine.  The fruit was sourced from the Keller Estate’s La Cruz Vineyard, in the Petaluma Gap region of the Sonoma Coast. The wine was fermented in both barrels and stainless steel.  This 100% Chardonnay is very pale yellow in the glass.  The moderately aromatic nose features grapefruit and honeydew.  These are on the palate as well, with moderate but bright acidity and mineral notes.  Although it saw some oak aging, the result is subtle at best. 1,600 cases were produced, and the ABV is 14.2%.

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