Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Variety of Finger Lakes Continues

It was time for Meg to go home and two more knowledgeable guides Teresa and Nicole, to take over and escort me through the scenery, attractions and wineries of the region.  Despite all I have seen, I am beginning to feel I’m not even scratching the surface on this trip.  There is just so much to see, do (and taste) in this area!

The first stop was one of the biggest and most known wineries in this area, Dr. Konstantin Frank’s, home of the namesake wine, as well as Salmon Run and Chateau Frank sparkling wines.  The quickest way to sum up the quality of this winery is to point out the 40 gold medals their wine has won – in 2010 alone.  As if great wines weren’t enough, the winery offers some of the most absolutely incredible views you will ever see up here, with the vineyards in the front and Keuka Lake behind it.  Those vineyards have quite a history as Dr. Frank pioneered the growth of vinifera in the United States back in 1951 in his successful quest to bring Northern European wines to the Finger Lakes.

Dr. Frank’s top seller is the Riesling and their Bunch Select Late Harvest, winner of more than a dozen medals last year, is a delicious finish to a meal that includes their famous Reserve Gewurztraminer.  They were the only brand from the U.S. to receive a medal for that wine in Alscace.  Also worth checking out at Dr. Konstantin’s is the Chateau Frank sparkling wines, the 2004 Brut for the dry drinker or the Célèbre if you prefer something a bit fruitier.

The second stop took us down the windy 54A along and then down to where we looked like we would be heading right into the lake!  We didn’t hit water, but instead arrived at Rooster Hill Vineyards. Here the wine is sold alongside local favorites like Yancy Fancy cheese, a perfect accompaniment to any of the wide variety of wines here.  The 2009 Chardonnay we started with was an unusual one as it had been half oaked and half put in stainless.  To make it even more unique, the winemaker had chosen to put half in French and half in American oak.  The result was a blend of fruit and smoke.

Among the other different wines you will find at Rooster Hill is the Silver Pencil, a white blend of Cayuga, Seyval and Vidal grapes which had a tropical fruit flavor with just a little spice.  There is also a very interesting port here that is semi-dry, yet not too heavy, with fruit forward and a pepper finish.   Even the dessert wine here, an Estate Late Harvest Vidal Blanc, is a bit different with more melon notes than most.

Owner Scott Osborn greeted us at the door and led us into the Fox Run Winery’s Café to pick up our lunch, a delicious chicken salad with sundried tomatoes and cheddar in a whole wheat wrap.  It’s one of a small – but varied – selection of items offered that you can enjoy overlooking the lake, the vineyard or indoors near the tasting room.  Or, if you prefer, you’re welcome to bring your own picnic food to the backyard, purchase a bottle of wine and enjoy the day (a wise choice if you are as lucky as us to get an 80 degree, sunny afternoon).  Scott Osborn told us with passion about his passion for wine before we had the opportunity to taste his offerings.

At Fox Run there are choices for every taste and budget that include the inflation fighter Drink New York Riesling, a tropically semi-sweet version that sells for under $10.   A Cabernet Franc/Lemberger blend brings you, more raspberry than the strawberry hints usually found in a cab, with a bit of pepper that lends it to spice.  Also of note here is the 2008 Tierce Riesling, a wonderful collaboration between Fox Run Vineyards, Anthony Road Wine Company and Red Newt, which was on my list of stops. First, though, I had a visit set up at Shaw Vineyards, where Steve Shaw himself was ready to talk and pour.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Finishing Day Two in Finger Lakes

After lunch at the Red Dove Tavern, Meg and I made a quick stop to check out Long Pier.  This is a great place to see the beauty of Seneca Lake.  It’s one of those sites you could stare at for hours, but there was still so much more of Finger Lakes to see on this day.

Belhurst Castle & Winery is definitely one of those places I look forward to returning to for a longer visit.  We walked around the grounds, patio and exquisite restaurant a bit, but didn’t get to spend any time looking at the Inn or newly built spa.  I did, however, get to taste some of their wines.   They have an interesting assortment here, including a Sparkling wine, with lots of lemon and floral flavors.  Their Neptune is a good blend of Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer.  I really liked the Cayuga and thought the most interesting was the Carrie Blush, named after the Belhurst founder Carrie Collins.  I was a bit skeptical when it was described as “cotton candy,” but I did get that flavor without excess sweetness.

From Belhurst it was off to Geneva, where I was lucky enough to meet owners Carl and Elizabeth at their White Springs Winery .  They shared the news with me that they just sold over 4,000 bottles of their Riesling to the Wall Street Journal Wine Club and I have to agree with WSJ that it is one to try, as is their Moon Shadow Riesling, a semi-sweet version and the Ice Wine like Late Harvest Riesling.  If you are looking for something drier, you can also now find a Pinot Noir at White Springs.

White Springs Winery was actually the first in Finger Lakes to introduce me to the tasting experience in Riedel glasses.  It came up because I noticed a very distinctly unpleasant (tar-like) smell in the region’s Rieslings.  This nose was in no way reflected in the taste, but I did find the Riedel glasses cut that order a bit so I could enjoy the Rieslings more.

The next stop was Billsboro Winery, also in Geneva.  This was a fun stop where I got to sit out on the patio (overlooking the wood-fired stove they use to cook pizza) and chat with Vinny Aliperti about how the boy from Flushing, Queens, became the man who is both winemaker by day at Atwater and owner by night (with wife Kim) of this winery.   Billsboro is still rather small, producing 2,000 cases of 10 different wines while they “try to have fun – and pay our mortgage.”  They don’t grow grapes here, but Vinny has been around the region enough to know where to get the grapes he wants.

Even though the owners describe their wines as “dry,” this semi-sweet lover found plenty to like, especially in the Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris.  The Sauvignon Blanc had a nice mix of citrus notes with just a bit of pepper as it was not oaked and the Pinot was a bit more on the tropical side, with pineapple and peach flavors.  There’s also a Cabernet Syrah here which is leading to the winery’s introduction of a straight Syrah in the works.

There was only one more stop for day two of Finger Lakes Wine Country and that was at Ports Café.  This restaurant looked very casual, but it was filled with some pretty fancy menu choices.  I kept with my vow to taste wines in restaurants whose wineries I didn’t get to visit and ordered a Lakewood Gewurztraminer, which went well with our shared appetizer of Baked Goat Cheese with caramelized onions, arugula, and balsamic reduction in phyllo dough  that tasted as good as it sounds.  For dinner, I had Charbroiled Balsamic Glazed Veal Rib Chop over Veal Ravioli – a delicious first for me -- with a mushroom Marsala wine sauce.  Meg enjoyed a Portobello Field Salad with chicken, pine nuts, goat cheese and balsamic vinaigrette.

We didn’t have dessert at Port Café because Meg had another Finger Lakes surprise for me – Wine Ice Cream.  I must admit I’ve never seen anyone take out proof of age to buy ice cream before, but it was required here.  I had Mercers Chocolate Cabernet and they also had Raspberry Chardonnay and Cherry Merlot available.  The ice cream was creamy, yet not too rich (I’m guessing low fat, though it wasn’t confirmed) with 5% alcohol.  It was a great way to end the day as I headed back to the Hampton Inn Geneva.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Tasting through the Finger Lakes

I didn’t get quite as much sleep as I would have liked to start my first full day in Finger Lakes, but I was not about to let it get me down when I had such a great schedule ahead of me. 

Meg from the Finger Lakes Visitors’ Center picked me up in Canandaigua bright and early, immediately improving my mood with a stop at the South Bristol Overlook. It was the first of many breaktaking views of lakes, mountains and valleys I was to see here and, even though I would have been content to explore it all day, I had wine to get to.

The first winery of the day was a perfect choice. It was only 9:00 am so my mind wasn’t quite in tasting mode, but Tim and Diane quickly changed that in their laid back winery where they told me “we wanted to imagine more in life.”  Each bottle is a journey, not just by its name, but in the creative quotes and unique etches of their children on the bottles.  It all started – appropriately – with “Love,” Imagine Moore’s semi-dry Riesling, their most popular offering.  It continued with Bliss (Sauvignon Blanc), Peace (Pinot Gris), Joy (Riesling), Change (Blaufrankisch), Wisdom (Cabernet Franc), Synchronicity (a Syrah/Cabernet blend), Truth (a blend of four reds) and Inspiration (a mystery blend of two reds).  Gratitude is their popular white table wine.  The latest version – just bottled – is a chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc blend that was lightly oaked. 

Since it was morning, I was looking for a breakfast wine and the Framboise fit that need perfectly.  This raspberry dessert wine certainly satisfied my morning fruit requirement.  It had just enough sweetness that it would work perfectly with sparkling wine, or over ice cream.  I also enjoyed Harmony, a blend of Cayuga Blanc and Traminette, with its Granny Smith apple notes, giving it a finish that was a mixture of sweet and tart. The bistro here will be up and running soon, making it a perfect outing.  (I also recommend leaving yourself plenty of time to go through the shop, where they have some adorable finds.)

After a quick stop for a small bite of a delicious fudge bar at Joseph’s Wayside farm and a too short look at the waterfalls at Grimes Glen, the next stop was Arbor Hill Grapery.  I thought that was an odd name until I met the jubilant John Brahm, master winemaker, cook and all around grape lover.  The owner of this complex (winery, bistro, store, tasting house, and vineyard) has not only mastered producing award-winning Rose, Riesling and a host of other usual (and unusual) wines, he has also produced a line of gourmet food products which made the Food Network take notice.  He took us through the property and showed us the very unautomated process along the way.

Within the shop, you can taste many of the Arbor Hill products, including Amaretto Cream Sherry Wine Sauce, Black Raspberry Celery Seed Dressing and Fiesta Artichoke Spinach Party Dip.  Along with that, I tasted the Griesa Hill Iona Rose, with its strong strawberry flavor and  the Noiret, a member of the cabernet family that is more of a semi-dry offering with a little black pepper hints.  There was plenty more to try, but once again the schedule beckoned and we were off to Sonnenberg Gardens & Mansion.

The Sonnenberg Estate,  a 50 acre property, was built in 1887 by the Thompson family and is now a State Historic Park.  In addition to the beautiful grounds, gardens and 40 room mansion, it also houses the Finger Lakes Wine Center, showing off wines from nearly four dozen wineries in the region.  There is a tasting room in the Bay House, which we skipped in favor of a tour of the grounds.  There was a wedding taking place (a frequent event here) as Executive Director David Hutchings took us on a mini version of their tram ride along the meticulously maintained grounds. 

The tour of Sonnenberg was enough to work up a bit of an appetite for lunch at Red Dove Tavern in Geneva.  In addition to the just off the farm food selection they have here (my bagel with hummus, tomato, avocado and brie was perfect), look for wine and beer on draft and an interesting cocktail selection that changes seasonally.  I chose the Dovetail, a delicious mixture of coconut rum, Midori and tart cherry juice.  It was enough to keep me going for a just as jam-packed afternoon to come…

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Into the Finger Lakes Region

I grew up in New York and spent most of my adult life there, but have never made it up to the Finger Lakes Region.   I had heard of the beauty of the lakes – Canandaigua, Keuka Park, Seneca, Cayuga, Owasco, Skaneatles and Orisco.  It wasn’t something I put high on my priority list, preferring to spend most of my vacation time heading south, west, or in the Caribbean.  Then I heard about the wines.  Not only were the wines from this region becoming well-known, but I was starting to hear more and more wineries around the country that were getting grapes from the Finger Lakes.  I knew it was time to check this place out.

First of all, visiting the Finger Lakes wine country isn’t something you do for the day (unless you live in the area).  The region spans through over 600 miles of shoreline and includes over 100 wineries.  I would never attempt such an endeavor by myself so I called in the reinforcement which, in most cases, is the convention and visitors’ bureau and Finger Lakes has a great one.  An incredible team managed to put together a trip for me that would show me a bit of everything, with a focus on the wine.  When my flight was delayed, everyone scrambled to do some rescheduling and make sure I would still get to everything in the next few days. 

Meg was my driver for day one and she picked me up after the short US Airways flight from LaGuardia to Rochester.  We were on the road for less than an hour, with a drive through the downtown of Canandaigua before we arrived at Heron Hill Winery.  There I was met by Winemaker Bernard Cannac, who is as delightful as he is knowledgeable.  We had a lively conversation as I tried about a dozen of their 20 wines.  

Riesling is the prize of the Finger Lakes and they have quite a few.  They are best known for their Reserve Old Vines Riesling and though the nose (a combination of dirt and truffle) was not what I was used to, the palate was quite different with a very strong citrus.  Though it was only a year older, it was a much more mature wine than the 2008 Classic Semi-Dry and Classic Semi-Sweet Rieslings.  I gravitated toward the delicious semi-sweet, with a huge grapefruit tone, but I suggest also trying the semi-dry as the not-quite-ripe apple and pear notes are most unusual.  Another unusual wine I discovered here was the Reserve Blaufrankisch, a semi-dry red in which you can smell the Cabernet cherry nose, but taste more spice in the finish.  My favorite, though, was clearly the Ingle Vineyard Chardonnay Unoaked, light and fruity on a summer’s day.

From Heron Hill it was off to dinner at the New York Wine Culinary Center.  I probably could spend an entire day there exploring and the night cooking and eating (they offer hands on, wine-paired cooking seminars).  The shop, restaurant and bar are filled with wines and produce from New York State, with a wine focus on the Finger Lakes and Long Island.  The menu here changes every two weeks to allow for the freshest ingredients straight from the farms.  I ordered a Hunt Country Pinot Gris as it was a winery I would not have a chance to visit.  I sipped it throughout the meal and it complemented everything I ate.

There is a tasting menu at the New York Wine Culinary Center, but since it contained a lot of seafood I passed.  My mind did focus, though on the Grilled Eggplant with heirloom tomato, ricotta and a sweet corn puree at the top of the menu and the chef brought me a portion.  It was absolutely delicious, as was the Roasted Chicken Breast with spinach, grape tomatoes in a (not too heavy) roasted garlic Riesling cream sauce over a bed of freshly cut fettuccine.  For dessert I found the Dark Chocolate Cheesecake with Pistachios a bit too salty for my taste, but it was quickly substituted by a perfect Berry Crème Brule.

I’m off to day two in Finger Lakes, full of sightseeing and wine drinking through more of Canandaigua, as well as Seneca and Geneva.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Skytop Lodge – Reveling in the Unexpected

It’s been a few years since I’ve been to the Poconos.  I had never been to the Skytop Lodge before.  Even though this was one of the few trips that I didn’t have a strict itinerary, I had planned the weekend in my mind.  There was a long drive to deal with from home and then I would arrive on time to enjoy a long, leisurely dinner, followed by some spirits and relaxation in the bar.  Sunday would be a light hike to the waterfalls, some canoeing or kayaking, yoga, and an hour or so relaxing by the pool.  I would finally get to unpack that bag with the bathing suit that had remained – untouched – in my suitcase for six months.  Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, none of that happened.

I’m sure the phrase “making lemonade out of lemons” is a familiar one, but as the child of two disabled parents, it was a motto in my household.  The drive turned into 14 hours and the dining room was closed.  For the first time in a month here, it rained (poured is more accurate) and the indoor pool was full of families trying to stay dry.  But, I was still in at a beautiful resort, a rare all-inclusive for the U.S., though not in the Poconos.  I may not have been able to explore the any of the 14 trails over 30 miles, boat on the lake that Skytop Lodge Activities Director Kim Matthews enjoys early morning for the quiet or at sunset for the array of colors and nature, like beavers ducks and even the appearance of a bald eagle.   I couldn’t play tennis or go dog sledding (yes, they have dog sledding in the summer).  The mountain bikes were put away and there wasn’t any Geo-caching or golf going on.  It was time for me to “make lemonade.”

After I settled the suitcases in my room, I headed down to The Tap Room.  Don’t let the pub-like atmosphere fool you, the menu is filled with more fine dining than burgers.  I winded down with a Santa Ema Sauvignon Blanc and some hummus, before my ribs arrived.  I was ready for the dessert menu full of treats (available in all the restaurants).  The waitress convinced me to go for the Cherries Jubilee.  Though it was nothing like the description on the menu, the (thankfully) small portion of cheesecake with cherries on top, covered in chocolate ganache, rates as one of the best desserts I’ve ever eaten.

I had breakfast in the Skytop Lodge dining room, a buffet that includes made-to-order omelets and a great selection of standard (bacon and eggs Benedict) as well as health-conscious fare.  I confirmed that the day was going to be rain-filled and then explored the main building.  It was filled with mostly families, some enjoying large reunions, a few playing (indoor) miniature golf, still others dropping off the kids at the camp so the adults could get some quiet time. I walked down past the large conference center and stepped outside to get a look at the grounds.  I was drawn in by the beauty and decided to put a raincoat on and explore.

I walked through the cabins (available if you need more space than a standard room) and down past the golf course to the Inn, which includes the golf center, the Lakeview Dining Room and the Deli, two more dining options on the all-inclusive plan.  I parked myself on the (covered) deck and enjoyed the lake view while I read some magazines, enjoyed a Deli sandwich and got caught in a downpour on the way back.  After a quick change to dry clothes, it was a relaxing class of Qi Gong, Afternoon Tea and then a bit more reading before dinner.

Dinner at the Skytop Lodge is like going to a great restaurant each night – without a bill.  There’s a menu full of specially prepared appetizers, soups, salads and entrees.  It was a tough choice, so I asked for a sampling of a few different items (no problem here). The Fresh Mozzarella, with basil, red peppers and caper berries in olive oil and balsamic vinegar was perfect.  I wasn’t thrilled with the Mesquite smoked duck in sweet potato puree and blackberry compote (much more smoky than sweet), but I did love the Honey Melon, Mint & Midori cold soup and the Tortellini with zucchini, spinach, basil oil and shaved Asiago (a Light Menu choice) was delicious.  Gillian Moore, the Public Relations Coordinator for Pocono Mountains, who joined me for diner, enjoyed the Grilled Frenched Chicken with whisky-peach barbecue sauce and macaroni & goat cheese.  Then we had, of course, that Cherries Jubilee.

I’m unable to stay and enjoy the sunshine activities of the Skytop Lodge this trip, but I did learn what the thousands coming here since the 1920s already knew – it can turn into any experience you want it to be.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The James is a Great Choice in Chicago

I go into Chicago for events every few weeks.  It’s a bit far for me to drive back and forth the same day, especially since those events usually involve wine or liquor sampling!  I’ve stayed in a few Chicago hotels that I liked, but the latest one impressed me so much I am anxious to tell everyone about it.

I managed to sneak into the Windy City between my big trips for an overnight at The James. To say I was impressed would be an understatement. This hotel is  in a perfect location on East Ontario Street.  The James is situated within blocks of the Magnificent Mile, Millennium Park and some of Chicago’s best museums, and  it’s on a block with three important places – Trader Joe’s, Starbucks and home of my favorite deep dish pizza,  Pizzeria Due!

This hotel was remodeled and opened as The James Chicago in 2006. The strong detail to contemporary design and art reminded me very much of 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville, and it turns out that Deborah Berke is the architect responsible for both.  The idea at The James, according to Marketing Manager Nicole Serr, is it’s all about “Luxury without tradition so it’s comfortable like home.”  The business center is in an open area (with an art gallery) and use is both complimentary and encouraged.  The boutique hotel treats its guests to extra amenities like complimentary pajamas and toys for kids,  a pet program so you don’t need to leave any of your best friends home, twice-daily maid service and free use of conference-room space.

Even the Guestrooms and Studios are spacious by Chicago standards, but there are also Lofts, One-Bedroom Apartments and Penthouse Lofts (that includes use of an Audi and a driver to go with it) available.  Rooms include free internet, flat screen televisions and IPod/MP3 docking stations.  The hotel prides itself on being Green and operate consistently with the environment in mind.

The James has a Asha SalonSpa that offers full spa services, all of which include (at no extra charge) an Aromatherapy Foot Bath and a Calming Neck Pillow Experience.  There’s also a full gym that was created by Danny Errico of Equinox Clubs and partners with Jim Karas to bring personally training to guests. Celebrities like Hugh Jackman have stayed at The James Chicago while training for a movie, but the training and room rates are still in the affordable range for non-celebrities (well, maybe not the Penthouse Suites).

As much as I liked The James Chicago Hotel, I loved the David Burke Primehouse Restaurant within it.  I brought along a friend to share in an incredible meal at this Chicago hotspot which is one of the few around that dry ages its own steak.  Absolutely everything prepared by Executive Chef Rick Gresh was delicious.  Below is the menu we had, perfectly paired by Sommelier Rachael Johnson Hussar.  Make sure you order the Cake in a Can when you sit down, though, because it takes 45 minutes to cook.

First Course
Quail with fava beans and black curran bbq
2009 Domaine de Figuierasse, Gris de Gris, Languedoc
2008 Elk Cove, Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley

Second Course
Mixed Greens with cucumbers and feta cheese in a red wine vinaigrette
2009 Kung Fu Girl, Riesling, Washington

Third Course
N.Y. Sirloin, 21 day dry aged (me)
55 Day Ribeye, bone-in (my guest)
2004 D Cubed, Zinfadel, Napa

Cake in a Can
Red Velvet Cake with cream cheese frosting and vanilla ice cream
2007 Marenco, Brachetto de Aqui

Next time you are heading to Chicago, check out the rates and specials at The James.

Photos courtesy of The James Hotel and the David Burke Primehouse.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

From Brew to Fondue in Marin County

I am done with wine for a little while (Finger Lakes Wine Country is two weeks away), but I still managed to find some spirits to check out in California's Marin County.

My morning began at the beautiful Gerstle Park Inn in San Rafael.  This bed & breakfast  is extra special with touches like a breakfast menu, beautiful grounds (with a fruit orchard and croquet court) and two of the most dedicated owners I’ve seen – Jim and Judy Dowling.  I recommend taking a break next time you are in Northern California and booking a room, or staying in one of the private cottages on the property. (For a limited time, BedAndBreakfast.com is offering $50 off on stays)

I couldn’t spend my stay just enjoying the Inn, but I did have some fun stuff planned for the rest of my California trip.  First up was Iron Springs Pub & Brewery where someone from my old Long Island, New York, neighborhood found his niche and it’s no longer a secret.  First, full disclosure… no beers were drank by me in the production of this article. For those of you that don’t frequent my column, I don't indulge in ale, but I made sure everything about Iron Springs was confirmed by actual beer drinkers!

Michael Altman, originally a trained chef, found his beer mojo in Portland and continued it in Boulder before settling with his wife in Fairfax, California.  This small community is filled with restaurants, but none are quite as known as Iron Springs.  In five years they have built a reputation  that has led their beer to bottling for places like Whole Foods.  They are also known throughout Marin County for the kegs they deliver in the “Ambrewlance.”

The Kent Lake Kolsh, bottled first by Altman, is by far the big seller here, but the JC Flyer I.P.A. (India Pale Ale) is a close second, followed by the Casey Jones Imperial.  As for favorites, I have it on good authority (which includes my brother) that the Epiphany Ale, an amber ale with aromas of citrus and floral, is a must try.  If the dozen homemade brews aren’t enough to get you to Iron Springs Pub & Brewery, I recommend the Pork Tacos with pineapple, which I definitely did try.

There was no imbibing for me in the evening either as I was embarking on a girls’ getaway with my nieces, who are well underage (10 and 12).  That wasn’t going to keep us from having fun, though, and we headed to my favorite restaurant, The Melting Pot.  This Larkspur location was different from any other I had ever been to.  It is a converted brick kiln, producing spectacular setting that Alea described as “a castle for a princess” and Moriah smiled in delight over (or was that the visions of chocolate dancing in her head).

The Melting Pot

The princesses and I enjoyed some Shirley Temples before dipping into the Wisconsin Trio cheese fondue and the Chicken in Coq au Vin.  For dessert – the best part of Melting Pot – it was the Flaming Turtle, milk chocolate with caramel and pecans, “flamed” with just a bit of rum. Before we left there was a tour of the restaurant, where we got to see more of the quaint tables in this circular building.

I spent the final day of my California adventure in Marin County with the family. After a bit of hiking at Phoenix Lake and a quick trip to Sausalito, we had dinner at Sol Food in San Rafael, a stopover of one of my favorite chefs, Guy Fieri, on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.  Now it’s back home for a few days of catching up – and low cal foods -- before my roadtrip.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

California Wine Country Finale

Every day of my trip I have reported chronologically, but my second day in Sonoma had an unexpected stop that had a huge impact on me.  It wasn’t a phenomenal wine, I actually didn’t drink anything there.  It was a blast into my past, if you pardon the war pun.

Before I became a travel writer, a wine and spirits writer or even a tennis writer, entertainment was my niche.  I wrote about music, theater and movies while I was in college and barely old enough to see an “R” rated flick.  I took on the role of critic and that was in fact the title of my thesis.  I had a few heroes and one came after a cinema class that took me to review “Apocalypse Now.”  Francis Ford Coppola was (is) a genius to me. While I didn’t want to necessarily be a director, I did dream of becoming a screenwriter and collecting an Oscar.  Finally getting to see one up close was the highlight of my day during my visit to the beautiful, but still under construction, Coppola Winery in Sonoma.

I must preface this self-indulgence with the fact that I have recexntly—though not on this visit with James through the grounds and memorabilia—tasted the Coppola wines.  Director’s Cut is one of my favorites and winemaking is something Coppola takes very seriously.  While you may not have quite the reaction I did, I recommend planning a visit to the winery to see (and sample) the magnificence of it.

The day had begun when Beth of Wine Road picked me up the Geyersville Inn and we went to Costeaux French Bakery, an 87 year old bakery in Healdsburg that offers some of the best croissants outside of Paris. From there it was off to the Alexander Valley, where we visited Field Stone Winery.  The entire tasting room building here is made from stones from the ground and it is beautiful.  Wally Johnson made me immediately at home with the bottles representing colleges, which are hand painted.

We had a bit of Cowgirl Creamery’s Bandage Wrapped Cheddar as we tasted from their varied collection of Staten Family Reserve Viognier, full of citrus; Russian River Gewürztraminer, light with apricot and peach notes; Vineyard Select Alexander Valley Merlot, a powerful wine full of flavor; the smoky Staten Family Reserve Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon; and finally, a delicious Field Stone Staten Family Reserve Vintage Alexander Port, made from Petite Syrah.

Just down the road from Field Stone is Medlock Ames, a fairly new winery that is most unusual. Chris Medlock James and Ames Morrison met at Tulane University and ended up here in the Alexander Valley of Sonoma making wine.  They are self-sustaining and organic, offering an outdoor restaurant area with a Pizza oven, and a speakeasy –like bar (below) that opens when the tasting room closes, where you can get drinks like the “Miss Piggy,” with homemade bacon bourbon, organic maple syrup, Angostura bitters and fresh orange.

The most popular wine – especially during summer – at Medlock Ames is the Rose.  It is drier than most and runs out quickly.  Their Sauvignon Blanc radiates fruit the minute you open the bottle, and the Medlock Ames Cabernet Sauvignon is very good, but my favorite was the Reserve Chardonnay.  This cherry-filled creamy blend is a mix of grapes from the Alexander and Russian Valleys.

After Coppola’s, C. Donatiello was the next stop in Sonoma.  This scenic winery (below)—which offers an outside music series through the fall -- just began doing wine and cheese pairing so we got to sample the unusual local Artisan cheese along with the wine. The selection from Bellwether Farms Creamery was tasty, as was the wine.  The 809 Clone Chardonnay was only oaked for four months so it retained a lighter flavor than the 10 month aged Orsi Chardonnay, a totally different wine with a strong pepper flare. The Floodgate Block 15 Pinot Noir had a sweet nose and was a rich wine, but my favorite was the 2007 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, which is a blend of several vineyards.

The final winery of the day was the most sustainable.  In fact, even their bar (below) was built from recycled bottles!  Inman Family Wines in Santa Rosa, part of the Russian River Valley, started me with something I enjoy and have not seen since arriving in California – Pinot Gris.  Their Russian River Valley Pinot Gris was quite a gamble, but this drier version of the Italian wine has worked well for them.  Another popular wine is the Inman Family Endless Crush Rose.  This Pinot Noir Rose was a bit dry for my taste, but Beth absolutely loved it. 

Pinot Noir is the specialty at Inman Family and we had three.  My favorites were the RRV Pinot Noir, still full of berries after only a short time in oak, and the OGV Olivet Grange Vineyard Estate Pinot Noir, very rustic with a long pepper finish.  For those who really want a more earthy wine, I’d suggest the Thorn Pinot Noir.

After Inman Family, I was off to a new type of adventure as I headed to Marin County.  I checked into the stunning Gerstle Park Inn (more to come on this place), where I have two days to unpack a bit and explore.  I learned a bit more about the area over a scrumptious dinner with live music at the Panama Hotel Restaurant – Pa Pappardelle Pasta is a perfect vegetarian dish – with Christine Bohlke of  the Marin County Convention and Visitors Bureau and rested up for a trip to Iron Springs Pub & Brewery and a Girls Getaway with my nieces.

Friday, August 13, 2010

From Napa to Sonoma

The morning began with breakfast at the Westin Verasa Napa.  It was another beautiful hotel that I didn’t have long enough to enjoy, but I did savor the egg white omelet with mushrooms and cheese, while Claire and the hotel’s marketing manager Dan Block enjoyed the Huevos Benedicticas, Eggs Benedict on a corn muffin.  It was a satisfying meal from Chef Ken Frank, who also runs the Michelin star La Toque at this location, before heading off to my first tasting of the day.

Rosenblum Cellars is an urban winery that has earned a reputation as the place to go for Zinfandel.  I was unable to squeeze in their Alameda winery, so Diageo brought them to me at their house in Rutherford.  It was an interesting tasting of the different levels of Rosenblum, from their four of their tiers – Vintner’s Cuvee, Appellation Series, Vineyard Designates and Reserve Wines.  Rosenblum, which also makes a line of organic wines, produces about 50 wines each year from a variety of vineyards around California. Contrary to popular belief, they are not a maker of just high end wines.  The majority of their wines actually fit within the extremely affordable range.

Within the Vintner’s Cuvee ($12 a bottle), my pick was what they are famous for, the Vintner’s Cuvee Zinfandel, full of fruit and very food-friendly.  There was no doubt in the Appellation series ($18 a bottle) of the three Zins I tasted the Paso Robles Zinfandel, smooth and fruity with a strong cherry nose, was the one for me.  In the Reserve blends  I once again favored the vines of Paso Robles, but had to appreciate the 2007 Sonoma Valley Reserve from Monte Rosso Vineyard, with its unique florals.

When I finished with Rosenblum it was off to my very first trip to Sonoma and my guide, Beth from the Wine Road, had a full day planned for me.  We met at Michel-Schlumberger, one of the most unusual wineries I’ve ever been to. Jim Morris took us on a journey through the vineyards, which included rolling hills, beautiful views, chickens, bees, sheep and pepper plants!  It was a sampling of one of a half dozen tours this winery offers.  While we traveled, Jim poured a selection of the wines from a family who hails from Alsace, an area of France on the German border, reflected in their wines.

There was nothing like sipping the Michel-Schlumberger Pinot Blanc on a beautiful warm day in the valley of Sonoma.  It is one of 15 varietals they grow on this land from which they also make wines like the fruity, smoke-filled Le Fou Pinot Noir Dry Creek Valley, a rich Le Sage Merlot and the very dry, but extremely cherry-filled Le Soure Syrah.

Next it was on to Quivera, another environmentally sound winery with gardens and livestock (including two pigs, one of which has recently produced a group of piglets!).  Quivera offers a number of events and is well-versed in the biodynamic process.  Their organic wines and farm fresh fruit are known to restaurants throughout the area.  We toured the vineyard and farm, enjoying their Sauvignon Blanc.  Among their other wins, I was a big fan of the 2007 Grenache Syrah Moved.  Though it didn’t have much of a nose, the slightly sweet and very fruit taste was certainly there.

Lunch was pizza and salami at Diavola in downtown Geyserville, where Beth and I met with Pete and Lorna Opatz, owners of Route 128 Winery.  I always enjoy meeting with owners of small wineries and hearing their passion and this was no different.  They started me with the Viognier from the Opatz Family Vineyard.  I’m familiar with this wine from my home state of Illinois, but it certainly grows differently out here.  It was light and sweet, my kind of wine, but I also enjoyed their PeLu Rouge, a blend of Syrah, Zin and Viognier, which works especially well with chocolate (doesn’t everything?)

In downtown Geyersville -- don’t blink, you’ll miss this quaint place – is also Locals, a licensed tasting room for 10 area wineries.  This place should be on the list of anyone going to Sonoma. There is no charge for tasting and you there is a wide selection of choices, which Diane is happy to lead you through.  One of their most popular was also one I loved – Ramazzotti Sangiovese, a good semi-dry red made 100% from that grape. I’d also like give a shout out to the Foggy Valley Chardonnay from Leras Vineyard and the Eric Ross Albarino.

We had a brief stop at Meeker Wines -- worth a visit just to see their unique bottles and old bank location – where I discovered the Italian Barbera, Napa Valley, a light plum-filled red, and Froz In, the first Ice Wine I’ve tasted from a California Zinfandel.  Then it was on to Healdsburg, a Napa gem where you can wander around tasting from many vineyards, with plenty of restaurant and shopping stops in between.  There are also a few hotels if you want to stay downtown and we went to check out the newest – H2 Hotel.

H2 is as modern as modern gets, but there is a classic mixologist on staff in their Spoon Bar.  Scott Beattie is the author of “Artisanal Cocktail” and I gave him my no citrus challenge.  He answered back with a Sazerac, and old cocktail made with rye, absinthe and Peychaud’s Bitters.  Beth and I enjoyed that before heading to our very last spot, El Farolito, for some perfect tamales, burritos and guacamole. 

I finished my day in the Cabernet Suite at the Geyersville Inn, a quaint little place not far from town, for a bit of work and shuteye before another day in Sonoma was set to begin.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Continuing through Napa Valley

I didn’t have long enough to enjoy my rustically beautiful (love the fireplace) room at Harvest Inn, but I did stay long enough to experience the breakfast.  It was called a “continental breakfast,” yet I put it up there with one of the best hotel breakfasts I’ve ever had.  It included pastries, scones, muffins, fruit, quiche, cheese, yogurt, ham and cereal.  All were fresh and it was a tough decision to settle on yogurt, a blueberry scone and a piece of quiche.  It was just as tough to check out of the room I felt like I had just gotten to, but Sterling Vineyards was on the agenda.

My Pure Luxury Transportation driver Steve picked me up bright and early to head over to Calistoga for my private tour at Sterling Vineyards.  My sister-in-law, Claire, was along for the day and we were escorted by Diageo’s Kim Tomlinson through the winery’s famous tram.  The ride over the Napa Valley is beautiful and we were immediately greeted by Michael Westrick, Sterling’s winemaker, on the other side.  He took us through the winery and we soon learned he was as well versed in history as he was in making wine. We learned about Peter Newton, who built this property on a hill (with a tram) so it would be unusual from the start.  He also brought in Merlot, a shocking grape at the time, and built this winery into a place where 200,000 people per year could enjoy a self-guided tour and tasting at their own pace.

After enjoying the incredible view from the top of all of the vineyards and most of the valley, we headed to the tasting room to start with the Sterling Napa Sauvignon Blanc, which had a great taste enhanced by just a little time in old oak.  From there it was the 2008 Sterling Napa Chardonnay, a buttery blend with hints of apple and pear, but not as oaky as the 2008 Sterling Reserve Chardonnay. The Sterling Napa Cabernet Sauvignon had a great nose, with some blackberry and spice, but was still a bit silky.  I enjoyed the 2006 Three Palms Napa Merlot with a nice finish, but the Diamond Mountain Napa Cabernet Sauvignon is for those with much drier taste.  For a classic red, I’d recommend the Sterling SVR Reserve, mostly Cabernet, with a bit of Merlot and Peter Boudreaux. 

I had a bit of time after Sterling to honor another Twitter invitation, this one from Cuvaison Estate Wines.  We didn’t tour their winery, but instead went to one of their tasting rooms, where we started with the Estate Sauvignon Blanc, full of kiwi and citrus and a bit drier than the others I had tasted.  The 2008 S Block Cuvaison Carneros Chardonnay had notes of tobacco and oak, with an interesting finish, similar to the 2008 Mariafeld Pinot Noir, but not as light.  The 2007 Block FS Pinot Noir, recently featured on Top Chef, had a hint of vanilla.  It is their 2007 Brandlin Cabernet Sauvignon from Mountain Veder and Napa that is a fruity blend of cherry and raisin, coming from a mix of mostly Cabernet, with some Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc.

The last winery of the day was Franciscan, where Nolan took us through some of the vineyards and the beautifully gardened grounds before heading into the extensive wine library for our tasting.  Franciscan, along with Robert Mondavi, who I visited yesterday, is part of Constellation Wines, but it hasn’t lost its rich heritage.  We saw bottles dating back to the 1970s and blends (like Johannesburg Riesling) that no longer exist in this area.   What we tasted, however, was new and outstandingly paired with local cheeses, like the Fog Lights from Cypress Grove.  

The Franciscan Sauvignon Blanc is an excellent one, though medium-bodied, it was still rather refreshing.  If you are looking for something a bit more smoky, the Franciscan Cuvee Savage Reserve is a good choose for a red and the 2006 Franciscan Magnificant Cabernet Sauvignon is bone-dry with the addition of Merlot, Petite Verdot and Malbec, making it a good choice with cheese or steak, but I would not have it alone.

For our final stop before dinner at Bouchon in Yountville (Claire recommends the Halibut), I got to take a tour of the Wine Train.  It was unfortunate that a ride didn’t fit in my schedule this trip, but a look at the itinerary, events, menu and dining cars was enough to convince me to make time for it on the next trip.

Napa Valley day two ended at the Westin Verasa Napa, getting ready for a morning tasting in Rutherford of Rosenblum Cellars, and a drive to Sonoma to continue the California wine adventure.